Before they were systematically destroyed and replaced with communal blocks, Beijing’s hutong alleyways were home to the majority of the city’s population and teemed with life. Walking around the Houhai district you can still get a sense of what Beijing must have been like before the 1960s. It is a fascinating area where modernity seems, temporarily at least, to be held at bay. In this corner of Beijing, it is almost possible to feel a centuries-old rhythm to the daily life of the communities who live here.
Even today the dense network of alleys and lanes constantly throw up surprises: turn a corner a group of men are animatedly playing cards, people are preparing and selling food, beautiful temples are hidden behind grey walls and there is a constant buzz of life, simultaneously familiar and alien. The grey walls of the streets are interspersed with sound, colour and beauty. There are more bicycles than cars.
A hutong is really just a narrow street and the name dates from the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century. As Beijing grew into China’s capital so did the number of hutongs, leading one Chinese commentator to claim that they were “fine and more numerous than there were hairs on an cow”. Probably something over an overstatement but by the 20th Century there were estimated to be more than 6000 hutongs.
Hutongs were labyrinthine places through which only those with local knowledge could navigate successfully. Wandering around reminded me of the utter confusion I felt when trying to work out which way to go in the medina in Fez, Morocco. In Fez it was necessary to hire guides, normally young children, to take help you find the way. Given the language barrier, that wasn’t going to be possible in Beijing.
It seemed pointless to try to follow a pre-planned route around Houhai, and being lost doesn’t have any disadvantages for someone who hasn’t got anywhere to go. I had time and, surrendering myself to the inevitable, explored the hutongs by following my nose.