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Beijing: Hot Spots and Hutongs in a Multi-faceted City
by David Yeadon

There are two ways to enter Beijing's Forbidden City — that sprawling, one-time bastion of centralized Chinese power under the great dynasties that flourished here for hundreds of years. The first way is the "correct" way via the huge Gate of Heavenly Peace on Tiananmen Square where Mao Zedong formally proclaimed the "New China" on October 1, 1945. Here you jostle in with the crowds across the ornate moat bridges, under the great red arch beneath the gigantic airbrushed photo of Mao staring benignly with that enigmatic Mona Lisa smile at the daily masses pouring into that first enormous paved plaza to wander through seemingly endless sequence of temples and palaces and reception areas and more vast white-stoned plazas . . . .

Or there's the other way. The way I always tend to prefer when exploring. The way that custom-shapes your own itinerary and sense of individualized discovery. I look for a back entrance and in this instance merely smiled pleasantly at a cleaning lady emerging from a tiny side door way up along the 20' high western wall of The Forbidden City, wished her a chirpy hello, indicated that I'd like to have a little peep and . . . .

. . . I was in.

And the whole place was mine! No one else was about in the early morning silence except a swirl of swooping birds, a few cooing dove-couples, and the musty ghosts of emperors and princes and courtesans and courtiers moving almost tangibly through the shadows between the ornate palaces. Somehow this kind of mildly-illicit form of exploration coupled with tingles of schoolboy excitement, added frisson and flavor to the rich reality of this amazing complex. Most tourist hot spots in China and even more so in the capital, Beijing, are inundated with tsunamis of visitors. Here, as soon as the main gates open off Tiananmen Square and the coaches roll up by the score, it becomes difficult to appreciate the power and mystery of such a unique place while being washed along in a tidal surge of chattering, nibbling, camera-wielding, guide book-waving tourists.

Far better to make friends with a cleaning lady and get a sense of the place solo-style — at least for a while. For then you can appreciate the fact that barely an inch of this enormous 200 acre complex, home to 24 emperors from 1420 to 1924, is not adorned with some kind of carving or painting or other form of ornate decoration. Even the white flagstones of the vast courtyards are often sculpted in delicate, swirling bas-reliefs. These spaces were designed to hold huge pageants of over 600,000 bowing, scraping participants or grand assemblies of faithful worshipers — and to impress and diminish outsiders by their inhuman scale. You know, you can sense immediately, that this was the true focal point of power, the fiercely-protected fulcrum of a nation with the world's oldest continuous culture (writing was developed here around 1700 BC) which today boasts a population of over 1.2 billion, almost a quarter of the population of our globe.

The tentacles of authority and decree sinewed throughout this huge land from this single spot and, with the exception of occasional disturbances caused by such ambitious would-be world-conquerors as Genghis Kahn and his Mongol hoards in the 13th century, did so effectively and efficiently almost right up to the present day. A present day of fascinating, if precarious, unpredictability. But more on that later. For the moment it was enough just to wander alone through the vastness of this place, cut off by towering walls from the crackle and din of the city. This, I realized, must have been what it was always like since the emergence of The Forbidden City as it stands today during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This sense of an heaven-like oasis of calm, centered in the certainty of its own power and prestige, where the golden roof tiles of the palaces glow in the low early sun and the lightness of the delicately curled rooflines contrast sublimely with the huge column-and-beam construction of the halls with their swathes and swirls of carved ornamentation and elaborate thrones and brightly-painted ceilings and swooping dragons and fierce phoenixes . . . .

The symbols of power and longevity are everywhere — fierce bronze lions, docile, doe-eyed tortoises and elegant lanky cranes. Wherever you look you are reminded that this place was regarded as the center of everything — the nation, the world, the universe. Rich, certain, aloof — this was for the Chinese the focal point of all life, commerce, earthly values and a key spirited touchstone — unchanging and unforgiving.

The writer Osbert Sitwell, captured its spirit perfectly: "Each court constitutes a world of its own, remote in feeling as the moon; a world wherein nothing changes except the ceaseless, clock-like sweep of cold, golden light from east to west."

I left here strangely humbled by this bastion of utter certainty.

Maybe that's what makes Beijing such an intriguing capital. Founded over two thousand years ago as Yanjing (City of Swallows), a strategic and frontier outpost, the city's metropolitan population now exceeds 14 million and you can sense that all national power still resides here — overtly and covertly. All around you is a megalopolis of rampaging growth, and all the colorful chaos of culture-shock as the nation grapples uneasily (from a power-broker point of view) and enthusiastically (from the point of view of most urban citizens and certain the hordes of foreign visitors) with the expectations and actualities of glorious western-styled excess — an almost promiscuous excess of venture — or more precisely — vulture capitalism!

