The Spaces We Live In

Every year since I left the states I’ve lived in a flat, but it’s only in Bishkek that I’ve really desired to open my door step out on solid ground.

Reflecting on the ten spaces I’ve inhabited over the years it seems like there are two aspects determining it’s feeling of wholeness of place: how well integrated it is with it’s surroundings, and whether it faces in or out.

To explain: the apartment we currently live in stretches the entire southern side of our building and has giant sliding windows on the East, South and West giving panoramic views of half the city.  But it’s also on the 10th floor, and the area around our apartment feels like a wasteland – busy crossroads, a construction site with plenty more construction sites in the distance, a few soviet high rises across the road, and very few trees.  In short, we have a sweeping view, but our apartment doesn’t feel anchored to anything in the landscape.  The apartment faces out, but it isn’t actually integrated into it’s surroundings.

Compare this to my second flat in Beijing: the flat was quite small (40 meters or so; entrance room plus large bedroom, balcony, tiny kitchen and bathroom) and on the top floor of an old 6 story apartment block just five minutes from Beijing’s central commercial hub at GuoMao. The little sitting room was faced by a window that took up half the wall and looked over not the commercial high rises, but the pocket of old flats and small streets that ran between YongAnLi and the river.  Similarly the balcony looked over a dozen shops and familiar faces on the street below – the cold salad bar, the morning fruit-cart man, the same old men sitting outside drinking beer and eating shashlik late into the evenings, the same children coming back from the neighborhood school, the same professionals coming back from work. The apartment always felt like it was part of the surrounding landscape, not least because I could hop downstairs and sit outside with friends as darkness closed over the sweltering summer dusk.

My third apartment in Beijing was a nightmare.  Located at Hujialou at the crossroads of the third ring road and Chaoyang, within walking distance of everything from GuoMao to SanLiTun, it would seem to be in an ideal place.  But the apartment (which I moved into without first seeing, coming strait from graduation at university) faced inward, and yet had no space of reprieve.  We had three small windows – the balcony off the masterbedroom which my new flatmate claimed for herself, my small bedroom, and one half blocked by exposed pipes at the end of our narrow kitchen. Our fifth floor view was off the small strip of shops outside the subway station, and the sticky yellow-grey sky (for the pollution was so bad that summer that we didn’t see the sky for an entire month), and the small car park.  If there were any trees, they were sickley and chocked by dust. So it’s not just about proximity to the street.

The same can be attested my my 9th floor jungle-clad flat in Foshan.  Half of our three-bedroom flat faced the industrial-residential sprawl to the south – brand new high rises boxed by shanty towns and old Cantonese villages still clinging on.  During hurricane season we’d watch the sky churn green and the wind whip up a deluge to flood the streets from our kitchenside clothes-hanging balcony.  The other side of our flat faced into the apartment complex which, though it housed some 10,000 souls, had been designed with so many corners and curves that every flat looked out onto a sea of emerald green tropical plants lining weaving walks and tranquil pools.  Most days I sat out on that balcony on the blue and white ceramic stools we bought from a local pottery shop and read a book or studied for the GRE feeling like I was in a park. Again, it didn’t hurt that I could descend from my flat and immediately have a giant garden at my feet, along with a dozen small shops stocked with the same familiar faces.

I’v also stayed in flats in Almaty and Bishkek that faced inward, using windows only for light, but felt completely self-contained, whole spaces unto themselves.  But here our apartment faces outward – because of the flat’s open floor plan there is no room that doesn’t feel like it’s opening onto at least two sides of the city.  And yet we’re close to nothing. Even if we step down from our apartment there aren’t really any places we can go – a small playground crowded with children, a few benches and a strip of grass, 20 minutes walk along a busy and dusty road to the university in one direction, an older neighborhood with cracked sidewalks and actual trees five minutes in another.  But mostly just dust, dust and this feeling like we’re floating.


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