Beijing Hutongs, Part II

Are you planning a trip to Beijing? If so, then make sure you include a visit to a hutong in your itinerary. These shared-housing neighborhoods offer a fantastic real-life glimpse at traditional Chinese culture. Unfortunately, many of Beijing’s hutongs have been leveled in favor of apartment towers, but a few have received historical status, protecting them from demolition. Here are some pictures I took during a recent visit to the hutongs of Beijing’s Lake District.

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Riding the Rails to Moerdaoga

Beijing’s long-distance train station was huge. A massive pavilion was outside, and thousands of people with suitcases and backpacks were milling about. There was barely room to walk. Three men in camouflage uniforms stood guard at the edge of the crowd, assault rifles pointed downward, index fingers resting next to the triggers. Behind them was a van with blackened windows. Troublemakers wouldn’t last long here.

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Wangfujing Critter Market

Wangfujing is a popular shopping district in central Beijing. One day, Katie and I were walking along Wangfujing’s main street with Brendan, a friend from home. We found an alley that turned out to be the famous “critter market.” This place looked like it was designed intentionally to gross people out with its strange foods and beverages for sale.

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No Guts, No Story

The soup came next. It contained several cloves of garlic and a few green beans, but it was mostly filled with shriveled lumps of…something.

“Are those mushrooms?” Katie asked.

“I don’t think so.” The soup had a distinct odor that I couldn’t quite place. I grabbed a “mushroom” with my chopsticks and put it into my mouth. It didn’t have much flavor, but its chewy texture made me want to spit it out. I tried, unsuccessfully, to tear the “mushroom” with my teeth. I took a swig of beer and swallowed it whole.

“Well? What is it?”

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Beijing Hutongs, Part 1

Hutongs are northern China’s traditional back alley neighborhoods. Their houses are small; their bathrooms are shared. They typically have communal central courtyards. Some hutongs date back to the Ming dynasty of the fifteenth century. In recent decades, many hutongs have been demolished to make way for highrise towers and wide avenues. Only a few have been protected from modern development.

One day while walking around central Beijing, I stumbled upon

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Beijing Pollution, Construction and Migration

It’s amazing to think how quickly this city has grown. I met one woman who lived here in 1989. She told me that at the time, the Third Ring was the outskirts. Taxi drivers refused to go beyond it. Wolves were occasionally spotted in the nearby forests. Even Katie’s Beijing guidebook, which was published nine years ago, shows the Fourth Ring as the edge of the city, and it only lists a couple of the central subway lines. Now, the Third Ring is downtown. Thirty-story highrises encompass it, and far beyond. The core of the city ends at the Fifth Ring, but a large population (including Katie and me) has spilled beyond even its reaches.

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Adjusting to Beijing

I was confused. Our plane was only a few thousand feet above one of the world’s largest cities, yet I barely saw any lights. Beijing’s international airport is located far from downtown, but I still was expecting the city to look brighter from above. As we neared the ground, a thick haze blanketed us. Visibility was less than half a mile in all directions.

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One Last Stop

On the day of our departure, Katie and I took a shuttle to the airport and loaded two carts with our luggage. When I saw the immense pile, it finally sunk in that we really were moving to China. In deciding what to pack, my biggest concern was that I wouldn’t find pants or shoes in my size. I ended up taking every pair I owned. We wheeled our luggage carts to the counter and checked in our five bags, each of which weighed nearly fifty pounds…… Read More »

Seattle Bound

My next stop was to be Seattle, and I had come on this trip without any flights or hotel rooms booked. My lack of planning came in handy: Cathi Jo, one of the rafters in our group, was driving to Seattle that afternoon. We loaded our stuff into her car, said goodbye to the Madison contingent and made our way to I-90 for the last leg of my cross-country road trip…… Read More »

Paradise Camp

We had the rest of the day to relax, cliff jump, fish and watch the looks of disappointment as the other rafters passed us (the happy campers actually existed, and they were hung over)…… Read More »