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nickybox Oct 6th, 2004 06:53 AM

pedicab tour Beijing
How and where do you set up a Hutong pedicab tour? They offer them from our hotel at a price I wouldn't consider paying in Manhattan. How much should we expect to pay?

jam40 Oct 6th, 2004 09:58 AM

Nickybox: My husband and I just returned from Beijing. I would encourage you to walk a hutong area rather than taking a pedicab. My husband and I were supposed to take a pedicab tour of the Back Lakes area, but after hearing the details of the tour and the price, decided just to wander on our own. Was a much more pleasant experience, particularly when we saw the pedicabs during our walkabout. (There are literally dozens of them in the Back Lakes are, all going down the same alleys. It is a cattle call. It is impossible to take pictures, as the pedicabs did not appear to ever stop long enough in one place. The whole point of touring the hutongs is lost when you are one of a mass group of people all doing the same thing at the same time.)

If you are still interested in hiring a Pedicab - don't mean to be so negative, but the pedicab tours are touted by everyone as being this quaint, fascinating tour and from what I could see were anything but - we were quoted about $50 for the two of us for about an hour and half tour. The tour included stopping at someone's house for a look-see. Although the price wasn't that outrageous, I was not at all comfortable with going into a stranger's house to gawk. Just plain rude if you ask me.

Again, I highly encourage you to just find a hutong area and just wander. I think you will be much happier.

Bchen Oct 19th, 2004 02:39 AM

Do take a HUTONG tour. These are organized and legitimate pedicab driven tours through the old alleys of Beijing. At about 180 Yuan per person (pricey!), departing at 2Pm each day, it includes the ride through the hutongs, admission to the bell tower, someone's hutong home, and to Prince Gong's Mansion and a guide. Call for reservation and they will tell you what time to be there 6615-9097 6400-2787. There are several non-legit hutong operators, all with official looking vests and pedicabs and brochures. Official ones are 500meters to the west of the north gate of beihai park. Make sure you only pay the woman who has your name and reservation on the clipboard. I would also recommend just wandering around on foot afterwards, as it is the best way to see Beijing and get a feel for the city's residents.

Neil_Oz Oct 19th, 2004 04:21 AM

I'm with jam40 - unless you're unusually frail, crippled or particularly lazy, take Shanks's Pony. Apart from any other consideration, you'll retain your dignity and not look like a complete dork.

But jam40, I have to take issue with the idea that US$50 (400 yuan) for 90 minutes isn't outrageous. Not outrageous? It's 250-330 km (150-200 miles) in a Beijing cab, for heaven's sake! (That's the motorised variety, with an engine to maintain and petrol to buy.) It's over a WEEK's pay for a schoolteacher, and a MONTH's pay for a lot of factory workers! No, it's not outrageous, it's outright bloody larceny, in fact it's obscene! (Deep breath, Neil...)

easytraveler Oct 19th, 2004 03:27 PM

I'd agree that you don't need to take a pedicab tour of the Beijing hutongs.

Firstly, you are much better off just wandering around on foot in the Back Lakes area. More discoveries and you can stop off at Prince Gong's residence on your own. In addition, if you are there close to nightfall, you may find that you want to stop at lakeside at one of the many restaurants, which seem always to be quite crowded after a certain hour. Going to a Back Lakes restaurant is one of the more delightful experiences of that area.

Secondly, I'd stick my neck out and say that any pedicab tour of the Back Lakes area is a ripoff at whatever the price. These hutongs have been gussied up for tourists and are about as authentic as a completely rebuilt Colisseum in Rome would be.

Even tho they are being torn down at a horrifying rate, there are still pockets of hutongs left in Beijing that are close to what they have been for centuries. If you want to see genuine hutong life, find a good cab driver and just ask to be taken to any one of these remaining pockets. I'm guessing that somewhere within the Second Ring Road would be fine.

Earlier this year I had a Beijing taxi driver tell me that his family had been living in a particular hutong for generations, but they were being moved out past the Fourth Ring Road because everything within the Second Ring Road was being converted to modern high rises, especially hotels and office buildings.

BTW, hutongs are not unique to Beijing, whatever the misinformation that is passed around these days. If you are going to Xian, the old Muslim quarter is a delightful area with many "hutongs" where you can wander about to your heart's content.

My scholarship on China is a bit dated, but my recollection is that the word "hutong" is not a Chinese word, just as the Chinese word for "grape" ("putao" - sorry, if my romanization is all screwball) is not a Chinese word, thus, indicating that these are not indigneous to China but were borrowed items. However, the exact origin of these words has been lost, thus, we don't know from which culture nor when these items were borrowed by the Chinese.

