Walking Beijing

Exploring one of the world’s greatest cities on foot

Text and images by James Pham

It’s been called by many names: Jicheng when it was first known to be settled more than 3,000 years ago; Zhuojun, the northern terminus of the 1,776 km-long Grand Canal; Dadu, the Mongol capital under Kublai Khan; or Peking, a transliteration of the pinyin form of “Beijing” (meaning “Northern Capital”), to name just a few. But by whatever name you choose to call it, Beijing is one of the world’s most vibrant cities, boasting no less than six UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites (seven if you count the Grand Canal), equal to the number found in the entire country of Egypt.

First time visitors to China envisioning cramped streets and massive crowds will be in for a surprise in Beiing. Although housing upwards of 20 million people, the sprawling Beijing Municipality covers an area of almost 17,000 km2 of mostly flat land including large parks and wide open spaces just begging to be walked and explored.

Hutong History

I start my exploration of Beijing by walking some of its oldest neighborhoods. Meaning “water well” in Mongolian, these 700-year-old networks of grey-stoned alleyways were originally communities centered around sources of water and consisted of mostly one-story houses built around a central courtyard. Reaching a peak of more than 3,000 neighborhoods before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, these ancient alleyways have since given way to roads and high rises, with only 1,000 or so remaining.

Each hutong house typically had three courtyards: one for guests, the second for the master where the main activities took place, and a third for the daughters where they practiced traditional music, embroidery and other feminine arts designed to attract suitable husbands. High thresholds were customary to keep wayward daughters in and ghosts (who apparently could only walk in straight lines) out. Subtle clues outside the homes speak to the original owners: the number of colorful beams indicating social rank, markers showing how many generations have lived there, and round drum-like stones outside the door for military families and rectangular bookish ones for scholars.

While some hutong houses have been lavishly restored into trendy restaurants and offices, the majority have simply been divided into small State-subsidized multi-family dwellings, evidenced by a dozen or so electric meters just inside the gate. Most are tiny rooms with a shed-like kitchen and no bathroom, hence the communal squat-style toilets every 5 meters or so. In some hutong houses, a small courtyard may remain, harkening back to ancient times.

Hutongs are different from apartment living,” says Lilei, a 32-year-old Beijinger. “You can live in an apartment for 20 years and never know your neighbors. In the hutongs, my neighbors would always ask me if I had eaten, and if not, bring me a bowl of congee, just like my family. The hutong rooms are small, so people like spending time in the courtyard with each other.”

We cycle around the hutongs behind the Bell and Drum Towers and come across many scenes of community: an elderly foursome bundled up against the cold playing a noisy game of mahjong, ladies gossiping while waiting for fresh hand-pulled noodles and songbird aficionados watching over their winged charges, a disappearing slice of Old Beijing.

All the Tea in China

The largest producer of tea worldwide, all the tea in China amounts to a veritable mountain, about 1.7m tons a year. On a brisk autumn morning, I set out for the upscale hutong area behind the Ping’anli subway station, once home to the emperor’s relatives, for a lesson in tea. Despite the inroads coffee has made in the last decade or so, being able to appreciate and properly serve tea is still a hallmark of sophistication, so it is that I find myself at a tea school, brushing past racks of flowing tea robes and displays of plain but very expensive Yixing tea pots made from a special clay that absorbs the flavor of every tea brewed in it.

In a small room with beautifully carved wooden furniture and spa-like music playing in the background, I sit facing tea master Li Long whose unenviable task is to teach me the difference between an Oolong and a Pu’er. “Many people come to us to learn about tea,” she says of the standard 50-hour course. “It might be parents sending their daughters, businesses sending receptionists or those looking to open up their own tea house. The class teaches you the process of preparing each type of tea, how to enjoy it, how to sit, which posture looks beautiful.” I immediately sit up straight and sheepishly admit that my tea experience is limited to the occasional Lipton tea bag only to see a flicker of disappointment flash across her face as she brings out a tray loaded with accoutrements for the lesson: scale, strainer, wooden tongs, tasting cups, teapots (one for each type of tea), and a small glass pitcher called a gong dao bei, literally “fair pour cup”, ensuring that everyone receives hot tea that hasn’t been oversteeped.

