Every time I come into the hutongs I breathe a sigh of relief and I remember what drew me to Beijing in the first place. Today I took a cookery course in the old Gulou area. Walking to class at 9:40am down Luogu Alley feels a bit like walking down Portobello Road at setting up time. A few early tourists are catching the shop keepers and stall holders arranging their collapsible tables, or lining up for jian bing: pancakes filled with finely chopped leeks and various thin sauces spread on with a paintbrush, finished by the addition of a piece of deep fried batter. The whole is then folded and the crispy batter slab filling expertly broken up with a few chops of the spatula without piercing the pancake. It’s not exactly a balanced meal but I’ve had it for lunch more than once and it’s surprisingly good, especially with added pickled veggies. This morning was a bit early for that though so I forked out an inflated £2 for a Nutella pancake instead. Given that the traditional version costs about 50p it’s a nice niche that canny kiosk has carved out.
My class was tucked away in a residential courtyard or siheyuan. This might bring to mind an open courtyard with four buildings on each side and traditionally that was the high end set up. Now they are more like gated warrens with every square metre occupied by small rooms squashed together.
It is a dilemma for those who want to preserve the traditional hutongs: they are overcrowded and often dilapidated. The electrical systems wouldn’t get any safety certificate back home and most of the dwellings don’t have bathrooms. I had to use one of the public loos a few weeks back and was surprised to find a row of unscreened holes in the ground. Why waste money on partitions, I suppose, but I hadn’t seen anything like that since travelling in the countryside on my year off.
Without trying to pretend that there is romance in a communal bathroom this enforced intimacy might contribute to the friendly family feeling in the hutongs. I rolled out of the class into more back streets, heading down dead ends and chatting up the locals about the beautiful roofs. It feels so peaceful to me and the character of the winding alleys is so intimate after the huge multilane ring roads. One of the residents demurred however “not peaceful any more: too many people”. All said with a smile and a cackle of “English!” when I said where I am from.
I intended to head to the Drum Tower, now surrounded by bustling redevelopment, though thankfully not on a ring road traffic island like some of the other old buildings. I got diverted instead to Houhai, the lake behind the Forbidden City. It is teeming with Chinese tourists. Never mind Bond Street, the Chinese are touring their own country like never before. I tagged onto a group following a flag in one of the preservation areas. A little old lady from Hubei was in the group with her son (who took the obligatory photo of the laowai with his mother) and her grandson. The lucky old bird has another two children, a boy and a girl, though they were both too busy to join the tour.
I still love the people here. It feels unusual for them to be snappy, grumpy, rude or shifty. Even the cabbie this morning, who took me the wrong route to my class, stopped the meter early and apologised profusely when he realised he had taken me the wrong way. And that from a guy who was quite bolshie and aggressive with the other traffic and really seemed quite scary at the outset.
Trawling the tourist areas comes at a price though. I’m now eating a £3.80 brownie while sipping a £3.00 flat white. It’s a rare treat, but for pretty much London prices it’s still not quite London quality.