Many visitors to Beijing know of Dashilar, the bristling, bustling web of hutongs that dominate the area southwest of Tiananmen Square, I’ve just moved into a hostel here and, for me, this place reflects all the things I love about China.
It’s 9pm and the lights are on. I have walked from Tiananmen Square and I am standing at the crossroad of Meishijie (Food Street) and Dashilar (Business Street). To the left, a cheerful McDonalds welcomes tourists into the ancient Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) hutong. Every day, 150 000 or more tourists flock to this street to browse: restaurants, teahouses, silk shops, traditional Chinese pharmacies, Tibetan art galleries and Qing dynasty shoe shops are all on offer.
As the evening begins, I see a blind busker with a wonderful beard plucking on a traditional Chinese instrument (Unfortunately he stops to shake his tin bucket just as I take a picture. Music blares from every store, but he keeps at it). I see people selling all manner of pointless things, from plastic opera masks to the old ball-on-a-string, and hear the ever-present honk of electric bikes. I sit down for beer and barbecue (classic Chinese culture) and am immediately invited to sit with a couple of travellers from Hunan Province. I try to teach them how to say ‘Cheers’ but all they hear is ‘Qie Zi’ (茄子) which is Mandarin for ‘Aubergine’.
Now you can see that Dashilar has a great deal of interesting places. But it seems like the place that is attracting the most attention from Chinese tourists is neither a restaurant or a gallery – In fact, it’s just a tea shop with a fountain outside.A teapot pouring water into a cup, suspended at an angle by a pole in the middle. The so called ‘Sky Pot’ (Tian Hu).
Not that interesting, you may think, but the reactions of the people walking by was fantastic! Every single Chinese person that walks by first glances over at the teapot nonchalantly. A second later, their eyebrows draws inwards and a look of deep concentration appears. How possible? Is that teapot suspended in midair? First,each person stares hard at the bottom of the fountain. Next, they come round and stare at the side. Next, each person looks around the back. The confusion spreads comically across their face as they glance at the ceiling. Dejectedly, they stare at the spout of the teapot, and then… Revelation! Each person beams, gestures proudly to their friends and family to show they’ve solved the puzzle. The phone flashes out like lightning, and they take a photo. Then the attraction is spent and they lose interest immediately. On their way! It happened like that every. Single. Time. Psychology in action!
This is so common in China. A pretty tree, an interesting statue, a rock carved with Chinese characters, a visual puzzle to solve, and the people come. This area, Dashilar, is a Chinese theme park attraction! And on that note I raise my beer and declare a hearty ‘Qie Zi’!