Beixinqiao to Shichahai walking tour

Explore the imperial history in the heart of Beijing's hutongs

This 90 minute hutong walk will take you on a historical tour from the imperial dynasties through Communist upheaval before arriving in the rush of modern China. Tissues at the ready – there's a whole lot of unhappy endings down these alleyways.

1 Beixinqiao park


Start here, in a small communal play area and granny dancing spot just west of Beixinqiao station Exit D, at a rather spurious looking modern replica of a bridge – the beixinqiao, or 'north new bridge' – that until recently stood in this spot since the Ming Dynasty. Apparently, when plans for the city were laid down in the 15th century, a cranky dragon had to be shoved down a bottomless well, with the agreement that it would stay down there as long as there was a bridge over the top of it. When the subway station was built in 2007 locals advised city planners that digging down to unearth a dragon wasn’t the best idea, and so this replica was thrown up as an appeasement. How many steps does the bridge have?

2 Bike market


Walk south down Dongsi Bei Dajie until you spot a cluster of bikes on the street and some grumpy looking chaps guarding them. One of those Beijing oddities that passes into local legend, this hotspot for trading in two-wheelers might appear a tad illegitimate, but is accepted with such a shrug by locals that it’s hard to bear its truculent traders any malice. What type of vintage item is displayed in the window opposite?

3 Courtyard mansion


Continue down Dongsi Bei Dajie, then turn right down Xiguan Hutong and look for a traditional courtyard house on your right-hand side. Beijing was initially designed with a square wall defining the city boundaries and nine gates (Tiananmen, Andingmen et al) inset at regular intervals. These gates were then joined with broad avenues, with the blocks in between filled with a maze of hutongs. After the Qing conquest in 1644, the residents in this area were moved south – taking the fun of brothels, drinking dens and restaurants with them – and the alleyways transitioned to form courtyard homes for Government officials. This entrance gate would have indicated the status of its owner in line with the state’s sumptuary laws, with the four knobs above the door denoting high status and the round carvings to the side of the door showing that the courtyard was occupied by a military official. Post 1949, this mansion was gifted to a man who was instrumental in the development of Communist China’s aesthetics and mythos. Whose home was this and what did he do that was so notable?

4 Shrine to Wen Tianxiang

Continue to walk along Xiguan Hutong until you reach a crossroads with Beijianzi Xiang, then take a left. Go south along this street, then take the second right to find yourself on Fuxue Hutong where you can then search for the shrine. There’s a lot of misconceptions of the Song Dynasty as one of arts and poetry, rather than macho running around in armour hacking at people, but General Wen Tianxiang was so good at being a killing machine that, upon his capture by the invading armies of Kublai Khan in 1278, the Mongolian government wanted him to switch sides and work for them. Wen refused, and was killed. Because it was popularly accepted that he was imprisoned here, the space was turned into a shrine. Peep through the door; what’s in the centre of the courtyard?

5 Higher education centre


Continue down Fuxue Hutong, cross Jiaodaokou Nan Dajie, and dive down Dong Mianhua Hutong. Walk to the end. You’re coming up to Nanluoguxiang now, and here be dragons – this time of the tackier variety. Lifestyle habits in the hutongs that remained broadly unchanged for centuries are now under threat from gentrification. This school on the right, just before you hit Nanluoguxiang, is cited by many as the reason why the hutong became so gentrified; its students fuelled a demand for cafés, bars and shops. What is the name of this school with the churro-loving students?

6 Birthplace of Empress Wanrong


Head onto Nanluoguxiang and turn right to walk north for a few paces until you spot Mao’er Hutong on your left. Turn down the alleyway and look for this courtyard mansion on your right-hand side. The wife of the last emperor of China, Wanrong was born here in 1906 as the daughter of a court official. Educated in the Western fashion, Wanrong suffered the misfortune to have been married to the abdicated Last Emperor, Puyi. When he was installed as the puppet emperor of the Japanese-occupied areas of Manchuria in 1932, Wanrong went with him and was captured by Communist forces and thrown into prison, where she died, aged only 39, in the throes of opium withdrawal. What colour is the door on the left-hand side of the mansion?

7 Canal


Carry on walking down Mao’er Hutong until you hit a canal. This canal has existed in some form or another for 1,000 years and was at one point attached to the main artery connecting southern and northern China – the Grand Canal – which stretched nearly 2,000km down to Hangzhou. This section is called the 'Jade River', and would at one point have helped transport grain and other goods from the fertile agricultural landscapes of the south up to the bustling trading port that was situated at Shichahai during the period of Mongolian rule. Facing south, what is the building to your left-hand side?

8 Great Leap Brewing #6 Brewpub


To reach your final clue, keep walking for a few metres, with the canal on your left, then take a right on Doujiao Hutong and follow the curve around until you reach a fork. Take the right-hand route and you’ll reach Great Leap Brewing. Great Leap was the first craft brewery in Beijing to specialise in brews with 'Chinese characteristics', and has become somewhat of an institution in the city; this is its original location, and perhaps the most photogenic. Go grab a pint of something, weary wanderers – you deserve it. When is kicking-out time at this esteemed drinking establishment?

Context Travel We explored these historic hutongs with the help of sinologist Jeremiah Jenne from Context Travel, who took us on the fascinating 'Traditions and Transitions' walking tour. If you’d like even more insight on Beijing’s turbulent history, visit their website for private guides and small group tours.

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