On a bright August afternoon, I join 15 other foreigners in Beijing to be transported back in time. Traveling in two-seat, awning-covered pedicabs powered by hard-pedaling drivers, we cross a threshold from the bustling, modern city into the rapidly vanishing hutongs, the back alleys of old Beijing.

Getting to the hutongs is easy. Three-hour guided tours, which cost $22, leave twice daily from the north gate of Beihai Park. They're so popular that advance reservations are recommended through the Beijing Hutong Tourist Agency (8610 6615-9097), which offers tours in both English and Japanese.

Our foray into one of Beijing's best preserved traditional neighborhoods begins when the busy roar of the main street gives way to the squeaks and creaks of pedicabs and the occasional ding of bicycle bells. Gray-washed brick one-story houses, many of which date from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), line the narrow hutongs. Sometimes we get a glimpse into a courtyard, with perhaps a wizened tree growing inside, a young woman washing laundry in a bucket, and a few scruffy chickens scratching in the hard-packed ground.

After cruising along the willow- and poplar-lined bank of Shichahai Lake, where elderly men fish or play Chinese chess, we arrive at the imposing 700-year-old Guanghua Temple. Unlike many of the more famous temples in Beijing, Guanghua is fully functioning, with 55 Buddhist monks living and praying inside its red walls.

We follow our cheerful guide, Daisy Cao, through the temple's two main halls, where she introduces us to the statues of the resident gods. Along with four brightly painted guardian gods is a smiling, round-bellied Buddha of recent vintage. Marauding Red Guards destroyed the original during China's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The same soldiers stole 18 statues of the luohans, or Buddha's disciples, in the second hall, which is why they are now represented by 18 wall paintings instead of the real thing.

KUBLAI KHAN'S TOWER. After another short pedicab ride, we arrive at the massive Drum Tower, a 150-foot-high, red-walled building with deep-sloping green-tiled roofs. Once one of the tallest structures in Beijing, the tower was first constructed about 700 years ago during the Yuan Dynasty by the famed Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. It was used to beat out the hours of the day for the city's residents.

The 69-step climb to the upper tower is steep and slippery. But the platform at the top opens up to beautiful views over the old streets. Looking due north, we see the imposing Bell Tower, which once marked the end of the city proper. Directly south stretches Di'anmen Road, ending at Jingshan Park. Beyond that, but invisible behind the park's hills, is the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Qianmen gate. Unfortunately, modern civilization has intruded even in this traditional neighborhood. Just off the avenue leading south, a huge McDonald's sign is visible.

The next stop is at one of the siheyuan, or quadrangle courtyard dwellings that still house 30% of Beijing's population. They are quickly being torn down and replaced with high-rise buildings. In the past, a single extended family would occupy a siheyuan. But today, as many as 25 people from several households live in these crowded residences without central heating. ''Some older people still prefer this style of living,'' says our guide. ''But it's not for young people like me. No privacy.''

Finally, we arrive at Prince Gong's Mansion, the largest remaining garden compound in Beijing. One side of the 7.4-acre property has 99 rooms that housed the prince's concubines. After trooping through the sculpted grounds of low hills and lily ponds, we linger at a teahouse to enjoy jasmine tea, green bean cakes, and flour-coated peanuts. This is the last stop before the tour ends. Five minutes more in the pedicabs and we are back to our starting place with a new appreciation for this ancient, but fast-changing city.

By Dexter Roberts


Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
Terms of Use