30 October – A Beijing Hutong 

We have a short flight from Xian to Beijing. Because the inflight meals are notoriously dreadful we once again have a box lunch to bring with us. Airport security here is a bit different from other places I’ve travelled to in that nothing electronic can be in checked luggage. No batteries, power cables, or gadgets of any kind can be checked. So most of us have odd assortments of stuff to bring as carry on. All of this is to be placed separately in the bins. Add the cute little bags holding our lunches to that mix and we must create interesting images for the X-ray machines as we go through security.
Upon arrival in Beijing we are piled onto our respective busses and our group heads down town to visit the bell tower and drum tower and a famous Hutong area. The two towers are interesting, we are given an introduction to Chinese tea ceremonies in one of them and I honestly can’t remember which one! Oh dear. Anyway it really is one of those ploys to get people to buy ridiculously overpriced teas packaged into cute little boxes. A few get sucked in but most of us manage to remove ourselves from the clutches of the zealous venders unscathed. Dad and I do get a couple of funny little “pissing boys.” I know. Weird. But funny as hell. Pour hot water onto these wee pottery statues and they pee. All over whoever is sitting in their way. Hilarious. Well perhaps one has to have been there…..
This is followed by a walk through a protected, culturally important Hutong. Say what? Hutong. These are areas of old single story homes built around quadrangles along narrow lanes. They are in the heart of old Beijing on prime real estate within spitting distance of the Forbidden City. Built as private single dwellings many years previously, during the cultural revolution there were often several large families ordered to live within each home. Now-a-days the homes are back to being occupied by just one family per quadrangle. Very few have their own toilets so there are public toilets in each block. A couple of women from our group go into one and are surprised to find three very public places to squat in a row. There is a Chinese woman hovering over the middle hole. As they need to “go,” they each squat, one on either side of her. They report the Chinese woman as being somewhat startled by the Caucasian intrusion. We visit one of the homes. The visit of 28 people is of course very staged. The man who lives there serves us all tiny cups of tea, and through a translator, tells us his family history and a bit about his home. It is very interesting. He and a few others who live in the area are paid to open their homes in this manner. While his property is worth about two million US dollars, he and his wife live humbly in a very basic house under what we would consider less than ideal conditions. However, as he points out, in this place they have much more space, and personal privacy than they would in an apartment building. They would rather have their tranquil courtyard than their own toilet. They would rather have their tree than an oven. 
We have a ride around this Hutong in a convoy of 14 pedicabs. It’s fun in that there are frequent sudden stops and all the cabs bump into each other by way of braking. It seems to be amusing to the local population too, to see us all “training” by snapping our pictures and gazing at their lives and homes from our oh so different perspectives. The Hutong visit leaves Dad and me rather baffled. The so called quaint narrow lanes are packed with new cars and old, junk, graffiti and rubble. The grey brick walls seem quite modern. A few open doorways allow glimpses into unkempt cramped courtyards. We see none of the fruit and veggie markets we expected. While we’ve seen virtually not a scrap of garbage until this point, there is a fair bit of it around. The so called clean public toilets cast a reek that is impossible to ignore. We don’t quite get the charm that supposedly haunts Beijing’s Hutongs. To us, it feels a bit bleak and drab. That said, we’re glad to have seen one but it is an experience now crossed off our list of “do agains.”

It is now getting dark, we go for dinner before finally being bussed to our very nice Kerry hotel. This is our favourite hotel to date. The bathroom is palatial. The toilet. I’m not really sure how to describe this thing. To begin with it has a heated seat. Nice. But it does odd things besides flushing itself. Here’s a picture to illustrate the options available. 

3 thoughts on “30 October – A Beijing Hutong 

    • Hi Karin,
      Our guide Kobe told us that the Chinese government recently spent a huge amount of money upgrading public toilets frequented by tourists. I gather they didn’t like the bad press. There are still mostly squats, with a complement of western toilets. Lucky me, I don’t mind a squat and my knees and hips enable me to adopt the position as the western loos usually have a very long line up. The public facilities are generally very clean and all squats have either automatic flush or a foot peddle to flush. As at home, there are sometimes unpleasant surprises but that is not frequent. Paper is sometimes provided on a big roll outside but it’s safer to have one’s own supply on hand.
      The dreadful Chinese loo seems to be history! At least in areas where we tourists gather.


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