We arrived by rickshaw, rolling through bustling alleys, witnessing life in Beijing’s hutongs as it was a century ago: ramshackle buildings, potholed streets, the smells of unfamiliar and fishy foods, grandmothers hanging laundry — and then, a 21st-century detail, men on buzzing scooters making deliveries.
The hutongs, or “well-water” settlements, present a picture of everyday Chinese life prior to Beijing’s rapid development of recent decades. The dense alley neighborhoods, originally centered on the wells, are among the few precommunist-era communities in the city that have not been demolished and redeveloped. With its booming population and high-rise apartments, Beijing is thoroughly modern. But as my teenage daughter, Nicole, and I explored it, we couldn’t help but be drawn to its history.
Cricket Leo is a friend of our tour guide, Wu, and his courtyard apartment is a typical hutong home. Traditionally, several generations share a courtyard. The four walls around the open middle space include the homes of individual families. The walls allow families to have privacy in their homes and relative privacy in their courtyards. Leo’s courtyard features trees, gardens and an array of noisy animalsand birds.
We smelled our meal before eating it. Steaming savory and sweet dishes of chicken, fish and vegetables were brought out to fill the lazy Susans on our tables.
A porcelain bust of Chairman Mao in a red scarf looked down as we ate. Art and statues, plants and flowers, teapots and dinnerware — the dining room was packed. Not to mention the caged crickets and grasshoppers and roaming dogs and cats. In the background, someone strummed light guzheng music.
Leo showed off his champion crickets and grasshoppers. He took them from their lavish boxes of inlaid wood and encouraged us to pet them. As we left, a grasshopper crawled on Leo’s face, and crickets clung to his waving hands. Birds in the courtyard sang farewell over the sounds of serenading crickets.
As we approached Tiananmen Square, modern Beijing’s center, Wu warned us not to talk politics. Although we saw no public signs of oppression during our visit, tempers can flare when the student protests of the late 1980s come up. Since we were here to explore history, not create it, we refrained from political commentary. The weather was warm and skies were blue, although we never quite escaped the scent of smog, even when we couldn’t see it.
At the square’s crowded center towers a picturesque obelisk honoring the People’s Heroes. In the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the refrigerated body of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China rests beneath rose-tinted glass and is raised daily for public viewing. Along Tiananmen Square’s sides stand the National Museum of China and the seat of the Chinese legislature.
The buildings on the far ends of the square date to imperial China. On one end, the Zhangyangmen Gate and Archery Tower; at the other end, Tiananmen itself — the gate to the Forbidden City with Mao’s enormous framed portrait affixed. Here in 1949, Chairman Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic. Tiananmen seems the appropriate place for such a declaration, drawing a stark line between communist concrete and imperial lavishness on opposite sides of the gate.
For decades, vacationers have snapped photos of themselves with Mao’s portrait over their shoulders. The “original” painting requires repainting every year due to the effects of weather. Chinese visitors asked to have their pictures taken in front of Mao’s portrait — with us. We tourists have become part of the scenery.
Strolling in the Forbidden City
Designed with the harmonious principles of yin and yang and completed in 1420, the Forbidden City is China’s most masterful and elaborate architecture. Serene and regal, it felt as though we had stepped back in time when we set foot within its buildings.
Every structure we crossed looked fit for an emperor, from the gates and halls to the offices and storehouses — all decorated in the same style. They were, in fact, designed for an emperor, and during a nearly 500-year period, 24 Ming and Qin emperors lived there.
The large, open space didn’t feel crowded, despite being the most visited museum in the world with almost 17 million visitors last year.
“Very feng shui,” Nicole observed.
“And impressive,” I said, admiring the craftsmanship. The buildings are constructed on foundations of crisscrossed brick with wooden pillars and trim, gilded doors and shining roofs of yellow-glazed tile. There are ornate gates, marble bridges, throne rooms, sundials and dragon gargoyles for exploring. This is a must-see for architecture aficionados and history buffs alike.
The Summer Palace became a countryside retreat for the imperial family to
escape the Forbidden City. Empress Cixi, the “dragon lady,” had the palace rebuilt twice after it was destroyed by different invading forces. Today, the palace and grounds form a public park.
Through the lingering smog, we could see the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha capping Longevity Hill, an impressive, tree-blanketed mountain over the lake. Statues and sculptures of dragons, deer, peacocks and mythical creatures guard the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. The Marble Boat floated in Kunming Lake.
“How can marble float?” Nicole asked.
“It’s wood,” Wu explained, “painted to look like marble.”
It is a convincing paint job. We explored courtyards of mosaics, trees and statuary. The rock formations are works of art in themselves, sculpted by nature, and scenic paintings of dragons and phoenixes decorate the beams of the 2,300-foot outdoor corridor.
Music wafted down a hillside path; we climbed it and arrived at the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. A full band sounded, as dozens of seniors sang from songbooks and others danced in circles. We were pulled in and danced, hand-in-hand, in their cozy circle. Their smiles brightened our morning in a way that the smog-veiled sun did not.
Tourists and locals, in perfect harmony.
How to go
Companies such as ChinaTour.com and Gate1Travel.com often offer deals that include airfare, meals and five-star hotels for less than the cost of a plane ticket. The catch: Exit through the gift shop. Guides will entertain you and everything is taken care of. It’s a stress-free adventure.
What to try
Peking duck – crispy and juicy.
Rice wine – strong and sweet, warm or cold.
Dried snow plums – tart, sweet and chewy.
Green bean ice cream –muted and creamy; better than it sounds!
Longjing, or “dragon well,” green tea – once exclusively for the emperor, this Hangzhou tea is so delicious you can eat the leaves.
Dragon fruit – a luscious staple at breakfast buffets.
The Forbidden City
The Summer Palace
The Temple of Heaven
The Great Wall