methow grist 2011-2014 archive
  Through China by Train - the hutongs of Bejing  
  An excerpt from Bill Hottell's unpublished memoir  


Photo of great wall of China with chinese man and Diana Hottell walking on top. Diana Hottell on the Great Wall of China.

What was the most foreign place I’ve ever visited? One of them was the “hutongs,” the back-street neighborhoods of Beijing.

In Hong Kong Diana and I were crammed into a tiny, closet-size room in a hotel on the fourteenth floor of a high-rise. That is, the entire hotel occupied only a part of the fourteenth floor. One room had been sub-divided into nine tiny cubicles separated only by flimsy, head-high partition screens. Presto! The one room had now become a nine room hotel, the Lee Garden Guest House! In this sardine can of a hotel, in 1983, another traveler told us the astonishing news that Communist China had just opened up a number of cities to foreign tour groups for the first time.

It took three train rides to get from Hong Kong to Beijing, the last one lasting 48 hours.

We then managed the nearly impossible task of obtaining visas for solo travelers (with no tour group) for China, caught a train up to Hong Kong’s Northern Territory, walked across the chaotic, crowded border, caught another train for Guangzhou (formerly Canton), and spent the next forty-eight hours on a passenger train to Beijing. The endless rail journey crossed both of China’s great rivers, the Yangtze and the Huang Ho (Yellow River), and passed hundreds of miles of bright yellow fields of rape seed. Early in the morning the passengers were abruptly awakened by Mao’s revolutionary martial music. It blasted through scratchy loudspeakers, shattered the night-time silence, and shattered the nerves of all passengers. The “music” continued all day.

The most interesting person I met on the train was a 33 year-old man dressed in a Chinese army uniform with a red star on the cap. Xiu Xiao Dung spoke halting English, but was able to describe his teen-age years when he served as a member of Mao’s Red Guard and helped to smash and destroy ancient artworks as well as other reminders of China’s pre-Communist past. Xiu and the Red Guard were also assigned to monitor and police any un-Communist behavior wherever he might find it. He was given the authority to search out teachers, merchants, laborers, anybody who might be guilty of wrong-thinking, guilty of ideological error. But now Xiu was an engineer with the army and he felt extremely lucky to be able to travel to a trade fair in Guangzhou. His first such trip. When Xiu learned what Diana and I were doing, traveling alone for thirteen months, he jerked in shock and quickly leaned over to tell his colleague who also blanched in disbelief. Given the salaries in China, there was no one in the country, including top politburo members, who had the money or the freedom of travel to do what we two were now doing. I felt indescribably grateful at that moment. I felt like one of the elect. I have been blessed by fate. Our year-long trip was a total impossibility to all the one billion people in Communist China.

The lengthy train ride ended with the customary early-morning blast of revolutionary martial music and we rolled into Beijing.

The train arrived in China’s great capital city at 7:00 am, just in time to meet the swarm of morning rush-hour foot traffic. In the gigantic Beijing Railway Station I walked into the men’s bathroom and was surprised to see the Chinese version of a group toilet. It was a long, white-tiled trench latrine which men had to straddle in order to defecate. Like the other men, I dropped my trousers, spread my feet across the trench and squatted. But then I was startled to see half a dozen Chinese men stop and stare blatantly at my genitals. Their faces showed no trace of embarrassment or modesty, just open curiosity. Or perhaps I was the first westerner they had seen in fifty years.

Bill and Diana managed the nearly impossible task of obtaining solo traveler visas for China in 1983.

The most interesting sight for me was an ancient Chinese apothecary shop – the neighborhood drug store – in one of the hutongs of Beijing. This city of nine million (in 1983) is actually a vast collection of villages crammed together. The “village” is called a “hutong,” and is divided off from others by a tall wooden entrance, an ornamental gateway. Unfortunately, the Chinese government decided to upgrade sections of Beijing by destroying some of the hutongs, and later rapidly accelerated the bull-dozing of ancient neighborhoods in order to “modernize” the city before the Olympic games of 2008. The government has thus committed a terrible act of vandalism by destroying much of the early Chinese architecture, culture and the old way of life.

In any case, Diana and I were privileged to stay in one of the ancient hutongs in 1983. I walked into a venerable old apothecary shop, sat down and started looking over the thousands of large glass jars that lined the walls up to the high ceiling. I wish I had written down some of the contents, but there were jars filled with herbs, leaves, stems, flower blossoms, bark, plants of all types, medicinal plants with healing characteristics; large jars with deer horns, jars with large bones, jars with small bones, jars with bird wings, jars with bird nests, jars with bird beaks, jars with bird feet, jars with snake skin, jars with dried reptile parts, jars with dried lizards, jars with dried sea horses.

A customer would walk in and discuss his ailment with the druggist who stood behind the two hundred year old counter. Then the druggist would gather specimens from several different jars, pick up his butcher knife, chop them rapidly into a powdery form and pour it into a container for the contented patient to carry away.

I felt that I had just gone back in time to another century, to an old China and an ancient way of life that was very, very foreign to me.

Here in the Far East, here in a mysterious old apothecary shop in Beijing I took time to thank my boyhood hero, Tom Sawyer, for having pointed me toward a lifetime of seeking adventure.

Spring 1983