OFF THE WALL: A walk through Beijing's hutongs

Aug. 12, 2008, 10:52 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Cars and buses whiz by, relentlessly honking horns, barely missing bicyclists and pedestrians who weave through traffic without fear. Locals and tourists fill the sidewalks, peering into restaurants, bakeries and shops that sell produce or incense or kitschy Chinese souvenirs. High-rise condos loom.

This is the Beijing seen through windows of buses and taxis, on travel shows and in tourist guides.

Take a few steps off these bustling streets, though, and a more deep-rooted view of the city is revealed: the hutongs.

An important part of Beijing's history, these alleys are a link to the past, traditional houses and neighborhoods from thousands of years of culture still thriving today.

I stumbled upon this world by accident.

Searching for a restaurant where you can pick up a phone and listen to the voice of Chairman Mao - yes, that's what my exciting life has been reduced to - I ended up smack in the middle of Wei Xia Hutong, a maze of alleys in central Beijing that's home to thousands of people.

I had heard about hutongs, but it's one of those things not truly understood until experienced firsthand.

And what an experience it was.

Walking down the first alley, I was surprised by how peaceful it was; mere meters away, I had seen at least 20 people nearly die in the chaotic traffic of a major thoroughfare. Other than the cars parked along the sides, the alley felt like a time warp, a canopy of thick trees turning hazy sunlight into speckles on the sides of concrete, brick and stone walls that seemed to be centuries old.

Rusted and dingy bicycles leaned against trees, in doorways, balanced on walls; three-wheelers with pickup truck-like beds filled with trash, thin-wheeled relics with baskets of fruit on the front, two-seaters with children or friends riding on the back.

Shirts, pants and skirts hanged from wires strung between pipes, brackets, air conditioners - whatever the people could attach it to. Rabbits scampered around wire enclosures stacked on wooden crates, while a pet bird chirped in a round-topped cage hanging from hooks attached to underside of eaves. The smell of urine filled the air one moment, someone's delectable lunch the next.

People were everywhere, too, sitting on steps reading books, on buckets in circles talking, on chairs playing games. Many zipped by on motorized bicycles, ringing their bell as they approached foot traffic. A man and his son played badminton in front of their home, needing nearly five minutes to knock the shuttlecock from a tree with keys after getting it stuck.

It seemed everyone in the hutong was out at once, nearly everyone friendly, saying hello to foreigners, some striking up conversations to practice their English. Even the ones who seemed surly brightened up in response to a greeting of "ni hao" (Chinese for hello).

What really caught my attention, though, were the doorways.

Some ornate, some simply concrete squares, these doorways led to courtyards cluttered with overgrown plants and weather-worn furniture, to alleyways that led to more alleyways, to the kitchens and dining rooms of small restaurants, to bedrooms exposed for anyone to see.

Each had a different door; wobbly, rusted screens, paint-chipped double doors, wooden panes separating glass covered by newspapers or wallpaper.

And, except for the few that led to closed-for-lunch restaurants, most of these doorways were open, doors swung wide, some with no doors at all. It was tempting to walk through, peek into the interior of real life, experience it firsthand.

But that seemed like an intrusion, an invasion into a realm where I didn't belong.