The efficient and modern spic and span Beijing Airport through which we had just passed, the wide impressive roadways and the modern skyscrapers all around us indicated a 21st century city with no signs of the past. "Does Old Beijing still exist?" I thought to myself as our taxi sped between towering skyscrapers on the way to our hotel. "Has history disappeared in this city?" I asked my Chinese acquaintance as the taxi stopped to let us off at the door of an ultra-modern five-star hotel. "It's still here - just hidden away by this mass of newly-erected structures. You cannot erase history! Just visit our Hutongs!" He assured me.
In the days to come, I found that, as my acquaintance had indicated, Old Beijing was still thriving and well. The historic pagodas, palaces and old courtyard-style homes remain, but are tightly encircled by the cement and steel of our modern age. However, old Beijing's history continues in the Hutongs (a Mongolian name meaning narrow alleyways) with their 1 million inhabitants - a reminder of Old Beijing at the time of the Mongolian emperors - (1280 to 1368 A.D.).
To explore this part of the city, I joined with a group of eight travellers, accompanied by a guide, for a rickshaw tour of a part of the Xuanw District of the Hutong area - once a part of the Outer City of Old Beijing.
Riding two to a bicycle-powered rickshaw, we were soon peddled through the narrow streets of the Hutongs on our way to the home of Mr. Wong, one of the Hutong's residents. The tour officials had arranged for our group to dine on a traditional home-cooked meal at his home. Now, as we sat around a table relishing a fine lunch that was prepared by Mr. Wong's mother, Madam Zhang, I felt happy and content; we were dining on authentic Chinese food.
Back in the rickshaws and full, we were again on our way but soon stopped at a home some two to three hundred years old. The portal of the house, according to our guide, when first built would have been at least a foot above street level. Now, after the street had been paved over and over again through the centuries, it was at least two feet below street level and, hence, is usually flooded during heavy rain. "Imagine the housewife's agony of cleaning up after every rain storm. I wouldn't want to be in her shoes!" One of the ladies in our group remarked as we continued our rickshaw journey.
The next stop was a treat. Before entering the home of Mr. Ien and his wife, Madam Zung, a retired schoolteacher, our guide described the old Hutongs' homes, like the one that we were entering.
The living quarters of the courtyard-houses in the Hutongs, like the traditional homes in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, are built around a courtyard and could usually house two to three families. There were no toilets inside the houses, but there was a communal outhouse for all the families outside the home. It was a way of life from the past with some modern modifications.
Inside their home, we discussed with our gracious hosts the advantages and drawbacks of living in the Hutongs. They both stated that they loved to live in their home that the family had owned for many generations. To them, family ties and friendships were important - not the material wealth of the modern city. In the words of Madam Zung, "We love our home and we also love to have guests from other countries. This is why we invite tourists to our home."
Back in the rickshaw, I realized that old Beijing remains a living city.
(As the capital of the People's Republic of China, Beijing is the nation's center of government, economy, culture, and international activities, as well as serving as a transportation hub to the entire country. With a population of 11 million people, Beijing contains 18 districts and counties covering an area of 10,450 square miles. The suburbs contain: Dongcheng, Xicheng, Xuanwu, Chongwen, Chaoyang, Haidian, Fengtai, and Shijingshan. An outer suburban area consists of: Fangshan, Mengtougou, Changping, Tongxian, Shunyi, Daxing, Huairou, Miyun, Pinggu, and Yianqing. Beijing City is an independently administered municipal district located in the northeastern part of China at an elevation of 143 feet above sea level. Beijing has a continental climate. January is the coldest month with an average temperature of 24 degrees Fahrenheit. At an average temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit, July is the warmest. The best time to visit Beijing is May, September and October.)
Habeeb Salloum is a regular contributor to Gulf Times, Contemporary Review, Canadian World Traveller and the Toronto Star. He has also written several cookbooks.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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