Beijing’s Hutongs

Posted December 22, 2009 by jrrhowie
Categories: Uncategorized

Beijing's Hutongs

One day after class, I was feeling compulsive and decided to go explore Beijing.  I walked out the east gate of Peking University and over to the nearby bus station and got on the first bus that showed up.  After riding on it for about 25 minutes, I got off where fruit vendors lined a busy street, bantering with potential customers.  After walking away from the bustle of the main road, I found myself in the back alleys of Beijing, the lifeblood of the real city—the hutongs.

Hutongs refer to the narrow streets, alleys, and neighborhoods originally created from lines of traditional courtyard residences most notably in the city of Beijing.  Many courtyard homes of ancient China were built by affluent families and housed only one family.  As China’s dynastic era came to an end and national economic conditions faltered, aged hutongs housed many families and declined in social and economic stature.  Today, hutongs represent the historic roots of Beijing and are the heart of local Chinese culture.  Since the founding of the PRC and their push for industrialization, many hutong communities in Beijing have since been razed to make way for highways and highrises, a trend which has only recently been halted as the government moved to protect them and the Chinese cultural history and flavor which they embody.

That day, I aimlessly explored the back streets of Beijing and although many of the hutongs seemed old and run-down,  I frequently ran into new residential developments which are noticeably increasing the standard of living while revitalizing many rough back alley’s of Beijing.

One of the busier Hutong streets, where the dynamic city life of many Beijingers’ unfolds.

Some of the older, more charismatic hutong alleys

A new development in a Hutong Neighborhood

New Residence in a Hutong neighborhood

While walking through the hutongs, I bought pancake-esque bread form this man (pictured below), encountered some construction workers moving buckets of cement, and even a Chinese chess club.

Street Vendor in the Hutongs

I could hear the room long before I reached it—cries erupted from a small room in which 20 people were huddled around a table as two of their members faced off.  My interest caught attention of one of the members who was resting on the periphery, seemingly exhausted from the relentless duels which animated the ravenous onlookers.  She approached me and we started talking; I answered the usual questions such as why I was here, how long I was here for, what I am doing, and what I think of China.  I quickly realized she could speak English very well—a rarity on the street even in Beijing—and she told me it was because she was a middle school teacher.  Our conversation quickly grew as her passing friends stopped to see why a foreigner would be in their neighborhood.  An elderly woman introduced herself as Old Woman Wu, and introduced her small dog, Diu Diu, who was standing attentively by her side.  We all spoke generally about family and Beijing and how they thought it was great and suprising that I was walking through their street; after 25 minutes or so, I exhausted all the conversation my Chinese level allowed me and I told them that when I could speak better, I would return.  We exchanged goodbyes, and I started back down the hutong alley, looking back to see Old Woman Wu holding Diu Diu and waving after me.  On my way back towards the main road, I found a hole-in-the-wall of a barbershop where I got a haircut for 8 yuan (about $1.25) before taking a cab back to Peking University.

Men working on renovation/construction

Walking through the Hutongs


Fang Mountain- Monkeys, Monks, and Gondolas

Posted December 22, 2009 by jrrhowie
Categories: Uncategorized

A week or so after returning to Beijing and resuming classes, we took a day trip to Beijing’s Feng Mountain (方山) which had a variety of old Buddhist Temple’s and caves.  We walked along stone paths and visited monks and other locals who lived within the mountain’s vast woods.   Within the first 10 minutes of climbing the mountain, we encountered a monkey, who seemed content in just watching us and was especially grateful when we threw him a banana.

Hiking up the mountain

Buddhist Monk who lived in isolation

This Buddhist Monk lives in a temple on the edge of a steep mountain face, a 30 minute hike from the base.

View from the Temple

Donkeys we encountered high atop the mountain

1,080 year old Locust Tree

This remarkable had a plaque near its base which read:

“This Locust tree, with a height of 28 meters, and a diameter of 1.3 meters, is approximately 1,080 years old.”

This tree was here even before the 1st Crusade began.

Fang Mountain's "Camel Peak"

On the way down, we took a gondola which tugged us along a cable off the mountain and over a few hundred foot drop into the valley below.

While the pictures may not do it justice, it was a pretty hairy situation, especially for someone who is afraid heights.

