Driffield’s Bookcase (an Epilogue to The Anatomy of Melancholy)

“Never confuse where you are with where you are going.”

-Emir Manheim


In the past, when I’ve felt blue/down/angry, people’s always-helpful-and-never-knowingly-unappreciated advice has often extended to phrases like “try not to think about it” or “hmm, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here”, or even “I’d keep those sort of opinions to yourself if I were you!”

More often than not, the people who actually cheer me up are people I’ve never met, sometimes people who’ve been dead for years: poets, writers, philosophers, artists.

My recent quest to detox from most of the human race through other people’s multimedia art proved fruitful. The world may still be the planetary equivalent of a reasonably amusing hobo who approaches you and mumbles some crazy shit that makes you chuckle, only to pull out a rusty hunting knife and go straight for the gonads, but maybe it’s always been that way.

A long time ago, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates found himself standing in the sunny garden of his friend Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’. Something like the following scene unfolded:

FADE IN.

EXT. THRACIAN SUBURBS, 3RD CENTURY BCE – DAY

Hippocrates (tall, bearded, father-of-modern-medicine type) stands in a sunny Greek garden. His face suddenly turns sour as he sniffs the air suspiciously.

HIPPOCRATES (with distaste)
Hmm. Smells like entrails around here!

Following the intestinal scent, Hippocrates finds his friend sitting beneath a huge tree. Democritus (fat, pre-Socratic, father-of-atomic theory looking), has an open book in his nude lap and a big dopey Joker grin on his face. Strewn about him on the ground are the corpses of at least a dozen household animals.

HIPPOCRATES
Wtf, Democritus! Why do you sit naked under a shady bower, surrounded by the carcasses of many and several beasts? Do you hold these creatures in contempt or something, fam?

DEMOCRITUS
Nah, bro. I is doing science, innit. This book upon my knee is my own work. I am writing on madness and anatomy and that. I have anatomized these animals, all of which are dear to me, in order that my writings and researches may lead other men to avoid sitting upon the throne of atra bilis, known in English as melancholy.

HIPPOCRATES
I know what atra bilis is mate, for I am Greek also. But what is to be done about the smell, broheim?

FADE TO WHITE.

Flash forward a couple of epochs. Two score centuries, give or take.

1631. An English scholar by the name of Robert Burton, writing under the questionable (and possibly not-so-serious) pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’ incorporates his own version of Hippocrates’s anecdote into what would become his only published work, a dense medical text on melancholy. Burton was an obsessive re-writer of his own work, and no less than five revisions of the book were published in his lifetime alone.

The text is described in the beginning (by a possibly unreliable source) as “A book once the favourite of the learned and the witty”, “the delight of the learned, the solace of the indolent, and the refuge of the uninformed”, which sounds like something quite a lot of people here in the 21st century should be reading.

Samuel Johnson supposedly once said that Burton’s work “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”*

By all accounts, Burton was quite the pleasant chap. A voracious reader. A devoted student of the world with a dark sense of humour. “Very merry, facete, and juvenile”, “the pleasantest, the most learned, and the most full of sterling sense.”

Anyone who has the word ‘learned’ attached to him that many times must be worth a read, surely?

FADE TO WHITE.

Let’s crash through another few centuries:

EXT. WEST PENDER STREET, VANCOUVER, CANADA – DAY

Benjamin (scrucify, clumsy, introverted but undeniably sexually attractive kind of guy) walks through the rain clutching an umbrella. He is at a point exactly equidistant from a secondhand bookshop and a little café run by a woman from Shanghai who makes excellent eggs Benedict.

BENJAMIN (inner monologue)
I swear, after going book shopping in Vancouver, that I will never complain about the price of paperbacks in Beijing ever again! Perhaps I’ll go to the library and see if they have anything by Alan Moore or Iain Sinclair.

CUT TO:

I walk in to pick up a hold in the Vancouver Public Library.** The book is London: City of Disappearances, a sprawling multi-author fusion of fact and fiction about England’s swinging capital.

One of the book’s ‘characters’ is the enigmatic bookseller Driffield, who spends his time sipping jet black coffees, loafing about in salmon pink jumpers and gathering research for his self-published guides to All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain; he tries to make money by renting himself out to writers as a character in their fictional stories. On one of Driff’s many bookcases sits a 17th Century medical textbook, which is where I first become aware of Robert Burton’s 2000 page tome The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is; With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. I clearly file it away somewhere in my brain in case the world becomes so depressing that I’ll want to steal any part of the catchy title for a blog project.

