The hutongs, pronounced more like “hoh’tong” in Mandarin, are narrow lanes and alleys hemmed by one or two-story residences called siheyuan, which in turn surround a courtyard on four sides. If you were to look at a hutong area from above, you’d find many of them – but certainly not all of them – exhibiting a quite symmetrical, boxy layout with two outer sides of the siheyuans forming a hutong lane, while behind, and away from view, there would be private courtyards.
Hutongs, which were first established in the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1279 to 1368), were found in many northern Chinese cities, but they are most commonly associated with Beijing. They represent the residential neighborhoods of old Beijing, and even if the general layout may be similar to temple complexes even parts of the Imperial Forbidden City, the hutongs were for commoners rather than royal residents. That said, the siheyuans differed enormously in size according to income and location, with the higher-ranking people living to the east and west of the Imperial Palace and in closer proximity.
Sadly, in the mid-1900s, many hutong neighborhoods were demolished to make way for progress, the widening of streets, and the building of more modern residences.
Each hutong has a name, often given for a nearby sight or landmark, or famous names, even food or animals, and has its own identity. Even if not listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a large number of them now enjoy protection and are often being reinvented as artist quarters with many galleries found in the ancient complexes. There are plenty of them around to discover, with figures suggesting that in the Qing Dynasty, there were some 2,077 hutongs; in 1944 there were even more, with numbers reported of around 3,200 hutongs; while in 2007, a mere 1,500-odd hutongs remained. Still, there are plenty to see.
With hutongs being individual lanes, it is at times difficult to recommend which ones to see, but here, for the sake of ease, I will mostly talk about neighborhoods made up of a larger number of hutongs.
Stay In A Historic Setting
When traveling to countries where the culture is distinctly different from what I am used to, I love staying in historic hotels and areas to get a better feeling of where I am. Wake up in a 5-star hotel of a worldwide chain, and you could be pretty much anywhere in the world, but wake up in a typical and historic hotel, and the plumbing may be slightly different, but you certainly know you are not in Kansas anymore (to paraphrase Dorothy).
I stayed in the Jingshan Garden Hotel, a renovated siheyuan in a Sanyanjing hutong just off Jingshan Garden Park and steps away from the Forbidden City. The initial approach was somewhat fraught, considering my taxi could not get into the hutong lane, and I was not traveling light. But that is the joy of hutongs; the lane was not only narrow but full of day-to-day bits and pieces from the residents, from garbage bins to chickens and rabbits in cages. When I finally arrived at the entrance, I thought this was a tiny little place, but once in the courtyard and seeing the buildings surrounding it, I appreciated the wonder of its privacy and thought about how lovely it must be to live there with the extended family – a little idyll in a buzzing city.
My hotel was lovely, and while it was only three stars, it had an en suite bathroom, looked out across the rooftops toward the Forbidden City, had a small restaurant and bar, and the staff was wonderful when it came to helping me organize tours and book drivers.
For a perfect Beijing stay, I cannot recommend any hotel more than a tiny hutong hotel, and especially the Jingshan Garden Hotel, as it is one of the more authentic ones.
When it comes to typically Chinese, or typically Beijing delicacies, we have probably all heard of Peking duck and dumplings, and maybe even the warming Mongolian hotpot. But there are so many variations in between, so much food that is more likely being eaten for breakfast or for dinner, that this is an entire science to itself. In the hutong alleys, you are more likely to come across small cafes and stalls that serve typical food than in any of the more modern parts of Beijing. Even then, it is good to have some help.
One enjoyable way to find new food is by taking a breakfast walking tour, on which you eat your way through the hutong’s best breakfast stalls with your guide at hand to explain everything. For dinner, you simply have to try roast Peking duck, and the Liqun Roast Duck restaurant in a hutong is very authentic and lacks the flashiness of some of the larger chain restaurants. You might want to get your hotel concierge to talk through the directions with your driver, as it is a little hidden away.
Have Fun Exploring
The hutongs can be explored in three ways: on foot, by bicycle, and the most fun way: by rickshaw. Ideally, you can combine walking and rickshaw riding. Go by rickshaw first to get your bearings, then walk back and explore in a bit more detail. But note that there are regular scams with rickshaw drivers demanding more than the agreed price, so make sure that you agree on a price and the currency, depending on the length of the tour, the price in yuan should be between 150-250. Yuan, not dollars! If you are staying at the Jingshan Garden Hotel, then the Baocaho Hutong is within walking distance and has the added attractions of the Drum and Bell Towers, built in the 1200s, to announce time to the neighborhood. There will be rickshaw drivers hanging around the towers waiting for customers.
Look Behind The Scenes
What the hutongs provide most is a unique look behind the scenes of “normal” old Beijing away from the Imperial courts. Here you can still find out what made old Beijing tick, how common people lived and still live in the neighborhoods, often with habits quite unchanged over the centuries. While walking around will give you some idea, it is the specialized tours with local guides that will offer you the most insights into strange hobbies such as cricket fighting, which has thrilled Beijingers for millennia. Just to assure you, this is not a blood sport. Reportedly, the crickets do not die or get hurt. Instead, they are tiny trained fighters, as you would find out on this tour. Alternatively, if you are not into cricket sports (pun intended), then maybe something arty? This day tour teaches you all about the art of paper cutting and painting the inside of snuff bottles, both highly skilled crafts which have been practiced locally for a long time. All through the day, your guide will let you into the secrets of life in the hutongs, and you will leave with a whole new appreciation of the other side of Beijing and its day-to-day history.
Get Ahold Of Some Art
You will find art everywhere in the hutongs, including local arts and crafts, silk paintings, watercolors, and more. In the hutongs between the quite touristy Nanluoguxiang market and the Wudaoying hutong, I bought a couple of beautiful little paintings of the hutongs, which are taking pride of place in my living room. A lot of the stuff sold in the souvenir shops is mass-produced, but you will come across plenty of small studios where you see the artists at work, and they are all very pleased to have you take a look and hopefully make a sale. Unfortunately, I can not remember the name of the little shop I visited, but you will find plenty when strolling through the narrow lanes.
Pro Tip: This might be too much information for you, but I always check out the availability of public toilets when I am out and about exploring. In the hutongs, you might just come up short. In the old days, many hundreds of residents would have shared the same bathroom, and though modern plumbing is much more advanced, you are best on the lookout for any western-style café along the way to pop in for a brief interlude, because what you might find, or indeed not find, in the hutongs, may not leave you terribly enthusiastic.