Yesterday began with the usual eccentric breakfast fare. I had some very strange bacon, a small humbao, mandarin oranges, a banana, and some toasted baguette. the_child had been getting her inner Asian on with some gusto, and thus has been eating a number of things I am unwilling to try, including something which was apparently a deep-fried twist of fish paste.
The day had a slightly later start than the previous two, so we moved a little slower through the morning, including some packing panic. Chinese domestic flights have much stricter baggage rules than international flights &dmash; one checked bag only, with stiff charges for a second bag, and one carry-on only, we are told with no exceptions. Even the few souvenirs we'd bought so far had bulked our bags. We're carrying a considerable amount of school supplies collected from the_child's class as donations for her home orphanage, the Nan Feng Social Welfare Home, and we won't be giving those til the last day or so of the trip, so we've got version of the Towers of Hanoi going on among our luggage.
Eventually we were off on a "crafts visit." A young woman named Cassie met us on the street near the Forbidden City and escorted us back into a hutong. The mysterious allure of the gates doesn't lessen once one passes within. The accesses are narrow and frequently turn, so there are no straight shots through the hutong. All the houses are small compounds, so more gates wait behind the outer gates. Interestingly, once you pass the first set of turns, the interior of the hutong is very quiet — a marked contrast to the raucous bustle which is Beijing.
To digress a bit, Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world. Imagine Los Angeles, only bigger with a lot more bicycles and much less traffic control, especially fewer freeways. Everywhere you go it is simply full of people, bicycles, cars, trucks and busses. When I visited here first in 1990, bicycles dominated the city. Today most of the old bike lanes seem to have been replaced by bus lanes, and busses dominate, but there's no shortage of bicycles even now. All of this adds up to a considerable busy-ness, great din, and enormous amounts of point-source pollution.
Inside the hutong, we were led to the Beijing Huiling, a rehab and training center for the mentally challenged. It was located in a classic hutong courtyard style house, which was four small buildings facing a little octagonal yard with several trees growing up. Almost no one was around when we arrived, so Cassie showed us a work room and the offices (we skipped the kitchen) before we wound up in the art room, the Three Primary Colors workshop.
It was hung with scrolls and paintings done by the trainees. (Their term, I would probably say students.) Quite a bit of the signage was in English, as this program has some international sponsorship. We messed about with paper cuttings and made cards, then Mother of the Child and my mom shopped for greeting cards from their selection, featuring more of the trainees' art, and we made donations to the program.
An older woman was present when we were working with the cards, likewise a gentleman hung around and watched. By the time we were done a couple of teen agers had shown up. Cassie took the_child outside for some Chinese games. This involved something a lot like hackysack, played with a cluster of feathers attacked to a stack of discs which clacked every time the bird was kicked or struck the ground. MotC played as well, those of us who are less coordinated sat out and took photos. This was great, giggling fun. fter that they played with a number of other toys, including diabolos.
Then one of the teachers showed up with a big plastic bag full of goldfish, and smaller one with four colored frogs. The goldfish were examined and marveled over before being dumped into a big porcelain pot of water, except for a few who were set into the water around the roots of some aquatic plant. The frogs went into a bowl of rocks, where they promptly spread out at ninety degrees of separation like some odd compass rose.
After consideration, I decided the frogs were probably a translucent species which had been shot up with food coloring. I could be wrong, and I'll post the photos later if someone more knowledgable than I wishes to comment, but they were red, yellow, green and blue; otherwise identical; and the color seemed internal, if that makes sense, rather than on the skin. Whatever they were, they were also interesting.
I took advantage of that time to shoot the hutong court, including a lovely piece of ornamental carving on the roof which is in the process of rotting away. The whole place very much reminded me of my story "The Sky that Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black."
After we left that, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant which was done up in a very traditional architecture. The staff all wore traditional costumes, and we were greeted at the door by a young girl smashing a gong. Sort of the Chinese equivalent of Ye Merrie Olde Englishe Tavern, I think. In actuality it was a noodle house, though we plowed through a number of other dishes first included shredded pork with green onions and a form of chicken which I was assured was not kung pao. The noodles were fresh wheat flour noodles, large and puffy and served with a bean curd sauce that looked like something you'd wipe carefully off your shoes and tasted middling ok. (The noodles themselves were delicious.)
Once we'd demolished the noodles, we were off to a hutong tour. This surprised me slightly, as we'd spent part of the morning in a hutong. This involved taking pedicabs around a very nicely developed hutong, also near the Forbidden City. The place was obviously a tourist attraction, with lots of bars, street vendors, and people everywhere being touristy. (In Beijing you can tell this by the hats — most tourist groups will have everyone wearing the same color and style of hats, presumably so the guides can count heads.) It was spread out along the Ten Temples River, and along the waterfront the old houses had been developed to something very swank. We were told later these properties sold for $15,000 per square meter, and are some of the most desirable private property in Beijing.
