Sunday, January 3, 2010

Steiny Road to China: Step 9 GOING TO THE WATER WELL

What drove the Steiny Road Poet to start learning Mandarin and to become Li Changdi was the wish to communicate with people she would meet in China. In Beijing, she and her Gang of Eight (along with 16 other Grand Circle Tour travelers) were taken to one of the hútòng 胡同 neighborhoods that flank the Forbidden City. Hútòng comes from the Mongolian word hottog, which means water well. Typically tourists enter the alleyways of the hutong in bicycle rickshaws.

What does it mean to live in a hutong neighborhood?

Well, people share toilets, bathhouses, courtyards. While you might have kitchen appliances, you don’t necessarily have running water. Actually the typical hutong quarters are most likely one room and there is no central heat or air conditioning. In the winter, it is cold in these honeycomb residences. The fact is, there is no privacy and everyone knows your business.

By these standards, the residence we visited was on the high end. The lady of the house who was a snuff bottle artist had two rooms. Her niece, who is learning her aunt’s art, assisted with our visit for tea.

We were surprised to see the aunt had a French poodle and the dog was decked out with a hairdo of orange ears and lime green tale. Apparently people living in the hutong are now more economically able to afford pets.

However, hutongs in Beijing are being demolished and replaced by modern buildings. The people are being bought out by the government and moved to high-rise buildings.

To see what it is like living in a hutong, check out Michael Myer’s YouTube film and read his book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He said the hutong streets could be compared to Venice canals. Changdi thinks only a former Peace Corps worker like Mr. Myer’s could stand to be so close up and personal with his neighbors for the two years he lived in the hutong. One thing he did have was broadband Internet, but Changdi experienced the People’s Republic of China’s stranglehold on social networking websites like blogs, Facebook and Twitter and so even broadband couldn’t necessarily help a Westerner escape the eyes of the hutong.

More photos from Changdi's visit to the snuff bottle artist.

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