A Hutong at Twilight, and Other Beijing Adventures

A Hutong at Twilight, and Other Beijing Adventures

Following in the footsteps of FLOTUS

The Great Wall in ChinaOn our first day in Beijing (Monday), we did what all travelers to China must do – visit the Great Wall. Little did we do that Michelle Obama and the girls had just been there, and to the exact section we were going to! We went to Mutianyu, which is steeper and more beautiful than the more-touristy Badaling.

As soon as we stepped outside in Beijing that morning, we could see the pollution in the air, and feel it in our throats. In my few days in Beijing, the pollution really disconcerted me. I couldn’t see sky or sun; it felt like it was a perpetually cloudy day, every day. We thought it was a good thing we were getting our of the city, and thought that surely the smog would end before we got to the Great Wall, over an hour outside of Beijing. Not true. As you can see in the photos, the haze persisted, and in fact, according to our tour guide, covers all of northeast China! Even in Seoul, people blame some of the dirt and pollution on Beijing.  I can believe it. But again I digress.

The Great Wall was built to delineate and defend the historical northern border of China. Apparently some sections of the wall were being built as early as the 7th century BC, but most of the surviving portions today date from the Ming dynasty (14th century) and stretch for 5,500 miles. We only saw a very small part of the wall, at Mutianyu. We tried to imagine what it would be like to hike the whole thing – how amazing would that be?

We took a ski lift up and a toboggan down – poor Alyssa with her height aversion was such a good sport! I took so many photos I made some of them into a gallery, below. I recommend clicking on them so they enlarge, especially the last one – it’s a panorama.

Even though this spot was supposed to be less touristy, there were still a ton of tourists, a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese. Which was why I was surprised to find myself the subject of a series of photos. Alyssa and I were enjoying our picnic lunch at the top of one of the watch towers, and since it was hot, I took off my cardigan, revealing my bare arms. Perhaps it was that (maybe my arms look like bamboo shoots too?) or the sun on my hair making it look lighter, or maybe just me being Caucasian, but all of a sudden, mid-bite into my sandwich, this group of Chinese men started taking turns posing with me and taking photos. I know I looked really confused and caught off guard in these photos, my mouth full of sandwich. Finally I decided to photobomb my own photo, and started acting really goofy and stupid. I would love to see those photos!

We only had 2 hours and hardly had time to walk more than a mile or so, if that. There were a lot of stairs…. I don’t know why I expected it to be more level. But I’m so glad we went – what an experience, and what a view. It really gave me a sense of the enormity of China, its history and power.

That evening, we met up with two students from my college who were studying abroad in Beijing, and we all went out for Peking duck. Peking was the old name of Beijing under a different translation system, and was changed when the country switched to Pinyin, a way of translating Chinese characters phonetically into the Roman alphabet (so people who don’t know Chinese, like me, can at least pronounce things, even if they can’t read characters). The students were amazing, as was the duck – the skin is the key; it’s flavorful and crispy. The duck is served with a tray of condiments, and you combine the condiments with the duck in a sort of pancake, or a puffed sesame bread.

It was, in a word, delicious.

Beware Chinese tourists – they shove

On Tuesday, Alyssa’s last day in Beijing, we visited Beijing’s other top must-see spots: Tian’Anmen Square and the Forbidden City. First lesson: Tian’Anmen is not pronounced “Tee-ANNE-a-min”; it’s pronounced “Tee-ahn-AHN-men.” Second lesson: it is impossible to actually get into the square without going through lines and lines of security. The lines were so long when we got there, we couldn’t even cross the street, so we gave up. Because of the political significance and controversy of the square, there are a LOT of police officers and military personnel. I admit the square was different than I thought; I had been envisioning a square in the center of the city, surrounded by buildings, like in Europe, but it was not like that at all.

The Forbidden City was… an experience. We went at absolutely the wrong time – when all the tour groups were there. Getting through security there, I was almost trampled by stampeding Chinese tourists. Alyssa and I quickly learned to hold tightly to each other’s arms, elbows, or bag straps, and not to wander off, because if we got swallowed by one of the tour groups we’d never find one another again. The Forbidden City was enormous and impressive, but overwhelming with so many people jostling and pushing. We escaped to a less crowded section for a while, but eventually had to rejoin the masses and ultimately left, undoubtedly with a great deal unseen.

Quieter streets and Chinese ghosts

We hopped in a cab to an artsy pedestrian street, Liulichang, where we wandered around, browsing and meandering down alleyways.

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Liuluchang; a quiet alley between buildings

We then had the fastest dumpling lunch ever consumed before dashing back to the hotel so Alyssa could get to the airport and I could get off to my afternoon tour. I had this crazy idea to squeeze in a Hutong tour in the afternoon, before my 4pm meeting at a partner university. So, loaded down with all my materials and giveaways, and dressed in my work clothes, I headed off for my tour.

