There is probably nothing more evocative of 'old Peking' than its charming hutongs, or alleyways, lined by quaint courtyard houses, and there's no better way to get a feel of the old city than to wander around these ancient passageways. But you'll need to be quick--the proud old hutong is on the verge of extinction as high-rise apartments take over the capital.
Fortunately, a few hutong districts around the city have been declared protected areas and efforts are being made to preserve them. Nan Luogu Xiang is one of Beijing's oldest streets, with a history going, back some 700 years, and provides an excellent starting-point for a tour of the neighbourhood. This long and busy hutong, lined with interesting Republican-era architecture, is fast becoming a new entertainment hub. The old buildings, with their thick wooden floors and arched wooden roofs punctuated with skylights and large windows, are being transformed into quaint coffee shops, restaurants, bars and boutiques.
It's difficult to say for certain how many hutongs there are in Beijing, but according to a popular old Chinese saying, 'there are as many as the number of hairs on an ox', or in other words, more than one can count. The hutong dates back to the Yuan dynasty, between 1271 and 1368, when Kublai Khan built his capital at Dadu, the location of modern-day Beijing. The word hutong is said to come from the Mongolian phrase hong tong, which means 'water well'.
The best part of a walk through a hutong is searching out quaint architectural details which can tell you a lot about the former residents--so it's best to learn some of the background before plunging down memory lane.
In imperial times, there was a strict hierarchy which determined the building style and designs one could use. There are either two or four lintels above the doorway of each house, which are sometimes adorned with auspicious Chinese characters. Common families would have two lintels, wealthy ones four. Wealthy homes also have decorative door clasps, cymbal-shaped door …