On this, our last full day in Beijing, we decided to return to the 798, to see more of the art that’s on display, and to spend a leisurely day strolling between galleries, cafes, and teahouses. This kind of experience is only possible in Beijing here in the 798, which has developed over the years into a lovely alternative destination for contemporary art lovers and strollers alike.
On Thursday, after we arrived from Auckland and checked into the beautiful Fairmont Hotel, we also spent the afternoon strolling, but in a different setting altogether – at Houhai Lake, a large man-made lake with a paved road all ’round, lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars. This is clearly an area that comes alive at night, and several of the bands that played in the area’s bars were warming up, getting ready for the evening that was approaching. There was a relaxed and jovial atmosphere at Houhai, which matched the warm, sunny weather.
Because overseas travel is often not easy for most Chinese citizens, they do a lot of sightseeing inside the country, and Houhai seems to be a popular choice. I noticed that many of the outdoor tables around the lake were filled, not with Western tourists, but with natives, enjoying a succession of tasty-looking dishes, in the style of eating that we have found ubiquitous in China…everyone orders way more food than they can possibly eat, to taste as many different dishes as possible, and they eat just what they feel like, and leave the rest…nothing is wrapped up and taken home, as we Westerners tend to do.
I’ve read that this Chinese custom is a reaction to the years of famine that resulted after Mao decreed that farmers should shift to steel production…that “over-ordering” at restaurants demonstrates how far the Chinese have progressed since that sad past…but I think that there is also a passion for good food freshly prepared in China, and the idea of eating food that is hours old is not very appealing…but this is just a guess on my part.
There does seem to be a feeling of economic well-being, especially among the younger generation in Beijing, who can easily afford the restaurant and cafe prices that I would describe as not inexpensive, in either Houhai or the 798. All of the restaurants and cafes that I’ve seen here are patronized by both Chinese and Western tourists, so everyone is paying the same prices everywhere.
We did manage to see some exciting art at the 798 today, including a wonderful video installation at the White Box Gallery, before the rain began to come down in buckets, and the temperature dropped to chilly levels. Fortunately, we did locate an available taxi, and before getting totally drenched, we were on our way back to the Fairmont. Tomorrow, we take the overnight train to Xi’an, where our Silk Road journey begins!