Travel Expert Jake Messimer recently returned from an unforgettable trip to China. In addition to achieving his lifelong dream of walking along the Great Wall, his journey led him on an adventure through Beijing’s centuries-old ‘hutongs.’ Follow his adventures below.
Before I ever visited China, I had heard of the famous “Hutongs”, the centuries-old traditional neighborhoods of Beijing. These rambling alleyways, filled with gated courtyard residences known as “siheyuan”, preserve a way of life in the Chinese capital that is rapidly disappearing.
I was told that these charming neighborhoods were being bulldozed at an alarming rate, replaced by wide boulevards and high-rise apartments. “See the Hutongs while you can!” exhorts many a travel magazine or tour brochure. I wanted to find out more about the Hutongs on my recent trip to China, so I rented a room in an old siheyuan house located in a hutong called “Pudusi.”
It was dark by the time my taxi was racing down an 8-lane boulevard in central Beijing. I looked around thinking, “This can’t be right”. We were on the Chinese version of 5th Avenue; tall buildings, brightly lit electronic billboards, hordes of well-dressed residents streaming across the street. But moments later, we pulled into an alley so narrow I thought the mirrors would scrape against the old brick walls on either side. This was my hutong. My driver knew the general area but had no clue where exactly my house was. After 15 minutes of consulting various Hutong-dwellers, invariably leading us to dead-end alleyways, I threw up my hands, paid the taxi-driver, and set off on foot.
Red doors for good luck
Only a few moments later, I was there, standing in front of the deep red door. Chinese culture considers red to be the luckiest color, so it is a very common choice for front doors and other décor. Siheyuan were traditionally built and occupied by single large families, with many generations living within the same compound. Today, most have been converted into apartment complexes. Many of these, even today, are rustic affairs, often without plumbing. Thus, the Hutongs are liberally populated with 24-hr public bathrooms, some with bathing facilities. It is common to see local residents outside their homes, washing laundry or clothing in buckets of soapy water. Fortunately, my siheyuan apartment had been modernized, complete with a full bathroom and air-conditioning, very welcome in Beijing’s hot June climate.
After settling into my upstairs bedroom, I decided to go for an evening walk. Despite being at the very heart of a huge city of more than 20 million residents, the hutong was surprisingly quiet and peaceful. The only traffic was bikes or electric scooters, the only sound was people’s conversations and laughter echoing in the alleys. Amazingly though, within 10 minutes’ walk, I was standing at the north end of Tiananmen Square, the 15th century Gate of Heavenly Peace looming in front of me, with its giant portrait of Chariman Mao hanging above the entrance. The crowds and traffic, even late in the evening, were almost overwhelming. And so a few minutes later, I was back in the relaxed atmosphere of Pudusi Hutong.
During my four days in Beijing, I spent a lot of time strolling through various hutongs. Some were popular shopping and dining districts, others quiet and empty lanes of private houses. All were beautiful, charming, and a joy to stroll through. When my feet got tired, I hailed a bicycle rickshaw; bargaining is a must, but you shouldn’t have to pay more than a few US dollars for a fun ride through the crowds.
Hutongs in modern Beijing
Overall I was impressed; although many, many of the hutongs have been redeveloped into modern (and rather charmless) neighborhoods, there are still a surprising number left and, seemingly, thriving. There’s been something of a turnaround in the last few years, with large areas of hutongs designated for historic preservation. Young, hip Beijing residents are flocking to the hutongs as they tire of the bland, modern skyscrapers on the outskirts of town.
As modern Beijing learns to manage its own rapid growth and modernization, I hope their commitment to preserving their unique history moves more to the forefront. Beijing is packed with cultural treasures; the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and of course, the nearby Great Wall. But no trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the hutongs. There, you can experience the history of Beijing’s people, still going strong today.
Experience Beijing’s Hutongs for yourself on our Treasures of China guided vacation. This trip includes an afternoon rickshaw tour of one of the hutong, followed by a home-hosted lunch in a siheyuan house and a delightful visit to a tea house, where a local expert demonstrates the historic tea-making ritual. To learn more, please click here.