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Beijing: Walking Tour 4

Lidai Diwang Miao & Huguo Si

Start: Lu Xun Bowuguan (metro: Fucheng Men, 203, exit B).

Finish: Desheng Men Jianlou (metro: Jishui Tan, 218, exit A).

Time: 4 to 5 hours.

Best times: Any time between 9am and noon.

Worst times: Mondays, when some of the museums and sites are closed.

With the Shicha Hai area increasingly overrun with bar touts, "To the Hutong" tours, and Beijing's nouveau riche blocking the way with their Audis, this walking tour will let you rub shoulders with real Beijingren. You'll ramble along tree-lined quiescent lanes too narrow for automobiles, uncovering recently re-opened and long-forgotten temples; you'll explore the tranquil former residences of two of China's most influential artists and a lively local wet market; you'll meet bonsai and Peking opera aficionados and drink tea in a former concubine's residence. Tip: Take this tour soon. Much of the area is threatening to disappear by way of the wrecking ball . . .

Taking exit B from the metro, turn left (east) along Fucheng Men Nei Dajie, taking the first left (north) into Fucheng Men Nei Bei Jie. Ahead is:

1. Lu Xun Bowuguan

An online poll saw Lu Xun (1881-1936), an acerbic essayist, outpoll pop divas and basketball stars as the most popular figure in China. Young visitors display something approaching reverence when they photograph the desk where the young Lu carved the character for early (zao) to remind him not to be late for school. Seek out a gruesome photo of a Japanese soldier beheading a Chinese national during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. His Chinese compatriots look on with blank countenances. Lu, then a medical student in Japan, saw this as symptomatic of a national sickness, and credited the picture with changing the direction of his life towards literature. His charming residence (one of three in Beijing), is set to the west side (Tues-Sun 9am-3:30pm; admission ť5 (65Ţ/35p).

Turning left as you emerge, your next destination is immediately visible. Pick your way southeast through unmarked lanes.

2. Bai Ta Si

This massive Nepali-designed stupa has been under renovation. On our last visit, only a small sliver of the stupa was covered by scaffolding and workers assured us it would be open to visitors in time for the games. The surrounding temple is still worth a gander, with one hall showing thousands of carved Buddha behind glass encasements. A new exhibit in the western hall shows a chilling vision for "modernizing" the surrounding area. Open daily from 9am till 4:30pm; admission ť20 ($2.65/ţ1.35).

Turn left as you exit, and you'll soon reach:

3. Lidai Diwang Miao

This icon-free temple, whose grounds were occupied by a school until recently, is where Ming and Qing emperors would come to pay tribute to their predecessors. It boasts impressive stone carvings, and there are signs of improvements in local curatorial standards -- some of the original roof murals have been left untouched; there are touch-screen displays; and there's even admission of past vandalism. Open daily 8:30am till 4:30pm; admission ť20 ($2.65/ţ1.35).

Turn left, and after a few minutes you'll find:

4. Guangji Si

This is the closest thing Beijing has to a real Buddhist temple. If you can arrange a visit on the first or 15th day of the lunar calendar, the impressive grounds are open to the public; otherwise, the monks will usually politely refuse you entry. If you'd like to meet the monks, visit Lily Vegetarian Restaurant where they often dine.

Backtrack west in the direction of Lidai Diwang Miao, taking the third right turn into a narrow lane that changes its name frequently as it jinks north to:

5. Xisi Bei San Tiao

Formerly known as Bozi Hutong, this is where bamboo screens for writing were produced. From this lane northwards, the original Yuan street grid remains intact, with east-west hutong spaced exactly 79m (260 ft.) apart. Many of the original entrances and door piers (men dun'r) are in excellent condition, and this lane may be spared from development.

At no. 3, to the east of the hutong, is a striking monastery gate, embellished with faded murals, which formerly marked the entrance to:

6. Shengzuo Longchang Si

A Buddhist temple dating from the Ming, this was the site of scripture reproduction, transcribed on the bamboo strips the street was famed for. It is possible to (discreetly) wander among the former halls; the original outlay of the temple is readily discerned. There are no plans for restoring these ancient halls.

