Chinese Buffet – Part 6: Hutong Hostel & Great Wall Hike

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

For the last four nights of my stay in Beijing, I stayed at the Downtown Backpackers Accommodation, located smack dab in the middle of the Nanluogu Xiang hutong in the Dong Cheng district. As I walked down the alley towards the hostel, sweaty from lugging all my gear, I knew I had made the right decision to stay in the hutong district.

These ancient networks of dusty roads lined with homes and shops are slowly disappearing in Beijing, as construction and development tear through old neighborhoods, displacing hundreds. Preservation efforts will save some portion of these clusters, but who knows for how long. As I huffed along, I realized the importance of being able to witness the hutongs first hand, before they are gone for good.

(Aerial shot of a hutong from the Bell Tower)

Of course, I stayed in a comfortable hostel with amenities like Western toilets and internet access, while many locals in the area live without hot water or plumbing. But I could still get a sense of what it feels like to live among the cement walls and low hanging trees that line this maze of alleys.

I had to wait in the hostel lounge area for a bit before checking in, and found it to be a delightfully quiet and peaceful room that I returned to throughout my stay. Jetlag was still messing with my sleep patterns, so I often found myself here in the early morning, writing in my journal before breakfast.

The free breakfast began about 6:30 each day, and was usually a fried egg, some sausage or bacon, toast, a piece of fruit and orange juice. (Coffee was 15 RMB.) The hostel was clean, efficient and cheap! My total bill for four nights was 220 RMB, which is about $30. There are three computer terminals downstairs with internet access. Payment is on an honor system, but there was no one monitoring usage — it was easy to get away with a little extra time when no one was around. (I think the minimum payment for usage is 3 RMB for a half hour.) There is also a cozy little cafe next door to the hostel, serving lunch, dinner, drinks and free wireless.

I slept in a six-bed mixed dorm. It’s littered with travel gear in the shot below, but it was very bright, cheery and cool – thanks goodness for air conditioning! Thankfully, none of my roomies were rage-till-dawn rowdy types. I met folks from Canada, the UK, France, Austria and Belgium, and several of us went out for dinner one night.

Part of why I chose Downtown Backpackers over other lodging options is because they run a well-organized trip to the Great Wall every other day that leaves right from the hostel. You don’t have to stay at their hostel to go on the daytrip, but since the van leaves at 7 am, I decided it was most convenient to stay there as well. I signed up for the trip a few days in advance because it is a popular one that takes visitors to a less touristy section for an extended hike along the Wall.

The 220 RMB fee covers the round-trip transportation, plus a bathroom pitstop on the drive out. It takes three hours get from Beijing to Jinshanling in the morning, and then another three hours to drive back from Simatai. In between, hikers are on their own, and given about five hours to complete the 6.2 mile hike along this serene and STEEP stretch of the Great Wall.

Completing this hike was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done – a personal achievement I’m quite proud of. It’s a fairly intense hike, especially in the heat. The haze was thick, but and I still managed to get a deep Great Wall burn by day’s end. At times, the walk was much more of a CRAWL for me, as I grasped for sturdy rock amid the crumbles that remain. Much of this portion of the wall has not been heavily restored, and we did pass a group of workers repairing one of the thirty towers we passed along the way.

Our group of 15 spread out organically into smaller packs, and everyone completed the hike at their own pace. This trek was much more than a simple walk along the wall, but it felt so good to sweat through it till the end. I just kept thinking about the millions of people who worked to build this ancient wonder — and the millions more who have since made the trip to see it. There were several divine moments of silence, and vantage points when I felt as if there was no one else left in the world.

Every inch of my body ached that night, but it felt great. And after such an exhilarating day, it was comforting to return to the warmth of the hutong hostel. Returning “home” for the evening to the friendly staff (Danielle, Puli and kitty cat Xiao Si shown here) seemed a most fitting end to my Great day at the Wall.

Photo of the Day (5/16/07)

Here is a shot that wins my vote as it does not scream location. I’m guessing it’s the photographer’s secret hideout in Asia somewhere similar to Batman’s bat cave except there are beautiful sunflowers on the exterior and only a bicycle to go out and catch evil villains. Or maybe flyingtiger uses the bike only to check out a current movie playing or to go on a photo safari in Hutong.

A Canadian in Beijing: Hutongs & Mopeds

Beijing is famous for its hutongs. A hutong is the Mandarin word for “alley” and, at one time, most of the city was made of these narrow streets that housed residences and businesses alike. These days, there are many wide streets that have replaced them, but there is a movement to preserve the hutongs (rather than knocking them down and replacing them with more modern apartment complexes.)

