While modern China is all high rises and multi-lane highways, traditional Beijing is made up of hutongs, neighbourhoods of homes built around courtyards on winding lanes with communal living areas…a place where everyone knows your name (and your business…no secrets here). Following the founding of modern China is 1949 (there’s that pesky Cultural Revolution again), many of the hutongs were destroyed to make way for new building and to try to erase a traditional way of living. Finally recognizing the historical significance of these unique living areas, many have now been protected from further development and some have developed a thriving tourist trade.
We climb into rickshaws for our tour of the hutong, and it’s a bit like the Amazing Race, with one rickshaw driver attempting to out maneuver and pass another through the winding, narrow lanes, showing off their mad peddling skills for us tourists who have paid about $2 each for the privilege, until we reach a hutong home where we will have lunch.
There are 31 of us in the group, so we are separated into 3 small rooms of the house, my group situated around a round table in what I imagine is otherwise the living room. From the hutong kitchen, which is no larger than the interior of a medium sized car, comes 8 or 10 dishes per table of traditional and delicious hot and cold food. It is clearly an amazing feat of organization and must have been the morning’s work of several women to prepare, cook, present and clean up after so many strangers. I am truly touched to have been invited into the interior of someone’s life so graciously. There are many massive wonders of the world and UNESCO designated heritage sites in China, but I memory I’ll most cherish is the invitation into a very personal and very small part of real Chinese life.