Look at the billboards and you'll see the quandary. On the fringe of the city's main commercial retail strip, Qianmen Dajie, an Aladdin's cave of teeming consumer abundance, there's an enormous one — bright communist red with white text giving a terse synopsis of the current party line: "March Ahead Along the Road of Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics." And then, barely fifty yards away is a second, not quite so large and authoritative, but painted in the happy colors of domestic harmony (pastel pinks, soft blues, and meadow-greens) suggesting "Your Credit Card will Bring You Abundant Happiness — Today!" — followed by pictures of cars, TV sets, stereos, air conditioners, washing machines, rice cookers, beepers, cell phones — the lot!

Despite the treasured monuments and symbols of earlier ages here and the sumptuous sprawl of its great royal parks and palaces, it`s usually the brash modernity of the city that amazes most first time visitors. Freeways, particularly the giant east-west Chang'an Jie, are edged by endless concrete blocks and glass-spiked with new towers and high-rise complexes all bristling with satellite dishes. Time-encrusted city walls have long gone and even the fascinating old hutong neighborhoods, cobwebbed with alleys and little markets and redolent with traditional lifeways, are ripe for the wreckers balls and instant Lego erector-set development. Another huge billboard I saw proclaimed a little daringly — "New Homes for A New People!" while chimney smoke curled slowly skyward from hundreds of nearby hutong siheyuan (courtyard homes). Scores of bicyclists trickled out on their way to work through the thickening morning-rush fumes and sneak-into-everything palls of dust (irritating dregs of sandstorms from the Gobi and other deserts that have always plagued the city). Domestic coal-fires and general industrial and other pollution increasingly generated in this place of seemingly unstoppable growth and frantic dot com-mania commerce, thickened by the minute as the traffic became chaotically gridlocked.

"Now is frighten times," an elderly man with enormous, tobacco-yellowed teeth whispered to me in fragmented — but surprisingly coherent English — as I purchased some freshly-steamed baozi (spongy rolls stuffed with chopped meat and vegetables) for breakfast from his tiny street stall in a hutong neighborhood just off the eastern side of Tiananmen Square. "Money, money — too much, too fast." He shook his streaky-haired head and waved skinny fingers, knobby as fledgling bamboo stalks, seemingly bewildered by the rapid decline in the ancient Confucian ideals of close family ties and firm values, and by the surge of countless thousands of migrants from the provinces — all signs of a new and, for him, dangerously rootless mobility verging on spiritual, and political, anarchy. He seemed confused too by the pace of the capital's transformation and nervous that the still-powerful centralized government may institute yet one more of its sudden purges against progress. He obviously had vivid memories of Mao's shattering "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76) and other Tiananmen Square-type "corrections" that have alarmed the western world with their sudden and often enduring ferocity.

I sat down on a doorstep and watched the little neighborhood go about its business in a timeless, almost time-warp, manner. A sidewalk barber was meticulously clipping the black, hedgerow-thick eyebrows of an old man lolling back on a rickety bamboo chair; a small boy dressed in a traditional blue shirt and red kerchief school uniform was squatting on a tiny stool outside his home carefully crafting ornate Chinese characters in his homework book with a long bamboo pen, oblivious to all the scurried activity around him; a store on the corner sold nothing but live ducks and chickens, crammed and trussed up in wicker baskets and protesting loudly about their imminent demise; six men sat splay-legged on the sidewalk immersed in a dice game and drinking fiery mao-tai liquor from tiny chipped cups; a peddler standing nearby displayed an extremely odd assortment of "health cures" on a rickety folding table — deer antlers, dried anatomical accouterments, bottles containing something blood-red in color (who knows — maybe actual blood) and even the whole foot of a bear, claws and all; a bent woman peddled a trishaw cart carrying enormous piles of coal briquettes for neighborhood cooking stores and fires. There were huge clay vats of pickles across the street exuding rich, vinegary aromas which mingled with the pungent, lip-smacking smells of frying noodles being cooked lo-mein style at a street stall with bean sprouts, shards of vegetables and meats, ginger and soy sauce for delicious instant takeaway snacks . . . .