Ironically, for a book that he wrote mostly to relieve his own melancholy, the textbook apparently increased Burton’s malady to such a degree that he never recovered.

A similar fate may well have befallen the by-now-at-least-semi-fictional Driffield. Nobody is even sure of his current whereabouts, although rumours of his death may have been started by the mysterious book dealer himself.

FADE TO WHITE.

Onwards, further into the future:

INT. ANLILU SUBWAY STATION, BEIJING, CHINA – DAY

I hop onto Line 15 one chilly December evening, chatting to an interesting fella who was with the circus for ten years, and is now – after a decade of juggling and death defying stunts – ready to run away to Medical School. He’s now clowning around as a drama teacher, waiting for his scholarship to come through, studying Chinese medicine in his spare time. This guy is already a veritable fount of knowledge after pretty much teaching himself anatomy and physiology. I’m telling him about the time I myself wanted to run away from the circus of my life and join BBC medical dramas. As he talks about nerve endings and skin cells, and I talk about that red-headed surgeon from Holby City, something in the back of my mind reminds me that I still haven’t read any Robert Burton.

CUT TO:

Several months later. After visiting a couple of art galleries, having distilled the story of my day into a 3000 word mess on art and Batman, I forget to put a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into my rucksack. Dashing towards the subway as usual, I can’t bear the thought of a commute without a piece of literature, so I open my iBooks app and load up the Project Gutenberg version of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

By the time I have reached my destination, I’ve read nearly 50 pages. A few days later, as I write this, I have read nearly 200.

I’m only on chapter 2.

FADE OUT.


*Although he also stated that it was “perhaps, overloaded with quotation”, which I can now confirm is very much the fucking case! And so much Latin. Remember that anecdote about Walt Disney rejecting Aldous Huxley’s screenplay for Alice in Wonderland because he only understood every fourth word? Here uncle Walt would be clueless.

**In Canadian libraries, a book reservation is called a ‘hold’, presumably because the word ‘reservation’ was already in use for the awful stuff that the early settlers were doing to native Americans.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Three): “The Joker’s Warpaint”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” – Robert Burton


This is the third and final part of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries.

For part one click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-one-the-bittersweet-notebooks/

For part two click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-two-three-hundred-and-sixty/

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“Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut


In the first of Tim Burton’s now-dated versions of the caped crusader myth, which I recently re-watched for the first time since childhood, the psychotic Joker is portrayed as an ambitious but petty thug with an aptitude for chemistry and art. After falling into a vat of chemicals and emerging looking like Sylvester Stallone’s mum, Joker terrorizes the people of Gotham with some poorly-lit MTV infomercials for tainted fashion products that turn people into ‘works of art’.

Like most people, I much prefer Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning ‘agent of chaos’ version of Joker, the mad dog chasing cars who “doesn’t even know what he’d do if he caught one”, an anarchist torturer with unevenly applied greasepaint slapped on his unwashed, pallid, mentally-ill face.

Some Marxist writers and thinkers (Zizek springs instantly to mind) have stated that they actually identify more with villains like the Joker and Bane than with the Dark Knight himself, feeling that where Batman represents the capitalist status quo the villains usually offer a socialist or anarchist worldview, albeit one brought about by the ‘regime change’ of terrorist action.

However, what the sort of IRL, mentally divergent cunts who put on fright wigs and shoot people because they’re ‘inspired’ by movies like Batman or Old Boy or Taxi Driver, seem to forget is that these characters are fictional. They only exist to drive a narrative forward and to butt heads with other characters.*

They are also bell ends.

Even so, a terrorist villain as frustrated artist was an interesting angle for Tim Burton and his screenwriting team to choose. It wouldn’t be the first time some absolute helmet took their artistic ambitions and pissed them away into more Machiavellian pursuits: In the mid-20th century there was an Austrian fella who, after being absolutely ridiculed in the art world, turned to politics. He finally took Europe by storm in 1939 with a little piece of his called World War Two. Here in the 2010s, even Dubya turned out to be a frustrated painter all along.

