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China, May 15, 2000

Making Room For The New China

Ooops, was that your house? Well scoots over, China has to change somewhere

My favorite little alley, now an express bike lane!
Zipping by the debris
Recycled bricks do well to fix a sewer line
Working hard mixing cement
If only they could've built the highway before I arrived!
Building the future of Beijing
Today, after driving downtown with Jingmei to her work, I set off on one of my all-day random bike rides through Beijing. Taking a different route each day, I'm exploring this city in the way I enjoy best, serendipitously.

This day, I headed towards Wangfujiang, the main shopping street of Beijing. Just past Wangfujiang, there is a little alley that I remembered enjoying when I was here in October of last year. I almost passed it the first time I rode by, for it was obscured by construction barricades. Surprised, I weaved past 'em, and onto what used to be a small, shaded alley with countless little stores along its sides.

That little alley is no more. Now, with the shops bulldozed down, and the makings of a three lane road marked out in the debris, I saw the future of China in orange cones. All the little streets and shops of Beijing are disappearing in this same cloud of progress, as the government, in a bid to restart the economy as much as modernize the country, is radically reshaping the capital to accommodate its dream of higher car ownership and the realities of 12 million+ (and growing) cyclists.

At first, I was shocked by the destruction, wondering what level of discord the people must be living through. That is until I looked closely at the remaining shop foundations. Built out of recycled bricks, on the old sidewalks in front of the ancient hutong homes, the shops were never meant to be permanent. They, like the rest of this timeless land, were accepted as temporary and therefore disposable when the time came.

I was thinking of those foundations a little later in the afternoon, as I stood on one of the city wall gates built in the 14th Century, and surrounded not by the ancient city walls, but modern apartment buildings and even a McDonalds. There is so much history in China, that the people accepted long ago, that if they were to grow and change, they needed to recycle as well as restore their past.

And recycle they do. I remember watching a crew demolish a row of houses when I spent a week in Shanghai last November. The crew would use a sledgehammer to gently knock down the walls, then with more care and patience than I'd show, they cleaned and stacked each brick. After they'd made a few stacks of cleaned bricks, a truck would come and pick up the bricks, taking them to a highway construction site a few kilometers away.

The highway was like many in Shanghai and Beijing, built to handle the growing car ownership and resulting massive traffic jams as the days of bicycles and buses pass for a growing number of affluent Chinese. Unfortunately, the roads are not being built fast enough, or with the best traffic planning in mind and chaos still rules.

The continued chaos is annoying, especially when it is close to home with a six-lane highway, a stretch of Beijing's fourth ring road, under construction near our apartment. Luckily, we are too far away to hear the noise or breath the dust, but we do have to fight the traffic each time we head into the city proper. It's a pain in the ass now, even though one day when its done, I'm sure it will be beautiful and efficient.

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