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Published: October 15th 2006
The hutongs are very narrow, so garbage collection is a coordinated effort by these hard working collectors who call out as they cycle through the rabbit warren of tiny lanes and alleyways, then shovel up the refuse from outside the houses. They then deliver it to the large truck waiting in a larger street nearby. Plastic bottles and clean cardboard are salvaged and sold at a recycling centre just down the street from us. No neatly packaged garbage in plastic bags or nice wheelie bins here!
This week I decided to take a quick trip to Beijing before I start out on my “Great Southern Adventure” into Guanxi, Guizhou and of course, Yunnan. An additional reason to go now is to avoid the huge summer crowds and the oppressive summer heat that arrive in July and August.
Beijing is an easy 13hr train ride that leaves Taizhou Railway Station at about 6.30pm at night and arrives in Beijing the next morning at about 7.30am. Really “painless”. Train tickets are offered in soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat (not often available) and hard seat. For the really unfortunate there are standing tickets as well! I booked a hard sleeper which consists of a 6 berth cabin arranged in 2 x 3 tier bunks and open to the corridor. As a larger foreigner it is always wise to request a bottom bunk as there is good “head space” to be able to sit up without giving yourself concussion, room to store your luggage under the seat, and no climbing up and down to use the bathroom facilities! I was pleasantly surprised by the immaculate carriage, crisp white sheets and a thick “doona”, as the air-conditioning gets a bit
Also known as wind-water lanes. This is one of the larger ones close to where I was staying.
After an uneventful train journey, I arrived quite refreshed from a surprisingly good night’s sleep (thanks to the sleep mask and earplugs with which I always travel!). As the crowds surged off the train I had no chance to stand back and observe my surroundings and had to be content to “go with the flow” and before I knew it I was outside and in the main forecourt, looking around for a taxi. In actual fact I had wanted to hunt out the special foreigner’s ticket lounge I had been told about, so I knew where to arrange my return ticket at the end of the week. In China, unless you use an agent you can only purchase train tickets from your departing station, and only four days ahead, unless it’s one of the National “Golden” Weeks. There are no options for return tickets or multiple destinations. Consequently you need to be organized but as flexible as possible, because there are always so many people wanting to travel at any one time!
I arrived at my accommodation in the Dongcheng District about 20minutes later, giving me a taste of the enormity of this great city. Flyovers,
Panjiayuan Weekend Market (also known as the Dirt Market)is famous for its amazing range of Chinese curios tracing the crafts of many hundreds of years. All authentic, of course?! Buyers beware, this is not a place for the faint hearted with respect to bargaining! Fascinating all the same!
ring roads (there are currently 5 with one under construction), sparkling new high rises, cranes everywhere and an ever burgeoning number of vehicles on the road all contrive to amaze the first time visitor.
After checking in and freshening up, I took to the streets. It’s one of the first things I do whenever I arrive anywhere new. I like to explore my surroundings on foot, not only to orientate myself, but just to observe everyday life. The Beijing Downtown Backpackers is ideally located in one of the few remaining hutong areas of Beijing. Hutongs are the narrow alleyways that once criss-crossed the whole city. They consist of one-storeyed buildings built around walled courtyards. Some of these courtyards sport beautiful trees that not only provide shade from the unrelenting heat in late spring and summer, but also provide nesting grounds for many small birds.
These days many of the buildings are somewhat ramshackle and some once elegant courtyards are filled with a hodgepodge of “home handyman” shacks built to provide shelter for ever increasing numbers of people who moved to the city in search of work. However, there has been some recognition of the value of some of
Tibetan Inspiration for the Ladies
A colourful display of handcrafted turquoise, amber and coral necklaces and other accessories caught my eye. The equally brightly clad saleswoman declined a photo, especially when I didn't buy anything!
the more historic homes and these have been preserved. Some also have been “discovered” by wealthy locals and foreigners, being thoroughly modernized as private homes, hotels and trendy restaurants. Sadly, however, most of them are fast disappearing under the onslaught of bulldozers. They are victims of the modernizing mania gripping China, in particular the race to manufacture a thoroughly modern city for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
I was actually quite shocked by the extent of the “redevelopment”. I only had to walk two blocks from my accommodation to witness the devastation just at our doorstep. Older folk were sifting through the rubble trying to find something else to retrieve, their meagre belongings on an old cart. Now, don’t get me wrong, these buildings weren’t bulldozed around these people’ ears, and perhaps they were just scavenging to make a few yuan (RMB), but the image was very graphic for me. I realize that the hutong dwellings were not ideal. Many had no running water, bathrooms or electricity, so life must have been pretty grim at times, but the social networks and way of life seem gone forever for many of these people. I wonder how they will adjust
Beijing Downtown Backpackers
A non descript grey building in amongst the remaining historic buildings of famous Nanluogu Xiang. This was my "home away from home" for 5 days. The staff were terrific, spoke great English and were full of handy hints for getting around the city and beyond. I also met a lot of really interesting travellers from all over the world and thoroughly enjoyed my stay here.
to living in imposing grey high rises in the “burbs”? The answer may well be with optimism, as modern utilities will make life a lot easier and besides, the Chinese people are such a resilient bunch. I will put my “bleeding heart” foreign attitude away!
This walk was to be the first of many in the ensuing days. Beijing has so many wonderful areas to visit, and of course provides for a visit to some of the closer sections of The Great Wall. Consequently this is the first of five blogs, each with their own theme. Read on and enjoy!
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