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As distinct as Beijing's palaces, temples, and parks may be, it is the hutong that ultimately set the city apart. Prior to the 20th century, when cars and the Communist love of grandeur made them impracticable, these narrow and often winding lanes were the city's dominant passageways. Old maps of Beijing show the city to be an immense and intricate maze composed almost entirely of hutong, most no wider than 10m (33 ft.) and some as narrow as 50cm (20 in.).

Beijing's other famous feature is the siheyuan (courtyard houses) -- traditional dwellings typically composed of four single-story rectangular buildings arranged around a central courtyard with a door at one corner (ideally facing south). Originally designed to house a single family, they now house up to five or six families. Mao brought the countryside to the city during the Cultural Revolution, and most of these squatters never left. Foreign visitors charmed by the quaintness of the old houses often assume migration into modern apartment buildings is forced, and it often is. But many move willingly, eager for central heating, indoor plumbing, and, most important, security of ownership. Many locals will try to convince you that hutong are inherently run-down, but why would you renovate a house that could be torn down next week?

The hutong are being leveled so rapidly the term "fast-disappearing" is now a permanent part of their description. With the 2008 Olympics, destruction carried the imprimatur of modernization. Never mind that visitors prefer quiet lanes to endless blocks of identical flats. But the main driving force behind the destruction is banal: taxes. Municipal governments are desperately short of revenue (following reforms implemented by the oft-lauded Zhu Rongji), and land is the one thing they can sell. Property developers, who now rely on evictees for one-third of their sales, are happy to oblige. Drunk from these runoff influxes of capital, municipal governments expand further. New departments are created, and new jobs are found for friends and relatives. So the next time around, the hit has to be bigger. The Dong Cheng government in particular has a reputation for ordering forceful evictions and arranging unfavorable resettlement schemes.

The most dynamic of these hutong can be found around the alley of Nan Luogu Xiang, a gentrifying neighborhood filled with Chinese hipsters, grungy French and Americans, and old Beijingers. Nan Luogu Xiang is the name of the north-south alley filled with a growing number of cafes, bars, restaurants, and hotels listed throughout our pages. Bar highlights include MAO Livehouse and Pass-By Bar, one of the first establishments to open on the street in the early 2000s. Hotels in the area include Du Ge, Han's Royal Garden, Courtyard 7, Gu Xiang 20, Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation, and Confucius International Youth Hostel.

Intriguing swathes of hutong still stand south of Heping Men and Qian Men (though parts of them are quickly being demolished), as well as northwest of Xi Si, surrounding Bai Ta Si. Here you may hear strange humming sounds, produced by pigeons wheeling overhead with small whistles attached to their feathers. For now, the destitution of these areas makes them unattractive to property developers, but their long-term survival is improbable. See them now. The hutong most likely to survive because of their popularity with tourists are in the Back Lakes (Shicha Hai) area and in nearby Di'an Men. Pedicab tour companies offer to bike you around this area and take you inside a couple of courtyards, but they all charge absurd rates. It's much cheaper, and far more enjoyable, to explore on your own by foot or bicycle. If you must, the Beijing Hutong Tourist Agency (tel. 010/6615-9097) offers tours in English for ¥70 for the whole trip. It takes about 2 1/2 hours. You can also book ahead for a ¥240 trip, which takes the same route and includes a meal at local resident's home. Tip: However you travel, never enter a siheyuan uninvited.

Our Favorite Hutong Names

The names of hutong are a link to the history and humor of the capital. San Bu Lao Hutong, a couple of blocks west of Prince Gong's Mansion, is named for its famous former resident, Admiral Zheng He, whose nickname was San Bao (three treasures, possibly a reference to his eunuch status). As described in 1421: The Year China Discovered America, this Hui Muslim led a vast armada of ships to Southeast Asia, India, Ceylon, the Persian Gulf (where he was able to visit Mecca), and West Africa over seven voyages between 1405 and 1433. Detachments of his fleet probably reached Australia, but the central contention of the book is dubious. Other names hint at long-forgotten markets. Yandai Xie Jie (Tobacco Pipe Lane), east of Yinding Qiao, now harbors the capital's hippest cafes, but it once provided smoking paraphernalia for the capital's numerous opium dens. The meaning of Xian Yu Kou Jie (Fresh Fish Corner Street) seems straightforward, but locals swear it's a corruption of xianyu (salty fish), a reference to a man who burned down half the street while preparing his favorite meal. Shoushui Hutong (Gathering Water Lane), where you'll find the Liu Ren Papercut House , was originally known by the less-salable name of Choushui Hutong (Smelly Water Lane), as it was a ditch which ran along the north side of the old city wall.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.