By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Who’d have thought it? Come spring, Beijing’s inner circle is a horticulturalist’s delight. Highways and boulevards turn into bowers of expertly pruned, flowering fruit trees, apple blossom white, pink plum, the shocking deep orange of peach trees. Commercial and residential buildings soar like whimsically-topped, glittery sculptures above gardens with manicured grass and masses of tall shade trees, interrupted by parking lots, of course. The era of the bicycle is long gone in Beijing. Autos rule the roads, often bumper to bumper, in fact.
Walking around in the vicinity of my impersonal but comfortable hotel, I was astounded to find myself reminded of traditional Chinese paintings—mountain, forest, sky. Clearly the ancient art of landscaping and the love of gardens hasn’t been lost. Given the high initial cost of such extensive plantings and the equally high cost of impeccable annual maintenance, it’s also clear that the ruling Chinese Communist party intends make central Beijing into a showcase city, the perfect frame for the imperial elegance of the Forbidden City.
In fact, it was a bit too tidy for me, and the toddlers negotiating equipment in a little play area were almost too decorous, like the beautifully dressed little girls with big bows in their hair whom I’d encountered in Soviet Moscow’s parks so many years ago. It was obvious they’d get a scolding if they muddied up their Mary Janes. In Beijing, meanwhile, no candy wrappers took flight in the breeze, and although there were plenty of smokers, the sidewalks were miraculously free of cigarette butts.
However, my fairly brief meanderings on foot revealed a few departures from perfection. I came across one trash can diver. Also, a worried-looking cycle delivery man resting his legs on a park bench, having first stowed his shoes neatly underneath. His thin old socks don't have holes, yet. And the crowd milling around in front of the old Beijing railroad station was definitely less than middle class. Families squatting amidst their bags and bundles looked as if they’d just arrived from the country, and there were even some beggars, caps removed and set bowl-like to receive contributions.
Otherwise, most of the people I met on the street in that area of Beijing were nicely, even fashionably dressed, and the cars that purred by in a stream broken only by stop lights shimmered glossy and new in what passed for sunlight. Of course, they were new, for the most part. Maybe in ten years time traffic will contain a more normal mix, including old models and rust buckets. And maybe today's new buildings, having been exposed to Beijing’s dirty air for a decade or more, will be more than a little grimy, too.
Sensing a stage-prop quality to the Beijing I’d seen so far, I set myself to looking for something like unburnished reality as I rode out of the city en route to one of the access points for the Great Wall. Sure enough, mile by mile from ground zero, the buildings got older, and even the newer ones were not nearly so tall or as exciting architecturally as those toward the center. Shoe boxes standing on end. Still, for the longest time, there was the redeeming presence of reasonably well-groomed greenery: trees pruned, hedges clipped.
And then I saw it! A plastic bag caught in a chain link fence, the fence itself all tangled up in a half dead vine. From that point on, nature in all its weedy indiscipline took over. In vacant lots. On cloverleaves between intersecting highways. To right and left, this too: the usual detritus of urban life. Old tires. Empty crates. Battered-looking construction equipment. Jumbles of old cabling. And, as I soon learned, away from the main arteries, that’s what Chinese roadsides generally look like. Junk yards. Equipment depots and lumber yards. Garages and repair shops with battered vehicles on blocks. Over time, I passed half- abandoned villages, roadside bars with shabbily-dressed old men playing cards just outside the door; uninviting eateries with motorcycles parked out front, motel-like flop houses for long distance truck drivers and the truly down and out. Clear evidence that not everyone is making it in modern China.
I also got a bird’s eye view of this left-behind China as my flight took off from Beijing’s monstrously large new airport en route to Dunhuong via Xian. There it was, just below: a great splotch of semi-industrial slums. Warehouses and truck parks. Vast accumulations of leaky oil drums. Light industrial operations, some housed in brick buildings with a Dickensian look. Dreary-looking apartment blocks. Not a tree in sight.
And then, well before the plane reached cruising altitude, Beijing’s ugly secret disappeared. We sliced through the smog into clear air and blue sky.
Which reminds me of the amusing sight that presented itself as my trans-Pacific flight was descending into Beijing. The pollution blanket was firmly tucked around the city, which was invisible, except for a scattering of buildings tall enough to pierce through it. Some of those skyscrapers appeared to be residential. Imagine! Paying an astronomical price for a penthouse with no view—except, perhaps, into the distant living rooms of other penthouses with no view. Unfortunately, strapped into my seat for landing, I wasn’t able to take a picture.
That evening, as the sun was close to setting, I did take a photo from my hotel room. Visibility was murky at best, which means there wasn’t much of a view for those inhabiting the somewhat lower, but still pricy levels of the new towers either! And note: I wasn’t shooting through a screen or through smudged glass. The window was open, flooding the room with very dirty, but cooler air. When I'd arrived it was unbearably hot, but housekeeping had informed me that it was much too early, being only the last week of March, to start up the air conditioning.
Nevertheless, I was lucky during my time in Beijing. The sky was usually gray, the air more polluted than I would put up with on a daily basis, especially since I’m used to the perpetual azure of New Mexico, whose capital has the cleanest urban air in the U.S. But by Beijing standards, the air wasn’t bad. And sometimes, as in the photo above, the sky was blue!
But my Beijing guide didn't need blue skies to make her happy. “The sun’s out!” she exclaimed one afternoon. She looked ecstatic. Now, usually, when the sun is shining brightly, there are shadows which translate into defined patches of cool shade. Not that day. Looking up, I couldn’t even tell where the sun was. But the smog, obviously, had thinned. The day was brighter. Terrific!
Gray skies. Day after day. Very depressing. Even in the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts the air was gray and hazy from tiny dust particles swept aloft by the lightest breezes. But there was good news in the desert or so it seemed. Approaching Urumqi from the South by road, we drove through wind farms that stretched far beyond the horizon in all directions. Some turbines appeared to be brand new, others as if they’d been abraded by years of sand storms. This would have been a heartening sight, if we hadn’t just traversed another area where oil was being pumped out.
So which will it be, for energy, in China? Oil or wind? Well, there's not much oil, but something else is very plentiful. Coal.
Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, it turns out, has terrible smog problems. It’s located smack dab in the middle of coal mining country. Coal, once extracted, has to be transported to points of use, but no problem! Urumqi is well served by railroads. Surely the coal would travel by rail, I thought. Wrong! Mounded high, trussed in place under canvas, it’s carried in caravans of huge trucks, each belching soot-heavy exhaust, the kind of tail pipe emissions you never want to tailgate.
“Why?”I asked my guide of the moment.
“Rail may be cleaner," he replied, “but road is cheaper.”
Here are the two companion pieces from my recent China trip, one on Lhasa (http://whirledview.typepad.com/whirledview/2014/06/red-flag-over-lhasa.htmlBeijing) and one on Kashgar (http://whirledview.typepad.com/whirledview/2014/05/kanishka-in-kashgar-a-report-from-the-fringes-of-the-chinese-empire.html)