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Hutongs and Highrises

Last updated by Mark_smith at 2008/3/12; Destinations:

Is it called the Forbidden City because it is a threshold between the rich on the eastern side and the poor on the western?  It certainly seemed so.

When I walked out of the hair salon I was dismayed.  There have been times, leftover birthday cake before me, when I have cut a sliver off the edge to even the line, and again to even that one, and so on, until only a sliver remained.  To these women, gentle reader, my head had been such a cake, and they had evened it and corrected it until there was almost nothing left.  It would have been better if there were nothing left, for that would at least have been a style, of sorts.

Thank goodness for hats; and wives who laugh with you.

Ten yuan wasted.

My wife and I headed east, the afternoon sun spitting through the leaves of the trees lining the sidewalk.  The temperature was mild and pleasant, the walk peaceful.  We were flanked on one side by the road—traffic was light, today—and a high wall on the other. 

Out in the heat of the asphalt, however, a woman in heavy blue coveralls and a reflective vest was sweeping the gutter of the road into a little dustbin she carried.  She carried a bag, and her face was masked with some sort of mueslin-like fabric, which turbanned its way all around her head, presumably to keep out the dust and fumes.

"She looks like a mummy," said Mary.

"Come on, that's not phar-aoh," I said.  We passed her—she was moving slowly—and continued our walk.

And then we came upon an opening in the wall.

Hutongs, reads the guidebook, are the intricate maze of alleyways left over from Beijing's early cultural heritage.  Ah, so.  The real Beijing.  The Beijing of the common man.  We entered.

I confess that I entered that Hutong with an almost entymological curiosity.  The narrow, curving lanes were but a few feet wide—less so where small crates or bottles, perhaps a bicycle, were stowed—and yet the sun seemed to fall straight down like a hot needle no matter which way they turned.  The walls were rough bricks set upon thick mortar, black-brown with the onslaught of dust and airborne pollution.  After a distance, the lane widened enough to accommodate some sort of cooking apparatus and a jerry-can of water.  In corners, the dust crowded into sloping masses undisturbed by brooms or sandalled feet.  But in front of the doorways it was always clean.  The people who lived there must take good care, even when they have so little.

I confess that I carried this arrogant benevolence with me through that place, as though I were some sort of king deigning to walk amongst his subjects.  Then I came upon an open door.

Inside, in a room with a short bed and a chair—none of the interior walls could have been more than five or six feet long—a man in a dirty, sweat-stained t-shirt and beige shorts was smoking a cigarette and watching a small television somewhat larger than a basketball.  If he had been welcoming, I would have accepted his hospitality; if he had been angry, I could have been apologetic.

The look on his face was of utter disgust and disappointment.

And I confess that I felt ashamed.

We left immediately as we had come, and walked for a time.  But not a long time.  Soon we had crossed Tiananmen Square, and several blocks past, and we found ourselves once again in shadow, this time of tall buildings.  Here the streets were wide and clean, everywhere glass and steel and polished concrete, flowing sculptures on the sidewalks, couture fashions in the windows, women arm-in-arm laughing under the light burdens of their parcels.  So great a change in affluence in so short a span of space seemed unnatural.

"Mark, look."

Into the street walked our mummy, but she had already begun to unwrap her head.  Soon, leaning against the wall of a tall building, her coveralls too were off, revealing the yellow blouse and blue shorts she wore underneath.  Her wrappings disappeared into the bag she had carried over her shoulder.  Another woman approached her, and after exchanging a few greetings, took hold of the first woman's broom, and began to put on her own coveralls.  The mummy was alive, and blended invisibly into the crowds.

All down the street, paintings and newly-installed sculpture celebrated the Chinese bid for the Olympics: running, leaping abstractions, arcing figures straining to break gravity, that fixed and eternal boundary of men.  Of course, they only seemed to move.

So did we.