As Li Long begins to weigh out little balls of Iron Buddha oolong tea, she speaks of the five steps to enjoying tea, using words like “terroir” and “fermentation”, very much like a sommelier. “First, look at the dry tea and smell it. Next, steep, then taste before examining the tea leaves after they have steeped.” We review the essential elements of preparing the tea which differ for each kind: the amount of tea, the ratio of tea and water, the temperature of the water and how long to steep. I’m shocked when Li Long has me count out only 20 seconds to steep the oolong before pouring out the amber liquid into the gong dao bei. It tastes tart, light and floral, and unfurled, the leaves are long, slender and beautiful. I tell her that I normally let my tea steep for minutes at a time and that the tea I’ve seen is usually small bits (“chopped” is the officially term). Her mouth tightens ever so slightly.

There’s mindfulness involved. It’s meditative in a way, just you and the tea.”

We try two more varieties: a full-bodied white tea from Fujian and a Shou Pu’er tea from way down in Yunnan, bordering Myanmar. The Pu’er is unusual in that it comes in a big round cake carefully wrapped in paper. Originally transported over long distances, the tea was steamed into cakes for easy transport. Along the way, it naturally fermented, giving rise to an earthy, musty, almost woody flavor. As each cup is served, we examine the color and brightness and rap our knuckles twice to thank the tea server. We then pass the steeped leaves around and unravel them to look for fullness. “Originally, tea was first used as medicine, then food, and now only for the tea liquor,” says Li Long. “More recently, people have experimented with the taste using milk instead of water, and adding honey or butter.” But somehow, I can’t imagine her desecrating the purity of cha, not even for all the tea in China.

Forbidden No More

Like planets revolving around the sun, the hutongs radiated outwards from the center of Beijing, the Forbidden City, with the highest social classes allowed to settle closest to the imperial palace. Built from 1406 to 1420 by an estimated one million workers, the largest palace complex in the world was the seat of power for 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. For nearly 500 years, entrance meant death to anyone who didn’t have the emperor’s permission. Now, so many people visit that last June the museum had to cap visitors to 80,000 per day.

With 980 surviving buildings and almost 9,000 rooms spread over a massive 72 hectares, walking is a given. The public now has even more to see because last October, on the 90th anniversary of its establishment, the Forbidden City (also known as the Palace Museum) opened up four new sections of the Imperial Palace compound for the very first time, meaning 65% of the palace grounds is now open to the public.

My first visit to the Forbidden City a few years ago was a blur of beautiful symmetry and gleaming yellow-tiled roofs tinged with an air of sameness. Unlike European palaces, most of the buildings in the Forbidden City are sparsely furnished at best, with names like “Belvedere of Spreading Righteousness” and “Bower of Well-Nourished Harmony”.

Determined not to make the same mistake again, this time I brought along Forest, a specialist on the palace. Instead of trying to see all the buildings, some which house galleries that display a portion of the over 1,800,000 sets of artifacts in the museum’s collection, we focus on areas that had stories behind them, like the library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity, the only building with a black roof ― black being associated with water to ward off fire. Despite the long line, Forest encourages me to wait to see the newly opened exhibition hall over the Meridian Gate. The wait is worth it, as we stand high above the walls, on the axis believed to traverse the center of the universe, befitting a Son of Heaven. The exhibition hall is beautiful, with a colorful papered ceiling, and display cases full of priceless treasures. What I find most mesmerizing, however, is a historical document, an almost 40-meter long scroll  completely unfurled to reveal the streets and hutongs of Beijing during the 60th birthday celebrations of the Kangxi Emperor in the early 18th century. The painting is ravishing in detail and brilliant in vivid coloration. Forest points out how to distinguish the officials from the common man, a feat in itself in that the scroll depicts over 18,000 figures.

We make our way to the rear of the city, to the Palace of Gathered Elegance, where the emperor’s wives and concubines lived. As I peer through the windows into stark rooms, Forest tells the story of China’s most famous Dragon Lady, Empress Dowager Cixi, who rose from concubine to de facto ruler of the Qing Dynasty. The story is salacious and involves sexual exploits, intrigue and murder. In fact, it’s the stories that breathe life into these beautiful but Spartan buildings, the grandest museum of them all.

Urban Art

A relaxing half day can be spent leisurely walking the 798 Art District northeast of the city center. Disused factories built in the 1950s by the East Germans were converted in the early 2000’s to house contemporary art galleries, hip cafes and quirky boutiques. Exhibition spaces feature everything from 3D art, political paintings, multimedia installations and sculptures to more commercial art forms. Wander around and take in all the mind-bending street art ― old rusty shells of buildings provide the perfect backdrop to gigantic blue-green rabbits and bright red velociraptors stacked in cages.

