Surrounding the Forbidden City are maze-like neighborhoods of secret courtyard compounds and winding alleyways that defy easy navigation. Called "hutongs," many of these low-rise housing precincts date from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Unlike the pleasure gardens of the aristocrats, Beijing's hutongs were the retreat of everyday citizens and still provide accommodation for nearly half of the city's 12 million residents. If you've had your fill of the stately and grandiose, don't miss a chance to explore these fascinating and charming ancient city lanes.
This half-day trip will fit in nicely on any free morning or afternoon of your Imperial Beijing or Beijing Basics tour. Our guide will accompany you to one of Beijing's hutongs where you will board your personal pedicab for a man-powered tour of the winding alleys and hidden compounds which surround the Forbidden City.
Daily life goes on here very much as it did when some of these 700-year-old homes were originally built: shopkeepers hawk vegetables and steamed dumplings stuffed with savory fillings, grandfathers tend their favorite song birds displayed in elaborate hanging cages, vendors sell sticks of candied crab apples and orange slices, stone gateways offer glimpses of garden courtyards, hand-sewn quilts are hung from clothes lines, toddlers with rosy cheeks wander about in overstuffed jumpsuits, peddlers wave communist-era kitsch and copies of Mao's little red book, and the color of traditional day-to-day existence brightens up Beijing's rather drab official color scheme (gray).
Along the way you'll pass a number of interesting sights which may include Yinding Bridge, the nine elaborate garden courtyards of Prince Gong's Mansion, the Shisha Qianhai Lakes, the Belltower or the Drumtower where hours were marked by a water clock. You may even be invited into someone's home for a cup of tea, offered a bite of fruits or sweets, or invited to try your hand at making dumplings.
Savvy local entrepreneurs are beginning to refurbish some of the splendid architectural gems hidden in the hutongs and you'll note newly gleaming and polished bars and teahouses that have been lovingly returned to their former graceful beauty. Elegant wood carved doors and windows abound, as well as folksy home-made decorations that testify to the whimsy of their owners. Lots of locals will be interested to communicate with you, even if they don't speak a word of English -- a wave and a smile is all it takes to evoke a happy laugh.
During the visit you'll be treated to a meal in a local family home: rice, dumplings, hot and cold dishes and even some local rice wine or beer. Simple and delicious. You can also drop in at any number of tea houses or trendy new bars that seem to be popping up.
Following the hutong tour, pay a visit to a walking street of refurbished merchant shophouses filled with antiques and not-so-antiques of all shapes and sizes. Better bargains can be found hunting through the calligraphy section of this neighborhood where anything from socialist posters to old cuckoo clocks are on offer from specialty dealers in small back-alley stalls.