What is an artist anyway? It’s just someone who can see something that others can’t, and then articulates that vision through a chosen medium in a way that is, hopefully, understandable to at least a handful of people.

My day spent searching for multimedia gems in China’s capital led me from the virtual reality floor of the 798 Art Factory to the very real third floor of a building in Blue Harbour shopping precinct.

The Yang Art Museum is known locally by the slightly odd but decidedly delicious acronym YAM.** I knew, when I found a xeroxed copy of Guy Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (in French, alas), that I had come to the right place.

I was here to see the exhibition ‘Rebel Cities’, an effort by multiple artists, many of whom were engaging in “research and activism at specific – often socially and geographically marginalized – places in Beijing.”

No photography was allowed in the gallery, and I don’t really like photographing art that much anyway. The map is, of course, not the territory: Seeing a photo of the Sistine Chapel is not the same as standing under its ceiling, any more than watching a virtual herd of elephants is the same as shitting your pants in a Jumanji-level stampede. I did scribble some notes (most likely indecipherable to anyone else) a habit that I actually picked up from the coffee shop companion and gallery-owner-to-be mentioned in the previous entry: “Your writing about it can be the photograph.”

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Mostly I just wandered around looking. After a morning of interactive virtual reality it was nice to passively watch the work of painters, filmmakers and typographers from the city; to soak up some of the hard work of creative Beijingers who are as inspired by their own urban space as I am.

A crumbling semi-shithole of a space it may be. A space that I spent my morning escaping from as tenaciously as the beaten down protagonist from Brazil. A space that the clown prince of crime would have no hesitation in razing to the ground while laughing hysterically. but a space that, for now at least, I call home.


*Conflict, as anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature knows, is drama.

**They even have an enticing loyalty card called the Super Yam.

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Two): “Three Hundred and Sixty”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

– Robert Burton


This is part two of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries. For the previous post, click here:

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-one-the-bittersweet-notebooks

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The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow” – Kurt Vonnegut


The Raindance Film Festival is, like basketball and Doctor Who, one of many cool things to have been created by a Canadian. Raindance (something you can now be arrested for in Ireland, probably) was the brainchild of Elliot Grove, Ontario’s most remarkably tech savvy Anabaptist.

During my first trip to the Jing, one of my colleagues had studied Fine Arts in the U.K. Just like every millennial who chose this course of action, she was unemployable in her home country and was traveling on a shoestring, slowly stoking her dream of becoming a gallery curator.

This young lady was interested in my coffee shop meditations, and she suggested documenting each coffee I drank with a photograph or a notebook entry, describing the coffee and the universe that I saw inside of it. While this is not necessarily a bad idea for an art project, the fact is I couldn’t be bothered. I’m almost always drinking coffee because I’m knackered and lazy, and rarely if ever because I want to create art-wank.

I was thinking about none of these things when I walked into a shabby old factory in 798 Art Zone for the Raindance China VR Film Festival.

I grew up in the nineties, the cyberpunk age of The Lawnmower Man, The Thirteenth Floor, ExistenZ* and of course The Matrix. Virtual Reality is, for me at least, a childhood dream come true.

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Living in China is like living in Futurama: Just as you’re marveling at the Star Trek-level technology, the futuristic door malfunctions and smacks you in the back of the head. It was no surprise, therefore, that the first opening credit to the Introduction to Virtual Reality film was ‘No Internet Connection’.

But then it began, I was sucked into a 360 degree world of awesome, albeit one where I did not speak the language and was therefore unable to translate the phrase “It’s a little fuzzy, mate!” Even this was soon forgotten when I was floating in a junk boat, sitting in a Mongolian yurt and doing other seemingly exotic things that, ironically, I could have been doing in real life if I’d left the factory and gone to the fucking train station instead.

But then: Bam! A herd of elephants. A spinning planet whooshing overhead. A freaking dinosaur sniffing at my crotch. I was genuinely thrilled. This is, as I suspected, much of what I love about films, games, art, storytelling and real life rolled into one slightly odd-looking thing that fits on your face. This was a cavernous universe that filled a couple of square meters. I was only slightly disturbed by the threat of conjunctivitis and the thought that “if my brain thinks I’ve seen elephants in the wild, will that make seeing real elephants in the wild less impressive?”

