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April 14, 2006  |  China -- Thursday  |  7679 hit(s)

Our plans for the day had to be scuttled due to a logistical difficulty. We got two guidebooks and have been alternating between them. The plan for today originally was to follow a suggestion in Guidebook 1 to go to the end of the subway line and then go a little further to some picturesque place. But Guidebook 1 seems to have stayed behind at a restaurant or in a taxi, so ... Plan B was to peruse our remaining and less favorite guidebook for ideas. They have a section on "wanders", and after reviewing their offerings, we just picked one, which consisted of a tour through one of the better known hutongs, or old-style narrow, twisty, alley-like streets.

To get there, we took a leisurely ramble through Ritan Park, which is between us and the subway. Parks here are cool. There's playground equipment of various types -- for kids in the "pleasure grounds" aka playground, and regular gymnastics equipment, where I saw some well-aged guys doing giants on the high bar. Most surprising to me was exercise equipment like elliptical trainers, weight-lifting rigs, and log-rolling things that serve the same function as treadmills. All heavy-duty metal. The funny thing is that they're all used by old folks.

The equipment includes a backscratching thing that an old lady was using like a bear with a tree trunk:

Then the subway. That worked fine, except when we were buying tickets and simply could not understand what they wanted. But a nice lady behind us, a Westerner, leaned over and said "3 yuan each," and was kind enough not to add "so can we all get moving?" But that hurdle overcome, the subway was fine -- pretty much like every other I've been on.

The first part of the hutong tour took us through a commercial district that's been there for hundreds of years. The stores sell both traditional stuff plus cheapo modern goods at prices that were as good as we've seen. At times an odd juxtaposition. But the focus is on the traditional, and we visited stores that had a huge selection of silk and cashmere wool on bolts, ready to be tailored, in addition to ready-to-wear. There are also herbalists, traditional pharmacies, whatever you call them, where they sell powders and potions for what ails you. (Which they'll also help you diagnose.)

The other end of the hutong tour is a collection of stores that sell antiques (or "antiques"), calligraphic supplies, and books. The latter part was clearly much more tourist-oriented; we didn't see too many white faces in the silk stores, not that they didn't adjust prices as the opportunity arose. (Us.) The organized tours do the hutong thing by putting you in a rickshaw, which presumably deposits you in front of the "antiques" stores.

Per the guidebook, to get from one commercial part of the hutong to another, we had to wend our way through a maze-like residential area. This afforded us an inadvertently extended tour of the area. Our guidebook map lacks detail, so we missed some apparently important turns. But it was actually sort of interesting to have a gander at the residential conditions of some of the poorer Beijing residents. The guidebook says that the government is flattening a lot of these neighborhoods. Picturesque doesn't compete with the need for space, and in fact, we saw where they'd flattened a big swath through the middle already.

I noted that I keep being surprised by the quantity and convenience of the public bathrooms, and as were wandering around the residential part of the hutong, it struck me that the public bathrooms are just that -- public bathrooms. As in, the local residents don't have toilets at home. Aha. Bob confirmed this later, and noted that this was yet another reason that the government wants to bulldoze the old hutongs and put up modern buildings. You can see their point, although it will definitely be a loss in the character of Beijing.

In the evening, Bob had been invited to a birthday party at a restaurant, a party for ex-pats. Very nice restaurant, the guests we met Americans or Australians. They called it "Korean barbeque." There's a hole in the middle of your table, and they come out and put a thing of red-hot charcoal into the hole, then put a grill over it. They put out sliced beef and fish-in-foil, and you cook stuff yourself, doing your best with chopsticks over a hot fire to turn the slices and so on. Think you're good with chopsticks? I got a test for ya. A lot of food we've had here seems to be more interactive. As usual, more food kept appearing, good god. And beer. So another evening of staggering home after way too much food that's too good not to eat.

Kathy Mead   08 Sep 08 - 12:47 AM

Hutong is purely Beijing culture, do you like chinese food? There are thousands of different recipe on one food and they are all delicious.