China # 24 – Beijing’s Hutongs – September 2014

October 27, 2018

Much of the historic areas of this 3,000-year old city have been destroyed to build modern condos and apartments that are often financially impossible for the average citizen. Green, our guide, described the older apartment she and her mother live in. Maybe it had running water and maybe electricity most of the time. It was prone to flooding. She explained that older Chinese living in these rundown buildings or houses cannot afford to modernize them. They are just hoping that a big development company will buy them out so they can move into something better, maybe one of those high-rise buildings we saw across the country. To our amazement, Green also explained that even if someone can afford to buy one of the new apartments or condos, they only actually own it for 75 years. After that time, regardless of who’s living in it, the original owners or their descendants, the apartment or condo goes back to the government. Pretty strange, huh?

As the sun went down, the lights came up and the beautiful lanterns added to the reflection on the rain-dampened streets.

As the sun went down, the lights came up and the beautiful lanterns added to the reflection on the rain-dampened streets.

Hutong and Siheyun

In any case, Hutongs were a part of northern Chinese cities and particularly Beijing we wanted to see for ourselves. The original term “Hutong” (which is of Mongolian origin meaning “water well”) appeared under Genghis Khan’s grandson reign, Kublai Khan, first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341) and refers to a narrow street or alley. In residential areas, the Hutongs wind between unique designs of homes called Siheyuan, meaning “a courtyard surrounded by buildings on all four sides”.

Doors opened up into little courtyards and kitchens. These old homes are where real people work and live.

Doors opened up into little courtyards and kitchens. These old homes are where real people work and live.

During the build-up and modernization starting in mid-20th century and also before the 2008 Summer Olympics, many Hutong neighborhoods gave way to new roads and modern apartment blocks. The Siheyuan have a history of two thousand years and were first established in the Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC) dividing residential areas according to social classes. They exhibit outstanding and fundamental characteristics of Chinese architecture and serve as a cultural symbol of Beijing and a window into its old ways of life. Fortunately, many of Beijing’s ancient Hutong neighborhoods still stand, and a number of them have been designated protected areas and are becoming major tourist attractions. The photos here will take you on a short walk through a Beijing not always seen by outsiders.

A Nostalgic Side of Beijing

As we wandered through the old alleys where real people work and live we saw a nostalgic side of China. Only the occasional tourist on a bike taxi reminded us where we were. Sagging doors opened up into little courtyards. The narrow streets were not even wide enough for a normal car. Electrical and phone connections looked like a can of worms, and along with natural gas, they were run overhead like we saw in Russia. Nevertheless, many people prefer this old style of life compared to the new hustle and bustle of modern Beijing.

China Blog 24 90Returning to the more popular tourist streets, the selection of different foods was interesting but not always appetizing. Green found a nice little greasy spoon café where we enjoyed some spicy rice and noodles. Yummy things for snacks and desserts were everywhere, but least we ruin our appetite, we settled for a good cup of Starbucks coffee. The crowds of umbrellas thinned and we window-shopped. As a damp blanket of darkness enveloped the city, hiding some of the ugly parts, the glittering lights of stores and restaurants sparkled off the wet pavement. Soon it will be time for dinner, and Green knew where the original Peking hung duck was waiting for us.

 

 

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