Beijing's Old Hutongs
Hello, and thanks for joining me for this walking tour, from Beijing’s drum tower through its historic hutongs to the Lama Temple. I’m Alec Ash, a writer and journalist who’s been living in Beijing on and off since 2008, and in this neighbourhood since 2012.
So, here we are at the beginning of our walk. You actually get into the tower from the north gate, on the other side, but I've taken you to this spot first because I want to show you something.
If you're facing the Drum Tower, turn around 180 degrees, so you're looking down the road with all the traffic on it. You're now facing south. Keep looking straight down, and further still, right to the end, past all the cars and buses until, unless it's one hell of a smoggy day – there! Do you see that pagoda, rising high above the line of the horizon?
That's the topmost pagoda of Golden Mountain Park, or Jinshan. And just over that hill, if you're standing in the pagoda looking down, are the yellow roofs of the Forbidden City, the middle of the Middle Kingdom. Old Beijing was built on a central meridian line, which runs due north from the Forbidden City, where the Emperor sat, up to the Drum and Bell towers. And the Drum Tower, where you're standing right now, that was right at the very heart of the ancient city.
I wanted you to get a sense of that because at times it can feel like Beijing doesn't have a heart. It's a big, grey, gridded city now, a concrete Leviathan of traffic and noise and Communist architecture. But Beijing does have a soul, in this central hutong district where the history lies thick like snow. We're going to walk through that soul, and come out the other side.
OK, let's get on our feet. Facing the Drum Tower again, turn right and walk around the tower to its north gate.
On your feet
The road leading off to your right is Drum Tower East Road, and it's a bit of a modern Mecca for young Chinese hipsters in skinny jeans who listen to rock 'n roll. Lots of guitar shops and bars. Also down that way is Nanluoguxiang, the commercialised hutong strip that's in all the travel guides but is completely overrun by tourists and just not worth it.
On the corner of this diamond-shaped sidewalk that wraps around the Drum Tower is one of Beijing's oldest restaurants. It's called Yaoji and it specialises in various kinds of delicious animal innards, such as pork intestine, lung, liver, heart, kidney, ear and, yes, “bung” – although I take no responsibility for the consequences if you want to try them.
In any case, keep walking around, hugging the tower’s outer wall and heading away from the main street.
The Drum Tower
Around now, you should feel a noticeable difference in your surroundings, even in the very air around you. There are less people crowding in, less honking, less pushing and shoving. The walls are narrowing but somehow there's more space around you. That's because we're going deeper into the city, away from the bus and cab routes. And rising up on your left, there's the Drum Tower with its beautiful roofing and intricate carvings, solid and old in the sunlight – heck, it's even beautiful in the smog.
Get yourself in front of the Drum Tower’s north gate, and then take a moment just to look around and appreciate where you are.
Most of what we think of as old Beijing, like the Forbidden City, was built in the 1400s in the early Ming dynasty. But the Drum Tower is older still, dating back to 1272 and the reign of Kublai Khan. When the Mongols invaded from the north and established the Yuan dynasty in 1271, Kublai Khan took Beijing for his capital, and called it Khanbaliq, "city of the Khan" – or in Chinese, Dadu, "big capital". Back then, Beijing was a small city, believe it or not, boxed in by square earthen walls, and the Drum Tower was at its exact centre.
In 1402 the tower was rebuilt by the Yong Le Emperor, and again in 1747 by the Qianlong Emperor, so this isn’t the original tower you’re looking at – but still. It’s 99 feet high, so as to avoid blocking spirits who were said to cruise at 100 feet. The watch was sounded every two hours, 108 beats of the drum each time, to coordinate offical activities in the days before digital watches. And when that drum was beaten, you could hear it all the way out at the furthest edge of town.
If you want to go inside, there's a ticket office at this gate – it should be 20 yuan, 9 to 5 daily, and there’s a ticket for both the Drum and Bell Towers too. If you're going in, you can just press pause now and we'll pick up again after your visit. Don't fall off the top.
Right, we're going to keep walking north, away from the Drum Tower and towards the Bell Tower. Remember, we're still on that central meridian line running due north from the Forbidden City. Five kilometres further north of here is the Olympic stadium, built deliberately on this same axis for the 2008 Games.
