The 胡同 (hutong) alleyways that line Beijing's old city are one of its primary features. These alleys are lined by residences, often in the form of classic Siheyuan (四合院), or traditional courtyard residents that are holdovers from past centuries. The alley will have a gate that will open up into a courtyard. These traditionally held one family, but in Communist times these were subdivided to hold many. In recent years many of these classic courtyards, if the alleys haven't been destroyed, have been re-developed into private residences or boutique hotels, particularly in the Northern parts of the old city abutting the Forbidden City. These were formerly the houses of officials or royalty. In other areas of the city more common Hutongs exist, and many of these are still inhabited by traditional Beijingers.
Wandering through the Hutongs has always been a favorite pastime. It was my introduction to the history of the city, and often you can find moments of silence and tranquility at the heart of bustling Beijing. At some moments time seems to fold itself backward as you are wandering through the mazes, observing people and glimpses of trees or sky, finding secret remnants (temples appearing out of over the tiled roofs, or other things), new shops or coffee shops (often interesting and alternative), or perhaps stumbling out into a busier lane that is now a dense tourist area.
For me, the hutongs are the most Beijing part of Beijing, an identity that is sometimes lost in either the grand historical places or in the modern city. If one is to follow a strand of what makes unique, I would locate it somewhere in these ancient alleys. Many have been destroyed in the past decades and residents moved out to the suburbs. This contested urban space is a constant issue in Beijing. But enough still remain to give the wanderer somewhere to explore.
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