After my first trip to Beijing, I made another trip in 2002 but this time it was for leisure. There were a lot of changes to the city back then. Cars were now the kings of the road and the humble bicycles were slowly but surely disappearing from sight, while skyscrapers were sprouting out of the ground everywhere. As the modernization of Beijing progressed, I took some time to see some of the disappearing sights.

Back then, Beijing was already preparing for their greatest show on Earth, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Many of the old neighbourhoods, called hutong (胡同) were being demolished to make way for new facilities to host the Olympic games.

Hutongs are courtyard residences which date back from the 15th century. Many of these hutongs were built to house the court officials and artisans who worked in the Forbidden Palace. Families have been living here for generations since imperial times. At that time. there was an outcry to preserve these old neighbourhoods as they represented the cultural and historical heritage of ancient Beijing.

True to their capitalistic nature, the Chinese were already organizing tours for tourists to visit the well preserved hutongs. We decided to join one of these tours and were driven to the vicinity of the Drum and Bell Towers where we were transferred to trishaws which were more accessible to traverse the narrow alleys of the hutongs. But first, a short visit to the Drum and Bell towers to know about their history.

The Bell Tower of Beijing. This was used in ancient times to tell time. The bell would be rung in the morning to signal the start of the day.
The Bell Tower of Beijing. This was used in ancient times to tell time. The bell would be rung in the morning to signal the start of the day. Officials and workers would take the ringing of the bell as the signal to start their work. I wonder what happens if the people who rang the bell woke up late?
The huge bell which weighs 63 tons.
The huge bell which weighs 63 tons.
The Drum Tower is just opposite the Bell Tower. The Drum Tower was used to signal the end of the day by beating on the drums.
The Drum Tower is just opposite the Bell Tower. The Drum Tower was used to signal the end of the day by beating on the drums. Both the Bell and Drum Towers were built in 1272 during the Yuan Dynasty.
A bird's eye view of the hutong district.
A bird’s eye view of the hutong district from one of the towers.

After visiting the 2 Towers (LOTR pun intended here), it was time to visit the hutong proper. Upon entering the maze of narrow streets, one could easily get lost in it.

The quiet streets near the hutong. This particular hutong is called houhai (后海), named after the small lake beside it.
The quiet streets near the hutong. This particular hutong is called Houhai (后海), named after the small lake beside it.
A traditional scene.
A traditional scene.
Our guide explaining the history and significance of the architectural elements in the hutong.
Our guide explaining the history and significance of the architectural elements of the hutong.
The grander the doorway, the higher in position was the owner who lived there. Like this doorway which probably belong to a high ranking official in ancient times.
The grander the doorway, the higher in position was the owner who lived there. Like this doorway which probably belong to a high ranking official in ancient times.

No hutong visit is complete without looking inside the walls for a more intimate view of the residents’ life. We were ushered into an open doorway and found ourselves inside a small garden courtyard.

The narrow entrance is deceiving as it opens out into a garden courtyard big enough for 20 of us tourists.
The narrow entrance is deceiving as it opens out into a garden courtyard big enough for a bunch of us tourists.
The warm and friendly owner of the residence, sharing his stories of life in Beijing.
The warm and friendly owner of the residence, sharing his stories of life in Beijing.

The owner of this particular residence allowed tourists to visit his home and get a glimpse of their lives. I’m sure he was paid something for the inconveniences.

In all, the hutong visit was over in a few hours and we found ourselves back on the main street and feeling hungry for lunch.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Hutong Visit

  1. You capture the essence of Beijing so well with this post, your words and photos are brilliant and allows be to reminisce to the 90s when I first worked in Beijing – and was overwhelmed by the history and culture all around. Change is a good thing, but in the back of our minds we will always wonder about what was ~
    Cheers Edwin to a great year ahead.

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