The other side of Beijing

When we think about Beijing, famous landmarks like Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace or the Forbidden City come to our mind. But there is much more to see in Beijing, and it is relatively easy to discover the local life off the touristic path.


Imagine an industrial area with old warehouses and shacks made out of red bricks which now host galleries, museums, studios, bookstores, craft shops and cafés. Strolling along those buildings, you find artistic sculptures, charming patios and colourful flower pots, and you see fancy dressed women asking their husbands to take pictures of them in front of the graffiti walls. It feels like being in hipster Soho or Berlin Kreuzberg, but with an Asian touch. This is 798 Art District, my favourite part of Beijing.

Courtyard in Beijing's art district

Courtyard in the art district

It bears a certain irony though that the art scene decided to settle down in the former working area, in the old buildings of factories from the times of the Cultural Revolution when culture, art, creativity and individualism were oppressed. On some walls, you can still see the old Maoist slogans and some shops sell vintage Maoist junk and t-shirts making fun of the former chairman (but also Hitler or even Trump…).

China Beijing Art District

798 Art District in Beijing

Hidden old town

Who is rather looking for traditional places in Beijing needs to know how to find them. While the centre of many European cities still lies around the carefully preserved old town, in Beijing and many other Asian countries this is rarely the case as old areas often got torn down in order to build a modern part of the city.

In Beijing, there are still some parts of what used to be the old town, but they are mostly hidden behind stylish buildings, cut off the main road. The government felt shameful for those less fancy and less shiny parts of the city and cleaned up big areas, which means either they renovated it or completely destroyed it so they could build a new neighbourhood.

Renovated hutong in Beijing

A renovated hutong

To find the real old town in Beijing, you need to look for hutongs. Hutong is the name for the old, narrow alleys with traditional courtyard residences, formed by single-story, concrete buildings. In the past, there were more than 3000 hutongs around the Forbidden City, but today only about 1000 of those still exist.

But this is where the local life takes place, especially outside on the streets, since the buildings usually are very small. Walking through these neighbourhoods you might find kids running around, cats sleeping in the sun, families sharing meals and old men playing the traditional Chinese game Mah Jongg.

daily life in hutongs

Daily life in hutongs

I was surprised by the large amount of (clean!) public toilets in those areas, but thanks to a Chinese girl I met through Couchsurfing, I learned that these toilets were not built for tourists – many of these old houses simply don’t have its own bathroom, so public restrooms and showers in the streets serve as common bathroom, still today.

Even though hutongs are becoming the more the more popular amongst tourists (national as well as international) it is still relatively easy to find some streets in which rarely a tourist passes by. Yet, some of these neighbourhoods seem to go with the time and get commercially oriented, opening rooftop bars and having cafés with patios and offering fancy hand drip coffee. No surprise that this is a place where mostly local hipsters and expats hang out.

Green lung

Another part I really liked in Beijing are the parks, like Beihai park or Jingshan park. From the latter you have a nice view on the Forbidden City and modern Beijing. Even though you don’t really escape the smog in those parks neither, it is at least a nice possibility to bypass the traffic and rumble on the main streets.

Public park in Beijing

Green spaces in Beijing

The locals as well enjoy their green spaces, not only for a walk but as a multifunctional gathering place. Picnics with the multigenerational families seem to be the main activity here, couples rent small boats to row on the lake, and you will also find people doing exercises, Tai Chi or running, or groups singing and dancing together – something which wasn’t possible a few years back.

Beijing dancing

Dancing in a park in Beijing

#EvaMeetsWorld – Dawid: Holidays that changed his life

Dawid was looking for a new job when he found a volunteering trip to Nepal. While the data analyst was mixing cement for a new school on the top of a mountain during his holidays, he realised that this trip was about to change his life.


I met Dawid in a small town more than 140 km outside of Kathmandu. Dawid is a 29-years old Polish guy living in England. He was part of a project which aimed to rebuild a school that had been destroyed by the recent earthquake. My friend and I went to see their project and to give a hand for the day. Quickly I realised that for Dawid, this was not just an interesting way to spend his vacation, there was more to it.

Looking for a job and finding a trip

Travelling has always been part of Dawid’s life, up to four times a year he tries to go somewhere he’s never been before and be it just a different town in the UK for a long weekend. He loves to discover new places, especially in his own way: «I don’t like to visit a city by taxi or rickshaw, I usually run», he says. He doesn’t use a precise map but just runs through different streets. «I love getting lost because then I find myself.»

A picture of Dawid in Nepal

But actually, Dawid was not looking for vacation when he found this trip to Nepal: «My main drive is knowledge», says Dawid. «In my job, I haven’t learned anything new in one year, so I was browsing for a new job, without any specific idea in mind, more a bit like window shopping…»

While looking for different job offers, he happened to stumble upon a Canadian organisation that was looking for volunteers for a school-building project in Nepal. The earthquake of April 2015 had destroyed many schools, one of them in a small town on a mountain close to Gorkha where the epicentre of the earthquake was. The plan was to work on the school for two weeks, and to do some sightseeing on a few days, to see the Himalaya and Kathmandu.

A picture of the place where the school is being rebuilt

No fear of challenges

Dawid got interested. He liked the idea of combining travel with volunteering. This trip was quite expensive, even the flight itself. «But I wanted it really bad, so I made it happen.» This is a Leitmotiv he follows in his life in general. «I hate standing still.»

When he was 19, he left his home country Poland to go to the UK in search of work. He was not afraid of arriving in an unknown country, no, he was hungry for the unknown. He found a job, an apartment, friends. He realised he had managed to build himself a new life in a completely different environment. When the company proposed to send him to the branch in Singapore, he happily accepted this challenge, too.

So Nepal was his next big adventure. Used to work on a computer as a data analyst for a behavioural marketing company, he found himself in a sleeveless shirt mixing cement with water under the burning sun. And surprisingly, he felt satisfaction. «Volunteering for an NGO is much more rewarding than working for a company where you are just a small fish in a pond», he says.

A picture of Dawid in Nepal

Doing something good while travelling

This experience made Dawid discover that there was something in his mind that had been sleeping for years: «I don’t want to make money, I want to do something that matters.» His first decision was: «No more two-weeks-on-the-beach vacations: I want to do something good when I travel.» There are many NGOs who are in need of volunteers, and at the same time, it would allow him to discover a new place, a new culture. «Anyway, it is not possible to say which projects deserve more attention, so I just pick the ones which are in a region I’d love to discover.»

Soon, he realised that this would not satisfy him. Why only doing good when travelling? «I decided to quit my job and look for work in an NGO», Dawid says.

Meanwhile, he found a job in an NGO in Honduras and left the UK for good. A new life is awaiting him.

And he’s sure to go back to Nepal, too. A freshly made tattoo on his leg keeps a permanent reference mark of this experience on his skin: a volunteering-travel trip which had literally changed his life. His advice to other travellers: «Don’t think too much, but have an open heart.» And: «Don’t take a cab. Just walk.»

A picture of the tattoo Dawid got