Why would any visitor to Beijing stay in a hotel when they can stay in a hutong?
I first visited hutong as part of a tourist group several years ago. We rode on a trishaw with a guide explaining the history, architecture and lifestyle of the local inhabitants.
Having visited the fabulous "must-sees" of Beijing, like the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Drum Tower and the Summer Palace, going into the hutong home of some famous ancient families gave the "Beijing experience" a human element.
My curiosity has sharpened over the years from reading about them at every opportunity. During the preparation for the Olympics I was thrilled to learn that some siheyuan courtyards in hutong were turned into accommodations for visitors. I vowed to stay in one someday.
Preparing for a recent trip to the capital, I eagerly sought one out. On my humble teacher's salary, I settled on an affordable option, though I looked longingly at the more upscale courtyard accommodations.
As usual, by not being able to go upmarket, I ended up having something closer to an authentic experience. A real family still dwells in the courtyard, which hasn't been all tricked out and is closer to the original.
The rooms all opened into the central courtyard. How I love a courtyard! Flowers were blooming, beans and peas were climbing up the bamboo lattice, a wind chime tinkled and the cat was napping in the sun.
Every day after exploring the city, I'd hurry back to the hutong, take a quick shower and join the cat - snoozing in a bamboo lounge chair with a book ready nearby.
As the other guests came back we'd greet one another. There was a mother and young daughter from France, an exuberant guy from Canada, a mother and teenage daughter from the Netherlands, a teacher from England and several guests from various parts of China.
We exchanged stories and tips on where to go and where to eat. Instant friendships were formed. I went to the Summer Palace with James, the Canadian car salesman, and climbed the Great Wall at Simatai with the Hollanders, Lianne and Iris.
Coming and going through the narrow alleys of the hutong, the residents would smile and give cheery "ni hao" (hello). Laughing children were playing under the watchful eyes of the neighbors.
Some recently installed, brightly painted exercise equipment made a perfect perch for the elderly women to sit and chat and comment on the passing scenes. Smells of meals cooking filled my nostrils, as I ducked some laundry hung over the narrow lane. I felt right at home in this friendly neighborhood.
How can a hotel compete? In my opinion, they cannot even come close. Of course, the accommodation seems familiar to foreign visitors because hotels all over the world are the same.
But don't we travel in order to experience something different?
Sure, they have a restaurant, but then you don't walk down the street feeling the pulse of the city as you seek out local food. You don't go traipsing around with people you just met. You don't go into the kitchen and show your host how you like your eggs prepared.
And you don't sit in the warm evening, with the flowers, the lazy cat, and have slow, easy conversations with fellow travelers as birds fly overhead, making room for the moon.
Hotel? Hutong? No contest.