A First Encounter with Beijing
That afternoon was reserved for my visit to the China Aviation Museum, located in a cave at the base of a mountain that was once a Chinese military base. That in itself made it really cool, and I mean that literally, too. The temperature drop when we walked in had to be about 20 very welcome degrees. Jasmin had visited the museum as a child and she helped explain the exhibits by reading the placards which were only in Chinese.
Chinese aviation then and now, borrows from Russian, American and French design. This had little impact in the past but with commercial aviation booming as the Chinese discover a taste for air travel, the domestic aviation market is poised to eclipse America as the largest in the world. China is designing two new airliners, the C919 with Canada’s Bombardier and the ARJ21 regional jet. Models of both are on display at the museum.
For two days I’d seen Chinese history, so on the last day of my Kensington tour, the company arranged for me to have a taste of contemporary culture. Throughout my travels in the city, I’d seen groups of people doing Tai Chi a Chinese martial art that is a mix of exercise and social interaction. You Zhang Dou, my teacher for the morning arrived at my hotel in loose fitting sweat pants, a tee shirt and shoes that looked like ballet slippers. He was in his mid-sixties, handsome and in great shape - an excellent example of the benefits of this workout.
An hour class taught me that Tai Chi is harder than it looks. It is all about measured movements and balance. Shifting weight while remaining stable can only be accomplished when you are doing it correctly.
I was ready to rest after my class so when we boarded the tricycle rickshaw at the entrance to Beijing’s most charming and tourist-friendly hutong.
Xilou hutong is a warren of narrow brick paved streets on which hundreds of small ancient homes, shops and restaurants are located. Throughout the neighborhood runs a meandering river that goes all the way to the Summer Palace 26 miles away. The river provides the charming focal point with Venetian-style bridges connecting each side of the hutong.
During the day, tourists wander through shops selling typical souvenirs and local crafts. I visited the shop of kitemaker Mr. Wang whose silk dragon and insect designs were so elaborate and beautifully displayed that the store could have been a museum. Through the hutong’s tourist office, Jasmin had also arranged for me to visit a 75-year-old woman named Wang Qing, who has hosted many visitors including Henry Kissinger in the little complex of rooms she shares with her archeologist husband, two adult sons and their families. They live in small tidy suites behind a moon-shaped gate off a side street in the hutong. A breeze through the open window in her living/dining room kept the house cool, and Madam Wang seemed pleased when I complimented the beautiful flowers and fruit trees she had growing in the courtyard.
When the sun goes down, residents in the hutong contend with even more visitors as the restaurants along the riverfront have replaced dining tables on the curb with full-sized sofas. Chinese night life requires lots of drinking, lounging, smoking and music and this hutong is one of the most popular in Beijing for an East meets West style of nightlife.
As I continued my tour of Beijing on my own later in the week, I would veer off a modern main road and find myself stepping back into another hutong. There were old-style homes and shops - but for residents not tourists. Still, everyone I encountered was welcoming as I explored their streets and poked my nose into their markets.
In one, I was amazed to see a beautiful selection of eggs in four colors: brown, white, blue and pink. On the other side of the arcade-like shop, giant balls of floury dough were being fed into extruders by white-aproned bakers who turned the substance into noodles. Beijing is a city with modern supermarkets where eggs are sold by the Styrofoam dozen and meat and fish are wrapped in cellophane. But I was lucky enough to find the back alleyways to see pieces of the city still clinging to former ways of life.
This is why I travel and I’ll welcome the assistance of anyone, guide, local or both who will take me off the tourist map and help me find the heart of a destination.