If you want to plumb Beijing's homely interior, and move beyond the must-see sights and shopping-mall glitz of town, voyage into the land of the city's hutong (narrow alleyways). Many of these charming alleyways remain, crisscrossing east-west across the city and linking up to create a huge, enchanting warren. These humble passageways were originally built in the Mongol Yuan dynasty, after Genghis Khan's army had reduced the city to rubble. It was redesigned with hutong, and by the Qing dynasty there were over 2000, leaping to around 6000 by the 1950s. They are now the stamping ground of a quarter of Beijing's residents, although recently many have been coming down in clouds of dust as road-widening schemes alter the map of Beijing. Historic hutong, protected by the Beijing Cultural Relics Protection Association, are safe from the wrecking ball - but the clock ticks for others.
Living conditions have changed over the past 20 years, and many Beijingers have forsaken hutong for the dubious charms of the high-rises. Those that stay in hutong pooh-pooh the high-rise fad, pointing out that they are alienating places with no sense of community. Hutong instead preserve a powerful sense of togetherness, where everyone helps each other out. As the Chinese say: yuanqin buru jinlin' (close neighbours are better than distant relatives).
Homes in the hutong may be blisteringly cold in winter (though many are now snugly equipped with central heating) but in summer they stay comparatively cool. Hutong dwellers also swear blind their Qing-dynasty structures will survive an earthquake.