Eventually the pedicabs dropped us off and we were led about by a hutong guide, a very knowledgable gentleman who was startlingly frank about Chinese history. He took us back into the inner areas of the hutong, away from the tourists, talking about the Imperial history of the area, why there was such a commercial frontage, how to interpret the architecture of the hutong doors. We wound up at a courtyard owned by the Wang family, who opens their home to tourists. Mrs. Wang let us in, and our guide talked about the history of the property.
That particular court was over two hundred years old. Mrs. Wang's in-laws had purchased it in 1953. During the Cultural Revolution when all property was abolished, they were required to pay rent for the home, but because they were never forcibly relocated, when private property rights were restored in the reforms of the late 1970s, they were able to reclaim their old home, though the other two families the State had moved in didn't vacate until the late 1990s. About 80% of the hutongs in Beijing are still owned by the State, the other 20% are in private hands. The guide explained that most younger people prefer the high rise apartments being built, for the conveniences of the kitchens and private bathrooms, while many older Chinese prefer the peaceful quiet and traditional living of the hutongs. This is obviously a very emotional subject in Beijing, possibly because of all the hutongs lost to urban renewal, and also possibly because of the very traditional (and non-Western) way of life inherent in them.
Each house was three rooms, and (relatively) modern kitchens had been added on. Now days the elder Wangs live in the front house, while their two sons each occupy the other two houses in the court with their wives, and one granddaughter.
The vernacular is what I can only describe as modernized traditional Chinese. Their furniture was a mix of Qing dynast antiques and formica card tables. Their appliances were a mix of a countertop hotplate and a 60 inch plasma tv. Their house was a mix of centuries old brick, sun-rotted window frames and air conditioning. The courtyard had a porcelain table and stools under a grape arbor, with a pomegranate tree at the center. This made me think of Green, though the tree was much too small for her, and of calendula_witch, whose favorite fruit is the pomegranate.
We eventually left the hutong and walked over to the Drum Tower to meet our van. The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower were built in the 15th century to provide timekeeping for old Beijing, within the city walls. Bells and drums were sounded for awakening, for the beginning and end of work hours, and for curfew. Today they are only sounded at Chinese New Year, for luck. These are striking buildings which look far more like the gatehouses to ancient fortresses than their names might suggest to a Western reader. Squat, high, large, with elegant superstructures over their looming stone bases.
From the Drum Tower we went to see a children's acrobatic performance. We arrived early, so the_child spent some time talking to kids who were getting out of the school attached to the theatre. Quite a cross-section of people there, to be sure. My favorites where the very old woman in the dark blue Mao suit who clutched a cell phone while waiting for a grandchild, and the six or seven year old child in gogo boots and an Annie Hall outfit who was wandering around on an articulated two-wheeled skate board.
The acrobatic performance was impressive. Most of the acts I was at least somewhat familiar with — contortionists, juggling, traditional Chinese acrobatics, bicycle stunts — but they had some flair. I've never seen a juggle do nine balls. This guy tap danced, too. Likewise the bicyclists, who managed a dozen teen aged girls on one bicycle in an inverted pyramid that would have given a Wallenda pause. But there was a kid who did something called "slack wire", which was a fairly thick cable, possible one inch, run through two poles where were set up at obtuse angles to one another and balanced only by this kids weight on the cable. He walked, tumbled, did some contortionist tricks, did a thing with a ladder which I'm pretty sure violated the laws of physics, then got on his head on a hand-powered unicycle and rode that up and down the cable.
the_child was absolutely enthralled.
From there it was time to head for the train station, the Beijing West Railroad Station. That is a building larger than most airport terminals I've been in. We arrived early enough to go for a sit down dinner, so once we knew we weren't stuck in traffic, we headed for the Biejing Railroad Hotel and another Chinese dinner. Fairly spicy pork, some bitching kung pao chicken (for real this time), a dish of pickled spinach and pine nuts which was quite good, and seared green beans. The whole dinner for seven (us five plus the guide and driver, MotC had a beer, others had soda) cost less than $15, because it was a local restaurant at local prices rather than a tourist restaurant.
Back to the railraod station, which was every bit as mobbed as you might imagine a Beijing railroad station being on a Saturday night. We made it to our train without incident, said good-bye to our guide, and found our sleeping berths. Both compartments are full — there was a rather surprised businessman in the compartment shared by me, MotC and the_child. He made a game effort to be friendly with his five words of English, which I matched with my ten or so words of Chinese, before we called in my Dad to be polite at some length. The cars are Pullman style sleeper cars, and quite nicely appointed. The bathrooms leave a great deal to be desired, encouraging some serious ironpants on the part of the passengers, but otherwise it's a very nice train. I've slept a good seven hours and am now out in the corridor on a jumpseat, typing as the sky finally begins to lighten.
Don't know when I'll post this, but Happy Easter to those of you who observe. I know we're visiting a mosque today, which seems ironic. Not sure what else. I've never been to Xi'an, so it will all be new to me.
|Originally published at jlake.com.|