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August 01, 2006

hutongs of Beijing

There are books and photo albums with this title. Although dictionaries define a hutong as a lane or an alley, there really is no exact English equivalent.

A Chinese hutong is typically part of a network of hutongs. From above, the entire pattern (which can take up half a square mile or more) would resemble a labyrinth. These narrow streets are sometimes straight, sometimes winding, sometimes intersecting. They include a variety of homes, shops, and street vendors. While other Chinese cities have hutongs, Beijing's are the most famous.

Last weekend, we went to Beijing for our third trip. Each time, we've liked the city a little more. Compared to Shanghai, there is more of China to see and feel in Beijing. We went mainly for me to interview two more people for my dissertation research, but we also had plenty of time to attend the local liberal synagogue (Kehilat Beijing) Friday evening and to tour during the day Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, Terry wanted to return to the Pan Jia Yuan "dirt" market, where she had previously bought a couple of jade Buddhas for her sister and I had found a couple of Lei Feng posters. This time, we bought a few more gifts for friends and relatives. On Sunday, I wanted to visit the former home of Liang Qichao, one of the leading reformers in the late-Qing dynasty (later 19th / early 20th century). Liang was a colleague of Kang Youwei, whose home we had previously toured in Qingdao.

Liang's home did not appear on previous tourist maps, but is on the latest one. So, I assumed it had recently been renovated and opened up as a tourist attraction. All we had to do was get there. The home is shown on the map at the intersection of two unnamed streets, but not too far from a couple of major streets. I navigated us by bus from our hotel to the intersection of the two major streets, then we started walking and asking directions. Replies were inconclusive, uninformative, or contradictory and the weather was hot, so we hailed a taxi for what we assumed would be a five-minute ride. I showed the driver where we wanted to go. He could see that we were very close, but he wasn't sure how to get "from here to there." He entered the hutong area and began asking directions. Altogether, he stopped to ask directions seven or eight times. We did a considerable amount of reversing course and retracing the same route, not to mention detouring to avoid a delivery truck. After 20 minutes, we finally found the builiding, only to have a neighbor inform us that it was not open to the public! All of us (the driver, Terry, and I) took the news in good spirits. For about $4, we had had a delightful tour of Beijing's hutongs. We then had our driver take us back to a great Indian resaurant near our hotel.

-- Norty

Posted by now at August 1, 2006 12:05 PM