As I record this walk, the open space in between the two towers is cordoned off with corrugated metal sheets, the insides torn up like those pork intestines, and all the old low buildings around it are just a pile of rubble, freshly demolished.
To be honest, I'm not sure what exactly this is all going to look like by the time you're listening to this. In the good old days – if you'll indulge my nostalgia for a moment – it was just a stone courtyard, where residents would walk their dogs, or squat for a cigarette and a chat, while expats drank imported beer on the rooftop bars, watching old grannies dance below to tinny music blasting out of a boombox. This isn’t the first time on this walk that you’ll see signs of the changing times.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Up ahead is the Bell Tower. It was first built in the same year as the Drum Tower, 1272, but was later destroyed by a fire and rebuilt by the Qianlong Emperor in 1745, in stone this time. The bell, which tolled every day until as recently as 1924, weighs a whopping 23,000 pounds, and you could hear it twenty miles away. Again, if you want to go in, now's your moment, and I'll see you out here again after.
OK, keep walking up, curving around the Bell Tower to its right hand side in another half diamond. If you didn't have time to go in and see it for yourself, there's a rather gruesome story about the casting of this bell. You see, the original bell was made of iron, but didn't chime so loudly. So when the tower was rebuilt in the Qing dynasty, it was switched out for a brass and gold alloy.
The story goes that the bell maker, an official called Deng, had great trouble casting the giant bell, and failed several times. On the eve of his final try, his daughter threw herself into the molten metal as a sacrifice to the gods, in the hope that the bell would cast. The only thing her father found of her was a single embroidered slipper.
Well, the gods must have been listening because the bell cast perfectly. And whenever it chimed, people thought they could hear a mournful cry from within the peal, which sounded like xie – the Chinese word for "shoe". The bell maker's daugher, they said, wanted her slipper back.
Alright, enough fairy tales. You should be coming out from under the shadow of the Bell Tower now. Keep walking north, past the open square and residential bungalows to either side, which are also in the process of being demolished.
There was a big fight over the future of this area. At first the powers that be wanted to turn it into an underground parking lot, horrific as that sounds. In 2011 the Communist Party abandoned that plan and said they were going to "try our best to preserve the appearance of the ancient capital." Well, in the end the property developers always win, and now they're digging it up and not telling anyone what their plan is. We can only hope it doesn't go the way of Qianmen, the Qing era street just south of the Forbidden City which was demolished only for a tourist trap faux version of itself to be knocked up. Residents of course have no say in the matter, besides negotiating room for their compensation when the character for "demolish" is painted on their front door like the mark of Cain.
Sorry, I’m ranting again. Walk on up until we clear this square and hit a T junction.
Just past the T junction here, you should see a small restaurant with big metal cylinders stacked up outside. Inside those cylinders are Beijing style dumplings or baozi. They’re big, fluffy bread buns filled with pork and chives and god knows what else. In the mornings they sell deep-fried crullers and warm bean milk, a traditional Beijing breakfast.
You should also see a neon sign out front, in the shape of two rectangles, one over the other, connected by a line running down through the middle. That’s a Chinese character, pronounced chuanr, and it means “kebab”. It kind of looks like a kebab too, doesn’t it? There you go, the delights of a pictographic language.
We're going to hook a right here, into a hutong called Tofu Pond Hutong. Don't ask me why. Mao Zedong lived in a shared courtyard house in a side alley off here, from 1918 to 1919, when he was just a strapping young revolutionary working as a library assistant in Peking University. The address is No 8 Jian Suoyou Xiang if you’re curious, but foreigners can only visit with an appointment.
Keep walking, past a couple of smart looking bars on your left, until you get to a corner store at the next left turn.
Stop here, at this corner store. If you're tempted to go in and buy an icecream, buyer beware, Chinese icecream comes in weird flavours like green bean paste. It might be a good opportunity to get a bottle of water, though. When you’re ready, take that left turn just past it.
We're now in a more residential area, but not off the tourist radar yet. In fact, there’s a good chance on this walk – especially if it’s summer time – that you’ll pass a parade of double seater rickshaws with plush red velvet seats and draping curtains. Those are the Ye Olde Hutong Tours kind of thing that tourists get peddled, and they pass through some of the same areas we'll be in. So there you have it, our route is officially sanctioned, and you saved a bundle of money from not taking the rickshaw tour.
