Dispatch from China: Eat Like a Local in Beijing's Hutongs


Travel Agent is just back from a 12-day tour of Hidden China and Inner Mongolia. Check out our video exploring the hutongs of Beijing!

All photos by Meagan Drillinger

There’s much to be said about Beijing’s history. You simply cannot come to Beijing and not visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and marvel at everything this metropolis has come to mean over the centuries. And it’s all beautiful and mind-blowing and everything you would expect from Chinese history. But for me, the real glimpse into Beijing and its place in the world can be found in the back alleys of the local hutongs. 

RELATED: Dispatch from China: Arriving in Beijing

Hutongs are the historic neighborhoods of Beijing that have been kept undeveloped. These narrow alleys give way to tiny restaurants, open doorways that lead into private homes, shops and more. Winding your way through the streets you can catch a real look at local life in Beijing as people bathe, hang laundry and conduct business. 

Just off Tiananmen Square on Qianman Street is a maze of hutong alleys where adventurous travelers can get lost among aromas of roast duck, noodles, dumplings, dried fruits and more. Motorbikes zig and zag, darting around pedestrians and dangling laundry lines, in a web-like frenzy of activity. I found myself drawn to a noodle shop on a corner (name completely in Chinese characters, so I wish I could tell you the name - that’s beauty of the hutongs: no English). Inside was a dizzying array of Chinese soups, noodle dishes, dumplings and sauces. I picked up a couple of Tsing Tao beers from the convenience store across the alley and settled down at a plastic table to dig into a steaming bowl of saucy noodles and plump, stuffed dumplings. 

For less than $7 I was stuffed to the gills with made-to-order, authentic Northern Chinese specialties, served with the ubiquitous table-side tin of chili oil. No sweet and sour pork here, folks. The best part was the clientele: not an American in sight. 

For those who may be wary of venturing off into a spot where very little English is spoken or understood, fear not. I don’t speak or understand a lick of Mandarin, but through simple hand gestures and pointing at pictures of menu items, it was easy enough to nail down exactly what I wanted. It should be said, though, that picky eaters would probably want to steer clear. There is no room here for dietary restrictions or explanation of what exactly is going into that sauce. Just trust, and be delighted. 

We are off on an overnight train this evening to take us into Inner Mongolia where we will spend a day and night with a local family in a traditional ger tent. Stay tuned for more from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia on this 12-day adventure trek with G Adventures.

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