Last week, DK and I stumbled on a strange abandoned school in northern Beijing. We were looking for the city’s largest recycling center, but this mad statue was a far tastier find.
Seven demonic babes, lounging, suckling, emerging from the concrete.
“Can you imagine seeing this every day? As a kid?”
It was strange. But so was the trip.
The sprawling neighborhood, the entire neighborhood, is being demolished for new high rises. Block after block was sprayed in the graffiti’d 拆, for “demolish.” Red banners wrapped across buildings and trees read “Quickly quickly, move move” in Chinese pentameter. A man cycled by, his tricycle piled high with his bulging luggage.
It used to be a retreat. 90 years ago, the French spent 9 months building Bokor Hill Station up as the ultimate getaway: escape from the miserable heat and humidity of Phnom Penh. 900 laborers died while building it, but to the French all these ghosts were worth it. There was a casino, a ballroom, a hotel, and when all the sinning was done, a Catholic church.
What is it with these half-built, then abandoned, Beijing amusement parks? We’re old fans of The Romance Park of the Heart, which is filled with Swiss chalets, Siamese pagodas, and packs of wild dogs looking to tear your legs off. But we kept hearing about another one, in the opposite direction… Wonderland!
We spent the last ten days living in a small Tongzhou village, an hour east of Beijing, and construction was non-stop. Every day we were there, a ramshackle house was torn down and replaced by a building site. New walls would go up in hours. Bricks and dust were everywhere. Often, a 4′ pile of sand would block our driveway. If we wanted to drive anywhere, the six of us would have to pick up shovels and move it ourselves. (The builders would hide around the corner, leaving only their shovels behind.)
Just beyond the village, though, there were mostly fields. At the ends of many of the fields were graves. Conical mounds of dirt, with an inscribed gravestone, sitting on top of the plough lines. Old women were squatting at the ends of the fields, planting new crops.
It seemed a strange place for graves, so we asked a local friend about them.
“Ha,” he laughed, “I don’t think those are real graves. There probably are no bodies down there.”
Fake graves? Outside our Tongzhou village??
“Yes. The villagers know that the land is going to be developed, and the government will only give them so much money. But if it’s a graveyard, they may pay more. So the local villagers build fake graves on their fields, to get more money. You know the expression ‘shǎjīng?’” I didn’t. “It means stupid-clever. That’s what they are. Shajing shajing.” He laughed at his own expression, as he repeated it again. “傻精傻精.”
It seemed strange to dedicate graves to government payouts. But just a few miles away, close enough to see if the pollution wasn’t too heavy, there were high rise apartment buildings. A short bus ride away, there was a new subway line. Two of my friends had recently bought houses near here. This land was no longer just for planting Chinese cabbage. It was becoming real estate.
(As usual, many of the pictures — and in this case, I think all of them — are by Woo.)
On our recent trip to Pyongyang, we picked up this incredible guide to speaking Korean — clearly with a northern bent. While the first half is filled with standard small-talk favorites (“How do you do!”, “I’m awfully sorry,” “It really is heroic,” and “It is Juche-oriented”), about halfway through, it gives up any sense of restraint, and becomes all about the wonders of North Korea. It’s especially interesting to note the areas that the government the publishers were clearly especially eager for visitors to notice (the coziness, the modern city, the lack of beggars on the street).
Below — in recognition of the Dear Leader’s 69th birthday today (Feb 16) — are a couple of pages of the 1995 guide… Hope you get to use them today!
North Korea The DPRK doesn’t have much money. Or electricity. In our hotel, the Yanggakdo, the upper floors had no electricity (save for the one with a handful of Americans/Europeans staying on it). The Koreans would get on and off the elevator, into a floor of darkness. Shops with customers were pitch dark. The skyline at night was pitch black.
Beijing’s filled with hidden secrets. Behind all those highrise tower blocks and overpasses, there is awesomeness to be found. And so it was that we heard rumors of a decrepit half-built theme park, somewhere way out west. The rumors came from a Chinese film student, who’d heard them from a friend, who’d heard them from another friend. No-one knew where on a map they were. “Just go to the Yuquanlu subway stop,” said Bing, “and walk south. That’s where it is! Ask a passerby.”
We did just that. And two hours later, we were still walking and asking passerby. The problem wasn’t that no-one had heard of it… everyone local seemed to know what we were talking about, but everyone local pointed us in a different direction. Two blocks in one direction. Twenty minutes in another. Half an hour walking along a highway. Finally we got wise, and paid a stranger to drive us around the neighborhood. And, in a moment of enlightenment, through a gap in the buildings, we saw what we were looking for: The Romance Park of the Heart.
This is what it looks like from the roadside (at least last year, it did. The last time we happened by, it was all being torn down.)