Luckily, my worst fears were never realized, and the tin box we were in held together long enough to make it back to ground.

Moments before the mountain dropped from beneath us, leaving us hundreds of feet in the air. If only I had known...

Peering down hundreds of feet to the bare rock below...

Sheep being encouraged down the mountain by the shouts of their Shepard

Riding out on the Mongolian Grasslands

Posted December 22, 2009 by jrrhowie
Categories: Uncategorized

On the third day we drove farther into rural China to the Inner Mongolian grasslands.  We entered a camp, with rows of Mongolian yurts of various sizes, bordering the open plain.  As we got off the bus, three women in traditional Mongolian dress greeted us with a song and extended a small wooden cup.  As I stepped off, I took the cup thinking it was tea, and as prompted, took it down the hatch.  It was Baijiu, a strong Chinese rice wine that has a distinct taste (more like vodka), and needless to say, I was wide awake after napping on the bus for the last few hours.  We all settled into respective yurts; although they were structurally bare, with only thin metal walls, inside was pretty cozy with a pile of blankets and a hanging lantern.  The idea is that they are somewhat like Native American teepees although they are circular in shape.  Like teepees, they were easily transportable and allowed for a nomadic life which was characteristic of the Mongols.  These were more permanent than their traditional counterparts and we crammed 9 people in ours.

Mongolian Yurts

We had lunch as a group in the settlement’s restaurant (serviced by Mongolians in traditional dress) before walking out to a corral where almost a hundred Mongolian horses were huddling together.  It was nippy out, although with the sun it wasn’t too bad—in Mongolia we had heard that it is significantly colder than in Beijing, especially in the open grasslands.  We all hoped on a horse, and gathered into groups based on how many of the “sites” we wanted to go to that were available to visit.  During lunch they had described the various places you could go (like everything in China, it was based on what you wanted to pay) including a Mongolian village, a river, a mountain, long grasslands, etc…  I was part of a group that had used bargaining to our advantage and got to go to seven of the “sites” for a relatively good price.  With that, we were off and following a gruff man in a green bulky Chinese overcoat (not only the standard heavy coat issued to the military but popular among many in countryside), we trotted out into the Mongolian grasslands.

Although the different “sites” blended together, our ride took us through fields of long grass, an old river bed, and vast barren terrain, passing cattle and even stray horses along the way.  We stopped to rest at an ancient Mongolian village, which today has a few houses.  There we tried Mongolian yak milk and some sort of milk candies.

Mongolian Girl with a Baby Sheep

We returned back to our encampment, and as we returned our horses, some of of the horse wranglers did Mongolian wrestling, which culminated when one man managed to get the other off his feet and on his back.

Mongolian Wrestling

As the sun fell in the Mongolian sky, the temperature rapidly dropped and the empty horizon assumed a deep orange glow.  Six Mongolian horsemen gathered beneath the waning sun in preparation of a race.  With the last rays of light streaming between them, the horsemen charged toward us, crouched upon their stirrups.  One wrangler eased ahead right before they all trampled by, followed by a cloud of dust.

Preparing to Race beneath the falling Mongolian Sun

Shortly after we all went back to our yurts to avoid the increasingly frigid Mongolian night.  All the guests at the camp gathered in the banquet hall where we had a traditional Mongolian feast including a roasted lamb which they paraded up and down the aisle for everyone to see.  While a Mongolian woman sang local songs on a modest stage, we filled ourselves with warm food to get us through the infamously cold night on the grassland.

After the banquet, we had a bonfire in the middle of the encampment with plenty of Baijiu and beer and speakers that blasted music far into the black nothingness that surrounded us.

Keeping Warm inside our Yurt

Me and three friends decided to venture out where the horses had been to see what the grassland was like at night.  After walking out into the infinite expanse of plains, the music started to fade away and the bonfire and camp dwindled to a modest glow which bordered the infinite blackness of which no movement or signs of life could be distinguished.  Beside us was a single dirt road which was the only way to and from the encampment and the only indication that anyone had even been over this vast plain.  With only the faint illumination of the stars above, we sat upon a hill on the border of civilization, looking out with uncertainty at the mystery of the Mongolian grassland.

