Ruth Vahle
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Expat Life

Experience Beijing off the beaten path

Do you want to discover a new side of Beijing? Or have visitors that already checked the usual sights off their list? Well, there are off the beaten path Beijing tours that explore the hutongs, parks, architecture and more.

A friend of mine, Cesar, offers these tours. Cesar is a Spaniard who’s been living in Beijing for almost 10 years. Last month I joined him for a 3 hour hutong bike tour.

I thought I really knew Beijing. I have lived in many different parts of Beijing, from the outskirts outside the 5th ring road to Gulou inside the 2nd ring, and others places like Dongsishitiao, Maizidian, Sanlitun, and near Ritan Park. Still, Cesar managed to surprise me and showed us beautiful hidden spots, even near where I used to live.

Exploring Beijing hutongs

Hutongs are the narrow alleyways lined by traditional courtyard houses that are so typical of the old Beijing. Grey brick walls and red doors plus some colorful wood accents dominate the scene.

Unfortunately, the hutongs are disappearing more and more, replaced by higher more modern buildings. Some old houses are“restored”; basically they look brand new built in the old style. But the true old sections are increasingly hard to find. Since the alleys are narrow and interesting sections are spread out, a bike tour is a good way to explore the hutongs.

Biking through the hutongs

I brought my own bike for the tour. But if you or your visitors don’t have one, you can borrow a bike or e-bike thru Cesar. Or use a bike share like Mobike if you have access to the app.

We met in Dongzhimen and started for a short moment on the 2nd ring road, a very busy street. Once we turned off the ring road into a small side street, we quickly found ourselves in an older area. It is amazing how quiet the quaint hutong streets are. It’s hard to believe that you are in the middle of the city, and sometimes only a few blocks away from a major 6-lane road.

First we biked through small alleys in Dongsi and stopped at the Fu Wang Fu mansion. Fu Wang Fu is one of just three former imperial residences, like the better known Prince Gong’s imperial mansion.

Unlike Prince Gong’s mansion, Fu Wang Fu has not been turned into a museum. Therefore you can only enter thru the impressive main door and have a look into the big courtyard, lined by two-story buildings. But you can’t walk around inside and visit the buildings. I learned from Cesar that only imperial mansions could have two stories. Other hutong houses are limited to only one story.

Two huge stone lions stand guard outside the mansion. They are supposedly bigger than the lions at the Forbidden City. Here the lions overlook a dusty street corner filled with parked cars.

Inside traditional courtyard houses

We kept cycling thru the narrow alleys and stopped at another courtyard. Back in the days, a courtyard house was used by one family and had a series of open courtyards, hence the name. But over time, more living space was needed, and people build houses inside the courtyards. This turned the once grand open spaces into a maze of ramshackle housing and narrow pathways.

Some inhabitants are friendly and open to visitors checking out their courtyard. Others not so much. Cesar knows the visitor friendly courtyards. We stepped inside one that still had the old wooden gate intact but almost completely built into other structures.

We also visited the large Chongli courtyard house that still has some open spaces. It used to be a huge residence of a politician. Cesar pointed out special features in the outer walls and other interesting details.

Our last stop was at a great courtyard complex tucked away in a newer residential area. It now serves as a high end restaurant Gui Gongfu and is nicely restored.

As I said earlier, I was really surprised to see nice traditional places and areas that I didn’t know before. Granted, if we had done the tour in Gulou, it would’ve been harder to surprise me. But Gulou has been extensively “cleaned up” in the last few years and lost much of its old charm. That’s why we focused on other areas.

Biking, photography, Great Wall camping and more

Cesar also offers other tours, like photography walks or architecture tours that cover some of the newer signature buildings of Beijing. He also organizes camping trips to unrestored sections of the great wall.

Since groups are small, all tours can be customized.

I think this is a fun way to spend a day exploring a side of Beijing that many expats never see. It is also a great way to keep your foreign visitors occupied while you have to work.

The image of his flyer links to his website but honestly it’s not that great. You cannot make any bookings via the website. Best way to communicate with Cesar is view WeChat, his WeChat ID is cesarcasellas.

(Full disclosure: I did not have to pay for this tour in exchange for writing about it. As always, I share my own experience and my honest opinion. I do not receive compensation if you book a tour with him. Just helping out a friend.)

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