When people ask me what I liked most about China two things automatically come to mind: the Great Wall and the hutongs. I was very lucky to have a little free time during my work trip for personal exploring, but, I didn’t have much advance time to figure out what exactly I could do in those precious hours. Therefore, on way to catch my train to Beijing, I asked my colleague Sophie what I should do with my free afternoon. “You could take a walk around the hutongs, there are some near the hotel,” she suggested. Sounded like the perfect plan.
Hutongs. I’d been hearing about these mysterious places since we launched in China. These are traditional city blocks, labyrinths of alleys flanked by networks of one or two storey courtyard houses. And since I love old places, towns, neighborhoods (I live in one of the ultimate cities of nostalgia after all) an amble through these typical districts seemed like the best way to get a feel for authentic Beijing. Since the tour we offer on these areas, called Hip Hutongs, wasn’t available during my stay, I’d have to be my own guide.
As my taxi in from the station crept through the afternoon smoggy traffic, I pulled out my guidebook to track down these hutongs. Oh man, they were everywhere! So it seemed from the map, nevertheless, from what I’d heard, they’ve been disappearing at lightning speed by the rapid modernization of the city (contrary to the snail-paced traffic, most things were super speedy in China). With such a myriad of “hutong” labeled streets, how was I supposed to know which ones to visit? Which ones were authentic, which were hip, which might lead to dangerous dead-ends?? A little intimidated by all the possibilities, I decided to keep it simple and try to seek out the ones near the hotel as referenced by Sophie.
So after checking in, I thought I could at least get sent in the right direction by the hotel staff. “Hutongs, near hotel…” I repeated, gesturing at my map and pointing directly to the spelling, but the embarrassed young receptionist had no idea what I was talking about, his English wasn’t all that great (and my Mandarin non-existent) and he probably usually just sent people around by taxi or rickshaw. I’d actually found a vegetarian restaurant I wanted to try for dinner, supposedly located in a hutong a few large city blocks away; I guessed I could use that as my vague compass driving point and try not to get too lost in the process. So, off I embarked into the great, grey unknown.
I exited the hotel and started walking along the large, four lane avenue lined with highrises. Was my map old? Had the hutongs around here already met the demolition ball? I peaked down a sidestreet and saw some low grey buildings. Aha! I’d indeed found a hutong and a real one at that. Almost too real. It was a little run-down and I was by far the only westerner walking the alleyways. I cautiously zigzagged through the laneways taking in the daily life of these hutong-ers. Feeling a little like I was intruding, I didn’t dare take out my iPhone for photos. These were public streets, but a lot of people leave their doors open to the passing world, I was almost cruising through their living rooms.
Taking a sneak peek at my bad guidebook map I crossed over another massive boulevard hoping to land in a different hutong. This one had wider alleys and more people milling about so my wanderings felt less intrusive and thus I snapped a few very discreet shots: kids playing, messy street market stalls, old ladies out and about in the pyjamas (Sophie had “warned” me about the eccentric “fashion” of elderly women), dogs on motor-scooters (better than in frying pans) and so on. It was certainly a more bustling hutong, yet still very authentic. I only actually saw one other westerner the whole time, a very French looking man pulling a suitcase (hey, I want to stay in an Airbnb hutong next time!). Eventually my meandering miraculously led me to the vegetarian restaurant I’d sought to find: mission accomplished (and a very tasty one at that!).
The next day Sophie arrived and proposed meeting up with one of her expat friends in the hutongs. I doubted I’d seen the full range of the hutongs in my exciting but poorly researched wander, so figured it wouldn’t hurt to go back. Not surprisingly, she knew where to go and the hutongs she took me too were the hip ones. As I discovered, some of the hutongs are being “sprucing up,” which is helping spare them from being replaced by towers. The ones we visited were being gentrified to the likes of hip Beijingers and the large expat crowd. Instead of yesterday’s market with its disheveled piles food, we rummaged through the “vintage market” for unique 1960s dresses while being tempted by flower-flavored cupcakes and South African Rooibos tea. After stopping for a snack of dumplings, smoked tofu and ginger sodas, we continued our stroll; popping into trendy boutiques and passing by ultra-hip restaurants, coffee shops and cocktail lounges.
We were spending the perfect expat weekender afternoon, fairly similar to what I might do back in Paris in the hipster Haut Marais district or Brooklyn, yet with a Chinese twist. I did wonder a little what the non-hip Beijingers did with their free time… that is, in the free time they actually had, they seemed to work pretty hard. Wandering out of the hutongs, I ventured into a park where I saw groups of people dancing and playing cards. Some weekend fun had by all, hip or not.
So what to make of the different hutongs? The dilemma is just like in Paris or other historic cities. The points of either extreme are vicious: overrun with touristy shops and tacky restaurants (à la Saint Michel in Paris and the really touristy hutongs), vs getting torn down. Luckily there is something of a happy medium if done right, it waivers borderline sometimes, but I’ll take craft beer and cheese dumplings over 50-floor highrises and McDo any day.