The Old and the New
Beijing is an enigma. It’s old and it’s new, it’s timeless and then it’s also gone in an instant. In the heart of the city you can see the Imperial Palace, while just outside of it people are driving fast cars and talking on iPhones surrounded by colossal sky scrapers. This situation can be perplexing for the wandering student abroad and disappointing to the traveler who is expecting a China seen in movies. It is easy to get lost in all the “newness” of Beijing and forget about the rich culture that permeates traditional Chinese thought and is often buried beneath the surface of modernization.
After saying this, I know the next question naturally is, how can I find a nostalgic walk back through the past in Beijing? Well, by taking a short trip to your neighborhood hutong! Hutongs are Beijing’s ancient alley ways where many people have lived for their entire lives in the same house crowded next to others. Many of these hutongs have been sacrificed to make way for more modern buildings and streets, but the Chinese government has protected some in order to preserve Chinese culture.
If you get tired of seeing the busyness of city life in Beijing, visiting a hutong can be a nice respite. Here you can really see the community between people and their neighbors and familys; something that often is lost in the modern cityscape. There is a definite sense of camaraderie and a different spirit within the hutongs, but it’s hard pressed to be let into this close nit group as an outsider. I for one enjoyed walking through the narrow streets at the Wudaoying Hutong by Lama Temple and just soaking up the atmosphere. It just felt comforting and welcoming, an experience that does not regularly happen for me outside the gates of the Beijing Zoo or walking through Tian An Men.
At the hutong behind Ping An Li subway station you can even walk through one of a Yuan Dynasty style house, owned by the famed Opera artist Mei Lan Fang. It really was like walking through time and observing how the house was all built around the cardinal directions. Seeing such a home that was so different than any Western style building I had seen was an enjoyment and a hidden treasure among the sky scrapers looming overhead.