Yesterday, I visited a very famous hutong called “Nan Luo Gu Xiang.”

The hutongs are so famous, in fact, that there are “hutong tours” here in which foreigners get into bicycle rickshaws with colourful awnings and are then taken with the rest of their tour group through the hutongs all in a row – rickshaws rolling like a giant snake, one after another, winding through Beijing.

Yesterday, I met with my new friend Will as he offered to take me to a restaurant for some vegan fare. (Musician rule #1 = never say no to food!) He picked me up from the subway on his moped and I hopped on the back (with a helmet, don’t worry!) and held on tight. The sun was bright – a beautiful spring day — and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Riding a moped in Beijing is the way to go! It’s like a video game. We were able to drive past cars, zigzag around bicycles and pedestrians, skip the queue for the lights and turn left in front of everyone, park on the sidewalk, etc. It was amazing and I laughed out loud with delight. I really can’t think of a better word than “delight” to describe it. I loved every second.

Apparently, you can get away without having a license for a moped in Beijing, especially if you’re a foreigner. Many license plates on mopeds here in Beijing appear to be upside down and this is the sign that it is not an officially licensed vehicle. The police may stop a driver, but the foreigners are hard to deal with when they don’t speak Chinese and so the likelihood of arrest or having your moped impounded is nil. I also heard that by 2008 and the Olympic games, they will start cracking down on these and other illegal two-wheeled vehicles. Until then, I’ve seen plenty “unofficial” mopeds and motorcycles, especially in Wudaokou where there are so many foreigners.

Will introduced me to a great restaurant in “Nan Luo Gu Xiang” called “Luogu” or “Drum and Gong Fusion Restaurant” in English (pictured above.) We walked into the restaurant, through the tables and to a set of very narrow back stairs, not unlike attic steps in century-old houses back home. We had to duck at the top of the landing because the ceiling was too low. We turned and ducked again through the child-height entrance to the outdoor rooftop patio. It was full of tables and umbrellas and dripping in sunlight like caramel. I paused before sitting down so that I could drink in the gold of the sun – an elixir for the eyes. It felt as though we had been magically lifted up and out the traffic and congestion of the streets below and then gently placed into a perfect paradise of quiet and surrounding foliage.

Will’s also vegan and he has been giving me some insight into the world of eating as a vegan in Beijing. His Chinese is way better than mine, too, and so I gave him total liberty to order for us. While this wasn’t a vegan or a vegetarian restaurant, his choices were impeccable. We talked and ate and shared insights about music and writing and city life and travelling. He’s American and has been here two years already, and so his knowledge of this city was impressive. He had lots of share and I have open ears.

After our amazing meal and conversation, we got back on the moped and went across town to a well-known independent record store called “Fu Sheng Chang Pian” or “Free Sound Records” in English. It’s an independent record store and Will suggested that it would be a good place for me to pick up some music by female artists here in Beijing to help direct my research (see this post for more information about my research here). The people in the store were really helpful and I came away with three new CDs for the low price of 30 kuai each (or $4.33 Canadian — how do musicians earn a living at that price?) All three of the artists are female, independent, Beijing-based songwriters and I believe they all play instruments too (besides their voices). I’m looking forward to listening to them.

I waited around for Will to be done with his tasks because I was secretly hoping I’d get one more ride on the moped. I honestly fell in love with that moped yesterday and I think I may have to negotiate an open relationship with my bicycle! Otherwise, I’m two-timing my bike and I am not the type to keep those kinds of secrets . . . !

We were standing on the sidewalk outside of the record store when he offered to drop me off at the subway station where I was meeting my friend Sarah for yet another mission to the arts district of Beijing called “Da Shan Zi” (more on this soon). I eagerly accepted his offer – maybe too eagerly – and I noticed my childlike exuberance flash back at me from my reflection in the record store window. Just a split-second sparkle that caught my eye before putting on my helmet and hopping on the back of Will’s moped for my final ride of the day.

Swerving, twisting, between cars, around bicycles, passing congestion and capturing open spaces like prizes, we motored through the cityscape like it was maze and we had the map. Once again: delight. The sun on my back, the wind in my hair, my smile peering over his left shoulder.

I gotta get me one of these!

(Okay, well maybe not. But if I lived here permanently, I’d seriously consider it!)