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The Alleys of Beijing

Robert Westbrook comes to China from New Mexico and is the author of seven books, most recently INTIMATE LIES published last year by HarperCollins. He is a new arrival in Beijing, joining his wife Gail who teaches English at one of the local universities. MY CHINA is a weekly feature of Chinese Business World, in which Robert recounts his adventures in this fascinating, and often bewildering land. "

People who have been in Beijing for some time tend to gaze at the modern new skyline in astonishment. "None of these buildings were here ten years ago!" they will say, pointing to the sleek highrise cityscape of glass and steel and white bricks. Everywhere you look: fancy new hotels, department stores, office buildings, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, advertisements for Coca-Cola, neon signs. "What's the most common bird in Beijing?" goes a popular joke. The answer of course is "the crane" -- for the construction continues at a breakneck speed, catapulting this city of 12 million inhabitants into the 20th century, just in time for the century's demise.

But in China, appearances can be deceiving. To visualize Beijing today, you must first imagine long boulevards and huge city blocks. The blocks seem to go on forever without coming to an intersection -- which can be exhausting if you are on foot. This is Beijing on a grand scale, the facade it offers to the world, and it is on these boulevards that all the new construction is happening.

At first, surrounded by the city clamor, the new visitor might hardly notice the many narrow alleys that jut off from the great boulevards, often only a small inviting break between two buildings. These are the hutongs, the alleys of Beijing. Step into any hutong and within a few minutes the modern city will disappear. You have just moved backwards in time into a dense, interior world -- the real China that is waiting behind the facade.

The alleys twist and wind through the inner city like veins and arteries moving through a living creature. There is endless fascination here: tiny markets, noodle shops, old men sitting in the waning sun, children playing, donkey carts, strolling lovers, ancient gateways to walled-courtyards . . . a confusion of smells and sights and sounds. The hutongs not only take you back in time, but out of the city itself -- back to village life where neighbors know one another and stare in astonishment at the foreigner passing by. Smaller alleys branch off from the larger alleys into a maze of shacks and hovels, housing for the poor. But occasionally you will pass an ornate doorway that might lead to the hidden mansion of a feudal prince.

You can see the hutongs in comfort by taking one of the organized tours via bicycle-taxi, which can be arranged through any of the large hotels. But I recommend simply entering these alleys on your own and allowing yourself time to get lost -- which you will certainly do, as the hutongs meander in no clear direction, and within minutes you will lose your orientation. Eventually, never fear -- after a few centuries, it might seem -- you will find your way out of the maze of tiny alleys, back onto a main street, and once again in modern times.

P.S. from the Westbrooks: Thanksgiving is here again - the holiday Americans set aside to be thankful for too much to eat, backyard football when the game on T.V. gets boring, the company of family and friends and the relief when they all go home. What would we do without it? Happy Thanksgiving to all and to all an Alka Seltzer.

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