Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Exploring Beijing

Little by little, in between our strenuous nap and meal schedule, Bowie and I are exploring Beijing. Our business class hotel is located, appropriately enough, in Chaoyang, Beijing's business district, and within it, an area particularly reserved for office towers, high end malls (think Prada, Versace, Chanel, Gucci), posh hotels and residential blocks, peppered with foreign embassies, high end restaurants and bars. Typically, sans baby, I'd hop on the subway and seek out urban adventures--as Dave and I did on our previous trip here in 2010. With Bowie, we've been keeping close to the hotel, in part, because we're still transitioning our sleeping schedule and Bowie gets cranky after short awake intervals, and, in part, because Dave's here, and in the last few days, he's been able to take breaks and spend them with us. Half an hour of play with daddy beats all of the hutongs in Beijing--for now.

We don't need to venture far from the hotel to experience the city. This part of Beijing is developed in Las Vegas-style long blocks, and crossing the broad avenues dividing these blocks is, in itself, something to write home about, especially with a stroller. Pedestrians, taxis, scooter, mopeds and motorbikes, bicyclists, small delivery vehicles, all descend onto the crosswalk at the same time, going in different directions. There are street lights that some people do try to obey. On our very first excursion outside, we saw a deliveryman on the ground, head in a makeshift brace, one leg at an awkward angle. Accidents will happen; I don't know whether in Beijing they happen more often or are more severe than anywhere else (Though few motorcyclists here wear helmets; this man didn't)--witnessing this one early in the trip has put me on guard. The man, I hope will be Okay--he was talking to the people gathered round--though it took the length of our walk, at least twenty minutes, for the ambulance to arrive.

In between the large public avenues, there are malls, office buildings, and residential blocks connected by hutongs--small alleys, spaces that feel a lot more private. The ground floors of many office and residential buildings have shops and restaurants; there are also street vendors. Security is tight; most yards at least in this part of town are fenced off and the entrance is monitored by guards. This doesn't mean they are closed to the public; some are, many aren't. Bowie and I went inside one of them to explore one fine-looking playground, and deemed it acceptable for a warmer day. In another yard, we found a 7-11, where we restocked our supplies of yogurt and teething biscuits. The next day we did better by finding a local supermarket. I imagine it was state-owned and subleasing space to private vendors: There were stores inside the store. We bought sweets from one vendor and a notebook and stickers from another.
The minimum security yard
The maximum security yard

I'm not ready to tackle the crowded subway with Bowie's stroller, but today we tried a taxi. I asked to be taken to Temple of Sun park, that on a map appeared reasonably close to our hotel--a forty-five minute walk. I figured, we'd go there by cab and walk back. Twenty minutes into the cab ride, I started to suspect we were heading elsewhere. Fine, I thought, I didn't really have an agenda. The day was sunny and warm, Bowie was enjoying the cab ride, alternating between flirting with the driver, gazing out of the windows, and trying to dismantle the roof of the cab. My biggest problem was not being sure of the way back. I had no idea what part of the city we were being taken to; my cell phone in China only worked for texting, not data, and the only person I could text (Dave) was in the midst of running his company's annual conference; I did have a bilingual map with me, but spending the time to figure it out would sorely test Bowie's patience (he tolerates the stroller when it's moving; standing still is no good). Taking a taxi to get back would be my only reasonable option. I'd never stopped a cab in China before--getting one from the hotel was easy enough, but do cabs stop on the street? Would they stop for me and Bowie? Would I be able to find a proper taxi stand? What was Mandarin for "taxi"? I'd taken from the hotel a card with the hotel's name and address written down: Something to show the driver. Having this card in my pocket felt reassuring; I relaxed into the ride and distracted Bowie from reaching for the gear stick.

Entrance to the Temple of Earth park
The driver dropped us off in front of what soon turned out to be Temple of Earth (instead of Temple of Sun) park--inside, I found an English-language description. I wonder if the driver purposely decided to upgrade our experience. The doorman had been surprised at our desire to go to Temple of Sun park--it's just a neighborhood attraction, nothing to see there, he said--and, writing this up, I looked up Temple of Earth to find that it's the second largest temple park in Beijing, after the famed Temple of Heaven. This park was similar to Temple of Heaven (I remember it well from my first trip to Beijing) as a gathering place for the people. Bowie and I strolled by a group of retirees singing into a portable karaoke machine and dancing, people playing miniature golf, several booths displaying and selling products and foods from a particular town in Yunnan province (There were ample tasting opportunities. I tried rose-flavored cakes and sesame and peanut cookies and some kind of marinated mushroom and a chewy mint- and anise-flavored fruit. Bowie stuck to his teething biscuits).

To Bowie's delight, we promptly found a playground. Here were opportunities for play and exercise for all ages. Toddlers used the swings and climbing structures while moms, dads, and grandparents swung from monkey bars and used stationary bicycles. Bowie became fascinated by fallen leaves. In San Francisco, demarcation between seasons is mild--he's missing the experience not only of snow, but of rain, thunderstorms, changing leaves, mud. He wanted to clear all of the fallen leaves off the playground, and succeeded in tidying only a little corner before I got worried about all of the scattered cigarette butts and dragged him off. We spent about fifteen minutes waiting for a baby swing to open up (children were taking turns), when to my surprise, the guardians of the last child took the swing off with the baby--apparently, the swing was not a part of the playground set up, but had been supplied by the family and strapped on to the exercise rods. Ingenious. Bowie didn't mind. Another friendly child shared her balloon with him, and so he proceeded to bang it against the ground and tried jumping on top of it. Luckily, the balloon escaped unscathed.
A little guy riding his private swing

Contemplating foliage
Park for all ages

The return trip turned out easier than I feared. After we exited the park, we walked around the residential neighborhood for a bit, giving me time to observe the traffic and taxi patterns--and get an ice cream. Taxis did drive in the quieter outer lanes of the busy avenues. Just as Bowie started to fuss, I was able to flag one down. The driver helped me with the stroller; we were on our way to the hotel.

No car seat!
And, yes, I do feel uneasy about riding with Bowie unstrapped in the back seat of the car. Accidents will happen. I keep thinking about that man we saw lying on the street, waiting for the ambulance. We have one more full day in Beijing left. Shall I take Bowie to what I heard is an awesome dinosaur museum or stay close to the hotel? Bowie has developed rug burn on his knees from crawling around the hotel's hallways. He found and nearly ate shattered pieces of floor tile in an indoor playground at the nearby mall. The risk and reward calculation is far from obvious. I'm making plans one day at a time. Since there's weather here, let the weather decide.


  1. What is driving the level of security? For some reason I thought this was a very safe city, naive?

    1. Dave says: out of 5 buses his company rented to transport guests from one hotel to another for the event, one got into an accident, and another bus had to go back to pick up the stranded business travelers.

      It feels a little more intense than, say, Moscow. Drivers are equally aggressive, but it's all the small vehicles on the road that add to the sense of confusion.