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China Adventure - Biking in Beijing's Hutongs

Biking Through Beijing's Ancient Hutongs Introduces You to China


House in one of Beijing's hutongs located near the Forbidden City.

House in one of Beijing's hutongs located near the Forbidden City.

© 2011 Lois Friedland
Timidly, I steered my bicycle between the woman in heels driving a motor scooter and a worker pushing a garbage cart topped with the stick brooms used to clean Beijing's streets. A wobble to the right and I'd knock over the woman and the man perched behind her on the scooter. Veering to the left, I'd topple into the rubbish filling his cart. After successfully snaking between them, I pulled off the crowded alleyway in a Beijing hutong to take a deep breath, take out my camera, and start snapping pictures.

The colorful hutongs, narrow lanes and alleyways teeming with locals, are among Beijing's oldest neighborhoods. The twisting lanes were formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences, which we peeked into as we biked past. As many siheyuans were linked to each other, the hutongs were formed.

Biking Reveals the History of China's Hutongs

The first hutongs surrounded the Forbidden City, and more were added as Beijing grew during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Skyscrapers and other modern buildings now occupy the spaces where many hutongs thrived, but several are now been protected to preserve a piece of Chinese cultural history. The Chinese government spruced up many hutongs before the 2008 Summer Olympics and today some of them have become "must visit" stops for tourists. Bicycling through these micro-communities, where the great great grandchildren of the original owners often live in the family homes, unveils a centuries-old lifestyle. Although the word "hutong" is believed to mean "well" in the Mongolian language of 700 years ago, water here is limited. Some homes now have water piped into sinks, but many residents still share communal bathrooms because there is no plumbing, according to my guide. He also explained that ownership of a home is increasingly a source of family strife. When elders die, children are often divided as to whether remain in the homes or sell them because the land under some hutongs is extremely valuable.

Each Hutong We Biked Through Had A Different Feel

We biked through three hutongs, opening up a cross-section of lifestyles in shops and homes tucked around courtyards but hidden from the streets by high walls. The excursion started by a storefront on one of Beijing's busier streets. Riding a bicycle while squeezing between three lanes of speeding cars and big buses parked in the bike lane was the warm-up. Keep my eyes focused on the ground for bumps and the guide who's racing ahead of me was my mantra of the moment. After a few miles, which included several heart-stopping left turns through traffic, we moved onto quieter streets.

Liuyin, the first hutong we biked through, has obviously been cleaned up for tourists. The logjam of cars and buses blocking the street slowly dissolved, to reveal dozens of Chinese tourists piling into rickshaws for their tour. As we rode by, they were taking as many pictures of me as I was of them. Once they moved on, the streets emptied except for a woman sitting on a front stoop chatting with an elderly lady carrying clothes in a baby stroller. In extreme heat, we rode past buildings with fresh-looking grey cement brick walls added to shore up centuries-old crumbling facades. Peering into courtyards, the grime on ancient walls shocked the eyes, as did clotheslines with the most personal laundry on view for every passerby. We biked through streets that twisted and turned so often you'd never escape if you didn't know the layout. Occasionally, we stopped to peer into open doorways, where TV sets perched on tables in sparsely decorated homes.

Turning a corner, the quietude disappeared. Riding a bike through the mob of pedestrians was impossible, so we pushed the bikes into the Yandaixie Jie hutong, often called the "Pipe" hutong because of its shape. Shops filled with folk craftwork, pipes and clothing, interspersed with restaurants starting to fill with early diners, lined the narrow lane. Walking the bikes through the crowds, we finally reached the Drum Tower, where 24 drums were once used to mark time.

From here, we cruised through quieter streets in the Nantuoguxiang hutong, passing scarred, at times crumbling, outer walls and elaborate gates guarding houses once occupied by high Chinese officials. The route moved us back toward our starting point. By the time I reached the final few busy six-lane streets, I felt almost like a local pedaling my bike around buses and vying for space among the cars.

How to Arrange A Bike Tour of Beijing's Hutongs

If you've booked a package China trip, contact your tour operator and ask about taking a hutong bike tour. Many tour operators, Discovery Adventures and Gap Adventures, for example, offer a bike ride through the hutongs as an optional activity during the Beijing portion of China trips. If touring China on your own, ask the hotel concierge to arrange the excursion. If you want to book it before you go, visit Bike Beijing, which has half-day tours of the hutongs and all-day combination biking and walking tours. The cost of a bike tour starts around $60 a person for 1-3 persons, and less per person if the group is larger. I also saw bikes rental stands on the street.

If you haven't been on a bike in years, basic bicycling skill should come back quickly. This is not a place to learn how to bike. You don't have to be an athlete for this bicycle ride, just in reasonable shape so you can spend a few hours turning pedals. In the summer dress for hot weather (but respectably), wear a hat, and use suntan lotion.

More Adventures in China

You can walk and hike along the Great Wall of China. (My walk on the the Great Wall, a highlight on my trip, had in part a Disney theme park touch to the experience.) Touring in a vintage sidecar motorbike is a novel way to explore Shanghai. The professional driver takes you and one other person on a wild ride through the city traffic to reach quiet neighborhoods and historic sites you probably won't have to time to reach on foot.

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