Landing In The Smog
As we were starting our descent to land at Beijing airport I looked out the window. We were descending down through clouds, or so we thought. We waited as we kept going down and looked forward to when we would break through and get to see the first glimpse of the city below. It didn’t seem to be happening. We just kept going down and down in the clouds. When we could finally see we were shocked, we were almost on the ground. It seemed as though we were about to have our worst experience yet with pollution in China.
Modern Beijing Is Squeezing Out The Old At A Rapid Pace
The hour long trip from the airport gave us a good overview of the city. We saw a funny site when we passed some road construction. They have these life size plastic flag men. They are robotic and have an arm that moves up and down with a flag. They look like giant lego men. There were high rises as far as you can see, or as far as the smog would let you on that given day. Overpasses were everywhere with traffic whizzing about them. Construction cranes could be seen in every direction. The city has pretty much everything typical of any large city these days. McDonalds has taken over along with KFC, over 50 Starbucks are in Beijing alone. Not much of old Beijing is left. People living in the few original areas that are protected cling onto their old ways of life while the surrounding area of modernism and high rises encroaches around them. Beijing is no longer the city that people came to a generation ago. The days of mass bicycles in the streets and Maoist revolutionaries in buttoned-down tunics performing exercise in Tienanmen Square are long gone. The city is on a high speed course of modernism and the rest of China is going with it.
The old city was pretty well intact when the communists took over in 1949, but they had little regard for ancient Beijing and pulled down the city walls. Roads were built and modern buildings replaced the old. The construction continues today and nearly a third of the 62 square kilometer old city had been demolished, including over 1000 hutongs. This is a shame because it is the old city that captivates many tourists.
What Is A Hutong
A hutong is an ancient narrow alley or lane formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. They were built during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Beijing used to be full of thousands of them. They were planned and arranged around the center of Beijing which was the royal palace or Forbidden City.
Since the mid 2oth century many of the old hutongs have been demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. Many people had to leave the lanes where their families had lived for generations before them. Thankfully some hutongs have now been designated as protected areas.
Our Hutong Accommodation
We stayed in the Far East Hotel which is located in one of the protected hutong areas. It was a great experience. We loved walking around the skinny alleyways that went in all directions. It was very easy to get lost in. Life goes on in a different fashion in the Hutong compared to the rest of Beijing. Most of the houses do not have a bathroom. The streets have public washrooms with showers. In the mornings you will see old men walking down the road in their underwear heading to the shower with their soap and towel in hand.
At night you can see people sleeping in cots and other make shift beds in the streets. I guess it is cooler than sleeping in their houses. In the evening you will see men gathered around playing Chinese checkers. They sit outside on small wooden stools around low tables. Cats and dogs scurry about looking for left over scraps of food from the days activities. The roads are filled with small shops selling pop, cigarettes, newspapers and some grocery items. There are lots of fruit and vegetable stands as well.
Our hotel was clean and adequate. There is a hostel section located in the basement as well. It was a popular place and both sections were always busy. Everything you could need as a traveler is available from internet to laundry facilities. We had a double room with a bathroom in the hotel section. It worked out to about $35 Canadian a night.
We would go to the kitchen facility in the hostel sometimes to make toast or heat something in the microwave. We ate a few times in the hotel restaurant, the food was okay, nothing to get excited about. The Travelers Cafe across the street from our hotel did a good breakfast. Otherwise we would try to buy some fruit from the market to have in the mornings. The staff at the front counter can speak English. They were very helpful in giving directions to places or telling us how to take a local bus or the underground. There is a travel agent in the hotel as well who can book anything you need in the way of a tour or flights.
We were able to walk to several nearby attractions such as the Forbidden City, Tianeman Square and Liulichang Cultural Street. Many other sites were easily accessible by bus or the underground. Taxis were also an option we used several times, but see our note below.
Getting Taxis Could Be Challenging, Especially Back To Our Hotel
Getting taxis was challenging at times. We had a map and would point to where we wanted to go. Sometimes the driver would nod and we would get in without any problems. Other times the driver either didn’t want to take us there, or couldn’t understand where we wanted to go. He would wave his hands shaking his head and just drive away.
On many occasions we had a difficult time getting a taxi to take us back to our hotel. It seems they didn’t like going into the hutong area, too many narrow streets to navigate. Sometimes we would have to go through a dozen cabs to finally get one to take us. One night we simply could not get a taxi. We finally gave up and walked all the way back from a shopping area we were at. It was well over an hour. Not that we mind walking for an hour, but we had a long day of sightseeing and more than enough walking for the day. Our feet were aching.
A few times we managed to persuade a driver to take us to our hotel by pointing only to the entrance of the hutong area and saying “here is okay” If they managed to understand that they didn’t have to take us into the hutong they seemed okay with it, otherwise forget it. In hind site we should have got one of the hotel staff to write in Chinese characters “take us to this entrance” or something like that.