First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sanlitun Night Fever

Another Saturday night, and I ain't got nobody (but my wife will be here in 1 week! YAAAAYYY!), so I decided to get out of my immediate neighborhood and check out the Beijing scene in the heart of the city.

Now, when I say "the Beijing scene" I mean "the Beijing scene that a noob like myself could easily find, and where I can melt into the background and not feel totally uncomfortable." I am sure there are the hip places that real Beijingers go to, but for me, it was off to find a cab to Sanlitun Bar Street.

Sanlitun is in western Chaoyang district (I am in northeastern Chaoyang), so it's maybe 20 minutes by cab. Sanlitun is one of the two main embassy districts in the city, which means it has attractions and nightlife that cater to foreigners, including Westerners. The Canadian, Australian, German, French and Italian embassies are nearby. (The U.S., U.K and other embassies are a couple miles south, in the Chaowai and Jianwai neighborhoods.)

And the best known part of Sanlitun is the Bar Street, a mile-long gauntlet of discos, bars, restaurants and shops (a less gracious guest might also mention pimps, "girl bars" and beggars). As you walk up the street, each establishment has people working the sidewalk, trying to coax you in, even maneuvering you to a seat before you realize what is happening.

Luckily for me, I had a destination, recommended by the guidebook my wife had bought me. It's called The Tree, a well-known but hard-to-find bar and restaurant built into an old building several turns down the random alleys that branch off of Bar Street. It specializes in wood-fired pizzas and Belgian beer (40 varieties of Belgian beer alone.)

I found it with a little difficulty, but was glad I did. It had an easy, warm atmosphere, was buzzing with conversation, and featured a big bar (I prefer to sit at bars - somehow, sitting alone at a bar seems less sad than sitting alone at a table, because at least you can strike up a conversation at a bar.)

I found one open seat and took it. The bartender spoke good English and, seeing I was alone, did what all good bartenders do - talked to me. He asked where I was from, what I was doing etc. I asked him a little about Beijing and ordered a Hawaiian pizza, a Jamesons and had him pick his favorite beer for me (it was Belgian, of course, but not too dark and a little sweet - I really liked it.)

It turned out I had taken the seat of a member of the Chinese party to my left, so when I saw them searching for a barstool, I quickly apologized and moved to another part of the bar where some seats had opened up, and was soon joined by two people in town for the weekend.

He was from Boston, originally, now a long-time resident of Bangkok, and his coworker was Thai. They work at the Bangkok office of a large international insurance firm. We had a nice long conversation about living in Asia, differences between China and Thailand (I played the role of the China 'expert:' "Well, this may shock you, but there are more than ONE MEEEEELLION people in China"), politics of the region, economics, and of course sports. ("The Timberwolves are the worst team in the NBA!" "No, the Celtics are the worst team in the NBA!")

They were great people and I was glad to have met them. Like many of the Americans I've met in Asia, he came for a short stint and never left. He now speaks and writes fluent Thai (am I the ONLY American with terrible language skills? I thought we were supposed to be boorish ignoramuses! Lets get on the ball, people! You're making me look bad!) and has no intention of going back - same story I've heard from at least a half-dozen Westerners I've met in the last month.

All in all a delightful evening. We left The Tree in search of another beer, and eventually wandered into a blaring disco/bar. It was interesting. Maybe half Chinese, half foreign, all blinded by the random lasers firing from the ceiling, all deafened by American music ("'Cause I ain't no hollaback girl! This place is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!" -- wait a minute, why does it ALWAYS come back to bananas with me?) and only a few (probably drunk) people awkwardly dancing.

Most of the people (myself included) were dazzled by the lights, nursing their beers, trying to look like we belonged here while curiously glancing around, waiting to see what would happen next.

Might be my best metaphor yet for China.


Hello to any of you who found this through the Chasing the Dragon blog at Fortune.com! It's really funny: I'm here to learn about marketing in China, so, as a former business reporter, I spent a lot of time reading about the MARKET in China. One blog I frequent is chasingthedragon.blogs.fortune.com, written by Fortune Magazine's Asia editor Clay Chandler.

It's a terrific perspective on China's economy and trends. I went to look at it yesterday and found that his most recent post referenced and linked to my Beijing Traffic Lesson of a few days ago! Unbelievable!

Clay, thank you for the kind words and the reference. And to my coworkers back home, if you are interested in learning more about China, bookmark his blog. He also obviously has a terrific eye for quality based on his link to me, so I urge you to immediately sink your life's savings into anything he mentions, even in passing.

Earlier Saturday, my coworker Michael and I met for breakfast, then took a cab to the Chinese Military Museum. I am a bit of a Cold War freak, and Michael is interested in armaments, so we thought it would be a fun way to spend a couple hours. The People's Liberation Army is very influential in China, so I was sure it would be pretty spectacular.

Also, I wanted to see some of the stories I knew told from a different perspective, and it was clear from the sign outside the museum that this would be the case:

So we bought our tickets, went through the gate, and...

Oh good. Renovation.

Like most older things in Beijing, the museum is undergoing a massive improvement project. It's 5 stories tall and I'd say 3/4 of it was gutted and emptied. In a few places, huge bronze statues were sitting in hallways with ropes under them, clearly just dragged out of the way. Most of the wings were dusty construction zones.

But there were some ancient exhibits, and some modern exhibits, and the main hall with its tanks, planes and huge missile was still open, as was an outside courtyard.

Just one observation: The museum is part relics of China's past, part trophy room with captured equipment from various conflicts. I was struck by how many nations had their arms displayed both as weapons China had used, and weapons China had captured. ("This U.S. tank was given to China to aid their fight in World War II. And THIS U.S. tank was captured in Korea. This Soviet tank was given to China by Stalin. And THIS Soviet tank was captured during a border conflict in the 1960's. This flying saucer was sold to the Chinese by the Lizard People of Planet Zornicron 6...")

My takeaway: China has a verrrry interesting history.

Anyway, some pictures. Rollover for captions, click to see the Photobucket album with more.

Remember the Bass-O-Matic in that old SNL commercial? Well, Michael and I went out for lunch after the museum to a shop near my place that sells nice, simple, reliable Chinese food. We had steamed and fried dumplings and some fish soup.

It was all very tasty - the broth had a salty and sour flavor, and the fish meat was tender and didn't have any bones that I found - but it looked like some fish had been dropped in a Bass-O-Matic with dull blades and then just 'pulsed' maybe two or three times.

My favorite part: a pair of heads and tails sticking out of the bowl on each end.

Wow, long one today. Hope all is well!