I rented that bike this morning and went riding. What a great experience. This is the way to see Beijing, if you ask me. For one thing, even at a leisurely pace, I was moving a lot faster than the rush hour buses. The people crammed inside them looked miserable too, whereas I was smiling. In the video below, you can see my ride from a monolithic business area in the north, through a shopping zone, then winding through a traditional hutong neighborhood. Usually I put music over my videos, but I liked the sounds of the street and didn’t want to overwhelm them. This way you can concentrate on my extra-shaky and tilted camera work. I think it gets a bit better towards the end as I figure out how to ride and hold the camera at the same time.
From ground level, it was interesting to see the patterns of the city. For instance, I discovered that my hostel is in the “guitar district.” For about two blocks on this street, most of the stores sell and repair musical instruments. A couple of blocks south is the “wedding district.” It’s loaded with giant stores that sell wedding gowns and services. Strangely enough, most of these stores are named for European and American cities, like Paris, Milan and New York.
Ok admittedly I took that photo yesterday morning. I liked the Paris/Communist combo there. But, I found new relevance for it in this particular discussion. Mmmm stock photography.
Anyway, this grouping of same with same reminds me of Thailand. It’s a different way of doing business than we have in the west. In western business, it’s important to have geographic dominance for your business. That way, you don’t have nearby competition to take away your clientÃ¨le. In the past, I’ve even signed leases that have non-compete clauses in them, locking you down in one business segment so the landlord can offer prospective tenants territorial exclusivity. Here, it’s a different story. Everything the same is lumped together. That way, you know where to go when you need a specific thing, making it easier to find what you’re looking for. There’s less of a barrier to finding musical instruments, or wedding services, or oranges, so there are more customers to go around. I think it puts less focus on marketing, trying to entice customers to come to your business, and more focus on providing that business’s core service. That being said, the business must be very price-conscious to operate in such close proximity to its neighbors.
I was actually very hungry by the time I got back from my ride around noon. For lunch, I went to a little spot next to the place where I ate yesterday. It turned out to be a place where they did hot pot style meals. Ideally it should be a communal activity for two or more people. But, I am a bit short-staffed right now, so I had to do it all myself.
I ordered “beer sliced beef” which I don’t quite understand. But, I thought, “Beer: good. Beef: good.” Can’t really go wrong, can you? Also pictured is a super-spicy broth on a hot plate. It was filled with red chili, black peppercorns, cumin, and other hot things. On the side, there’s a spicy fish sauce, a little dish of pickled something, a dish of sliced jalepenos, and a basket of lettuce. There’s a glass of smoky tasting tea, and a stick of mint gum. The way it all goes together is that you drop the pieces of beef and lettuce into the boiling broth, which cooks it. Then you fish it out and adorn it with the jalepenos, pickles and sauce before eating it. You cool down your burning mouth with the tea. At the end of the meal, you have the stick of gum to make breath socially acceptable again. It was all delicious, and even mostly caveman compatible!
Another interesting thing about the restaurant is that it had a grid of laminated photos on the wall, depicting the staff posing and smiling with various white people who had eaten at the restaurant in the past. It was odd. No one seemed to be a celebrity, but the photos were strangely reminiscent of ones I’ve seen in which people are posing with Bill Clinton or Nicole Kidman or Chevy Chase. In this part of town, foreigners are a relatively rare sight, so the restaurant was proud to display its friendliness towards pale faces.
I took a walk through the guitar district with my camera this afternoon. Lots of people were practicing their instruments right out in the street. Some places were giving lessons on the street too. Music lessons are the same everywhere in the world, aren’t they?
I think finding what’s the same about a place is just as important as finding what’s different.
Later in the afternoon, I rode the bike west. The roads got increasingly highway-like, and more perilous. I don’t have video of it because I wished to stay alive. In the middle of the city, where I’m staying, traffic is slow, and drivers make room for bikes. Towards the edges of the city, things move much faster, and drivers dive their vehicles into whatever space is available, even if that space happens to be occupied by your bike, and their vehicle happens to be a cement truck.
Eventually, it started raining, which was my cue to return to the hostel. I didn’t want my camera to get wet, and I was too busy surviving to take pictures anyway. I had hoped to find the Beijing Zoo, but I failed to do that. I’ll have to consult the map and try again if the weather improves.
Rain is forecast for the next two days. That literally dampens my plans to see the Great Wall. I’ve decided that if I don’t get to see it, it won’t upset me too much. I’ve discovered I’m terrible at sightseeing. I always end up bored or irritated at tourist sites. I think I’ll be happier if I spend the time exploring the city on the metro or on a bike.
That means I have to figure out what to do between here and Shanghai. I’m leaning towards riding a train to the ancient capital, Kaifeng and the birthplace of Confucius, Qufu. If it keeps raining like this, I’ll have plenty of time to plan!