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.
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.
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 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.