Ancient Liquor museum
There’s a curious building coming up on your left hand side, with an array of huge jars on display outside.
This is the Beijing Qianding Ancient Liquor Museum. If it’s open, it’s a fun place to poke your head inside. By liquor, they mean baijiu – a white spirit made from sorghum – and huangjiu, which is a more palatable yellow rice wine. Both have a history going back over 5000 years, and if you haven't tried baijiu yet, well, don't do it on an empty stomach.
We’re turning right at this crossroads, and walking down Wangzuo hutong. Look for the sign to make sure you haven’t lost the way.
We’re moving deeper into the residential hutongs now, and you should feel that difference. Look out for residents carrying home the groceries, or squatting for a cigarette, or grannies and grandads gossiping on the street corner – they’re probably talking about you. Each doorway leads into what’s called a “miscellaneous courtyard”, with up to twenty different families living inside in cramped quarters.
Up on your left about now you should see a box-shaped aviary perched above the wall. Pigeon breeding is a favourite pasttime of old Beijingers, and there are many private aviaries like this in the city. In the hutong where I live, not far from here, I often see flocks of pigeons swooping above me in big circles when I'm up on the roof – in the distance, there's a guy on another roof holding up a red flag as a signal for them. Sometimes, pigeon breeders will clip a wooden whistle on the pigeon’s back, so that as they fly it makes an eerie sound like a UFO is crash landing.
Check out the graffiti tag on the gate to your right. Graffiti is a pretty new subculture in Beijing – which is great for the crews who do it, because the police haven’t figured out yet if they think it’s vandalism or art. As with Chinese rap and hip hop, it only emerged in the late nineties, so it's still finding its feet.
Also notice how the walls of all of the hutongs are the same shade of gray. That's the official colour, chosen because it hides dirt and stains, and it's been like that since the Cultural Revolution. Once I caught my neighbour with a pot of gray paint and a brush, touching up the walls inside our courtyard – it turns out the government asks landlords to keep the paint job fresh and clean.
Keep going until you get to the junction at the end of this strip.
Turn right here, into Baochao hutong, which means Precious Money Hutong. It’s an appropriate name – as you can see it's a little busier here, with more shops and bars. In fact this whole area is pretty gentrified, and popular with expat hipsters.
On your left, with the green sign, is Modernista, an expat bar with live gypsy jazz bands, great cocktails, and swing dance.
Further down, also on the left, is Mado, a cannabis themed bar with an impressive absinthe collection. The name in Chinese means “cannabis blossom”, and there used to be a big stencil of a marijuana leaf on the wall, before the police noticed and asked them to paint over it. The owner's a rich Chinese guy who I first met in Siberia of all places, when I was taking the Trans Siberian from Moscow to Beijing.
This is just a small taste of how the hutongs are adapting to the times, in what I think is a more organic way than the government's approach of just tearing them up for big money property developments.
Hang a left at this next junction, onto Huafeng hutong, which means “luxuriant motherland”. From here the path is super easy to follow – we're going to walk straight as an arrow for about a kilometre until we hit a main road.
As we've got some time to kill now, let me tell you something of the history of the hutongs we're walking through.
Hutong is a Mongolian word, and we think it means "well", although no one is 100 percent sure. Beijing is a very dry city, with a climate not unlike the Mongolian steppe, including some springtime sandstorms. In the summer there are thunderstorms, but for the rest of the year it very rarely rains. So where natural water was found underneath the city, wells were dug and neighbourhoods naturally formed around them.
When Kublai Khan rebuilt Beijing after the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century, these narrow dirt alleyways lined with bungalows sprung up, and hutong, the Mongolian word for the well at their heart, stuck. You can hear in the throaty “h” of hutong that it’s not a native Chinese word. The Chinese word for alley is xiang, which you also see in street signs, often in the very narrowest of ways.
One of the reasons why I like the hutongs so much is that the sense of a neighbourhood has remained, even if so much else has changed. Instead of gathering at the well, residents might come together to play mahjong or Chinese chess on a low table they've set up on the corner, or simply to drink beer and shoot the breeze, in their pajamas or with their t-shirts rolled up, exposing their bellies to keep them cool in the summer heat.
