We’re in Beijing for a short Fall visit. Go anywhere in China and the locals will tell you that Fall is the best time to come on by. Given the size of the country and the variation in climate, this seems odd to us, but we have found it to be generally true. Certainly it’s true of Beijing.
The sometimes brutal heat of the summer is gone by the end of September and it’s possible to bank on four solid delightful weeks in October, and many years the first two weeks of November are pleasant as well. When we left Maine last week, the leaves were gone and there had already been snow in the mountains in the western part of the state. Arriving in Beijing, we found roses still in bloom in our courtyard, and the gorgeous autumnal golden gingko leaves still on the trees.
Our first weekend here, we took a subway into the heart of the oldest part of the city, inside the Second Ring Road, where the narrow lanes called hutongs meander through warrens of mostly single story brick buildings unique to Beijing. Though the lanes seem to be fronted by endless winding brick walls, through each doorway one would find courtyard gardens, each faced with four buildings, now typically divided among a number of families rather than occupied by a single extended family.
The hutongs are always abustle with activity. Construction is not merely common, but universal — it’s impossible to go more than a minute or two without encountering renovation or reconstruction. Fruit and vegetables are for sale in both small shops as well as from mobile carts. Bicycle repairmen (always men — we have never once in all our years here seen a woman repairing bikes) and recyclers are never far away. What is most remarkable about Beijing’s hutongs though is the air of peace and quiet and modest pace. In the heart of a city now with more than 20,000,000 people, filled with broad streets and millions of cars (mostly sitting in stalled traffic), articulated buses thundering this way and that, jammed subway cars rumbling underneath, the hutongs are a respite of easy-does-it.
When we ventured off of the busy commercial street XiSi, the noise receded almost immediately. The high winds of the night before had left the sky sparkling clear blue, with just the occasional cotton ball cloud drifting by. The hutongs have more trees than one might expect, providing much needed shade in season.
We ambled slowly along, stopping to chat with the kids playing, the older folk just sitting and watching everything else go by. Some construction workers stopped us and asked where we were from and what we were up to. We told them we were here visiting from the US to see our Beijing friends. We found out that Chinese cabbage, which is in season right now, is a bit more expensive than usual but that the large Chinese onions were down in price. Many asked if we were dressed warmly enough (yes) as there was a bit of a nip in the air and a lingering breeze. A pair of street sweepers talked to us for a while about gourds drying on a nearby house roof, and about the nature of life in the hutongs, where they said people know their neighbors better than do people living in the high rises so common now.
Two and a half hours later, after quite a few turns and a couple of dead ends, we found ourselves back in more modern times on the main street to the east of the neighborhood we’d been perusing, and strolled back to the entrance to the subway. The hutongs aren’t frozen in time, but the experience of walking them provides a good idea of what life was like here a hundred years ago. Updated they surely are, but the air in the hutongs, it’s the air of old Beijing.
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