Beijing – Been There

Old Beijing is still there if you slow down

Along with the many other changes in China, its urban population have dramatically increased their daily consumption of meat, eggs and fruits. The end of food rationing, rising incomes, and the privatization and modernization of the food industry, are all factors in the change.

Photo by Gerhard Kopatz / Alamy

Beijing – Been There

Old Beijing is still there if you slow down

Beijing's hutongs are the alleyways that glue together the capital's 800-year-old network of residential courtyards.

Gareth Clark
Gareth Clark Travel Writer

Clouds of smoke billow above a small table in a narrow alley. Around it teeter a trio of men on tiny wooden stools, encircled by a vocal gang of onlookers. It is hot and their shirts are rolled up proudly to reveal bulbous bellies. Bets are exchanged and cards are snapped down on the tabletop with whip-crack venom, the scent of freshly charred chuan'r and old tobacco hanging in the night air. Then a dull roar sounds and the winner grins, cigarette dangling limply from one side of his mouth as I pass by, unobserved, walking the same stretch of alley but seemingly in a different world.

This was my introduction to Beijing's hutongs, back in 2010 when I had just moved to the city. I was wilting my way down the narrow, twisting arteries off Dongzhimen Beixiaojie in search of food one night, side-stepping gambling locals, playful children and rattling bicycle trailers laden with recyclables. Eventually I stumbled across a Chinese-style barbecue joint on Santiao Hutong and duly bagged a table outside. Before long, some roasted mutton arrived, suspended on a mini spit above glowing coals.

Sweating from the heat of the night and the BBQ, I greedily tore off flecks of meat and watched as alley life slowly unfolded around me, steadfastly resolving never to rush again. It was love at first sight.

Guanyuan Flower Bird, Fish and Insect Market is one of at least ten such markets in Beijing, which...

Guanyuan Flower Bird, Fish and Insect Market is one of at least ten such markets in Beijing, which are rooted in the Buddhist custom of releasing birds as a good deed. Beijingers also have a long tradition of keeping odd pets such as singing crickets, spiders, snakes and lizards. Photo by TBK Media / Alamy

TBK Media

TBK Media

Agency
Alamy

Guanyuan Flower Bird, Fish and Insect Market is one of at least ten such markets in Beijing, which are rooted in the Buddhist custom of releasing birds as a good deed. Beijingers also have a long tradition of keeping odd pets such as singing crickets, spiders, snakes and lizards.