Top 10 Places in Beijing – Hutongs

Posted on 16. Apr, 2014 by in architecture, architecture and landscaping, Culture, government, history, housing, sightseeing, travel

It’s finally here – we’ve come to the very end of our Top 10 places in Beijing countdown. With so many historical sites, cultural icons, amazing nightlife spots and more, China’s capital city has it all. On our countdown through the best of the best, we’ve visited the university district of Wudaokou, done tai chi with the retired folks in local parks, walked from Qianmen to Jingshan, gotten wild in Sanlitun and the Worker’s Stadium area, and much more. Although Beijing is definitely a modern city with massive shopping malls, bumping nightlife districts, and even sports car clubs, the top spot in our countdown is going to the city’s traditional neighborhoods:

#1 – The Hutongs

Strolling down a Beijing hutong.

Strolling down a Beijing hutong.

In recent years, traditional Beijing alleyways, or hutongs (胡同 – hú tòng), have been disappearing at an alarming rate. With a population of over 20 million and a government that is obsessed with modernization and development, this should come as no surprise. To many, however, the hutongs are the very heart of Beijing. These narrow alleys with courtyard homes and local shops have been not only the residences, but also the social center of life for millions of Beijingers. Stroll down a Beijing hutong, and it seems as if everybody knows everybody else. Neighbors greet each other and chat over a game of chess, most likely still in their pajamas. In the hutong, you go to your local guy for your every need – the local butcher, the local barber, the local xiaomaibu (小卖部 – xiǎo mài bù – a small shop) – the people know you and you know them. This is a far cry from the modern lifestyle of Beijing, which takes place in ugly high-rise apartments where people don’t even know their neighbor’s name and they do all of their shopping at the superstore a few blocks away.

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Learn a bit more about hutongs in this video.

Hutongs sure beat high-rise apartments.

Hutongs sure beat high-rise apartments.

Back in imperial times, Beijing was very much centered on the Forbidden City. Outside of these walls where the emperor lived were the Inner and Outer Cities. In terms of modern-day Beijing, the Inner City was within the 2nd Ring Road. Here lived high-ranking officials, who built grand courtyard homes, known as siheyuan (四合院 – sì hé yuàn) in Chinese. Moving north into the Outer City, you could find the common people. Their courtyard homes were much simpler and less elaborate than the big shots in the Inner City, and with more folks living together, the hutongs were narrower. The city continued to grow as more courtyard homes were built and then connected to others via new hutongs. At the peak, it is said there were well over 3,000 such alleyways in Beijing. Today, that number has dropped to below one thousand and continues to fall.

Will old Beijing disappear? We sure hope not!

Will old Beijing disappear? We sure hope not!

Thankfully, many of these traditional neighborhoods have been granted a protected status and are avoiding the bulldozer (at least for now). Many others have developed into shopping, dining, and nightlife hubs that still house hundreds of people in the surrounding courtyards. Take, for example, NLGX (南锣鼓巷 – nán luó gǔ xiàng). This ancient hutong has transformed over the years into one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, and is also a popular choice for locals to go out on the weekend. There are still plenty of courtyard homes here, but it’s easy to not notice them amidst the bars, boutique shops, street vendors, and more. Another, slightly quieter example, can be seen at Wudaoying (五道营 – Wǔ dào yíng). A bunch of fantastic restaurants, shops, and even music venues have popped up in this hutong in recent years. A comprehensive list of Beijing hutongs can be found here, and can help you plan a visit should you find yourself in the city.

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Explore NLGX with us!

The Drum Tower above old Beijing.

The Drum Tower above old Beijing.

Waiting for the tourists...

