Hutongs - Bell and Drum Towers, Beijing
I'm not starting my "Must See Activities" with the UNESCO Heritage Listed sites or the other most obvious biggies. Instead I'll go with something we did on the last day of organised tours & something that, in many respects, I enjoyed most.
Of course it didn't elicit the superlatives from me like the others or go beyond superlatives which I think the Great Wall does. Instead it was relaxing & lovely, interesting & genuine. We were lucky enough to have a lovely "local, local guide" by the name of Jou Lie. She introduced herself as "Jolly" saying that was close to her name in English & did indeed describe her quite well. I was really lucky as I started the tour in a pedicab by myself, but because of the requirements of some of our party Jou Lie ended up riding with me & I had a fascinating conversation with her getting some insights into a "real" Beijinger's life.
This was part of our tour package. The Frommer's Beijijng Guide suggests doing a walking or cycling tour of some hutongs & I think this is a good idea for independent travellers with good map reading/sense of direction skills. However I was very happy to be pedalled round while doing whatever walking was required.
The most interesting part of our hutong tour was walking through "Pipe Tobacco Alley" near the Bell Tower. On this tour I felt I was near the real people's Beijing to a much greater extent than, of course, the 'big' tourist attractions. Although the other end of Pipe Tobacco Alley apparently has some of Beijing's trendiest cafes. Would have like to have tried some of them. Maybe next time!
Had read about this area in the Frommer's Beijing Guide, but knew I wouldn't have enough free time to explore this area at all.
However, counted myself very lucky to see a little of it on our Hutong tour as explained a little in the above must see activity.
Please enlarge the accompanying photograph as it shows you just a glimpse of how beautiful this area obviously is. I would suggest on the little I saw it also has some very interesting sightseeing, some equally interesting shopping (that we saw glimpses of, but didn't have time to explore, in Pipe Tobacco Alley) & apparently some great coffee that I really would have enjoyed because I experienced a dearth of "good" coffee during my week in Beijing. Apparently there are also some very good restaurants around here too.
The entire Back Lakes Area (Shicha Hai)consists of 3 lakes - Qian Hai -Front Lake which connects to Hou Hai - Back Lake (see my photo looking back down Hou Hai from near Qian Hai) & Xi Hai - West Lake (now why wasn't it called slightly farther back lake - lol!) I read somewhere that these lakes were dug out during the 14th century to berth barges that were bringing the emperor goods to the Forbidden City.
I wish we had had a full day to explore this area. If you are going to Beijing & have a 5-7day stay in mind I strongly suggest you allow yourself a full day to do what I wish we had been able to do.
"Hutong" is a kind of ancient city alley or lane typical in Beijing, where the number of hutongs may run into several thousand. Hutongs are created by the walls of courtyard houses. Formerly owned by state officials and the wealthy, it now houses middle class people of Beijing. This ancient part of the city is slowly dissapearing, and may no longer exist in the near future. In some areas, the alley's can be so narrow, that it is not accesible by car, only by bike, or pedicab. It you go with a group of people or friends, you can have races of some sort. IT is a fun,interesting, and different way to explore the hutong district of Beijing. The drivers are pleasant, fun, and work very hard to make a living. Please tip the pedicab driver at least $1 US. They don't make much through regular wages and depend mainly on tips.
At the southern end of Tian an men Square there is a big Mc Donalds you cannot miss. If you stand in fron to this Mc Donalds just south of it starts a big Beijing Hutong area. Enter the dark and not too promising looking small street to the right of the Mc Donalds entrance and start to explore the Hutongs. Not only the main shopping venes, with fake gore tex jackets and business people trying to sell DVDs, watches or jewelery. Explore the more quiet streets, where people sit in front of their houses BBQing some pork and beef kebabs on tiny coal grills, where old guys play Go and are surrounded by watermelon-leftovers and where children play on warm mild summer nights. Taste some fresh baked bread or some meat and maybe sit down somewhere on a tiny chair in front of a tiny table to drink a beer, crackle some sunflower seeds and talk with a good friend.
This is not the only Hutong area in Beijing, but one of the most well known. Many Hutongs shall be torn down before 2008 (Olympic games coming to town). Many houses in the Hutong do not have running water or sanitary facilities, which is why you can find many public bathrooms, which you can identify from the outside with closed eyes ..;-). However, even many inhabitants might be happy to be resettled in a more modern appartment in the future, the architecture and lifestyle you find there is part of China's culture. The interwined small houses and yards, round doors and typical roof shapes reflect the atmosphere of former day Beijing and represent the living conditions commonly found in the smaller countryside towns.
Typical stores you can find:
- small bakeries
- small hair cutter businesses
- vegetable selling
- tiny supermarkets with everyday products
- liquor and cigarette stores
- coal sellers
- bike repair shops
- public telephone kiosks
- clothes stores
- tourist shops
most important: the people who live there.
