Fear & Loathing in Russiatown

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“My only feeling about this place is that it’s [a] shithole.”


Ritan Park is decorated with murals of solar mythology and decals of three-legged phoenixes. ‘Ritan’ translates to English as ‘temple of the sun’. Turns out that ‘sun worship’ once meant more than lazing about in the garden wearing a pair of budgie smugglers. Who knew?

When it comes to irrational fears I’ll admit that I have a wee handful: organized social events, confined spaces, things that live underwater, pretty much everything invented by man or woman since 1993. But I’ve tried never to use being afraid of something as an excuse not to try it. For example, potholing, sleeping on tour bus bunks and riding the Batong Line at rush hour have all contributed to desensitizing me toward claustrophobia. And I still attend parties even though I would absolutely and with every fiber of my being rather take a one way trip across the event horizon of a black hole.

The gf is really only afraid of two things: foreigners, and the feeling of embarrassment that comes with not quite understanding what foreigners are saying. She has, of course, been taking the occasional leaf out of my potholing manual by confronting some of her predjudices.

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And so, after a visit to the solar temple of Ritan Park, we crossed the road to Ya Bao Lu, Beijing’s ‘Russiatown’ (and its front running candidate for Weirdest Street). My only personal experience of Russia was a five hour stopover at Moscow airport with nary a ruble for a cup of coffee, so for all I know Ya Bao Lu is as Russian as Omar Shariff. There are Russian speakers (and pidgin Russian speakers) there, many of them hidden away in underground garment markets.There’s also more Cyrillic signage than you can shake a Yevgeny Zamyatin paperback at. There are even places that look suspiciously like Fat Tony’s legitimate businessmen’s club, including establishments that can apparently figure out the logistics behind shipping even more Russian-style crap from the motherland into the heart of China’s capital, presumably on your dime.

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Walking around one particularly monstrous shopping mall (four entire floors of which were devoted to shoes lurking behind curtains), we both tired of broadening our horizons. Having had our fill of fur coats and Doctor Zhivago hats and, realizing that I had scraped the very barrel of ironically xenophobic clichés, we left Ancient Treasure Road and headed over to Wangfujing for beer and glass noodles.

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