It’s only on foot that you experience the true beat and pulse of a city.
The one gripe I have of Beijing is that it’s not a coffee-drinking city. Starbucks outlets are few and far between, and when I do chance upon a place that serves some brew, I find it costs me more than a large bottle of Yanjing beer! No prizes for guessing what I quench my thirst with as I watch Beijing denizens go about their day.
As I pound the streets of Beijing, barely avoiding the cars, buses and motorised bicycles that totally ignore the traffic lights, I envy our Prime Minister and his entourage who are probably being ferried around in limousines this week.
Horse-carts are still common on the streets.
I squint my eyes at my map and try to decipher all the romanised street names, regretting that I neither speak nor read Mandarin. Looking at my face and assuming that I am one of their countrymen, the locals rattle off street directions, items on the menu and other such explanations in their “shh-shh-shh” Beijing accents.
I usually just get by, by pointing and sputtering some pidgin Mandarin, barely making out their greeting of “Nee hau? (How are you?)”
Actually, I do have one other complaint — the city map is totally misleading. Because the city is so huge, the map is drawn to a very small scale, so distances are actually longer than they seem.
I learn this fact very soon as my aching leg muscles scream for mercy in my search for the elusive happening hutong. While I wish I was part of Datuk Seri’s motorcade, I doubt very much the cars could fit into the narrow alleys that wind through these hutongs, or old neighbourhoods.
After hours of walking, I can hear my knee joints asking me: “How?”, but I figure that it’s on foot that I will get to experience Beijing at street level. It’s in these tiny enclaves that I can feel the true beat and pulse of the city, where its citizens have lived for centuries. While many have condemned the demolition of many of these hovel-like residences to make way for skyscrapers, the fact is that many of its inhabitants have voluntarily moved out to more comfortable homes.
But the hutongs are still very much inhabited by the locals, as I discover on my daily walks. An old crone hawking her vegetables directly opposite my B&B early in the morning grins at me in recognition as I join the queue for freshly steamed bao-zhe or dumplings. Throughout the day, there are all kinds of food offerings to be had from street stalls that are literally holes-in-the-wall. I have my doubts about the hygiene of the food along these dusty streets, but my stomach doesn’t seem to complain, but instead, happily adapts to all these wonderful new flavours.
At first, I think that the hutongs just house the city’s poor and destitute but I soon find out otherwise. The Chinese, and especially Beijingers, are a highly resourceful people, and many of these hutongs are being revitalised to incorporate innovative stores, charming guesthouses and trendy restaurants and bars.
A little more off the sides, please.
My knees continue to complain creakingly as I wind through the streets in search of Nanluogo hutong. I pause for breath in a sliver of a park, marvelling that there are still serene green havens like these dotted throughout the city, their willow trees swaying in the wind exactly as they appear in Chinese paintings.
As senior citizens go through their tai chi exercises and take their pampered pooches for a walk, I shudder at the thought of their canine cousins being on the menu at the food stalls of Wanfujing just around the corner.
Everywhere I go, I notice individuals seated at street corners, identifiable by their armbands as neighbourhood volunteers who keep an eye on happenings around them. I’m impressed by the absence of petty crimes such as snatch thefts in a city as large as this, just as I’m in awe of how clean Beijing is.
Ken, a guy I happen to sit next to at a sidewalk café, introduces himself as a Chinese-Canadian originally from Harbin.
“I would have never considered moving back here,” he confesses. “But ever since a few years back, especially in preparation for the Olympics, the quality of life here has improved tremendously. Not only are the streets, subways and parks garbage-free, the air quality is also reasonably good, and clear; blue skies are now the norm,” he tells me.
Beijing is also taking its environmental responsibility very seriously. Paper bags are given out instead of plastic with purchases. The few books that I buy are tied up with string. Everywhere, garbage cans are labelled recyclable and non-recyclable.
The hutong area of Nanluogo proves to be a real eye opener. Young Beijingers have taken over this tiny enclave and are exhibiting a high level of creativity in everything from restaurants to fashion streetwear. They also display an irreverent sense of humour that the powers-that-be seem to turn a blind eye to, as evidenced by soft toy pigs on sale dressed in communist uniforms.
Nearby, at the National Art Museum, as I give my aching legs a break, I notice a mother with her young son, patiently helping him with his sketching and colouring in front of a famous painting, obviously hoping to nurture his artistic talents. I dare say that if my mother had paid that much attention to my artistic inclinations while I was growing up, I would be a blooming Michelangelo today!
A street vendor takes care of your household needs.
On another day too drizzly to photograph the magnificent monuments, I decide to tackle the hutongs around Liuliichang which abound with paper and printing shops.
I come across yet another park where doting parents sacrifice their precious free afternoon to supervise their children as the youngsters, all not more than five years old, go through their skateboarding lesson, complete with obstacle course.
A skateboarding coach puts the kids through their paces vigorously, providing tips and admonishment even as the parents patiently rearrange the obstacles. Watching the dedication of these parents and their devotion to their little emperors and empresses, it’s no wonder that China consistently produces world-class champions in almost every field from sports to the arts.
I walk on in pursuit of the elusive neighbourhood that’s supposed to boast a famous restaurant or art supplies store. Many a time I find myself lost in the maze of alleyways and often seem to be walking around in circles. A beautifully framed doorway catches my eye and I stop to snap a picture of an elderly gentleman serenely practising calligraphy.
When I politely ask him what this place is, he gestures to a stack of leaflets which pointedly states that it’s a famous restaurant frequented by politicians and movie stars alike. It goes on to claim that the prices are very expensive and no discounts are offered.
I pass on this expensive and undoubtedly classy joint, incongruously located in a hutong alley, and make my way to another restaurant that Bonnie, my B&B manager, recommended. This restaurant bears no name, occupies a tiny courtyard space, has about 10 tables in total and offers no menu.
What you get is fish, a kind of Barramundi or siakap (I think), cooked only one style — barbecued and smothered in a sauce of your choice: mild, hot or “Oh my God!”
When they run out of fish for the evening, the restaurant closes. Judging by the stream of customers who make their way there, it’s the kind of place that only locals know about and I feel privileged to be dining there. The fish is, indeed, as Bonnie promised, out of this world!
By my fifth day of pounding the streets, I almost weep in relief when I reach a massage centre that tends to my muscles in a totally professional, no-nonsense manner. My masseur gently tsk-tsks at my much-abused legs and suggests that maybe I should put my feet up for a couple of days.
After thanking him for one of the most wonderful massages I have ever enjoyed, I take to the streets again. After all, I’m inspired by a young girl I passed by earlier at the Summer Palace.
Along a particularly steep incline on the palace grounds where signs everywhere warn strollers to “Beware of hilly climb”, this paraplegic girl gamely plodded ahead on her crutches, one small, slow step after another.
If she could demonstrate so much determination and discipline in her pursuit of a particularly significant historical landscape, then surely I, too, can keep walking to discover the hidden secrets of this ancient city.