Resonant Gorge- Camels, Sand-boards, and ATVS on the Gobi Desert

Posted December 22, 2009 by jrrhowie
Categories: Uncategorized

The second day we headed to the Resonant Sand Gorge where entertainment of all kinds on the dunes of the Gobi desert awaited us.  The Gobi desert covers 500,000 square miles, twice the size of Texas, and is the largest desert region in Asia.  The Resonant Sand Gorge is at the edge of the desert—where the Hantai River (largely dried up) encounters the barrier dunes of the Gobi, rising over a hundred feet in the air.

In order to get over to the Dune from the staging area, we had to take a chair lift; we were slowly pulled toward the mountain of sand while people slid down the dune’s slopes on wooden “sand-boards.”  At the end of the lift, we were each given “sand socks” which were made up thick cloth and enveloped your entire foot and shin so sand would not get into your shoes and pants.  I, like many also put on a mask so not to get sand in my mouth and nose.  The sand was extremely fine and a strong breeze easily carried wisps of sand high into the air.

It was a huge playground—a entire sand theme park was built upon this enormous dune with hundreds of camels, dune buggies, ATVs, slides, and sand sculptures.  We all first went to the camels and went on an hour trek up and down the endless sea of sand dunes.  I was in a procession of half a dozen camels, all inter-linked with ropes from humps to nose, led by a guide on foot.  We trekked slowly through the sand and up over a ridge, revealing an exhibit of meticulously crafted sand sculptures some of which must have been 20 feet high.

After the camel expedition I took an ATV around a course with Lihau (a classmate from Hawaii).  We spent hours playing in the sand and I also sand boarded down (everyone sat on them like a toboggan) the front face of a dune.  We also browsed a nearby market set up beside the dunes which boasted any and everything from small sculptures to old rusty swords.  We were there for most of the day and stayed in a nearby hotel for the night.

Lihau and me ATV-ing

Dune Slope where people sand-board

Resonant Gorge Encampment

“Welcome to Nei Mongol”

Posted December 22, 2009 by jrrhowie
Categories: Uncategorized

Streets of Datong

Firecracker residue from the 60th Anniversary of the PRC

That night in Datong a few of us set out into town in search of a good bar or adventure.  Scattered throughout the streets was the reminiscence of what must have been thousands of firecrackers, set off in celebration of the 60th celebration earlier that day.  Walking around Datong, I immediately noticed a difference from life in Beijing in the curiosity people displayed toward me.  In parts of Beijing, people may look at you for an extended time because you are foreign, but for the most part, the city is pretty international.  It seemed in Datong however, foreigners were uncommon—an observation that was reinforced when a crowd began to form around us.   Dozens of Chinese lined up, talking, pointing, laughing, and smiling, until eventually the timidity was broken as one of them started to approach us.  There were just about 7 of us, and the crowd quickly approached and started asking each of us about where we were from and why we were there.  As for me, I received the same initial question to which I had grown accustom in Beijing—what’s your nationality.  I then rattled off the explanation that although I am American, I am half Chinese, and subsequently gave a short family history—one which I had quickly realized I needed to be able to explain after just a few weeks in China.

Encountering Locals on the Streets of Datong

A few of us set out to find some 小吃—literally small eat—a.k.a. street food or a small bite to eat.  After perusing the streets, we decided to order some chuar (food on stick, boiled or grilled and usually meat) outside this small restaurant. (Often a chuar grill is outside a restaurant, on the street, which you just quickly order from and eat on the street or on the go). Without hesitation, the owner came out and ushered us inside, pulling out wooden stools and sitting down next to us.  He introduced his best friend, who joined us, and we started talking.  The owner quickly made it clear that “Inner Mongolia welcomes you,” and that although we had lived in Beijing, Inner Mongolia is the best place and has the best people.  (Inner Mongolia is pronounced Nei Mongol in Chinese)

With a hearty yell and a quick gesture of his hand, glasses were set in front of us and fresh beers were poured.  After everyone had a full glass before them, he prompted everyone to make a toast, and shouted, “Ganbei!”  (Literally meaning empty glass, as you have to finish it).  A tray loaded with fresh chaur was put which seemed to give him enough reason for yet another ganbei.  He diligently made sure everyone had a full glass in front of them and, despite how full we were, we had a chuar in hand.  We would chat about our experience in China for a few minutes and yet another ganbei would erupt.  I began to notice that when he raised his glass against ours, he would overtly push the others above his, making sure he was the lowest.  A friend leaned over and explained that having your glass as the lowest shows respect for those you are “ganbei”ing with and is a sign of humility.

