Discovering Old Beijing
A tour of two of the city’s centuries-old hutongs ends with a full stomach and a clear mind.
New York City historians frequently credit Gotham as the birthplace of the urban grid, but hutongs—dense, low-crouching, lane-laced neighbourhoods designed by Mongolians more than 700 years ago—were actually the world’s first gridlike neighbourhoods. Beijing was allegedly home to roughly 6,000 charming hutungs, but since the dawn of China’s Cultural Revolution, they’ve been disappearing faster than you can say “Mao Zedong.”
Now only 100 or so hutongs remain in the city as cranes and bulldozers make way for China’s modernising, sky-climbing billion. But local and international preservationists have called for the safeguarding of these compact and quite ecologically sustainable neighbourhoods, which have begun to inspire engineers, designers and architects across the globe (including Rem Koolhaas, whose fantastic blockish glass CCTV tower displaced a few hutongs when it was built in 2007).
During a blustery November day, I ventured out to two different hutongs to test their hospitality. I recruited the expert guides at Imperial Tours to help me get a glimpse of China’s distant past, but without ignoring its oft-misunderstood present.
First up was Sihuan hutong in the Xicheng district, home to the state-run Sihuan street market long known to Beijingers as the place to buy veggies and street food. A walk through Sihuan market revealed towering heaps of nuts, seeds and noodles, crazy brown mushrooms that resembled deer antlers, and radishes the size of pumpkins. I devoured a jianbing—a crunchy, Shandong-style pancake that is paper-thin but stuffed with lettuce, peanuts, sprouts and a thick, spicy soybean paste. I also bought a bag of deep pink Szechuan peppercorns, which numbed my mouth, causing it to oversalivate, and a one-pound bag each of scarlet goji berries and jade green raisins, the looks of which also made me salivate.
The second hutong I visited is undoubtedly Beijing’s most popular. Yaer hutong is shaded by old trees and flanked by Yandaixie Street (Tobacco Pipe Lane), purportedly one of the capital’s oldest streets. Yandaixie stretches from Di An Men Wai Street, intersecting with Xiao Shi Pai and Yaer hutongs, and leading to tourist attractions like Di An Men, the Bell and Drum Tower, and Houhai.
Though this area has touristy elements—and no shortage of frill-festooned rickshaws for hire—it offers a hint of real hutong life in Beijing, especially if you go midweek and midday, as I did. Temples were empty but open and quietly alluring, cosy tea and coffee shops were welcome sites for a cold wet traveller, and smiling shopkeepers were eager to communicate (though few actually spoke English). Some sold leather bags, others screwdrivers and hammers. What a welcome contrast to the Beijing most tourists see! There were no Louis Vuitton knock-offs and their aggressive vendors, no “must-see” starchitecture, no PR-savvy artists. (Sorry, Ai Weiwei, but it’s time to let a few other Chinese art stars shine.) This was hutong life—and perhaps China—at its best. Not glorified or glamorous; not distinctly old or new; but the real, bona fide, everyday China, that rara avis that everyone is still looking for.