Hutongs, the True Chinese Experience

I only had a week, and I was determined to dive into Chinese culture as much as possible. As a woman, traveling alone always gives me pre-traveling jitters, but once at my destination I’m game. Taking the road less traveled, mostly walking, has led me to hidden wonders in the past, and when China called, I couldn’t wait to explore. I was however, willingly unprepared, one of the luxuries traveling solo offers. The ability to do things on a whim, with no reasons or excuses is true freedom. But China intimidated me, the language, the customs – it would be my first time in Asia. I needed some guidance, and sure enough, irony kicked in. The guidebooks, articles, and websites were
overwhelming and not very helpful. China is a place you have to experience, not read about, it’s totally different once you get there.

Getting to Beijing sans hotel reservations was a bad advice from a certain famous guide book that recommended bargaining. I ended up paying more. The Jade International Youth Hostel in Beijing however has the best location, only five, albeit long, blocks from Tiananmen Square. For ¥80 Yuen ($10) a night per bed in a quad, it was still a bargain. My first day in Beijing I walked, and then walked some more. I didn’t bother with the tourist spots, namely the Forbidden City, you can’t avoid Tiananmen Square even if you tried; it is a vast space. In just a few hours I had seen all the famous landmarks filled with color-coded tourist groups I could handle. The McDonald’s and Starbucks tried hard to make me feel at home, but I had flown too far for that.

I read about the hutong districts but was unimpressed, except for the historical background; the accounts were too universal to find them interesting. But to my surprise, the hutongs exceeded any tales lingering in guidebooks and cyberspace. I took a detour from the main streets congested
with dust and traffic, swallowed in some courage, crossed the hectic (understatement) street and entered. Looking around I took a sigh of relief, I had finally arrived in China.

Row of bicycles in a hutong alley.

A row of bicycles in one of the alleys of a hutong close to the Forbidden City.

Hutongs are ancient alleys with siheyuans, or compounds with houses around a courtyard. The first hutongs appeared about 700 years ago when the Mongolians dug out wells and decided to dwell around them. Hutongs are the “character” of China, at once commercial and residential, private and inviting, and poor but rich. At first sight they are distinguished by shops and street vendors, but if you peek inside the alleys you’ll realize this is where people actually live. They get around by walking and bicycles, since the streets are too narrow, but the occasional car often disrupts the flow.

Pedicab driver in a Qiamen hutong.

A pedicab driver in a Qianmen hutong patiently waiting for a passenger. He will likely offer you a tour first.

There are many hutongs, some touristy and modern (with cafes), others rundown; the pedicabs will want to take you to the former because they get commission; try to resist. The hutongs behind Tiananmen Square, just south of it, are by far the most interesting. They are inside and around the oldest shopping area of Beijing, the Qianmen (pronounced xiamen) section. The lack of police was
a sign that I was at my own risk. The area is not for the tourist which is why you’ll see some sitting down having Tsingtao beer outside of shabby eateries, literally absorbing the ethos. This may be the only place where I felt China’s overpowering population because ironically, Beijing is not very crowded. The crowds were never a safety concern for me, you are way more likely to get conned on a sale rather than get pick-pocketed. For example, I was charged ¥15 ($1.75) for a beer that was clearly just ¥5 ($.75) in the menu. This safety advice only applies to daytime however; I don’t recommend walking the hutongs at night.

Humble restaurant view of life in the hutongs.

Humble eateries abound in hutongs. They are great spots for relaxing and people-watching. This place in a Qianmen hutong.

I was surprised that although Qianmen was more in need of business than the famous Wangfujing shopping area, I wasn’t pushed to buy anything. Actually, the people seemed indifferent albeit friendly. I went inside an internet place where an old man, getting a kick out of my sign language attempts, offered to take me on a tour of Bei Hai Park behind the Forbidden City. I declined not out of distrust, but because he seemed physically unable to walk longer than a block and I had already been there. Another gentleman offered to take me around the hutongs on his
pedicab for free in exchange for some English conversation, after I declined he settled for a picture with me with his own camera.

If you prefer less crowds and cleaner surroundings but still want to experience the hutongs, the ones around the Forbidden City are your thing. The Shijia hutong has a quiet, modest atmosphere. This is the perfect Hutong for renting a bicycle and exploring, since there’s hardly anyone walking about. You can also stay here at the Saga Youth hostel, where a dorm bed goes for ¥90($11) if you don’t mind three other roommates, not necessarily foreign; there are more Chinese tourists in Beijing than foreigners.

The food in hutongs is basic (dumplings and famous pig soups) and home-cooked (i.e., not for weak stomachs). Although English translations are almost non-existent, there are some pictures, it’s ok to pick your meal out of the wall; you’ll get the same thing. Hutongs are incredibly cheap (¥10, $1.50 on average for a meal), that’s if you agree on a price before you order or purchase anything.

At night, the hutongs transform into ancient cities of mythical tales. The red lanterns adorning the roofs of
every establishment brings back the feeling of old dynasty China; the atmosphere is serene but alive.The Chinese are eaters and they like to go out to eat and unwind. The view was great from the roof beer garden in my hostel, at night I practiced caution, but mostly rest, by staying in.

Hutongs take you away from all the modernization and tourism of Beijing; they are the heart and soul of Chinese antiquity, tradition, and culture. This is so apparent, that once you leave the hutongs, you feel like you are in a city no different than any other. With its’ cabs, buses, hotels, high rises, restaurants, and malls. The difference is that Beijing’s like a dust bowl, the dust hits you like a slap on the face. I just wanted to go back to the hutongs and hide.

But soon there will be nowhere to hide, unfortunately, because of the 2008 Olympics; most of the hutongs would be a thing of the past due to China’s fervent initiative to modernize. With all their history, who would have thought that the hutongs would become time sensitive? This is one opportunity you have to take before it’s gone.

How to get to the Hutongs

Qianmen area hutongs: from Tiananmen Square start walking south (away from the huge picture of Mao) past the Mao Memorial Hall and Front Gate. Cross Qianmen Ave., make sure that Tiananmen Square is right behind you. And there you are.

Shijia hutong: Hutongs have a bad rap for being hidden and hard to get to because taxis cannot enter. I took a shuttle bus from Beijing airport for ¥16 ($2) to Beijing Central Station. From here I opted for a pedicab (bicycle taxi) for ¥40 ($5), with a really friendly guy who kept trying to take me to modern Beijing hotels, surely for the commission. Once he understood I was set in my ways it took him 10 minutes to the Shijia hutong. The taxi drivers I approached also seemed hesitant to even want to take me close to the hutongs.

Where to Stay

Saga International Youth Hostel, No. 9 Shijia Hutong, Nanxiaojie, Dongcheng District. Phone 010/6257-2773, Fax 010/6524-9098. Prices: ¥180 ($22) twin, ¥80-¥90 ($10-$11)
dorm bed. Credit cards are not accepted unless reservation is done online and thus pre-paid. The walking distance between this hostel and the Qianmen hutongs is approximately one hour.

Jade International Youth Hostel, No.5, North Zhide Alley, Beiheyan Street, Dongcheng District. Phone 86-10-6525 9966, Fax 86-10-6522 6224. Prices: ¥250 ($30) twin, ¥60-¥80 ($7-$10) dorm bed. Again, credit cards are not accepted. Show up with pre-paid reservations, especially if you don’t speak a word of Mandarin like me. The walking distance between this hostel to the Qianmen hutongs is approximately 35 minutes. Visit their website for booking and current rates