Beijing’s Wonder Alley

This tiny lane in Beijing bustled with activity.
This tiny lane in Beijing bustled with activity.

I hopped on jammed Bus Number 1 and took the six-cent ride down Beijing’s Jianguomenwai Daije, one of the city’s main boulevards. I held my position on the bottom step just inside the door, my nose on the glass if I faced out or 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 Tiananmen 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 Daije, the ancient street 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 is 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 (6 m) wide caught the corner of my eye. A lifeline, it pulled me in. I slipped into its narrowness and disappeared down “Wonder Alley.”

Wonder Alley pulsed. Life spilled from every doorway and window into the dusty street and swirled around every vegetable, bicycle, chicken, 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 nihao. Then, the shopkeepers and bicycle riders and fishmongers would break into wide excited grins and gesture wildly to the cobblers and seed roasters. They’d let loose a string of Mandarin, but all I could understand was the welcoming tone. Smiles broke out down Wonder Alley as this human telegraph transmitted the message that I was here and trying 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. Foot-high pyramids of rice and foot-long beans. Mounded heaps of animal guts sitting in the hot sun that pounded windowless butcher stalls.

There were ladies with plastic bag and coat hanger flyswatters who made 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 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 clinks of bicycle bells and watched expressions of surprise melt into delight when I met someone’s eye. People sat on kitchen chairs in the dirt street. Wonder Alley was their living room. It provided commerce and conversation, fresh air and sun.

Before returning to Qianmen Daije’s chaotic predictability, I stopped in a neighborhood latrine. The community toilet had no stalls, and modesty no place. There were 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.

Before leaving, I bought my husband a tie for a buck and a quarter. Then, I left Wonder Alley, and fell back in with the crowd on Qianmen Daije, and reboarded the jammed Bus Number 1.

And I left wondering: Wonder Alley in full length had been a journey on its own — had I traveled three-quarters around the earth just to walk this tiny passage? I never learned the narrow lane’s real name. Yet if I had gone to Beijing and walked on by, think how much I would have missed.

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