Monthly Mechanics: Bridges of China

China is home to some of the world’s oldest bridges, and also some of its newest. During my visit I crossed bridges spanning a 600-year history. I will call this Part 4.5 of my series on bridges; read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 if you’d like.

Emperors particularly embraced the arch. Just inside the Forbidden City’s Meridian Gate, the palace is approached via five marble arches over the Golden Water River. During imperial times, only the Emperor was allowed to cross the middle bridge. Today, visitors can cross whichever bridge they wish.

View from the Summer Palace’s Longevity Hill, with the Seventeen-Arch Bridge at top left.

The Summer Palace follows suit with the magnificent marble Seventeen-Arch Bridge over Kunming Lake. In fact, walking the footpath around the lake is a delight for bridge geeks. Some are arches, tall and steep or long and low. Others are highly ornamented beam bridges, topped with traditional pavilions – nice spots for fishing. There’s also a more contemporary footbridge nearby. The truss underneath looks pretty flimsy, so I think it’s actually a suspension bridge, supported by the curving cables that double as handrails.

Other modern bridges in Beijing are stylistically all over the map. I enjoyed a pedestrian overpass just south of Tian’anmen Square, decorated to resemble one of the city’s many gates. On a hike outside the city, I crossed a bamboo bridge. It isn’t clear how the bridge spans this stream – I didn’t bother peeking underneath to find hidden beams – but the decking is very regionally appropriate (and very easy to replace).

And what to make of this bridge I spotted from a bus? Is it cable-stayed? The tower resembles one from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York (or possibly a McDonald’s golden arch), but single-tower bridges are very unusual – more of an artistic statement than a useful span. I also wonder what the red Chinese characters say, written across the top. Communist slogan?

What do YOU think it is?

Tomorrow I’ll explore the abundant and inspiring modes of transportation Beijingers use to get around.

China Week: Pollution and Progress

Walk the streets of Beijing and you’ll see signs of a burgeoning middle class. Everybody carries a smartphone. (Visit any tourist site and the number of selfie sticks will astound you.) Pet dogs are common; feral dogs are rare. Attire is very western, with young adults sporting jeans, plaid shirts, and synthetic jackets. Lines outside restaurants and bars indicate a disposable income that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

What you won’t see, even on a cloudless day, is the sun. That’s how bad the pollution is.

Typical Beijing scene. #nofilter

Geography is partly to blame. Situated on the leeward side of a mountain range (once a strategic spot for defense against nomadic invaders), Beijing lacks the air currents needed to circulate pollutants away. Furthermore, emissions from heavy industry in neighboring provinces blow over the mountains into Beijing and can’t escape.

But the growing population, and the growing affluence of that population, bears most of the responsibility. Beijing’s urban extent has more than quadrupled since 2000. Cars choke the streets – traffic jams on the five ring roads can last until midnight – and construction is ubiquitous. Most electricity comes from fossil fuels, and plenty of families still lack home heating and burn coal directly to keep warm. Smog is worst in the dry winter, when no rain falls to wash it away, but even in October there were days I couldn’t see 200 meters in front of me.

Ad for a respirator mask on the subway. About 10% of Beijingers wear a facemask regularly.

I’m not pointing any fingers at the Chinese; in fact, I have a lot of sympathy for them. Fossil fuels powered America’s industrial revolution 150 years ago, and provided Americans with newfound wealth and leisure time. China’s industrial revolution is still in progress, and its citizens are reaping the benefits. It seems perfectly fair that they get to use fossil fuels too. Fighting climate change needs to start with post-industrial countries, and so far we aren’t doing so hot: as of 2013 the US still emits more than twice as much CO2 per capita as China. My round-trip flight alone released about 5.4 metric tons of CO2 (15,000 miles at 0.8 pounds per passenger mile – see here), more than the average Chinese citizen generates in eight months. So who am I to judge?

Please join me tomorrow when I write about bridges in China, ancient and modern.

Bridge, pagoda, and mountains from the Summer Palace on a rare clear day.

China Week: Oh, The Food

For starters: yes, the Chinese eat with chopsticks. They also use spoons for soup, and their hands when chopsticks would be too unwieldy. Dishes are always shared, and if a host takes you out they’ll keep ordering more dishes until you stop eating. Don’t finish anything if you want to cut down on waste (and the bill)! Beijing is the Manhattan of China, and you’ll find a dozen restaurants on every block serving food from all regions of the country.

Cantonese cuisine, from the nation’s southern coast, resembles American Chinese food most closely. Ingredients are a variety of meats and vegetables, usually stir-fried, with flavor concentrated in sauces that combine sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Fish steamed whole – bones in, heads and tails intact – are astonishingly delicious. Use rice to sop up those gloppy sauces.

Laura tries zha jiang mian (Beijing noodles with bean sauce) and Sichuan-style chicken.

Sichuan cuisine, from centrally located Sichuan Province, is renowned for being very spicy. Many Sichuan dishes seem to contain more chiles than edible food, and they’ll make your lips tingle for hours after. Whole fish is less of a thing, but you’ll find species like monkfish cut into chunks and stewed. Common vegetables include okra and mustard greens. Rice is the preferred accompaniment here too.

Traditional Beijing cuisine reflects its northern location, where fresh produce is less reliable. The local delicacy is Peking Duck, carved tableside and served with paper-thin pancakes, julienned scallions, and sweet bean sauce. (Dip your crispy skin in sugar crystals for an extra treat.) Starches made from dough, like noodles and dumplings, are more common than rice. A favorite for social gatherings is Mongol-influenced hot pot, where a bowl of broth steams center stage at your table and everybody dips in their chopsticks to catch slices of lamb and beef.

Peking duck with pancakes and fixins.
Hot pot.

And then there’s the street food. At any time of the day you can find a sidewalk stand selling fresh yogurt, dry-rub chicken wings, Beijing crepes, tiny candied apples, or a thousand other snacks. The streets are where Beijing comes alive, and I’ll write more about those streets tomorrow – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

End of a meal.