Exploring Beijing Drum Tower 鼓楼 & Houhai 后海 Hutongs 胡同 [Pedicab/Trishaw Hutong Tour Scam Alert]26 September, 2013
Besides the standard Beijing tourist destinations of Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing Street, Shichahai (什刹海) is another area worth checking for its beautiful lakes, shopping along old streets such as Yan Dai Xie Jie 烟袋斜街 (with its fusion of new fashionable shops selling tourist knick-knacks and unusual souvenirs) and historial monuments such as Drum Tower 鼓楼 and Bell Tower 钟楼 and of course the famous Beijing Hutongs 胡同.
Shichahai is an historic scenic area consisting of three lakes in the north of central Beijing in China. They are located to the north-west of the Forbidden City and north-west of the Beihai Lake. Shichahai consists of the following three lakes: Qianhai (前海), Xihai (西海) and Houhai (后海). Interesting tourist sights are located around the vicinity of Houhai (后海) and Qianhai (前海). See map below for a quick overview of what you can see around Qianhai (前海) and Houhai (后海).
We started our exploration of this area at the Drum Tower 鼓楼 (see map below boxed in purple ‘Hutong Tour Zone 1’). Bus routes 5, 60, 90, 107 and 204 stop at the Drum Tower. The nearest Beijing subway station (Line 2 and Line 8) to the Drum Tower is 鼓楼大街站 – do note that the subway station is still a 10-15 minutes away from 鼓楼. A taxi from Shangri-La China World Summit Wing direct to Drum Tower 鼓楼 will cost RMB 30+ (under light traffic conditions).
If you are starting your trip from the Houhai (后海) side (see map below boxed in blue ‘Hutong Tour Zone 2’), the nearest subway station is at Beihai North 北海北 on Line 6 is about half a kilometer west of Qianhai. To reach Houhai, you will need to walk north along the shore of Qianhai to Houhai.
Drum Tower 鼓楼 and Bell Tower 钟楼
The Bell and Drum Towers are located on the northern end of the central north-south axis of Beijing city. The towers served as the official clocks for the capital city during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty. Both towers were built in 1272 during the Yuan Dynasty.
Back then, the drums and bells in the towers informed government officials on the time to attend court in the Forbidden Palace and also informed civilians on when to start and stop work. In the morning, the bells would be struck and in the evening, the drums would be struck. The bronze large bell at the tower weighed 63 tonnes and was about 5.55 metres tall.
大钟总高5.55米，总重约63吨。 关于铜钟的铸造，还流传着一段动人的传说。据传，当年铸钟时，总达不到理想效果，眼看限期将至，如再铸不成，工匠们将面临杀身之祸。此事被工匠华严师傅的 女儿华仙得知，乘他人不备跃入炉中。铜钟于是铸成，钟声宏亮、绵长，“都城内外，十有余里，莫不耸听”。为纪念舍己救父的华仙姑娘，人们在钟楼之西，建了 一座金炉圣母铸钟娘娘庙。今庙已不存，其址改作民居。
Tickets for the Drum Tower cost RMB 20 and Bell Tower RMB 15 – you can also purchase a 2 Tower ticket for RMB 30. Personally, I recommend just checking out the Drum Tower if you are short for time or want to spend more time exploring the nearby hutongs. There are regular (hourly) performances at the Drum Tower – you can check out an Instavideo of the Drum Tower performance at this blog post.
Do note that the climb up the Drum Tower is very very steep – see picture below. Despite the steepness, climbing up the Drum Tower is actually less intimidating than going down – you can consider walking backwards if you have a fear of heights. Atop the Drum Tower, you can catch an exhibition of different time measurement instruments used during different Chinese dynasties and of course the impressive array of big drums. You can also catch a great view of hutongs at the Houhai area. And that’s pretty much all you see at the Drum Tower… so if you have just missed the Drum Tower performance, there is nothing much to do during the wait.
Scam Alert: Hutong Tour by Pedicab/Trishaw
The area around the Drum Tower 鼓楼 is the starting point for most hutong tours and it has also become a hotspot for pedicab/trishaw touts offering their tours of the nearby hutongs.
From my personal observations (not verified with any authority), there are 2 main hutong trishaw/pedicab tour zones – see the map at top of post – the one around the Drum Tower marked by the purple box (and labelled Hutong Tour Zone 1) and the one around Houhai area marked by the blue box (and labelled Hutong Tour Zone 2). No trishaws will bring you on a tour that covers both zones – i think because of territorial protection (to keep the business to themselves) and also the slow manual operated trishaws will have to cross a busy road (with cars and buses). So in my opinion, a quick way to sieve out the scammers trishaw/pedicab hutong tour operators is to check with them (when you are at Zone 1) if they can include Prince Gong’s Mansion 恭王府 as part of the tour, if they claim they can, they are most likely over-promising in order to get your business. Alternatively, they will say they will drop you off near it (which typically means at the main road along the Drum Tower which is as far as the trishaw/pedicab can go before having to cross into Zone 2 and you will have to walk about 30-40 minutes to reach the Mansion!).
