Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Heart of Beijing! Part I

This morning, we headed out to what is practically the heart of Beijing and of China, of course - Qianmen Street, Tiananmen Square and the Summer Palace. 
The cab ride to Qianmen (前门) or Zhengyangmen as it is also called took us barely 20 minutes. Qianmen Street is one of the last remnants of the business centers of old Beijing. However, it has been preserved fro modern development and has been transformed into a commercial pedestrian street.
The area oozes with history at every nook and corner. Qianmen Street was developed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). During the Ming Dynasty rule (1368-1644) emperor, the street was dotted with guild halls built by different localities, to provide housing to citizens intending to take the imperial exams.
Qianmen Street became even more prosperous in the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with the area hosting activities such as lantern fairs, housing theaters and having teahouses and roast duck eateries. But tragedy struck when during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the gate sustained considerable damage when the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) invaded the city. Qianmen was burnt down to ashes as the invading armies ransacked, looted and raped Beijing forcing the Imperial Court to flee to Xi'an. 
It's dramatic as to how, within a century tables have turned and the marauders of the 1900s are now dependent on China for sustaining their economies.
The present Qianmen Street has been rebuilt on the historical photos. The 1.45-square kilometer area has been built into zones for culture, food, shopping and entertainment with trams running down the main street.

The area is home to courtyards and protected hutongs, as well as some shops which have been operating for over a century, such as the Liubiju sauce and pickle shop, Tongrentang drugstore, Ruifuxiang silk shop, Neiliansheng shoes store and Zhangyiyuan tea shop.
We passed by quite a few outlets selling candied baby apples. I regret not trying them out, but these candied apples seemed to be be popular with the locals. We stopped by a local sweet shop and picked a few pieces. I devoured all of them - they were delicious!

It was quite warm and sunny as we walked down Qianmen. But the locals were enthusiastically enjoying grilled fish, roast duck or skewered meats on the street side. The Chinese love food just like us. But they have a voracious appetite and what keeps them so thin is a lingering mystery - is it in their genes or is it because of the green tea that they keep sipping all through the day?

The scorching, searing heat reminded me of Delhi. (In many senses Beijing seemed like Delhi - wide boulevards, green and leafy, relaxed and very sarkari types!) The heat forced us and the locals to take shelter under whatever shade could be found.

Watermelons wedges were on sale and the vendor was making good money selling those. Even cool berry drinks were making for a brisk sale. 
We moved ahead admiring the old world charm, the shops that have existed for centuries, becoming institutions in their own right.

Passing by the small shops around was quite interesting. A toddler sitting alongwith his mother in a small shop, wearing a "I  BJ" t-shirt was very amused to see me, probably this was the first time he had seen an Indian. When I called out Ni Hao to him, he retreated, feeling shy, only to be prodded by his mom to shake hands with me!
At a photographer's shop, a svelte local girl was getting herself photographed in traditional attire. Probably, this was one of the few times she would have put on the dress, because all the women you see in China are in modern Western attire - skirts, jeans, shorts. I sometimes feel that our own sari may also meet the same fate in the years to come as younger women in India find western attire far more convenient and practical!

We passed by the banking section, at Qianshi Hutong, where Chinese money lenders used to carry on their trade. The street was barely 70 centimeters wide, so as to prevent anyone from running with a sackful of coins! We call ourselves intelligent, but still can't stop marvelling at the ingenuity of the minds that created all this!

After nearly 2 hours of strolling around, we reached the Archery Tower, from where we were to find a place to grab a bite and head to Tiananmen Square. More on that later!

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