Realising Beijing is far less developed in many areas, something I hadn’t assumed was such an issue.
Down one Hutong lies a man tending to his exotic pet birds; down another lies a woman cooking food with a small steel wok, people hanging their washing on overhead electrical wires, a man using an electrical saw to cut through thick plinths of plastic, and a small dog trotting up and down as though he/she were oblivious to the chaos. Life here already fees very congested, yet vibrant and full of energy. The need to constantly dodge the wing mirrors of cars, as they plough through the hutongs, is an frequent irritation. Yet despite all this, I hadn’t come across the ‘buzz’ of urban life; the Hutongs seemed to be living a much slower-paced life than I had assumed for the capital city of China. That was, until I stumbled across the main road. I turned a corner and the streets erupted with noise, lights and colours. The dusty roads were replaced with concrete paths, and hundreds of small shops lined either side of the street.
After a rather questionable takeaway lunch, I wondered further, heading towards Tiananmen Square. While approaching, I stumbled across a rather humble (unassuming?) local art store. The owner politely greeted me, asked where I was from & what brought me to Beijing. His English proficiency was elementary but understandable. His store was cluttered and sporadic, just like the Hutongs themselves. So much so, the majority of his paintings were hidden behind mountains of clutter, empty boxes, stacks of half-used paint tubes, and the odd Easle or two. Either he was ashamed of his work or was too humble to show it. I was hoping it was the latter option, as he made various attempts to convince me to purchase some paintings. “Choose one you like” he said, as he brought up some pictures of Tiananmen Square (specifically: jou’lou?) on his ancient-looking, dust-covered and paint-splattered yet fully functioning and strangely up-to-date PC. He stepped away from the computer to allow me room to browse and find a picture that I was happy with. As I made excuses to avoid spending so much money on a painting, he would counter them very well. He assured me that I would get a student discount (dropping the price from 300¥ to 200¥) and I could have the painting delivered…
Grandma’s kitchen (social entrepreneurs) (to be completed!).
Despite the chaos and inequality, it feels safe here. I feel comfortable, both during the day and the night (and I did so in Xiamen too). This, I think, is accentuated by the fact that I walked past a small police station, perhaps ‘station’ is exaggerating, it was more like an outpost or hut. While passing, I noted that all five police officers (male and female) sat on chairs on the outside decking on their mobile phones – laughing between themselves. So I concluded that there was no (urgent) crime occurring in the area whatsoever, at least I hope there wasn’t!
I soon reach the same Hutong maze that I visited last night. This time I change my path and venture down other hutongs; those less crowded. Half way down Ya’er Hutong, an elderly man is sat on a rather unstable chair. As I approach, I see that he is rotating a large bead necklace in his hands, and I can hear him chuckling as I pass. He may not have been laughing at the necklace, but it made me think how life here in the Hutongs involves only the simple pleasures. [Simple yet hearty meals; the males of the community play games in the street, many crowded round one table; the ladies square dancing until late in the evening; and children running back and forth amusing themselves you blowing bubbles].
Also on my way back (in search of a place to have dinner), I stand at the lake-side watching a lady play fetch with her dog in the murky water, and the odd delusional individual that has chosen to swim in the lake. As I lean on the White marble-like railing, I turn my head slowly, taking in the beautiful scenery. The voice of a young guy appears from beside me and asks about the lady and her dog. We start to have general chit chat as his English is very good, and it later transpires that the guy is a medical student from Korea (South), on an internship at a nearby hospital. It turns out that we were both travelling solo that afternoon and so he suggests we continue our conversations over dinner, as he had heard of a few good local restaurants. So, in true back-packer fashion, I accepted. It turns out that the rumours he had heard were true – we ate at a fantastic restaurant and then had a short drink at a rooftop bar (they are unbelievably common throughout the hutongs here). I’m still yet to try Beijing Kao Ya though, those crispy pancakes await…