Sunshine and an acceptable AQI greeted us on our second day in Beijing. (By acceptable I don’t mean “good,” only that it wasn’t “unhealthy” and by sunshine I mean that the sky wasn’t brown.) Melinda headed off to a long day of work and I hopped the metro, headed to the neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square in search of the remains of Ming City Wall. Beijing subways are easy to navigate, cheap (¥2, .33¢ USD), safe and clean; two lines, 13 stops and 35 minutes later I was in the Qianmen area looking for the remains of Beijing’s Ming Dynasty city wall and Southeast Corner Tower.
Following the sun I walked east-north and located the western end of the wall. The preserved section of the wall is 1.5 km long and leads to the 144 window Southeast Corner Tower where I purchased my ¥10 RMB ($1.65 USD) ticket without waiting in a line, in fact, I was the only person there; the ticket taker had to get up off his seat to come over and punch my ticket. Despite a sign that said “Please kindly submit to search your bag,” the security guard manning the x-ray machine glanced up from his smart phone only long enough to wave me through without me even entering the security checkpoint.
I could hardly believe that in a city of 20 million people I was able to enter a historic site, a tourist attraction, not only without waiting in line, but also without seeing another visitor. I climbed the rough stone steps and from the area just outside the tower entrance had a panoramic view of the Beijing Railway station — soon to be overrun with millions of people wedging themselves on trains to journey back to their hometowns for Spring Festival — and the Second Ring Road, the roadway built in 1965 that was reason enough to tear down a wall erected in 1419.
I love historic sites, I marvel at the fact that I can stand in a place and touch something that has been there for hundreds of years, a place that has seen life and death, triumph and tragedy, and yet is here under my touch, today. However, as cool as that is, the ancient tower and city wall weren’t the coolest things I saw. The absolutely coolest thing was that the 1st and 3rd floors were converted into an art gallery and the 2nd floor featured a museum of the ancient fortification. I had it all to myself, not a visitor, nor an employee anywhere in the building.
My subconscious desire for solitude sated, I headed west in search of a hutong. During my previous trip to Beijing, in October, I spent the better part of two days wandering the old hutong neighborhoods west-north of the Forbidden City, but this time I was searching west-south of Tiananmen Square.
After walking longer than I expected–with an unplanned, lengthy, but ultimately productive stop at a China Post office to procure stamps for international postcards–I came upon Qianmen Street, an obviously famous shopping district that I had no idea existed. It was crowded, even on a cold winter day, and pleasant enough, but touristy and not what I was looking for. I walked south, trying to figure out how close I was to the hutong neighborhood when I saw a man turn west down a narrow street. I followed him. I was getting warmer. The next block over was an older, more crowded, narrow street lined with shops selling souvenirs, clothes, shoes, candy, and silk. One more block west and I was out of the commercial zone and in the part of the hutong where the butcher, the baker and the dumpling maker live. I’d found what I was looking for; men playing cards, mahjong and checkers, old folks out for a walk and kids in uniform coming home from school. I also found something I wasn’t looking for which made the finding all the sweeter: A Seattle-styler hipster coffee shop-Soloist Coffee Co.— that made a great Americano (I get quizzical looks when I order it “black and strong, like my President”), sold tasty cheesecake and had baristas dressed like they were members of The Lumineers.
I walked up and down the streets, shooting pictures and soaking up the neighborhood, until the sun–yes, the sun had come out in Beijing that day– dropped to the rooftops of the courtyard homes, signaling time for me to get a train back to the hotel and meet Melinda for dinner.
There are more pictures of my day in Beijing, here.