To say that I watched five short films for ¥80 (roughly a tenner in old money) is not entirely accurate. Suffice it to say that I experienced five pieces of interactive art, using sound cues to look in vaguely the right direction, standing in just the right place to avoid the blue bars that indicated the end of my new little world. Halfway through one story, narrated by nineties somebody Ethan Hawke, I glanced at my feet and realized I’d been a bunny rabbit the whole time. This is weird, wonderful, Alice in Wonderland stuff. The most unbelievable thing about it was that I couldn’t convince the gf, someone who keeps the cellular data people in business 22 hours a day, to come along with me.

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I used to laugh at the slogan of a coffee shop around the corner of the very gallery I was standing in: a slogan that stated “the future is NOW!”** But, on behalf of my nerdy ten-year-old self, who wondered how far-fetched the ‘holodeck’ actually was, I think that those Latte-making bastards might be onto something.

I have to admit, I’m slightly unsettled by the idea of some creature in the post-human future strapping on their equivalent of a headset and saying “Ah, so that’s what an elephant was” or “Ah, so that’s what the 1930s was like” or “Ah, so that’s what Post-Trump Nuclear Neo-Primitivism is!”

But, speaking as someone who spent his morning gleefully prancing around The Art Warehouse chasing creatures from Persian mythology, “the future is now”…


*Made at a time when video games as art and game designers as celebrities were still the stuff of science fiction!

**(and not, slightly more accurately, “really, really soon”)

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part One): “The Bittersweet Notebooks”

“I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

– Robert Burton


I recently found myself writing what became another long essay about various things that have been pissing me off. Instead of boring my handful of loyal readers with a 3000 word tirade about things that depress me, I’ve decided on this occasion to post it in installments as a loosely connected trilogy about life and art, which I will continue over the next few days.

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“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

– Kurt Vonnegut


Would it surprise you to know that I’m worried about the current state of our world?*

Stephen Fry was recently investigated by Irish police for alleged ‘blasphemy’. How, in the 21st century, is that a legitimate crime? It’s like being investigated for phrenology  or performing weather magic or calling someone’s invisible friend a cunt.

Have you Baidu’d “wtf is happening in Chechnya” recently?

Someone here in China bashed a woman’s head in because he wanted a space on a sleeper carriage instead of just a seat on the train.

You can’t even board an international flight that you’ve paid for without the threat of some militarized American knobhead beating the shit out of you.

Retarded people are running major corporations and powerful governments, but that’s not exactly new. I recently read an article about a group of symbologists having once been hired by the Americans to come up with a pictographic warning system for future generations so that when the human race has all but wiped itself out and the seven-toed survivors have adopted the latest hip lifestyle choice of anarcho-cannibalism, there will be something to stop our primitive grandchildren from stumbling into one of the many toxic waste dumps that previous generations have already left behind. Some of the poker-faced suggestions were: a brotherhood of secret priests, a race of genetically engineered plants that would flower as an early warning system, and selectively bred cats that would change colour when they approached radioactive material. Apparently it took über-genius Carl Sagan to point out they could just paint a big skull and crossbones.

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When the fuck did bigotry, violence and idiocy become our default setting? How much longer are we going to keep impotently doing tax returns and going to church and watching TV and drinking beer instead of actually doing something? I’m as guilty of it as the rest of us.**

What good can possibly come of all this? The only good I can see (and I speak only for myself as always) is “perspective”. It puts my own life and problems into perspective. One thing that people-who-like-paraphrasing-stuff-they-heard-someone-else-say like to say is that when you consider the size of the universe it makes all of our human problems seem insignificant. Bullshit. Surely your problems have significance precisely because they are significant to you. To say that the universe*** almost certainly doesn’t give a shit that you exist and is probably, in fact, downright hostile towards you is most likely accurate. But you yourself are a piece of the universe that is actively struggling to understand itself. I’d say that makes your problems pretty damned significant indeed.

What’s the best course of action for someone who’s down in the dumps about chronic human fucktardedness? For someone who’s suddenly disturbed by all the old films I’ve re-watched recently: Being John Malkovitch because it’s essentially about operating a member of the successful Hollywood bourgeoisie as a balding meat puppet for financial gain. Twelve Monkeys because the best ideas in it are actually spouted by Brad Pitt’s Oscar nominated mental patient. Batman Returns because it’s well nineties and he shouldn’t have bothered.

