The International Writers Magazine: Life in Modern China
BEIJING STILL THROBS WITH LIFE
Old Beijing still exist?" I thought to myself as our taxi sped
between towering skyscrapers on the way to our hotel. The efficient
and modern spic and span Beijing Airport through which we had just
passed, the wide impressive roadways and the modern skyscrapers
all around us indicated a 21st century city with no signs of the
disappeared in this city?", I asked my Chinese acquaintance as
the taxi stopped to let us off at the door of an ultra-modern five-star
hotel. "Its still here - just hidden away by this mass of
newly-erected structures. You cannot erase history! Just visit our Hutongs!"
He assured me.
In the days to come, I found that, as my acquaintance had indicated,
Old Beijing was still thriving and well. The historic pagodas, palaces
and old courtyard-style homes are still there, but tightly encircled
by the cement and steel world of our modern age.
A great deal of the countrys history is also preserved in the
200 museums that dot this huge metropolis. City officials are making
sure that the rich heritage of China will not be demolished and forgotten.
The government, in its renovation of historic landmarks and development
of the museums, is ensuring that the past will be kept alive as the
Beijing is fast galloping into the 21st century and its days of bicycle
traffic have been replaced by streams of all types of autos; old pavilions
and pagoda spires are dwarfed by sky-reaching edifices; the age-old
imperial cuisine of the city is being offered along side the MacDonalds
and Kentucy Fried Chicken assembly line foods; old people swap tales
over tea while their children spend their time on the internet; traditional
Chinese music competes with funk and techno-pop; and to top it all,
some $21 billion is being earmarked for the 2008 Summer Olympics to
turn the 13 million city into a leading futuristic world metropolis.
amid this unstoppable transformation, there still remains many remnants
from the past. Besides the royal monuments, religious structures
and mausoleums, old Beijings history continues in the Hutongs
(a Mongolian name meaning narrow alleyways) with their 1 million
inhabitants - a reminder of Old Beijing when it was ruled by Mongolian
emperors (1280 to 1368 A.D.).
To explore this
part of the city, I joined with a group of eight travellers, accompanied
by a guide, for a tour by foot and rickshaw of a part of the Xuanw District
of the Hutong area - once a part of the Outer City of Old Beijing. Riding
two to a bicycle-powered rickshaw, we were soon being peddled through
the narrow streets of the Hutongs. Some of the pleasure of the tour
was taken away every time that I looked at the young man peddling our
rickshaw. I would think of the men who, in the past, would pull these
rickshaws and trot like beasts of burden through the streets. I felt
sorry for our bicycle man who, for a few dollars a day peddled, mostly
foreigners, through the Hutongs.
I turned to my fellow rickshaw fellow passenger, "Dont you
think that we are no better than the affluent Chinese or the colonial
officials who rode like this and thought of the rickshaw men as no better
than horses?" He grinned, "It beats walking!"
rickshaws made their way to the home of Mr. Wong, one of the Hutongs
residents. The tour officials had arranged for our group to dine
on a traditional home cooked meal at his home. Now, as we sat around
a table relishing a fine lunch which was prepared by Mr. Wongs
mother, Madam Zhang, I felt happy and content - we were dining on
a real Chinese food.
Every one of the dozen dishes that Madam Zhang served, ending with
a divine dish of dumplings, were, as the saying goes, finger-licking
good. Her cooking easily put restaurant food to shame. Gracious
and generous, always filling the dishes after they emptied, our
hosts truly made us feel that we were their guests.
Back in the rickshaws and well sated, we were again on our way.
Every few minutes, the rickshaw would stop and our guide would explain
something about the lives of those who lived in the Hutongs. He
explained that about 10% of the homes in the district were privately
owned and the remainder were rented from the government at very
Our first stroll
was to see a home some two to three hundred years old. The portal of
the house, according to our guide, when first built would have been
at least a foot above street level. Now, after the street had been paved
over and over again through the centuries, it was at least two feet
below street level and, hence, is usually flooded during any heavy rain.
"Imagine the housewifes agony of cleaning up after every
rain storm. "I wouldnt want to be in her shoes!" One
of the ladies in our group remarked as we continued our rickshaw journey.
The next stop was a treat. Before entering the home of Mr. Ien and his
wife Madam Zung, a retired school teacher, our guide described the old
Hutongs homes, like the one that we were entering.
The living quarters of the courtyard-houses in the Hutongs, like the
traditional homes in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Spain,
are built around a courtyard and could usually house two to three families.
There were no toilets inside the houses, but there was a communal outhouse
for all the families outside the home. It was a way of life from the
past with some modern modifications.
He emphasized that in the bygone ages the families living in a home
were often relatives, but today, the rooms were usually rented to strangers.
"Would that not make easy to have affairs?" A young man in
our group smilingly asked. The guide grinned, "Perhaps!"
Inside their home, we discussed with our gracious hosts the advantages
and drawbacks of living in the Hutongs. They both stated that they loved
to live in their home which the family had owned for many generations.
To them, family ties and friendships were important - not the material
wealth of the modern city. In the words of Madam Zung, a retired school
teacher, "We love our home and we also love to have guests from
other countries. This is why we invite tourists like yourselves to our
After leaving the pleasant abode of our wonderful hosts, the rickshaws
took us back to our waiting bus. As I sat back, I reminisced about the
many families still living in these ancient homes without many of the
modern amenities. The modern world had encircled them, yet, they seemed
content. Old Beijing still was a living city.
IF YOU GO
1) Foreigners travelling to China must apply to a local Chinese embassy
or consulate for tourist visas.
2) The currency of China, the RMB or Yuan, is currently valued at about
8.2 to the U.S. dollar; and 6.5 to the Canadian dollar. Conversion of
foreign currency can be done in banks or hotels. China is one of the
few countries in the world where hotels give the same rates as the banks.
The exchange rate for travellers cheques is more favorable than that
for cash. Also, most credit cards are accepted.
3) Taxi fares in China are always clearly marked on the taxi window.
Most taxi drivers do not understand much English. Hence, visitors should
have their destinations written down by a hotel clerk in Chinese and
show the written destination to the cab driver.
4) Only some tap water in China is potable. However, bottled mineral
water is on sale everywhere.
5) Public transportation in Beijing is cheap and plentiful - cost -
subways 3 Yuans and buses 1 Yuan. Taxis from airport to city around
6) A 90 Yuan airport departure tax is collected from passengers departing
from any international airport in China - domestic flights 50 Yuans.
Historic Sites in Beijing:
The Forbidden City - a symbol of Chinese history.
Summer Palace - one of the most famous royal gardens in the world.
Yonghe Lamasery Temple - the most famous lamasery in China.
Temple of Heaven - its Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests,
considered to be the epitome of sacred Chinese architecture.
The Ming Tombs - some 50 km (31 mi) north of Beijing where 13 of the
16 Ming Emperors are buried. After walking through a lyrical willow-lined
avenue called the Sacred Way, lined with stone statues of animals and
court officials, one enters the tomb of ZhuYijun and his two wives -
only tomb excavated.
Museum of Chinese History - located on the edge of Tiananmen Square.
White Cloud Taoist Temple - the largest Taoist temple in Beijing.
Sleeping Buddha Temple - noted for its 5 m (16 ft) statue of Sakyamuni
- the Buddha.
Tanzhe Temple - noted for its pagoda gardens.
Fragrant Hills - once an imperial garden for the emperors.
For Further Information, Contact:
China National Tourism Administration - e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
web site: http://www.cnta.com/lyen/index.asp
© Habeeb Salloum
October 19th 2004
Destinations in Hacktreks
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