Chinese Buffet – Part 6: Hutong Hostel & Great Wall Hike

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

For the last four nights of my stay in Beijing, I stayed at the Downtown Backpackers Accommodation, located smack dab in the middle of the Nanluogu Xiang hutong in the Dong Cheng district. As I walked down the alley towards the hostel, sweaty from lugging all my gear, I knew I had made the right decision to stay in the hutong district.

These ancient networks of dusty roads lined with homes and shops are slowly disappearing in Beijing, as construction and development tear through old neighborhoods, displacing hundreds. Preservation efforts will save some portion of these clusters, but who knows for how long. As I huffed along, I realized the importance of being able to witness the hutongs first hand, before they are gone for good.

(Aerial shot of a hutong from the Bell Tower)

Of course, I stayed in a comfortable hostel with amenities like Western toilets and internet access, while many locals in the area live without hot water or plumbing. But I could still get a sense of what it feels like to live among the cement walls and low hanging trees that line this maze of alleys.

I had to wait in the hostel lounge area for a bit before checking in, and found it to be a delightfully quiet and peaceful room that I returned to throughout my stay. Jetlag was still messing with my sleep patterns, so I often found myself here in the early morning, writing in my journal before breakfast.

The free breakfast began about 6:30 each day, and was usually a fried egg, some sausage or bacon, toast, a piece of fruit and orange juice. (Coffee was 15 RMB.) The hostel was clean, efficient and cheap! My total bill for four nights was 220 RMB, which is about $30. There are three computer terminals downstairs with internet access. Payment is on an honor system, but there was no one monitoring usage — it was easy to get away with a little extra time when no one was around. (I think the minimum payment for usage is 3 RMB for a half hour.) There is also a cozy little cafe next door to the hostel, serving lunch, dinner, drinks and free wireless.

I slept in a six-bed mixed dorm. It’s littered with travel gear in the shot below, but it was very bright, cheery and cool – thanks goodness for air conditioning! Thankfully, none of my roomies were rage-till-dawn rowdy types. I met folks from Canada, the UK, France, Austria and Belgium, and several of us went out for dinner one night.

Part of why I chose Downtown Backpackers over other lodging options is because they run a well-organized trip to the Great Wall every other day that leaves right from the hostel. You don’t have to stay at their hostel to go on the daytrip, but since the van leaves at 7 am, I decided it was most convenient to stay there as well. I signed up for the trip a few days in advance because it is a popular one that takes visitors to a less touristy section for an extended hike along the Wall.

The 220 RMB fee covers the round-trip transportation, plus a bathroom pitstop on the drive out. It takes three hours get from Beijing to Jinshanling in the morning, and then another three hours to drive back from Simatai. In between, hikers are on their own, and given about five hours to complete the 6.2 mile hike along this serene and STEEP stretch of the Great Wall.

Completing this hike was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done – a personal achievement I’m quite proud of. It’s a fairly intense hike, especially in the heat. The haze was thick, but and I still managed to get a deep Great Wall burn by day’s end. At times, the walk was much more of a CRAWL for me, as I grasped for sturdy rock amid the crumbles that remain. Much of this portion of the wall has not been heavily restored, and we did pass a group of workers repairing one of the thirty towers we passed along the way.

Our group of 15 spread out organically into smaller packs, and everyone completed the hike at their own pace. This trek was much more than a simple walk along the wall, but it felt so good to sweat through it till the end. I just kept thinking about the millions of people who worked to build this ancient wonder — and the millions more who have since made the trip to see it. There were several divine moments of silence, and vantage points when I felt as if there was no one else left in the world.

Every inch of my body ached that night, but it felt great. And after such an exhilarating day, it was comforting to return to the warmth of the hutong hostel. Returning “home” for the evening to the friendly staff (Danielle, Puli and kitty cat Xiao Si shown here) seemed a most fitting end to my Great day at the Wall.