Continue east to the busy Xi Si Bei Dajie, turn left, and continue north past electronics shops until you reach a Bank of China. At this point, carefully cross the road and duck into Zhong Mao Jia Wan. The south side of this street was the residence of Mao's ill-fated deputy, Marshal Lin Biao. Appropriately, the residence is now occupied by the army. After 60m (197 ft.) turn left and a few steps in on your right is a place to:

Take a Break -- Jin Long Ge Chaguan occupies the two-story residence of a former imperial concubine. She sold the house in 2004, and lives nearby in a retirement home. Tea, served in traditional style on elaborate wood and bamboo sets, is affordable at ť50-ť180 ($6.65-$24/ţ3.35-ţ12) per pot, and homemade jiaozi and huntun (ravioli soup) are also on offer.

From the teahouse, turn right and continue up this winding hutong. At the main road, turn left to continue north, crossing Di'an Men Xi Dajie into Hucang Hutong. This area was formerly a prince's mansion, Zhuang Qin Wang Fu. Turn left at a busy Huguo Si Jie and look for number 74, which is:

7. Renmin Juchang

Built in honor of Mei Lanfang during the 1950s, this impressive wooden structure has been deemed too much of a fire hazard to host performances, although at the time of writing renovations were underway. It may eventually reopen as a Peking Opera museum. Next door is Beijing Yangguang Yunzhi Shudian, which stocks Peking Opera DVDs, CDs, and instruments.

Immediately opposite is:

8. Huguo Si Xiaochi

From the late Yuan onwards, Huguo Si was the site of a huge temple fair, held on the seventh and eighth days of Chinese New Year. Beijing's most renowned snack shop claims to be faithful to temple fairs of the past, and at lunchtime, it's as chaotic as one. Tasty dishes include xingren doufu (chilled almond pudding), and shaobing jia rou (miniburgers inside sesame buns), wandou huang (green pea pudding), and saqima (candied rice fritter). Open daily 5:30am till 9pm.

Turn left to head north along Huguo Si Xi Jie, right next to the snack shop. You'll pass a neighborhood notice board on the right, and shortly on the left, at number 33, you'll find:

9. Tianming Penjing Qishiguan

While bonsai is normally associated with Japan, quite a number of elderly Beijingren are passionate about its antecedent, penjing. The owner of this exhibit is a quietly fanatical collector and creator of stunted trees and bizarrely shaped rocks.

Bear right and make your way back to Mianhua Hutong (which is just Hucang Hutong under a different name) and continue north, passing old men playing chess and selling grasshoppers. Shortly, you'll arrive at a more densely forested section, and you'll notice people emerging from the lanes to your right with bags of fruit and vegetables. Follow them to the source to find:

10. Rundeli Zonghe Shichang

Still widely known as Si Huan Shichang, this is one of the few large open food markets (known as a wet market) still located within the city. There are vast stalls hawking clothing and fabric, animals (not intended as pets), and colorful spices.

Duck back out to Luo'r Hutong (again, just Hucang Hutong under another name) and continue north until you reach a major intersection, just before a hospital gate. Turn left into bustling Xinjiekou Dong Jie. This soon runs into still livelier Xinjiekou Bei Dajie, crammed with clothing and music shops. Continue north. On the left (west) side you'll soon find:

11. Xu Beihong Jinianguan

The work on display in this memorial hall at Xinjiekou Bei Dajie 53 (admission ť5/65Ţ/35p; open Tues-Sun 9am-4pm) is instantly familiar -- copies of the watercolors of Xu Beihong are on display at most tourist sites. Xu did much to revive a moribund art, combining traditional Chinese brushwork with Western techniques he assimilated while studying and traveling in Europe and Japan.

Head north along this bustling thoroughfare, pass a KFC, and turn right (east) onto Ban Qiao Tou Tiao. At this point, you can join up with the "Walking Tour 2: Back Lakes Ramble," or when you spy the waters of Hou Hai, keep to the right side and you'll reach:

Winding Down -- The restaurant Kong Yiji Jiudian, named for the drunken hero of one of Lu Xun's best-known short stories, serves delicate Huaiyang cuisine in a scholarly setting. Slightly farther south is the tranquil Teahouse of Family Fu.

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