Some very interesting information on the history of Beijings Hutongs can be found at the URL below.
The Bell and Drum Towers are not "must see" destinations in Beijing, but the hutong tours usually end in this area and so they're worth a visit just to go up one and look at the view.
Either will do, or do both if you like. A visit here will also give you a glimpse of Beijing's residential neighborhood life, as seen in the photo I took in front of the Bell Tower featuring a couple of Chinese playing badminton without a net. (See additional photo)
The Drum Tower was formerly used to announce the hours of day while the other tower rang its big bell when the city's gates closed at night. Imagine living in the hutong between these noisemakers, as the two towers aren't very far from each other.
If you wish to explore some hutongs on foot then head southeast of the towers toward Houhai, where you'll end up amidst a row of trendy drinking establishments.
In Beijing, there are two structures known as the bell tower and drum tower. They both lie on the north-south meridian that bisects the Forbidden City and Tian'an men square. The bell tower was used to mark the beginning of each day, while the drum tower was used to mark the end. Today, there is a tea shop located within the drum tower. Here, you are welcome to tea tasting ceremony. I was never really knowledgable on tea. Here in China, Chinese people drink tea everyday, like Americans would drink coffee. Different teas are used for different purposes. Here you will learn the different kinds and remedies.
You will read everywhere that the Hutong, once the very fabric of Beijing, are being destroyed at an alarming rate. And you will see some Hutong in the process of being demolished.
That may be the case, but there is still plenty to enjoy: somewhat fancier Hutong near the lakes, and more utilitarian ones South of the Lama Temple for instance.
No matter what, just walk in the Hutong (but not in the courtyards unless you are invited). It is a glimpse of traditional life.
I recommend the wonderful film "Together" for an interesting contrast between life in the Hutong, and life in apartment buildings. The original title of the film is He Ni Zai Yi Qi (together with you).
The hutongs are the neighborhoods of traditional courtyard houses which used to be in many places around the capital's downtown area. The narrow streets and ancient architecture are adored by tourists who still want to seek out what remains of "old Beijing"
In order to facilitate tourism in the best preserved hutongs, organized tours are conducted using bicycle rickshaws for transportation and volunteers who allow tourists to visit their well- preserved homes.
The most popular tour is in the area surrounding the Bell and Drum Towers north of the Forbidden City. Here you will see the multitudes of red bicycle rickshaws with the catchy slogan "To the Hutong!" printed on the back of the canopy. The drivers wear yellow numbered vests so that you can find them again after getting out at stops along the way.
You can walk this area on foot if you don't want to ride in the rickshaws, or you can also rent your own bicycle. Although the architecture takes you back to old Beijing , the current atmosphere is like a modern street market with vendors walking around aggressively trying to sell postcards and other souvenirs.
Inside the courtyard houses you might catch a glimpse of pet crickets in small wooden cages or see other reminders of bygone Beijing traditions, but outside you may quickly be brought back to reality by a crippled beggar asking for "money money money." The good old days when a foreigner could get lost in a Beijing hutong and encounter old traditions are just about gone.
There are other places in Beijing to see hutongs, such as the Qianmen area and parts of Xuanwumen district near Liulichang, but they are fast disappearing to meet the demands of modern development. The hutongs near the Drum Tower will likely remain protected for their architectural value but unfortunately it might be too late to preserve the atmosphere that used to give them their distinct old Beijing flavor.
Hutongs are the traditional living quarters of the people of Beijing. At first glance all Hutongs in Beijing are formed by lining buildings with gray walls and gray tiles. But in fact, it is not so simple. Walking around, you'll find, that every Hutong has something to be talked about. Hutongs are streets full of life and stories. The houses along are formed from four small buildings around a courtyard.
Nowadays more and more of this old living quarters are vanishing. Instead highrise buildings are build. But around Bell- and Drum-Tower north of Beihai Park you'll still find them. Many of them are now renovated.
The first foto is taken from the Drum Tower.
On the central heavenly north-south axis of Beijing, the Drum and Bell Towers lie several kilometres north of the Forbidden City.
Both towers provide a wide-ranging perspective over the roofs of northern old Beijing, looming over the ancient hutong courtyards.
Few other tall buildings have been built on this axis, but looking east and west, the modern skyline is studded with tall tower-blocks, refelcting silver in the hazy grey sky.
The Drum and Bell towers are just a stone's throw from each other, separated now by a small, buzy paved square where locals compete for space with the tourist coaches and rickshaw touts.
The two towers look so different, but are inextricably part of the same function - for they were the timekeepers of dynasties through the ages. Only during the last 50 years have Beijing people been able to set their own time without the drums and bells, but for centuries the two towers set the pace and the rythym of daily life for everyone from emperor to the lowest citizen.
Every evening, at 7 o'clock the time-keepers would beat the drum thus officially starting the night hours. The drum would be struck every two hours until 5 in the morning. Then at 7 o'clock in the morning, the bell would be rung signifying the start of the day. Every two hours afterwards, the great bell would be rung.
