Key information: Beijing
- Much of Beijing is charmless walking - but what is left of the sadly disappearing street way of life of its traditional narrow and bustling hutongs is worth seeking out.
- See Eithne Nightingale's intriguing description, which was a Walkopedia Travel Writing Competition 2011 entry.
- ANYONE GOT ANY GOOD PHOTOS? WE WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO POST THEM!
- Walkopedia rating81
- Natural interest6
- Human interest17
- Negative points0
- Total rating81
- Length: Day or less
- Level of Difficulty: Straightforward
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The following is Eithne Nightingale's piece on walking here, which was on our longlist for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition.
Back Streets of Beijing
Two tricycles approach each other along the alley, neither giving way. One carries a mound of flattened cardboard, the other a cartload of coal. At the last minute the recycler rings her bell and swerves just in time to avoid a collision. The coalman, in his Mao-style padded jacket, spits and parks his tricycle cum cart outside a courtyard house.
I am in Beijing searching out what is left of the hutongs, the narrow streets that criss-cross the wider north-south roads of the capital. They have been a feature of city life since the Yuan Mongol dynasty (1279-1368). For many centuries and until quite recently the hutong and the siheyuan, the distinctive courtyard houses that line the narrow alleys, have been the root and branch of social life in Beijing.
The coalman takes his delivery up the steps of the one-storey building guarded by stone lions and pushes open the mahogany red door. It is framed by grey walls and crowned with a geometric red, green and blue woodwork carving. The eaves, tucked under two layers of grey tiles, jut out over the door. The roofs dip and soar against the blue winter sky, echoing the flamboyant curves of the imperial palace of the nearby Forbidden City.
Just inside the entrance, an elaborate carved stone frieze protects the inhabitants against evil spirits and prying eyes. As the coalman opens the door wide, light spills on to a courtyard beyond. Two children kick a shuttlecock. A bird in a gilded cage keeps an old man company as he and his friends play mahjong under the fig tree.
The central courtyard, surrounded by rooms on four sides, overspills with plants, cooking utensils and sacks of vegetables. The ornate decoration, the height of the steps and the lions guarding the door denote that this courtyard house belongs, or has belonged, to a rich person of some prestige.
The coalman continues along the street, opening doors to reveal less spacious areas. Zuo Shu Xian, who lives alone, shares the small courtyard with two other families. Zuo Shu is keen to stay in the area where she has lived for 50 years. It is quiet and peaceful. The high roofs and thick walls mean that the house is cool in summer and warm in winter.
"I enjoy the community in the hutong," Zuo Shu says. "I can play mahjong with my friends and neighbours at any time and I am never alone."
She pays a nominal rent and can pass the house on to her children, but it is unlikely they will take up the offer even though other rents can be considerably higher. Her married children prefer the creature comforts of the modern apartment blocks further out of the city. Besides, the streets are too narrow for their newly acquired cars.
Zuo Shu denies that overcrowding is a problem. She admits there are sometimes conflicts when families share water and electricity and cook in the courtyard at the same time. It is not uncommon for fights to break out between children. But the neighbourhood committee is always on hand to resolve disputes, to root out any suspicious behaviour or even to ensure adherence to the one-child policy.
Not all courtyard houses have retained their original function. What was once the house of a high-ranking imperial official is now a day nursery. It is an impressive building with an outer courtyard originally used to receive guests or to stage an opera performance and an inner courtyard for family and servants. Now the house has been transformed by Chinese folk murals, climbing frames and circles on the courtyard floor to mark where children stand in line for early morning exercises. Even the three-year-olds are able to demonstrate impressive kung fu skills.
The street names reveal much of the history of each area. Liulichang hutong, now famous for its bookshops and antiques, was so called because of the presence of a government glazed-tile factory during the Yuan era. Some names, such as Dachaye hutong (Great Tealeaf Alley), indicate the merchandise that is, or has been, on sale in the street.
