Beijing, from my brief experience, is a city going through a massive and, despite appearances, gradual collision of past and present. Steel and glass skyscrapers, monuments to the current economic boom, don’t just dot the skyline, they dominate it, rising in clusters from horizon to horizon. Air within the city, and indeed as far as 50 miles beyond, smells, in the words of a friend, like, “wet rust, barbecue, rotting lemons, and concrete dust.” It also has a leaden aerosol pallor the color of brushed steel, a particulated testament to the growth of manufacturing and personal vehicle ownership, and the wave of modernization which has swept across China over the past 30 years.
Beijing hasn’t devolved entirely into shopping malls and Versace stores though, snaking amongst the feet of modern office and apartment buildings are networks of Old Beijing, alleyway communities called ‘Hutong’ that meander with ever increasing density as one moves closer to the city center. Hutong, while usually lively, are a far cry from the cacophony of car horns and pounding feet of commercial or business districts. Sometimes they’re even shady, which is a blessed thing at 93 degrees fahrenheit. Hutong, fromwhat I’ve gathered thus far, are part of Beijing’s history and character, a traditional way to establish and demarcate communities from the group down to the individual. Major Alleys break down into complexes, accessed via paths, those complexes break down into family domains, which in turn break down into rooms.
Hutong are a social, cultural, and architectural model that provide all kinds of niches, corners, hideaways, and interesting spaces. They are fun, dense, surprising, and wonderful to explore in general. Here’s some pictures: