One of the great things about climbing up Beijing’s Bell and Drum towers is that you can look down on the rooftops that mark out the distinctive hutong areas of the capital. It’s sometimes hard to remember that once upon a time this is what all of Beijing looked like, or at least the old centre, marked out by the encirclement of No 2 Ring Road.
Nowadays, it’s an area that foreigners flock to, especially the immediate vicinity of Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷), just north of the Imperial Palace and Forbidden City; for not only is it famed for its hutong (胡同 - alleyways) and siheyuan (四合院 - courtyard houses) but also for the multitude of cafes and bars together with clothing and handicraft shops that have sprung up to grab a piece of the capitalist action that permeates this section of the Communist utopia.
Yet despite the plethora of tourists – normally enough to guarantee that I give it a wide berth – the hutong areas possess a timeless charm about them, especially the ones where the encroaching tourist trade has yet to make a major indent.
Nanluoguxiang itself has a 768-metre-long south-north central axis, with 16 hutong meandering east and west off the central lane (giving each side eight hutong). This was the typical hutong layout of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).
The siheyuan themselves come in three sizes. The smallest ones have their main gate on the south side with the main rooms in the north (facing south) for the owner and possibly his parents; the corner rooms are for grandchildren; the west and east rooms are for sons or daughters, while the rooms by the main gate facing north are used as the living room or studio.
For medium and large siheyuan, there is more than one yard, with perhaps rooms for high ranking officials or merchants. The walls in the north-western buildings are normally higher than the other walls to stop the inner buildings from being blasted by cold winds, blowing from that direction in the winter.
The best time to avoid the tourists is first thing in the morning – well, before midday anyway! Correction: the best time to avoid western tourists is before midday. Chinese tourists and couples seeking a bit of personal space use the hutong as a perfect getaway from wherever it is they are seeking to get away at whatever time it is they choose to get away.
The word "hutong" is Mongolian in origin; literally it meant a "water well". In 1260, after the Mongol invasion, Kubla Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, established the Yuan Dynasty and chose Beijing as his capital, then the capital of the Jin Dynasty. The old city had been largely demolished, and so he began the large scale reconstruction of the city and with the digging of new wells, came the new communities. Later hutong came to refer to the narrow streets or lanes formed by the quadrangle courtyards.
When the new city was finished, there were clear definitions of streets, lanes and hutongs. A 36 metre wide road was called a "big street"; an 18 metre wide one a "small street", and a 9 metre wide lane was called a "hutong".
Surrounding the Imperial Palace, hutongs were established throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Most of the hutongs we see today were built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911). There are only a very few hutongs preserved from the Yuan Dynasty.
Nowadays, the drab grey brickwork walls that mark a typical hutong are covered in modern signs, looking distinctly out of place. ‘Plastered’, for instance, is a shop that specialises in selling T-shirts, though you might not grasp that from its wall ad around the corner.
Other tourist shops leave one guessing as to what it is they sell inside – surely a dastardly trick to tempt the inquisitive English-speaking foreign devils inside …
One of the nicest of the tourist-invaded lanes is Yandai Xiejie (Tobacco Pipe Lean Street), a quaint 800-year-old hutong which used to be well-known for sellers of long-stemmed pipes, hence its name.
For me, though, the really charming hutong areas are to be found away from the tourist mobs and in the more residential areas where many display their song birds warbling and chirruping outside their homes.
Other caged birds are not as lucky, of course. Some sit there at the backs of restaurants, blissfully unaware that soon they are going to be the main attraction at some banquet table.
Even these less touristy hutong are invaded by streams of pedal-rickshaws filled with rubber-neckers catching a glimpse of the quaint old city. Little do these tourists realise that they would see one helluva lot more if they got out and stretched their legs occasionally. In the summer months the streets are filled to over capacity with these pedicabs, but in the winter you’ll only get around a dozen passing you every couple of minutes.
Cutting a swathe through the hutong areas is Shichahai Lake – the only remaining water system, dating back to the 13th Century (Yuan Dynasty). Spreading over 34 hectares, it is overloooked by former princes' houses, well kept Chinese courtyards and residences of celebrities. Of course, in the depths of winter when temperatures plummet to around -15 on average, it totally freezes over.
In complete contrast, Shichahai Lake really comes into its own during the summertime when the trees are out and the sun is blasting down to the point of discomfort.
Local boat companies bring in yet another tourist invasion, plying their craft on the water with boats that are 7 metres in length and 1.7 metres wide. Each is decorated with old Chinese traditional painting dating to the Song Dynasty 800 years ago. The boatmen wear yellow vests and bamboo hats, and all the boats are equipped with red lanterns. Some even position glamorous eye candy on the bows getting them to play Chinese stringed and woodwind instruments for the rubber neckers with real money.
There are also water sports companies that offer plenty of “entertaitnment” as well as something called “Fat-Boys’ Boat”, though I have yet to discover what this actually is.
If all this exercise gets too much for you, though, remember there are always the bars and cafés that provide instant refreshment – but do remember that in some of the older buildings there are low ceilings, so don’t stand up too quickly!