Beijing’s big. Touch down at Beijing International Airport and you’ll soon realize just how massive the skyscraper-packed place is. But still clinging on to life are hundreds of little alleys or hutong where life remains slow, more traditional and accessible by foot. If you’re feeling adventurous, here’s a suggested walk.
A good starting point is Tian’anmen Square, home to Mao’s mausoleum. Buy a ticket for the Forbidden City at the south gate and saunter through the maze of courtyards, gardens and esoterically named temples until you hit the north gate. For hilltop views of the world’s largest temple complex, climb to the viewing pavilion in the centre of the Jingshan Park.
To uncover a more down-to-earth higgledy-piggledy Beijing of courtyard houses, make your way north again from the park along Di’anmen Street until you arrive at Di’anmen East Street. Head east for about ten minutes, cross the street into Nanluoguxiang which, until a young entrepreneur spotted an opportunity and opened The Passby bar, was just like any other run-down lane in crumbling Beijing.
Now teeming with bar and restaurant life, it’s a great place to watch locals play Chinese chess, drink tea, eat mutton kebabs and hang out. At the north end on Gulou East Street, the action continues with on-trend hipsters populating music shops, grannies nattering by the roadside and 24-hour bolt-hole snack bars plying their wares.
The two must-see landmarks in the area are the Drum and Bell Towers to the west down Gulou East Street. Used during Imperial times to mark set periods during the day, the huge drum and bell are now sounded for tourists only. A small but nonetheless charming square makes this a good place for a pitstop.
To round off your back-street walk, head south for Houhai. Once part of an extensive canal system that criss-crossed the city, these four artificial lakes are now one of the city’s main leisure areas. Do as the Beijingers do and stroll around the lakes, get some pedalo action on the water or in the winter months, go ice skating.
There are plenty of things — temples, shops, markets — along the way that will keep your senses entertained, so use this as a guide not a definitive route.
Be warned, it’s a solid day’s walk so don comfortable shoes, take a camera and have regular tea stops.