Friday, August 30, 2013

Beijing at Night

Bright young things.
Three full days in Beijing allowed me time to wander. I found the city to be particularly beautiful at night, when it is lit up by old iron lampposts and dusky Chinese lanterns. You don't notice the air pollution at night, and the hutongs - old Chinese streets - are quite safe, at least in the bourgeois neighborhood around my hostel. Wandering allowed me think through the events of the day while encountering new sights at a reduced pace. One evening, I wandered over to Ghost Street, a large thoroughfare that is wall-to-wall restaurants for about a quarter of a mile. The name apparently refers to a sort of bamboo bowl that sounds like the word for ghost in Chinese. Most customers are Chinese, and the folks in the picture above are sitting around chewing sunflower seeds, the shells of which were thick on the ground.

Here, fishy fishy!
Ghost Street is a well-known destination, and the restaurants compete with each other by creating ever more striking displays of light. The effect is sometimes tacky but always draws attention. 

One of countless little cafes.
I stayed just off of Nanluoguxiang Hutong, an old street that was built during the Yuan Dynasty (think Kublai Khan). Nanluoguxiang serves as the "trunk" street for a substantial residential neighborhood and has been transformed into a pedestrian mall, complete with scores of small stores selling hip knickknacks. As you can see in the picture above, a great many food purveyors located here, as well. Nanluoguxiang is consquently one of the most popular destinations in Beijing for the young and well-to-do.

Peking International Youth Hostel
Here is the entrance to my hostel, on a smaller hutong off of Nanluoguxiang. The owner loves plants. I don't know if I have stayed at a hostel that is better run or situated.

Nearly a quarter of the population in Beijing lives in hutongs, but these streets are dwindling, succumbing to western-style development. For centuries, people lived cheek-by-jowl in one story dwellings, complete with a courtyard, developing a complex web of relationships in their tightly-packed neighborhood. The hutongs wind around a lot, and I would often come upon people eating dinner or  playing dominoes at the edge of the street, which essentially served as a front porch. This pattern of relaxation played a social function, too, as news and gossip clearly passed quickly from group to group. The pattern of life bore some resemblance to tenement housing in American cities a century ago.

It seems to be acceptable for people in Beijing to dispose of paper trash by burning it. At night, I frequently came across men and women squatting over small fires in the street of their own making. 

Skewered meat ready to sizzle.
Street food on Nanluoguxiang Hutong.

Canal near Nanluoguxiang
On my last night, I went walking along some hutongs west of my hostel, intending to dine on a busy street I had scouted out the previous evening.

Grandma's Creative Cooking.
Instead, I ended up poking my head into the doorway in the picture above, which had a sign outside advertising that it was a restaurant. The ambiance created by the Chinese lanterns and the sense that I would be eating in someone's house was too intriguing to pass up. Indeed, the house turned out to be owned by a couple whose main business is a tea company. I dined on duck-fried rice and received a long lecture (translated by another young customer who, with his girlfriend, were the only other patrons that night) on the origins of their company, which aims its products at higher-end consumers in China and Europe.  The husband seemed to be something of an art collector and had also made all the artwork for their packaging and ads. 

Not a bad last dinner in China.
This was my second duck-based meal of the day. On both occasions, the accompanying broth was delicious. Note also the beaker of cold white tea. At the end of the meal, my hosts pressed a couple of small packets into my hand. Clearly, they are as much interested in creating an aesthetic as in making money.

On the way back to my hostel.

Of the places I visited during these travels, I am most eager to return to China. 

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