New York to Beijing – Hutongs and History – Journal Entry #15

New York to Beijing Journal Entry #15

Hutongs and History


The Drum Tower

One amazing thing about China is the rich and long history that has been preserved. One can see architecture from thousands of years ago juxtaposed with modern installations. Over the last few weeks, I was able to visit a few of the oldest and most interesting sites in Beijing.

Lars and Nona’s school, BSB, organized an outing for the traveling spouses. My daughter Hanna, and Melanie, my friend visiting from New York, Munyiva, and I arrived at the school early in the morning and hopped onto a large bus headed downtown. The four of us were off to see the Drum Tower and the Qianlian Hutong, both in the heart of Beijing. And, we were going to see them by bicycle.

After a 45 or so minute drive we arrived at what has to be one of the cutest bicycle rental shops I have ever been in.

It had a coffee and snack bar and looked like IKEA or some German designer got their hands on the decor. Our tour guide, one of the leaders of the BSB Parents Association, had arranged everything ahead of time. All 25+ of the moms (yes, only women) were to select our bicycle from the bevy of choices lining the outside of the shop. Once we selected our bike, we then received a lock and key to use when we would stop to sightsee.


Tour guide/BSB parent (and Hanna and Mel)

We saddled up after ensuring we all used the very clean bathroom. We were not sure what the rest of the day would be like as far as facilities and we would be riding around for over four hours. One brave set of moms selected a tandem bicycle. I was curious how that would work out riding in traffic and in tiny lanes in the Hutong.

Our fearless leader told us we would be making a few stops and to watch her for signals when we would be getting off the bikes. I was a little uncomfortable with the group size. We were massive! And, we were to try to stick together and ride mostly in single file.  Our party of four decided to start off in the back of the pack.


We were off – winding in and out of traffic, up and down small lanes. The weather was good but the pollution was a little high so we had our masks to the ready.


Our first stop was The Drum Tower. This spectacular place was build in 1272. Yes, you heard me – 1272. It was built during the reign of Kublai Khan. It was originally called, “The Tower of Orderly Administration”. 24 original giant drums would be struck consistently throughout the day at the same time. (Only one of the original remains.) Throughout many dynasties, civil and military officials set their time to these regular beats. Now, they still strike these drums at set times, but it is more performative in nature and meant to preserve history. It is a museum and houses “The People’s Cultural Hall”.

All 25 of us parked our bikes near the front entrance, locked our bikes, and proceeded to the line for tickets. Our guide was telling us that it was nearly time for the drums to be set off and we didn’t want to miss it. So, we quickly made our way through the queue and into the building.


Using selfie stick….. behind us is the Bell Tower which sits directly across from the Drum Tower

The first thing we came to when we stepped inside was one of the steepest and longest flight of stairs I have ever encountered. It was scary going up and horrifying going down. Thankfully, my knees were not acting up or I would not have made it up or down those steps. Up we went……


Looks even worse on the way down!!

We made it into an open room lined with several huge drums that were on their sides. As soon as we got in the room, the show began. We rushed to find a space to get a good view.  We could really feel the long and rich history of this place and this tradition as the 10 or so drummers took their place with military precision in front of their drum. They raised their drum sticks, (more like small rolling pins) and crossed them in front of their faces at the same time. Then someone down the straight line shouted a command and, “Bang!! Bang-Bang-Bang!!”, they were off. It was fascinating! I love percussion, so the deep beats and rhythms were awesome to hear this close up. They played for a minute or two and then, with the same precision, they stopped and filed off of the drum stage.


We walked around the top floor, reading all the historical information about the tower and the drums before we were hustled back down the stairs and back onto our bikes for the next leg of the tour.


The big group got rolling and we rode for another 15 minutes until we arrived at another historical site. Beijing has high rise buildings, especially downtown. However, nicely nestled next to all this are smaller, less-visible buildings and connected alleys called hutongs that showcase traditional Beijing lifestyle and culture, which is much different from modern city life. I have attached a really excellent video that tells the history of hutongs, focusing on the one we visited, Qianliang Hutong. Like how the door steps keep out ghosts and how to tell who is rich by the door decorations…… good stuff…..Hutong History – Good video of where we went

Our group stopped, parked our bikes again, and began a walking tour of this unique place, including the meat and vegetable market.


Hutongs are organized around courtyards and alleyways.



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Tight Corridors – Watch Your Toes



Hutong Meat Market

After our tour we remounted our bikes. We were nearing the end of our outing.

Our last stop would be for lunch at a dumpling house. We cruised along, clunkily in a large blob of bicycles, until we got to a very small restaurant. Our parent guide ensured us that these would be tasty dumplings and cheap. We all filed into the restaurant and took over all their inside spots, as well as the 3-4 outside tables. Our host kept it simple and ordered for all of us. Two types of dumplings – pork and veggie. We would all pay the fee for lunch, bikes, and tickets on our bus ride back. Many of the moms, us included, selected some cheap Chinese beer to accompany our meal.


After eating, we were headed back to the bike rental shop via a quick drive-by of Tiananmen Square. Here we were, in a large group, cycling in major traffic, next to one of the most famous tourist attractions. Tons of military guards stood watching everything, including us. It was a little surreal.

We made it back safely to the bike exchange and loaded back on the bus for school. We arrived just in time for dismissal and were able to get a ride on the school bus with our children home. It was a great day!


We have been going out on the weekends as a family to different places in Beijing and wanted to make sure to see The Forbidden City. We went last week on one of the coldest days of the year and in a snowstorm. Ironically, one of the only other times I had been to the Forbidden City, there was a sandstorm in the summer. Strange!


Before going to see the city, we all watched The Last Emperor. (If you haven’t seen this – you should.) It prepared us for the history of the city as well as the grandeur and feeling. Lars and Nona loved the movie and, if it were not below zero, they would have enjoyed the Forbidden City just as much. I have included photos, but we couldn’t take that many because we did not take gloves and our fingers were freezing.

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We were able to buy some waterproof booties for Nona. No one expected snow this early or ever in Beijing. 

Beijing is a wonderful place with so much to see and do. As we approach the end of our third month in China, we have only just begun to tap into all the resources and history. IMG_0926

Next up – The Great Wall.

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