I must start off with an apology. It’s been a ridiculous amount of time between posts, but I’ve got a good excuse. Both China and Namibia provided me with a wealth of stories, but not a wealth of free time. Between the patchy internet and the long days in search of adventure, it was a rare evening where I had the time or energy to do much more than Facebook.
Now that I’ve set myself up a semi-permanent base of operations here in Tanzania (more on that later), expect the stories and pictures to come thick and fast!
I think we’re all guilty of letting our preconceived notions colour our decision making when we travel.
We hear or read negative things about a place and we decide in advance that it isn’t for us. Or, even worse, we simply assume that because hordes of tourists go to a place – we’re somehow above it.
Or maybe I’m guilty of a second generalisation. Maybe it’s just me who forms these opinions without basis.
Whatever the case, Beijing was a city I’d long made a point of avoiding despite its rich history and the presence of world famous sites such as the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City.
“It’s too polluted” I’d say as I justified it to myself, “It’s crowded and messy”.
Still, the most common follow-up question to me telling people I’d lived in China for two years was inevitably “Oh! What was the Great Wall like?”
It became a point of embarrassment that I had called the country home but not seen its most famous cultural site. Like being to the US without seeing the Statue of Liberty, or going to Australia and not taking in the majesty of the Opera House.
When I decided to revisit my old stomping grounds en route to Africa, I decided to bite the bullet and do Beijing.
And my first day there made me so glad I did.
As with most things judged in ignorance, I was way off base with my opinion of Beijing.
Exploring the Hutongs
With nineteen hours of travel still fresh in my system, I wasn’t feeling up to battling the crowds at the Forbidden City on my first day in Beijing.
Instead, accompanied by my ridiculously gorgeous and talented friend Corinne, I decided to set out on foot and take a leisurely day strolling through Beijing’s labyrinthine hutong district.
Hutongs are a network of alleyways and low cost houses in which the local people reside. If the Imperial sites represent China’s historic rich and the business district its present day wealthy, then the hutongs are the best representation of everyday Beijing life.
Stepping off the busy streets of the city and into the quiet, shady hutongs is like stepping behind the scenes in a big budget movie. The people here aren’t wearing suits or carrying the latest Vera Wang bags, they’re kids running barefoot or men with their t-shirts hiked up to reveal their bellies and (I’m told) cool them off on hot summer days.
And hot it was. My first day in Beijing was greeted with 33C of bright, sunny Saturday. The heat lent the entire day a kind of carnival atmosphere – people drank beers or iced coffees in cute alleyway eateries, ducked into boutiques to browse and avail themselves of the air conditioning, or simply meandered about letting the flow of people and their own whims guide them.
Beyond the arteries of modern China’s multi-lane expressways, these narrow and often cluttered veins are a dizzying cacophony of chattering people, honking scooters, and music blared from store fronts.
Amid all of the noise and the jostling crowds, your nose is assaulted by the competing scents of perfumed boutiques, street vendors, and the authentic stink of an area well lived in.
Duck around a corner, though, and you’re suddenly on a street whose serenity seems completely incongruous. The wind rustles the leaves of the trees that shade our walk, and up ahead a local boy makes beautiful music completely apart from the hectic activities of the next street over.
Late at night, completely alone and bathed in the ever present gold of street lights, the silence is broken only by the distant sounds of traffic or the occasional cough from a sleeping resident. Despite the darkness and the menace of the unknown lurking in side streets, you feel perfectly safe. I got myself intentionally lost just so I could take it all in without the pretense of getting from A to B.
It might not sound enchanting, but it really is. Here the smiles are not forced and there are no airs and graces. You’re simply a part of the crowd going about their business, and there’s a fantastic authenticity to it all.
Let’s Talk Specifics
It’s certainly possible to take a guided tour through the hutongs. If you aren’t comfortable with navigating these maze like alleyways, services like Context Travel can lead you through it all – explaining the history of the various districts and guiding you to the most interesting corners.
For me, it was more fun to just let our feet take us wherever we fancied.
We ducked into the very groovy Plastered to browse their selection of counter-cultural t-shirts and oddities, and I picked myself up a completely over the top ‘Motherfucker in CBD’ t-shirt that needs to be seen to be believed.
We stopped off in hole in the wall bars with rooftop seating, quirky decorations, and bold claims that they possessed ‘The best fucking coffee’, chatted with locals, admired street art, and just soaked it all in.
They’re a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of the classic Imperial sites, but the hutongs offered up a much more candid, engaging view of modern China. So much is made of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, but it’s this kind of down to earth experience that lingers with me a fortnight after departing.
As we sipped an ice cold beer atop one of the countless rooftop bars that dot the district, we were offered a birds eye view of a population going about its business unconcerned by China’s reputation as a sleeping giant. Day to day life for these locals may seem humdrum to them, but to me it was a day of discovery that I’ll not soon forget.
We didn’t follow a tourist map or seek out specific spots while we wandered, so I can’t give you a step by step guide to recreating our journey. I wouldn’t want to.
What I liked most about the hutongs is that I could visit them again tomorrow and have a completely distinct experience.
Still, there were a few spots that I really liked.
Plastered T-Shirts did some great, off the wall shirts, jackets, and bags that I could have spent a fortune on. As it was, I limited myself to just the one.
As far as hutong bars go, you’re really spoiled for choice. They’re available in abundance, and have remarkably cheap local and import beers. We particularly like Siif Bar, with its promise of ‘the best fucking coffee’ and its well traveled manager.
But the hutongs aren’t about individual destinations. They’re about the journey: the sights, sounds, smells, and interactions that combine to create something unforgettable and unique.
Grab your hotel address, pack a little spending money, and let the current of the hutongs take you where it will. You won’t regret it.
Have you ever formed a baseless opinion of a place before you visited it, only to be proven wrong?
Do you enjoy stepping off the tourist track and checking out how the locals live? What country or city has most surprised you in this regard?