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Chinese Culture >> Travel Reviews

China Travel

The hutongs are the oldest neighborhoods in Beijing. Narrow alleys running east-west with hundreds of "sub-alleys" leading off each side into private courtyards, which are "home" to as many as twenty families each (up to 60 people). Each hutong has four buildings around a central courtyard. Each building has one, maybe two rooms, which totals about 4 to 500 sq. feet. No bathroom or toilet, no A/C or heating, however most of them now have cold running water in the courtyard and electricity. This close-knit group makes up about 25% of Beijing's population.

In an effort to upgrade the city for the
Olympics, they have recently replaced the public toilets with new modern facilities. These can be found sporadically throughout the area, and are used by all who live here. A "two staller"down the alley from our hotel, has been taken over by a few families. One side serves as a kitchen with running water and a disposal (the toilet), while the other side is the shower & bathroom. This frees up some room in their tiny homes, thus they may now have an additional bedroom.

Large trees in the courtyards and along the alleys provide minimal shade. Many of the courtyards have been covered over with anything available. The hutongs are enclosed inside six foot high brick walls, each one having a separate red doorway to the alley. The alleys are mostly red brick walls, many painted gray or covered with a layer of cement, with red doors every 50 to 100 feet.

Garbage pickup is once a day. It collects in the alleyway throughout the day in piles outside the doors - no cans, sometimes in plastic bags. A three wheel bike with about a 100 cubic foot box on the back comes by blowing a whistle and shovels up the piles, sweeps the pavement, and the process starts all over again.

All the alleys meet at the west end, which is a lively area filled with cafes, coffee houses, bars, restaurants and small stores. At night this area lights up with hundreds of people enjoying the nightlife.

Would you like to accompany us on stroll to our favorite Wi-Fi cafe? As we leave the Lu Song Yuan, the heat greets us at the door. Hot and dry, it's bearable, and better than the humid heat we endured in the South. We see the store across the alley, busy as usual selling everything from water to toilet paper and newspapers to basic food supplies. A husband & wife along with their young daughter run it. Currently, with her husband out of town, the wife is working long hours, 7am till 11pm, 7 days a week. Farther up the alley to the right is Mr. Leo's tiny tourist shop and store. Offering everything from city or great wall tours to acrobat shows and teahouse services. His prices are cheap. Across from Leo's is the local Police station. Not very big, but their presence is reassuring.

Being careful to not get run down by the cars, taxis or bicycles, we step out into the alley and turn left. Parked on the other side against the wall are about thirty bikes for rent. Every bike is very old and badly beaten from years of use. Some have a flat tire - rent at your own risk - full day 30Y, 1/2 day 15Y, 300Y deposit. (7Y = $1) These take up some room in the narrow alley, requiring passing cars to slow down to squeeze by. I've always nodded a little hello to the old man tending the rentals, but he has yet to even acknowledge us. Strange for this area.

A few meters away, in the alley outside their hutong a mother has just finished washing her long hair in a large plastic bowl. Her little boy is very unhappy, crying as mom and g'ma try to comfort him. Dee says he is sick - he's not a happy camper, so we pass without trying to give a toy from our dwindling bag of goodies. As we pass, we get a glimpse inside their little courtyard, however as usual not much can be seen without actually entering.

We stroll farther and sense the strong smells of tonight's meal being prepared by a couple of women in the "two stall" public toilet. They have setup a make shift work counter with a propane camp stove. Most hutongs still cook with coal, but after all, this is a more modern kitchen.

A few bikes come up behind us ringing their bell as a warning. Best to not leap to one side now, as they surely have already chosen how to get around us.

There has been lots of construction activity in the alley ahead. Each day a stack of bricks has arrived - brought in on "flat bed" wheelbarrows along with sand and mortar mix. Each evening the pile is gone, carried inside the hutong by hand. Today we notice several piles of old wood, roof tiles, etc. I'd love to peek inside to see the remodel project, however a quick question reveals the workers don't understand, and we respectfully move on.

Along the alley are several large trees. Many years ago an attempt was made to protect these trees from the many Chinese drivers trying to negotiate the narrow alleys. They are all enclosed with a steel framework, now bent and dislodged from the many mis-negotiations. Here comes another bike bell. We stop short as a bike rounds us on the left, cuts right in front of us, and into the open doorway just past the tree. Dad is returning home from work.

We usually pass many hutong residents during our walk, and a "nee-how" is always returned with a smile and another "nee-how."

As we reach the corner at the end of the alley, the air is filled with the strong aroma from the several restaurants cooking outdoors. It is very common throughout China to see small restaurants with cooking grills cut into the walls. These coal fired BBQs are stacked with skewers filled with pork, chicken or whatever. This has to be one of the hottest jobs in the country as the cook stands outside the grill using an electric heat gun to brown the top sides. Smoke fills the air, and customers are sitting around small tables consuming large quantities of pork or chicken, spitting out the bones and unwanted parts on the ground.

Across the intersection is the nightly and highly contested mahjong game, always attended by 8-12 elders, discussing politics between moves.

On another corner the "mobile" bike repairman is busy fixing flats and chains with his crude collection of tools. Business is always good here - either he is good, or there are lots of flats in the hutong.

On the final corner is Xiao Lu Washing Shop, a small full service laundry shop with a large, fairly new, industrial size washing machine. Lu is a very pleasant young lady, always has a smile and willing to help.

This area is filled with tiny stores, restaurants and Wi-Fi cafes. The street is much busier with taxis, bikes and people. Walking here is always a bit more challenging.

We make a left at the intersection. Most of the shop owners are sitting outside socializing. There is one elderly lady we always make a point of stopping by to say hello to. She breaks out with big smile, laughs with her friends, then tries several times to direct us into her small store. As usual, we enjoy a few hand signals with her then move on.

On the left just ahead is our favorite Wi-Fi cafe, The Pass-By Cafe. It's small, but always seems to have a table, air conditioned and has an enormous collection of Lonely Planet travel books. A waiter says the owner is friends with a writer at Lonely Planet and gets them for free

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