Impromptu fruit and vegetable markets spring up too, like the one at the entrance to my own miscellaneous courtyard, which appears from nowhere on random days of the week, according to a system that I haven’t figured out yet. Everyone else seems to know when to expect it. Meanwhile, hawkers constantly cycle their three wheel carts through the hutongs, calling out their services in long plaintive cries like Peking Opera, everything from collecting old furniture to sharpening knives.
Everyone knows everyone else – and gossips about them. Some families have been living here for tens of generations. It's a slow pace of life, a quiet eye of the hurricane that is sweeping the rest of Beijing up into high rises and apartment blocks. In a hutong block like this, for a moment you can forget the noise and rush of the big city outside and imagine you're in a small village – until you hit the next traffic intersection.
Of course, this is all wildly romantic, exotifying and orientalist. Foreigners have been swept up by the so-called "authentic" hutongs for a long time. But I think it’s important for a city to keep a connection to its past. The Ming dynasty city walls came down during the Mao years, to be replaced by a ringroad, and only a handful of the city gates survived. All but one of the old prince’s mansions remain. And, as we've seen, the hutongs are on the way out too. But you can still feel a continuity to Beijing's history here, a ghost that has weathered all the turbulence of the last hundred years.
One recent historian of old Beijing, M.A. Aldritch, wrote a fantastic book of walking tours called The Search For Vanishing Beijing. He put it like this: “Sometimes it felt as if a ghost stepped out from behind the smog and concrete and approached me, eager to bring back to human memory forgotten people and stories. He seemed to be delighted to find an audience, although a suspect one on account of the bridge of my nose.”
Take a moment to suspend your disbelief and see if you can’t find that ghost yourself. I'll meet you again at the next intersection.
The junction just ahead cuts through Beiluoguxiang, a south-north street of bars and restaurants, full of hidden gems, that connects to Nanluoguxiang at its south end. But we're going to cut across it and keep walking straight ahead.
On your right, look for the public toilet, one of many you've no doubt seen along the way. It used to be that each hutong only had one public toilet, essentially just a few holes in the ground, and all the residents used it because original hutong homes almost never have ensuite facilities. You didn't need to ask where the toilet was, you could always smell it.
Then in the early 2000s, when Beijing was bidding for the 2008 Olympics, the government launched a big initiative to clean the streets, and built all of these spanking new public toilets every twenty metres or so, with ceramic squats, dedicated attendants sometimes, and even – holiest of grails that they are – the occasional Western style toilet.
I pointed out the bogs because I think it's important not to project your own desire for authenticity onto this kind of neighbourhood. Authenticity is what you see in front of you, not what you want to see. If wells were the original community meeting point in the hutongs, these public toilets are the twenty first century equivalent.
It’s also important to remember that while it’s a shame the government is tearing down some of the most historic parts of town, for many residents that's a welcome development, and they're all too keen to take their compensation money and move somewhere with central heating and an indoor loo.
Others are taking control of the changes, whether that's opening a new bar or coffee shop, or fixing up their own place. A couple of months before recording this walk, my neighbour decided out of nowhere to build an extra storey on top of his two floor home, directly opposite my study window, and hired a private construction team to do it.
A month later, the urban management police said it was illegal, and hired another team to knock the thing down with sledgehammers. Now my neighbour’s at it again, welding steel bars to create a roofed terrace instead. My point is that in Beijing the only constant is change. Everywhere is alive and in flux, part of an ongoing story.
Around now you should see on your left an assortment of curious looking, yellow-painted contraptions. These are outdoors exercise machines, and another legacy from the Olympics bid. They were especially embraced in the hutongs, where grannies and grandads would come out to spin giant wheels around in circles, or rub their backs up against rotating plastic cylinders, like in a playground for children and pensioners.
The road is straight, and I'm going to turn to another foreign writer now, to share some of his stories from this neck of the woods for your enjoyment – Peter Hessler, author of River Town, who used to live in Xiao Ju’er hutong which is one block south of where you are now. Here’s an abridged extract from his 2006 New Yorker essay "Hutong Karma":
“Not long after I moved into Little Ju’er, Beijing stepped up its campaign to host the 2008 Games, and traces of Olympic glory began to touch the hutong. In an effort to boost the athleticism and health of average Beijing residents, the government constructed hundreds of outdoor exercise stations. The painted steel equipment is well-intentioned but odd, as if the designer had caught a fleeting glimpse of a gym and then worked from memory.
