Saturday, March 17, 2007

End of the line

My last day in Beijing, I decided to check out a wine bar some friends had told me about, in a hutong by the Lama Temple. The Vineyard Cafe is charming, with a decent selection of wines at (for China) decent prices. I spent a while chatting with one of the owners, Will, and promised that I would bring in a bottle from California next time I was in town - California wines don't seem to have the market penetration in China that the Australians and South Americans do.

I didn't have wine, though, since I was returning to California the next day and would have plenty of that soon enough. Instead I tried an imported British ale, Abbott. It was very good, fresh, and compared to the Yanjing and Qingdaos I'd been downing, strong.

Which might explain my decision to ride the #1 Subway line all the way east to the end. Yes, including the Ba Tong extension.

You ride the #1 subway line west, you're heading in the direction of some of greater Beijing's prettier scenery, the Fragrant Hills. I was tempted to go that way, to the end of the line at Pingguoyuan, catch a taxi to the temples there. But after that beer, I was more in the mood for something weirder. I mean, who knew what was out at the eastern end? Some place called "Tu Qiao." Nothing in my "Lonely Planet Beijing" about Tu Qiao, or anything out that way (though when I briefly emerged at Shihui East to transfer to the Ba Tong extension, I saw signs for a "Red Sandalwood Museum." Next time).

I noted that one of the stops on the Ba Tong was called "Tongzhou Bei Yuan" That was sort of intriguing. A lot of artists live in the countryside around Tongzhou, though not right off the subway, from what I knew. I could have made arrangements to go and see some of the studios, but I'd already visited a number of artists' communities and galleries. It's not the art that interests me so much as the environments in which it operates, and there isn't supposed to be a real scene out there - a lot of artists have moved to Tongzhou to get away from those kinds of bohemian distractions.

But if Tongzhou Bei Yuan is any indication, this is a pretty post-modern version of the scholar or Daoist's retreat to the countryside.

"That area has got to be the butt-end of Beijing," one of my friends remarked later. "It's where depressed urban professionals live to commute to their boring jobs in the city." I don't know about the degree of depression of the residents, but it's true that the scenery is not exactly inspiring.

A couple of stops before the Ba Tong extension, the subway emerges from underground. The landscape that passes by the windows is flat, featureless, the ranks of apartment blocks and malls and older white tile fronted businesses wrapped in a grayish yellow haze. The area didn't strike me as impoverished; there are plenty of new, glassy buildings, but at first glance there's absolutely nothing to distinguish this place from any other part of modern Beijing, any other part of modern China, for that matter. Sometimes, you could see what it had been like, before Beijing swallowed it up: remnants of red-brick commune buildings and factories, the occasional temple surrounded by restaurants, travel agencies, laundries, appliance stores and netbars.

It's the kind of place where, you look out the window around Tongzhou Bei, and see some new, upper-middle class type apartment buildings, solid, stocky constructions of rusty brown slabs and marble trim, and the buildings are called: "Rotterdam," "Toronto," "Marseilles," "Bordeaux," and "Seattle."

I mean, why "Seattle"?

Why not, I guess.

Otherwise, the most notable moment of my ride to Tu Qiao came when a female dwarf tried to cheat me on the price of an English-language Beijing Tourist Map.

No comments: