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Trans Siberian Onwards

Wandering the Hutongs

CHINA | Tuesday, 9 September 2014 | Views [370]

As with Shanghai, this was not my first time in Beijing, and I have already seen the main sights.  I decided to spend the first day wandering the old lanes and back alleys, known as "hutongs", to get a feel for the ancient fabric of this historic city.  Under a brilliant blue sky, I set off.


My guidebook mentions in passings a few hutongs which were renamed in according with the ... winds of change ... blowing during the cultural revolution.  So I set my bearings for what was once known as the "Study the teachings of Mao" hutong and headed off.  Little did I know that the small little hutong mentioned briefly by my guide book would actually be the epicentre of an ultra-gentrified tourism hotbed - which was on this public holiday (mid autumn festival) rammed with local Chinese visitors.  This is what the Chinese would call “人山人海” - characters which mean litterally "people mountain people sea", but which is an idiomatic phrase meaning a place overcrowded with people.  I wandered the hutongs, saw old houses converted to cute cafes, art spaces and some from which trinkets were being sold.  I found an old lady, 85, who had lived in the hutong for twenty years,.  Unfortunately, the residents were not keen to be photographed.  In contrast to many places in China, this was an area in touch with the changes wraught by the cultural revolution - a period which is not often discussed openly, but here, many of the hutongs had bilingual information boards recounting at least the names of the hutongs changing, and then changing back, during and after that turbulant phase in China's recent history.


My other main goal for my first day in Beijing was to collect my ticket to Mongolia from the agents office.  Perhaps today being a public holiday should have been a warning.  Perhaps the dark, empty corridors in the agents office should have been a clue.  Yes, they were closed.  In my defence, I had made a point of asking the ticket office lady in Qingdao if she would be working through the mid autumn festival, and she said she would - it is not a particularly large holiday in China, not like the near year's Spring Festival, and not even a "golden week" either.  So I fancied that the agent would be available today.  It seemed I was wrong.  My train was to depart two days hence, so I didn't have a huge amount of time to waste chasing down my ticket.  For Spring Festival, China would shut down for two weeks, for golden week, as the name implies, I might be stuck for a week.  For this festival - defined by the eating of round mooncakes, said to represent the roundness of the autumn full moon which is the reason for the occasion - I supposed they would be open again tomorrow.  Probably!  At that moment, a glimmer, or perhaps an echo of hope.  A Chinese voice could be heard gently in the distance.  I tried to position it.  It was getting closer.  From around the corner appeared a small Chinese lady.  Optimistically, I assumed she had to be here to issue my ticket!  She wasn't.  But seeing my plight, she made a phone call.  Things were discussed.  Filing cabinets were rifled through.  A passport was mentioned.  Mine!  I just had to show it to her and in return, my ticket to Mongolia.  I pulled the almost full maroon brown document from my money belt.  I signed some scraps of paper.  It could have been my last will and testament, but in return I got my ticket to Mongolia.  A ticket to mystery and adventure, and the first part of my ticket home.  For while my time in China has been pleasant, I am more than familiar enough with the land, people, food, language, places and culture to say that my time here is just a preluede to the real trans mongolian, trans siberian adventure, which starts the day after tomorrow.


The rest of my time in Beijing was relatively uneventful.  I saw more hutongs and stumbled up on a lady advertising an art festival.   Last time in Beijing, I also met a lady in a hutong advertising an art festival.  This one, again, was distributing around the surrounding area and you had to follow a map to find the pieces.  I also followed a canal and saw men fishing.  I hunted in vain for Chinese dumplings - shui jiao.  One restaurant had a sichuanese chef, so I switched my order to a regional classic at the last minute - huiguorou, twice cooked pork- no regrets.  I tried again to order dumplings in the heart of the qianmen district - disaster!  Worst dumplings ever!  Their milk tea was also an abomination - giving extra credence to the idea that tourist restaurants invariably have bad food.  Relying on location to bring in customers rather than reputation and taste is a recipie for bad food unfortunately.


That was that.  No dumplings, no return to quanqude for roast duck.  I visited a muslim restaurant where all the han chinese were uncomplainingly eating hot pot.  These few days were not a roaring culinary success, but for a few evenings gorging on grapes.  Large, green and purple globes with a body so much softer than its skin that the innards can easily be sucked out in a delicious squidgy mess.  I nibbled on these as a I pondered my upcoming trip - tomorrow to Mongolia.

Tags: beijing, china, hutongs, ticket


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