Lost in the Hutongs: Beijing, China

Whatever the reason, I ventured out into the empty streets with a phone (and no Chinese SIM card), a camera, and a tripod. And promptly got lost.

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I don’t know what spurred me to head out into the hutongs — little alleyways that run between streets all over old downtown Beijing — when I woke up at 3:30 AM on my own. Maybe the jet lag was doing weird things to my brain. Or maybe, in my groggy, half-awake state I decided to live up to this blog’s name. Whatever the reason, I ventured out into the empty streets with a phone (and no Chinese SIM card), a camera, and a tripod. And promptly got lost.

A little over twelve hours earlier, J and I had touched down at Beijing Capital International Airport, after something like twenty-one hours in transit. Baggage claim, followed by the series of express train and subway rides between the airport and Nanluoguxiang Street, where our hostel was located, had eaten another hour and a half or so. As soon as we left the airport, the heat hit my like a tonne of bricks; ~45 degrees Centigrade with the humidity. I regretted wearing pants on the flight.

Around 4 PM, J checked us into our hostel on Nanluoguxiang Street, the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel (a nice little hostel, incidentally); we cranked the AC in our room, dropped our bags off, and headed out for a brief walk around that quickly turned into a long one. We grabbed street food, including stinky tofu (which was actually pretty good) and some little fried potatoes covered in chilies (which we ate too quickly for me to get a picture); found a little store that, confusingly, sold cutesy little knickknacks as well as expensive Belgian beers (I bought Delirium Nocturnum, but they also had Leffe and Trappist Rochefort); and wandered around the Gulou and Zhonglou drum and bell towers, where we found an intense game of mahjong being played out on the street.

This party’s just getting started

By the time we got back to the hostel, around 8 PM, it was remarkably dark out, a consequence of a country the size of China having a single timezone. The lack of sleep and the cool comfort of the air conditioning felled us both in quick succession; J was the first to go down, and I passed out soon after. I woke up at 3, groggy and discombobulated, but couldn’t get back to sleep, so I figured I’d go for a short walk. I tried the roof garden of our hostel first, but there were no lights up there, and a fence kept me from being able to see Nanluoguxiang. If I wanted to see anything, I’d have to go out. So I went out.

The street and the little hutongs branching off of it were dead. Not a soul was stirring, or so I thought. J had informed me before I left the hostel that China, and Beijing in particular, are quite safe. Crime is dealt with harshly, and most of it tends to be of the petty kind anyway. So I wasn’t overly worried when I headed off down a side hutong, and then another. I set up my tripod at one point and got a quick shot of a little auto rickshaw, bathed in red light from an LED sign.

So red.

That’s when he appeared. I had no real idea what the man was saying, so I offered an awkward smile, an apologetic shrug, and a brutally mispronounced “Wo budong. Duibuqi,” (I don’t understand, sorry) before scurrying off, hopefully in the direction of my hostel. He’d manifested himself out of the darkness of a doorway, and as I walked swiftly away from him, the man — whom I now realize was likely a police officer, as they’re all over the area, even at night — melded back into the shadows.

I don’t know why I reacted the way I did. I probably should have ignored him and walked right past, back the way I came. Instead, I ducked into a smaller alleyway, and tried to link up with a different hutong to take me back. Mistake. I wound up wandering for another half hour or so, frustrated more than anything else, before I found myself back on Nanluoguxiang, only about 100 metres up from my hostel. By now, the street was seeing some signs of life; I was taking a long exposure of an old man walking up the street when a little truck rumbled by, and got the shot below.


I put my camera and tripod away, plugged in my phone, crawled back into bed, and slept until 10.

The rest of the day was excellent. J and I walked down some lovely hutongs; had excellent iced coffees in one of the few coffee places that was open in the morning (apparently coffee is considered an afternoon/evening drink in China); visited the beautiful Yonghe Temple, a Tibetan Lamasery, which sadly doesn’t allow pictures (that didn’t stop a whole lot of selfie-stick wielders… out of respect for the temple’s wishes, I didn’t sneak any shots); toured the nearby Confucian Temple of Beijing and the old Imperial Academy; ate a delicious vegan lunch of Sichuan-style noodles and vegetables; swung by the cyclopean Tiananmen Square; and wandered around the market area of Wangfujing looking for a street full of vendors of exotic and, dare-I-say, gross foods (the street has been shut down, as it turns out, making good on a government promise from a few years ago to clean up the area).

Apparently, Confucius is a big deal here… Who knew?

The day was capped off by some more street food and cheap beers. Pretty close to perfect, in my book.

Stray thoughts:

  • I actually got lost twice during the timeframe covered by this post: the first time in the hutongs, and the second time with J, while trying to get into Tiananmen Square. We got to the northwestern entrance to the square and figured the security line was too long, so we tried to go around, only to be stymied by security personnel and detour signs. Ultimately, we ended up walking probably an extra kilometer to get way around to the southeastern entrance to the Square. And while there was no line at that entrance, it probably wasn’t worth the detour. The Square itself was not nearly as busy as expected, a benefit to going fairly late in the day, but a vast expanse of paving stones isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. At least I got to sneak into more than a few people’s selfies.
  • As we were walking away from the Yonghe Temple, J doubled back suddenly to duck into a small shop to grab a bottle of water. The shop, as it turns out, mostly sold malas, Buddhist statues, religious paraphernalia, beads, and things like that, and was run by a lovely couple that invited us for tea and food. We had to pass on the tea and the lunch, but we did sit down with them, and J and the couple had a good long chat (they were very complimentary about her Chinese). I wound up buying a beautiful pendant and a little silk prayer bag. They insisted that if we ever came back through, we should stop in for food, and J and the woman exchanged WeChat information. It was probably the best part of the day.

    Our new friend, stringing my pendant.
  • I’d been warned by a bunch of people that I’d have trouble finding vegan food in China. Invariably, I was told, there’d be egg, pork, fish, or some other animal product in just about anything. J assuaged my concerns repeatedly, and it turned out she was right. It’s been super easy to eat vegan so far, at least in the North of China, and the food has been incredible. J is adamant about correcting peoples’ misconception of the food here: if you can communicate with staff, and if you can read the menus, it’s easier than you’d think to find foods that suit your dietary restrictions.

    Vegan Sichuanese lunch, yo
  • I wish I’d sprung for a zoom lens. I’ve got 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses with me, and have yet to switch from the 35mm lens.
  • Street food and drink is crazy cheap. You can find beer for as little 3 yuan (about 60 cents Canadian), and snack foods prepared on the spot for as little as 10 yuan.
    Stinky tofu, yo

    As I write this post, we’re preparing to vacate our hostel. We’ve got some time to kill yet in Beijing before our overnight train to Shenyang, so we’re going to go for a wander in Sanlitun, a sort of bar/shopping district. If all goes well, I’ll be posting at some point in the next 24 hours or so, covering the train ride and our early morning arrival in Shenyang.


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