BEIJING—Afriend planning a trip to Beijing opened a map, pointed to a hotel and said, "I should be able to walk from there to the Forbidden City easily, right?" ¶ Not easily. Maps don't convey the city's size, which together with traffic and construction makes walking hard and even unpleasant at times. The best way to reach such far-flung attractions as the Beijing Zoo and Lama Temple is by taxi or subway, a frustration for people who like to explore on foot. ¶ But there are some districts where travelers can wander freely. My favorites were Dongcheng, Chaoyang and Haidian.
Dongcheng, on the northern and eastern sides of the Forbidden City, is best known for Wangfujing, Beijing's main shopping street, where people from the provinces wander agog, like cowboys in up-to-date Kansas City.
Foreign visitors are more likely to be drawn to Dongcheng's old-fashionednarrow-alley hutong neighborhoods, where people go about daily life, queue up at closet-sized noodle factories, get a scolding from the community warden and don't bother to change out of their pajamas in the morning when they walk their dogs.
Wandering through the hutongs, which flow in a tangle toward big streets like streams trickling toward rivers, is one of the principle pleasures of visiting Beijing. They are lined with trees, tiny shops and low-rise courtyard residences, or siheyuans, built exclusively of gray brick during the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties. The narrowest, Gaoxiao Hutong, is 2 feet wide; the shortest is Yichi Dajie Hutong, or One Foot Street.
Some siheyuan houses were large and luxurious, built by aristocrats, highly placed officials and well-to-do merchants who lived there with their families for generations. After the protracted revolution that brought the Communists to power in 1949, many siheyuans were divided into densely packed, multifamily dwellings without private toilets, central heating or running water.
A tidal wave of urban development that has destroyed many hutongs was driven by an effort to improve living conditions for workaday Beijingers and continued unabated until just a few years ago.
But lately, the city has recognized the attractions of the old neighborhoods, especially in Dongcheng, where signs in Pinyin -- Romanized Chinese -- identify every hutong to help foreigners find their way.
One of the 40-odd palatial siheyuans that survive in Beijing recently went on the market for about $25 million. Some hutongs are now protected by law, and preservationists protest when others, such as Dongsi Batiao on the northeastern side of the district, once colonized by artists, writers and Peking Opera stars, are targeted for demolition.
Instead of leveling old neighborhoods and forcing longtimers out, the Dongcheng District renovated Nanchizi Hutong, centered on the graceful Pudu Temple at the southeastern corner of the Forbidden City. When the dust settled, residents were moved back to upgraded quarters complete with tap water, toilets and broadband cable.
Grass-roots private enterprise has given new life to the alleyways leading off Nanluogu Street on the western side of Doncheng, the hub of one of the city's most popular hutong neighborhoods. The government repaved the street and still maintains such historic sites as the siheyuan home of the Communist Revolution-era writer Mao Dun, but the restaurants, cafes and shops selling stylish threads reflect the recent capitalist recharging of Beijing.
I stayed at a low-rent hotel in the neighborhood on my first visit to Beijing 10 years ago but found more upscale accommodations recently at Guxiang 20, a stylish new inn on Nanluogu Street that boasts a rooftop tennis court and canopy beds.
I favored Xiao Xin's Café a few blocks south for coffee and Wi-Fi and wandered every day to the Drum and Bell Towers, which kept the time in old Beijing. The National Art Museum of China, with its stunning collection of contemporary Chinese art and a wing devoted to intricately crafted shadow puppets, and Jingshan Park, an old imperial garden overlooking the northern gate of the Forbidden City, are also nearby.
Mostly, though, I hung out in the hutongs around Nanluogu Street, where old men play mah-jongg, moms dandle babies in split-crotched trousers and public toilets still outnumber private commodes.
CHAOYANG'S NEW CHINA
If you ask foreigners working in Beijing where they live, they'll likely say Chaoyang on the eastern side of the city. The district's contemporary look and conveniences have made it attractive to embassies, multinational corporations, shopping mall developers and most of Beijing's big chain hotels. These cluster along the Second and Third ring roads, coming to a stunning halt at the southern side of Chaoyang in the Central Business District.
It's decidedly too far to walk to the Forbidden City from Chaoyang. But when a new light rail line opens next year, the district will become one of the city's major transportation hubs, offering connections to the Forbidden City and the Olympic Green.
I settled into a room at the Poly Plaza Hotel (technically in Dongcheng, but closer to the major sights of Chaoyang) to explore New China in Chaoyang.
The 15-year-old Poly Plaza occupies one of two shirt box-shaped towers on either side of a theater where I heard the China Philharmonic Orchestra perform Sibelius and Tchaikovsky one evening Its state-owned art museum, displaying a distinguished collection of perfectly preserved classical Chinese paintings and sculptures, recently moved to the new Poly Plaza office tower diagonally across the ring road from the hotel.