The next morning I woke up around 6:30am and met with other fellow early risers in the banquet hall for breakfast. My appetite was satisfied with cereal, bacon, a red bean bun, and fruit. I then walked with two of my classmates, Mercedes (Ma Mingxi) and Gao Meiling, around the neighborhood. It is Mercedes first time in China, so I wanted to give her a nice tour that briefly introduced Chinese culture. Fortunately, the hotel bordered an “alleyway (胡同).” The alleyways of Beijing are considered pieces of “Old Beijing’s” past. The alleyways normally contain traditional homes that have four separate rooms and a courtyard in the middle. The first one we walked through was lined with local hole in the wall shops, noodle restaurants, and restaurants with Muslim cuisine. We must have been in a Hui minority neighborhood, which is the practicing Muslim minority group in China.
The alleyway was filled with smoke from the roasting meat that many locals were burning with coal. I held my breath through the smoke and when I finally took in a breath, I took in a good, wet taste of the alleyway’s public bathroom smell. It’s funny how when I’m in America I can only remember all the wonderful things about China (the food, the rural landscapes, the friendly people), but then I smell that familiar stench that I will have to become familiar with in China…makes me remember that China isn’t perfect and is still developing.
After exiting the first alleyway, we ran into a 6 or 8-lane road–which is common in Beijing. We kept walking and ran into another alleyway. I noticed that one half was thriving with people, fruit stands, and older men and women strolling with friends. The other half, however, was almost completely demolished.
The only buildings that are still up are called “钉子户,” or “nail houses.” They are the locals that do not want to leave their homes. In the picture above, you can see some random buildings that have clothes hanging off cloth lines–those are the “nail houses.” Most of their neighbors left. We ran into some locals in the neighborhood, they said that the government gave them around 30,000 rmb to rent/buy a new apartment. The older men were quite happy to not only get money to rent a new place, but also they said they were content with helping stimulate Beijing economic development. The 900 year old alleyway will be turned into new condominiums. The condos will most likely be luxurious (like most new builders) and incredibly expensive.
I thought this was a very interesting introduction to China, not only for me, but also for Mercedes. First day in China, she became aware of Chinese economic development and its impact on local culture. I’ve always found Beijing’s alleyway conservation research to be really interesting. I haven’t delved too much into it, but their research and mine are similar in that the alleyways and ethnic villages are areas of arguable “value.” Economically speaking, the alleyways and ethnic villages bring in tourists and creates a tourism economic system (the main tourism alleyways are near Tiananmen Square). Therefore, these areas are “profitable.” Anthropologically speaking, both of the areas harness much value among the locals, who closely identify with their homes. I’m still trying to fully understand the anthropological meaning of “value.” It’s a very abstract term that connects closely with my future research in Yunnan Province.
After our orientation meeting, me and the other Fulbrighters had a couple hours to enjoy Beijing. We decided to go to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, but it was closed. The Mausoleum is in Tiananmen Square. I took a picture of the square and the Forbidden City in the distance. You can faintly see Mao Zedong’s famous portrait hanging in front of the Forbidden City. The haze was quite thick this day.
After taking photos of Tiananmen, we raced across the street to the National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆) to take advantage of the free charge and air conditioning. The museum was just opened this year and it now the worlds largest museum. We spent 2.5 hours there and only saw three exhibits (aquatic archeological accomplishments, revolution paintings, and the museum’s creation). The aquatic section consisted of porcelain bowls and cups found in the Yangzte River after implementing the Three Gorges Dam in the late 1990s. Not as cool as I thought it would be!
This is me with the other Harbin Fulbrights in front of the National Museum of China. We got some lunch and then headed back to the hotel, had Beijing dumplings for dinner, and then took a 12-hour overnight train to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China.