updated 12/21/2008 7:21:06 AM ET 2008-12-21T12:21:06

It's easy to get lost in the maze that is Beidian.

The small village on the outskirts of Beijing is a network of alleyways, some so tight that a couple can barely walk hand in hand, others just wide enough for a farm truck loaded down with cabbages to squeeze by. Homes, shops and tiny eateries jam up against each other.

Similar enclaves have sprung up in the Chinese capital's rural northeast in recent years as a steady flow of people make their way from poorer provinces in search of higher-paying jobs. In Beidian, the population of permanent residents has grown to about 1,000 people from 800 in 2003.

At the same time, communities are being gobbled up by urban sprawl and many people have lost their fields and homes to development. The struggle to make a living is continuous.

By day, the paved but dusty streets of Beidian are buzzing with a chaotic mix of people, bicycles and roadside vendors. There is simple, hearty fare to be found at almost every corner, from hand-cut noodles to crisp and flaky variations of fried dough to roasted-on-the-spot popcorn and pumpkin seeds. Markets are brimming with fresh meat and produce, some with dirt still clinging to them.

When the sun sets, pockets of fluorescent, neon and yellow lights flicker on as hair salons, mom-and-pop grocery stores and small eateries continue to operate. In winter, the smell of burning coal fills the air as residents cook dinner and keep warm.

They live in rented rooms — averaging about 13 by 13 feet (4 by 4 meters) — in partitioned one-story brick and concrete buildings with corrugated tin roofs and courtyards filled with drying clothes, mops and empty paint cans. The compounds are sealed off with big metal gates. The cheapest is just under 200 yuan ($28) a month and the price goes all the way up to about 500 yuan ($70).

'Hard to make ends meet'
Many of the tenants are women from the poor, central province of Anhui who have come to Beijing to secure jobs as maids to support their families at home. Some come with their husbands, mostly laborers, and have stayed for many years, cleaning the homes of foreigners and other Chinese. It's an existence vastly different from the farm life they are used to.

"Sure we make a little more money here but life is also more expensive," said Shi Yulian, 37, who came to Beijing 10 years ago with her husband. "In the end, the benefits aren't that great but we have no choice. There are still more opportunities in the city than where I'm from."

Wang Wenjie, 42, said the roads of her village near Anhui's capital of Hefei are basically "mud, all mud."

"We would be up to our knees in mud in winter. It's miserable," she said. "Here it's a little more civilized. But it's still hard to make ends meet."

They usually work six days a week and on Sundays, they take it easy. There are still chores to be done but the highlight is a special, speedy Anhui-style version of mahjong, a game of strategy and luck centered around patterned tiles.

The noise of the plastic tiles rattling together as they are shuffled or "washed" on a dinner table is a typical Sunday afternoon sound.

As the sun lowers in the sky, it's time to shop at the markets and cook meals for their families. Oil sizzles as cut-up vegetables are thrown into coal blackened woks. Windows steam up as rice-cookers bubble away. A bit of dried salt pork, hanging from a wire, is cut to round off a meal.

Families sit down to eat as a stillness settles over Beidian.

Soon it will be time for bed.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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