Bicycle Adventure: Old Beijing Hutong

When in Beijing, do as the Beijingers do.

I haven’t ridden a bicycle since the year of the snake (2001). I always found it scary to ride on public streets. Plus, my last bike was a little dorky. But in Beijing, both young and old, rich and poor take to the streets on bicycles. Some machines are rusty, others are powered by silent electric motors. Even the winter chill doesn’t discourage pedaling. Nobody wears helmets, though a few wear kneepads.

In order to see more of the city than we could on foot, J. and I borrowed two free bikes from the Jade Hostel. Singe gear. These were incredibly silly looking for Beijing: frames clad in molded plastic like a bike you’d see in Total Recall. Chinese characters above the rear wheel drew a lot of looks. Plus, the brakes were dangerously underpowered.

But we took to the streets anyway. In two days, we rode about 12 solid hours. Our route was random and meandering through the old alley neighborhoods and bombastic high rises of Beijing. We were mostly in the areas of Dongcheng, Xicheng, and Chaoyang. We never ventured past the third ring road, so our radius was about 6km from the center of the Forbidden City.

Since there are so many photos from those two days, I split the adventure into two posts. This one focuses on the hutongs. The other captures some of the modern scenery.

Beijing’s hutong are wonderful. The narrow alleys are lined with solid grey walls and decorative doors. Many of the doors are cracked open, revealing a densely packed entry hall to the property. On the streets there are people walking about, chatting, running businesses, buying food, sitting in chairs doing nothing. Old people wobble purposefully down the road, leaning on their cane or wheel chair. Goods are delivered by bike rickshaws. The smell of coal and wood fires mixes with periodic scents of bread and meat. Everything feels ramshackle and well lived in. People looked at us with curiosity and smiles. We did not feel unwelcome.

There were a lot of people and potholes to dodge. They dinged their bells; I dinged mine. With poor brakes, I had to anticipate places a person would pop out from or slow down at. It worked fairly well.

There was much construction. New pipes were getting laid, walls repaired. There were many new public toilets. This is good, as many hutong homes don’t have toilets, and apparently the old public toilets were quite nasty.

Unfortunately, many of these wonderful neighborhoods have been bulldozed for the sake of progress. Gleaming buildings, highways and broad boulevards packed with cars stand in their place. Hopefully Beijing can find the right balance of old and new.

Looking down a hutong.

Painted windows for privacy.

A lot of homes were in the process of being demolished in order to build a new road. I don’t know what is planned for the remains, but I suspect new towers.

Old and new, separated by brick wall.

Coal delivery rickshaw.

Milling station in an alley.

Two old ladies and a covered motorbike rickshaw.

Painted sign on a wall.

Me and my future bike.*

Beautiful patina on a temporary metal fence.

Just your neighborhood smoke stack.

Chairs in the alley outside a public toilet.

Lanterns in an alley.

Qianhai Lake. This was one of the few landmarks we had to get our bearing.


Man on boat with skimmer.

Chicken coop on top of a dwelling. There were many like this around town.

For lunch on the first day, we stopped at a shop selling various bread-based snacks. We bought a few.

Bread stuffed with carrots and onions and some other things.

A bread stuffed with hot pork and onion. Very good.

Unleavened bread coated with sesame seeds. A little bland.

We also bought four huge steamed buns on the cheap from this vendor. Unfortunately, they were the plain variety and very bland. Good texture though.

A man and his meat.

Hot coals left unattended on the sidewalk.

The walkway between apartments and family home.

Circular doorway.

Many parked cars had their wheels covered in various ways. I don’t know why.

Crates of Chinese beer stored on the street outside a distributor’s shop.

Snack shop next to a demolished building.

Cloth curtains over the doors of some public toilets.*

Knit bicycle seat cover.*

Turquoise door, brick wall.

Birds next to a door.

Reading chairs on the street.

Even narrower alley than normal.

Wood delivery.

Towels drying outside.

Storage shed made of scrap.

Men dropping toilets and insulation next to a bakery.

Clean alley near the train station.

Small salon at sunset.

Heading home along the tree lined streets near the Forbidden City.

I think I could spend the rest of my life exploring these old neighborhoods. They’re a little repetitive overall but still have plenty of little details to discover. Unfortunately, all I had time for on this trip was a few hours touring on the hard seat of a bike.

Needless to say, my perineum is crushed and my knees ache.

*Photos with an asterisked caption were taken by J.

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November 28th, 2008. Categories / China

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