Though an object of speculation and marvel almost from its inception more than 2,000 years ago, much mystery still surrounds the breathtaking edifice of earth and stone known as the Great Wall of China: whether it is 5,500 miles long or twice that, whether it is indeed visible from space, as all of us were taught in school. Still, there are things that no one disputes these days, and one of these is that there is a KFC at the Great Wall. Also a Subway and a Starbucks.
I mention this not because I think there’s something profane about one of the world’s eternal achievements existing alongside a faux pagoda presided over by an eternally smiling Colonel Sanders. I mention it because hardly anyone in China sees anything profane in it, although whether this is due to the unique irresistibility of fried chicken or the country’s belated embrace of postmodernism is impossible to say.
The travel industry appears to have concluded the latter. “It’s the contrast between the distant past and super-charged present that makes Beijing so captivating,” shrieks the blurb on the back cover of Lonely Planet: Beijing, quite as if the greatness of the metropolis—which sits within spitting distance of the Wall—is traceable to some sort of deliberate mash-up. “No other city manages to be so timeless yet so contemporary.”
I am somewhere over Alaska when I first read those words, seven hours into an Air China flight from Houston (a city whose greatness, it seems to me, is increasingly traceable to the nonstop flights it offers to places like Beijing for a mere thousand bucks—see sidebar). Lost in a drunken haze of Lonely Planet–ness and something called Greatwall Cabernet Sauvignon, I picture smartly dressed businessmen riding rickshaws to funky Rem Koolhaas skyscrapers, steaming noodle shops in the shadows of the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium. I do not picture families picnicking on the Great Wall, pressed together under a polluted sky, gleefully devouring chicken parts and tossing bits of skeleton over the side. But that is an unhappy thought, and it is the peculiar achievement of present-day Beijing that unhappy thoughts stand little chance against a sea of smiles and forgetting.
It is just before dawn when the 777-300 at last slips beneath ghostly clouds and lands in Beijing, a 14-hour journey that, to its credit, seems far shorter in the hands of China’s national airline. As we’ve arrived at one of the rare moments of the day when Beijing’s streets aren’t beset with traffic, the drive to the city is quick too, even scenic. I find myself equally impressed by the miles of desolate roads, the non-native poplar trees, and the stench of Beijing’s infamous smog—timeless yet so contemporary—and then count what appear to be a hundred or so high-rise apartment buildings in various stages of completion as the taxi speeds to the city center.
Cranes, cranes, everywhere cranes, and then at last a few other vehicles—Volkswagen Sagitars, King Long buses, and white Toyota Alphards thickly coated with brown particulate. Downtown, we wheel past old men with bad teeth hawking jianbing from sidewalk kiosks, just as they have since the days of Mao, even as smiling young bellhops wave over the taxi and quickly whisk my luggage into the lobby of the China World Summit Wing Hotel—no mean feat, as the lobby is on the 64th floor of Beijing’s tallest building. “It won’t be the tallest much longer,” adds one of the bellhops as he leads me to my room on the 66th. He turns around and I am surprised that he smiles at this thought, even as he opens the shades onto a skyline of haze, promise, capitalist neon, and huge holes in the ground, chits of skyscrapers to come.
It is strange to come to a city where humans have lived for over 500,000 years, only to draw the curtains and discover that it is still a work in progress. But scenes like this, not to mention the child-like belief in the future that inspires them, are part of what makes Beijing so seductive. Would that American cities were similarly fascinated, I say to myself, while floating in an infinity pool almost 80 stories off the ground in a spectacularly luxe hotel whose rooms have windows on three sides, one of which affords a view of Beijing’s dazzling CCTV headquarters from the bathtub.
Still, this feels like love at first sight, and I am skeptical. It is time to make my way back to street level. So I do, as fast as the third-fastest elevator in the world will take me, and yet the sensation of floating continues, Beijing being the sort of place that conspicuously resists all returns to earth. I finally locate my rickshaw, pedaled by a bald man who sweats and smiles in the 90-plus heat on the edge of a hutong. But it’s the hutong itself that I’m really seeking, the vast network of alleyways around the city where Beijingers have lived in flats clustered around tiny courtyards since the days of Genghis Khan.
A shrine to walkability 800 years before Jane Jacobs, the hutong have a liveliness—of community, culture, and, these days, nightlife—that can’t be truly experienced during five-day trips to Beijing like mine. Still, the streets truly seemed like “national precious cultural heritages of China,” as the government’s official Beijing travel guide put it, an assessment that has not prevented the government, by the way, from destroying roughly a third of the city’s hutong over the past few decades, relocating residents far from their valuable inner-city real estate.
“They will give us only three months’ notice,” says Jhonny, an English-speaking resident of the hutong with whom I strike up a conversation. While he speaks, he smiles the same incongruous smile as everyone else in town, even as he tells me this is the only home he and his family have ever known, that they will likely be forced to move to Beijing’s periphery, perhaps to one of those apartment buildings I saw on the way from the airport, an hour-long, crowded subway ride away. There is a rumor, Jhonny adds, that the government is planning to reconfigure his multi-family dwelling, now shared by five families, into a single one. “We think that our house will go to a retired official high up in the Party,” he says, somehow still smiling, still floating.
