We’ve just finished our breakfast.
We’re sitting greasy fingered and sated, on low red plastic stools crammed into the corner of a tiny back alley shop. Dim light shrinks the room further, not reaching the edges, and the walls are busy with Chinese characters. Layered thick with decades of posters and signs. Everybody else in the room is Chinese, and they’re all looking at us expectantly, faces alight with bemused mirth.
As is common for us in China, we have no idea what we’ve just eaten. There were pancakes involved, and vegetables of some sort. Possibly other things. But it was delicious, and we smile at the room. Everybody beams back, and they all have a good old laugh. I’m sure they’re laughing with us, not at us. Possibly.
This is backstreet Beijing, and two foreigners eating pancakes are the funniest thing that’s happened all week. The camera phones come out. Everybody has to see this.
China is not for the camera shy
Five minutes later we’re leaving, with a bag of mystery pancakes to go, and contracted pupils from the repeated camera flashes. And we’re still grinning — all this mirth is infectious.
Being constantly photographed in China is something that I was at first bewildered by, quickly found endearing, and then slowly but insistently began to find irritating.
Really it’s all of those things: odd, charming, annoying.
That breakfast time I was firmly charmed by it, but by the afternoon cracks had appeared. Literally and metaphorically. But it would be hours until that happened. In the meantime, bellies full, we were off to delve deeper into Beijing’s hutongs.
What the heck is a hutong?
Hutongs are narrow laneways found in cities in northern China. The name derives from the Mongolian word for a well, which would once have been the heart of each micro-community. These streets make up much of central Beijing, though many of them have been demolished in recent years. ‘Progress’.
Hutongs are made up of traditional courtyard homes which were built side by side, eventually forming a grid of streets around the Forbidden City: the old Imperial heart of Beijing (read about our visit to the Forbidden City here). The older homes have elaborate roofed gates, usually flanked with lions or traditional drum stones like the ones pictured above.
Some of these streets are many hundreds of years old, but the best thing about them is they’re not just a dead cultural relic, like many of Beijing’s sights. This is where Beijing lives.
Our hostel was in one hutong area to the east of the forbidden city, which was interesting enough in itself, but for a day of full on hutong exploration we decided to venture further afield. Some of the most lauded hutongs lie further north, around the bell and drum towers.
We started with the most famous hutong: Nanluogu Xiang.
It was absolutely terrible. Full of tourist tat shops, busy busy busy, nasty faux-historical signage everywhere. Expensive food. The only interesting thing about it was watching these stoically persistent men wheeling their load through the throng.
Fortunately, the side streets were worlds better.
Away from the manufactured, tourist prepped main street were some glimpses of something really interesting. A Beijing that’s been quietly getting on with life in much the same way since these hutongs were built. Well, this is China, so not quietly. Loudly. But relatively modestly and simply. These streets have an understated beauty to them, and spending a day discovering it was a real pleasure.
Yeah, we basically just walked around all day
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Just walking around is one of my favourite ways to see the world.
A lot of travel, and a lot of writing about travel, is directed at stuff people have heard of: visiting this ancient building, or that dramatic waterfall. Hiking the famous trail. Eating the famous cake.
I get it. Some of this stuff is genuinely great, the hype comes from somewhere.
But so much of what I really love about travel is found outside the constraints of a definable, listable, packagable experience. It’s usually the random, unplanned encounters that change your view of the world, that teach you something, show you a perspective you hadn’t considered before, broaden your horizons. Make you actually feel something. Make memories.
This was especially true in Beijing. Yes we saw some famous sights there, and yes some of them were interesting. Our visit to Mao’s mausoleum was fascinating, and experiencing the vastness of the forbidden city was impressive. But a lot of the stuff we saw left me lukewarm.
Often what really makes sightseeing interesting for me is the people watching opportunities — noting the quirks of normal life in a place that’s foreign to you. And there are better spots to find these quirks than tourist sights. Parks, markets, cafes, street bars, buses. Backstreets. Public toilets.
This is when those meaningful, memorable things happen: when you start wandering through daily life, not just tourist attractions. When you start doing normal things in strange places. When you actually immerse yourself in a culture, even in tiny ways. Cultural immersion doesn’t have to be big and scary. You don’t have to pitch up miles from electricity and vow to live only off yak milk. It can be small things, like hanging out in a park with the locals, watching a game of mahjong.
You learn things travelling like this. One thing I learnt in China is that public toilets there, where they exist at all, don’t often come with cubicle doors. Or indeed cubicles.
Which is interesting, given the burning desire of most Chinese people to take a photo of anyone who looks European, wherever they find them.
So it was that when I found myself squatting in a public toilet in the hutongs, I had a bit of a problem. Now, I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but I like to think I’m pretty good at using a toilet these days. Travelling the world on the cheap puts you in a broad spectrum of toilet situations. You get pretty relaxed about it. But this was different.
I just couldn’t go.
It wasn’t the strangeness of trying to use a bathroom which contained five squat toilets lined up neatly against one wall, unencumbered by partitions.
And it wasn’t the frigid wind streaming in through the door-free entrance, troubling the exposed parts of my anatomy. Though admittedly this wasn’t helping.
It was the very real possibility that when somebody else came in to use the toilet, their natural response to a squatting European would be to whip out their camera phone.
So I squatted, and I waited. And I waited. It really was quite cold. Nothing happened.
A minute went by. No paparazzi appeared. I relaxed a little.
But just as nature had begun to take its course, an elderly lady appeared in the doorway. The familiar expression of mixed fascination and hilarity lit up her face. A foreigner! Using the toilet! Hilarious! Wait until I tell everyone I know about this!
This was it, my goose pimpled flanks were going on Weibo.
She approached. Should I greet her? What’s the etiquette here? I looked at the floor.
But then, oh the relief! Rather than taking my photo, she gingerly took up a squat next to me. And she let loose. With abandon.
I needed a beer
Fortunately our wanderings had brought us within scurrying distance of Great Leap Brewing. This is the exact antithesis of the bar you might expect to find in the back streets of Beijing: a microbrewery with clean, understated decor, quiet background music, and beer in pint glasses.
In China you down your drink every time somebody yells cheers. Consequently beer is served with a shot glass.
Basically, Great Leap Brewing is an escape from Beijing in the middle of Beijing. Which, at that moment, was exactly what we needed. So much for cultural immersion. Sometimes you just need a drink.
Until next time, cheers!