Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring in Beijing's Hutongs

Spring is here, I've written about this before in March 2009. Suddenly there are blossoms on the trees - white and pink magnolias, plum, cherry and peach. White cotton-wool like fluff from willow trees are in the air. What better way to enjoy the sunny weather than to go for a bike ride through the hutongs (small lanes)! Last week I went for a ride around the lake area Houhai with 2 other friends and we had a great time on one bicycle made for three. This week I went for a short ride round the Dong Si area.

The hutongs are rapidly changing. Only 1000 remain out of 3000 in 1950. The remaining ones are losing their character because of new buildings in the alleyways which don't fit in with the 'olde worlde' surroundings, and cars parked in them. The old quadrangle or courtyard homes (si he yuan), some several hundred years' old, are in a bad state of repair and lack modern facilities such as toilets or showers, but they have electricity, TV and wifi. Some restoration work is going on but these are done by rich homeowners who don't let tourists step into their courtyards (surprise surprise).

When I turned from the main road into the first hutong, it was such a relief to escape from the noisy traffic and to suddenly enter the quiet narrow hutongs.It was another world. You can get a taste of what old Beijing was like. People were walking along with their shopping from the market, or sitting out on low stools enjoying the sun. Winter quilts were being hung out everywhere, and bicycles were everywhere.

At the first 'crossroads', there was an interesting collection of shops and stalls. Breakfast buns were being sold at a roadside stall.

Beside them was a noodle restaurant. The cook from Xian is making a typical north west China dish, 'dao xiao' noodles - a huge piece of dough is held in his hand and then shaved off with a metal cutter into strips that fall into the pot of broth. Meat and vegetables and spices are then added to make wonderful soup noodles.

Opposite, you can buy your own ingredients and make your own meal. Here a local man, Chinese but from the Hui minority (of Islamic faith) is selling lamb and beef at a street corner. I don't need to tell you what parts of the animal he was selling, but I can say they are all very tasty and probably also were put into the broth for the noodle shop!

Transport is changing from rickshaws/tricycles pulled by men to motorised versions.

Riding further down, I was surprised to see an old temple, built originally in 1376 for a former Prime Minister.

You can see from the signs that studying English is popular even in the hutongs!

Another grand courtyard house but not open to the public.

 Favourite hobby especially of older Beijingers is keeping birds and goldfish, and they always seem to be sold together.
It's amazing how many newspapers and magazines are available, and many with pictures of famous actors/actresses/singers on the front cover. No nude models however, at least no yet! IC and IP cards are popular, after all there are over 21 million mobile phone subscribers in Beijing alone! They sent out almost 1 billion text messages as greetings on Chinese New Year's Eve.
I was lucky to spot a sign for a siheyuanan which belonged to a late Qing dynasty general. The outside did not seem anything special, but when I walked inside through all the household junk, I soon came across this marvellous carved arch.

 This sign for a small theatre caught my eye. I thought it unusual to have this in such a small hutong. Then I realised I was getting near the famous Central Drama Academy, where Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi studied.

I was soon at the main entrance admiring the traditional gate....and also the many drama students going in for class. How come they all seemed so tall, beautiful and fashionably dressed? Want to come and see for yourself?

The hutongs are full of surprises!