Outside the East Gate of the Tsinghua University campus, in the university quarter of Beijing, there’s an area locally known as ‘the centre of the universe’, because here – you can buy anything you might ever need in life. It’s a densely packed area of shops, department stores, cafes and restaurants, apartment blocks, office space, financial services, markets, and the underground station connecting to the rest of Beijing.
A visit to the ‘centre of the universe’ is a good introduction to city life in Beijing. A first visit feels almost like you have been beamed into an alternative reality. There is traffic everywhere and crossing the massively wide streets is like being flung into a quantum world where uncertainty comes from all directions and you don’t know the rules, about who should move or when, or what happens if you stop or go. Whether the other pieces in the system move or stay where they are is a big unknown; most of the time they seem to move when you do – despite the ‘green man’ inviting you to cross the road – and not just in a perpendicular direction across your path but random vehicles, scooters, bikes, come from all angles crossing in front and behind. When you get to the centre of the intersection you find there’s a man in a high visibility jacket, with a flag and a whistle, directing cars to stop and go, but he only appears to be controlling about 0.0001% of the traffic volume. You can stand and admire his tenacity, consider how much danger money you would need to do the same job, and wonder at the sheer futility of his task.
Having crossed the road we struggled past the long queues stretching out of the underground station, the evening rush slowed by the police checks resulting from the heightened security surrounding the 19th Congress of the CPC, and headed into one of the shopping malls. We spent an hour going up and down to various floors admiring the vast number of items and local fashions on display, then went out and made the trip back across the traffic flow to reach a supermarket on the other side. Just an ordinary, relatively small, supermarket but with the most extraordinary range of foods which makes even the largest UK supermarkets look dull and boring by comparison. For a start there is a whole aisle devoted to pot noodles’, staple diet of the time- and financially-poor local students – just add water and you’ve got instant meals – you can start to understand why they might feel like they live at the centre of the universe – with so many varieties to choose from. But next to that is the outlet for a bakery that dates back to the Qing dynasty, still making and selling traditional pastries in the same style as 300 years ago – which suggests they have a good business model. Behind us a range of spices, herbs, and dried plants from all over China for making medicinal drinks, including a dried black fungus that adopts a jelly like consistency when wet and is found in some of the soups and other dishes. Around the corner is the fruit and vegetable section – a wonderland of shapes and colour that look vaguely familiar but different. Carrots and tomatoes ten times the size of what you would find in England, a bitter marrow, two-foot long runner beans, the bulbous lotus root, yams, long white radishes, grapefruit the size of footballs, ‘dates’ that resemble crab-apples, and the purple and green dragon fruit. It truly is a cornucopia and you soon get the feeling that you could get any kind of food you ever wanted here. But it’s not quite true, despite hunting all over the shop, no chocolate or coffee could be found, a major disappointment!
Before coming to China, I had no idea the’ centre of the universe’ was so close. Having now been there it is difficult to imagine what else in the world could match it for sheer appreciation of the bounty of the planet, while at the same time providing practical experience of the operation of the uncertainty principle in making continued existence seem totally random. But if I had to spend much time here I think the attraction would quickly fade. The number of cars, bicycles, and people, coupled with the noise and air quality (current index 186 – rated ‘unhealthy’ for PM2.5 – with the following cautionary statement: ‘Active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion’) makes it much less attractive than the name implies, and taking the underground involves ID cards, police searches of bags, and scans. The centre of the universe – a great place to visit, but wouldn’t want to live there.