Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ring 4

My nose seems capable of producing infinite amounts of goo. Both Dave and I have been sniffling all week; it's no big deal -- no other symptoms, except red noses -- but it is making it difficult for me to sleep or lie down in general, my nose gets immediately stuffed up. Yesterday, we decided to get foot massages, and I was breathing so loudly in my reclined chair, that a woman working on Dave's feet brought me some pretty gel-capsuled pills to take, presumably to clear my nose. I took some NyQuil instead, and more or less slept through the night.

On the other hand, stuffed nose is a fine symptom to have when walking through a neighborhood fire. As we were walking back to our hotel last night, having gotten our foot massages, our path took us down a street that was blocked off to automobile traffic. My first thought was that they were clearing an accident: we've already seen one accident the day before, where a motor-powered rickshaw collided with a motorcycle. With the aggressive local driving style, accidents must be frequent. As we kept walking, we started seeing fire engines on both sides of the street, and then finally passed a small crowd gathered at an entrance to a side alley: one of the buildings some ways down the alley had caught on fire.

Beijing's city plan divides the city with wide automobile streets into neighborhoods, rectangular blocks of houses separated from each other by narrow and sometimes very ancient alleys (hutongs). Many of these alleys are inaccessible to cars, and only pedestrians, bikes or motorbikes can get through. So when trying to put out a fire, the firemen had to extend great lengths of hose all the way down the alley, by which time the fire probably spread from the first building to the next and maybe to the next. The buildings are made of brick, but they are located so close to each other, that the fire, once started, is difficult to put out. As we passed that alley, we entered a cloud of smoke so thick Dave thought the cause was a smoke bomb; it was hard to imagine this kind of smoke being caused by a single house burning five hundred feet away.

Beijing is a grid city, but like Moscow, is circumscribed with several concentric ring roads. I am not sure what in Beijing is considered the first ring -- perhaps, the walls of the Forbidden City -- but most tourist sites and activities seem to be contained within the Second ring (except Summer Palace, where we haven't been yet). The residential city is much wider, extending out in all directions to 4th, 5th and 6th rings. This is where most of the millions of people inhabiting Beijing actually live: not in the historical and atmospheric hutongs of the city center, but in the Soviet-style (or post-Soviet, more contemporary) apartment blocks. I feel very much at home in these neighborhoods. Here are the shops for the middle classes: grocery and clothing mega-markets, stores selling washing machines, offices of the telecom companies, bakeries, a random pipe and tobacco shop.

We ended up in this part of town following a lead recommended by my friend Yvette (her recommendations have led us to some very unique and fascinating places this week): to find 798 Art Zone. It's an old auto factory that fell in disuse and was taken over by artist-types that converted it to their own needs. The project achieved legitimacy on the governmental level as Beijing was gearing up for the Olympic games. The old factory neighborhood was re-zoned from industrial to "artistic," and large-scale tourist-friendly construction began. Today, the area features many cafes and restaurants (most of them with some international flare, even if that simply means pizza and tiramisu), bookstores and stores with artistic souvenirs (lots of souvenirs that feature art from 798 galleries), and most importantly, a countless number of galleries, workshops, ceramic studios, etc.

And all of this is located in the middle of the otherwise nondescript middle class neighborhood, past rows and rows of apartment blocks. Tourists who know what they are looking for, find it, but otherwise -- forget it. You're never going to stumble upon it by chance.

Read Dave's blog for more details about the art we've found at 798.

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