If you want to see an untouched part of China, hidden beneath the glare of modernisation, then a visit to the hutongs in Beijing is a must-see during your time in the city.
A hutong is a narrow residential alleyway or street which connects to other hutongs to form a neighbourhood of wonderful passageways that provide a window into an old, traditional China. Historically, the look and layout of hutong would detrmine social status. Today, many of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished to make way for the new, modern Beijing but some remain protected in order to preserve the city’s history.
Where to Find the Hutongs in Beijing
I spent the best part of a day exploring the cluster of hutongs in central Beijing. Near to QianMen metro station, a 15 minute walk from Tiananmen Square and with the popular hostels such as 365 Inn and Leo located in the same neighbourhood, they are easily accessible.
Although tours of the hutongs are available, I chose to explore them without being on a time limit. Big blue signs point the way on the main streets (highlighting the hutong neighbourhood name) and red signs on the wall will mark the specific hutong street you are entering.
When you stroll through the tiny lanes a map isn’t needed (not would it be that helpful); getting lost is all part of fun and as the hutongs are set on a grid system, it’s not hard to get back out!
Hustle, Bustle and Chaos
Full of traditional courtyard residences (which you obviously can’t enter as people still live here), the hutong streets here are buzzing with life. Neighbours engage in loud chatter and play games, street food sizzles and its smell tempts you closer in and motorbikes, bicycles, carts and people whiz by trying to undercut each other in a race to get in and out – noise and movement is all around you.
In another street you will reach calm where an old man sits quietly with his own thoughts, a lady does her laundry and hangs it out to dry in the middle of the walkway and a mother stands peacefully cradling her child in her arms. Each street is a contrast to the next, making this area a fascinating place to be.
Neatly arranged, the conditions here remain poorer than other parts of the city. However, there is still beauty to be found – I especially loved the architecture and doorways; simple yet beautiful.
I never once felt uneasy when visiting a hutong although I wouldn’t advise to walk around them late at night. Some of the outer hutong streets that connect to the main streets in the area have great street food and cheap beer where you will be welcomed by the locals for a midnight feast, but I would never advise to wander alone deep within the hutong neighbourhood itself. Being narrow and slightly hidden away, the hutongs could well be the ideal area for opportunists to strike and with one of my first hostels being located right on an outer hutong street, I knew it didn’t feel right to go any further in.
It’s important to remember that hutongs are residential areas and I certainly felt that a territorial atmosphere existed there. Don’t trespass (many doors are open which lead to courtyards), be discreet and ask permission to take a photo if you have to – don’t treat the locals there as a zoo exhibit.
In some streets I was even asked to leave (via a waving hand gesture) which I respected. This is a community, a person’s private property and their everyday routine, meaning you have to find a fine line between exploring and being nosy.
I would put a visit to the hutongs at the top of your sightseeing list. If only walls could talk, I’m sure these streets could tell a million stories of the old Beijing that it slowly disappearing. See it while you can.