Hidden Hutongs: A Peek Into Old Beijing by Pedicab (VIDEO)

Hidden Hutongs: A Peek Into Old Beijing by Pedicab (VIDEO)

Compelling and complex, Beijing, China is a city of contrasts, where modern skyscrapers tower over ancient imperial monuments, and where evidence of China’s dramatic and ever-evolving history can be found at every turn. With over 3,000 years of history to its name, Beijing boasts numerous cultural landmarks, from the UNESCO-listed Forbidden City and the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square and the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, each illustrating the many empires and individuals that made an impact on this multi-faceted capital.

But there’s far more to Beijing than the remnants of its grand imperial past or Chairman Mao’s legacy. Tucked away beneath the city’s most impressive attractions, one can still find a slice of real Chinese life in the hutongs, or narrow alleyways, that make up the heart of old Beijing.

Here’s a glimpse of some of the sights and sounds you might find in Beijing’s vibrant hutong neighborhoods, seen from the backseat of a pedicab.

A maze of winding streets and centuries-old courtyard homes, these traditional neighborhoods are full of unique character from an era before highways and high-rises. Bicycles and rickshaws squeak past crowds on foot; performers and peddlers call out to passersby; the scent of steamed dumplings, savory noodles and fried snacks waft from food stalls; and the older generations still gather in the streets to play mahjong and gossip over the day’s events.

Treasures found in a Beijing market. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Treasures found in a Beijing market
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Hutong HistoryBeijing’s hutongs are actually a Mongol invention, and can be traced back to the 13th century. Mongol hordes razed the city in 1215 during Genghis Khan’s conquest of Asia; it continued to lie in ruins until 1264, when Genghis’ grandson Kublai set out to build a new capital for himself.

Under Kublai Khan’s direction, Beijing was laid out into a chessboard-like grid, with rows of interconnecting siheyuan, or courtyard homes, forming the building blocks of the city. The wider avenues, or jie, in between were reserved for horses and larger modes of transportation, while the narrower alleys, the hutongs, were for pedestrian use only.

This system made it easier for Beijing to be divided into organized administrative precincts, but the more compact city design also allowed for easier management of the city’s water wells and sewage systems, greater security within the city districts, and more convenient ways of passage for both residents and trading caravans.

Hello from locals in Beijing. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Hello from locals in Beijing
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Center of AttentionThe Ming took control of the Chinese empire in the 14th century and added further improvements and expansions to the city plan. The Forbidden City, the home of Beijing’s reclusive emperors for almost 500 years, was built in 1420, and the city plan was adapted to place the palace squarely in the center of the city, with hutongs expanding outward from the complex in concentric rings.

Hutong neighborhoods during this time became an emblem of Chinese social order: aristocrats and high-ranking officials were housed closest to the emperor, while commoners and laymen were diverted to the outskirts of the city.

Hutongs were also relegated special functions that had a significant impact on the city’s development: Chaoyangmen, for instance, became a major factory and warehouse zone, while Qianmen, the old gated street once used by traders entering the inner city, developed into a popular pedestrian shopping district lined with lively storefronts, street markets, theaters and tea houses.

At the beginning of the Ming dynasty in 1368, there were an estimated 400-500 hutongs in Beijing; by the beginning of the 20th century, that number had skyrocketed to almost 4,000.

A view from the pedicab. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

A view from the pedicab
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Out With the Old…In the 1960s, Beijing’s population soared, causing citywide housing shortages. What had once been single-family homes in the hutongs were suddenly divvied up and shared among three or four families, cramped with makeshift sheds to add additional square footage. Living conditions in the hutongs quickly deteriorated, as residents had little access to basic plumbing, insulation, or electricity.

The economic reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s sparked a massive real estate development boom in Beijing. As a result, many of the hutongs were demolished to make way for new apartments and shopping centers, as well as the city’s subway system. After Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the city went on a headlong rush to tear down what remained of the old neighborhoods. It’s estimated that only a third of Beijing’s original hutongs are still standing today.

A bike rider making his way through Beijing. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

A bike rider making his way through a Beijing hutong
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

…In With the NewBeijing’s surviving hutongs still face the pervasive threat of the wrecking ball as the city continues to grow and gentrify, but many residents are now recognizing their historical and cultural importance. Nonprofits, architects and city preservationists have banded together to discuss how to conserve what remains of these old neighborhoods.

In recent years, the Chinese government has set aside 25 city center areas as protected cultural and historical zones, which has saved dozens of hutongs from demolition. Many hutong dwellers wanting to keep a piece of Beijing’s backstreet communal culture alive have begun restoring their courtyard homes, which has inspired others to do the same.

A walk through a festive and revitalized hutong. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

A walk through a festive and revitalized hutong
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Younger generations have also fallen in love with the quiet, laid-back lifestyle of the hutongs. A growing wave of Beijing residents are seeking out homes here as an alternative to the drab modern high-rises cropping up all over the city. These newcomers have transformed the hutongs into a funky blend of traditional mom-and-pop stores and trendy hangouts, with dozens of art galleries, cafes, restaurants and even craft breweries added to the mix.  

Despite new developments, life in the hutongs still unfolds as it has for centuries. Today, the people that live here, both old and young, are learning how to find a balance to ensure that this historic piece of Beijing’s history stays alive for generations to come.

A pedicab ride through Beijing. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

A pedicab ride through Beijing
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Discover Old Beijing & China with MIR

MIR has more than two decades of experience planning personalized tours to China. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

You can take a tour of China’s fascinating hutongs on a custom private journey, handcrafted to your preferred dates of travel and interests. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. 

Also, MIR has a variety of small group tours and rail journeys by private train that delve into China.

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise.

Top photo: A ride through a vibrant hutong neighborhood in Beijing, China. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

PUBLISHED: January 25, 2017

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