“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance, nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling. Then signboard and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet.” – Walter Benjamin
Chaoyang is Beijing’s largest (and fastest-growing) district. One of its 24 sub-districts, Wangjing, houses both the hotel I’m currently staying in and 798 Art Zone. Yesterday, I put 2 and 2 together and decided to visit my favourite of Beijing’s tourist attractions.
798 is a former complex of Communist factories, designed and built in the 1950s with the assistance of East German architects and Soviet consultants.* In the early 2000s, this rundown, ramshackle James Bond set was repurposed by contemporary artists into what has become a community of galleries, shops and overpriced eateries.
Some have argued that the Art Zone has become too commercial of late. It is true that you can barely move for film students, fashion photographers and people offering to sketch a caricature, and I even noticed that it now has a 7-Eleven. But it’s also true that we shouldn’t be hipster jackasses, and should accept that the place still has character.
Although the best adjective to describe pretty much any district/sub-district/area/block of the Jing is ‘big’, 798 is within walking distance of the hotel. When I set out on foot at 7am, however, I had allowed myself the luxury of forgetting one thing that everyone knows full well: my sense of direction is terrible.
I like to walk. Walking has always been my chosen mode of transportation and exploration, whether it be over the fields of Northamptonshire, through downtown Vancouver or across the mean streets of Manhattan.
A book that has had a particular effect on me, one that I’ve read and reread several times over, is Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice, detailing his mad pilgrimage from Munich to Paris to visit his ailing friend at her hospital bedside. I have since discovered other great tales of perambulation such as Will Self’s airport walks, Iain Sinclair’s nocturnal wanderings around London,** and John Clare’s trek from Epping Forest to the village of Helpston after fleeing the mental asylum in which he was incarcerated (and where, coincidentally, I worked for some time about a century and a half later).
There is even a subgenre of writing and filmmaking that explores themes of ‘place’ and ‘walking’: psychogeography. At its simplest, psychogeography is just an unnecessarily stuffy label to describe going for an unplanned walk in an urban environment. The one thing that most psychogeographers seem to have in common (other than being eccentric, having at least one decent pair of shoes, and almost always being a little pretentious) is that they are barking mad. Let’s not forget that Werner Herzog is the fella who insisted on continuing an interview after being shot because he didn’t feel it was “a significant wound”.
I wish to state, for the record, that my own epic, shambolic ramble to, around and away from*** 798 was almost entirely accidental, and the only reason I recorded it in depth was because I was making notes for my journal. I am clinically sane. Next time I go to 798, it’ll be by bus. And I will not be going for another walk for a very, very long time.
If you’re interested in the details of my walk, you can read my ‘field notes’ below:
I set off down the main road outside the hotel. There were a lot of men walking dogs but nobody wiping anybody’s arse this time. One yappy poodle started barking at the token foreigner. I followed the road as it snaked around a bend and, following nothing but my own unreliable internal cartography, crossed at a stubborn set of traffic lights onto ‘Hugang Zhongjie’. Walking past Wanghe park, which doesn’t actually seem to have an entrance anywhere in its perimeter fence, I found myself amid the graffiti underneath what is apparently part of the Jingcheng Expressway.
Pulled off course against my will, I was stuck following a narrow channel between the expressway on the left and a fiercely-protected palatial golf course on the right. I eventually joined ‘Dingcheng road’, far from where I intended to be and far from impressed. Over a bridge with a flowing river underneath, both of us forced along a pre-ordained route. A park on one side of the strees, razor wire on this side. The city really pushes back against the walker here! I found some kind of twisted shortcut through the rubble behind the facade of ‘Northern American’ villas, out the side of yet another battered park. Only when I reached the end of that particular road did I discover:
1. That I’d just walked some of the Wangjing Loop, a ‘green space’ connecting several parks and pedestrian areas.
2. That I was still nowhere bloody near 798.
I found a coffee shop to warm up in. Although my Chinese is in fact passable enough to ask “Where the fuck is 798?”, unless the answer is “straight on”, “turn left” or “turn right” then I’m clueless. Sipping my coffee, checking the compass on my phone, and heading in the new direction I had intuited, I passed the Trek Bicycles shop, where I used to catch the bus to 798. If I had remembered (or had bothered to write down) the bus number, then I’d have happily climbed aboard. At the very least I was encouraged by the memory that it was almost certainly just a very long straight line from this point onwards.
Past men fishing in the river. Past the three rainbows statue. Past Futong station, around the corner from the hotel. Oh. Oh, Jesus Christ. I was that lost was I?
Past Wangjing South station, where I had the vague idea that I knew where I was going. Past rundown apartments with white shirts dangling on the line, where I had the less vague idea that I hadn’t a fucking clue where I was going. I stopped taking notes. I kept walking. At about 10.35, with the nagging sense that it was all slightly familiar again, I reached one of the Art Zone gates. I didn’t stay long. I only wanted to buy a bloody notebook!
On the way back to the subway station, I got lost.
*(how red is that?!?)
**(any writer who can make Hackney Wick seem like Alice in Wonderland must be applauded)
***(not necessarily in that order)