Dashilar Hutong

2013-02-06

Pronounced as 'da shi la r' by the local people, it may be the most ancient, famous and distinctive commercial street in the hutongs of Beijing. Located outside the Qianmen Gate, it takes only dozens of steps to walk from southwestTian'anmen Square to its east end. The prosperous classes of the ancient capital nurtured Daliar's businesses. Now, it is famous for all kinds of stores that remain an antique flavor. Many people come here to experience the relics of historic wealth. Every day there are 150,000-160,000 visitors. On weekends and public holidays, this increases to more than 200,000.

Branching off west from Qianmen, the hutong is a major thoroughfare, lined with large shops selling Chinese knickknacks and foods. Megaphones bark out prerecorded sales announcements, determined to be heard over the bustling crowd squeezing past. A woman selling mechanized birds tosses them into the air, oblivious to the angry eyes of ducking passersby.

Visitors from across China flock to this destination, delighted to spend their RMB on China-centric souvenirs and novelties. Although some traditional architecture is visible here (mostly reconstructions), most things historical are obscured by the lights, the pitchmen and the noise.

Some visitors understandably gloss over this sensory overload, but those with a particular interest in hutong culture won't want to miss seeing Qianshi Hutong, the narrowest hutong in the city. Just off of Dashilar's Qianmen end, Qianshi Hutong was once the city's monetary trading center. Its 70 centimeter width was designed to help thwart thieves. Today, the sliver of a hutong is easily overlooked, which is probably for the better: such tight confines are claustrophobic enough with only one person exploring them.

Continuing west across Meishi Street, history becomes much easier to ascertain, notable in the dilapidated tea house once frequented by late famous Chinese writer Lu Xun, or the weathered remains of centuries-old hotels. The farther the distance from Qianmen, the thinner the crowd, and the less intrusive the stores and hawkers. A number of buzzing cafes and restaurants convincingly give history its nod, while some locally-run spots offer no-frills local cuisine. One local fruit vendor said, "There are some centuries-old stores here in Dashilar, like Tongrentang, Neilianshen and Liubiju. It's a place to eat, drink and play."

The third section of Dashilar is marked off by a green gazebo/sculpture made from curls of wire, a reminder that Dashilar also doubles as the heart of Beijing Design Week. But once past the art, visitors suddenly find themselves in an impressively characteristic Beijing hutong. The sky is partly blocked out by a mass of electric wires suspended from telephone poles. Stores and laundromats cater to the locals who remain. Yes there are youth hostels, bike rentals, and more English signage than you get in less central Beijing areas, but the feeling here is refreshingly residential.

Centuries' worth of architecture can still be found, though none of it as glorified as it is on the Qianmen side. No, this side of Dashilar is charming for its lack of pomp.

Local resident Huang noted that the busier side of the hutong used to draw celebrities to its teahouses and clubs. "But this side," she explained, "is more of a daily life atmosphere. The local residents themselves represent culture, so a lot of visitors like to see them. Dashilar is the only place in Beijing where a whole section of hutongs is well-preserved. There are other places with hutongs, but now they're run down or the buildings aren't original."

A server at the Hejian donkey meat restaurant noted that renovations over the last decade or so have improved the buildings and the roads, "but things haven't changed so much." Having lived and worked there for so long, he is no stranger to Dashilar culture. "Beijingers live here but they don't' like to spend time here," he said, matter-of-factly. "It's an ancient hutong so other people like to come here and look around, but Beijingers don't care. We were born here so of course we're not curious about this place."

Of course, visitors to Beijing are the very definition of curiosity, hence Dashilar's popularity. Of all of Beijing's hutongs, Dashilar offers the biggest variety of cultural environments to absorb. Booming consumerism, historic eats, modern art, local life and more are all squeezed into less than one kilometer.

Getting there: From Qianmen subway station (line 2), walk south on Qianmen St. 10 minutes. Dashilar Hutong will be on the right, as marked by an archway.

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