Is the best course of action to put on a pair of kung fu slippers and go for a walk with my hands in my pockets? To go clothes shopping? To do some exercise? To try to remember that knowledge will probably prevail, even when we’re all living like Rick Grimes? That life, as the poet Jeff Goldblum once told us, finds a way? Is it to try to channel all of the annoyance, frustration, and ennui into yet another screenwriting project that nobody is likely to make?

I tried all those things. I did some push-ups. I dug out some old notebooks. I dipped into my Naruto pencil case and did some writing. I bought a new pair of sports socks. Then I took my hands out of my pockets and decided to investigate a couple of Beijing’s multimedia art galleries…


*or have you been paying attention?

**except for church. Fuck church, natch!

***(and any deity who may have created it that we may get in trouble with the Irish authorities for berating)

Welcome to the Suck

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“You can blame it on the weather;
Now your life has turned so grey.” – The Joykill Collective


Early Thursday morning a cloud of dust and ash, apparently from a raging Mongolian forest fire, swept across the city. I woke up to the greyest sky I have ever seen in my life and a balcony floor that looks like Joe Eszterhas’s lungs.

A colleague said that they fell asleep beneath a starry sky around 3am and woke up three hours later under a very literal dense black cloud. It was bad, even by Beijing standards. In fact, it was the worst I’ve seen. Some estimates put the AQI at 500, some as high as 900. If schools and businesses had had more warning, they would almost certainly have closed. I spent the day dressed like Lawrence of Arabia and speaking like Tom Hardy in the Dark Knight films:

Me: Is there an air purifier in here?
Chinese Colleague: Yes. I have turned it on, and I closed the windows.
Me: Excellent. Let us drag the elite from their decadent nests and return the city to its people.
Chinese Colleague: What?
Me: Nothing.

I spent the evening in front of the telly, trying to cheer myself up with beer, barbecue and Being John Malkovitch.

Yesterday was a completely different story: The sky was blue, I was talking like July Andrews* and it was so windy that just moving in the streets was a chore. Online videos show bin lids whizzing around like windmills. Some rental bikes were dragged from their moorings. One poor bastard was struck and killed by a falling billboard in Wudaokou.

“Real,” as Dan Ackroyd would say, “wrath of God type shit”. And just another element of Beijing that I’m unlikely ever to understand.


*(post surgery, but it’s better than nothing)

The Jing in the Spring

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“Anyone for tennis?”


Spring is here. Beijing has a four season climate, but the winter and summer are long and the other two seasons are short. The perfect time for sports jackets and t-shirts is a small window of opportunity.

In China, there’s often an old-fashioned view of English gentlemen spending the springtime at picnics, loafing about in straw boaters and plus fours while lazily batting around a tennis ball and munching cucumber sandwiches. I can’t speak for all English people*, but for me it’s pretty much a half truth. I don’t own any knickerbockers, and badminton is far more popular here than tennis. But when it comes to picnics with the gf and friends, especially in idyllic Chaoyang Park, I’m there quicker than you can say “ants and random dust storms”.

Cháoyáng Gōngyuán is a beautiful and vast green space, the largest park in the city. By a fine stroke of serendipity, the 2017 Beijing Book Fair was out in force the very day we chose for our luncheon, meaning the opportunity to browse at least a handful of used English language paperbacks (a veritable treasure trove by Beijing standards). I nearly bought a copy of the restored text version of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine but I hastily dropped this idea (and the book itself) when I noticed it was a little too used, with a suspicious yellow crust across the back cover. This raised questions that I don’t even want to ask, let alone answer.

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Aprés park, we popped into Zoo Coffee and wandered around Blue Harbour, a riverside shopping area and bar street at the far end of the park. Blue Harbour is reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s cosmopolitan Village, but instead of polite, colorful, numbered denizens it’s just the same cynical hipsters you get everywhere in the Jing. We took selfies at the Italianate fountain, dismissed a ‘British’ pub as both inauthentic and far too expensive, spent at least half an hour in another beautiful bookshop and then, as always, had Chinese food for dinner.

As I finish writing this entry, a handful of days later, the weather has already turned sweltering and the sports jacket has gone into the cupboard.


*or ‘ex’-English people

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.