Republic of Dongcheng: Water

Dongcheng, the Eastern City, is a district in the center of Beijing. Its 40 square kilometers are home to nearly 1 million inhabitants and some of the main historical landmarks of the city. Spectator contributor Filip Noubel, who spent 10 years there, recounts a recent return to what he remembers as the home of “the alternative culture that hides in underground communities, undetectable dens and undeterred minds.”

Equipped with two wheels, my body navigates the streets in full confidence, effortlessly negotiating the curves and the bumps. One knee up, the other down, my old bike moving forward as the wheels rub the skin of the road. A machine so perfect, so well oiled, all sense of responsibility disappears, delegated to my instinctively synchronized movements.

Bicycle, Dongcheng

Photo by Filip Noubel

My mind is at rest, free to indulge its greatest weakness: projecting old memories onto acutely familiar landscapes. There is no telling in advance what emotions this game will trigger: exuberance at the recognition of a house, the shop window of a restaurant, the silhouette of a kiosk. Memories—of an encounter, of a long-planned dinner, of a nourishing conversation—flash back, drawing a smile of gratitude on my face.

But then: the vanished store, the gray wall where there was once a cafe, the bulldozed alley. All the unforeseen, unannounced changes proclaim my prolonged absence, shattering my reverie. Images clash with my carefully archived memories. Every turn of the bike’s wheels reminds me that the city has moved on, uninterested in preservation, unburdened by loyalty to the past.

Before I even realize it, my bike has taken me to the shores of Houhai. Here, memories explode, uncontrolled, covering the lake with a thick layer of ice, recreating a cherished midwinter scene. I join the crowd of unabashed adults, who, every year in February, relinquish any pretense of propriety to glide over the polished surface. Here, everyone is a giddy child sledding, sweating in layers of winter clothes, puffing, laughing out loud and drinking boiled tea. I have entered this scene across several winters. I have also seen it in old black-and-white photos from the ’50s – or even earlier. Indistinguishable humans, silhouetted against the lake’s white surface, skating in circles, abolishing the linearity of time.

It’s November now, though. The lake’s waters dance. The bars that crowd the shores have already set their terraces alight, though most seats stand empty. The bike turns right, following the handrail—a long, sinuous line of white marble—that surrounds the entire lake.

Sensing an urge, I stop pedaling. I have to take a picture. Now. But where has this impulse to archive a fleeting moment come from?

Is it the relentless obligation of the 21st century traveler to share any instance of beauty?  To snap the scene, edit it rapidly, then send it at light-speed to friends scattered around the globe, some in the gloom of the subway, some eating, others sleeping or—at that very instant—staring at their phones.

No, I suspect what I am taking is not a picture, but a visual note—a snapshot of inspiration, of emotion. Later, much later, the many languages inhabiting my mind will struggle to recreate this scene. But I will have this sketch, from which the words will eventually emerge, and towards which they will return once committed to paper.

Lakeside, Dongcheng

Photo by Filip Noubel

Crossing a small bridge, slicing the dense Saturday afternoon crowd, the bike descends on the other side, gaining speed. Suddenly, there are fewer pedestrians—and a few more dogs. A green curtain of weeping willows, between the water and the road, impersonates a forest. The occasional twitter of a bird completes the illusion. This is the wilderness of Dongcheng, confirmed by the presence of sea creatures. A group of elderly men, sun tanned, proudly exhibiting their muscles, are entering and exiting the water. They are the undeterred bathers who swim year round, regardless of temperature, breaking the ice when necessary to plunge into black water.


The bike sails on, taking me to the quieter, wilder, Xihai. First, the lake narrows until it is nothing but an elongated neck, disappearing under a bridge. Then it resurfaces on the other side of a busy street, a generous expanse of gray and dark green. Here, there are no bars or sea creatures, just stony fishermen, eyes hooked into the silent water and again, I am struck by the need to make a note: two chairs facing the late afternoon sun, the wide space, the emptiness of the unruffled water, captured before words can begin to describe them.






Filip Noubel was born into a Czech-French family and raised in Tashkent and Athens. He studied Slavonic and EastAsian languages in Tokyo, Paris, Prague and Beijing. In the course of his nomadic wandering as journalist, editor and media trainer, he has made Bishkek, Kathmandu and Beijing his temporary homes. He is currently based in Prague.



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