During the Ming period there were 1200 streets of which 459 were hutongs. By the Qing period the number had increased to more than 2000 and, when in 1949 Mao proclaimed the formation of the People's Republic of China, there were about 3000 hutongs. A significant increase in the Beijing population between 1949 and 1959 compelled the newly formed communist regime to have different families share the same courtyard and different generations of the same family share the units within.
More recently, however, the hutongs have been under threat. Demolition started in earnest in the 1980s and every year since the late '90s new developments such as roads, high-rise residences and commercial districts have destroyed whole areas. The word chai painted on walls or doors - indicating that the building is to be demolished - has become a regular feature of the hutong landscape.
Ian Johnson, former Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing, reported that in the '90s more than 200,000 people lost their homes in the old city and received practically no compensation. Many were elderly, cut off from their social support systems and unable to travel back to their previous employment.
There has been some organised opposition and in 2002, the Government responded by identifying 25 historic areas where the height of buildings was regulated, roofs were to be slanted at the correct angle and those that did not conform were to be demolished. The revival of temples, folk customs and traditional entertainment was also encouraged.
In some areas this has led to increased commercialisation. Bars and restaurants line the banks of Houhai (Back Lake) and rickshaw drivers point to A3 laminated cards inviting you to visit the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower or eat noodles with a local family. In the summer, women dressed in qipao (high-collared one-piece Manchu-style gown) play the pipa on traditional boats, serenading lovers. Often traditional residents have been pushed out of the area and replaced by young professionals.
Not all areas have been destroyed or gentrified. There are still hutongs within the old city where travelling bakers keep bread warm in oilcan furnaces, where noodle-pullers operate out of steam-filled restaurants and where the coalman continues to deliver to rich and poor alike. But how far the hutong as representative of a communal way of life will exist is not clear.
I take my last glimpse as the coalman carries his final delivery into the courtyard beyond, laid out according to feng shui principles. A large pomegranate tree holds a gilded birdcage and shelters fish in the pond below. I am told there should always be one blossoming plant in the courtyard to remind the inhabitants of the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence. It seems that the hutongs, despite their courtyard houses with solid grey walls, double-tiled roofs, lions at the door and wall friezes to protect against evil spirits, will not be able to stave off the threat to their historic and communal way of life. They too are impermanent.
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Posted on: 27/08/2012
The following is Marilynn Wallace’s piece on walking here, which was on our longlist for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition.
Marilynn Wallace’s lyrical account of her walk in Beijing’s Jinshan Park.
Sunday in the Park in Beijing
Just north of Beijing’s Forbidden City is Jinshan Park. Pay a modest fee and you enter the enchanting world of the Chinese at play.
The park is full of spring blossoms – trees blushing every shade of pink, tulips of red, purple and white nodding in the gentle breeze, the teasing promise of 200 varieties of peonies. Jinshan is famous for its peony garden – the largest in Beijing – and in May some 200,000 flowers provide visitors with a dazzling visual feast.
Jinshan Park, which covers 57 acres, was built in 1179 when the Jin Dynasty was in power. In fact the name Jinshan means mountain (shan) of the Jin Dynasty.
It is a typical Sunday. Picnickers abound. They spread their blankets on the grass, sharing food with laughing family and friends. Some have erected tables and are in deep concentration, playing cards or mahjongg.
We follow along the main path where the sound of music brings us to a group of elderly Chinese. They are stepping lively to folk dances they have probably known all their lives. Dressed in colourful costumes – the women in silk brocade, the men in embroidered waistcoats and velvet caps – they are oblivious to our presence. What is important is this Sunday gathering of friends.
Moving on we come to a plaque in Chinese and in English, marking the spot where the last Ming emperor died in 1644. According to legend, the 16 year old emperor fled from the Forbidden City into the park as rebel forces approached. In desperation he hanged himself from a nearby tree. We tourists are enchanted by such exotic tales from Chinese history – and it is with real disappointment that we learn that the tree standing tall before us is not the original but is in fact a replacement, planted in 1981.
The path now takes us to a wide area where young people are playing what resembles badminton – but with their feet. With well-placed kicks, they keep a flower-like ‘shuttlecock’ off the ground, passing it back and forth. Their dexterity and grace makes it look so easy.
