Live from China

Those of you who pay attention to these things will notice a certain quiver to the typing pattern: our scribe writes from the freezing cold lobby of a “budget hotel” in Beijing China.

Outside there’s a skiff of new-fallen snow on the ground, and the policy of the place is to leave the front door open–with one of those plastic dividers that you know from walk-in freezers as the only barrier to the weather outside…or is it the weather inside, who knows which is colder!

We arrived yesterday, after 18 hours in the air (including three hours in Newark waiting for a flight). Then we had the pleasure of another two hours sitting in a taxi in rush-hour traffic, negotiating the intricacies of car, bus, bicycle and yes, even horse-drawn cart, all mixing and mingling in some fashion or other. We had no idea where we were headed, just a name of the hotel and a phone number. The driver spoke no english (or cantonese) and we spoke nothing he recognized either. He called the hotel as he got closer, missed his turn by a block, and backed up into oncoming bicycle traffic in the “slow” lane to deposit us at our place.

Everywhere is a pall of coal smoke. The city is scrambling to build a transit link to the airport in time for 2008, but it looks like they’re on track. For the sake of the triathlete lungs, it’s a start. Meanwhile Toronto could learn something from them about accommodating bicycles: we saw a wide bike lane paralleling the airport road, with all manner of human-powered vehicles making use of it, all the way back to the city.

We headed out for dinner with our friend, the well-known urban designer Xao Pei: he took us to a 200-year-old restaurant that had a chinese opera house (with an opera playing we could peek at through the crack in the door) adjoining it. Turned out it was spicy sechuan cooking, which set us back in our chair somewhat, but perhaps for the best: we were jet-lagging all over the table, our hairs trailing in the soup, until the spicy stuff came.

Pei is hard at work these days: a kid, really, but with the strength of the U Toronto Urban Design degree behind his name he’s rocketting: right now he has responsibility, he told us, for the design of three new towns at the north of Beijing, to be built this year. His main concern is the idea of a ring-road outside the towns, with the inner core maintained as a pedestrian-friendly sector.

We’ll be joining Pei tonight for Peking duck. We shall see if they know how to make it in Beijing the way we Torontonians like it!

There was karaoke music playing loudly somewhere in the hotel or in the streets outside as we headed to bed, but we didn’t notice it much. The diesel noise of construction equipment working through the night was our lullaby.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.