Roaming Beijing’s Hutongs

Before visiting all the ancient and famous sites in Beijing, take a little time to wander through and absorb the countless Hutongs, before they’re lost to modernity.

Hutong, Beijing, China, Asia

What are Hutongs?

Famous in China’s northern cities, hutongs are recognisable as alleys or narrow streets. Emperors of the Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC) ‘arranged residential areas according to the social classes’ when planning the city of Beijing.

A traditional courtyard surrounded by buildings on all four sides (Siheyuan) then joining one Siheyuan to another to form a neighbourhood, these lines of Siheyuans formed hutongs.

Hutongs by night and day…

The word Hutong, which means “water well” is of Mongolian origin and as Beijing has been the capital of China for six dynasties, most of its hutongs hold a story or tale. Each hutong is named. A name can be after a temple, local feature or gate, market, business…the list is endless as once were the hutongs.

Around every hutong corner, an intriguing surprise awaits…

…as trendy and fashionable barbers hoisting dualling hairdryers work their magic late into the hours, to push the fussiest of customers through the door.

Hutong barber, Beijing, China, Asia
Hutong barber

Sadly, since the mid-twentieth century, Beijing’s delightful hutongs have quickly disappeared, giving way to more modern architecture and infrastructure. Many were destroyed between 1911 and 1939. Then, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, hutongs were replaced by high-rises and wide boulevards. Families lived in these ancient lanes for generations until forced to leave and move to high-rise apartment buildings.


Why Beijing?

Imagine not knowing for several months beforehand which country you would land in, to spend your 9-day birthday getaway. Well, back in 2012, to mark another birthday decade, this is exactly what happened as my partner (culprit) was hatching an extraordinary surprise. Pop over to Beijing Birthday to see how this surprise transpired.

local, Beijing, China, Asia
The culprit (left) made instant friends wherever he went in Beijing (Ilford 35mm B&W film)

What to see

Beijing’s history spans over 3,000 years and beholden to many emperors throughout time, all of which left their mark whether good or bad, on this compelling city.

Beijing map, China, Asia

The more you wander through Beijing and as the days melt into nights, the more you realise that 9 days is not enough to see the plethora of sights around this expansive and incredibly populated city – over 20 million back in 2012.

Beijing, China, Asia
Enticing entrance

With such little time to explore in and around Beijing, how do you choose the best sights to visit, the must-sees, and what not to miss?

Let me share with you how the incredible days unfolded. Each day is brimmed with extensive walks (for kilometres), which actually, is the best way to get around Beijing because its traffic is dire and too chaotic, for my liking.


Beijing on foot

On foot and travelling independently, there’s always time to explore at your leisure sans a tour guide barking orders at you for a time to meet back at a destination, or when the next tour bus leaves.

cycle-rickshaws, Pedicabs, Beijing, China, Asia
Pedicabs (cycle-rickshaws)

Instead, staying as long as you like, where you like, and when you like, is the way to travel. I’m not great at sticking to rigid travel schedules – it’s just not my thing. Especially, as most often than not, stopping in a spot for an hour or so after seeing a great face or potential candid shot, isn’t uncommon.

man shaving on street, Beijing, China, Asia
Time out for a quick street shave (Ilford 35mm B&W film)

A city by night comes alive with beautiful lights and different night traffic whether on foot or motorised. If the city is lucky enough to be close to a waterway like Beijing, then its deepening lights reflected in the water present a magical vista to be admired.

nightscape, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China, Asia
Around Chaoyang District

Strolling through Beijing at leisure allows time to immerse yourself in whatever evolves throughout the day.

wedding, Beijing, China, Asia
Beijing beauty


Street food is never too far when visiting any part of Asia. Bumping into mobile food vendors along many streets more so than the narrow hutongs in Beijing, why not savour a cheap delicious, and authentic meal.

mobile food street stall, Beijing, China, Asia
Lunchtime street food

Or for an even faster take-away snack, a freshly over-the-grill cooked hot potato is a treat on a cool spring day.

cycle food street stall, Beijing, China, Asia
Cycle potato vendor

Around every corner, a new fabric of Beijing life unfolds even further. A makeshift tiny general stall offering an unusual mix of goods from socks to fly spray pops up.

mobile general street stall, Beijing, China, Asia
Mobile general stall

In any country, it’s the local faces that always stay with me…

local, Beijing, China, Asia

Perpetually seeking a new angle…

Beijing, China, Asia
Ladened with film (Photo: Neil Lintern)

…while some are always watching and never too far.

policemen, Beijing, China, Asia
Presence

The disparity between rich and poor in Beijing is contrasted by the transport that locals use…

transport, Beijing, China, Asia
Rickshaw transport

Check back in a week or two for the next Beijing chapter and travel with me to a melange of famous sites.

The Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, gorgeous blossoming lakes in Beijing, and the infamous Tian’anmen Square, which China is trying hard to erase from its history. Join me for a little bartering in the fascinating and colourful Panjiayuan Antique Market, but not really sure if a bargain is to be had…

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

8 thoughts on “Roaming Beijing’s Hutongs

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  1. Thanks for the trip amica. I used to have in mind to travel to China (besides a 5 hour stop over in canton airport in 2017) but i’m not sure it will be feasible soon…

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    1. My pleasure. I too would love to explore China more but it seems as if things aren’t going well there…
      Hoping you’re check-up with the docs went OK? (Forgot to follow-up with you.)

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  2. The images I have seen of modern skyscrapers and the density of the population in Chinese cities give me the horrors. Like you, I would much prefer to see the old China, see how t ordinary people live. There is such history. I have a sort of love/hate thing about China. Probably it’s only the government I hate. I admire so much Chinese creativity. And Chinese medicine! And I too have always been interested in faces. Your pictures are wonderful. Look forward to the rest..

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    1. I concur, Carolyn, especially in Hong Kong. But I guess the issue is that with the exploding population, people wanting to live in cities and not in rural areas as infrastructure may not be optimum, these concrete jungles are built.
      It’s a shame that creativity isn’t put to finding an approach to lure people back into the rural areas of China – it’s not a small country. I’ve used Chinese medicine from time to time.
      Thank you for the lovely feedback and happy that you’re enjoying my Beijing series.

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  3. I walked along these streets lined with brick houses where domestic life continued outside. With these street hairdressers established in the open air. With the raised blocks of communal toilets above a double row of regularly replaced tanks. All those houses that were ruthlessly expropriated to build high buildings, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so interesting observing life in the hutongs but in all streets throughout cities – love it and you learn a lot by just walking its streets. 😉
      Sadly, the hutongs are being demolished and quickly vanishing.
      Thank you for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Stella for the great feedback and for taking the time to leave me a comment.
      Definitely a wonderful trip jam-packed with amazing experiences, which I’ll continue to write about -just need to remember it all but my photos are great prompts.
      Walking is the best way to explore, regardless of the sore feet at the end of the day. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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