Sunday, September 30, 2007

Embassy walking tour shows Beijing's retro side

BEIJING, Sept 28 (Reuters Life!) - The North Korean and Togolose embassies are never going to be able to compete with the Forbidden City or Great Wall for tourists.

But these buildings are fine examples of the retro Communist architecture at which Beijing excels and make a great, offbeat attraction for the visitor tired of temples and shopping, especially with the 2008 Olympics approaching.

A security guard stands outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing September 28, 2007.

High ceilings, large windows, whitewashed walls, old-fashioned wooden doors and lots of harsh right angles -- you could be forgiven for thinking Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier had a hand in some of the embassy designs.

Modernist, minimalist and often quite brutal, they embody a socialist-chic design ethic rapidly vanishing as Beijing develops and glass-fronted skyscrapers edge out simple brick and plaster.

The easiest and best way to appreciate these buildings is to stroll through the tree-lined, often deserted streets of the capital's two main embassy districts in Sanlitun and Ritan Park.

With China having diplomatic relations at the embassy level with almost every country in the world -- excluding the handful which recognize Taiwan -- the embassies are a diverse group, ranging from Vanuatu to Benin.

Other embassies, such as that of Romania, are disproportionately sized considering their current political or financial standing, harking back to the day when China lauded its friendship with socialist allies.


The easiest place to start a walking tour is at the Iranian embassy, designed during the time of the last Shah and situated in north Sanlitun.

A beige brick building with gentle curves in the Islamic tradition, a long fountain leads to the main door. Like most the embassies, the inside and grounds are off limits to the public. But the buildings can easily be seen from the road.

Round the corner, past the oversized Argentine flag which dwarfs a blue-hued facade, is the Somali embassy, a classic of Communist Chinese design from the 1950s or 1960s when a brave, "new China" was being built.

Walking down the main road, past the Friendship Supermarket -- another throwback to Beijing's Communist heyday -- you pass the Ghanaian and Cambodian embassies which are both worth a look.

To the left and right the embassies of Sierra Leone and Togo rot quietly in Beijing's polluted air.

It's worth stepping into the Myanmar embassy opposite on the pretext of picking up a visa application form just to see what was fashionable in interior design in the 1960s. Lots of tropical wood and kitsch ethnic designs are the order of the day here.

Walking down the quiet side streets and more obscure delegations appear -- those of Laos, Mali, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea. Don't linger too long though, or the paramilitary security guards will get jittery.

Several of the embassies have been remodeled in recent years, with varying levels of success. Sadly, Kazakhstan's clad its walls with shiny paneling, and looks totally out of place.


Of the several bizarre features of the embassies near the Temple of the Sun, or Ritan Park, none can really trump that of the monolithic North Korean mission.

A large fence surrounds it -- local wags say to keep people in rather than out -- and at night the embassy is shrouded in darkness.

What glimpses can be caught are of large, sparsely decorated rooms and huge red slogans painted on the walls hailing their "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il as the "Sun of the 21st century."

But the true weirdness is reserved for the propaganda wall near the main gate. Pictures of Kim and his father, Kim Il-sung, stare down over passersby.

The few who bother to stop can admire the head of the isolated country inspecting troops or giving guidance to farmers. It's the closet most people will get to North Korea.

Other oddities are the Czech and Slovak embassies -- both housed in what was once the Czechoslovak embassy. They share the same grounds and some of the same buildings, but have different entrances.

Nearby is the Albanian mission, notable for its shabbiness and faded tourist posters.

Its only recent claim to fame came in 2002 when two North Koreans climbed in seeking asylum in "the free world," an Albanian official quoted them as saying at the time.

The non-Chinese speaking North Koreans might have thought they were breaking into the U.S. embassy, which is behind the Albanian one though much more tightly guarded.

Still, at least these embassies all have gardens to offer an escape from the noise and dust of Beijing.

Pity Vanuatu, Macedonia or Niger -- their diplomats all have to work in converted apartments.

Embassy walking tour shows Beijing's retro side