When I arrived in Beijing from Seoul, the first thing I saw coming out of the departure zone was a Starbucks. I looked around and was so disappointed that the airport was so westernized, I almost thought I had been very wrong about China.
The fast train took me from the airport to the main part of the city and along the way I saw a sea of new buildings, green spaces and everything Beijing was not supposed to be from all the research I had done.
Then I arrived at the neighborhood where I would be staying. A few blocks away from the subway and I was immersed in the hutongs, a series of old alleyways and grey, one story buildings, where people still have no indoor plumbing and share the community bathrooms down the alley. I saw old folks sitting around and chatting, walking their dogs, which they treat like pampered pets and not food, and families going about their daily routine.
I found my hostel in one of the many doors full of character and for a while wondered if I had stepped back in time. The hostel as it turned out was super comfortable, had been upgraded with all the modern amenities I would need and had such a cozy feeling.
In the hutongs, you get a sense of old Beijing, one that is still operating at a slower pace, where neighbors have known each other for a long time, where people still smile and chat with strangers, kids run down playing with friends. A few blocks away, you can catch a modern subway train to one of the newer neighborhoods, where malls look and feel just like they do back home.
It’s such a contrast and although I read that most Beijiners have moved to sky rises in these new neighborhoods, there is a rejuvenation movement happening with artists, bed and breakfasts, and other businesses moving in to the hutongs for its character and touristic appeal. As they move in and upgrade these old buildings, they infuse new life into the old neighborhoods.
I chose to travel to Asia to see things that I would not see back at home, to be out of my comfort zone, to learn something new. It would have been extremely disappointing to see only high rises and western “things” in China, so I am glad I found accommodations in the hutongs and was able to see and feel this nostalgic place still trying to hold to its roots.
If you visit Beijing, try to stay at the hutongs. A few hours walking around will give you a taste, but not the full experience of what it is like to become part of it.
Have you been to a place like this? Any funny stories?