Getting to know the residents of Beijing

An ancient neighborhood opens its doors to foreign visitors

Hidden away among the chrome and glass of modern Beijing lie the hutongs, a neighborhood of ancient alleys and narrow lanes that have surrounded the Forbidden City for centuries.

The air is dusty and the sunlight slanted, but the lanes bustle with people - residents taking a stroll, pedicab drivers lurching under their load of overgrown Westerners, and street vendors stridently hawking their wares. "Just one buck," some cry. Others shout: "Three for a buck."

Although Chinese yuan are accepted, American dollars are eagerly grasped. The vendors hold out delicately embroidered purses, frail umbrellas, packs of highly colored postcards, and the ubiquitous baseball caps bearing the Olympic logo and the words "Beijing 2008."

In the hutongs (the word comes from Mongolian, meaning "well," which the early settlers dug to provide themselves with water), life is lived behind blank-faced walls and sturdy doors. Inside, communal courtyards are edged by small, single-level buildings, which sometimes house several families.

First created by Kubla Khan during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), many houses in the hutongs were rebuilt during the Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. They were created by the emperors according to the prevailing class structure, and many of the elegantly carved and painted houses were given to high-ranking officials employed in the Imperial Palace. Small alleys between the courtyards provide access, and also allow light and air to circulate.

I first saw this ancient part of Beijing last October when I visited China with a group. For most of us, this trip was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. "Ni hao. Ni hao ma, (Hello. How are you?) we said to our guides as we milled around waiting for something to happen. We gazed at the brilliant red doors and admired the way flat roofs were used for gardens and patios.

Our first visit was to Mr. Wu, retired from his job at China's Archaeological Research Institute. As a young man, he had bought his house for his growing family. However, during the Cultural Revolution he was sent off to do manual labor in a distant part of China. Although his wife and children were permitted to remain in the house, they had to share with several other families, and Mr. Wu had to continue paying the taxes.

Today, intellectuals are respected again, and Mr. Wu's house is all his own. However, following ancient tradition, he and his wife have now given up some of their space to their daughter and son-in-law. The older couple live in four small rooms.

Both couples share the enclosed courtyard, where squashdangle in the late fall sunshine. Space is tight in the old neighborhood, and many people practice "air gardening," growing flowers and vegetables on metal or bamboo trellises.

In the alleys, which range from 12 feet wide to only 16 inches - forcing people to squeeze into doorways to allow others to pass - groups of elderly residents play cards or Chinese chess. They chat together over small street barrows where food is prepared, and sometimes engage in folk dancing, singing, and group exercise.

But the hutongs aren't just for retirees. The houses shelter a very lively population. Running the gantlet of the vendors, we visited a local kindergarten obviously used to receiving Western visitors.

The teacher asked us if we would dance or sing with the children. As the members of our group were mostly Scottish dancers, we felt we should put our best feet forward. Completely unabashed that I towered over him, my small partner took me firmly in hand, turning me left and right as the dance required.

Then it was our turn. Our dance leader had brought along a CD player with discs of Scottish music, so we went out into the courtyard and danced "Mairi's Wedding." The children loved it, and the teachers appreciated our willingness to share our culture, as they had theirs.

After all that dancing we were getting hungry. About a dozen of us squeezed into another of the little houses where, according to the guidebook, we would "enjoy a meal with the ordinary residents."

The residents may have been ordinary, but the meal certainly wasn't. It was a feast.

In her spotless kitchen our hostess deftly juggled pans and ingredients to produce the tastiest Chinese dishes we'd had anywhere.

She even showed us the secret of making the specialty of Beijing, a small, round dumpling. Flouring her hands, she took a circle of dough and placed a teaspoonful of pork mixture in the center. "Do not put too much filling in," she warned through our interpreter, "or it will burst."

She then rolled in the sides and the ends and pinched the edges together before pan-frying them.

They were delicious.

We all tried to be polite as we ate, but eventually good manners lost out to simple greed - I had three dumplings.

Westerners usually travel in the hutongs by pedicab - two to a carriage. As we sat in the open rickshaws, clamorous sellers gathered around us, and unable to escape them, we were at their mercy.

During one stop, our driver took pity on us and taught us how to say "go away" in Chinese.

We tried to say it with authority, and the vendors were so astonished that we all, vendors, driver, and tourists - burst out laughing. After that, grinning broadly, the vendors left us alone for a while.

Later, bearing not a few postcards, purses, and baseball caps, we climbed back into the pedicabs that would skirt the beautiful shores of Shishahai Lake on the way to the 13th-century Drum Tower and the Bell Tower where the huge bronze bell used to be rung every evening.

As we left, we waved to our guides (and even the vendors). "Zai jian" (goodbye), we said. "Xie xie." (Thank you.)

Many adventures still lay ahead for us, including a visit to the famous terra-cotta warriors in Xian and a three-day trip down the Yangtze River to see the villages and temples about to be drowned by the Three Gorges Dam Project.

But for all of us, the hutongs of Beijing, with their friendly people and links to a disappearing China, remain the high point of our stay.

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