The hidden hutong

This week feels like the longest week since time was created and some idiot somewhere decided the weekend should only be two days.

This is odd, because this week spring officially announced itself in Beijing, with temperatures soaring from sub-zero to mid-tens overnight and the odd tree or two sprouting plum blossoms in every park. The city shut off the heating last week, making early mornings surprisingly cold. My weather app tells me we’ll soon be getting our first spot of rain since last autumn, which means workmen need no longer desperately wave water hoses around pasty, crumbly soil, and DD and I can abandon the daily ritual of filling up our humidifiers with two litres of filtered water.

There’s even more reason now to look forward to non-pollution days, not only because hazy Beijing throws off its blankets and glows in glorious hi-definition, or because wearing smog masks when it’s hot feels like you’re underwater, but because walking around the city becomes a distinct pleasure – and a curiosity.

The parks are lovely and the Western-style bars and restaurants popping up in hutongs (old, low-rise residential streets that are fast disappearing under bulldozers) are pleasant, but what always intrigues me is the untouched hutong here and there that the bulldozers forgot, hiding among multi-lane arteries and towering skyscrapers.

There’s one such hutong a block away from us, en route to Sanlitun, the quintessential expat haven heaving with luxury Western retail brands, trendy brunch spots and dodgy nightclubs. But in this hutong, the locals still rule every patch of ground, and life is distilled down to the basics. We enter from the south side, where a tetris of cars and bikes almost block the narrow street. The pavement becomes stained here and there with splashes of water and other unidentifiable things, and we pass the public toilets, for men on one side and for women on the other, that are a feature of all residential hutongs. If I were to venture inside, the toilets would be squat-style with no cubicle walls and no tissue or sink.

Further along, the shops start to appear. A dozen stalls open out on to the street on either side, some selling fruit and veg or meat and others selling household items such as chairs with holes, presumably for the elderly. Here, chunks of meat are arranged on wooden slabs with a fan twirling above, there a large box of fifty eggs piled high, and just by our feet, a container filled with water and packed jam full with live frogs. The hotter the weather, the stronger the smell and the larger the experience. I’m not sure when the shops open and shut, or whether the shopkeepers all live in or near their stalls, but there’s a steady stream of local people of all ages glancing at the goods and occasionally stopping to buy. We’ve only ever spotted one foreigner buying something here, and we feel slightly apologetic, rather conscious and incredibly intrigued whenever we pass through. Not that anyone looks or makes us feel out of place; often, we’re walking behind a young modern Chinese couple swinging their designer bags, clearly also on their way home to a monstrous luxury apartment compound.

Once we turn out of the hutong, we’re back on a multi-lane road again, and after we pass a strange flat that keeps a dozen small birds in a cage by the window, we’re back in the land of nail salons, smoothies and taco bars. But if you look carefully, you’ll see an elderly Chinese person walking backwards (presumably for exercise) or a couple of workmen asleep on pieces of cardboard between parked cars. In Beijing, the modern folk splash their cash and the modern buildings crowd the streets, but each day the old-timers bring this city of concrete to life, as surely as flower buds blossom on tired trees.


Copyright © 2015 followingdrdippy

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