The smartest thing we did in Beijing was getting out of our posh hotel and moving into a traditional residential area. Sure, the fancy hotel had us about as close as we could be to the major tourist attractions, but it certainly didn't give us an accurate feel for how the city pulses and moves. So, after de-swankifying, we stayed in what is commonly referred to as a hutong. Technically, I guess, a hutong is simply the long street off of which you'll find several narrow alleyways housing all sorts of interesting things. We stayed at a compact place – down one of those slim passageways – with 10 rooms centered around a small courtyard.
Staying in a hutong heightened our experience in Bejing. We were still only a long walk (or short metro ride) away from the major attractions, but we had the added advantage of being able to experience a different side of the city. Truthfully, we grew to enjoy spending time in the hutong far more than we did roaming around greater Beijing.
Getting to know a traditional residential area gave Bejing some personality. It gave warmth to a place that was starting to seem too overwhelming, and, of course, too smoggy.
We'd go on early morning walks to witness the sights, smells and sounds of the neighborhood coming to life – food vendors setting up shop, guys playing emotion-packed card games, clusters of kids heading to school and a woman who was very proud to show us her needle point.
We especially enjoyed the quiet and the view from our hotel's rooftop patio, and people watching over a beer down on the street.
Things aren't going entirely well in China. In the hutong, though, we were around happy people, and that made it easy for us to choose happy. And good thing, since that's this month's theme.