“This is where you cross the road to Liyuan station. If you’re really lucky you might even make it to the the other side.”
I recently acquired a roommate, a young Russian guy who is still in the wide-eyed, jet-lagged and slightly bewildered stage of his Beijing journey. So far, his most used phrases are an English one that can be reduced to the acronym ‘wtf’ and a Russian one that loosely translates as “fucking internet!” His sudden appearance has led me, and other colleagues, to dust off some of the hidden gems of Tongzhou and show them to him. It hasn’t taken us long.
Dagao is an art district here in Tongzhou, pretty much round the corner from where we work. Beijing is pretty hip when it comes to art. When I lived in Beiyuan I used to make frequent trips to 798 Art Zone, which is built on the empty shell of a former communist munitions complex. I loved 798 as soon as I set eyes on it because the artists have taken something ugly and pointless (a factory of death) and turned it into something quite beautiful (art).* Dagao is a mini-798, where you can look at subversive military art and dinosaur graffiti while sipping a coffee or a glass of reasonably-priced European wine.
What other delights does Tonghzhou hold? Well, before you pack your bags and book a flight, let me warn you that Dagao is about it. Unless you want more booze. Or coffee. There are plenty of Starbucks outlets here as well as Maan coffee, where they give you a sad-looking teddy bear instead of a table number while you wait for your piping hot Americano. There are also a couple of clubs, the best of which seems to be ‘WJ’. I have gone from stumbling around with one colleague desperately looking for a glass of Chivas Regal to stumbling around with another outside of the WJ club, where they give us a free bottle just for turning up and being white. Almost certainly the fake stuff, but it works just as well.
One night while exploring with a friend, I came across a massage parlour in the nondescript basement of a nondescript building. It was more respectable than you might imagine, they wore little sergeant pepper outfits but made it clear at the outset that no ‘extras’ were involved! I can’t tell you how nice it was to have a relaxing massage at half-midnight on a work night (right up until they put flaming hot cups on my back and twisted them until the flesh bruised. I could have done without that bit to be honest).
There’s a dingy all-night Internet cafe, thick with cigarette smoke and full of sweaty nerds hovering over the mouse, numbly playing violent war games. I only saw it from the outside but, creepily, it looked to me like everyone was playing exactly the same thing.
Tongzhou is, you may have gathered, not the most exciting part of Beijing. It somehow manages to tread that fine line between being heaving with people and being dull as balls (kind of like China’s answer to Kettering). It can be, as my Russian colleague has found, both overwhelming and yet somehow infinitely underwhelming at the same time. It is the strangest place I’ve ever lived (including the counterculture commune that I used to stay at), and yet for the past few months I have found myself referring to it as ‘home’…
*There’s also an art district in Shaungjing, which is frequented by wankers who think 798 has become “too commercial”. I went there during Spring Festival but it looked exactly the bloody same as 798 to me!