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Having lived in Beijing’s hutongs for over a year now, I think it’s safe to say I’m a little obsessed. Wandering the bustling stone alleyways in spring, watching locals play Chinese chess in the street. Exploring hidden restaurants and bars. Taking my DSLR to photograph the scenes of local life- I just can’t get enough.
The hutongs are BY FAR the coolest place in Beijing.
While you can spend an afternoon just wandering around the hutongs, getting a glimpse at everyday life, sometimes that’s not enough. I have so many questions!
Why are there all these public restrooms everywhere?
If people don’t have toilets in their houses, does that mean they don’t have any plumbing? Where do they take a shower? Do they have sinks? I’m confused.
Yes, this is really what I think about on a daily basis.
How I Learn About the Hutongs
Thankfully, since I speak Chinese and have Chinese friends, it’s easy for me to learn about the hutongs if I really have a question.
When the weather is nice, I spend hours wandering.
I visit hip hutongs with cafes, restaurants and trendy shops. I stumble on hidden cocktail bars in residential alleys. I get lost in the catacombs of extremely local hutongs where people take a second look when I walk by.
I’ve had over a year to find the coolest places on my days off, and I take advantage of Beijing’s beautiful pollution-free days as much as possible.
How to Visit the Hutongs Like a Local
If you’re only in Beijing for a few days, you don’t really have time to spend a year exploring. Most tourists head to Nanluoguxiang, which is usually what’s recommended by most hotels and hostels in the area. While Nanluoguxiang is worth exploring, it’s also super crowded and PACKED with Chinese tour groups.
Locals and expats do not go to Nanluoguxiang unless it’s cold and rainy on a weeknight. Seriously.
I usually recommend Wudaoying hutong for an afternoon of wandering. Right near the Lama Temple and easily accessible by two different subway lines, Wudaoying is Nanluoguxiang’s cool little hipster sister. It’s still a little bit touristy, but the bars, restaurants, cafes and shops are mainly filled with Beijingers. Wudaoying is also surrounded by really local hutongs you can explore, and you won’t be accosted by rickshaw drivers asking to give you an overpriced ride.
But to be honest, just walking around the hutongs might not be enough. I’m the type of person who loves to learn about history and culture. I want to know what I’m actually seeing. Even after living in China for four years, I still have a lot of questions most of my friends (and Google) can’t answer.
That’s why when I discovered that Context has a hutong tour, I immediately got in touch.
Why Take a Tour of the Hutongs
If you’re going to take a tour during your time in Beijing, I would recommend a hutong tour over all others. Why? Well, with incredible sites like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, you can research the history online and you can’t really get lost. With the hutongs, you’ll probably have no idea where to go and no clue what you’re even seeing.
On a hutong tour, your guide will lead you through the coolest hutongs where young locals and expats like to hang out. But then you’ll also get to see historic hutongs, lined with temples, preserved homes, and beautiful gates. Finally, you’ll have a chance to see really local hutongs, with people selling vegetables on the side of the road and collecting recycling in giant heaps.
Context Travel: A Wonderful Surprise
On arriving at the tour, I figured I wouldn’t really learn much. I’d been living in the hutongs for almost a year at that point, and the tour started walking distance from my apartment! I assumed we’d pretty much be walking around my neighborhood chatting about things I already knew.
BUT I was on the hunt for cool things to recommend to all of you, so I decided to go anyway. Taking one for the team, I know.
When I arrived at our meeting place near the Lama Temple, I was pleasantly surprised to see we had a small group. Just me, the guide and one other solo traveler. Granted, it was winter and extremely polluted, but even on a beautiful day, Context caps their tours at six people.
As we started wandering through Wudaoying hutong (and I attempted
and failed to bite my tongue so I wouldn’t become an annoying “backseat guider”), I was immediately impressed with our guide, Jeremiah. I knew all of the guides at Context had Master’s Degrees or PhD’s, but I had no idea how this really impacts the tour. There’s just something about exploring a place with a real historian.
