Life in a Beijing Hutong

It’s been three weeks since I returned to Beijing from my jaunt through Japan.  If you’ll remember from my last Beijing post (and all the complaining I was doing on Facebook) Beijing and I weren’t getting along.  At all.  But a lot has changed in the last weeks, and I’m happy to report that things aren’t just looking up, they are up.

The first change was in my attitude.  A few days after returning to Beijing, days that were spent glaring at the world with judgmental eyes, I sat myself down for a heart-to-heart.  “Self,” I said, “You’re not doing us any favors by hating Beijing.  You won’t make it through the next two months if you’re mired in negativity.  Besides, you’re giving us wrinkles.”

A leashed yellow-billed grosbeak eyes the sky.

A leashed yellow-billed grosbeak eyes the sky.

So I promised to make an effort.  When something happened that grossed me out or pissed me off, I immediately sought out something positive and happy, like a cute little girl playing with her brother, or a cluster of sparrows darting among the trees.  I started listening to music when walking through the city.  I stopped dwelling on the negatives.  My mental fortifications grew stronger, and soon enough I was walking through the city as placidly as anyone.

Well, almost.  I still hip-check people who shove me.

The other big change was moving to a different neighborhood.  While I loved my wonderful AirBnB hosts in Hadian district, the neighborhood was impersonal and isolating.  It was also more than I could afford.  So I moved into a hostel in Zhengjue Hutong.

Watch where you're walking in Beijing--it never slows down here, not even in the hutongs.

Watch where you’re walking in Beijing–it never slows down here, not even in the hutongs.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of narrow alleys lined with old courtyard homes.  They used to typify Beijing until the city started tearing them down to make way for apartment complexes, shopping districts and roads.  At their peak, there were over 3,000 hutongs in Beijing, but now only 700 or so remain.

Zhengjue Hutong has been a lifesaver for me.  It has such a different vibe than non-hutong sections of the city.  More personal, less hostile.  The clamor of city traffic is replaced with the shouted conversations of residents, people who actually live here and know each other by name.  A variety of food shops line the alley, and the people who work them live behind their storefronts.  Kids jump rope in the streets.  Small mutts walk around like they own the place.

While the hutong is a far cry from home, it’s as close to one as I’m going to get in Beijing, and I’ve settled in nicely.

Xihai Lake on a remarkably clear day. Not a bad place for a run!

Lake Houhai on a remarkably clear day. Not a bad place for a run!

Every other morning I shock the locals by going for a run out to nearby Xihai and Houhai Lakes.  The lakes are peaceful in the mornings, mostly frequented by elderly couples walking together, stern fishermen casting lines into the water, and, of all things, old men in Speedos sunning themselves after a brisk swim.  The hordes of domestic tourists tend to not arrive until later.

After my run I either hit a coffee shop to do some work, or explore some corner of Beijing I haven’t yet seen.  But returning to the hutong in the evening is invariably the highlight of my day.

That’s because hutong life is all about food.

The butcher keeps an eye on cuts of beef, pig and mutton.

The butcher keeps an eye on cuts of beef, pig and mutton.

Food stalls magically appear on street corners.  Shops selling baked goods and roasted nuts turn on heat lamps to keep their wares warm.  Mist billows out from shining towers of steamers, obscuring the faces of customers filling plastic bags with piping hot dumplings.

Some nights I buy a jianbing from a friendly woman with short hair and no-nonsense eyes.  She spreads crepe batter with the skill of someone who’s done it her whole life, then cracks an egg one-handed over the thin pastry.  When it’s half cooked she flips it over, coats the crepe in thick hoisin sauce and fermented soybean paste, sprinkles on some toasted sesame seeds and green onions, sets a rigid sheet of fried something in the center, then—BANG, BANG, BANG!—she deftly cuts and folds it with two spatulas and presents me with a self-contained package of savory goodness.

Food stalls come alive at night.

Food stalls come alive at night.

Other nights I visit one of the many dumpling vendors, walking away with a warm bag of the steamed goodies.  Will they contain meat, red bean paste, or something else?  I never know until I try.

One place I frequent sells clay dishes of rice topped with savory stewed eggplant, steamed bok choy, and pineapple.  Another serves deep bowls of noodle soup topped with greens, slices of pork, and spicy sauce.  And at least once a week I hit the donkey restaurant for a soup and sandwich combo.  Add to that the meat pies, “doornail pastries” of leek and onion, and skewers of candied hawthorn berries and, well, let’s just say there’s a reason I go running.

Sizzling skewers of meat and veggies add their aromas to the night air.

Sizzling skewers of meat and veggies add their aromas to the night air.

There are some downsides to hutong life, as well.  The soundtrack to a hutong is honking horns and hocking loogies.  If you’re not paying attention you’ll get run over by a scooter or three-wheeled moto-rickshaw.  Least charming of all is the entirely acceptable practice of children defecating in the street despite the presence of public toilets on nearly every block.

Despite all that, the hutong environment suits me much better than the rest of Beijing.  It’s a little slice of humanity in an otherwise impersonal and harsh city.  When I leave Beijing three weeks from now, it won’t be the remarkable historical sites, efficient subway system or beautiful parks that I’ll miss—it’ll be the daily rhythm of the hutong.

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  1. I am so happy to hear that a change of outlook and location improved your stay. We may have to visit Ft Collins in January or February to catch up with all your adventures. Although I love reading about them. Love,Kathy

  2. Hi Sarah, I’m so glad to know you like the Hutong life in Beijing! It’s the traditional life style of Beijing. We, the Chinese young people who have to work in the tall buildings also yearn for that relaxed and peaceful days… When I read your vivid writings about the food, I was smiling and feel quite hungry~

    • I do love the hutong, but I really miss living with you and Bob! I wish I could blend the two, then Beijing would be perfect. I hope you are well! -Sarah-

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