China, May 25, 2000
I wish more cities had a Sanlutin
Beijing's answer to Moscow's Arbat, Sanlitun is a small street with
cheap designer knock-offs for sale on one side, and a cool cafe strip on
the other. Conveniently located in the Embassy district, its over-run with
laowai and is the principal sunny afternoon and late night meeting place for
the moneyed party set.
Personally, I try to stay away, since too much exposure can severely dent one's wallet and Chinese perspective. The drink prices are very un-Chinese at $3-5 a pop and with all the foreigners you can sometimes, if you're drunk enough and squint right, forget you're in Beijing.
I can't stay away all together, though, and over the May Day holidays, I spent three days in a row drinking in the sunny cafes. The first day, I went drinking whiskey all afternoon with Jingmei's brother, Jingsong (Yes, the names are similar. I'll write about that in the near future.), after a lunch of Thai food and four bottles of wine. Needless to say, I was passed out in the back seat of Jingmei's car by 5pm, waking late the next morning for another afternoon of pleasantries.
This time around, I stayed away from the hard stuff, and settled for fresh watermelon juice and a few dozen new CD's from one of the countless CD sellers. Actually, unlike normal times when I would look through the piles and piles of crappy Western music (Cher, Michel Bolton, Backstreet Boys, etc) for the few gems, Jingsong just bought the whole pile from the vendor and then shooed him away. Amazing what power Shanghai stockbrokers weld in China.
That evening, we went to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant on a side street next to Sanlitun, watching with watering mouths as the chief cut delicious slices off the roasting slabs of meat. Nothing like the usual rat meat on a stick sold in the hutong allies.
Once again, I fell pray to Jingsong's unquenchable thirst for booze and indulged with him at another Latin place around the corner. Not able to go too long after the previous evening, Jingmei and I left him early for more Wayan-recovery time.
The third afternoon found us sipping cold drinks in yet another cafe after a morning of a boring Chinese wedding and tasty Japanese sushi. We sat next to a Russian couple in town on business and chatted about the joys of Sanlitun. They pointed out a fun trait about this city, the local's accent.
In Beijing, the locals speak Chinese with a thick accent, adding 'r' to the end of many words. One time last November, as Tom, the swift Chinese language student, and I were headed to a club on Sanlitun. He spent 10 minutes trying to tell the driver where we wanted to go, using perfectly pronounced Putonghua, when I busted in with my street-learnt pidgin Chinese and scored instant recognition with 'Sanlitor.'
Oh, and if you sit long enough in a cafe on Sanlitor, you'll see just about every single expat in Beijing, even if you don't wanna see a single one. Too bad, ain't it!