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Old China Down the Alleys

There’s something untamed and off kilter about the rickshaws that fly around Beijing. There are humans driving the things, but they seem abstractions; preternatural, answerable to no-one and quite above the banalities of control. No eyes blinkered -- forward looking -- focused. No white knuckles. No fear, absolutely no attachment to minutiae, like survival, even in the face of some of the most deadly traffic in the world.

I don’t know, I just think I’d rather walk.

Doesn’t matter really. One moment I’m walking away from the Forbidden City with my husband and a friend, the next I’m in one of them, the unruly three wheelers, hurtling, against the snarl of traffic, toward the ancient hutong city.

And, yes, I know there are formal rickshaw tours and people go on them and come back alive and unhurt but these men are loners, bandits maybe. They screech up to us and offer their completely unofficial services and for some reason we throw caution to the wind.

Help, I think, inside. Then, close to death, close enough to see the long dark tunnel and something shining beyond it. I let go. Rules blur, boundaries expire and I am laughing, as approximate as the transport, flying miraculously through too-narrow spaces between long lines of cars, up sidewalks, down timeworn alleys.

The ancient landscape reaches out and envelops us. It opens its arms wide and, like Alice’s rabbit hole, we simply fall in. Another world rises to meet us. The wind rushes at our faces, pushing the corners of our mouths up impossibly close to our ears.

As we enter the endless network of ancient alleys the pace slows and time, a hollow, dried out husk of itself, is left standing. We skirt around a party of tiny human beings in crisp blue and white uniforms heading home from school, singing. A lone toddler squats unselfconsciously, face close to the ground, arranging sand and sticks and stones.

But who are we kidding? We are conspicuous; three enchanted travelers, two rickshaws, but, in spirit, we somehow blend, or we feel we do. Life is oblivious, doing what it has done for hundreds of years.

The homes and alleys and courtyards are beginning to come alive. The workday is almost over and the sun loses faith in itself beyond the city smog. On my left three shirtless men construct a perfect clay tile roof, tile upon baked tile carefully placed on a sturdy bamboo framework. They look like neighbors and the design and method used is starkly beautiful in it's simplicity.

We curve slowly round a man as he cuts the squawking throat of tonight’s dinner chatting to someone across the dusty alley.

We pass the Hutong version of a strip mall. Points of light cut the dusk and delightfully incongruous signs baldly proclaim “Cerveza” as the beer of choice. I find myself staring straight at a woman in a store window, no, it’s a hair salon. Our eyes meet. She is sitting in a plastic chair with a giant dome hair dryer over her head, I am reaching for my camera. She waves me away dismissively. What kind of human wants to photograph another mid-grooming ritual. I feel ashamed, like a tourist.

Our seemingly casual two hour journey stops abruptly at a store on the outskirts of the tiny mall. Our driver speaks no English but he waves us in. We don’t really want to stop here but we don’t want to argue with him either. Inside it’s small and badly lit but we slowly see why it’s the last stop. Around us are mugs, trinkets, calendars, postcards, wall hangings, all printed with line drawings of the Hutongs. We make ourselves buy a small pack of postcards in black and white, old style. Quietly put in our place, our tour of this age-old lifestyle is over, so... here’s the T-shirt.

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