Monday, December 10, 2007

Beijing: Hutong (胡同)

Deep in the heart of Beijing, lies the soul of the city. Here in the hutong is where one can still experience the real Beijing, with its narrow alleys, swarms of bicycles and people spitting anywhere they feel like it. It's also where we got to sit on an authentic Beijing pedicab.

The word hutong was derived from the Mongolian term hottog meaning water well. This perhaps accentuates the importance of water in the dry northern China plains, for where there's water, there are inhabitants.

We were brought to tour around one of the more well preserved neighbourhoods, where the roads were relatively wider and workers regularly swept the streets clean.

All in all, our tour company chartered ten pedicabs and I suppose it must have been quite a sight for the locals there to see this army of red rickshaws jostling for space and position, disregarding any oncoming traffic, even Mercedes Benzes. Strength in numbers, perhaps?

Most of the alleys here run east-west, ensuring that the main gates of the houses face the south for better feng shui. Hey, my condo unit faces the south too....

Most of the streets in the hutong are no more than 9m wide and many are much narrower with the narrowest coming in at 40cm. Hehehe imagine one of those really overweight gweilos with their 60cm beer bellies trying to squeeze through one. ;)

I guess this must be the local version of the tuk-tuk but unlike its Thai colourful counterpart, this was completely dull grey.

Ooh... what a cute puppy! Here puppy puppy....

The pedicab guys took us on a detour and we found ourselves along a scenic esplanade beside one of the city lakes.... Hmmm.... this is very familiar.... oh yeah, it's Hanoi all over again!

It was a rather cold and fogg day, but that didn't stop some of the local tourists from taking the opportunity to take a romantic boat-ride.... can find excuse to hug hug mah.... ;)

Anyway, back to the hutong. More than 60% of the hutong area has already been demolished to make way for modern highrises, more efficient housing and highways. While a small portion has been designated as protected areas, many locals believe that this precious relic of Chinese cultural history will be completely lost within the next 50 years.

Next on the agenda was a visit to a 'typical' hutong dwelling. Well, if all hutong houses were as well kept and beautifully decorated as the one we visited, then the Beijing municipal council must be doing a hell of of a great job. ;)

Entrance was through a large red timber door, which opens up to a small alley that divides the property into several smaller houses, a bit like the longhouses of Sarawak.

According to our guide, this property was once owned by a rich overlord who, having lost everything including his family during the War, went to America to seek his fortune. The government then took over his house and subdivided it into four separate units to accomodate more people in the ever crowded city.

We were ushered into the backyard of one of the small houses which had been converted into a charming garden with fruit trees and flower beds.

Persimmons anyone? Fresh off the tree, you can't get it any fresher elsewhere. And it's free!

The landlady also liked to keep birds as pets, most of them were able to say a few words in Chinese, such as ni hao and huan ying.

We then had a chat with the landlady who very kindly recounted for us what life was like back in the olden days when all they had were coal for fire and they had to carry water home from a communal well...

She now lived here with her husband as her children have all decided to move out and live in more modern accommodations in the suburbs.

She was very proud of her garden which she had cared for the past twenty years, planting it with persimmon and pomegranate trees. She even offered us a couple of fruits each.

The chrysanthemums were also in full bloom, which gave the garden a decided cheerful atmosphere. Oh that reminds me... Gotta get some chrysanthemum tea leaves for mother....

There was also a small metal windchime hung on one of the pomegranate trees, which played a peaceful tune when blown by the wind.

As we prepared to leave, the lady invited us to come back anytime to visit them, as she doesn't get that many visitors, not even her children. Sigh....

As we stepped back out into the hutong alley, we reflected on how lucky all of us were to be living in relatively more comfortable and prosperous homes where we did not need wait on the government to supply us with heat during the winter and where we could take electricity and water supplies for granted.

Still, we were charmed by the hospitality shown to us and how happy they all were despite all the inadequacies and problems they faced in meeting their basic needs.

Soon, it was time for us to head back to the tour bus. This time, the pedicab drivers took their own sweet time, allowing us to savour the sights and sounds (and smells) of old Beijing one last time.

Beijing has been an eye opener for me. It's a city full of contrasts, from tall skyscrapers to dilapidated hutongs; and from the ultra rich in their BMWs and Audis to the everydaymen in the pedicabs and bicycles.

I have also made many great new friends along the way, like Rachaelle, TK, Guna and not forgetting Ah Boy, plus the tourguide, Xiao Li, a bubbly effervescent young lady who's always with a smile and ever willing to help us in any way.

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