City’s ancient ‘Hutongs’ are a cultural must-see



Julia Dimon photos


Men pass their leisure time playing games.

After a visit to the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, tourists may want to check out Beijing’s Hutongs, the city’s ancient alleyways.

As a rule of thumb, young female travellers should keep away from back alleys, but, when in Beijing, daytime exploration is a must and can be done by foot, by bicycle or by hired pedicab.

Pooped from bargain shopping, I chose the rickshaw option. Lined up like taxis, men straddling bicycles hawked tours.

In broken English they called out to tourists, showcasing laminated cards of Hutong tour highlights. I negotiated a price, forked over a handful of Chinese Yuan, climbed under a fringed canopy and into the back of his cab.

It was a taste of charming old China: Vendors pushing carts of plump red tomatoes, octogenarians playing board games, shopkeepers sweeping, red flags flapping and residents sunning themselves like turtles. Shops sold herbal medicines, Asian antiques and loose-leaf specialty teas.

I watched as an infant — bum exposed in a pair of crotch-less chaps — peed freely in the street; heard the familiar sound of a local man, revving his throat and spitting phlegm on the sidewalk.

Men straddling bicycles hawk Hutong tours to tourists.

Bicycling along the narrow alleyways, we stopped to visit walled courtyards, typical of traditional Chinese architecture.

Like many others I encountered in China, my pedicab driver didn’t speak English. My guided tour‚ quickly became a game of charades. The historical and architectural significance of buildings were lost in a series of hand gestures and head nods.

It’s remarkable how few people, even those working in the tourist sector, understand or speak English. This is sure to be a problem for the millions of foreigners who plan to visit China for the 2008 Olympics.

Sadly, with modernization and urban development, Hutongs are quickly disappearing. Serene, tucked away and traditional, Hutongs — some dating back 500 years — are a welcome change from big city Beijing.

This one-hour tour offered a break from the wide boulevards, busy shopping malls and pesky bootleg DVD salesmen.

Julia Dimon, a Toronto-based freelance writer, is travelling around the world for one year.