For the (Western) New Year’s, I took advantage of the long weekend in Beijing. My musical friend Aaron joined an amateur orchestra called the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony that was going on a whirlwind tour through China during the Christmas holidays. During that time, Aaron and his symphony would be playing in Beijing, and allowed to enjoy a free day.
The symphony didn’t exactly go on a “tourist’s” tour — while they were fortunate enough to make it to Beijing and Xi’an, they also went to some rather tourist unfriendly cities (Dalian, Shenyang), some cities tourists generally skip (Shenzhen, Guangzhou), but got to see the lesser traveled Qingdao while skipping the usual must-see Shanghai. The poor musicians were constantly being prodded into transport (whether it be a bus, train or plan), not knowing what most people were saying (China still requires some Chinese to travel, imo), rehearsing, performing, eating late and not necessarily tasty dinners (given little to no choice at that late hour), and seeing just about nothing of China.
Luckily, they did get to go on tours to the Qingdao beer factory, see the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and the Xi’an terra cotta warriors. If Aaron saw none of those things, I’d be pretty sad for him.
Given Aaron’s visit, I decided to come back to Beijing as a tourist for a second time (I did take a flight through Beijing June 2010 en route to NYC, but that obviously did not count). I wondered how my tourist experience would change 5 years since my first visit, post-Olympics, post-China boom.
First difference from when I came to Beijing in 2006 on my very first China trip, it was a really hot summer, and I definitely could feel the pollution more back then. I spent part of that time on some hardcore tours, and part of it with my younger sister who was studying abroad at Peking University for the summer. I also spent way more time trying to haggle good deals at Pearl Market.
This time it was winter – temperatures were in the 30s (F) by day, and rather bitingly cold by night – especially when you’ve been living in a sub-tropical island for the past two years! My agenda was pretty simple for this long weekend – check out some of the contemporary art everyone’s been raving about in recent years, properly tour a hutong (in ’06 I only accidentally wandered through one and thought a tour would be rudely invasive), see Aaron’s performance and hang out with him as much as possible, including his organized Great Wall and Forbidden City tour. Additionally, I wanted to catch up with my friend Spencer, whom I was staying with again.
I accomplished all of the above except for the hutong tour — unfortunately New Year’s Eve did me in for the day, so I just had to rest up til the concert. Upon arrival, I enjoyed lunch with Spencer, and then set off for the 798 art district, where former warehouses, many constructed from bricks imported from East Germany and designed to withstand 7.0 earthquakes had been converted into studios, galleries, coffeeshops, and boutiques, to support a bohemian artists’ community.
I heard it was already gentrifying to a certain extent, but I thought I may as well check this area out first before seeing the more cutting-edge Caochangdi. I must say 798 should be a must visit for those who have a bit more time than a normal Beijing visit allows (if a first time visitor). It is such a unique enclave that really made me think. Plus, I did enjoy the art.
The coffeeshop where I took a rest was not quite as charming or restful as one I’d find in NY, but it was nice to just be there for some reason. The shops have some unique items, so worth having a look, and definitely interesting to check out the UCCA – Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, the first of its kind funded almost 100% by one eccentric German contemporary Chinese art lover.
For New Year’s, Spencer invited me to join his friend Mitz, who was hosting a private party at his soon-to-be-opened bar, akin to his other bars in NYC – B Flat and its predecessor, Angel Share, which I loved when I was in NY. He and his wife were very gracious and kind, and I liked the low-key atmosphere of just chilling with some champagne. Many of the guests were Japanese ex-pats, and some could not speak English, so I had to resort to Mandarin to communicate. Though I don’t prefer speaking in Chinese to English, it felt pretty comfortable to express myself, which is nice.
The next day, as I said, I found the New Year’s champagne had caught up to me, so I ended up in bed all day long til Aaron’s concert. The concert was at the Beijing Concert Hall. I wasn’t sure how to translate that, but managed to explain it to the cabbie. I really enjoyed the music, even if Aaron kept stressing how amateur the symphony was. I loved the classic American songs they chose – the West Side Story medley, Aaron Copeland’s Hoe-down, Stars and Stripes Forever — it made me feel nostalgic and patriotic.
Afterwards, Aaron and I snuck off to some local restaurant that opened late for dinner, since it seemed many of the post-concert meals weren’t terribly good. We ordered lots of food for little money, enjoying some foods I’d never had before — a flaky bread, akin to the punched out naan from Singapore, but way more buttery and this thing that was like a combination of a dumpling and a scallion pancake smashed into one! Very tasty.
Next morning we got up early for the organized tour. The tour guide, Tang Ke, a/k/a Tim, was great. He could just talk forever – and not just tell you about facts on Chinese history, but tell some fascinating stories about modern Chinese life – like what the different license plate colors in Beijing mean, where the most expensive hookers in BJ worked at one time, how much it costs to send your child to a good kindergarten – even though it is a “public” school. He really gave an interesting look into modern Beijing life. Sometimes I cursed how interesting he was because I wanted so desperately to take a nap on the bus!
The Mutianyu section hadn’t changed much since I last visited in 2006, and this time I had a quicker ride down the luge, though some of the others complained about the stops/slowdowns due to one cowardly orchestra member. I’d say it definitely beat going down behind the frightened girl I ended up braking constantly for 5 years ago!
The biggest change as to the Forbidden City was that the Starbucks was removed and replaced with a tea shop! I have to admit, a part of me was a little disappointed, because it was a comedy that best reflected the emergent China to me.
After the tour, I helped some of Aaron’s orchestra-mates do some shopping at Pearl Market, and then found out where to go for a classic and perfect Peking duck. We grabbed the subway, which beat fighting for a taxi (I did not remember it being this hard to get one last time).
At the end of our meal, which was effectively the end of the trip, Aaron’s friend thanked me for lending my language skills, since neither the subway ride nor the spectacular dinner could be possible without me. I felt glad to help. It was definitely the least I could do for the warm feelings I got when listening to their music!
All in all a great way to start the new year, save the one unpleasant day. I felt I got to see Beijing in a different way than I did 5 years ago. Will it change much more in another 5 years?