Eating and drinking with our newfound friends

He insisted that the beers and chuar be continuously replaced with yet another round, and soon our rowdiness was the spectacle of all the patrons in the modest restaurant.  Two other men seemed compelled to join us, and pulled over their stools which called for, of course, another cheers.  The owner and his best friend were continuously laughing and trying to communicate with us, telling us about Inner Mongolia and how they welcome us.  He made it clear that this entire thing was his gift to us, which was incredibly generous considering we had already gone through 40 or so beers and chuar to boot.  When the limits of our language were reached, he would raise his glass in the air with a big grin and shout “gaoxing de shihou” (good times) or “ganbei!” and everyone would join in.  As the night wore on, the owners wife came back and was visibly displeased.  I believe he was supposed to close the restaurant over an hour before, and when he did not come home, she came to find him giving us all free beers and chuar.  The owner, with his arm around his best friend and a beaming smile, responded to her admonishments by beckoning her to sit down, relax, and meet his new friends.  At that point there must have been 10 people, 5 of us and 5 Chinese, all huddled around a rickety wooden table boasting used skewers and empty bottles.  He managed to convince her to let him keep the restaurant open for awhile more, but she soon returned with his best friend’s wife as well, and the two guys turned to us with a look that it was time to call it a night.  They closed the night with a final ganbei, and after shaking hands and exchanging thank you’s, we started out into the street.  They walked with us to send us off, and with big smiles and a gestured ganbei, they once again welcomed us to Inner Mongolia.

Road to Inner Mongolia: Hengshan Hanging Temple, Yungang Buddhist Caves, and driving through Rural China

Posted December 22, 2009 by jrrhowie
Categories: Uncategorized

For the national holiday, we had a long weekend of about five days; all the students planned various trips all around the country, from Shanghai to the Yellow Mountains.  I, along with 30 friends in the program decided to spend the national holiday in Inner Mongolia.  We signed up for a trip through Shaoyuan’s travel agency and early on the morning of the 60th anniversary, we boarded a bus and started our journey.

What would usually be an eleven hour trek to Inner Mongolia was whittled down to just over five hours due to the construction of a new highway directly from Beijing.  Inner Mongolia, the first national autonomous region of China, comprises 12% of China’s land area, not to be confused with Mongolia which is now an independent state which borders Inner Mongolia along with Russia.

We rode north out of the city and slowly the sky scrapers faded away, sinking altogether until there was nothing but an open highway flanked by spanning fields and mountains, periodically interrupted with a looming power plant or factory, billowing smoke into the crisp air.  We stopped for dinner at a small roadside community, now well into the mountains North of Beijing.  As we got off the bus, we came across a local making peanut brittle, a regional specialty made by using a large wooden mallet to pound a peanut mixture on top of a large wooden block to compress it into a thin crust.

Making Peanut Brittle

After dinner, we continued along, with crumbling brick walls and stray livestock of small rural Chinese towns whizzing past us on both sides.  After a few more hours, we arrived at Mt. Hengshan in China’s Shanxi Province.  There, clinging on the steep precipice of the mountain was a mystical temple, suspended in the air for 1,400 years.  The Suspended Temple is an integration of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian cultures.  It is made of wood and much of the temple is supported by a few skinny wooded pegs which somehow grip the sheer rock face.  To navigate this dangling structure involves climbing through narrow chambers, corridors carved out of the mountain, and across old wooden gangways a few hundred feet above the ground.

The Hanging Temple of Hengshan

From there we set out for the Yungang Buddhist Caves near the city of Datong in the Shanxi province where we stayed that night.  The caves showcase early Buddhist cave art from as early as the 5th century.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most famous ancient sculptural sites of China with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes in its 252 grottoes; the majority of them are severely weathered and those statues outside the caves demonstrate the toll of centuries of wind and rain.