Within walking distance of the Art District is another homage to art in the form of the 5-star NUO Hotel Beijing. Recently opened in mid-2015, the hotel’s stunning design was inspired by the literature, art and culture of the Ming Dynasty. The massive lobby is adorned with ten 2.5 meter-tall blue and white painted porcelain vases and anchored by a striking 3-ton silver and bronze sculpture by renowned Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi. The artist and scholar theme is carried into the 438 guestrooms which offer floor-to-ceiling views of the city and are decorated in tones of brick grey and blue sky, colors popularized by Chinese literature from the era. Tea lovers will want to pay a visit to the Yuan Tea House, a contemporary interpretation of a Ming Dynasty-era tea house complete with teas created exclusively for the hotel served up in exquisite tea sets. Guests will also find custom NUO Pu’er infused bath amenities in the spacious all-marble bathrooms and guestrooms are equipped with marble-topped writing desks, Bluetooth-enabled Bose stereo speakers, Nespresso coffee machines, walk-in wardrobes and more. The hotel is ideally located just 20 minutes away from the Beijing airport and a 10-minute walk to Jiangtailu metro station. Doubles start at USD 257 with easily one of the best buffet breakfasts I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, both in size and quality, making me wish immediately that I had skipped dinner the night before. For more, visit

Temple of Heaven

Along Beijing’s north-south axis lies a cluster of must-see sites including the Bell & Drum towers, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the beautiful Temple of Heaven. Built in 1420, it was the sacred altar for emperors to offer sacrifices to Heaven and pray for a bumper harvest. The most striking building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, near the North Gate, a three-tiered, conically roofed structure set on a marble base and supported entirely by massive wooden pillars without using nails, beams or crossbeams. The main buildings only occupy one percent of the temple’s 273 hectares, the rest being beautifully landscaped trees, flowers and parkland. Come on a weekend and watch dozens of couples elegantly ballroom dancing under the pine trees. Spot the regulars who bring their own hooks to hang bags and things on the railings.

The closest deluxe hotel to the Temple of Heaven (and the nearby Pearl Market for those who need retail therapy) is the beautiful 309-room New World Beijing Hotel. A pleasing blend of contemporary style and subtle Oriental influences, the hotel has business class elegance but the feel of home. I found the guest rooms to be very spacious (47-84 sqm) and the mix of hardwood flooring and area rugs along with the sliding walls between the marble bathroom and the bedroom made it feel almost like a chic apartment. A large work desk was most welcome and the understated Chinese ink-brush artwork was soothing. You’ll want to leave a few hours in your itinerary to make use of the spectacular Health Club & Spa which includes an indoor swimming pool, sauna and steam rooms and state-of-the-art gym occupying the entire third floor. Head up to the spacious outdoor rooftop terrace at YIN on 12 for gorgeous views of the nearby low-lying hutongs juxtaposed against Beijing’s modern buildings. Doubles with buffet breakfast start at USD 215. See for more.

If you go…

It’s easy enough to wander the hutongs on your own. However, a guide will help bring the history alive and provide innumerable little insights on hutong living. I did a 3-hour evening walk with Leo (free on select days) visiting the hutongs around Nanluguxiang shopping street, scenic Houhai Lake and more. A highlight was visiting the home of an older gentlemen who used to train fighting crickets.

To see Beijing like a true Pekinese, I engaged the help of the irrepressible Sunflower Li and spent the morning bicycling through some of the city’s hutongs. Bicycling allowed us to cover more ground and we explored both the posh and gritty sides of hutong life, with stops to photograph mahjong games, songbirds and picturesque canals. Sunflower enjoys exploring the hutongs in her own time and the tour felt more like spending time with a friend. Tours can also be combined with cooking classes.

The tea class was part of an excellent half-day food tour organized by Hias Gourmet. Accompanied by Shannon Aitken, one of the company’s founders, we explored Beijing’s history and culture through its food ― stinky tofu, Muslim snacks, steamed buns, egg griddle pancakes ― you name it, we ate it. Having been in Beijing 8 years (via Sydney), Shannon was a wealth of information on local culture and dazzled with her fluent Chinese. She also had great eating tips like not going anywhere that advertises a local menu, delaying dinner until 8pm to avoid the lines at the really good places and throwing yourself into a Chinese-only restaurant environment by asking what their zhao pai tsai (signature dish) is.

If you plan on visiting the Forbidden City, you’ll need to bring your passport to have your ticket issued. Better yet, skip the long lines and have your ticket pre-purchased online. Along with an expert guide, pre-arranging tickets was part of the In-depth Forbidden City Heritage Discovery Tour which follows a “no shopping” policy. Forest, my expert guide, was excellent and the tour flew by as it was more akin to storytelling than a conventional tour.

This article first appeared in Oi Vietnam magazine.
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