Shanghai, Oct. 7 -- "WATCH your step. Sit back and off we go," says a cheerful tour leader as a dozen tricycles carrying two foreign tourists each set out on a tour into the innermost parts of Beijing - its "hutongs," or alleyways.
They were followed, in just a minute or two, by more international tourists who hurried off coaches and onto the exotic sightseeing vehicles pedaled by men in Chinese-style jackets.
A tour into at least 20 alleyways intertwined in the Shichahai area a few blocks from the Forbidden City has topped the agenda of many international tourists to Beijing. The trip, lasting up to three hours, costs 180 yuan (US$22.5) per person.
"This is something new. We never saw anything like this in Europe," said Betto Veenenbos, a retiree from Holland, as he posed for one last photo with his wife and the tricycle rider at the end of their hutong tour. "The lanes are so clean, with no dirt or beggars. Every building has a long history behind it."
As a first-time traveler to Beijing, Veenenbos said the "jiaozi," or dumplings, they had for lunch in the traditional courtyard of a native Beijing family were delicious. "It's nice to experience the life of the commoners here."
Wouker Pietermaat, a 30-year-old soil analyst, said he would love to tour around the hutongs again behind the handlebars of the tricycle. "But we're staying in Beijing for only three days and will leave for Xi'an tomorrow."
Despite Beijing's fast evolution into a modern metropolis, nearly 2,000 hutongs have survived. Those in the Shichahai area are the best preserved and have received nearly 6 million international tourists and 10 million domestic ones since 1994. The 2,000 courtyards in Shichahai area are home to 64,800 Beijingers.
Beijing Hutong Tourist Agency was the first to promote hutong tours in 1994 and is receiving around 180,000 tourists a year.
"Business is good. Sometimes tourists are waiting even before our working hours start at 8am," said a tricycle rider who declined to be named.
"It's more than a sightseeing tour," said the company's vice president Jing Xueming. "By traveling to the innermost parts of Beijing, the visitors will hopefully have a glimpse of Beijing's culture and the locals' life."
However, competition is fierce, he says.
"In the Shichahai area alone, 22 travel services are providing hutong tours."