The drums and bell could be heard throughout the old city, the sounds carrying far across the rooftops.
Both towers were started in 1420 and looked similar. In 1747, the Bell Tower was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original. Maybe it's an illusion, but the rebuilt tower seems to have much more stonework than the Drum Tower. In rebuilding, maybe they were mindful that stone poses less fire risk than wood.
The Drum Tower (Gulou) seems more elegant, with its wide balcony overlooking the Di'anmen Dajie, whic stretched southwards to Jingshan Hill. From a small doorway in the rear, a tremendous, single straight stone stairway leads up to the first floor high up in the tower. A great number of drums are arranged around this first floor. Walking counter-clockwise around the walls, the Chinese time system is explained on panels. Some extra drums are on display, including a drum damaged by the European forces after the Boxer uprising, and the world's largest drum, constructed in the 1990s for a festival in China.
Every hour, a demonstration of the drums is performed by a cadre of magnificently-dressed imperial drummers. The rythmic beating of the drums is an entertaining if somewhat improbable recreation of the old days.
On the ground floor, in the old archways of the base of the tower is the Tibetan Friendship Store, where a variety of handicrafts, carpets, furniture and jewellery are sold.
Across the square behind, is the Bell Tower, with a teahouse establishment at the base. A long flight of stone stairs gives access to a platform. A huge iron bell is suspended in the centre, but it is not rung anymore. Originally a bronze bell hung here, but disappeared over the ages. It is reported that the daughter of the ironmaker who cast the bell fell into the molten iron. The ironmaker tried to catch her but only managed to grasp her slipper, and so the bell is known as the Slipper Bell. A charming story but it is told of many other bells in China as well.
The bell itself is enormous, but its slender shape somehow belies its immense weight.
Open 9.30 am to 4.30pm; small entry fee for each tower.
“Old Beijing” is quickly disappearing and making way for a more modern “western” metropolis. This is sad as I fell that, apart from the faces in the crowd, you could simply be in any city of the world. The same shopping malls, fast food outlets, department stores and sterile shopping environment are now raising their heads in Beijing.
To escape the hustle and bustle of modern life I would suggest visiting a HUTONG.
In the Hutongs you will experience locals going about their daily lives, stall holders selling traditional products, shoe repairmen looking for their next client, inexpensive tea houses to relax in and traditional food at very low prices.
"Hutong" means a small street or a lane between two courtyards, but the word can also mean a local community within the city made of hutongs and residences. A hutong is a unique form of residential community that exists only in China. It was a model for living in last couple hundreds of years (for rich and the poor) and it is rapidly vanishing in last couple of decades. So if you want a taste of real China in Beijing – take a bike or a pedicab and head to the central part of Beijing. You have to do some of the exploring and you'll find them on your own (it's more fun and you're not time limited). The other way is to take an organised tour from one of the tourist agencies (some may arrange with local people to visit their courtyards and rooms and taste their food). In any case, it is a really nice experience – a touch of local Chinese tradition, culture and way of life which is rapidly disappearing because of the growth of new high residential buildings.
Hutongs are the alleyways of Beijing along which people have live for centuries in one-floor apartments that open onto common courtyards with shared kitchens and bathrooms. In addition to residences, the hutongs are lined with small shops and businesses that cater to the locals. With all of the construction activity in recent years, Beijing's hutongs have been disappearing at a rapid clip, being replaced with multistory apartment and office buildings.
While you are in Beijing, take the time to stroll through some of the hutongs. It is a great way to get a feel for how the city's people live, and get a feel for the city's culture. We strolled through a bunch of them and felt very safe. It was a nice change of pace from the usual tourist sights.
The Hutongs are a taste of old Beijing - residential alleyways of small compact houses that offer a step back in time to the Beijing of a hundred or more years ago. There are pockets of hutong all over the city but particularly ideal for wandering around are the areas near the Drum Tower and around Chaoyangmen district. They represent a communal world of neighbours and shared lives - women sat around chatting as old men play mahjong over a friendly drink. Their age means hutong houses are generally very basic, but most are well kept and some have been modernised with central heating and indoor bathrooms.
All hutongs run east-west - something to do with the feng shui of the houses. Most are narrow alleys but some are wide streets that run for several kilometres. One hutong near Qianmen is just 40cms wide at one point! Very cosy!
Recent decades have seen many hutong residents moving out to the drab concrete tower blocks of the suburbs. But many more wish to remain and the hutongs cross the city like a rabbit warren and remain an integral part of Beijing. But probably not for much longer. Endless 'modernisation' means many hutong districts are to be redesigned - particularly with the 2008 Olympics in mind - as roads are widened and housing is gentrified. It would be an absolute tragedy if these areas of such wonderful character and history are destroyed so I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see them while they're still standing.