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

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…

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48 responses to “Roaming Beijing’s Hutongs”

  1. equinoxio21 Avatar

    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…

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.)

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        No worry. Doctor says all good, but I still have arrhythmia… (I’m getting annoyed!) 😉

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Well, they say doctors know best right? Also from memory, your daughter is a GP… 😉
        Hope you’re not feeling too down about it all.

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        In case of adversity, there are indeed two options: depression or rebellion. (See Camus). I chose rebellion. LOL. Daughter is an infectologist. So that two additional residences, Internal medicine then infecto. Spice that with one year in Africa with Doctors without borders… (She’s a COVID and HIV specialist). She tells me to be patient… Haha! I’ll give it another fortnight then call the cardiologist. (Who did about half his medical school with her, so he should be ok.) Fingers crossed…

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ahhh Camu, I had to do one of his novels in French at high school (think we’ve talked about this before).
        Your daughter sounds very patient (and clever).

      5. equinoxio21 Avatar

        We did.
        And yes, she is. Both. Can’t complain about our daughters…

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        No, they sound switched on (like their father). 😉

      7. equinoxio21 Avatar

        (I tried to find an emoji for bowing my head, but nope…)

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha, ha, too funny!

      9. equinoxio21 Avatar


      10. equinoxio21 Avatar

        (There still are gaps in the Emoji line)

      11. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Maybe a WP ‘feature’!

      12. equinoxio21 Avatar

        As it happens, just had a long chat with my daughter as she came for the kids, she says in time I will be ok. Not life-threatening. Touch wood. (That I must do 30mins fixed bicycle every day. LOL. Doctors!)

      13. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Wow, that’s a big ask for exercise!

      14. equinoxio21 Avatar

        My wife does that. Every morning. I’m building up slowly. I’m at 20 mins now. A tad boring, but what must be must be… 🚲

      15. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Your wife sounds committed – I used to be like that hitting the gym 5 mornings each week for years when I lived on a boat. Mainly because I could use the showers, iron my work clothes, etc., but since moving to land, I’ve become sedentary! 🙁
        Yes, it’s a matter of building it up slowly as these things take time. Keep at it…

      16. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Sedentary for a gipsy traveler like you?
        You can always pick it up. 20-25 mins a day is easy to fit in any schedule.

      17. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yeah, I know! Really need to get back on the road again.
        I used to do half to an hour to an hour yoga stretches every day when I was in Italy and my back pain disappeared for 4 years. Guess what…it’s back again since I’ve been working full-time and not sticking to the yoga stretches. 🙁

      18. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Sorry about the back. I know. It is a pain in the…
        It probably comes from sitting too long at a desk? Need to get back to stretches… Back pain is horrible. I feel for you. 🙏🏻

      19. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha, ha, I see what you did there…

        It’s an old injury from 1985 when I rode a horse for the first time from Cairo to the Tombs of Saqqara for 5 hours. Relatively unknown then, this was the only mode of transport.
        Just couldn’t get the rhythm of the galloping right and the crazy Eqyptian that was our guide (2 female backpackers), kept slapping my horse in the rump to make it take off faster! By the end of the day and when I got off the horse, I could barely walk as my back was in agony (not my butt)! Since, then, it’s always been an issue until those few years in Italy when I took the yoga stretches seriously. Hmmm…there’s a lesson there somewhere… 😉

      20. equinoxio21 Avatar

        1985? A little while back. Horse riding looks easy, but it’s not. I did quite a bit of riding in east Africa, and if you don’t catch the rhythm, trot, canter, gallop, you’re in for trouble.
        You most certainly need to do some yoga again…

      21. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha, ha, just a little while back! I hear that horse riding is a skill and definitely one which I haven’t mastered.
        Would be beautiful horseriding through African lands.
        Yeah, will do that… 😉

      22. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Even more beautiful than you think. The lady who had horses and taught us how to ride had a house “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” We rode in the hills where Karen Blixen had her house…

      23. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Sounds stunning and the movie had some amazing scenery if it was filmed in Africa.
        You have some great memories…

      24. equinoxio21 Avatar

        It was shot on location. I saw it in Paris, late November. We came out in the drizzling rain. I realized, the movie had just been shot there. So everything was still there and I said to my wife: we’re outta here…
        (Yes. Memories. They have their weight in gold. Though sometimes memories can weigh you down… LOL)

      25. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Beautiful! I can just imagine the uncomfortable contrast of a wet, grey Paris day with stunning African scenery!
        So true, but as long as we can remember, then it’s all cool! 🤣

      26. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Yes. I can’t really complain about my memory. There’s only a handful of things I would like to erase. But you can’t have your cake and eat it. Buona giornatta amica.

      27. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        We all have memories etched in our brains that we’d rather forget. But, we can’t be selective of what our healthy brains choose to store in the library of memories. 😉
        Buona serata

      28. equinoxio21 Avatar

        I know, I know. That’s when the Bene Gesserit litany of fear comes into play…

      29. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Interesting, have you seen the latest Dune with Timothée Chalamet? He’s a brilliant actor.

      30. equinoxio21 Avatar

        I have. With mixed feelings. I am a huge Dune fan, not easy to satisfy. Overall I think it was good. Not an easy task.

      31. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Same. Always hard to get remakes to be as good as the first one – a bit like music. 😉

      32. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Indeed. Many times the first version one hears of a song is the preferred one.

      33. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Totally agree. However, my partner and I disagree with Disturbed’s version of Sounds of Silence. Watch the vid. It’s really god and he’s got a powerful voice – a very different take! 😉

      34. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Just watched it. Not bad. melody is respected, which many times isn’t and I don’t like. The video is great. Now, I find it a bit slow. Loses impact in my ear. The singer is very good, but his voice is lower than Paul Simon’s who’s what? A tenor? That changes the song too.
        But it’s all right, both versions are good, I still like the original better. Which do you prefer?

      35. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        A great critique, Brian!
        I think it’s a great version but I still prefer the gentle voice of Paul Simon. I saw Simon & Garfunkel in 1982 in Sydney and it was a memorable concert.

      36. equinoxio21 Avatar

        That concert must have been great. We saw Simon (only) here in Mexico in 1992. Basically the Graceland stuff. Amazing.

      37. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        It was incredible and held at the Sydney Sportsground (not sure of the name these days). Think the venue held 40,000 people and when they sang the more solemn songs, you could hear a pin drop if it hadn’t been grassed grounds – just amazing!
        Brilliant performers and so talented.

      38. equinoxio21 Avatar

        And wonderful memories no doubt. (You like music too don’t you?) 😉

      39. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Absolutely! Of course, who doesn’t? Life without music would be bizarre! 😉

      40. equinoxio21 Avatar
  2. Yetismith Avatar

    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..

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.

  3. Lookoom Avatar

    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.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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!

  4. Stella, oh, Stella Avatar

    Wonderful impressions! What a trip!
    I enjoy just walking in cities. That way, one gets to see how the locals live and go about their day.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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. 😉

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