Waiting for the tourists…

Perhaps the most popular area to stroll through old Beijing alleyways is the Drum & Bell Tower neighborhood, including the Shichahai lakes (什刹海 – shí chà hǎi). Every day, you’ll see trishaw drivers wheeling around camera-toting tourists through the surrounding hutongs. While this is a decent way to see Beijing’s famous neighborhoods, a much better option is simply getting your own two wheels and getting lost in the meandering maze that is the city’s hutong network. Stop here and there for a cup of tea, a bowl of noodles, or a game of mahjong. You’ll find that the people in the hutongs are incredibly friendly, and most will be eager to chat with a 外国人. What better way to practice your Chinese than with “old Beijingers” (老北京人 – lǎo běi jīng rén) in the famous alleyways of Beijing?

So there you have it, folks – we’ve counted down the Top 10 places in Beijing. Of course, this list could be different for anyone. Have you been to Beijing? What are your favorite places in the city? We’d love to hear from you!

Historical Video Tour of China

Posted on 14. Apr, 2014 by in architecture, architecture and landscaping, Art, Buddhism, Culture, food, history, Leisure, religion, sightseeing, train, travel

For history and culture buffs, this a perfect tour to follow in China for 7-10 days. In the capital, explore Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the National Museum, and the Great Wall. Then head to Luoyang, where you’ll be in awe of the Longmen Buddhist Grottoes. From there, it’s off to Xi’an to walk the City Wall and see the famous Terracotta Warriors.

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北京 – běi jīng

天安门 – tiān’ān mén
Tiananmen Square

中国国家博物馆 – zhōng guó guó jiā bó wù guǎn
National Museum of China

故宫 – gù gōng
Forbidden City

长城 – cháng chéng
Great Wall

洛阳 – luò yáng

龙门石窟 – lóng mén shí kū
Longmen Grottoes

白马寺 – bái mǎ sì
White Horse Temple

西安 – xī’ān

羊肉泡馍 – yáng ròu pào mó
mutton stew

城墙 – chéng qiáng
City Wall

兵马俑 – bīng mǎ yǒng
Terra-Cotta Warriors

Southeast Asia

Posted on 09. Apr, 2014 by in Art, Culture, environment, history, Leisure, sightseeing, travel, Vocabulary

SE Asia on the map.

SE Asia on the map.

Normally it’s pretty easy for me to churn out China and Chinese related content here; after all, I have been calling China my home away from home for over the past five years. However, for the past five months I’ve been traveling non-stop through Southeast Asia. At the moment, I’m celebrating having just finished my Open Water certificate for scuba diving here on Koh Tao in Thailand, and I’m working on plans for the final leg of our trip through Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. As such, SE Asia is just about the only thing I have on my mind! For many people who decide to move to China, chances are you’ll probably end up taking a trip through this part of the world. Whether it’s a week-long island holiday to escape the smog of Chinese mega-cities, or an extended backpacking trip at the end of a long stint in China, a trip along the “Banana Pancake” is high on many travel bucket lists. To help you learn some more useful Chinese and get better acquainted with this part of the world (where you’ll of course bump into TONS of Chinese people), here’s a little SE Asia blog post for ya:


There are officially eleven countries in Southeast Asia. Here are all of them plus Chinese translations:

  • Brunei (文莱 – wén lái)

  • Cambodia (柬埔寨 – jiǎn pǔ zhài)

  • East Timor (东帝汶 – dōng dì wèn)

  • Indonesia (印度尼西亚 – yìn dù ní xī yà)

  • Laos (老挝 – lǎo wō)

  • Malaysia (马来西亚 – mǎ lái xī yà)

  • Myanmar (缅甸 – miǎn diàn)

  • Philippines (菲律宾 – fēi lǜ bīn)

  • Singapore (新加坡 – xīn jiā pō)

  • Thailand (泰国 – tài guó)

  • Vietnam (越南 – yuè nán)

With diverse cultures, fascinating history, delicious cuisine, pristine beaches, tons of adventure activities, and so much more, it’s no wonder that SE Asia is one of the most popular areas of the world when it comes to tourism. Here are just a few of the highlights of traveling here:


  • Taking a boat trip around stunning Halong Bay (下龙湾 – xià lóng wān) in Vietnam

Incredible Halong Bay

Incredible Halong Bay

  • Amazing rice terraces (梯田 – tī tián) in Banaue, Philippines
  • Catching sunrise at the epic Angkor Wat (吴哥窟 – wú gē kū) temple in Cambodia

Watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat.

Watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat.

  • Floating along the Nam Song River in an inner tube (内胎 – nèi tāi) in Laos

In the tubing!

In the tubing!

  • Learning to surf on Bali island (巴厘岛 – bā lí dǎo), Indonesia
  • Jungle trekking or elephant riding in Chiang Mai (清迈 – qīng mài), northern Thailand

Riding on Dumbo's back in Chiang Mai.

Riding on Dumbo’s back in Chiang Mai.

  • Glittering temples and seedy red light districts in Bangkok (曼谷 – màn gǔ)

Wat Pho, Bangkok

Wat Pho, Bangkok

  • Scuba diving (潜水 – qián shuǐ) at a multitude of locations
  • A whirlwind trip to the “Big Four” of Myanmar – Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan, and Yangon

Local fisherman on Inle Lake.

Local fisherman on Inle Lake.

  • National parks and close encounters with wildlife in Borneo (婆罗洲 – pó luó zhōu)

As you can see, there’s no shortage of things to do in SE Asia! Should you find yourself planning a trip to this part of the world, here’s something to keep in mind – during the biggest Chinese holidays (Spring Festival, May Day, and National Day), there will be an insane number of Chinese people also traveling there. As such, flights are more expensive, rooms are harder to come by, and you’ll be fighting massive matching-hat-wearing Chinese tour groups – not exactly an enjoyable vacation! To help prepare you, here’s a list of hot spots with Chinese tourists, which you may want to consider avoiding during the aforementioned holidays:

Chinese Hot Spots

  • Angkor Wat: The temples of Angkor are FULL of Chinese tour groups, especially during the Spring Festival. Unless you want thousands of selfie-snapping Chinese people in your sunrise photos, visit at another time of year.
  • Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Laos: Since the closure of most of the Nam Song river bars, packaged tour Chinese are pouring into Vang Vieng, even more so than gap year kids and party animals (at least during Chinese New Year). Luang Prabang is absolute chaos at this time, and was an awful experience for us a few months ago. Go somewhere else in Laos far off the beaten track to escape.
  • Chiang Mai and Pai, northern Thailand: Ever since the release of the smash Chinese comedy “Lost in Thailand” (人再囧途之泰囧 – Rén zài jiǒng tú zhī tài jiǒng), more and more Chinese people are traveling to this part of Thailand in an attempt to recreate the famous movie. If you end up there during a Chinese holiday, don’t be surprised if you see more Chinese people than Thai!
  • Phuket and Phi Phi island: With direct flights from China and plenty of upscale hotels, Phuket attracts tons of Chinese travelers who’ve got more and more RMB to blow on vacation. Thanks to its proximity, Phi Phi island also packs in hordes of Chinese, who seem to have reserved their very own section of the small island.
  • Singapore: Perhaps thanks to its reputation as an impeccably clean city, Singapore brings in boat-loads of Chinese tourists, who are most likely looking to escape their horribly polluted cities.

Wherever you travel in SE Asia, or the world for that matter, don’t be surprised to see more and more groups of Chinese tourists. In fact, just last year Chinese overtook Germans as the world’s biggest tourism spenders. With more and more Chinese people traveling around the world, it’s not surprising to find out that they also seem to now be the world’s most hated tourists. But perhaps that is a topic for another day…

Language Learning

More rewarding travel to these parts of the world can come by learning some of the language and culture before you visit. Here are some links for Transparent Language:

Also, keep an eye out for a ton of new SE Asia related content this summer. We’ll be launching Vietnamese and Burmese YouTube channels, an Indonesian Language & Culture blog, and there will be tons of awesome new content on both the Thai blog and YouTube pages.