This is definitely one place that intrigues me from the first day I landed in Beijing last year. The Hutongs. I was curious what they actually are and from all the descriptions written about them in various blogs, articles and websites, they sounded exciting, ancient, interesting, dating back several hundred years and to a certain extend romantic.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to visit any of these during the first several months until winter last year when my eldest son come visiting from Christchurch, New Zealand. I took the opportunity to take him around the hutongs at Houhai and those near the Drum and Bell Tower.
When we got off at Houhai, we were immediately approached by a dozen rickshaw paddlers offering us a rickshaw tour round the hutongs. Not knowing what and where the hutongs are, we agreed at a price of RMB100 for about an hour ride. We got into his rickshaw as he carefully unfolds some warm blankets to cover our laps and legs as the air was chilly and cold.
Rows and rows of rickshaws lining up at Houhai, waiting for customers.
As he paddled furiously away, he was screaming on top of his voice, giving us a briefing and introduction of the little alleys and rivers that we passed, unfortunately, in Chinese (Putonghua) which I have just started to learn while my son, a `banana’ has absolutely no idea of what the driver was rambling about. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the scene as we took us deeper into some winding and narrow alleys, passable only by rickshaws and bicycles, with both sides lined with old greyish buildings with faded red wooden doors that had seen better times. He would occasionally points out selective larger buildings and said something to explain that those were residences of some well known figures or officials several hundred years ago.
Many of these dwelling places have been converted to cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops nowadays while those that have not been converted looked almost identical in every aspect. But if your passion is photography, then they offer amble photography opportunities, subject matter and angles, if you only have time to slow down and absorb the atmosphere, something that you would not be able to do while sitting in a rickshaw.
Old styled hot water warmer, a teapot of Chinese tea on an old jaded wooden stool found at the entrance of one of the houses here during winter in Jan 2013.
Spotted these old tools repairing shoes, apparently they have been there for quite a number of years judging from the writeup they put up at the back at Nanluo Gu Xiang
One of the houses that have been converted to a embroidery shop at Nanlou Gu Xiang.
We made another trip to visit the Drum and Bell Tower a week later and had more time now just to walk among the narrow alleys and slowing down whenever we see something interesting to capture. It was snowing lightly which made the whole experience even more incredible although the skies were gloomy and dull.
One of the entrance to some of these siheyuans along the hutongs. The gloomy and dull winter with snow tends to bring out the color of some of these ancient red wooden doors.
I must said that photographing the hutongs in winter is definitely much more interesting than any other seasons, because the snow covered roofs and alleys, will bring some nostalgic feel to these ancient structures.
Snow covered hutongs after a heavy snowfall during winter, near the Drum and Bell Tower
Another interesting and more famous alley along the hutongs to visit in Beijing is Nan Luo Gu Xiang, apparently one of the oldest and most well preserved hutong in Beijing, dating back 700 years. Today, most of these hutongs have been converted to trendy cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs and shops. This is not the place to get that authentic feel of the hutongs but still warrants a visit and dropping by for a drink in one of their cafes and pubs if time permits.
What are hutongs exactly?
Hutongs are narrow streets and alleys and the ancient dwelling places of court officials and commoners around the palace in Beijing. They consist of lines of siheyuan, the traditional courtyard residences joined to each other, forming a hutong. One hutong is then linked to another, creating a maze of inter connected narrow hutongs that gave this place their unique flavour.
All hutongs are built around the Forbidden City and the status of a person is determined by how close his residence is to the Forbidden City. Court officials normally resided on the east and west of the palace, while commoners, wealthy merchants and artisans will live on the north and south side of the palace.
Siheyuan or the traditional courtyard residence consists of a large courtyard in the center with 4 to 5 dwelling places surrounding it, enclosed in a wall. Over time, some of these siheyuans have become living quarters of several families.
Typical layout of a siheyuan with a courtyard in the center, surrounded by dwelling places within a wall.
Some of the hutongs (alleys) are named after a trade. This is because in the olden days, it is believed that all the merchants of the same trade stayed along the same road (hutong) hence deriving the name.
Bicycles are a common mode of transportation among the narrow hutongs. Found a couple of these among the snow covered alleys.
Venturing into the less trotted hutongs, which have not been converted over to become a pub, café or shop will give you a glimpse of the everyday lives of a common beijinger making a living in Beijing, a great metropolitan city that can be rather unforgiving to many less fortunate.
All in all, you stay in Beijing will not be complete without a visit here.