Veering from the wide empty streets of central Beijing, the taxi driver headed, cursing, down a narrow alley. Parked rickshaws and small iron beds limited our progress to a crawl. Locals dealt with the suffocating heat by sleeping outside. We reached my hotel. The meter, once fixed to the dashboard, now lay cunningly concealed on his side of the steel cage. He fumbled among loose wires. A moment of triumph.  One hundred and ninety yuan in clear digital numbering. His toothy evil smirk dared me to contest the evidence. I would pay half to return to the airport at a later date. Another sucker snared! 

The hotel was definitely under the old guard. The State. Four uniformed receptionists treated me as a temporary intrusion to their gossip. Reams of forms, a hefty deposit for the key, and a nod towards the elevator. I struggled with my bags past the sleeping concierge, to room 402.

The adjustment of swapping  a comfortable middle class life for budget accommodation in a major capital can be a challenge. Hastily slamming the fridge door on a fetid, mold flecked interior, I surveyed the scene. Dust and small objects such as paper clips and rubber bands bordered the carpet. Had it been brushed or vacuumed? Still, the toilet held promise. A paper sash over the seat proudly displayed the word “disinfected” in Chinese and English. Three cigarette butts lay floating within. Perhaps this bold claim referred to the lid? Beside the wash basin, a neat pile of lily white cardboard containers inscribed in gold lettering “shower cap”  “toothbrush” “shampoo” “soap” awaited my choosing. US$35 a night in Beijing buys a compromise.

Steamed bread and salted eggs that I hesitantly chose for breakfast, just didn’t cut it. Two uncooked pieces of warm white inpenetrable dough accompanied a salty mountain of dry chopped omelette. I paid and snuck guiltily out leaving an empty dining room and  plates barely touched. The bevvy of waitresses and kitchen staff returned to their TV soap.

In my “huitong” -  my alley - it was rush hour. Bicycles and rickshaws competed with mobile fruit vendors and pedestrians for limited street space. Late risers carried covered chamber pots, a towel and a bar of soap to the public bathhouses that appear on every block. A woman dispensed delicious pancake wraps filled with egg, onions and a piece of batter from her mobile kitchen, the size of a phone booth. The line of salivating breakfast customers increased by one. Me

!My alley was a microcosm of the changing face of Beijing. I dodged under rows of laundry hung confidently around potted plants struggling to survive the dust and polluted air which permanently blocks the sun. Bicycle tire repairmen toiled with gluepots and scraps of rubber. Buy 4 rolls of toilet paper and receive a free fly swatter. Obscure animal parts displayed in a butcher's shop. A teetering tower of  gleaming pots and pans on the seat of a ricksaw awaited delivery.

The alley began to widen. Restaurants grew from four tables to twenty and more. The words “English menu” appeared in windows. An entreating hustler stood at every door. Tea Emporiums. Art exhibitions. Camera shops. Wine stores purveying such gems as “Great Wall White”  “Heavenly Palace”    “Luminous Cup”. Vacuum-packed Peking Duck for the tourist trade. My huitong disappeared into  oblivion at a main thoroughfare. One of 67 Macdonalds in the city and the world’s largest KFC dominated the corner. The metamorphosis was complete.

I opted for a walking tour of The Forbidden City. High walls surrounded an incredible collection of Ming and Qing temples, palaces and courtyards, once the exclusive domain of the rulers. Choosing  the English version, I picked up  a tape player and sallied forth with the dulcet tones of Roger Moore of James Bond fame, ringing in my ears. I followed his instructions – pressed stop and took a break for a double latte at Starbucks. Each English sign I passed had “The American Express Foundation” boldly displayed below the caption.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge the modernisation of Beijing.  The crisp efficiency at the Marriot Hotel, doubtless part of the new private economy, was in marked contrast to my hostelry, still part of the old. My lunch benefactor at that establishment had collected me in a chauffeur driven car fitted with starched white linen seat covers. He had  successfully completed fashion shows in 17 provincial capitals with a retinue of 100 models. His product, once a symbol of evil western decadence, sexy German lingerie!

The sun was setting as I walked back through Tiananmen Square. Thousands of proud nationalists gathered in that now infamous place built to hold a million. The flag was lowered with much fanfare and military pomp for another day. The crowd dispersed. I found my huitong, passed the CD shops and the earsplitting heavy metal music that erupted from within. I noted the skimpily clad young girls perched precariously on foot high platform shoes. Tiny cell phones hung from their necks like precious baubles. I hurried down the narrowing alley.

A dozen giggling women were attempting a fan dance to gritty Chinese music. Two grandmothers, astride low wooden stools, fawned delightedly over their charges. A third chopped green beans for a late dinner. Five men clad only in shorts and thongs were engaged in an animated game of “Go” played with round rocks on a checker board. The tailor was still at work on his treadle machine. An iron bed was clearly visible under the bare light bulb in his one room residence. 

Surprisingly, I grew attached to my hotel. Sour looks turned to smiles. Each day, a tall flask of boiling water was delivered with a knowing grin at 4pm. Tea time! I smugly eyed the small freezer bag stuffed with round sachets of Earl Grey from home. I overlooked the shortcomings which had once seemed so offensive. In the old economy, good service must be earned with familiarity and a smile. I loved the instant access to my huitong and the tight friendly community. Will my neighbourhood survive the wrecker’s ball? Will more faceless high rises take its place? What image will Beijing show the world as proud host of The Olympics in 2008?

A friendly taxidriver pulled over and followed frenzied directions down the alley to my hotel. The meter, firmly attached to the dashboard, displayed zero. He loaded my bags, then inserted a tape. “I rearn Engrish” he grinned. “Good afternoon, have a nice day” came booming from the rear speakers. “The airport please” I requested with a touch of melancholy. On arrival, I counted out 90 yuan, around fifteen bucks, grabbed my bags and waved goodbye.



Copyright © 2002 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.