Nearby, several women are twirling long streamers of multi-coloured ribbon. Like perpetual motion machines, they repeatedly carve out figures of eight in the air. The colours flow and blend as in an optical illusion.
As a child I played with a skipping rope. But the Chinese version takes some beating! Their ropes must be at least 20 feet in length with as many as four people jumping at one time. A misstep results in a tangle of legs -- and laughter. Further on, groups of Chinese exercise in unison, feet moving as if choreographed, rhythmically waving racquets in the air to taped music. The tai chi exercisers are also in evidence, performing movements that have become familiar to us Westerners.
Continuing on our walk, we come to a cluster of people listening intently to a young woman singing Chinese opera. They are obviously captivated by both her voice and the music but these sounds are definitely alien to our Western sensibilities so we move on. Instead, we are drawn to the more pleasing strains of a Viennese waltz. In the centre of a circle of people of all ages is an elderly couple. He is tall and elegant, dressed formally in white gloves and tails. His partner is petite and lithe, wearing a floaty pink ball gown. They glide effortlessly to the waltz, like an Oriental Astaire and Rogers, then segue into a stately yet seductive tango. Another change of pace sees them quick-stepping to country and western music. We are completely enthralled by their slick performance. Were they professional dancers in their youth? I wonder. How I wish I could speak their language and ask them!
If this were a London park, these performers would be buskers. But in Jinshan, no guitar cases are flung open for coins. No hats are passed round for donations. Everyone is performing for the sheer fun of it and the pleasure of being among friends.
In the middle of the park is an artificial hill, the Hill of Scenic Beauty, rising 46 meters into the Beijing mist. It dates back to 1421 and was built from the earth and rocks that were dug out to create the moat and canals that surround and protect the Forbidden City. It’s astonishing to think that all this material was moved without the aid of machinery. We climb the winding path that is landscaped with shrubs and bonsai, grateful for the handrail as the ascent gets steeper and steeper. We stop at small pavilion to catch our breath and to admire the view. We chat to a pair of American students, rucksacks on their backs, who are busily taking photos. They tell us that their university has an exchange program with Beijing and they are seeing all the sights, determined to make the most of their time here.
The Wanchun Pavilion or the Pavilion of the Everlasting Spring is at the top of the hill and used to be the highest point in the city. It was built in 1750 and is decorated with colourful glazed tiles – reds, greens, blues and golds. We enter the temple and admire the statue of Buddha at whose feet people have laid flowers and fruit. Worshippers bow low in prayer, clutching sticks of incense. Outside, we make a 360 degree circuit around the pavilion and are treated to the most spectacular views over Beijing – the majestic Drum and Bell Towers to the north, tranquil lakes to the northwest and the golden rooftops of the Imperial Palace of the Forbidden City below us to the south. How glad we are that we made the climb!
We make our way down the Hill of Scenic Beauty, feeling that our visit is complete. Our walk exploring Jinshan Park has given us more than just pretty scenery and flowers – but also a genuine insight into the way ordinary residents of Beijing enjoy their Sundays.
As we thread our way through a stand of pines and cypresses towards the path that will lead us back to the entrance, we are lured once again by the sound of music. In a nearby open space, a handful of amateur musicians is starting to tune up. Within the next fifteen minutes, more and more performers arrive, greeting each other animatedly – welcoming smiles, pats on the back, verbal exchanges, laughter. Then an ad hoc ‘jam session’ begins. I count twelve saxophones, three clarinets, four trumpets, a drum kit – even a keyboard plugged into a generator. New Orleans jazz and bossa nova standards are improvised with great enthusiasm. We are conspicuously the only Westerners in the sizeable crowd and feel honoured to be there. We listen, rapt, delighted to have stumbled upon this impromptu concert.
There is a pause between songs as the musicians discuss what to play next. A saxophone player turns to us. ‘English?’ he asks. We nod. He grins broadly, extending his hand. ‘Welcome to Beijing.’
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