"Hutongs", however, are to be found only in North China.

Maybe someone with more recent scholarship can enlighten all of us further on "hutongs". :)

My point is that you may find yourself wandering around some "hutongs" in some part of North China and not even know that's what you are doing.

Forget the hype and forget the pedicabs, just go on your own. Spend the money on something else much more worth while.

Have a fine trip! :)

Neil_Oz Oct 19th, 2004 04:15 PM

easytraveler, do you speak Chinese, or did you actually find a taxi driver who speaks English? If so he would have been a rare bird.

We also found old areas in other cities that may not have been called hutong but had similar characteristics, a quasi-village life in the middle of big cities. Admittedly
there may have been architectural differences that I didn't pick up at the time, though.

Even Shanghai's Old Town, once you wander away from the tarted-up tourist precinct, is much like this.

The living conditions obviously leave something to be desired, but what do the residents think about being moved out into apartment blocks, I wonder?

nickybox, we found Beijing to be a much more accessible city than we'd expected. You can wander around to your heart's content day and night and it doesn't matter if you get lost - all you have to do is flag down a cab and show the driver your hotel address, or point to a spot on the readily-available tourist map that shows streets and attractions in both Chinese and Pinyin (Roman alphabet), a must-have. Hardly anybody speaks English, but that really doesn't matter.

Incidentally, says "The word 'hutong' originates from the word 'hottog' which means 'well' in Mongolian. Villagers dig out a well and inhabited there. Hutong means a lane or alley, in fact the passage formed by lines of siheyuan (a compound with houses around a courtyard)."

Bchen Oct 20th, 2004 12:15 AM

Yes, Hu tong comes from the mongolian word and the rule was, they had to be wide enough to allow two horses to pass each get to the water/well.

I am not an advocate for tours in general and the hutong tour is , what I call "canned China". The 'typical' house you will visit is the residence of some high falootin' party elder who get spaid to let you in his "ordinary'house.

But for those with a time constriction, or not conmfortable just wandering the aleys alone, the tour is a viable option. Do climb the drum/bell tower though for great views, whether on the tour or solo.

Whatever you do, explore the hutongs!

Neil_Oz Oct 20th, 2004 01:30 AM

We climbed the Bell Tower and caught a performance by the resident drummers. In China there are plentiful reminders of the indignities the country suffered at the hands of predatory European powers in the 19th century, and the displays in the Drum Tower are no exception. I don't blame them for rubbing it in, given that the Europeans' main activity was drug trafficking.

Incidentally, the Drum Tower's stairway is inordinately steep, with has very high stair risers, enough to give momentary pause to this heights-averse old bugger. But the views make it worthwhile.

Once out of the tower you can cross the road and walk through the somewhat prettied-up nearby hutong district to the lakefront. Then, if you're still feeling energetic, south to Jinshan Park and the Forbidden City. On the way we found a street stall selling an addictive chicken kebab with a crusty coating, slathered with chilli paste - I couldn't have been happier.

easytraveler Oct 21st, 2004 07:56 AM

Hi, Neil! Yes, I do speak Mandarin and, no, the taxi driver did not speak English! :)

As for the origin for the word "hutong", I'd just say: it's possible, it's possible, but not likely. Here's a quote from another online source:

"You may ask where the world 'Hutong' originated? Zhang Qingchang, the former Vice President of Inner Mongolia University clarified that the word is in Mongolian language translated into Chinese from the Mongolian word 'Honog'. The word means 'well'. Now there are still Mongolian localities named with this word."

Well, personally, I have a lot of difficulty with this explanation:
a) The scholar in question has a Chinese name. I would much preferred someone who is a native speaker of Mongolian to come forth.
b) This is originating from Inner Mongolia which is now part of China and not from Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is mostly agrarian and its population mostly Chinese. Outer Mongolia is an independent nation and still has a large nomadic tradition and population.
c) A lot of the references (such as the width of the hutongs) come from the Mongol period (Yuan), so this has led researchers to look to Mongolian as the source. However, North China was overrun by diverse "barbarians". The Mongol Yuan dynasty borrowed a great deal from other cultures or adapted what was locally in place. It is also very possible that the Mongols adapted the "hutong" from some earlier invader of North China.
d)Even if this word is Mongolian in origin, I would personally much have preferred a link with one of the Mongol dialects of Outer Mongolia, since that is the region from where the Mongols who conquered China came.
e) The original Mongols were nomads and not agrarians, "well" is not as significant a concept to nomads as it is to agrarians. The entire explanation sounds like something an agrarian Chinese would come up with, not a nomadic Mongol.
f) Lastly, it would have been far better had a contemporary, like Marco Polo, written somewhere that the word "hutong" came from Mongol origins. A bit more believable.

