Going for Beijing tours and not visiting the Hutong is to miss the opportunity to learn about the traditional way of life of the Pekingese (a breed of toy dog, originating in China).
Beijing, the city of the great avenues and modern skyscrapers, which is what tourists find when they travel to China, has nothing to do with the old traditional neighborhoods of the city.
Beijing's enormous and rapid process of transformation has made much of the Hutong disappear, but there are still many traditional neighborhoods in the city which you can explore in your Beijing tours. And more importantly, the Chinese authorities have established a protected area so that they do not disappear.
What are the Hutong?
The denomination of Hutong, which in Chinese means alleyways, refers to the traditional Beijing neighborhoods which extended into large blocks of low houses, all of the same gray colors.
Visiting the Hutong means moving through narrow lanes and narrow alleys, which in many cases do not exceed three meters wide.
It is a labyrinthine tour with innumerable turns, which can lead you to lose yourselves. The Hutong have their origin in the time of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and were built along the subsequent imperial dynasties until the arrival of the Chinese Revolution.
What to see in the Hutong:
When tourists travel to China and visit the Hutong of Beijing they have the opportunity to know the historical lifestyle of the Pekingese.
It is really the way that tourists have to connect with traditional Beijing, far from what we can now see in most of the city, large avenues and modern skyscrapers. And within the lifestyle, you should not pass the opportunity to access any of the traditional Hutong houses.
When you walk through the alleys of the Hutong, you only see long gray walls without any window outwards. But behind those walls are the traditional houses known as the “courtyards “(in Chinese, the Siheyuan).
These are enclosures in which around a central courtyard you can access the rooms of only one floor, in which several families can live, and whose doors and windows only overlook the central courtyard.
The first thing that tells us that we are facing one of these Hutong Siheyuan houses is its wooden door, whose decoration will be a reflection of the social position of the homeowners.
This will be marked by the logs that are located at the top of the door.
The ones with the largest number of logs (four) are houses inhabited by a senior official or a high-ranking military officer. Likewise, it is also usual to place posters on the doors with phrases that try to reflect the idiosyncrasy of the homeowner.
When we pass through the door we enter directly into the square patio. In the imperial era, it was usual for the house to be a sole proprietor, but after the Chinese Revolution in a house, several families used to live in the different rooms surrounding the courtyard.
Although they are usually of a fairly small dimension, in this courtyard you will find some tree, flowers and different decorative elements, the most common tree being that of the pomegranate.
Around the central courtyard are the different rooms. Actually, when you visit a Hutong you will see small rooms with very simple furniture, in which it is now customary to live two or three families.
The cultural importance of the traditional neighborhoods of Beijing, the aforementioned Hutong, and specifically of the Siheyuan courtyards, has meant that the Chinese Government has declared the most prominent Hutong as a protected area.
This measure will allow tourists to visit these neighborhoods in the future that have largely disappeared to be replaced by modern skyscrapers.
How to visit the Hutong:
While there are still many areas of Beijing where these traditional neighborhoods are kept, to visit the Hutong tourists we usually go to the area of the Tambor Tower, where the Hutong of Shichahai are accessed.
The advisable thing for the visit of a Hutong is to make it mounted in a traditional tricycle (rickshaw) driven by a person, with space for two passengers.
The agencies that offer tourists the possibility of visiting a Hutong already include the tricycle tour. For your trip, if you prefer here you can hire a guide from Tiananmen, the Forbidden City and the Hutong, on an eight-hour private tour.