Beijing has changed beyond recognition for those who have been visiting the city in the last decades. It has a real skyline now, it has noticeable buildings designed by famous international architects, its streets are filled by cars instead of bicycles, it has big shopping malls, its major tourist sites overwhelmed by a constant flow of tourist hordes, and much more that marks it as a modern city. But in between all those shiny new constructions, behind those busy streets, you can still find surprisingly quiet, colourful, characteristic alleys where life seems to stand still. Here, a rusty bicycle is parked leaning on an old drumstone, old red wooden doors are topped by handpainted panels depicting cranes, clouds, and trees, a cat sleeps in a cycle rickshaw and men sweep the narrow alleys with brooms. Many of these hutongs do not even have a name.
After exploring several other old areas of the city, I decide to go back to the one between the Forbidden City and the Drum Tower. It does not seem to have a name; its main alley is Nanluogu Xiang which is a busy street filled to the brim with all kinds of modern shops selling ice cream, souvenirs, clothes, and other items. A crowd swarms this street, but as soon as I turn off it, I mysteriously find myself alone, my footsteps echoing against the grey walls on both sides of the alley. I wander along, haphazardly, peeking into messy courtyards, stopping to have a closer look at big carved drumstones, decorated portals and windows, taking turns just following my instincts and sense of direction. At some points, I can see and hear a big street in the distance: the delimiter of this neighbourhood is never far away and getting lost is impossible. Still. I manage to rumble around the quarter, steering clear of modernity by taking turns in time.
Among the noticeable buildings I see, are residences of a Qing dynasty army general, scholars, ministers, and the wife of the last Emperor of China. There are many more which are interesting, and obviously once were home to important people in society. There are also renovated houses that look beautiful, almost like wooden temples. Narrow lanes run from one hutong to the next, meandering past lines with laundry, parked bikes, and sometimes even the odd car. Most hutongs run east-west so the houses can have their entrance on the south side, which is in line with the feng shui requirements. When I cross Nanluogu Xiang again, it is striking that almost none of the people walking by this north-south aligned hutong would turn into the much more interesting side alleys. It only takes less than a minute before I am back in the peacefulness of some of Beijings surviving hutongs.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Nanluogu hutongs (China). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Nanluogu hutongs. Read more about this site.