Beijing: hutongs and the Forbidden City

Sebastien Chaneac

Beijing was our first stop in China in August 2014 after a 30 hours train journey from Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

Nomadic Boys arriving in Beijing after a 30 hours train journey from Ulan Bator
Nomadic Boys arriving in Beijing after a 30 hours train journey from Ulan Bator

Beijing is hot in August.  Really hot!

And, it's packed PACKED full of people: its population is around 20 million (almost x3 times the size of London).

So, our first journey on the ultra modern subway was quite an experience!

People people people everywhere:

Rush hour in Beijing's subway - people people people everywhere....!
Rush hour in Beijing's subway – people people people everywhere….!

Beijing is fun though.

It's a highlight for foodies and also has some cultural gems like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

Our favourite thing about Beijing (other then its comical abbreviation of BJ by locals) was the small back alley “hutongs” where the commoners historically lived as they were banished from going anywhere near the Forbidden City.

The hutong back alleys of Beijing

Historically, the centre point of Beijing was the Forbidden City where the Emperors and their many concubines (women battling to become Empress) would live.

The rest of the population lived outside in courtyard like small pedestrianised streets branching outwards, called “hutongs”, which branched outwards from the Forbidden City.

A Beijing hutong at the Nanluoguxiang district
A Beijing hutong at the Nanluoguxiang district

As Beijing developed into a powerhouse populated by 20 million people, the number of hutongs has reduced and there are now around 1,000 left.

The hutongs that remain are great fun to explore and get lost in:

Exploring and getting lost inside a hutong in Beijing
Exploring and getting lost inside a hutong in Beijing
This old man contemplating the day's activities at Nanluoguxiang hutong
This old man contemplating the day's activities at Nanluoguxiang hutong
Exploring and getting lost inside a hutong in Beijing
Exploring and getting lost inside a hutong in Beijing

Our hostel was based in the middle of a hutong.  Sitting outside our hostel and watching the world go by was a favourite pastime and a great insight into life inside a hutong:

 

 

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (or “Palace Museum”) is considered one of the highlights of China and a must see when in Beijing:

Nomadic Boys' Forbidden City selfie
Nomadic Boys' Forbidden City selfie

This was the political heart of the Chinese Empire for almost 500 years and also where all the Emperors lived.  Commoners were not allowed inside, hence the name.  The only commoners allowed to enter were eunuchs (men who had been castrated).  This was historically popular because in exchange for their manhood, men would receive a better future within the city walls.

Stefan's attempt to apply to be a Forbidden City eunuch (and avoid the entry fee) completely failed
Stefan's attempt to apply to be a Forbidden City eunuch (and avoid the entry fee) completely failed

But, like most things in China, it's packed with people.  This tourist attraction has to be the worst we've ever encountered.  We visited on Thursday early morning and there were hoards of tour groups everywhere.  This quickly became suffocating and almost ruined our experience of it.

To enter the Forbidden City, you first go through airport style security into the famous Tiananmen Square, where this is a very visual tribute to Mao Zedong:

Tiananmen Square tribute to Mao Zedong
Tiananmen Square tribute to Mao Zedong

Upon entering the Forbidden City, you see many beautiful temples and palaces.

Admiring the inside of the Forbidden City
Admiring the inside of the Forbidden City
Beautiful staircase in the Forbidden City
Beautiful staircase in the Forbidden City
Seb by the Nine Dragon Screen in the Forbidden City
Seb by the Nine Dragon Screen in the Forbidden City

Many of the temples in China have a number of small beasts lined up with a lama monk leading them.  It is said that the higher the number of these little beasts, the more important that building is:

The line of small beasts at the top of important buildings
The line of small beasts at the top of important buildings

The highlight of the Forbidden City for us was leaving it and visiting the neighbouring Jingshan Park, away from the hoards of people and tour groups.

At Jinghshan Park you climb a small hill where you get a beautiful, almost bird's eye view of the Forbidden City:

View of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park
View of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

Picnic at the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace was initially built in 1750 as a luxurious royal garden, outside the Forbidden City, for the Emperors to rest or entertain and later became their main residence.

Beijing's Summer Palace: historically Royal Parks for the Emperors to entertain and rest in
Beijing's Summer Palace: historically Royal Parks for the Emperors to entertain and rest in
Hilarious photo bomb at the Summer Palace
Hilarious photo bomb at the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is a great spot for a picnic on a hot August summer's day in Beijing, with some beautiful scenery:

Admiring the scenery at our Summer Palace picnic
Admiring the scenery at our Summer Palace picnic

For more, watch our China travel video as we ate our way from Beijing in the North all the way to the south via Pingyao, Xi'An, Shanghai, Yangshuo through to Shangri-La:

 

Happy travels are safe travels

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Sebastien Chaneac

Sebastien is the co-founder, editor and author of nomadicboys.com. He is a tech geek, a total travel nerd and a food enthusiast. He spends the majority of his time planning Nomadic Boys' travels meticulously right down to the minute details. Sebastien has travelled to over 80 countries with his partner in crime and the love of his life, Stefan. He regularly shares his expertise of what it’s like travelling as a gay couple both on Nomadic Boys and on prominent publications ranging from Pink News, Matador, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and many more. Originally from France, Sebastien moved to London in the early 2000s where he pursued a career as a computer programmer for Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg. He subsequently left it all to explore his passion for travelling around the world with Stefan to hand, and thus Nomadic Boys was born. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

4 thoughts on “Beijing: hutongs and the Forbidden City”

  1. I was in Beijing in November. REALLY cold! But no crowds. I just had to fight through a sea of selfie sticks to get a picture of the emperor’s throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. (The Great Wall was fine too, but very slippery.) It warmed up my last two days, but that’s when the high alert smog came in. So when I went up to Jingshan Park, I had almost no view of the Forbidden City. Certainly not the fabulous view you guys had.

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