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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!)