What is a hutong, you ask? A hutong is a type of neighborhood, and also the name of the alleyways that characterize those neighborhoods. The alleyways are made by adjoining old stone houses, in the traditional style with an inner courtyard. I really wanted to visit some, as I had heard that they were beautiful, and I knew that many of them had been (and are being) torn down by the government to make way for new development projects. It’s such a shame – they have so much character, not to mention history. Each hutong is its own small community, with families living there for generations. My tour began in a pedicab, which is when I began to rethink my decision. Not because of the pedicab itself – I liked that idea. But I found myself in a train of pedicabs, all squealing brakes and tourists, on a pre-determined racetrack through the neighborhood. (I took a few videos which I will post later.) Finally the ride ended and the walking tour began, which was much more to my taste. My guide Yuoyou walked me through several hutong, pointing out the architecture, even taking me inside one to see the courtyard and meet the owner, an artist of traditional paper-cutting.

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Houhai, a lovely lake area near the hutongs; hutong

Youyou explained to me that hutong owners were very lucky, because they owned their dwellings and could live their forever, passing on the property to their children and grand-children (that is unless the government decides to tear it down).  Youyou explained that for homes or apartments bought now, they are actually only leased from the government for 7o years – the owner may pass the lease on to their children but only for the remainder of the 70-year lease – when it’s up, they will have to re-purchase. That seemed absurd to me, but then again so does the one-child policy.

DSCF0212Our last stop was the drum tower. The area has two towers, bell and drum, which were used way-back-when to announce the time once the sun set. From 7pm until 5am, the bells would sound every 2 hours. The drums would sound only at 7pm and 5am. The original drums are long gone of course, but replicas can be found in the tower, and a performance is given several times a day. I took a video, but here’s a photo for now. In the drum tower, I had to be careful to step over some extra-tall door sills, which I had also noticed in many older buildings in China. It reminded me to ask Youyou the purpose of such high sills. “It is for the ghosts,” she explained. “You know ghosts, we believe they do not have knees, so they cannot get through the doorway.” Fascinating. I told her that this might work for Chinese ghosts, but not only did American ghosts have knees, they could glide right through a door, a wall, anything, so these high sills would not keep them out. But probably American ghosts would not come to China, so they were most likely safe.

A Hutong at Twilight

After my meeting at the university, I met up with 3 of my former students in a hutong-turned-restaurant in a non-tourist section. On the way, I even saw a hutong mid-destruction; it was being demolished to allow for a subway line. The neighborhood was mesmerizing in the strange light of twilight, with lanterns blazing and warm windows beckoning. Far from the pedicab train I had been on earlier, THIS was the hutong I had wanted to see, and I never would have without my students. The dinner was simple but delicious, and I fell in love with the pu’er tea that was served. Danna, Guoyuan, and Qianxia explained that the tea is thought to be especially good for women, because it contains yang, to balance out the female yin tendencies. Yang (yahng) is fiery and aggressive, associated with men, while yin (een) is cool, soft, and female. With the Chinese emphasis on balance, it is important to maintain harmony between these two. I don’t know if the tea made me feel more in balance or not, but it was some of the best tea I’ve ever had, and the girls helped me find the ingredients to make at home.

The best part of the evening though, was not the hutong or the tea or the food; it was the conversation. Before I left for China, I said that one of my goals was to have a meaningful conversation with a Chinese person. I’d had plenty of enjoyable conversations, but none that really reached the level of meaningful, until that night. We talked about the transformative experience of travel and study abroad, how it made them change their perspectives on China and on life. I learned that one of the young ladies was not an only child, and that her family had paid dearly for her birth. Not in money, but in opportunity – her father, a university associate professor, would have been promoted to full professor were it not for her arrival, the second child in the family; instead he had to wait 15 more years for this honor. They giggled at me for the way I used my chopsticks, and I teased them for teasing me. It felt so good to be giggled at – it had been too long since I had been in a situation in which I wasn’t fluent in the rules, with people who were comfortable enough to teach and tease me. I realized that I have really missed having those moments; I want to have them more frequently. And so ended my last night in China – in a hutong, drinking tea, with friends.

3 comments on “A Hutong at Twilight, and Other Beijing AdventuresAdd yours →

  1. I don’t know if I’ve ever made it for you, but I LOVE pu-erh tea; it’s one of my all time favorites for it’s earthy taste and smell – like a barn! I don’t know how similar it is to the Chinese pu’er, but we’ll have to compare when you come home.

  2. How especially special to have that meaningful conversation with the young ladies. Understanding is deeply felt and internalized for life. You’ve had Many God’s blessings during your journeys. Nothing better.

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