A trip down memory lane

By Bidisha Bagchi (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2006-11-24 09:11

A trip down memory laneHutong tours in Beijing are organized by several companies,running from morning until evening. The pedicabs are usually found near Beihai Park and Shichahai Lake, and the drivers are well versed with the alleyways and are good guides for the entire tour.

When the city of Beijing was totally destroyed by the army of Ghengis Khan,it was redesigned with hutongs; the city's most charming narrow alleyways that once ran into thousands. Hutongs are usually of two kinds. The regular ones run near the Imperial Palace and are arranged in a perfect order. The ancient dwellers in these hutongs were mainly imperial kinsmen and aristocrats. The residents have now changed to ordinary people as well as affluent folk.

The second variety of hutongs are mainly located far away from the palace,mostly towards the north and south directions.The r e s i d e n t s were mainly traders, showing a clear demarcation of the different classes of people and their areas of residence.

Visiting a hutong was a "must-see" during our trip to Beijing as these are the places where traditions and cultures have remained intact.

Pedicab tours are tremendously popular and take visitors through the most seemingly inaccessible narrow lanes with ease and make the whole experience incredibly lively.

We started our pedicab tour from the north entrance of Beihai Park to the picturesque Shichahai Lake area; The lake is a broad expanse of water surrounded by beautiful willow and poplar trees and the green water with its mild waves create a magnificent ambience.

Walking along the bank of this lake is a favourite pastime for the residents of the hutongs and as we rode along the road that runs parallel to the beautiful lake, a bitter cold wind swept our faces and the clean air was so refreshing. During summer, boat rides are popular here and the lake turns into a good skating rink during winter.

The tradition of pedicabs wasn't unknown to us, so we hopped into the vehicles, two of us in each, and began our tour.

A trip down memory laneAs our pedicabs rolled along the narrow lanes, we came across the typical housing pattern of the area. The houses are mostly of one level, all of a grey colour. The main buildings in the hutongs are almost all quadrangles; a building complex formed by four houses around a courtyard. The houses vary in size and design according to the social status of the residents. Each alley is christened after a family - the alley of the "Zhou" family for example will refer to their hutong as the Zhoutangzi Hutong.

Riding down and alongside the lanes of this quiet and peaceful area, we reached our host's house.

This house was also built in a quadrangle pattern with roof beams and pillars all beautifully carved and painted, each with a front and back yard. Two Chinese lions guarded the entrance to his house,signifying that the resident was an affluent man.

We entered the property and were welcomed into the courtyard, which had a perfect seating arrangement. Hot steaming green tea and buns were served immediately.There were separate bedrooms and a kitchen for guests where we could even relax.

Talking to our host for a while, we learnt the tradition of their family, how they came to stay in the hutong. A little later, a typical Chinese lunch was served, including soups, starters and main dishes.Our host had a good collection of pet birds in his house and we enjoyed feeding them.After spending quality time with him, we were up once again on our pedicabs, riding on the lanes towards the historical attractions near this area.

The Drum Tower was our first stop. Destroyed and rebuilt, this tower dates back to 1273 when it was actually built marking the centre of the old Mongol capital.

The drums are beaten at every hour of the day. To see the large array of drums on display, we literally had to hike up a steep flight of stairs.

The main attraction is the bell tower,right behind the drum tower. Built in around 1420 and rebuilt with bricks in 1747 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the original iron bell was replaced by a great bronze bell, which was rung at 7 pm every evening until 1924.

Combing the city's historical interior and going further than the typical touristy attractions, our voyage to the city's hutongs were a visit worth remembering, showcasing the rich traditions and culture of China's capital.


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