The haze hasn’t settled over the city yet and you can still see the stars, but make no mistake about it: summer has come.
There’s no Shadow Traffic here; all of the traffic reports that get broadcast on the taxi radio station seem to have been submitted by drivers via text message, rather than radioed in from a helicopter. I like to imagine Shadow Traffic reports, though, because I imagine they’d go something like this:
“A collision between a cargo tricycle and a taxi has traffic backed up for two kilometres on Shuangqing Lu; damage estimates stretch into the dozens of jiao. An argument is raging between the leather-skinned, Henanese driver of the tricycle and the foreman of the road crew whose work caused the tricycle to swerve left into the taxi, upending its cargo of battered cardboard and filthy styrofoam.”
While “teaching” English, and later when translating Chinese into English, I found that a favorite adjective here is ‘beautiful,’ as in “Harbin is a beautiful ice city” or “Yay, Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, My Beautiful Homeland,” or “The vast, parking lot-like expanse of concrete known as Tian’anmen Square is very beautiful.”
Beijing is not, on the whole, when you get right down to it, a beautiful city. It is grey. It is dour. It lacks the skyward-reaching ebullience of Shanghai, to say nothing of the style. If you were to picture a city built by Mongols, inhabited by Manchus, razed and rebuilt by socialists, and neon-lit by people with no taste and a lot of business sense, you would have Beijing. And so the overwhelming drabness of the city serves to frame and to highlight the pockets of beauty that are to be found within it.
Kun and I biked over to Houhai yesterday – down Xueyuan Lu to Jimen Qiao, along the Third Ring Road to Xinjiekou, down Xinjiekou to the maze of hutong alleys. A stop at a roadside bike repair stand detoured us to Xihai, better known as Jishuitan: another one of the artificial lakes in the area. It was a Sunday afternoon, and people sat under the willows that line the lake, fishing, chatting, and generally chilling.
The sun was starting to go down, and so the light hit everything at a low angle, turning the lake into a sheet of gold, making the grey and red buildings around it radiant. The license plates on the cars parked in the alleys identified the area’s residents mostly as military officials, making for a nice illustration of 文武, the ideal blend of the cultured and the martial.
I’m not doing a good job of describing this, and I’m sorry.
Zhuangzi said: Snares are for catching rabbits. Once you’ve got the rabbits, you can forget the snares. Words are for catching ideas; once you’ve got the idea, you can forget the words.
And sometimes the words aren’t enough to catch the idea, and all you have are memories, mutable and imperfect, to tell you that you saw something beautiful, something that was absolutely of the moment and can never be the same again.