Strolling through a Beijing Hutong (Or “First impressions I had almost forgotten”)

Strolling through a Beijing Hutong (Or “First impressions I had almost forgotten”)

Last week, my uncle travelled to Beijing on business for a couple of days, and I took him to visit some Beijing hutongs (alleyways) on his day off.They are, after all, my favourite part of Beijing – aside from Tsinghua campus!

Actually, I think Beijing’s hutongs are unique compared to other Chinese cities that I have visited. If one stands on the outskirts of Beijing on a clear day, what one will often see is groups of skyscrapers clustered together, with wide, seemingly empty spaces in between. Those spaces are often filled with old hutongs (Qing, Ming and even older).  Inside the hutong, the low shops and living areas of these small alleys huddle closely together in the shadows of 高楼林立 (a 成语 four-character phrase ‘forest of tall buildings’). Looking upwards, you are bound to notice the tops of the surrounding high rise blocks, offices and shopping malls that have sprung up over the years. They look over the hutongs as crowds over an arena, and only from the windows of those high rise buildings can we really see the state of disrepair the old stone roofs have fallen into.

In the hutongs themselves, the atmosphere is lively, friendly, and (my uncle points out) somehow retains that perfect balance of ordered chaos that only the best places have! They’re  overloaded with people and yet remain incredibly peaceful (maybe here I can say 好整以暇 : ‘calm and unruffled at a very busy time’!). Clear passage was impossible. A stream of electric bikes shudder backwards and forwards down the street, pressing their horns at ten second intervals, and bicycles slip by close enough to skim our ears, bells ringing merrily (and incessantly) if ever my uncle stops to take a picture. Never take a photograph on a Chinese road, however safe it may seem. Just,,, don’t do it!

We trip over cardboard boxes of fruits that seem unfamiliar to my uncle and his colleague. Dragon fruit, huge grapes, spherical pears and tiny mangoes. To me they all seem like daily items now, but I’m reminded how it used to be when we buy some of those mangoes and my uncle is totally perplexed about how to eat it (a sticky situation…). They stop, intrigued, to watch a common occurence: a man making egg pancake on the street (I can eat that pancake in the campus supermarket) , and ask me to explain what that bean and cornbread is (I recognise it by the smell). Outside one nut shop, something which I can only describe as mud is being sold with a price scrawled on the box in pen. I ask what it is, but don’t understand the answer! My uncle photographs a man sitting on a stone block outside a side gate, but he is refusing to look at the camera, despite the mango lady and the man in the drinks shop trying to catch his attention. An old lady in a wheelchair squeezes past us on the packed street and gives us a wave. If we stop and look around, the street sellers, repairmen and the people idly chatting really do seem relaxed.

This is the general atmosphere of a Beijing hutong in my eyes. However, all this stuff that was happening, well I never looked twice at it as we walked through those alleyways. I guess I’ve grown used to it. I’m pleased to have shown my uncle and his colleague around that area  because they noticed all these little snippets of Beijing culture. They reminded me how much I cherish moments of insight into daily life here. I may be leaving in just a couple of months, but I would do well not to forget what makes China so very… Chinese!

Lately I feel I have forgotten why I am here. I don’t learn Chinese well, I don’t really leave campus much, and recently I have a terrible cough and just haven’t really been doing anything. The weather is bad lately, I feel unwilling to socialise with others, and haven’t been actively participating in Chinese cultural activities (e.g. watching Chinese films, making new Chinese friends, eating in a group). I feel I have lost my path. But just maybe moments like this will help me find my way again. It was lots of fun to teach my uncle a little Chinese – it brought back memories of the experiences I had when I didn’t know any of the language in September. Things have changed!

I just want to say that I’m really looking forward to sharing my experiences with my mum when she travels to China after my birthday. Her visa is all sorted and we’re just finalising where to go. In the past, I didn’t want to share my time in China with people special to me, and ended up pushing them a way. However, this chance to spend some time in Beijing with my uncle has really made me feel it’s not such a bad thing to share with others, after all. Thank you, and I wish you 一路平安!

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Hiking on the Qing Ming Festival

Hiking on the Qing Ming Festival

At the moment it is the Qing Ming Festival holiday, which falls on the same weekend as the Easter holiday in Britain and America. During this time, Chinese families will go to pay respect to their ancestors’ graves as well as the tombs of important historical figures. Usually, the festival is a time to appreciate the fresh air and green mountains of Spring, so many people will go for a hike.

I went to go camping with some friends in the Phoenix Ridge scenic area, west of Beijing. At first, we climbed hundreds of steps up the Phoenix Ridge that had been designed to take us on a long, twisting walk around the scenic spot. It was extremely busy,  thousands joined us on the exhausting climb up the mountain. It seems they had all chosen Phoenix Ridge for their Qing Ming Festival family hike. Almost everyone stared at our huge bags, and we had a running soundtrack of ‘ 这么大’(why so big?),’去露营吧’(they’re going camping?) ‘会不会露营吗’ (can you even camp here?). The temple where we ate lunch was beautifully decorated with Tibetan flags, and many people stopped to have a picnic on the climb up.

Eventually, we reached the place where the steps disappeared and it became a real hike, a ruined temple (A.D 650) with several crumbling graves. Most graves were decorated with flowers, fruit and colourful gifts. From there, we climbed up a steep hill punctuated with dry stone walls and aged bricks. Through trees, we saw a large, white unbroken tombstone  protruding from the fallen leaves. The woods around it were scattered with pages and pages of joss paper, or spirit money, bamboo paper punctuated with holes. Traditionally, this can be used by ancestors to buy livestock, money, food or luxuries during the afterlife.

At the peak, a thin path stretched along the Phoenix Ridge on both sides, and a vast foggy valley stretched before us. We couldn’t quite see the bottom, and only barely detected the high mountains on the opposite side. The top of the mountain was populated with clumps of pale, fragrant cherry blossom. There were no people here. We set up camp. As it got dark, lights blinked in the foggy valley and we realised there was a large village down there. I could hear fireworks, and from the peak I saw several orange lanterns float across the houses below, celebrating the end of the Qing Ming Festival.