Hutongs and the International Watering Hole
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
Within this inner core of Beijing, surrounding the Forbidden City at its heart are the lifeblood of the city--the Hutongs and parks. In these places, the Beijingers (or Beijingites) work, eat, sleep, and play.
Within this inner core is also the Far East International Youth Hostel, where people (such as myself) from around the world come to laze around and drink two-yuan Tsingtao
But back to the heat--it's pervasive and is a guiding force in life here, as sweat pours off everyone's foreheads and the city smells are intensified. Being a huge concrete jungle that dwarfs most cities, Beijing amplifies the heat (and pollution). Right near the Gobi Desert, Beijing isn't blessed with periodic respites from the heat when the wind shifts to northwest. Trees are desperately needed to cool the city as well as to keep the raging Gobi dust storms slightly more at bay in the wintertime.
Along the streets of the Hutongs, fans spin at full force and merchants sell water and ice cream. I'm addicted to the chocolate crisp Magnum and ate three yesterday as the temperature soared over 100 degrees. I'm also addicted to the yogurt drinks: first, they're tasty and cold; second, they're in a re-useable ceramic mug; and third you sit down to drink them and give the ceramic mug back to the vendor for tomorrow's yogurt. Yogurt, however, is but a temporary fix to the heat and being sticky is an almost-permanent facet of life here.
Along the streets of the Hutongs, men biking and pulling rickshaws, driving taxis, carrying pipes, welding steel beams, and selling Magnum ice cream and yogurt create a sometimes chaotic scene on the narrow streets
But many side streets are peaceful during the day, as most people are working. Laundry hangs across the smaller paths between houses. Turn one corner and shade trees may greet you; around another corner is the baking sun.
To escape the heat, the Hutongers head for the parks. Lakes--Beihai, Zhonghai, Hanhai, Houhai, QianHai, and Xihai--line the northwestern part of the Hutong District, a great place to fish, even though I never saw anyone catch anything. Its a great place more because it's cooler and by the water, with shade trees. In Jingshan, Tiantan, and Beihai parks, old men practice their calligraphy on the stone pathways with large water brushes. Women sing songs to the tune of stringed instruments or flutes. Groups of people move their morning-weary bodies to the awakening choreography of tai chi. Others talk on the park benches, their pet birds perched in nearby hanging cages. Swimming, boating, and biking, the Chinese stay active in the busy yet serene parks.
The parks also represent an important facet of Chinese history
The parks and hutongs became my home of sorts in Beijing, the places to walk, bike, and relax.
During my seven day stay at the Far East Hotel, in the southern hutongs of Beijing, I met many interesting people from all over the world--England, Denmark, Malaysia, Austria, Australia, France, and the United States.
On the first day, I met Michael carrying his guitar all the way from North Carolina. We played music for hours trading licks and drinking beers out in the old courtyard. I played the house guitar and my key of G harmonica. Others joined in too or just listened--Carmen, Alicia, Ame. The vibe was good from the start. When quiet hours began at midnight, we headed for the Muslim grill down the road. From then on, music became a common theme at the Far East Hotel, the international watering hole.
The next day, I met Tim and Cindy Travis, who left Arizona three years ago to bike the worldwww.downtheroad.org.
I also had a five hour conversation with a French couple. It was good practice for my French as we talked about why Iraq is good for the US and why France isn't happy: it was within their "sphere of influence" and now will be under ours as we rebuild their country.
"It's better to have the US taking over the world than another countries, we think," they said.
"If it's not the US, it's someone else."
Talking in the courtyard, various travelers also answered questions such as:
Why is Incubus so popular?
Which Scandinavian country drinks the most?
Where is the best dumpling restaurant in Beijing?
And who is the most laid back person staying in the Far East Hotel?
Later, Kevin, Karen, and Nate flew from Hong Kong and joined me in the hutongs for a bit
Most of the hutongs will hopefully remain, as they are full of character and charm, defining much of Beijing life over the last several hundreds of years. Many areas are being or have already been bulldozed, however, to make room for progress--the wide boulevard and the concrete skyscraper. Despite the bulldozers, the Chinese government has said that it wants to protect the remaining hutongs within the inner city.
We'll see what happens.