Shanghai was only the beginning of our big China trip. The first glance at this gigantic country, and I liked what I saw. I wanted to see more. The next stop was Beijing, China’s capital. Again a city with a gigantic population. Approximately 21 million (!) people live in Beijing. For tourists, there are so many things to do in Beijing. One of them is the Beijing hutongs. In this blog post, I will share more about the different types of hutongs and I give you some practical tips for tours and accommodation.
First days in Beijing: always lost
When I arrived in Beijing I immediately noticed that this city was different than Shanghai. Less organized and structured, more chaotic, dull, and busy. The first few days we had trouble finding our way around town. On the map, the navigation looked so simple and straightforward. However, in the real world, we quickly lost this overview. We got lost so many times, never could find the restaurants we wanted to go to and we walked for hours. Somehow we couldn’t get a grip on this city.
Exploring the Beijing Hutongs
Luckily all this wandering had a big advantage. We spent a lot of time in the hutongs, the old neighborhoods of Beijing. Areas with an authentic Chinese atmosphere, though the word ‘hutong’ isn’t even Chinese. This word originates from the Mongolian language and dates back to the rule of Genghis Khan over China in the 13th and 14th centuries. Neighborhoods that were built in that period were called hutongs which means ‘well’. Houses (siheyuans) were probably built around a well. Nowadays, you can easily recognize the hutongs by the small alleys that circle around a hidden courtyard.
Beijing hutongs: pay attention to the doors
Besides Mongolian history, the hutongs are also the perfect place to see some details from Imperial China. Take for instance the impressive old door you see in the photo in the header. During a bike tour, our guide told us that everything around this door had a meaning. From the beams above the door to the steps in front of the door and the little statues next to it. They’re all symbols referring to the status of the historical residents. The more beams and steps, the more respected the family was. It’s amazing how much you could tell about history just by looking at details.
Beijing used to have hundreds of hutongs, but sadly some have been demolished due to modernization. I also noticed that not every hutong is the same. There are two versions: the perfect restored ones and the lively worker-class areas.
Touristy Beijing hutongs
The hutongs are pretty popular amongst tourists. And the Chinese know this and obviously try to make some money out of it. That’s why some hutongs transformed into tourist traps. Well-known examples are Nanluoguxiang and the hutongs around Houhai lake. These areas are beautifully renovated, but they’re also filled with souvenir shops, cafes, juice bars, and rickshaw tours. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. People have to make a living and with all the tourists shopping in Beijing, it’s quite easy. But it was a bit too touristy for me, so next time I will skip these hutongs.
The more authentic hutongs
Fortunately, there are also hutongs where local life hasn’t changed that much. Our hostel was located in one of these hutongs. Each morning we smelled the freshly baked bread at the local bakery, bought yogurts from the street vendor, and watched the locals catching up with each other. In the hutongs, everything happens outside on the street. So many people in such a small area. Tip: you can count how many people live in one building by looking at the fuse boxes. And another thing that surprised me was the cars, and especially the car wheels. They’re covered up to prevent dogs from peeing against it. Apparently, this is kind of a big problem in Beijing.
Visit the hutongs by yourself or join a tour
You can easily visit the hutongs by yourself. The areas are completely safe for tourists. If you go by yourself, use this handy little Hutong map made by blogger Linda. Make sure that you have a VPN app installed on your phone because Google Maps is blocked in China. You can also join one of the many tours. Go on a hutong bike tour (we loved our bike tour!) or sign up for a breakfast food tour in the hutongs.
Where to stay in Beijing?
As for accommodations, I can highly recommend the hostel that we stayed at. The name was Yue Xuan Courtyard Hostel. It is located in an authentic hutong and the old-style private rooms are really nicely decorated.
From Shanghai to Beijing by train
We took the famous 5-hour G-train to get from Shanghai to Beijing. It goes up to 300 kilometers per hour and through 20+ tunnels. Unfortunately, the view from the window can be quite depressing. Landscapes full of skyscrapers, dozens lined up after each other. But hey, the ride wasn’t that long. The train departs at Shanghai Hongqiao station and it arrives at the Beijing South station. A ticket is 500 – 600 CNY, which is quite pricey. On the other hand, this ride will save you a lot of time.
Have you visited the hutongs of Beijing?
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