Sorry, you must be bored to tears by now. I'm just not convinced that this whole explanation of "hutong" was not manufactured to add a bit more color for visitors. Chinese who went through the Communist educational system got indoctrinated in Communism and precious little in Chinese history. It's very convenient to invent things to explain gaps in their ignorance, particularly if it attracts more tourists. "Hutongs" have suddenly become "big" business for tourism.

It's not just the explanation for "hutong" that I question, there are other explanations. Recently, the heavy slattering of political correctness has lessened quite a bit, but still, viewing Chinese history through the prism of Marxism, Maoism, and just sheer inventiness - well, usually, leaves me with a smile on my face. :)

Yes, you are correct, the old part of Shanghai is very interesting. BTW, in the Shanghai dialect, those residential alleyways are called "long-tong" or "nong-tong" and not "hutong".

nickybox: Neil is correct in saying that Beijing is very doable on your own. There's an adequate metro system that will help you negotiate your way to most of the attractions. If you were going out into the toolies, it would be different, but Beijing is easy to get around.

As for the much hyped "hutongs" of Beijing, I would recommend walking around a few of them right about Prince Gong's Residence, then visit that Residence, and end up at a lakeside restaurant.

I'm getting much too long-winded in my old age. Enjoy your trip! :)

EdEdwards Oct 21st, 2004 02:04 PM

In August we walked around the hutong near the Back Lakes and were frequently solicited by the pedicab drivers, who soon get to know you -- and vice versa, because you continue to see them cruising around with tourists as you walk, looking at the same things. Given that none of them spoke any English, all relied on laminated sheets of paper with the same map and explanations of the sites, we couldn't imagine that there would be any advantage to hiring one of them -- other than the obvious load off our feet. On the other hand, the best part of walking around the old neighborhoods -- in Beijing, Suzhou, Shaoxing, and Shanghai -- was being on foot and thus encountering local people as equals of a sort. We have fond memories of coming upon groups of shy little chidren playing while an elder was cooking something up for dinner in a primitive little coal fueled grill on the street. Generally, we were a pleasant curiosity to people, and they almost universally responded to our friendliness in kind.

The price issue is an interesting one. It's amazing how, once immersed in China, we began valuing things in terms of the local currency -- so the pedicab price did seem outrageous. When we think back, there were numerous little souvenirs we might have liked to bring back, but rejected because the seller seemed to be gouging (by asking us the equivalent of $2 instead of the 60 cents that would have been charged a local person, and then after bargaining, refusing to come down the extra 12 cents that we were offering!). In the grand scheme of things, of course we wish we hadn't gotten so caught up in the bargaining and had purchased more. That said, I wouldn't let the price consideration be a major factor with something like the pedicab rides. They just looked like a hussle, and I don't think they'd be enjoyable for anyone who likes exploring on their own.

Neil_Oz Oct 21st, 2004 02:47 PM

easytraveler, you've convinced me (not to be convinced, that is). I wonder if the fact that the Shanghai equivalents also end in the syllable 'tong' has any significance? Well (no pun intended), there's plenty of argument about the origin of English words - why not Chinese?

EdEdwards has pretty much said it all with regard to pedicabs vs walking... and about the matter of money. I kept catching myself behaving as though Y100 was somehow the same, rather than 1/6th of, AU$100. It was a good thing that my better half was on hand to sort me out.

Incidentally, one thing that I found frustrating as a mug amateur photographer was the inadequacy of a 3x zoom. Photographing ordinary people as they go about their business is difficult, as mostly you have to get so close that you have the choice of snapping without permission (impolite) or asking permission and ending up with a less natural shot. Sneaky is better. So I'd now advise anyone planning a new camera purchase to spend the extra, if possible, and go for a 10x optical zoom.

mandg Oct 22nd, 2004 07:14 AM

At present am trying to work out cost/benefit between holiday in China or Egypt for self and adult daughter in April 05.
Many tour brochures say it is cheaper in long run to book a tour (usually over $2grand land content). From reading, it seems we could possibly manage Beijing independently if we have accom pre-booked. However, that is only one city.
(1)Any thoughts re org. tours v independent itinerary?
(2)At one point considered the Silk Route (yes, we would do a tour for that).
As this will prob. be my one bite of the 'big' holiday cherry, would we be better to consider other parts of China than that area?
(3) As Neil is from Oz I hope it's OK to e-mail you if I need more info....

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