One of the best ways to see Beijing – on a side car and through the hutongs
A great way to see Beijing and its surrounding areas is to travel around in a vintage side car motorcycle. A group of us booked through Sam at http://www.tribeijing.com and were picked up outside a restaurant near Tian’anmen Square one Saturday afternoon. Tribeijing is run by an ex-pat called Sam and they were very accommodating for our needs. There were eleven of us in the end and we felt like rock stars travelling around Beijing.
We were all given scarves to place around our mouths and noses (presume this was due to the smog in Beijing but we did all look pretty cool).
A little side track – I had the opportunity when I first arrived in Beijing to travel in a side car with a friend’s husband – that was in summer and whilst it was just the two of us it was so much fun.
On this particular occasion with eleven of us riding in tandem, our first sight-seeing destination was to a hutong in Dongcheng District called Nan Luo Gu Xiang. Hutongs are a type of narrow street or alley, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing.
In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences (Siheyuan in Chinese which means a courtyard surrounded by buildings on all four sides.). Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another.
Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are, unfortunately, demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.
Nearly all siheyuan had their main buildings and gates facing south for better lighting; thus a majority of hutongs run from east to west. Between the main hutongs, many tiny lanes ran north and south for convenient passage.
The entrance gate, usually painted vermilion and with copper door knockers on it, is usually at the southeastern corner. Normally, there is a screen wall inside the gate, for privacy; superstition holds that it also protects the house from evil spirits. A pair of stone lions are often placed outside the gate. Some large siheyuan compounds would have two or more layers of courtyards and even private gardens attached to them. Such is a sign of wealth and status in ancient times.
But back to Nan Luo Gu Xiang, it’s a well-preserved ancient part of Beijing with traditional architecture. It was built in the Yuan Dynasty and received its current name during the Qing Dynasty, around 1750. The area has become a popular tourist destination with siheyuan/antique shops/ceramic shops/bars/restaurants and cafes – everything from the chic to the kitschy can be purchased. It’s a very busy street always filled with hundreds of Chinese and foreign tourists. On this occasion, both the locals and tourists all parted way for our motorcycles to travel through.
Our next stop was to the Drum and Bell Towers. The Drum Tower was originally built for musical reasons, later used to announce the time and now a tourist site. The Bell Tower stands closely behind the drum tower. Together, the Bell Tower and Drum Tower have panoramic views over central Beijing and before the modern era, they both dominated Beijing’s ancient skyline.
Next we travelled to Lake Hou Hai (literally meaning “rear sea”) which is a lake and its surrounding neighborhood in Xicheng District of central Beijing. Houhai is the largest of three lakes, along with Qianhai (“front sea”) and Xihai (“western sea”), that comprise Shichahai, the collective name for the three northern-most lakes in central Beijing.
We had a lot of laughs whist travelling along the lake as like Nan Luo Gu Xiang, people moved out of the way for us to drive through, but at the lake, there was a wall of photographers taking photos of us -we definitley felt like rock stars.
Since the early 2000s, the hutong neighborhood around Houhai has become known for its nightlife as many residences along the lake shore have been converted into restaurants, bars, and cafes. You can even take a little boat ride along the lake in the summer and in the winter when the lake freezes ice skating and chair skating is extremely popular and so much fun.