It’s been a while since we’ve talked, mostly because I’m coming up to the end of term exams and I signed up for an extra external exam just for good measure. That’s my excuse anyway but in truth maybe I’ve just lost inspiration. Almost four months of rice+canteen food, the ability to smell where the loos are at one hundred paces and room cleaning every other day which deposits more long black hairs on my floor than it takes away blonde ones are taking their toll. I obviously haven’t had a sanity check trip to the hutongs for a while.
For a quick boost I’m going to wind back to the other weekend, when I left Beijing’s most expensive coffee and brownie intending to head to the Lama Temple. While it is a decent distance from Houhai and plenty of rickshaws were touting for tourist business I generally prefer to walk through old Beijing. It’s easy to get off the beaten track and see a bit more life that way. The crowd mentality seems to be strong with the Chinese tourist flock and they seldom go off-piste: groups of ducklings following a flag or umbrella toting mother duck crowd the main sightseeing routes. Strike out at an angle and the streets are empty but for a few residents.
So en route to the temples I went via Gulou, the drum tower I previously mentioned. I should take back my comments about it not having been built into a traffic island. As with Beijing’s Friendship Store a trip to Gulou in the 90s was hardcore tourism to remotest Beijing. What once presided over hutongs jostling at its foundations now sits behind a wide crossroad with cars, bicycles and pedestrians following the usual “Beijing rules” of traffic order.
Stepping around the back I suddenly found myself in a community square hosting what looked like Games Day at a care home. Clusters of mostly elderly residents bent over tables and benches, perched on their collapsible stools. They played cards, mahjong and hackey sack and the atmosphere at the tables varied from hushed concentration to screeching friendly squabbling. The oldest players and wheelchairbound spectators could have been any age from 80 to 100; the most agile hackey sacker was at least 65.
At the nearest table the oldest player was winning as I approached; I watched the group for a while and she won a few more rounds. One of the players in his 60s got a call on his mobile during a game. Somehow this coincided with him holding a winning hand which he played out while still on the phone, folding up his chair to then race across the square to whatever emergency, all in the space of about a minute; impressively spry work.
The next table over were playing mahjong with at least as many spectators attending. The rounds passed quickly and with concentration but for an outbreak of hilarity when one of the players tried to claim a stray hat from the table behind, having forgotten she was already wearing hers. Winners were awarded 20p each by the three losers but no one was far enough ahead to have made their dinner money yet.
The final group of players assembled while I watched and were highly competitive, grumbling at and ribbing each other for playing badly or letting the same chap win too often. I watched them for so long they invited me to play but I declined on the grounds that I was afraid that the group’s noisiest member and harshest critic would probably have a go at me for poor play. This incited a round of finger-pointing and “You see! You’re so rude!” directed at the player in question at which point it seemed prudent to make my exit.
It was far too late for the Lama Temple by then but I got more local culture out of my hours in the square. Once exams are over and I’ve learned some insults I may head back and join in the games.