“But nobody appreciates the exercise stations more than hutong residents. The machines are scattered throughout old parts of the city, tucked into narrow alleyways. At dawn and dusk, they are especially busy – older people meet in groups to chat and take a few rounds on the pendulum. On warm evenings, men sit idly on the machines, smoking cigarettes. The workout stations are perfect for the ultimate hutong sport: hanging around in the street with the neighbors.
"At the end of 2000, the government rebuilt the public toilet at the head of Ju’er Hutong. The change was so dramatic that it was as if a shaft of light had descended directly from Mt. Olympus to the alleyway, leaving a magnificent structure in its wake. The building had running water, infrared-automated flush toilets, and signs in Chinese, English, and Braille. Gray rooftop tiles recalled traditional hutong architecture. Rules were printed onto stainless steel. “Number 3: Each user is entitled to one free piece of common toilet paper (length 80 centimetres, width 10 centimetres).”
"Ju’er residents took full advantage of the well-kept public space that fronted the new toilet. Old Yang, the local bicycle repairman, stored his tools and extra bikes there, and in the fall cabbage venders slept on the strip of grass that bordered the bathroom. Wang Zhaoxin, who ran the cigarette shop next door, arranged some ripped-up couches around the toilet entrance. Someone else contributed a chessboard. Folding chairs appeared, along with a wooden cabinet stocked with beer glasses.
"After a while, there was so much furniture, and so many people there every night, that Wang Zhaoxin declared the formation of the “W. C. Julebu”: the W. C. Club. Membership was open to all, although there were disputes about who should be chairman or a member of the Politburo. As a foreigner, I joined at the level of a Young Pioneer. On weekend nights, the club hosted barbecues in front of the toilet. In the summer of 2002, when the Chinese men’s soccer team made history by playing in its first World Cup, the W. C. Club acquired a television, plugged it into the bathroom, and mercilessly mocked the national team as it failed to score a single goal throughout the tournament."
You should now be at the end of that long hutong, underneath a rather beautiful scrap metal archway, where the traffic and noise hits you again like a wet fish across the face. Do you see the entrance to the alleyway on the opposite side of the road? We're going to cross the road and go in there.
This is Andingmen Inner Road. The men in Andingmen means gate, and up to your left is where one of the gates of the Ming dynasty city wall used to stand – it’s name meant “Gate of Stability”. It was torn down in the Mao years, and is now a traffic roundabout.
Right, enter that alleyway – it's called Fangjia hutong, which means “Learned Person hutong”.
We're still walking due East, and getting into a slightly more bustling area, so there may be less signs of residential hutong life and a few more bars. Look out for El Nido on your left, a hole-in-the-wall bar with exported beers that's an expat favourite, given the watery consistency of Chinese beer.
As you can see, we’ve gone into a new block entirely, the innards of which are another labyrinthe of connecting hutongs. This is what most of the blocks are like in this square mile, and then there’s another historic area of hutongs in the south of the city, called Dashilanr, which claims to be even older. I highly recommend a 2009 book called The Last Days of Old Beijing, by Michael Meyer, about living in them.
Don’t forget to unplug from time to time as well, to listen to the soundtrack of the hutongs – the birds, the wind, the honking cars and tinkling bicycle bells, the hocking and the spitting. And of course, the ever present white noise of Beijing – the constant hammering and banging of construction work as the city builds itself all over again.
Hot Cat Club
About now you should look for a sign on the right for "Hot Cat Club". It's important you don't miss it, as we turn left there. Hot Cat Club is another fixture in the area, hosting bilingual stand-up comedy nights and live music. The last show I saw there was a burlesque night set in 1930s Shanghai.
Take the next left past Hot Cat Club, and walk straight up. The way gets a little windy here, so stay with me. We're cutting north in a jigzag until we hit the strip which runs parallel to Fangjia hutong, as that's the way to the Buddhist Lama Temple. Trust me, we’re on the path to enlightenment.
