Thursday, 16 October 2008


Just the name has something special about it. It reverberates around my head as I make myself down more wide boulevards, Wangfujing, the word itself enticing me to visit. Wangfujing, like Oxford Street, Rodeo Drive and 5th Avenue all rolled into one, something mega, beyond, the perfect home for a consumerist such as myself. The closer I get, the better I feel, like the sight of familiar shops, English and American brands and rampant consumerism will take me that little bit closer to home. Like so much I've experienced in these four short days (it feels like forever), I get exactly what I expected, and something else entirely.

Wangfujing is the highpoint of Chinese capitalism, a long street running parallel to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen. Walking down it from the top I pass rundown electronics shops and then, every so often but getting more common, like passing by ripples in a pond on the way to the heart of the disturbance, a designer store here, a five star hotel there. Boss. Burberrys. Smart shoppers laden down with bags, business suits, jeans and baseball caps, mobile phones. My hostel is in a traditional area of Beijing, full of hutongs, the idiosyncratic little alleyways alive with street vendors and tables crowded with chess players, at night lit only by the glow of their cigarettes and the moon. Where I am now could be a different country to those homely, dusty backalleys. This is a nod to western capitalism. Only it's bigger, better, cleaner and cheaper. As I enter the pedestrianised area, Wanfujing-proper, I am in heaven.

Noone needs to hear about how I went shopping for two hours, especially when the only thing I bought was a cheap (almost certainly fake) jade necklace. What is worth pointing out is just how big the place was. I wandered the main street to the very end, then popped in to check out the department store. This was how I found out that the street, which seems to stretch out for ages, is just a shop front. The department store itself merely takes up a part of an enormous shopping mall, which stretches the entire length of the street and climbing for six floors. Shops range from McDonalds to top-class restaurants, Nike to Giorgio, Starbucks to a multi-screen cineplex. And when you've explored that, you can cross the street and explore the next one, just two floors this time but occupying a whole block, underneath the Grand Hyatt.

I walked home elated, awe-struck by the containment of everything in one place, right at the heart of a major city. As I went, I noticed people eating what appeared to be candied chestnuts, and had my second following-the-ripples experience of the day, tracing the line back to the vendor of these sweet-smelling caramelised treats. It was only on my first bite that I realised my mistake. Not chestnuts, but miniature apples, softened but underripe, perfectly complemented by the crunchy toffee coating. Not tough like English toffee apples, nor too big. Each bite was warmly sweet and sour, a perfect balance of the two. As I reached the hostel again, I reflected on these symmetrical experiences which have made me fall in love with Beijing, if only just a little bit.

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