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Travel: China

China's Hutongs: Beyond the Bamboo Curtain

I had gone to a hutong, one of the many alleys behind The Forbidden City to find a piece of jade. Professor Giu Guangzu was there to buy a singing canary.

There were hundreds of them, each in its cage, trilling away; a cacophony of sound which the professor seemed able to distinguish. He would cock his high-domed forehead and close his eyes before a cage, listening intently for a moment. Then, with a shake of his head, he would move on to the next cage.

A bird has ying and yang, he explained softly. Ying and yang are the two internal forces that govern most Chinese lives.

As well as canaries and jade from as far away as Magnolia, the shop was a Mecca for the medical products that ensures those forces remained in harmony.

There were jars filled with powder of pearls; swallowed, the powder ensured tranquillity, I was assured by the professor.

A shelf was given over to tiny containers of snake oil for blood pressure and bottles of anti-asthma pills made from the intestines of water rats. Other shelves had sachets of crushed caterpillar (for "night sweats"); pretty little boxes of powdered tiger bone for hypertension; tubes of ginseng jelly for baldness; extract of oxen penis to improve marrow bone and frog glands to treat constipation.

As well as buying a canary, Professor Guangzu, who worked in Beijing's Hospital for Traditional Medicine, had come to see if the Longevity Goddess he had ordered from Lhasa in far-away Tibet had finally arrived.

This was the China I had escaped from the Beijing Hotel to explore. The hotel is the Lubyanka of all hotels. Not only does it resemble the former Moscow headquarters of the KGB, but it has the same daunting interior. It is said there may be as many as a thousand rooms in this monolithic structure that stands beside the Forbidden City. Only the Great Hall of the People on the far side of Tiananmen Square is more intimidating.

To stay in the Beijing is to live in a time warp. Its staff are suspicious, the food is of a quality that would require it should be subjected to a post-mortem before eating. The bedrooms are as spartan as anything I remember in the old Eastern Europe. Within its corridors the ghost of Mao is silent and watchful.

In the lobby is what the local foreign press corps call Rip-Off Alley -- the string of shops which sell over-priced antiques of dubious ancestry and jade which has been machine carved.

This was not the China I had come in search of. The China of over a billion people, whose numbers increase by about twelve million a year. A country that is the most paradoxical of nations.

Masters of agriculture, it still has to import grain. Possessed of the most refined musical traditions, its composers still write some of the worst modern music in the world.

China's ancient political theorists rivalled the Greeks. Yet their modern counterparts offer little more than a set of rationales for what they find it expedient to do.

With a per capita national income still less than many countries said to be poor, China has launched satellites and developed nuclear weapons.

Child-loving, it has made it a crime for a couple to have more than one child. Infant girls are discarded in a way not seen since the Spartans left their sick babies out to die.

The Chinese I had come in search of were also admirable, humorous, modest and overbearing. They are also, so history has told us, mendacious, loyal, ethereal, sadistic and tender.

And on that hot July afternoon in Beijing, I finally found a cross-section of them in that hutong.

Here I could have a bowl of millet soup served with a Chinese doughnut; have my shoes mended by a cobbler working with century-old tools. On a stall were more herbs than I have ever seen in any Western supermarket.

This was the China I had come to see -- and would do so for the next few days.

With the kind of hospitality that you will probably find in no other country, Professor Guangzu, a specialist in liver ailments, took me on a tour of the city that probably few visitors to Beijing get to see.

As we set off, he explained that the Chinese say a journey of a thousand kilometres begins with a single step. We must have travelled in my mind's eye many thousands of kilometres.

Over 3,000 years old -- a city when Jerusalem was a village, when most of Europe was no more than a land of tribes -- Beijing was there 12 centuries before Christ walked the earth.

From dawn to midnight we explored it. We drove the length of Changan Avenue, the great boulevard -- wide enough to take eight lanes of traffic -- that runs east to west through the centre of the city.

We skipped the tourist sights: the clutch of museums around Tiananmen Square. They belong to the carefully presented face of China to the world.

Instead we walked past Zhongnanhai, pausing to admire the red screen with calligraphy in real gold that protects its entrance. Behind live and work the men who rule China, the survivors of the Revolution that drove out the dynasty emperors and ensured that to this day one in four people on earth live under the rule of the men in Zhongnanhai.

We went to the Ming tombs; thirteen of the Ming emperors are buried there. We walked through the Dagon Gate, a massive edifice once only used by the living emperors.

Nearby is the Stele Pavilion, with its giant tortoise standing taller than the tallest man. Beyond is the Avenue of the Animals, created two thousand years ago and lined with stone animals. There are six types in all including the mythical beast, a qi lin.

One day we picnicked out by the ruins of Yuan Ming Yuan, the old Summer Palace. Later we climbed to the top of the Hill of Longevity. That evening we also went up Mei Shan -- another hill -- to view the city.

Next day we drove out to the Fragrant Hills, one of the most entrancing spots outside Beijing. That day we also crossed the Marco Polo Bridge with its two stone elephants at either end.

We also travelled on the fifteen miles of the Beijing subway. It is spotless; not a dropped paper to be seen in any of its 17 stations.

I ate with Chinese in their cafes and restaurants. This was the authentic cuisine of Beijing, far removed from the tourist trap offering of over-sauced Peking duck at most hotels.

I remember the salt-baked chicken, the consommé of poached quail eggs decorated to resemble flowers, the suckling pig cooked on a spit and the skin glazed with honey, plum and soy, served with a side dish of mushrooms and crab.

You won't find these dishes on the tourist trail. But if you are really looking for a gastronomic experience, you will find them in those hutong restaurants.

The professor took me to the Snake Restaurant. The entrance has a huge window filled with writhing snakes. There must be hundreds of them, including the deadly cobra and viper. They may not be to every one's taste but I must say I enjoyed the Big Mountain Snake Broth, a house speciality.

We rode on gentle, long-maned Mongolian horses towards the Great Wall at Chengade. We drifted out on a boat on Houhai Lake. The professor sang tunelessly to his caged canary while I listened to the combo in the prow of the steamer playing equally tuneless Oriental music on strange stringed instruments.

As darkness came, so did the bats, swooping low over the boat -- bringing cries of delight from the other passengers.

Bats, murmured the professor, are symbols of happiness.

That night we dined in another hutong, in a café that had no name, no tablecloth. There was a feast of dried beef and sweetmeats and hot spicy olives. The beer was ice cold.

There wasn't another Western face in sight. Only the vibrant conversation of China. This was the world I had come to see.

This was the China I would remember. Not the China of the tourists parading through the halls of the Forbidden City, their video cameras and flashlights creating discord. Behind them walked Chinese picking up discarded polystyrene cups. That was the China I could leave behind.

But the China I would remember -- and would urge anyone to see -- is the one behind the facade of Buddhist temples and Tiananmen Square, with its rickshaws offering to take you for a quick ride at grossly inflated prices.

There is that other China. It is not easy to reach. Many Chinese are still fearful of talking to foreigners; there is always a sense of being watched.

But if you are lucky and adventurous enough to step off the carefully-controlled tourist track and enter that strange and wondrous world of the hutongs, then you may have memories like no other.

That night, as I said my farewell to my guide, a musician emerged from the darkness of the hutong. She was young and her guitar-like instrument looked too large for her.

She started to play Auld Lang Syne. She was smiling. The professor was smiling. Soon we were all smiling. That is my China.