While Mei Mei is napping this afternoon I wanted to be sure to back track and document our wonderful adventure on Sunday with Dion. We had requested one more sight-seeing type of event, with something fairly historical or culturally significant but also with a low-pressure, easy-paced tone. Man, oh, man, did he deliver! We had the best afternoon with him, enjoying a little gem tucked away in the heart of Beijing.
We spent the afternoon in an ancient Hutong village, in the shadows of Beijing's Forbidden City, flanked by the city's Drum Tower, and Bell Tower. Each little series of alleyways and winding streets hold scores of courtyards and off each courtyard are little homes. The entire village is only one level - nothing was ever allowed to be built to a second or third story in the scope of the Forbidden City of the Emporer, to ensure his privacy and separation from the common peoples at all times. Originally the courtyards were shared by family groups but now the courtyards have been further divided and many unrelated families live in the spaces around the smaller courtyards.
The front gates of each home tell the status and story of those who dwell there. Each of those round beams at the header of the door speak of their financial status - and their financial status determined how they went about arranging the marriages of their children, among many other important functions. Four-beamed families need only seek sons of other four-beam families for their daughters. Eight-beam families are the wealthy and powerful, usually a government or royal official. The ancient beams of this entry way indicate a four-beam family. Note the intricate hand-painting and high thresholds. The ancient Chinese believed that the evil spirits would be kept out by high thresholds.... those little devils must have had short legs!
As part of our tour, we took our first rickshaw ride, bumping and jostling through the little alleyways while our guide rode a bike behind us and shared the stories of the hutong. Mei Mei loved the bumps and giggled often at the jostling.
This hutong is teeming with life - such a juxtoposition of ancient and modern throughout the whole village. Audis and BMW's parked alongside old, rickety bikes you'd see from the 50's. Old men and women carrying baskets for market shopping and young men loading a flat screen tv onto a hand truck. It was fascinating to take in.
Many families have lived here for generations and the young people go to school here, raise their families here, and enjoy Beijing's modernities right along side of the old world feel. It's a small, tight-knit community and we got to visit a home, enjoy a small sip of tea, and hear from the "lady of the house" about her husband's familial home. His family has lived in this particular courtyard for four generations, originally fitting 8 people in a "house" that is only the size of my dining room and living room combined. Eating, sleeping, living all together for generations. Currently, only this woman and her husband and three year old daughter live there and she said she feels lucky for so much space!
She shared that her husband's hobby is collecting ancient Chinese artifacts. We got to see an ancient scroll of beautiful hand-written calligraphy on rice paper, some amazing antique benches and bureaus, a couple of very old and intricate prints of Chinese opera puppets. It turns out, he is an artist on the side of his government construction job - he had hand-drawn in colored pencil some roly-poly Chinese children in traditional style clothing playing an ancient stick game together. It was beautiful work! It was an honor to spend a half hour in her home, asking questions and hearing about their life in the hutong.
In the space between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is a community park. It was a Sunday afternoon, so families were out enjoying the day together. Kids were playing hacky-sack, moms were chasing toddlers, young people were sipping coffee and listening to music, all on this large open space. The park had a series of little shops and markets all around the perimeter and people were shouting back and forth, visiting and enjoying the gorgeous weather. It was obvious by the atmosphere that this is a strong community and the values of traditional Chinese culture were really shining through on this day. Respect for family, honor for tradition and appreciation for the future - we got to experience it all in this little village.
The Drum Tower
The Bell Tower
The weather was so nice we decided to walk the shop-lined streets that surrounded the village area and check out the sites. We got our first taste of milk tea and I might be hooked! We saw our fair share of tiny Chinese hineys, as lots of families with young children were out and about and split pants abounded. Tee hee, I feel silly admitting this but it is one of my favorite things about walking around the streets of China - all those little buns peeking out!
One of the shopkeepers had this little guy out on display - not sure what kind of store it was, as this was the only critter in sight. But it was enough of a sight to keep ME from entering the shop!
And just when we thought the day couldn't get any better, Dion whisked us off by taxi to a tiny little hole in the wall restaurant that specializes in Uyghur food. It's pronounced "wih jer" - or something close to it. The Uyghurs are a people group of China's most western province, bordering countries like Afghanistan and Russia. Their religion is predominantly Sunni Islam and their food is a great mix of traditional Middle Eastern style and Chinese style. We had huge plates of thick chewy noodles, a spicy chicken and potato stew, round-spaghetti-like noodles in a thick tomato-y sauce, spicy chicken kebobs, and two different kinds of lamb kebobs. I am not exxaggerating when I say that these lamb kebobs were THE.BEST.LAMB. I have ever eaten. This was the one and only meal that I came even close to over-eating. Not that the other meals weren't fantastic, because they so far all have been. But this dinner was just so amazing. I can't even describe it and do it justice. And you can BET I'll be searching the web once the jet lag fog clears for some Uyghur recipes for lamb kebobs for home. I can't wait!
It was a perfect day for us. Mei Mei was happy and giggly, charming all the passers-by and shop-keepers with her smile. We got to enjoy some beautiful weather and we had a peek into a way of life that we might never had seen or even know about had we stuck with the ordinary and more well-known tourist hotspots. And best of all, we got to spend it with Dion, who has become "family" to us in this important week for our gang.