By Duncan Gordon
The beginning of last week marked xiaoxue (小雪), or minor snow, the 20th term in the Chinese solar calendar, meaning the cold weather is here to stay. However, that’s no reason to stay indoors until Spring Festival.
As Beijing’s notoriously cold winter arrives, some Beijingers will go into hibernation mode. It’s tempting to spend your free time in your nice warm apartment rather than face the biting cold of the city’s streets. The government turned on the central heating for the whole city at the start of November, making every home a glowing warm nest that’s not easy to leave at this time of year. Combined with the fact that smog levels tend to be higher in winter, that journey to the front door can seem a very long way.
However, another form of escape from the harsh winter is a journey to the hutong (胡同). Beijing’s networks of alleys and streets connecting traditional Siheyuan (四合院) courtyard homes form an important part of the capital’s physical and social fabric. The often labyrinthine layout of some parts of the city’s hutong stand in stark juxtaposition to the uniform planned design of the new Beijing that has sprung up around them, swallowing many hutong that were there before. A hutong neighbourhood full of tiny passages and living room restaurants may run parallel to a 6 lane thoroughfare lined with towers of steel and glass. That contrast adds to the hutong’s charm. The best kept and most extensive hutong are in Dongcheng, around Nanluoguxiang, but these ancient neighbourhoods are still located quite widely in central Beijing.
So why are the hutong the place to be in winter?
Many of the alleys are full of family-run restaurants serving delicious and cheap food. These places become particularly busy with local residents at lunchtime both on weekdays and the weekends. You stay warm with everyone packed in tight eating noodles or dumplings and the atmosphere is lively. The hutong that spread east and west away from the very commercial Nanluoguxiang are well-supplied with these establishments.
In the more popular hutong there are plenty of cafes and bars to spend a brisk winter day. Wudaoying hutong near Yonghegong Lama Temple has several cafes, such as Fresh Bean, where you can enjoy a coffee and watch the steady stream of Beijingers and foreigners pass by the window. On a smaller hutong running off Wudaoying is Stuff’d, which offers hearty western food and craft beer in a welcoming, rustic environment.
If you’re happy to spend some time outdoors, wandering around hutong neighbourhoods that feel lost in time is a privilege unique to living in Beijing, and one that is often underappreciated. The more you explore off the main streets, the smaller the hutong become and the further you feel from the noise of the city. It is down these alleys, populated by homes, family-run grocery stores and workshops, that you can find an escape from Beijing’s winter winds.