Beijing: Romancing a 3,000-year-old City
Beijing in winter is my City of Mists. Never mind that it’s polluted from coal fires, too much dirty industries and too many people you can’t see nine feet ahead.
All I know is I’m enamored with it, as men from faraway lands were before Marco Polo wrote about this three thousand-year old capital of six dynasties, abode of 34 emperors and cradle of humanity (Peking man lived here 700,000 years ago).
Today, despite the hassle and the smog, Beijing draws 150 million visitors a year and ranks as one of the world’s top destinations.
From the airport’s apocalyptic gray haze, I squinted at the outlines of trees with empty nests and ghostly magpies, thrushes, ravens and wrens.
I consoled myself with the fact that tonight; I’ll literally sleep in the heart of China’s ancient history.
I booked a US$13 per night hostel – Downtown Backpackers – smack in the middle of a “hutong”(alley) in Nanluogu Xiang, built when Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, founded the Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Era) 800 years ago.
“Hutong” is a Mongolian word for water well. During the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians valued water so much they designed every urban community around a well.
Even now, you can still find dry wells in the “hutongs” which formed the city’s neighborhoods and came to symbolize Beijing’s culture.
More than 7,000 alleys used to twist like centipedes throughout the city, linking the “siheyuan” (traditional courtyard houses), bathrooms, public toilets, restaurants and shops strung with red paper lanterns.
Connected by the “hutongs” radiating in all directions, hundreds of courtyards converged around the Forbidden City, forming a giant chessboard set with walled gardens, rockeries and ancient ruins.
Until the Ming and Qing dynasties, no signposts marked the “hutongs”. No one wrote down their names. Local folks simply learned what they are called by word of mouth.
They dubbed one “hutong” Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street (Yandai Xiejie) because it’s not straight. Mamei Hutong was named after the old Beijing language.
Others took the names of their location, adjoining markets and businesses or local features such as Inner Xizhimen Hutong by a gate on the city wall, Yangshi Hutong (sheep market), Yizi Hutong (soap) and Liushu Hutong (willow tree).
Some were named after people, like Mengduan Hutong, after Beijing’s mayor in the Ming Dynasty who lived in the alley. Others took auspicious names, such as Xiqing Hutong (happy).
While most alleys are straight, tortuous Jiudaowan (Nine Turns) Hutong winds 19 times and even Beijingers get lost there. At its narrowest section, Qianshi Hutong (Money Market) is only 16 inches wide so when two people meet, they must turn sideways to pass each other.
The longest alley, Dongjiaominxiang Hutong, stretches 6.5 kilometers while the shortest, Yichi, measures 82 feet. The widest is Lingjing Hutong while the one with the oldest history is Sanmiaojie Hutong, built in the Liao Dynasty (907–1125).
Needless to say, it’s a nightmare tracking down a “hutong” address. Even local cab drivers can’t find my hostel though it’s downtown, close to two major attractions, the Bell and the Drum Towers.
Worse, progress threatens the “hutongs”, just like the South China tiger, the most endangered big cat on earth. Since the mid-20th century, many have been demolished to pave way for modern roads and buildings.
At present, the state designated some of the 1,000 remaining “hutongs” as protected areas. Still, a number of them are home to royalty, celebrities and state officials.
China’s last empress, Wan Rong, used to live in Mao’er Hutong. Qi Baishi, a famous traditional Chinese painter, lived in Yu’er Hutong.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, Premier Zhao Ziyang spent his 15 years of house arrest inside a “hutong” previously occupied by one of Empress Dowager Cixi’s hairdressers.
My bed for the night happens to be in the “hutong” once called Centipede Lane because of its 16-side alley-layout in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), they renamed it Humpback Lane before christening it Gong and Drum Lane (Luogu Xiang) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Of course, I visited the “hutong’s“ two towers as soon as I arrived.
“A morning bell and a dusk drum” of the Bell and the Drum Towers dictated the routine of life and work during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), before clocks were invented.
The largest and heaviest bell in China – 23 feet high, weighing 138,891 pounds – resides in the Bell Tower. To its South stood the Drum Tower, with one big drum and 24 smaller ones which people beat quickly for 18 times and then slowly for 18 times in three rounds and 108 tolling.
Beijingers knock the bell and the drum 108 times because the number 108 represent one year in ancient times.
But after Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, left the Forbidden City, the state abolished the telling of time by bell and drum. The towers remained silent for a century until 2001. Thereafter, locals beat the bell and drum together 108 times every New Year to bless Beijing.
Before calling it a night, I tried some insane nibbles at the Food Stalls of Wangfujing (Prince Mansion’s Well) – the residence of a real prince in the Qing Dynasty, now a famous shopping street.
I wasn’t surprised to find a huge crowd though most of them were gawking and snapping photos rather than eating.
I saw fruit slices dipped in crystallized sugar and stinky bean curds on sale. But most tourists milled around stall number 56, which displayed skewered roast king scorpions, starfish, sea urchins, katydids, cicadas, silkworm, centipedes and sea horses.
Roast king scorpions reputedly cure many ailments, including malignant cancer. Cicada shells heal arthritis and rheumatism.
For the hell of it, I sank my teeth on a stick of farm-raised scorpions. They tasted like shrimps deep-fried with shells on, a slight bitterness rising over the salty seasoning and greasy oil they were smothered in.
In the same way, the starfish resembled brittle crabmeat. The seahorse was all crunch, like the rest of the fried bugs.
I was chewing on barbecued chicken hearts when the lights mercifully went out.
(To be continued next week.)
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