Beijing's hutongs are the alleyways that glue together the capital's 800-year-old network of residential courtyards.
Clouds of smoke billow above a small table in a narrow alley. Around it teeter a trio of men on tiny wooden stools, encircled by a vocal gang of onlookers. It is hot and their shirts are rolled up proudly to reveal bulbous bellies. Bets are exchanged and cards are snapped down on the tabletop with whip-crack venom, the scent of freshly charred chuan'r and old tobacco hanging in the night air. Then a dull roar sounds and the winner grins, cigarette dangling limply from one side of his mouth as I pass by, unobserved, walking the same stretch of alley but seemingly in a different world.
This was my introduction to Beijing's hutongs, back in 2010 when I had just moved to the city. I was wilting my way down the narrow, twisting arteries off Dongzhimen Beixiaojie in search of food one night, side-stepping gambling locals, playful children and rattling bicycle trailers laden with recyclables. Eventually I stumbled across a Chinese-style barbecue joint on Santiao Hutong and duly bagged a table outside. Before long, some roasted mutton arrived, suspended on a mini spit above glowing coals.
Sweating from the heat of the night and the BBQ, I greedily tore off flecks of meat and watched as alley life slowly unfolded around me, steadfastly resolving never to rush again. It was love at first sight.