leo and his 300 year old hutong courtyard
After the energy draining, butt bruising, slip-disk inducing train ride, I roamed around the divisoria-ish crowded Beijing Train station to look for a tourist booking counter to try my luck in upgrading my ticket back to Shanghai. Well I guess my lucky star just exploded to a Justin Bieber (???)–I re-booked, only to find out I got a train ride to Inner Mongolian border to Siberia. Pfrt!
I got too exhausted looking for a map to take me to the subway to my Hostel, so I flagged a cab and got ripped off, so that was 80 RMB out the window only to find out that my Hostel is a station away from where I got the rickety, mold smelling, overpriced cab…GREAT! But then again I was too tired to dwell and whine about it.
I walked several meters towards my hostel. Shanxixiang hutong alley is very reminiscent of a typical neighborhood in Sampaloc, an antithesis of how most of the touristy Beijing is portrayed in coffee table books. It’s authentic, unassuming and candid community is what I was really looking for. Street vendors selling pork buns and all sorts of skewed delights, Chinese kids playing Chinese garter (seriously!) and senior citizens sitting in a corner playing (Well, who would have thought?) Chinese checkers—It was like a scene from a movie. While slowly walking, I couldn’t help but utter the words “I am loving this.”
But it was too cold to cruise around, so upon reaching the doorstep, I immediately opened the two swinging doors. I was astounded with what I saw, the hostel’s interior was so amazing it took my breath away. It is an old courtyard! Yes, I actually stayed in a 300 year old brothel courtyard.
“I am sleeping in a museum tonight.”
I’m not exaggerating, Shanglin Hostel is a historical landmark, one of the well preserved hutong houses that dates back to the Qing Dynasty. It definitely does not have the luxury of first class hotels, but who would want to stay in a modern room when you’re in the middle of the cultural capital of ancient Asia? For a sweet price of RMB 60 per night, you have a warm place to sleep in a four bed dormitory.
I was actually alone that time so I pretty much maximized the resources of the hostel. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! It comes with free tourists every morning. You bet, the following morning, still half awake I opened my door to go to the terrace, to my surprise the courtyard was filled with a flock of yakking tourists, with all eyes on me.
Okay! Early morning deer in the headlights wearing nothing but boxers.
I got the idea about Shanglin from Sir Robert Alejandro’s Backpack South East Asia book. It was featured briefly but the authenticity of the place lured me. I actually brought the book with me and showed it to the one of the owners of the place, Leo. He is a young businessman who has a fascination with old Chinese artifacts and anything old (I should have pledged to send him Lilia Cuntapay for his birthday). He also owns the other more popular hostel named after him.
I was sitting in the courtyard when he approached me and started a conversation, he even ordered a pot of tea for us. Then I got the chance to pull out the book from my bag and asked if he had seen it before. He was clueless, but when I flipped the page to reveal a sketch of his hostel, he almost jumped off his seat. Leo got too excited when he saw the page about his hostel and showed it to his staff and other visitors.
He started ordering food for us to feast on while talking about Robert, the author of the book
the sweet and spicy Mao’s pork brisket
The popular Da Zha Lan Xi Jie, the whole stretch of steet lined with hostels, restaurants, shops and all imaginable tourist magnet is adjacent to Shanglin where I was staying. I love that cobbled stone streets with a multi-sensory ambiance.
Smell of the Peking duck roasting and steamed buns.
String instruments playing
rickshaw and bicycles bumping your elbow on a five minute interval.
It is the tourist haven in Beijing, the prices of food and souvenir items are usually at 300% mark-up so make sure you haggle before you pull out your wallet to pay. You will be surprised with how low the prices can go, like dirt cheap. I enjoyed walking along this area, no matter what time of the day. Nights are particularly fun because of the interesting things you’ll stumble upon, from street performers to stalls selling all sorts of trinkets. But the early morning is my personal favorite, when the streets are blanketed with heavy fog and a certain air of stillness enveloping the place. And since the stores are still closed, most of the people during that time are the locals taking an early morning walk, eating breakfast and prepping up to open the shops.
The hutong houses are fast vanishing, some are being renovated while others are unfortunately being demolished by private owners. I am lucky and glad that I got to experience them first hand.