Travel: Wonder alley

Published in July 2005 in The Traveler and May 2004 in Go World Travel Magazine:

Wonder Alley
By Lori Hein

I hopped on jammed Bus Number 1 and took the six-cent ride down Beijing's Jianguomenwai Dajie, one of the city's busiest boulevards. I held my position on the bottom step just inside the door, my nose on the glass if I faced out, in the sleeve of a dirty Mao jacket if I turned inward. The bent old man on the step above mine rested his chin on my head.

I got out at the Forbidden City and walked south through the endlessness of Tian An Men Square's benchless concrete. I found a curb and sat to eat a can of sardines, attracting a crowd. In turns, people stood behind me, in couples or in groups, while friends snapped pictures of them with the foreigner. Some crouched next to me and put their hands on my shoulder or their arms around my neck while I ate. I could feel their huge friendship grins as they mugged for the camera. Between forkfuls, I smiled, too, and the crowd grew bigger.

On to Qianmen Dajie, bustling, and choked with vendors of cheap plastic goods and t-shirts reading "Nike Polaris" and "Today Is Casual." The brash routine of the main drag drained me. This was Beijing's medieval Dazahlan quarter, and it was filled with knock-off cassettes, cigarette lighters, and ties for a buck and a quarter. I was empty and lonely and a million miles from home.

A thin, nameless street not more than 20 feet wide caught the corner of my eye. A lifeline, it pulled me in. I slipped into its narrowness and disappeared down Wonder Alley.

Its length was a full journey. Had I traveled three-quarters around the earth just to walk this tiny passage whose name I never learned, I would have left Beijing enriched.

Wonder Alley pulsed. Life spilled from every doorway and window into the dusty street and swirled around every vegetable, bicycle, chicken, amah, and noodle maker. As in all of Beijing, people stared, but in Wonder Alley, I stared back. China and I inspected each other with mutual curious glee as I inserted myself into the fabric of this tucked-away world.

We'd stare until I broke the standoff with a "ni-hao." Then, the shopkeepers and bicycle riders and fishmongers would break into wide excited grins, gesture wildly to the cobblers and seed roasters, and let loose a string of Mandarin. I didn't understand the words, but I understood the welcoming tone. Smiles broke out down Wonder Alley as human telegraph transmitted the message that I was here and that I'd said - or had tried to say - "hello."

For a magical spot of time, when I needed it more than they'd know, Wonder Alley's residents shared their street and their world with me. They shared their smiles and their gnarled hands, busy and active. They shared looks and nods of surprise and delight. They shared unspoken acceptance. And, they held out remarkable foods, hoping I'd stop to buy a bag of seaweed or crayfish or cabbage.

There were steamed buns sitting like wet baseballs, some in covered bamboo baskets. Pancakes and wontons. Noodles stretched, boiled and served in what seemed like a single long motion. Great charred woks and steaming cauldrons. Rusted barrels sitting on hot coals, lined with skinned chickens hanging from the rims. Live roosters, ducks, and tiny restaurants with aquariums for menus. Stiff rows of half-frozen fish, long, like gleaming silver swords. Towering pyramids of rice. Foot-long beans. Mounded heaps of animal guts sitting in the hot sun that pounded windowless butcher stalls. Ladies with plastic bag and coat hanger flyswatters making intermittent passes over the meat. Cloven pig hooves in neat chorus line rows. Black, brown and blue eggs, and tubs of jellied green yolks. Gorgeous piles of plump bean sprouts and strawberries. Herbs, onions, beets and yams. Creamy blocks of tofu, some shaved as I watched into boiling soup water.

Wonder Alley's people sat, spit, rode bicycles, chinked bells, pushed strollers and wheelchairs, bought, sold, fixed bike chains, soldered metal, walked arm-in arm, made coal bricks, massaged each others' feet and temples, rattled abacuses and resoled shoes. They crouched, padded, stared, shouted, cooked, worked and grinned.

I came to the end of Wonder Alley and turned and retraced my steps, passing again the pigs' feet, birds in bamboo cages, lady barbers in white lab coats and surgical caps. I listened to the sweet chink-chinks of bicycle bells and watched expressions of surprise melt into delight when I met someone's eye. People sat on kitchen chairs in the narrow street, Wonder Alley their living room. The little one-lane world provided commerce and conversation, fresh air and sun.

Before returning to Qianmen Dajie's chaotic predictability, I stopped in a neighborhood latrine. The hutong's community toilet had no stalls, and modesty no place. Four holes in the floor and no partitions or doors. I squatted next to a young Chinese woman. We tried not to look at each other, respecting our shared desire to eke out some small privacy in a place where everything is public and revealed.

I left Wonder Alley and fell in with the crowd on Qianmen Dajie. I bought my husband a tie for a buck and a quarter and reboarded jammed Bus Number 1.