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.
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…).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.