Thanh Hoa

Escape the modern world in Beijing’s traditional hutongs

Having heard all about Beijing’s pollution and congestion, I was surprised to step out of the airport and find bright sunshine, deep blue skies and trees full of golden leaves. A chilly wind had me buttoning up my coat. “So this is autumn in Beijing,” I said to myself.

I was lucky to visit Beijing during some lovely autumn days. On our first outing from the hotel, an elderly veteran offered me and my friends a ride when he learned we were Vietnamese. Perched on his tiny bike, I looked around. The street names were written in Chinese and pinyin, and many roads ended in the term “hutong”.

Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys lined with traditional courtyard houses. Most of these lanes lie around the Forbidden City area, much like Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Hutongs have a similar identity. The old houses have traditional architecture with bright shiny red wooden doors, golden doorknobs shaped like dragon faces and signature green roofs. Behind the closed doors lie the courtyards, where families live side by side.

The veteran’s bike stopped in front of Nanluoguxiang alley. This is considered the center of the most famous hutongs in Beijing. I was amazed by the ancient entrance door with its intricate and typically Chinese decorations. Inside, Nanluoguxiang alley was crowded with visitors and residents. The hutong district is like a fish bone, with Nanluoguxiang forming the backbone that connects to other hutongs. Nanluoguxiang attracts not only tourists but also locals. Nanluoguxian is lined with hundreds of food stalls offering treats like whole fried squid, dim sum and crispy half-steamed and half-fried pork dumplings. I bought a sugar bottle gourd full of traditional Chinese hawthorns coated in rock sugar. The fruit had a mildly sour taste, which blended perfectly with the sweet sugar. When I bit a piece, it crunched. I snacked on this candied fruit as I explored the hutongs.

The hutongs of Nanluoguxiang are a world apart from the noisy and modern city streets of Beijing. You can see old people cycling down the streets with food stuffed into their baskets, under the shade of golden trees. Here, you will see another face of Beijing – and experience a slower pace of life. The sun shone on the walls, doors and green roofs. I could hear children laughing as they played hide and seek. It felt like time had stopped. When darkness fell, red lanterns were lit, forming a shiny red path leading me to new discoveries.

Nanluoguxiang is a good place to buy souvenirs. The little shops were full of treasures: cute ceramics cats wearing traditional costumes, a couple of cotton carp to hang in the door, beautiful notebooks made from traditional Chinese paper, locally-made incense…

Exploring the hutongs gave me a look into Beijing’s past, and a glimpse into the ways in which the locals have retained their traditions. Despite the changes brought by modernity, the atmosphere was cheerful and calm in the hutongs.