So frantic is the pace of change in the hutong these days, you almost find yourself longing for the old Beijing, for the nearby Shichahai Olympic training facility, and for a country once content to assert its dominance symbolically. They’re still here—boys and girls, some as young as five, practicing gymnastics and boxing and ping-pong for six-plus hours a day—and they’re still plucked from distant towns, forced to hone impractical skills far from homes and families. Still, I can’t help noticing the smiles as the children come and go from Shichahai, smiles more genuine and easier than I see elsewhere in town, smiles of relief—perhaps—that athletic prowess isn’t the only path to glory in the new China. On a sunny, pleasant Tuesday afternoon, this seems like a positive development, whatever its effect on the country’s gold medal count.
I see similar smiles on college-age faces lounging in cafés and wandering the galleries of the 798 Art District, a once-drab and depressing passel of East German–built factories northeast of the city, now cleverly reborn as exhibition spaces and artists’ studios. The art is rather tame, of course, and what little agit-prop, anti-CCP sentiment I see is only impish and mildly provocative. Still, impish and provocative is more than anything one sees on TV or in Chinese movies, and there are moments when the country’s visual arts scene seems almost Western in character.
“There aren’t any artists here anymore,” grouses Jiao, a self-described former 798er who calls the district a victim of its own success. “It is all upscale galleries and boutiques. All the real artists are in Songzhuang now. They can’t afford this.” It is the same thing people said in the East Village in the ’90s, of course, in SoHo a decade earlier, and in too many other times and places to mention. Only in China in the 2010s, it seems, can a cliché assessment sound new and oddly moving, that being another of Beijing’s gifts. “This place is dead now,” Jiao grumbles, and my heart leaps to hear it. The cynicism in the man’s voice and sarcasm in his smile are familiar, welcoming.
During my remaining days in Beijing, much of what I experience feels foreign rather than familiar. News arrives that a Shanghai meat processing plant has been mixing fresh and expired ground beef and then selling it to McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants around the country, potentially endangering the health of thousands. From my perch at the Summit Wing, high above the city, China does not seem like the kind of country where such things would happen, or the kind of country that would set up fake Twitter accounts to mislead Westerners about the real situation in Tibet, as China Daily is reporting (a claim difficult to verify, admittedly, in a country that outlaws Google).
Standing at the base of the Olympic Bird’s Nest, impressed by what is perhaps the greatest architectural symbol of new China, I try and fail to understand how its designer went from being a national hero in 2008 to a pariah in 2011, jailed for 81 days without being charged, and all because of pro-democracy rabble-rousing. I never understand either how the destruction of a 44-story building adjacent to CCTV tower—in a fire I might have watched burn from my bathtub—somehow never made its way onto CCTV’s news programs (the network’s employees staged the illegal fireworks show that caused it), or how a Chinese tourist at the Temple of Heaven could ask me why the Dalai Lama “goes everywhere else in the world but never gives any speeches in China.”
I suppose that nothing really makes sense when you’re floating, which may be one reason why the Beijing City Planning and Development Museum not only proudly displays the city’s ambitious plans for a skyscraper-clotted future but also screens a companion 4D movie. “2008 was a milestone for the city of Beijing,” intones a narrator in English, the camera soaring away from the Bird’s Nest and toward a futuristic urban jungle, as the viewer’s seat rumbles realistically and the theater thrums to the strains of “Born Free.”
Then the virtual coaster begins to climb, higher and then higher still, until at last it seems that my fellow riders and I are completely detached from the world below. “Where are you from?” asks a still-dizzy Chinese woman once the movie ends and the lights come up. America, I say, then Texas, then Houston. “Oh, Yao Ming!” she says. Yes, I reply. Then:
“Can I take your picture?” I look at her puzzled. The woman apologizes, saying that she is from the provinces and has never seen an American in person. Is that really possible, I wonder? Yes, she says. Okay, I say, smiling. Click.
Friday afternoon, I get on a plane and leave China for the land of Yao Ming, but not before stopping off at Tiananmen Square. There, I somehow end up chatting with a young woman, Li Min, who was born in 1989, the same year as the massacre. I ask what her generation thinks about those fateful days in June. “Nothing,” she replies (yes, smiling). “We don’t know what happened.” Has she not seen that infamous photo, I ask, the one of the dissident standing defiantly in front of a line of tanks? “Yes,” says the woman, “an Australian tourist showed it to me.” And?
And nothing. She has no connection with—much less lingering anger about—the Tiananmen that the rest of the world knows, this despite the fact that some of her mother’s friends “disappeared then. They’re dead and no one knows where their graves are.” Li Min has certainly heard rumors about hundreds being killed, maybe more, in and around the Square in 1989. But the rumors don’t trouble her, and why should they? All of that is in the past, and Beijing is not about the past. It is about the future and forgetting, which is to say like Houston but more notorious.