Monday, June 2, 2008

China Day 03: "A maze of twisty little passages, all alike"

[That line is from a classic computer game, for those who were wondering.]

After lunch, we went a short distance by bus, to where we would begin to explore an area of Beijing which still has the traditional narrow alleyways and courtyard houses (many such neighborhoods are being torn down, but some still exist.) These alleyways are known as "hutongs", and we toured them via pedicab. Our pedicab driver was a strong young man
which is good because we are not a small load!
Our sixteen or so pedicabs maneuvered through the twisty narrow alleyways
sometimes passing quite close to the walls on either side.
Those walls are drab gray and don't look very inviting. The entrances into the homes are brightened by red New Year wishes/blessings for the inhabitants pasted around the doors:
It's kind of like making a wish on your birthday candles - you can ask for whatever you most want; Lilian told us she had seen one asking for a better salary and for good results at the Olympics!

We walked a little ways from where we left the pedicabs, and then our group split in half to go meet with local families and see what the courtyard houses looked like inside. Our group went to the home of a retired archaeologist, Mr. Wu, whose specialty was carbon-14 dating. Now he's retired and gives foreigners tours of his house on a regular basis! All four buildings surrounding his courtyard belong to his family: he and his wife live in one three-room section, and his sons and their wives and kids each have a section. (You can see floor plans for some typical courtyard homes here.)

We entered the house and they took us to the largest room:
sort of a living/dining room in the corner of an L of the building; the bedroom was to the right and the kitchen straight ahead in this picture. Our group sat around the dining table and on the living room sofa and chairs, and the Wus served us green tea and trays of little snacks like peanuts. Then we got to chat with Mr. Wu, with Fred as our translator because Mr. Wu doesn't speak much English.
One of the subjects that came up was the house. Mr. Wu inherited it from his mother; they had lost the house during the Cultural Revolution but they got it back later, and Chinese people are now allowed to leave property like houses to their children. Even though the house is shabby and rundown, and the rooms are definitely not large, it is worth about 100,000 yuan per square meter! (That's over $14,600 - the Wu family lives in a house worth about $7 million!)

After chatting awhile indoors, they took us out to look at the courtyard. It is filled with a grape arbor (here are Mr. and Mrs. Wu under it)
a substantial container garden
and somebody's pet turtles in a tank:
They are certainly using all their space!

After our visit, we walked back to our pedicab and re-boarded. They pedaled us around the neighborhood some more, which was really enjoyable. Especially since we were sitting down! The route was scenic
and we pulled up in front of an attractive little cafe
where we were met by the bus. Along the way, I added this:
to my photo collection entitled "Dogs of China". There are a lot of long low dogs in Beijing - it turns out, because Beijing has an ordinance against owning a dog taller than 14"!

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