It’s been years since I bookmarked “10 Chinese villages in danger of being destroyed” as that country marched into modernity behind the bulldozer. It was a previous computer and the link is long gone, so I felt a little trepidation as I booked our trip to China last summer. Were we too late? A country can’t be ALL mega-cities, but would we be able to find and access small-town China too?
They don’t put international airports in small towns, so we started in Beijing, with its sky scraping glass and steel, busy boulevards of chugging cars, and everywhere the enormous 21st century statements of China’s gigantosity, all visible from our window on the 18th floor. We had two more cities ahead, but then, after a nine hour bus ride to the edge of Tibet, we hoped to find small-town China. In the meantime, we went out to explore the Chinese metropolis.
Ten lanes are a journey to cross. They have big roads in Beijing. Then you reach macromassive city blocks stocked with epic buildings that create a somewhat surreal pedestrian experience. Like in a dream, you walk on and on but don’t seem to get anywhere, since you’ve only passed three buildings. It makes you feel small. Vaguely insectile. Formic.
But it’s a grand metropolis, whose modern architecture declines the familiar 20th century totalitarianism of the 90 degree angle. These heaven-poking monoliths curve and yawn, twist and reach, often with color, speckled with light, and drawing the eye with broad expanses of curved glass. Each has its own character, yet they create a unified sense of modern Beijing. I’m most familiar with much older European cities, with their distinct neighborhood vibes that make Paris or Amsterdam feel like a collection of towns, each with their own cozy restaurants, small shops, and independent bookstores. I saw none of that in Beijing. At first.
Then we took the small side lanes within the blocks, which often looked like little more than backdoor access for deliveries. But we immediately shared those little curving capillaries with people on their way home from the shops. Grandparents walking hand-in-hand with teetering toddlers, past modest houses with their front doors open to let out the laughter and the seduction of fresh spices cooking, while letting in the soft evening breezes. As the sunlight faded and the lamps came on, we passed a card table hosting a boisterous game of neighborhood mahjong, and an older brother ran behind his little sister’s bicycle, holding the seat steady while she learned. It felt like we’d wandered behind the scenes, until I realized these WERE the scenes; the scenes of real-life Beijing, real-life China.
The mega-boulevards and towering commercial monuments make a clear statement of Chinese economic aspirations and accomplishments, but they are just the armored exterior. Inside those blocks, inside Beijing, are the neighborhoods that have breathed the city’s breath throughout the generations. They’re called hutongs, and I’m sure there’s a listicle somewhere of the “10 best hutongs in Beijing” I could bookmark today. There was no need to wait for Tibet. Beijing had it all.