Yungang Buddhist Caves

An artist's still-life of a statue inside the caves

Driving through the developing Chinese countryside was remarkable.  We bound along a dusty road, peering out into the spanning fields, partitioned by ditches and small stone walls, which occasionally gave way to a lonely farmer’s hut.  Without warning, what was merely dirt piles transformed into a primitive median of a well-paved road.  The surroundings took shape into the beginnings of an urban center, and the median sprouted freshly planted shrubbery with interspersed trees.  As we crossed a bridge, I could see an entire skyline of a newborn city before me, hundreds of cranes stooped over as they nurtured the scaffolded structures into maturity.  As we entered, the vigor of urban life was immediately upon us.  We were now flowing within a river of cars, through canyons of steel and cement.  The haste at which this urban metropolis was being born was astounding.  As we passed each boulevard, the newly polished innards of this city were revealed.  Whole avenues were literally being built simultaneously—medians were being filled in as a row of 40 buildings on either side had the last of their windows set in place.  Freshly marked crosswalks directed the eager populace who had seemingly already moved here in anticipation of the cities advent.  Entire blocks of buildings were being constructed, shrouded in advertisements for the grand life that could expected by the future tenants.

A new city skyline erupting from the rural farmland

Even just a day’s drive north of Beijing, the evidence of urbanization, industrialization, and blindingly rapid change China is experiencing was unavoidable.  As we drove, upon a freshly laid highway, through the outskirts of yet another rising city, it was obvious why this country is experiencing environmental growing pains; yet, while seeing this astonishing development first hand offers a more complete understanding of the country’s current needs, I could only help but to think what this city, or the open road that lay ahead, would look like in just another 10 years.

Korean BBQ and Street Vendors

Posted November 22, 2009 by jrrhowie
Categories: Uncategorized

One evening, in search of a break from the campus dining halls, 6 of us set out to find a Korean barbeque restaurant.  We went to Wudaokou, a nearby district known as an international student hangout and characterized by its posh cafés, numerous bars and nightclubs, and diverse collection of restaurants.  Only a 5 minute cab ride away from PKU and a handful of other universities, it’s nightlife is a popular alternative to the farther destinations like Sanlitun (the notorious district of bar streets and clubs), Houhai (another bar/club area surrounding a lake), and the area around the Worker’s Stadium (the largest, most expensive nightclubs Beijing has to offer).

After getting to Wudaokou by bus, we found a Korean barbeque restaurant without much hassle.  We were taken to a private room and before sitting around a table with what seemed to be an overturned wok, we donned our individual aprons.  After choosing some dishes, we watched as a chef entered and meticulously placed sliced meats and vegetables upon the steaming, bulbous pan.  As the pieces fried, the juices sputtered down the sides and were collectively channeled into a small bowl.  The chef periodically attended to the searing meats while masterfully preparing a salad.  We feasted, and after the excellent meal, we headed to the main street in Wudaokou in hopes to find some good merchandise among the street vendors who frequently set up shop along the sidewalk.

We browsed the eclectic assortment—scarves, socks, small lamps, watches, and even animals—strewn about arbitrarily on the sidewalks.  They were all displayed upon a large cloth, in trash bags, or, for the puppies, in a crate.  Exactly why these merchants used such insubstantial arrangements soon became evident.  As we walked among the street-side market, a cry came from down the sidewalk and instantaneously, all the merchants around us picked up their goods in one prompt motion and dissolved into the crowd.  Those vending roasted chestnuts or chuar (Chinese street food on a stick) off an extended grill or wok off their bikes, quickly peddled away and flowed into their familiar escape route—a narrow dirt pathway along a train track.

Moments later, a police car, lights flashing, pulled up to meet a few uniformed officers who were walking along the sidewalk.  After a few words, they continued down the sidewalk to disperse to illegal vendors (as I believe you need a permit and cannot simply peddle goods around—a ubiquitous occurrence in China).  The police car and various officers continued along the sidewalk and as soon they turned the corner, new merchandise plopped back on the sidewalk.  Out of nowhere clothes and jewelry appeared as merchants staked out new side-walk space, meticulously organizing their collections before the flowing crowd.  As we walked along, the trunk of a parked car was reopened, exhibiting bright scarves of all colors and sizes.  We perused the street market, even finding a man selling all sorts of creatures including crickets, mice, turtles, chipmunks, and goldfish.  You can buy anything, if you know where to look.  As the maxim goes, T.I.C. (This is China).