Check out any major tour operator's program for Beijing and you are sure to find the following all-but-mandatory stops: the Ming Tombs, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and ... the hutongs. Hutongs? Clients might very well wonder what in the world hutongs are. Even if they don't, I'll answer the question anyway.

Hutongs are the narrow, twisting streets and alleys of Beijing's "old city," along which a maze of ancient courtyard dwellings and walled gardens, some dating to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), maintain increasingly tenuous ties to ancient tradition.

A hutong itself is by definition no wider than about 33 feet -- the narrowest is said to be a mere 15 inches across -- and some hutongs put San Francisco's famous Lombard Street to shame by having more than 20 twists and turns from start to finish.

These anachronistic blasts from the past survive, at long last with the help of the government, in the face of implacable urban renewal projects that continue to remake the face of the city with broad new avenues, spectacular high-rises, shopping mega-malls and magnificent Olympic venues. 

In fact, according to official government figures, only 1,000 of the 3,000 hutongs that existed in Beijing in the 1950s still remain.

Built in the shadow of the Forbidden City, the original residences, or siheyuan, in the hutongs comprised four one-story structures built around a quadrangular common courtyard. Owned by the wealthy, aristocrats and kin to royalty, these upscale, traditional, single-family compounds maintained their integrity until the early 20th century, when the feudal system of China was challenged by revolution, invasion, occupation and social change.

Today, the government says it rents out 90% of the existing hutong residences, most of which have been subdivided and then subdivided again into tight, multifamily dwellings where the inhabitants live cheek by jowl. The 10% that are privately owned represent prize possessions of the privileged elite in space-starved Beijing.

But even in the tight quarters of the most modest of the hutong residences, where some families can trace their roots back hundreds of years, a neighborliness and a community of interest survive.

Hustle-bustle

Here in the hardscrabble hutongs, wizened old-timers sit outside at rickety tables playing mahjong, cards and chess, if they are not otherwise engaged, it seems, in practicing the relaxing and repetitive motions that characterize the disciplines of tai chi chuan exercise.

Vendor stalls abound in the hutongs, selling steamed dumplings, grilled meats and cold drinks as well as typical tourist-trade souvenirs such as knock-off watches ($1 for a handsome "Rolex") and Major League Baseball caps, ivory chopsticks, intricately designed fans and homemade crafts such as hand-painted snuff bottles.

Bar patrons, sitting outside in plush couches and stuffed chairs haphazardly set up on the curb as if they had been carried en masse from a used furniture store, sip beers as they impassively watch the passing parade.

A tour through the hutongs, including an excursion alongside the majestic Shichahi Lake in the heart of downtown Beijing, is usually conducted in a two-seater pedicab or "trishaw." A trishaw is an updated, and somewhat more civilized, version of a rickshaw in that it is powered by hard-working locals, who pedal rather than pull the three-wheeled cart forward through the ins and outs of the hutongs.

Less chatty than a New York cab driver -- there was a language gap, after all -- my pedicab operator made his feelings clear when he patted my all-too-ample belly, rolled his eyes and then hung his head in resignation.

Tour group staple

Most tour operators include pedicab tours of the hutongs in their itineraries and several feature other activities well worth the doing.

Uniworld, for example, offers a pedicab option as well as a family-made lunch in a typical home. The home I visited on such an outing was modest, clean and crowded, with the entire lunch, which seemed more like an informal banquet than a mere meal, cooked on a simple two-burner range in a kitchen that couldn't have measured more than four feet wide by four feet deep. I'd like to see TV's Iron Chef make it happen under those conditions.

Similarly, CTS (China Travel Service) includes a meeting with local residents in its hutong option, and Globus adds a visit to a daycare center and a retirement community.

Tauck World Discovery has a trishaw and tea with a local family deal, and General Tours World Traveler offers a "make a friend" program that includes a pedicab ride, a meeting with a family and visits to a community center and a school.

Collette Tours features the pedicab tour, lunch with a family and an opportunity "to learn the art of dumpling making."

Abercrombie & Kent, for its part, expands the standard pedicab tour to enable participants "to travel by pedicab (or peddle yourself)."

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

Comments

From Our Partners

Crystal Cruises – What’s Next, 2020 & the 30th Anniversary Collection
Crystal Cruises – What’s Next, 2020 & the 30th Anniversary Collection
Watch Now
HAL_AlaskaCruising_Hero
Capitalizing on a Peak Year for Alaska Cruising
Read More
2020 Elite Island Webinar
More Family Fun in St. Lucia @ St. James’s Club Morgan Bay
Register Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI