By dmitrizzleHeader image credit: Jirka Matousek
For the past three months I've been living in China. Not that long ago I had an apartment in a posh Toronto neighbourhood and a job as a web producer for a large Canadian tech company. It's all in the past now as that apartment is no longer mine and all the stuff that filled it is either sold, given away, tossed or stored at my mom's place. I don't even remember most of those things. But I do remember there's an amp and a guitar waiting for me in her basement.
I spent the first couple of months abroad getting used to the food, the city and the people. Dinners were always good (although fairly oily) and tasted nothing like what you get in Chinatown back home. The city, Dalian, was a northern metropolis with dense population, spread over endless blocks of dilapidating high-rise buildings and brand new condos ready to turn to shit in the next five years. There was a serious lack of balance between development and maintenance.
Those who travelled to China tend to have conflicting opinions about the people. Most say they're incredibly rude, others prize them for the welcoming, friendly character. I tend to think that they're a little bit of both. When it comes to rudeness, it's not out of spite. The culture does not promote hate in any way. But the population is so dense that you have to use elbows to get through the crowd. There are also side-effects to communism, as the loss of certain elegance and respect take place as compared to societies that are built around embracing the hierarchy.
Life as an expat or a long-term traveller can get monotonous. Betty started a job as an English teacher; I was building ArtSocket and preparing for my business trip to California. Gradually, dinners, parties and trips across the city faded into a routine of coding, design and sifting through artwork by day and fading into sleep at night.
There was a lot of effort and life changes made into making this trip. To do all that and end up having same old boring on the other side of the world is to waste. So we played around with things we can do and ended up booking a train to Beijing.
The ride was incredibly long, uncomfortable and dusty. Through the window, I saw ten-story concrete buildings rise endlessly, no matter how far we got away from the city.
We spent the first day and a half in Beijing walking through the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, as well as the ever so charming hutongs.
Our final day in the capital city involved about an hour's worth of transit to the outskirts. 798 Art Zone (Chinese: 798艺术区; pinyin: 798 Yìshùqū), or Dashanzi Art District was the destination.
I've been to enough Canadian art districts before and was never too impressed. No stranger to the scene as both of my parents were prominent stage designers in Russia. Before we left for Canada, art in my family equalled to work. It was a daily thing that would get monotonous unless something extraordinary showed up. Although my Western hometown does have many talented folks, it all seems kinda small and "non-central". In fact, nothing, short of New York dared to compare to ballet districts of central Moscow.
Once we arrived at our destination, we were greeted by a former military factory complex, co-operated by China, Russia and Germany that stretched for miles. The enormous warehouse buildings were left intact but the people, machinery and workplace accidents were replaced by stunning and often provocative exhibits.
During my stay in China, I had to use Internet proxy services to get access to websites, access to which I usually took for granted elsewhere. Not only Facebook and Google were blocked, but every Western website was incredibly slow. Service providers and API engines were often inaccessible. There is nothing that screams "censorship!" louder than a lock and chain on half of the world's information online.
The government silence prosecutes anyone who speaks against it, no matter how famous or influential. This is the reality; there is no point on referencing anything as an example here - just Google it and you'll see thousands of articles. Unless you're in China, of course.
Freedom of expression - curbed. Traditions eradicated. Differences ridiculed. But the people and, in some way, the government found a way to still allow and even subsidize liberal arts neighbourhood of this magnitude. Seemingly endless array of exhibition spaces filled with artwork of incredible quality and often radical by nature. Though shying away from politics, the exhibits still demonstrated remarkable freedom of thinking, creativity and expression.
China's ability to live in contradictions never failed to impress. Born a Communist state in 1949 it is one of the most wealth and commerce-centric (capitalist) societies ever achieved. The industry that produces an incredible amount of air, land and water pollution is also responsible for the highest production of wind power in the world. The people are super nice, yet also rude. And now this: expressive, vast land of art in the heart of a state known to repress freedoms of speech.
There weren't many people around. It's hard to guess why. Given the awe-inspiring experience and the contrasting impossible crowds at other attractions in China it felt weird. Perhaps it hasn't been promoted enough. Or perhaps it's the tourists' fault for limiting their expectations to the Great Wall and the likes. Maybe it's just too far from downtown?
After about eight hours of roaming, discovering and appreciating the district it was time to go home. Betty and I estimated that we saw about half of what was there. Two months later we came back and brought friends.
There were many more surprises in China. Like the vast, empty grasslands of Inner Mongolia, or the people's love for the nature that clashed with their strong desire to pollute it with loud noises from portable radios on Mount Huang Shan. Indeed, an incredible country.This article is an edited version an original post dated on May 19, 2014.