Jeremiah actually used to work for a study abroad company as a resident director and would take students through the hutongs as part of their study abroad program. He’s actually even good friends with my study abroad resident director from when I studied abroad in Beijing in 2012. Small world!
From Beijing’s Hipster Chic…
Wandering through super-cool hutongs like Fangjia and Wudaoying, Jeremiah explained how some of Beijing’s hutongs have undergone a commercialization and development process, while still retaining their local flavor. Is it sad that Wudaoying (one of my favorite hutongs) is so commercialized now? Or is Wudaoying a perfect hybrid of traditional and modern Beijing?
Fangjia hutong used to be a very local area, but now it’s where I go to watch English-language comedy at Hot Cat Club or eat falafel at an Isreali restaurant. There are wine bars, art exhibits, and even a pizza place. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Will both these hutongs turn into the over-crowded, over-commercialized tourist trap that is Nanluoguxiang?
…To “Beijing’s Trailer Park”
I always thought of the hutong where I live as a happy medium between commercialized and local. I can easily get to Wudaoying and Fangjia, but instead of bars and Western restaurants, my street is lined with really cheap Chinese food. Nearby I even have Zhangmama, one of the best places for cheap spicy Sichuan food in all of Beijing (just be prepared to wait in line for 45 minutes for a table… and there’s no English menu).
I absolutely love the local hutongs, but I know not everyone feels that way. I love that I can run across my hutong street to grab a huge bag of veggies for $2, or how I can pop into a public squat toilet whenever I feel the need. But that’s because I’m privileged enough to have a toilet in my own apartment. Not all hutong residents are that lucky.
How the Locals Feel About the Hutongs
One thing that really stood out to me, was that Jeremiah’s Chinese wife grew up in the hutongs and was itching to escape. While the hutongs might be a wonderful gem for the average tourist or expat, they’re not the most desirable housing situation for most Beijingers.
Beijing’s hutongs are old, dirty, and lack proper plumbing. While many foreigners and wealthy Chinese people live in refurbished hutongs, not all the hutong houses are quite so nice. No insulation, horrible government heating (which I have in my own apartment), and putting on a coat in the winter to pee in the middle of the night at the squat toilet down the road? No thanks.
While I might LOVE the hutongs, the Chinese are more divided on the issue. Many of the elderly love the community aspect: showering at the local shower house, sitting in the street playing xiangqi… But many young people are dying to leave.
Why live in a tiny, cramped, dirty home when you can have a highrise apartment in Chaoyang? Why squeeze through illegally(?) parked cars, honking e-bikes, and carts piled high with gigantic leeks, when you can walk down a nice sidewalk without getting run over?
I Learned So Much!
I’m so glad I took the Hip Hutongs Tour with Context because I learned so much. I thought the entire tour would be a review for me and I was completely wrong. Seriously, here’s just a small list of the things Jeremiah taught us:
- How the hutongs are able to filter traffic noise (seriously, I never noticed!)
- How old the hutong houses actually are (you’d be surprised)
- How to tell how many people are living in a hutong compound (SO MANY)
- The story behind the “grass mud horse” llama that says “MOTHERF***ER” in Wudaoying… and much more!
I actually had such a good time on this tour, I’m dying to take another one in Beijing. I’m especially interested in the Daily Life and Globalization in Beijing tour. Beijing has developed so fast (as you can see from the hutongs) that traditions, customs, cultures and the basic way of life have been pushed aside in favor of consumerism and cosmopolitan living. I would love to learn even more about Beijing’s housing crisis or how China’s elderly survive in this fast-changing city.
Curious about Beijing’s hutongs? Just let me know below and I’ll answer all of your questions!
I was invited on the Hip Hutongs tour as a guest of Context Travel. As always, I only promote products or services I truly believe in. Context is awesome!