At the T bend here, turn right, and walk down the way, which will narrow dramatically. These bottlenecks are another common feature, and some of them are barely wide enough to bike down. It’s hard to get lost in Beijing, though, as everything is built on the four points of the compass, so you develop a inbuilt sense of direction just like a pigeon.
Follow the path as it turns ninety degrees to the left, like a lightning bolt to bring you north again. This area of town is full of hidden gems. In one of the unmarked doors on your left, there used to a secret speakeasy Taco bar. It's not there anymore, but they did the best burritos West of Mexico. Other delights include a French shop that sells baguettes, salami and homemade cheese, popular with expats.
As the way widens out, you’ll see a broad boulevard cut across the path, like a river which our tributary joins.
Turn right here, and you’re on Guozijian or "Imperial College" boulevard. As you can see it's rather beautiful – tree lined, and punctuated by high archways that are another traditional feature of old Beijing streets. On this strip are both the Imperial College and the Confucius Temple.
The large gated entrance on your left is the Imperial College, built in 1306, that gives the boulevard its name. This was the highest institute of learning in imperial China, where officials in training would study the classic Confucian texts in the hope of doing well in the imperial exams or keju. A high score ensured a place in imperial officialdom, and this meritocratic system was how China chose its mandarins for centuries. Of course, only well off families could afford the sort of education that made a high score possible, but the system did give China a more competent bureaucracy than the aristocracy did in Europe.
You can go inside if you like, but if you’re pressed for time then skip this one and keep walking until you see a second, similar looking gate, this time with an actual ticket hall to the left of it. That’s the Confucius temple, and is well worth poking your head inside.
The Confucius temple to your left was built in 1302. Officials and ordinary folk alike have paid their respects to the sage here for centuries. It went out of style big time during the Cultural Revolution, of course, but luckily avoided the worst of the vandalism, and is now a favourite among schoolchildren, who come here to pray for good exam results.
If you’re getting a ticket to go in, enjoy paying your respects, and I’ll see you outside again when you've had your fill.
From the temple entrance we’re going to keep walking in the same direction that we were before.
This is the home stretch. You might begin to smell incense in the air, and hear recordings of the Buddhist manta Om Mani Padme Hum. Tibetan trinkets are sold in shops on either side of you, including prayer bead necklaces, golden Boddhisatva figurines, incense sticks, miniature prayer wheels and other baubles for nirvana.
Of course, it’s all rather touristy, and the fact that the same souvenirs are sold in every shopfront along this strip ruins the effect, but I’m still very fond of this area, largely for its beauty. It’s also interesting to note that the tourists for this kind of Tibetan chic are mostly Chinese, who are just as fascinated by so-called “exotic” Tibet as Westerners are.
As you come out onto the main road, look out for one of my favourite street snacks, a sugared yoghurt drink that comes in a gourd shaped ceramic pot with paper stretched over the lid that you puncture with a straw. It’s called suannai and if it’s summer you should see them out on display. It’s delicious and, as you approach the final archway, you could think about getting one as a reward for reaching the end of the walk.
Congratulations, you’ve completed the road to enlightment! You’ve walked three kilometres from the Drum Tower to the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple or Yonghegong, which is the golden roofed structure up to the left. To get inside through, walk over the main road now, and then turn right.
Yonghegong Lama Temple
Turn left here. The path leads to the ticket office at the south entrance of the temple, which is the way in. It’s clearly signposted, so you can’t miss it really.
Yonghegong Lama Temple was built in 1694, and it’s one of the largest Gelugpa or “Yellow Hat” sect temples outside of Tibet. Of course, there are Han influences in the architecture too, and in fact its original function was as a residence for court eunuchs before it was converted into a monastery in 1722. For an unadulterated Tibetan feel you’d have to go to the greater Tibetan area itself. But it’s still magnificent, and a symbol of the cultural exchange that went on between China and Tibet for centuries. Make sure you go right the way to the back hall, where there’s a 26 metre high Buddha.
This is where I leave you. I hope that I’m leaving you not only in the right place – and not hopelessly lost down some anonymous back alley at sunset – but also with a lingering feeling for the magic of old Beijing, which will never disappear so long as we hold it in our imagination. Thanks for listening.