Three of the best, most quirkily distinctive bars in Beijing are all to be found within a few hundred yards of each other.
In a car park. (A car park that held surprisingly few cars. The idea of paying to park your car somewhere has failed to gain much popularity in Beijing, since there is no effective enforcement of parking regulations, and thus you can park your car on a sidewalk pretty much anywhere you please.) No, not just any old car park - The Car Park.
First, there's Nanjie, a low-rent drinking dive on the east side of the Car Park - established by the mercurial Huxley, one of Beijing's best-known and best-loved bar entrepreneurs. It has probably been the most populous (if not necessarily the most profitable) bar in the city over the past couple of years (although latterly it has tended to get overrun by noxious teens). As with all Huxley's various bar ventures over the years, it has cheap drinks, great bar snacks, and an eclectic selection of music. (I first started becoming a mid-week regular when the foxy Taiwanese BB was DJing there on Wednesday nights; damn, she had fine taste in music.... uncannily similar to my own, that is. And rather untypical for a DJ. Heck, how often have you heard a DJ play Elvis Costello or The Cure? Let alone Tom Waits or Pink Floyd! Many was the time when I was just about to leave, honestly, it's getting late and I really have to work tomorrow, when.... she'd put on a great track that had special resonance for me, and I'd think, oh well, perhaps just one more beer. And we know where that leads.)
Even Nanjie's windowless gloom and bare-bones decor looks positively classy in comparison with the Bus Bar, which lies at the front of Car Park. It really is housed in the shell of an old bus. And the atmosphere is that of a sweaty high school disco. The Bus Bar's distinctive charm, however, is that it is a drugs supermarket. It is frequented solely by dodgy African blokes who are eager to hook you up with whatever you need to get high. Many people are appalled by the sleazery inherent in this. But me - I love sleazery, I'm fascinated by this low-level criminality (and by the fact that it is so freely tolerated by the police), I think the Bus Bar is one of the most characterful, colourful dives in the city. And it's open pretty much 24 hours a day. And they occasionally have some great music; when they've got an African DJ in, the place can be jumping.
And then, hidden away in the back corner of the Car Park, the third point of the 'triangle', there's Yugong Yishan, probably Beijing's best live music bar - and also home to one of its better pool tables. I've had many, many great nights in there.
I nicknamed the Car Park 'The Devil's Triangle' nearly two years ago, when I briefly developed quite a serious mid-week habit for going there. If I felt the urge to indulge in a little wild excess to unwind from the crazy hours I was then working, this was the ideal place to sate that urge. Even if it was an impulsive last-minute thing, quite unpremeditated, even if I had no idea if there were any special events on - even if there were no special events on - you could pretty much guarantee that there would always be a lively scene at at least one of these three joints. The danger was that you could easily get tempted to drop into all three, and then the evening (and the early hours of the morning) would tend to get away from you, to run badly out of control. Yes, as with the dangerous seas and airways around Bermuda, the Car Park has been the scene of many strange and inexplicable phenomena, many sudden 'disappearances'. Usually the disappearance of a hefty wad of cash and a portion of my memory.
But now, those great days are coming to an end. Lu Zhiqiang, Yugong Yishan's owner, rather presciently put a 'chai' symbol (the Chinese character for 'demolish' - which is daubed on the walls of condemned buildings all over the city, just before the bulldozers rumble in) on the bar's commemorative T-shirts. Yep, it was always obvious - if not already known - that such a large expanse of land right in the heart of the city could not remain so under-utilized for long. And now, after two glorious, hedonistic years, the Car Park has been slated for redevelopment into yet another ugly-and-pointless shopping mall. The building preliminaries have already begun, and for the past few weeks the entire area has been closed off by a hastily-constructed wall. A wall with one or two small gaps in it, allowing the bars to linger on stubbornly. Next weekend is supposed to be the grand farewell (at least, for Yugong; Huxley claims he still hasn't been given a formal eviction date, and is hoping to cling on a little while longer). I shall be sorry to miss it; though perhaps it would be rather too poignant an affair for such a soppy old sentimentalist as myself.
All three bars are set to be reborn in new locations. But it won't be the same. It won't be The Triangle....