It's reassuring to see this kind of timeless "neighborhood" life still thriving in the city but, as I wandered hardly a couple of minutes away, around the corner — there was the new Beijing once again with its garish billboards and glass and steel towers and clogged traffic (total gridlock in some central sectors is an almost daily event here). And everywhere were those signs — neon-flickering extravaganzas for new discos and new bars (very in-scene attractions at the moment and many are bundled up together in the foreign residents' area of Sanlitun), new stores, restaurants and "sing-song" karaoke houses along Qianmen Dajie, Beijing's enduring "main street," and those two teeming, pedestrian-only shopping streets — Dazhalan, a wonderfully traditional "film set" frenzy, and Liulichang, a gentrified strip of upmarket art and trinket shops, exotic new hotels and, of course, western-style junk food outlets and snackeries sprouting up faster than they seem to do on commercial strips back in the USA. Of course, you can always seek refuge in the traditional delights of the Donganmen Night Market with its plethora of cheap eating stalls (anyone for deep friend beetles?) or the beloved weekend Panjiayuan Flea Market on the southern edge of the city.

There'll be no more purges here I thought. Just like my baozi-seller told me it's too late. Too hot. Too fast. Admittedly, an occasional crackdown on some of the more nefarious and overt forms of political and financial corruption and the Mafia and Tong-styled underworld monopolies would be desirable. While things are not yet quite so out of hand as they are in Moscow and in some of the onetime satellites of the old USSR, they're still a definite nuisance and crime-rates are increasing. In fact things occasionally have boiled so obviously over-the-top that huge street protests by residents have taken place — rather unfamiliar events in a nation renowned for strict population controls.

Fortunately, despite the reckless disregard of Beijing's ancient historical heritage in many areas, the city still offers an abundance of delights for visitors anxious to experience a little of the ambiance of the old capital. So I decided to play tourist for a few days and let myself be tour-grouped (yes, crowds and all. You can't always find compliant cleaning ladies) around five of the key sites here, each one a "must-see" on most travelers' itineraries. Don't be put off by the seemingly soulless sprawl of this rapidly-changing metropolis. Even in the vastness of Tiananmen Square, one of the world's largest urban gathering places and bound by monumental, but utterly charmless, government buildings, you'll find scores of kite-flyers, trinket and flower stalls, and youtiao (deep fried bread sticks) sellers and people from every corner of China's enormous, multi-ethnic melting pot. Some venture here in traditional dress, others in Mao-uniform garb (a sort of militaristic leisure suit), and most in ill-fitting western-style suits and dresses, but almost all eventually join the long lines outside the great Chairman Mao Memorial Hall to pay homage to the embalmed corpse of The Great Leader, and historic world figure. The interior is cold and aloof and strangely unmoving despite the aura of obligatory reverence that saturates the place. "I came only for my parents," whispered one young man in his odd chequered and striped "best suit" and shrugged with cool disdain, "It was a promise . . . ."

I enjoyed a far more promising touristic experience in little hilltop Jingshan Park at the northern tip of The Forbidden City and adjoining Beihai Park, once home of Kublai Khan, and now an entrancing lake-setting for pavilions, temples and halls and a huge Tibetan stupa painted blinding white and built to honor the visit here of the Dalai Lama in 1651. A couple of miles to the northeast near Dalai Park is a more active focal point for Tibetan teaching in the form of the Lama Temple, once a palace, and still teeming with ornate carved creatures, stelae, huge bronze incense burners and Buddhas galore all bathed in that unique glow of peace and spiritual enlightenment.

"Doesn't he look so happy and content," gushed one tourist lady from Texas.

"He should. He found nirvana didn't he. Didn't have to get reincarnated a thousand times like most of them other poor peasants!" replied her female companion who'd obviously read her guide book carefully.

And guidebooks occasionally get it right. Most suggest that one of the peak experiences in Beijing is a trip to the entrancing Summer Palace fifteen miles or so northwest of downtown. But first I was taken on a brief sidetrack to the Temple of Heaven park a mile or so south of Tiananmen Square to view the exquisite circular Good Harvest Prayer House where for centuries emperors conducted elaborate sacrificial rites to ensure food for their needy, and occasionally restless, masses.

Then it was off to the sumptuous Summer Palace gardens and more ornate palaces, pavilions and temples all around Kunming Lake which, until the mid 1700's, were the private sanctuary of dynasty-dignitaries and Buddha help any poor little serf who happened to stray into these hallowed grounds, especially if the notoriously-ferocious Empress Dowager CiXi was in residence with her foot-long fingernails and reputation for executing any uninspired chef who failed to tantalize her taste buds at her frequent 120 course dinners!

But it was all a little too packed — like a pumped up Beijing-'passegiata' — with over-popular picnic spots all around Longevity Hill and a shopping madhouse among the traditional waterside shops of Suzhou Street. As usual — pleasures in Beijing are invariably enjoyed en-masse, but here at least, the dusty, fume-laden air of the city was far less noxious. White clouds with flat underbellies drifted slowly above the crowds like giant mantra rays and, higher still, wispy veils of cirrus lay like sparkling plankton on the endless surface of a blue cobalt sky. Calm can be found in these beautiful places — it's all a matter of attitude and seeking out the secluded niches. Down the hill from where I sat, two lovers lay together in the warm grass, reciting poetry to one another. Moods of sweet latency enveloped me. And then a tour of shrieking French school kids appeared out of nowhere and my solace-seeking self rebelled . . .enough of all this!

