The apartments are stacked how a three-year-old sticks Lego worlds together, all blocked and boxed side by side, with uniform height and outlandish colour clashes, but ultimately leaving little in the way of practical landmark visibility. Alleyways are navigated strictly with right-angled turns – North, South, East, and West are how you get out of the labyrinth. My flat is pretty easy though, enter from the East side, turn South, turn West, and go straight until the 12th building. Enter door number six, walk up four flights of concrete stairs, and done.
Decaying confetti decorates the sidewalks; tossed sunflower shells, shriveled orange peels, shiny plastic pieces of red and blue that will keep their colours long after the rest have shriveled to a burnt brown and smudged into the charcoal asphalt and sidewalk cracks. Forget China’s Communist Party, it’s the newly fashioned consumerism party who litter the streets with trash and unwanted-ness. Leftover smells of grease and waste ebb and flow in the artifical breeze that blows every time a bicycle or car rolls by, barely an inch away from wayward footsteps strolling everywhere but where they should be.
The flanks of the apartment block are antipodal societies. To the East is Galaxy SOHO, a shiny architectural sight of non-conforming buildings showing off their curves and sky-bridges and fancy American branded convenience stores. To the West, compacted collapsing stores filled with pharmaceuticals, sweatshop clothing, and MSG laden rice bowls bunch up and blend into a mash typical of Beijing town.
Morning sun, on days where the blanket of smog has been drawn away, aligns perfectly with the street I walk to get to the subway for work. Warm pink and orange hues reflecting on beige buildings paint the drab high-rises temporarily. The apartments are guarded by three gentlemen (there are probably more, but I have only seen these three), who man the single entry/exit point every hour of every day. One is a seasoned elderly with a gruff exhale for communication; the other two are very young, drowning in oversized jackets with overly pointy shoulders their muscle mass don’t fill. They don’t talk all that much, though I don’t really have much to say to them. We exchange swift dips of the head to acknowledge existence, and leave it to our imaginations to fill in the rest.
Other residents come in and out of my vision at all hours, but I pay more attention to their four-legged friends in tow. Unleashed and often dressed up in gaudy decoration, they sniff and scamper up and down the paths constantly double-checking to see if their human is obediently following. At night however the paths become a war-zone as one tries to avoid little squishy leftovers untrained owners have rudely left behind.
I plan to buy a bicycle soon to widen my wandering boundaries, but for now this is a small extract of Chaoyangmen, the area I call home.