The hutongs of Beijing offer a glimpse into the magical and offbeat heart of China’s capital
Beijing does monumental grandeur and epic architecture like no other city – it has the world’s largest palace, the world’s largest public square, the world’s most oddly-angled skyscraper. Yet beneath and between the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the CCTV Tower are areas that are bereft of hyperbolic characteristics – in fact the hutongs of the Chinese capital are mostly renowned for possessing a scruffy charm and chaotic atmosphere.
These alleyways, where two oncoming cars must perform delicate, wall-hugging maneuvers to pass, are enclaves of tradition, where families live in self-contained courtyard compounds. The entranceways are generally a haphazard collage of rusting bicycles, sprouting cables, peeling paint and semi-feral cats; venture inside and there is a small cobbled courtyard with sides flanked by individual rooms, where entire extended families eat, chat and sleep.
The rough simplicity of the hutongs – and the fact that they are some of the last remaining neighborhoods of pre-boom Beijing – make them captivating places to visit. Many hutong homes have already been bulldozed, their occupants not necessarily needing much arm twisting to swap leaking and cold (or hot) hovels for new, high-rise suburban apartments. But plenty remain, including key zones where adventurous entrepreneurs have opened boutiques, restaurants, bars and hotels.
The Soul of the City
In modern Beijing, it’s possible to stay in a hutong hotel that lies a short stroll from the historical Drum and Bell Tower, or quaff a craft ale in a pub that is a two-minute walk from the Lama Temple and enjoy a gourmet meal in a Tibetan temple compound that dates back to the Ming dynasty.
The tiny Orchid hotel is run by Canadian Joel Shuchat. It is located in one of the more rambunctious hutongs, where the air might be filled with the bellowed sales pitch of a passing knife-sharpener, the clanking of pots and pans at the streetside noodle bar and the loud chatter of the pajama-clad local residents.
Yet pass through the doors of the Orchid and the mood is one of total serenity. It has 10 luxurious rooms and a rooftop bar-restaurant that is open to the public for lunch and dinner. On a sunny blue-sky day – and Beijing does have plenty of pollution-free spells, contrary to popular belief – there is a magical upper-deck view over the top of squeezed-together hutong homes and toward the heart of imperial Beijing.
“My fascination with the hutongs is the density and the sense of human scale,” says Shuchat. “If I choose to just watch what is around me something ridiculous will happen every time. There is one guy who I noticed the first time when he took out a French horn from his bicycle basket and gave me a toot. He has now upgraded to a proper trumpet and sits on the side of the street in his crappy pajamas shooting out a few notes.”
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
This Sonoran Desert city is hot in more ways than one, a destination that mixes business and pleasure in a special way
CES 2021: BABY, IT'S A WILD WORLD!
The biggest tech show on earth sidestepped the pandemic this year to present the long and short view of a hopeful future
Looking for New England
With its intriguing history, wild natural beauty and excellent food and drink, Cape Cod’s appeal is all-embracing
BUILT TO LAST
Long known for its heavy industry, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a thriving tech hub
When you’re on the road, there are ways you can beat stress before it beats you
THE REVIEWS ARE IN
When it comes to buying travel, other people’s opinions count. But who can you trust?
Business aviation is looking for more from airport services – and today’s FBOs are delivering
Back on the Road
We all know travel can be a pain, but when it hits below the belt you need to know there’s something you can do about it
A Wee Dram
There’s more to love about Scotland’s favorite libation once you discover the magic
It’s easy to see why Barbados has long been favored as an escape to the sun
CHINA NOT READY TO ALLOW THE BOEING 737 MAX BACK IN THE AIR
Beijing isn’t ready to follow the United States in allowing Boeing’s 737 Max back into the air after a pair of fatal crashes two years ago.
Improving U.S.-China relations will require President Xi to make real compromises. So far, he’s unyielding
Le Petit CIRQUE
''In 2019 I was in England, France, Ireland, Italy, Beijing, Taipei, Bali, and Mongolia.
CHINA DEMANDS INDIA RESCIND APP BAN AMID BORDER TENSION
China on Wednesday demanded India rescind a ban on more Chinese mobile phone apps amid tension between Beijing and other governments over technology and security.
CHINA'S LEADERS VOW TO BECOME SELF-RELIANT TECHNOLOGY POWER
China’s leaders are vowing to make their country a self-reliant “technology power” as a feud with Washington cuts access to U.S. computer chips and other high-tech components, hampering Beijing’s industrial ambitions.
Return of the Dragon
China is rising in the eyes of the U.S. and the West. But in its own historical perspective, this is a restoration
Women’s rights are human rights. But rights are nothing without the power to claim them.
Hao Noodle's Zhu Rong on Reopening in China— and on Sixth Avenue
“I love New York, but it’s just a different situation.”
WHY HONG KONG'S PROTESTS TURNED VIOLENT
THE ESCALATION IS PART OF A STRATEGY TO UNMASK CHINA’S ABUSES BEFORE THE WORLD.
China Has Eyes On Taiwan
After cracking down on Hong Kong, Beijing turns its attention to the island across the strait