Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Walking Through Beijing

Jean Feraca

Today's program with Daniel Raven-Ellison, the creator of Urban Earth who walks through cities taking photographs every eight steps, reminded me of the unforgettable walk I took way off the beaten track in Beijing a year ago last October. It took me through one of the most poverty-stricken "hutongs" - the Chinese word for a traditional neighborhood. All that separated this hutong from the city proper was a pasteboard facade on the main boulevard that was obviously intended to keep curious passerbys from entering. But we got through anyway and were frankly shocked by the piles of refuse, the ancient crumbling buildings broken up for multiple family use, the occasional filthy wok, and the general pervasive air of malaise and neglect. There was no color at all, and no sound; even the air was a thick grimy gray. And then, suddenly, there was a tiny flash of gold rounding the corner on the back of a bicycle. The man peddling the bike was pulling a goldfish that was sloshing around in a bowl. Water was flipping out of the bowl and it looked like the goldfish might go that way too. It took me a while to realize that the man was trying to make a sale.

I was lucky to get this glimpse of "the real Beijing" before it was all torn down by government officials anxious to save face in preparation for last summer's Olympic Games. What we saw on television was a fabulous spectacle and jaw-dropping futuristic architecture. But what I remember was that man and that goldfish.

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