Travels In China – 4: Hutongs Of Beijing

A square foot of property in Beijing costs 54,000 Yuan” Kathy said. That is about £6500. The average size of an apartment is 100 square feet and a young couples would struggle most of their life to pay the mortgage



Not everybody in Beijing is keen to live in high-rise apartment blocks. Many follow a traditional and ancient way of life in Hutong dating back to the Imperial times. One morning, Kathy, our Beijing guide, took us to see the city’s well known Hutong – a concentric maze of streets as narrow as 40 centimetres, on both sides of which are small houses with a central courtyard. Hutong used to surround the Imperial City. In the twisted lanes where inhabitants make a community, there are public bathrooms and toilets, shops and cafes and public areas. Originally formed in the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), Hutongs reached their heyday during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1911), when the number increased to 2,076. By 1949 there were as many as 3,250 Hutongs but with the passage of time, and the requirement for city construction, the number of them has fallen dramatically. In 2003, only 1,500 were left, and now no more than 1,000 remain and a majority of them have become tourist attractions. 

We walked along narrow lanes to one of the tiny houses where we were to have lunch. A passage from the elaborate front door led to a tiny courtyard with flowering shrubs, a tree with hanging orchids and a grapevine with green fruit. A narrow stairway led to the single upstairs bedroom. There was a storeroom and a living room with traditional Chinese furniture and a shrine to the left and past the kitchen on the right was the tiny toilet and another room with a table and chairs.

After a simple lunch of boiled rice, mushrooms, green vegetables and pork, we were offered small glasses of various home distilled fruit spirits and snake wine from jars in which were coiled snakes. ‘ A whole venomous snake is placed into a glass jar of rice wine or grain alcohol, sometimes along with smaller snakes and medicinal herbs and left to infuse for many months. The wine is drunk as a restorative in small shot glasses. The snakes may be inserted into the container while still alive, causing them to drown in the spirit, or the snake may be stunned first by being placed on ice, after which the distiller cuts the snake open, guts it, and then sews it shut again. Upon removal from the ice, the snake will briefly reawaken and thrash around, before curling into an aggressive striking pose and dying. The latter method is sometimes preferred because the removal of the snake’s digestive tract can noticeably reduce the pungent smell of the finished wine, and because the snakes often die in a coiled position that is visually attractive inside the jars, suggesting the snake was fierce in spirit.’

After lunch, we walked through the narrow streets towards the little square of the Hutong where old men were huddled playing Chinese board games. They took no notice of us.

A vociferous man made a speech in Chinese, grabbed a large brush and a bucket of water and started writing Chinese characters on the cement floor, urging us to copy him.

There used to be rickshaw tours of the hutongs and I was disappointed when Kathy said they are now discontinued because locals object to the disruption they cause in the community. “Instead, I’ll arrange a free Tai-chi lesson for you tomorrow” she said as we left the Hutong.


As promised, Kathy took us to a Beijing park next morning for a Tai-Chi lesson with two Masters.




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