Beijing hutongs, changes, and The End


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Asia » China » Beijing » Xuanwu District
October 24th 2011
Published: October 25th 2011
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We spent our last full day in Beijing exploring the area near our hostel. This district, between Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, seems to be one of the last parts of the city to retain the old development pattern wherein low houses with interior courtyards are grouped together into hutongs, forming what are effectively villages within the city. This development plan dates back to the Mongol days when the capital was moved here. In fact hutong is derived from a Mongolian word, and this term is not used for alleys or back streets any place but Beijing.

In modern times, and especially since 1949, most of the city's hutongs have been torn down to make way for grand government buildings, tall apartment houses, and, more recently, modern retail development. In the core tourist area a few remain, although even here, many have been converted to restored "old towns" with upscale, trendy shops, overpriced souvenir stores, and tour booking agencies. However, we found that a only short walk away from the main street the modern facade was gone and mush of the old hutong flavor remains.

In this part of the city you can easily spend the greater part of a day getting lost in this maze, wandering down a mainly residential alley to come upon an alley junction with a few small local stores, where residents can get their rice, and a little meat and fresh vegetables for their stir fry meal. In one place where two alleys meet perpendicularly, there is a bustling street market. Elsewhere we saw people getting haircuts in the alley, and, one dentist actually drilling teeth in front of a hutong shop. I assume there are small gardens in the private courtyards, but you also see some vegetables growing in containers along the alleys and squash vines, with large green zucchinis climbing the telephone poles and wires. Some of our favorite restaurants, including the Urumqi Moslem noodle place are back in the hutongs.

Traffic in the hutongs is mainly pedestrian, although there are many bicycles, fewer motor scooters, and even a few cars try to make their way through at great difficulty. The hutongs are a great antidote to the now car-choked wide boulevards and large building of much of the city. I am hoping that the few that are left will be allowed to remain.

***

Our last evening in Beijing, Kathy and I took the subway with Jacob back to the neighborhood near the zoo where he lived during his junior year of college seven years ago. We also had a few memories of his area, having stayed in a dorm next to his for a few days when we visited him. We explored Jacob's old haunts, many of which were still there, including a great street market around the corner from his campus and a wonderful dumpling restaurant where we had eaten in 2003 and where we had dinner again. But the changes are apparent too -- the dumpling restaurant is now famous and pricier with customers' expensive import cars parked out front. And the walk from the subway, which was formerly through a jumble of construction, impromptu street markets, sidewalks with random changes in elevation, and the like, is now clean and full of large commercial buildings, fast food restaurants, and even urban malls. We went into one of those looking for a bathroom, and, at one point Kathy and I were standing in there waiting for Jacob and noticed that we could see no Chinese writing in our entire field of vision. Every store was labelled in English, or at least with Roman letters trying to say something. While it is great to see increased affluence come to the Chinese people, it is a shame to see some of the traditional culture lost. In this area we also saw a street vendor selling sushi, very strange to see that in China. So many changes are underway, and it will interesting to see where this all goes.

***

We arrived home this afternoon after the long trans-pacific flight. Our daughter, Laurel, was waiting for us with the ingredients for dinner and plans to cook it for us. How great is that? Soon our table was covered with the tea we purchased, along with the tea table, gaiwan, special pu'er knife, and many cups from all the places we visited.

How is it possible to have three once-in-a-lifetime trips to China? I don't know, but we've done it. Of course this one included Jacob and Lynn's wedding and becoming part of an expended Chinese family. These are truly once-in-a-lifetime things. Sharing these experiences with Karen and Jim was wonderful. We are so grateful that they were able to join us and for their friendship. We will be telling tales of this trip (including many that we weren't able to write about here) for many years, often over tea, no doubt. So, I guess this isn't The End after all, but just another beginning. Thanks to everyone who joined us on our journey through this blog.

Kit

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27th October 2011

Beautiful Wrap-Up!
We loved your blog, yet again, and your wrap-up is positively poetic. Many thanks for our vicarious adventures!

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