The importance of being totally lost is grossly undervalued
by the more mainstream, directionally-oriented segments of society.
In fact, a recent survey of Beijing's foreign residents discovered that
28.7 percent not only had zero idea what they were doing here, but didn't
anticipate figuring it out any time soon. The same 28.7 percent also
reported an unrealistically high sense of self-esteem, hormonal anomalies,
and an impressive rate of situational alcoholism. The remaining 76.4
percent tended to be overly concerned with basic mathematics, fearful
of undomesticated sheep, and addicted to knowing what would happen next
in their lives.
So, for the sake of trying to get you really lost in
a part of the city you've never been to before, I'd like to recommend
visiting a cozy little cafe called Sculpting in Time-with the single
caveat that I'm not entirely convinced I remember how to get there.
By the way, if you get lost on the way to Sculpting in Time and you're
an attractive woman looking to meet a handsome, currently-engaged-but-ready-to-break-up-for-something-better
writer with a lot of personality and no money, then page me at 6833-0088
x 91327, and I'll tell you how to get there. All others please call
the number at the bottom of the page or just scream "Where the hell
am I!?" until a burning bush starts pitching you simple rules that seem
mostly obvious but might just save your civilization from the abyss
of idol-worshipping paganism.
Now pay attention: Get in a cab and tell the driver "beida
dongmen" (Beijing University East Gate). He will take you to what is
properly known as Beijing University's Southeast Gate (aka the 'small'
East Gate), which despite what I just told you, is almost exactly where
you want to go. Dismount your cab at the intersection of Chengfu and
Haidian Roads, stand on the big north-south avenue (Haidian Road) and,
just for fun, ask the locals which road it is. You will be told, with
great certainty, that you are standing on Chengfu Road, Haidian Road,
Bai Yi Road, and Zhongguancun Road-in that order. Never mind. Beijing's
city planners long ago thought it would be interesting to assign identical
names to completely different streets and change the name of any given
street at random intervals. If you're not lost yet, wait a few minutes.
On the west corner of Chengfu and (possibly) Haidian Road, you'll see
a big, ugly, top-heavy modern building, apparently designed by a person
with no soul. On most nights, at the intersection below the unsightly
behemoth, a horde of old ladies practice yangko dancing, a traditional
form of aerobics that is rumored to be outlawed until October 1, while
a crowd of bored onlookers stand around and block traffic. Proceed west
through the crowd of bored onlookers, along the small street which leads
you to the Southeast Gate of Beijing University. DO NOT enter Beijing
University-perfectly healthy Canadians have done it only to be found
later wearing oddly permanent smiles and building careers around babbling
cliches in Chinese with strange older men in bad suits. Instead, turn
right and walk 300 meters north.
You'll notice a telephone pole growing in the middle of the alleyway.
Don't ask why. Just keep going until a 40-something man appears in striped
pajamas and black slippers, encouraging his scruffy white mongrel to
do in the bushes what a surprisingly large number of Beijing restaurants
won't allow humans to do in their restrooms.
You'll next pass a small store with two dozen local residents staring
at an old black-and-white TV playing the 48th episode of the hit period
drama Huangzhu Gege. Keep going and look off to your left, over the
Beijing University wall, where a Chinese pagoda is tastefully illuminated
by moonlight. As you look back to your right, you'll visually invade
the privacy of a family of three generations sitting outside on couches
getting moon tans.
300 meters later, you're still not even close to Sculpting in Time.
But you have reached the Sanfo Camping Goods Store. Go in. Check out
their camping gear. Browse through their photo-brochure of outdoor activities.
Admire their tents, sleeping bags, hammocks, backpacks, air mattresses,
and Chinese translation of the SAS Survival Manual. Consider planning
a trip. If you've lived in Beijing for more than two months and are
still harboring the delusion that you don't need to go camping or climb
a mountain, then you may require psychoanalysis and should consider
donating your brain to science.
After you leave Sanfo's, turn right at the very next alleyway, and walk
briskly for 27 meters, as you absorb the flavor of a real Beijing neighborhood
untainted by Western materialism, free of fast-food restaurants, and
not a single lawyer in sight. No, wait. Oh, crap. Turn around. This
is the wrong alley. Sorry.
Return to the main alley, and continue north again for
100 meters, until you see a blue sign with white lettering on it. Turn
right into this unassuming, dilapidated hutong and prepare to be surprised.
You will pass two restaurants, an internet café†††(, and a beauty
parlor, after which you'll discover a modest little window with a filmmaker's
clapper board and the most inviting doorstep in Beijing.
From here, you're on your own.
I've told you how to get to Sculpting in Time with straightforward,
Beijing directions, but I'm not going to spoil the adventure by describing
in crass detail what you'll find there. Just trust me. You need to leave
the space-time continuum of downtown Beijing for an afternoon or evening.
You need to feel slightly lost for a few minutes, in an unfamiliar place,
uncertain of the immediate future, then land on an island of civility
and books and music and coffee and banana shakes. You need to see another
part of this city. You need to ask owner Zhuang Songlie why he named
his cat Chun Ming, what 'sculpting in time"'refers to, and what happened
to him on a train ride to Xinjiang.
Sculpting in Time offers snacks, coffee, magazines, Chinese
books and film screenings (Thursday & Saturday, 7:30 pm-Call to reserve