Wandering around parts of old Beijing it appears as if life
continues on as it has for many years before. Cyclists make their rounds,
children play and vendors set up shop as another day begins in the vast
networks of alleyways and courtyards referred to as the “Hutongs” of Beijing.
Lined with people’s homes, shops, markets and services, the
Hutongs have long been the veins of Beijing — possibly dating back even
earlier than 1215 when Genghis Khan and his Mongol army demolished the area
known as present day Beijing.
Making up social networks and forming vibrant communities
that have evolved over generations, the Hutongs not only house millions of
Beijing residents but also form micro economies that provide many with their
livelihoods. They are clearly a huge part of China’s cultural heritage as well
as a way of life for the many residents that still continue to call them home.
For visiting foreigners, it is scenes like these —
tucked away amongst cobblestone lanes lined with brick homes — that many
yearn for and have traveled from far afield to experience. Cruising around on a
rented bike or choosing to explore at the pace of your own two feet, this slice
of Beijing life is taken in utilizing all five senses. Second only to the
Forbidden City, these animated scenes of daily life continue to be a top draw
for tourists visiting China’s capital, a city home to over 15 million residents.
Pedaling around aimlessly for hours at a time amongst
Beijing’s famous and lesser known Hutongs was definitely one of my most
memorable experiences in China. Little alleyways and courtyards seemed to snake
on forever, accommodating animated residents all going about their daily lives.
Smells both good and bad pervaded the streets and the silence almost seemed
surreal compared to the madness of the modern boulevards and highways mere
blocks away, where rickshaws and bicycles attempt to flow in harmony amongst
the chaos of the ever increasing numbers of cars and motorbikes tooting their
horns in a deafening standstill.
Recognizing the Hutongs historical place in China, the
Beijing government has looked to the future and designated some districts as
protected to preserve cultural heritage. With the Olympic Games just around the
corner, however, this way of life for many of Beijing’s residents has already
come to an end. Except for those areas designated as protected, many of the
remaining Hutong neighborhoods have been living on borrowed time.
In recent years an alarming number of these cultural marvels
have been disappearing at a ferocious rate. Throughout the city are piles of
rubble reminiscent of war zones that once housed generations of families and local
business. Headlines have put the rate of evictions at 13,000 residents per