Chambers at Large in the Hutongs of Beijing
My guide grew up in the old residential area of Beijing, where people live in Hutongs, narrow houses, which appear small at first glance, but the one I visited was 70 square metres, as large as my own cottage.
I was driven there by pedicab, a rickshaw pulled by a man on a bicycle. I did feel for him, not only having to pull me but also a fellow traveller. Whilst being driven through the narrow streets, sheltered by numerous trees, we both agreed it had been a fabulous holiday and we couldn’t have done it on our own. The language barrier and the logistics would have been problematic. We’d certainly never have found the backstreets of Beijing.
The hutongs are very, very close together. One entranceway, about 6ft wide, leads back, back, back, one room moving onto the next. The one I visited began with a small hallway lined with plant pots and then into a long sitting room, the kitchen being to the right of the hallway. From the sitting room into a studio, where our hostess worked with her aunt, painting small glass bottles, which are beautiful. (A fellow traveller said they were once opium bottles and that made good sense.)
Back again from the small studio into a bedroom and then another bedroom. About 12 foot wide, the dwelling is very long, but there are all mod cons: air-conditioning, TV, radiators, a computer, everything except a bathroom, which is across the street. There, everyone shares washing facilities, but I forgot to ask about washing clothes. It was 4.30pm and my brain was fried. I can only presume there’s a laundry.
Sadly this area of China is likely to disappear in ten years or so, with people moving to the newer, more modern high-rise buildings. It is a shame as there are unusual sights to see: a beautifully hand-decorated doorstep, gaily patterned windows, hidden shops and community centres bedecked with banners.
I noticed people cover their cars with plastic car covers and put boards up against the wheels to protect them or prevent theft, although there is a very good neighbourhood watch programme in place.
Everyone knows everyone, and I mean everyone. Our hostess knew everybody on the street and beyond– another good reason to go with a tour guide. Strangers are approached with caution and the thought of not being understood by a clowder of curious Chinese women, not to mention the police, is daunting to say the least.
Finally, I'd like to extend a huge thank you to my hostess and to my guide for allowing me to have a glimpse of life in this glorious city and its close-knit community.