Exploring Beijing's spiderweb of hutongs is no longer the tranquil step into the past it once was.

With main thoroughfares often traffic-snarled, the Chinese capital's growing legion of cars is starting to spill into the narrow back lanes.

Yet it's still possible to meander by bicycle or on foot into hutongs and sample a bit of Beijing's past. Major hotels rent bicycles, and personnel there can point you to the nearest network of alleyways.

One option is the hutongs adjoining the Forbidden City, the world's largest imperial palace.

Another possibility is the area around the old Summer Palace where Qing dynasty rulers spent all but the coldest months of the year. (A visit there requires getting a lift to the outskirts of northwestern Beijing.)

Or you can bicycle through the Former Legation Quarter along a street known as Dongjiaominxiang. Now a Chinese version of a ghost town, the district was once the address of most of China's foreign embassies and consulates. Continue through the winding hutongs of Dazhalan district and end up in the alleyways around Liulichang Street, a restored shopping area.

For those reluctant to brave Beijing's bustling streets alone, try the ``Go to Visit Hutong'' tour run twice daily by the Beijing Hutong Tourist Service.

For $12, tourists will be pedaled in traditional tricycles through the byways from Beihai Park to the Drum Tower (it signaled the time of day in old Beijing), to the Mansion of Prince Gong, an estate now used by Chinese security officials.

The tour ends with a visit to a Peking Opera performance.

Tickets are available through many major hotels.

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