In Search of Beijing’s Soul
It is just after midday and a band of hungry window shoppers are congregating around a pile of sizzling lamb skewers. Like a lunch signal the steam wafts off the grill and into the cold winter air, alerting the crowd of potential buyers to its presence.
I am standing at the end of Nan Luo Gu Xiang, a typical Beijing lane – or hutong – that has been beautifully restored. On either side the single-storey houses sport a broad mix of independent shops, bars and restaurants, many with a decidedly local flair. Munching on a stick of tanghulu, the candied Chinese hawthorns that are a staple of Beijing’s street food, I walk a few steps to avoid getting in the way of a young couple’s camera phone. But as the phone pans towards my new location, it suddenly dawns on me that I am what they are really after.
Further along the street, I resist the urge to stop at the Pass By Bar, where the window is stacked with an impressive Lonely Planet collection. Behind the sun-bleached volumes a murky green T-shirt has caught my eye. There’s a print suggestive of the Mao years, and a motto that would befit any die-hard travel enthusiast: “Better Travel Than Dead”.
Later that night I join Niki on a local bus headed back into the neighbourhood. We are just a stone’s throw away from Nan Luo Gu Xiang, and once past the rush hour gridlock, the peace of a dimly-lit hutong slows our footsteps to a leisurely pace. Beneath the darkened mass of the Bell Tower, she is taking me out for a dinner of skewered meat.
Niki introduces me to Angus, a globe-trotting Irishman, and Liu Yang, one of her closest local friends. The first line of business is an induction to what may be the spiciest chicken wings in all of Beijing. When it arrives at the table I am flabbergasted – the skins have been completely smothered with chili. Courageously, I take one bite and begin to chew. For the first few seconds I feel nothing, but all of a sudden it throws me a devastating punch.
I am in Beijing at a time when tensions are running sky-high between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Liu Yang seems difficult to gauge at first, but as the alcohol flows, he becomes increasingly talkative. “We Beijingers prefer to be more casual.” I nod my head, biting into another, not-so-spicy lamb skewer. “I do too,” I tell him. It turns out that we have the same tastes in travelling, and all is well until we arrive at the topic that I was just hoping to avoid: politics. But as candid as he is, Liu Yang remains disarmingly friendly. “You’re different; you’re not like all the other Hong Kongers I’ve met.” Smiling, he takes his glass and we raise a toast. I have just won his trust, and in that same instant, Beijing has won mine.
Giddy from a cup of baijiu, a powerful white liquor, we pay the bill and stumble out into the winter cold. Our next stop is the Worker’s Stadium, where I end up sipping an orange-flavoured caipiroska at a chic underground bar. But I can’t shake the feeling that I am somewhat underdressed for such plush surroundings. The menu is written entirely in English and the drinks are priced accordingly. Liu Yang is visibly restless. “There’s a bar I want to take you to… it’s very local and run by a good friend of mine.”
Together with Niki we find ourselves in a taxi speeding back to the vicinity of the Drum Tower. Turning off the main road, I follow Liu Yang and the festive lights of a winding hutong, where he swings open the front door to Huxley’s. Above the counter the wall is emblazoned with a slogan in bold red lettering. “Shut up, Just Drink.” The place is a potent expression of Beijing youth – outward looking and just a touch rebellious. I scan the white plaster walls, every inch crammed with memories scrawled in marker pen. “What an amazing world!” writes one visitor. Far above our heads an empty, worn lantern hangs from the exposed rafters. Immediately I am struck by the resemblance to a popular student haunt back in Salamanca. Its name was Paniagua, and it too had scribbles on the wall, cheap alcohol and a lovable, grungy atmosphere.
Settling for a small glass of rum and coke, which gets me a thumbs up from Liu Yang, I lean against the wall and observe the beaming faces of the bar’s patrons. This is the side of Beijing that I never got to see on my previous travels – youthful, energetic and unmistakably down-to-earth.