Hanging out in the hutongs

According to an old Chinese saying, “There are 3600 hutongs with names and as many without names as the hairs on an ox.” A visit to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without spending some time exploring these narrow alleyways. We spent our first evening in Beijing exploring the ones close to our hotel on foot but also enjoyed touring others by rickshaw, the most popular way for tourists to see these neighbourhoods.

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Some 600 years ago, while Emperor Zhu Di and his family lived in luxury within the walls of the Forbidden City, the common people of Beijing lived in the hutongs and many still do today. Hutongs are made up of rows of traditional residences, each built around a central courtyard. Joined one to another, these single storey homes form crowded but enchanting warrens where a warm sense of community abides. Though many of these residences have been modernized with the addition of electricity and plumbing, public bathrooms in each neighbourhood continue to serve the needs of those that haven’t been.

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We had the opportunity to visit two courtyard homes, one a family dwelling and the other now a guest house. Built 300 years ago as the home of a government official, the guest house is larger than most hutong homes and its enterprising owners saw an opportunity to turn it into a thriving business when Beijing hosted the summer Olympics in 2008.

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Some of the grander courtyard homes have stately looking red doors flanked by carved stones. Rectangular stones indicate that the house was originally owned by a government official while circular ones identify military homes.

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Hundreds of hutongs survive but the number has dropped dramatically during recent years as Beijing rushes to become a modern city. Fortunately, some of the hutongs have been designated as protected areas by the government in an attempt to preserve this aspect of cultural history.

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