I first arrived in China in August 2006. It was hot. The air was stagnant and nothing moved. It wasn't until evening that we got out to explore and as we rounded a corner in our taxi, people came into view. A community of people on dining room chairs, dragged out of still-gaping front doors. A semi-circle of people, formed around a man-made lake, as people ate, gossiped, and stared. In China, life is vibrant, loud, passionate, and in your face. And it's lived outdoors in the streets, where you can get a meal, a shoe-shining, or a haircut.
I spent three years in China, and then moved to Japan. Now, after being away from almost two and a half years, it was time to go back. So we did, my girl and I, to Beijing and then Shanghai.
Beijing hutongs offer a glimpse into this outdoor community. While the hutongs have suffered the ravages of central planning and development, and the ones that still exist are overrun with tourists, mostly Chinese, there still clings a sense of real China around the edges.
My girl and I spent a long time wandering arond hutongs. This is what we saw.
Hutongs are full of mystery and atmosphere, life and noise, food and clatter. The center streets are bustling with tourists, food stalls, young men standing around, and grannies walking kids home from school. Side streets are empty and quiet, but hanging laundry and leaning bikes, and the clatter of a pot and in some deep and distant kitchen and offer hints as to the life behind closed doors.
For more on Hutongs, read The Last Days of Old Beijing. It is a truly wonderful tale of a vanishing way of life.