Monday, January 18, 2016

Hutong Hangout in Beijing

It's Day 5 on this wonderful tour of Beijing, and after breakfast, I remember telling my new friend, Mary, how I wasn't feeling too good about all of the delicious food I'd been eating lately.  She felt the same way.  It's hard to control myself when all of this wonderful Chinese food (and there was American fare, as well), colorful fruits and vegetables, and delectable desserts are staring right at me.  I don't stuff myself with food.  Normally I'm mindful to chew my food, eat slowly, and stop when I begin to feel full.  Also, my meals normally fit in a bowl, and not piled up high on a plate.  Ugh, I felt this trip was not going to end well for me.  I was going to go home looking like a blimp!  Oh well, Mary and I figured that once we got on the Viking ship, we'd do a lot of daily walking around the perimeter of the top deck, only to find out later there would be no track on the upper deck!  In fact, the ship was designed in a way that you couldn't walk the perimeter no matter what level you were on.  If I was going to be a happy lady on this vacation, I needed to control my food intake. Seriously. 
This day was another check off of my bucket list because we would be visiting a hutong, which is a centuries-old, tree-lined alleyway that is the true heartbeat of Beijing.  There are several remaining hutongs left in Beijing, following the rapid growth spurt of roadways and buildings beginning in 1949, and more so after the announcement that Beijing was going to be the site of the 2008 Olympic Games.  However, many of Beijing's ancient hutongs still stand, and a number of them have been designated protected areas.  The older neighborhoods survive today, offering a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has been for generations.

Hutongs are the winding narrow streets that traverse the traditional neighborhoods of Beijing.   These alleys surround traditional courtyard residences, and the term hutong has come to refer to a neighborhood.  In the past, and to a certain degree still true today, the closer you lived to the Forbidden City, the higher your status was.  The elite lived to the east and west of the imperial palace in high-end hutongs with gardens and ornamental houses. Today many famous people live in these hutongs. In other areas, however, the hutongs are smaller, less decorative, and poorer.  Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning "water well".  In the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians attached great importance to water, so almost every community in the city was designed around a well, which provided the daily water for the locals.  To this day, no one will find a dry well in some of the old alleys.

It was a smooth ride in our rickety rickshaw.  We passed residents coming out of their courtyards and I'd take quick photos as we passed their open doors.  Mainly there wasn't much to see.  But I wondered what the courtyards would look like if I were standing in it.  Would it be pretty?  Would it be nice? 
There were times when cars approached from the opposite direction and it was a traffic jam in the hutong.  It would take a few minutes for all vehicles to be free and clear.
There came a point where we exited our rickshaws to walk to a residence belonging to a gentleman named Mr. Wang and his extended family.  We passed people going about their usual business of daily living.  We even got a close-up view of people's living areas. I thanked God for the life that I have.  I also was conscious of the fact that these people might be grateful for what they have, so I didn't want to show that I felt sorry for them in any way.  I noticed how our group would greet them with a cheery "ni hao!".  Hello!
We walked through a narrow alley, turn left and entered a door into a place that was colorful and inviting.
Birds were chirping, and lots of plants and flowers were on display.  Red lanterns and other ornamental pieces dotted the courtyard, and it exuded a welcoming of peace, good luck and wealth to all who entered this place.

Mr. Wang welcomed us with tea and told us about his life in the hutong.  Before the 2008 Summer Olympics, his family was given permission by the government to host tourists and dignitaries.  Having a relative who served the last emperor proved beneficial.  To earn money, Mr. Wang's family also serve sit-down meals to visiting groups and sell folk art created by his daughter.  I loved being there, in that small, sweet-smelling place.  I highly recommend a visit to a hutong to better understand the old Chinese culture.  If you can visit both high-end and lower class hutongs, you'll better appreciate the disparity in the social and economic status of these hard-working people.

Before our afternoon flight to Xi'an, Angie introduced us to a Jianzi champion currently listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for keeping the jianzi in the air the longest.  A traditional and very popular national sport in China, the goal is to keep the heavily weighted shuttlecock in the air by using any part of the body, apart from the hands.  Jianzi is better known as hacky sack in the United States.
Then we went to a tea house to learn about the different kinds of tea and the ritual of drinking tea.  Tea is life here with social, medicinal and cultural roles to play.  It's in every thermos pulled out on park benches and everywhere.  China is a country with many nationalities, and each nationality enjoys their tea differently.  The history, culture and geographical environment of all nationalities vary and their customs of drinking tea are also very colorful and have their own strong points.  What is common amongst the nationalities is when guests show up at their door, they are always entertained with tea.  The Chinese people love to drink tea all day long.  The tea ceremony that most of us think of as Japanese actually originated in China.
We arrived in Xi-an in the late afternoon and, as always, it was a pleasure to view the heavily wooded areas surrounding the city, and to be thoroughly entertained by the chaos of the evening commuter traffic!
I hope you're enjoying my diary of my days in China!  This trip is becoming so unforgettable!

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