I was saturated in history, culture and the claustrophobia of conducted tours. It was time for a gentling a disappearance once again into the hutongs . . . .

And that's how I found myself in one of the most evocatively traditional neighborhoods of all adjoining Houhai Lake, northwest of the great languorous spaces of Beihai Park.

Peace, sanity, and the delights of solace returned as I wandered through the narrow alleys losing myself intentionally in their tantalizing tangles. I peeped wherever I could into those intimate domestic courtyards, the siheyuan, and caught glimpses of family life still rolling gently along behind high gray walls and "spirit doors" to keep out evil influences. Which apparently they did because things seemed to go on much as they have for generations, unperturbed by all the searing progress and pumping adrenaline of this overheated metropolis.

Here I saw songbirds in their bamboo cages, heard pet crickets chirping, and bamboo wind chimes wafting in cool breezes beneath vine-covered trellises and roof awnings from which dangled strings of red chilies, green peppers, and ginger. As I was sneaking a peep into one particularly delightful siheyuan filled with potted flowers and redolent with the aromas of rich sauces wafting out from the tiny windows of the kitchen, a man came quietly from behind pushing his bicycle, nudged the door open wider with his front wheel and, with an enormous toothy grin, invited me inside. I was a little reluctant to accept. My knowledge of Chinese was negligible beyond the usual ten or so touristic quickies ("where is the toilet please" and "I'd like to pay a lot less for this . . ." and "excuse me, you've just hawked on my shoe . . .") and I know how much the Chinese value their privacy hence all the high walls and closed doors. However, as I knew I would, I accepted, promising myself just a couple of minutes, tops . . . .

Three hours later, I waddled out of that siheyuan having somehow ingested half a liter bottle of Mao-tai, most of a chicken cooked to mousse-like tenderness in a ginger, chile, soy, sugar and rice vinegar sauce, mini-mountains of soft fluffy rice, a couple of sliced oranges, cigars (mine — I handed them round much to the amazement and delight of the assembled family who handled them like little bars of gold), and endless cups of tea and more Mao-tai and toasts to everything from Mao ("He was good. His ministers no good!"), to my family back in England, to a nearby neighborhood McDonald's which was apparently regarded as the prime repository of all things new and western.

What had begun as a small gathering of father (my host with the bicycle), mother, one child (the legal limit in China) and a grandmother who kept wobbling behind us in the shadows on tiny slippered feet (once bound, so I was told, in the traditional manner) eventually ended up as an impromptu party with half the neighborhood wandering in bringing gifts of more food and, of course, more Mao-tai

The remainder of the day seemed to pass in slow, somewhat blurred, motion. Which actually is not a bad way to spend your time in the hutong to the west of the old Drum and Bell Towers across Silver Ingot Bridge and close to the willow-graced Houtai and Qianhai lakes where statue-still elderly men were fishing with long bowed bamboo rods. Strolling at a pace that can euphemistically be described as "contemplative," I explored Old Pipe Lane, packed with cluttered stores, peddlers, carts and street food stalls; watched the old men proudly "walking" their caged songbirds and eyeing the competition for "best canary-Caruso" status or something of the kind; enviously admired the energy and discipline of a group of elderly ladies practicing tai qi near the lake; smiled as huddles of men played furious forays of mah-jong or more sedate games of chess under the willow trees while nibbling on pizza-like flatbreads known as da bing, still warm from the nearby bakery, and crepe-styled xiao bing bursting with stir-fried meat and vegetables. The intense mix of sights, sounds and smells here was utterly entrancing — the shrill calls of crickets and the cries of the men selling pet-cricket cages gouged from small gourds with meticulously carved lids and delicate wooden grasshopper "houses," the goldfish sellers, purveyors of buns, youtiao and dimum of every description, kite-makers, and the serious, stern looks on the little faces of boys in school uniform returning to their siheyuans with homework assignments neatly packed away in identical black plastic backpacks . . . .

I ended my explorations atop the nearby Drum Tower, on Gulou Daji, one worn 15th century relic of the old city that thankfully has not been eradicated in the name of progress. I lost count of the steps but finally sat breathless and happy looking over this strange place of contrasts and wondering how — or if — it will somehow keep the balance between progress, prosperity and the preservation of a heritage that has endured for over two thousand years.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see. But meanwhile . . . it's time for tea again, somewhere under those willow trees by Houhai Lake . . . .

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