Hutong (alleys)

Outside the Forbidden City, the people of Beijing used to live in single-storey buildings in tightly-packed alleys, called hutong, which ran across the city along an east-west axis (so the front gates could be on the more favourable south side). Specific trades clustered in these alleys, and many of the hutong still reflect that in their name: Zhonggu Hutong (Bell and Drum Alley), Jiucuju Hutong (Wine and Vinegar Alley), and so on. Some of them are incredibly narrow, with the buildings separated by less than a metre (3 ft), but others are as wide as normal streets; some houses are old, while others are relatively modern (post-1949).

The traditional family home was a courtyard-house, or siheyuan. Some courtyard-houses were very grand, and occupied by nobility and high-ranking civil servants; others were modest, and became even more so after the collapse of imperial rule and during the turmoil of the 20th century. Recently, because they are viewed by the authorities as outmoded and unhygienic, and occupy prime land that could be better exploited by modern high-rise blocks, many of the old hutong have been swept away, and along with them a traditional, time-honoured mode of life and social contact. But some hutong and siheyuan have been protected, and those of special historic significance are marked with a white plaque.

You can still get a flavour of old Beijing by wandering the hutong in and around the city centre (almost all hutong are within the bounds of the Second Ring Road; for instance, try looking in the neighbourhood of the Drum Tower, to the north of the Forbidden City. This would be a good opportunity to sample street food – some of the tastiest cooking that Beijing has to offer.

Alternatively, you can take a specialist hutong tour. Or you could experience a bit of hutong life for yourself by staying in one of the courtyard-houses that have been converted into guesthouses and hotels, such as Lusongyuan Hotel (in Banchang Hutong), Hao Yuan Guesthouse (in Shijia Hutong), and Bamboo Garden Hotel (in Xiaoshiqiao Hutong).

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