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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Strolling through Beijing at leisure allows time to immerse yourself in whatever evolves throughout the day.
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.
Or for an even faster take-away snack, a freshly over-the-grill cooked hot potato is a treat on a cool spring day.
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.
In any country, it’s the local faces that always stay with me…
Perpetually seeking a new angle…
…while some are always watching and never too far.
The disparity between rich and poor in Beijing is contrasted by the transport that locals use…
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…