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Published: April 29th 2009
As my train snaked through the suburbs of backstage Beijing - construction sites alternating with old tower blocks with stained air conditioning units - I already suspected that there was little I would understand about this huge contraption of a city. There was history in the air, for sure - seeping from the brickwork and the vanished temples and arches that hung in the ether. But it was a history whose dreams had long since turned to dust.
The ancient walls, gardens and courtyards of imagination had long since been demolished by the communists in their rage to modernise the city. Yet somehow, inside the inner ring road the old still coexisted with the new.
Glassy office blocks and international hotels lined the ten-lane roads criss-crossing the city. On the freshly-laid lawns the teck-teck-teck of sprinklers was overseen by security guards in pristine uniforms - sentinels guarding the gateways to China's new zeitgeist.
In American-style shopping malls, serious young women stood frozen among the manikins inside empty designer boutiques. October 2007 - the city was pulsing with a collective dream: Olympic glory; the Middle Kingdom returned to the centre of the universe. On the subway, staff snatched tickets
with extra gusto; outside the big hotels art touts called out lazily after tourists, steering them into expensive tea houses.
High up from the footbridge, I looked down on the traffic drumming towards Tiananmen Square. Eight lanes of the Great Car Economy rolled relentlessly through memories of bicycles and rickshaw drivers. From the bridge I surveyed the usual international hotels, office blocks and building sites. Yet surprisingly, despite all the cars and the construction and the frenzied money making, the atmosphere was benign - no sinister political ideology, no deeper cultural meaning. Big Brother was strangely absent.
As if to reinforce the point, on the manicured lawns of the central reservation, someone had carefully laid out their laundry on the newly-planted shrubs. A pink tracksuit, purple pyjamas and a yellow sweat shirt lay shining in the sun, their edges fluttering in a gentle breeze of car fumes. Semaphores placed by some unseen hand, the clothing seemed to tap out a subtle, yet urgent message, an invitation to explore hidden depths.
Back on the ground, I turned into the hutongs. Right across the city, these narrow streets and alleyways connect the crumbling courtyards: the inner life of old
Peking away from the endless boulevards and high rise blocks. Getting lost in this maze of secret corridors and dead end lanes was strangely consoling: a return to childhood perhaps, or maybe a deeper memory, buried in the psyche, of the cave dwellings of the Palaeolithic.
I sat down on a doorstep, watching, through an open window, four women eating noodle soup in the half light. An old man wobbled past on a bicycle, his head swivelling almost full circle as he stared at the stranger in his midst. Despite the falling-down houses, the endless hanging washing, the broken paving stones and the stink from the public latrines, the hutongs had a certain dilapidated beauty, although it was impossible not to notice the official notices (eviction orders?) plastered on many doors.
It was National Day, and near Qianmen beggars were out in the autumn sunshine and the hopeful holiday spirit. A woman pulled herself along on a wooden trolley by what seemed to be her chin. A boy was kneeling, seemingly in an attitude of prayer. But his shirt was rolled up his back, revealing a hole the size of a tennis ball. A young man sat under
a tree, surrounded by photographs of himself in military uniform. He was leaning forward, hugging himself, but his handsome face streamed with tears. The hugging though, was just an illusion - he had no arms - though the tears were very real.
It was not just the hutongs at Qianmen that had disappeared. The main road, 100 metres of shops and hotels, and the famous roast duck restaurant (what had happened to those framed photographs of George Bush Senior and Margaret Thatcher?) had all disappeared behind the brightly-painted hoardings that advertised a restoration of the 1920s. Pushing my face up against a crack in the boards, I saw an endless expanse of bulldozed earth. The whole quarter seemed to have been wiped off the map. Could you really rebuild history from scratch? Could the past be recreated as a stage set?
I seemed to need more passageways and alleyways, so I visited Beijing's Underground City, the city-under-a-city whose rabbit warrens were Mao's paranoid response to fear of Soviet attack. The twisting, dark corridors, turning, looping back on themselves, sometimes finishing in a dead end, may once have mirrored the old dictator's unconscious ramblings: the mental hutongs of unchallenged
Surfacing, I escaped to the space and green of the Temple of Heaven Park. Passing the Echo Stones and the Whispering Wall, I stopped to watch a group of pensioners performing tai chi. Their slow motion moves and turns provided a new perspective, calming the city, making sense of all that had gone before, and keeping the old and the new in perfect equilibrium.
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