In search of Beijing’s Hidden Hutongs

While waiting in the American Airlines lounge at Chicago O’Hare to catch our international flight to Beijing, we found ourselves talking to a China “travel warrior”, one of those successful American businessmen who had either the luxury or the headache (depending on how you view things) of traveling overseas constantly to Asia.  Since I never got his name, I’ll call him the Chinese Travel Warrior as it seemed to fit.  He’d been to China at least 40 times and was well versed in the ins and outs of traveling and doing business there.  He’d informed me gleefully about the preparation of Peking duck as well as showed me a picture on his cell phone of what you’d get in China if you ordered Chicken Soup (yes, a real dead chicken foot sprouting out of the top).  He told me the good and the bad, the nice and the dirty and helped get me excited about the adventure ahead.

Probably the best piece of advice that the Chinese Travel Warrior gave me, however, had to do with sightseeing.  He told me that I had to spend some time in Beijing’s infamous Hutongs or “narrow alleyways” that mysteriously thread through the heart of old Beijing.   He told me that the Hutongs are where the history, culture and life of old China can be seen, if that is, you can find them.

Not knowing or understanding at all what the Hutong are, I opted to search my beloved Lonely Planet China and here is what I found about Beijing’s Hutongs:

The spirit and soul of the city lives and breathes among these charming and ragged lanes where a warm sense of community and hospitality survives.  Criss-crossing chunks of Beijing within the Second Ring Road, the hutong link up into a huge and enchanting warren of one-story dwellings and historic courtyard homes.  Hundreds of hutong survive but many have been swept aside in Beijing’s race to build a modern city.

The description of the hutongs obviously grabbed my attention and lead my father and I on a three-day search in finding the best and the most colorful hutongs in all of Beijing.  Here is a collection of my photos taken during our explorations of Beijing’s Hidden Hutongs. 

Finding the Hutongs was half the battle and half the fun.  Our first day in Beijing, I was on a mission to find them.  We walked until we dropped, for over eight hours, pounding the pavement of Beijing.  I had read in Lonely Planet that all the Hutongs are marked with a historic sign.  Yet finding them on a map was another challenge all together.  We realized that the best way to find these hidden treasures was to walk without a map and explore.

Eventually after lunch we found our first section of Hutongs located directly behind the Forbidden City.   Before I saw the red sign (photo below), I noticed a dramatic change in the architecture of the buildings and most notably the roofs (photo above).  They looked old.…could these be part of the Hutongs I was searching for? I wondered.

This sign confirmed it:  Our first Hutong spotting!  

Yet this Hutong wasn’t too inviting.  Perhaps it was being renovated?  We decided not to walk down and explore it much further than this picture.  I knew there would be more.  Many more.  We would just have to find them! 

We continued our walk down Beichang Jie, one of the main drags located behind the Forbidden City, in search of more Hutongs.  We saw lots of interesting photo shots like the one above which I adore.  I love the old bicycles and the cool buildings.  

We walked a little further and came across this lovely Hutong.  I found a splendid alleyway but there was not much else back there but quiet courtyard homes.  

I was fascinated by the Hutongs and could have explored them all day long!  Here is my dad going under the electrical boxes that provide electricity to these ancient homes.  

The Hutongs are narrow thus all bicycles are normally parked outside the entrance.  I love this picture.  For some reason, it is one of my favorites from the trip.  

During our second day in Beijing, we discovered an entirely new area of Hutongs located by Qianhai Lake in North Dongcheng.  These Hutongs were more than residential and had stores, bars, restaurants and even chic boutique designer shops.  Here is a more lively Hutong that we found the second day which snaked around in many different directions.  

I found it hard to not get lost.  Yet getting lost was probably the best aspect of our search for the hidden Hutongs.  That meant you discovered new things that you probably would have missed.  Sometimes traveling without a map is the best way to travel.

If you did get lost or not want to get lost, you always had the option of hiring a rickshaw to show you the way.  We found this line up of eager rickshaw guides in a more touristy section of Hutongs (now what it was called still remains a mystery to me!  Again, it is a hutong that we managed to stumble upon and never found it again!).

Comparing notes and trying to work a deal. 

After hours of walking and exploring, we finally came across this trendy Hutong that had tons of cool bars, restaurants and shops.  This time we made a note on how to get there and find it again! 

Some of the beautiful boutique shops found in the Hutong. 

By lunch time, we were ready to take a rest and found the perfect place, The Passby Bar, located on Nanluogu Xiang, which was a great place to eat and watch the world go by.

Above is a picture of all the restaurant’s Lonely Planets!  Apparently the owner is an avid world traveler! 

As we entered the Passby, it felt like entered some kind of English pub.

I LOVED their motto:  BETTER TRAVEL THAN DEAD!  It seems like it was written for me! 

After a delightful lunch with of course a glass of wine, it was back to it.  I was determined to find more of Beijing’s hidden Hutongs and the more we walked, the more we discovered.

The architecture was a photographers dream.  

We left the Hutongs feeling excited about what we’d seen and looking even more forward to coming back to experience them at night, when they come to life with people, lights and mystery.  

The Chinese Travel Warrior was right….you can’t possibly see Beijing without finding the hidden Hutongs which are the true heart and soul of the city and its magical past. 

Stay tuned…next post will be on Beijing’s Hutongs at night! 

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