Today I experienced all the downsides of being a single, unprepared traveler in a large, unfamiliar city. In the morning I decided to visit the 798 Art District. It is a lesser known attraction located on the fringes of Beijing. There are many cool and edgy art galleries, cafes, and shops in renovated buildings that used to be Soviet-style military factories.
I did not know where it was located but decided to just wing it. I headed to the nearest subway stop by our hotel and asked a person working there. He told me to go to this certain subway stop. After riding the subway train for 40 minutes, I stepped out at that station. Nothing looked like an art district. On the contrary, the subway stop was located in the middle of a street surrounded by tall office buildings undergoing renovation.
I asked a lady selling beverages out of a cart. She told me to go to the bus stop down the street and take bus #401. However, as I looked at the list of stops the bus made, I didn’t see a 798 District. Then I asked several people how to reach the area and they all did not know. I went back near the subway stop and asked another street vendor. He told me to take #403. I went back to the bus stop and looked at the list of stops. In between the fourth and fifth stops, someone had scratched in “798.”
At this point I decided to just get on the bus. On the bus, I asked a passenger which stop to get off at. She told me to get off at the stop after hers. However, the area looked rather deserted under the bright morning sun. There was a dusty street surrounded by little shops and mechanics stores.
I decided to trust the passenger and got off. After asking several more pedestrians, I finally turned into this quiet street that had industrial buildings.
I saw a man with a large tourist camera walking down this way. There were a few galleries but they seemed closed. I was really confused – several tourist sites on the Internet had recommended this art district, but it seemed mostly abandoned. I saw a few sculptures in front of some buildings but nothing more. Maybe I came at the wrong time of day?
There was this really cool robot sculpture though.
I walked all the way to the end of the street and came out onto a busy road. This did not seem right. I asked a nearby security guard. He said I had just walked out of the district, but it was actually the 751 district. 751 was an artsy industrial district, but to reach 798 I had to walk even further in.
So I had just walked for an hour and passed the street I had to turn into to reach 798! Finally, after asking a few more people, I turned into the bustling cute little neighborhood of 798. Sadly I only had an hour and a half to explore since I wasted so much time being lost.
There were so many little art galleries filled with work by up-and-coming young Beijing artists. Most of the artwork was very edgy and modern. I was really fascinated by the subject matter and presentation style of most of the galleries. Sadly all of the galleries prohibited photography. I was only able to see a portion of the district so the next time I visit I definitely will come back!
Getting back also presented a problem. The subway station was pretty far away and I had no idea where the bus station was, so I had to call a cab. However, most of the cabs were already occupied. Finally I chased down a cab and paid 15 Yuan (a little more than $2) to take me to the nearest station.
In the afternoon I went to visit another Yale friend who lived in a district full of universities. It took 16 subway stops to get there! Then it started raining – and by raining, I mean pouring down buckets. Luckily I had an umbrella but even it could not shield me from the elements. The streets were full of water up to my knees.
Needless to say, after getting soaked and then riding the crowded subway for a hour (including 15 minutes in the wrong direction) with other soaked people, I was ready to call it a night.