Life lessons from a hu­tong

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION TRAVEL - JU­DITH HOP­WOOD HORNSBY, NSW

In the early 1990s my fa­ther re­lo­cated to China where he worked the last part of his ca­reer in a joint-ven­ture com­pany be­fore re­tir­ing back to Syd­ney. He was in Bei­jing for about seven years, liv­ing in a multi­na­tional apart­ment com­plex and soak­ing up the new cul­ture and of­ten strange en­vi­ron­ment.

In the mid­dle of his stay I was for­tu­nate enough to travel to Bei­jing to spend two weeks with him. I had not trav­elled much be­fore this and ap­proached the dis­cov­er­ies and chal­lenges with great ex­cite­ment. It was a pe­riod when China was has­ten­ing its emer­gence from be­hind the bam­boo cur­tain and part of this was the bid to host the 2000 Olympics. There were mil­lions of bi­cy­cles, few cars, and high-rise de­vel­op­ments abut­ting hu­tongs, or nar­row laneways and streets lined with very old, sin­gle-storey (of­ten hum­ble) res­i­dences and shops of all va­ri­eties.

I en­joyed many ex­pe­ri­ences in Bei­jing in­clud­ing walk­ing on the Great Wall (amaz­ing for me who had stud­ied Chi­nese his­tory at school), vis­it­ing the Sum­mer Palace and the Tem­ple of Heaven. In stark con­trast to this I ate a ham­burger at the first McDonald’s in Bei­jing, en­joyed af­ter­noon tea at the Aus­tralian Em­bassy, and even par­tic­i­pated in a Thanks­giv­ing din­ner with Amer­i­can com­mu­nity mem­bers.

Cab­bages were stacked every­where and coal dust wafted through the at­mos­phere be­cause the black rock was the pre­dom­i­nant fuel used for warmth. A visit by dig­ni­taries as­so­ci­ated with the Games bid saw the air clear for a time when burn­ing coal was tem­po­rar­ily banned.

On one ex­cur­sion into the hu­tongs I came upon a shop that sold bric-a-brac, and fos­sicked through ta­bles of old coins, jade arte­facts, books and other items. The wo­man be­hind the counter was very friendly and through bro­ken English, and my al­most non-ex­is­tent Man­darin, we re­alised we shared the same birth­day. I was stunned by this rev­e­la­tion, be­cause to my eye she looked so much older than me. I was forced to re­flect that her life and mine were al­most at op­pos­ing poles. She worked long hours in the shop and had un­der­gone sig­nif­i­cant hard­ship; my life had been one of priv­i­lege in com­par­i­son. I can still see her wiz­ened face and broad smile. Our in­ter­ac­tion taught me more about in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions than any of my other ex­pe­ri­ences in this vast coun­try. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists will re­ceive a Braven 405 Blue­tooth speaker with a light­weight, durable and water­proof cas­ing, 15m wire­less range and 24 hours of play time; $129.95. More: braven.com.au.

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