I can’t say for online tour operators who say they cover hutongs and 恭王府 in both zones in 3-4 hours because I have not experienced them. Having taken a trishaw tour around hutongs in Zone 1 and walked around the hutongs in Zone 2, I do not recommend taking a hutong tour in Zone 1 – there is a lot more activities to do and see around Zone 2. If you have the time and stamina (the hutong area is quite big), you can also consider walking – dont have to deal with the hassle of haggling and risk of getting scammed.
One golden rule to remember though (based on reviews I have read online) is NEVER take a trishaw/pedicab ride outside these 2 zones e.g. Wangfujing, Temple of Heaven (no matter how cheap it appears to be). There have been accounts of trishaw operator quoting RMB 3 for the ride and then at the end of the ride, only to clarify that it is RMB 3 per minute or suddenly pulling out a shoddy rate card that claims that you have just taken a hutong tour for RMB 300!
I think we did get semi-scammed for our hutong trishaw tour around the Drum Tower area. Let me share with you an account of what a hutong tour is like – you can get a quick preview through our video. But before we start, let me explain what’s a hutong.
In Beijing, hutongs 胡同 are narrow streets or alleys formed by lines of siheyuan 四合院, traditional courtyard residences. In the Ming Dynasty (early 15th century) the center was the Forbidden City, surrounded in concentric circles by the Inner City and Outer City. Citizens of higher social status were permitted to live closer to the center of the circles. Aristocrats lived to the east and west of the imperial palace. The large siheyuan of these high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants often featured beautifully carved and painted roof beams and pillars and carefully landscaped gardens. The hutongs they formed were orderly, lined by spacious homes and walled gardens. Farther from the palace, and to its north and south, were the commoners, merchants, artisans, and laborers. Their siheyuan were far smaller in scale and simpler in design and decoration, and the hutongs were narrower. Today, quite a number of these hutongs and siheyuans have been demolished and what’s left of the siheyuans have been converted to hotels, restaurants and bars and some are still occupied by residents who inherited these siheyuans.
Back to the hutong semi-scam -> after checking out the Drum Tower, we were pretty tired so when approached by a hutong tour operator (a middleman), he quoted us RMB 150, we bargained it down to RMB 100 (for 2 of us) for a 40-minute tour of the hutongs in the area with the promise of a drop-off at Prince Gong’s Mansion 恭王府 (we didn’t know the geography of the area then so a drop-off at 恭王府 sounded like a good deal). At RMB 50 (S$10) per person, the deal seemed quite ok (maybe it is because we spoke Mandarin – we read of accounts of tourists being charged RMB 300 for a short 10-minute ride around the hutongs). Thus I labelled this as a semi-scam as we didn’t pay through the roof for this hutong tour.
With a quick whistle, a trishaw came out of nowhere and the middleman mentioned to him “The Usual Route; The Usual Time”. I inferred from this that there must have been a series of different routes with different tour periods for different tourists who paid different prices.
First Hutong Tour Stop: 门当户对
The hutong trishaw tour got off to an ok start – friendly trishaw uncle making small talk about the weather and giving a quick history on the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower (in Mandarin – if you need an English-speaking guide, please inform upfront but do expect to pay a premium). Then the conversation went on to how he was not paid to do such trishaw tours – all the monies collected before the tour would go to the middleman (who also happened to be the boss of a number of these trishaw uncles) so they only earned from tips – this began a series of conversations (or rather monologues as we just shut off all his mumblings since the authenticity of what he said can’t be verified) to how hard this job was and he even said that the typical tip rate for such hutong tours was RMB 100 to RMB 150! I guess he didn’t know how much we paid the middleman as he just asked for tips of more than 100% of the tour fare!
Thankfully we arrived at our first stop – a beautifully decorated door of a siheyuan 四合院 where he explained (surprisingly very well) the significance of each of the symbols on the door and how it relates to the Chinese expression of 门当户对 (literally translated as matching doors). Earlier, i mentioned that citizens of higher social status were permitted to live closer to Forbidden Palace in one of the many siheyuans – to signify their social status e.g. their aristocrat or government ranks, knobs were installed on top of their door (like the blue knobs on top of the door in the picture below).
The more knobs there are, the more senior the person who stayed in this house – the knobs are known as 门当. The 2 small stone statues at each side of the door represent the occupation of the person staying in this house so there will be different statues for government court officials, soldiers, artisans etc. These statues are known as 户对. So back in the days of matchmaking, parents would look at the doors of the prospects’ family house for the 门当户对 and decide on whether their social status match before making a decision on whether to proceed with the marriage.
Second Hutong Tour Stop: Suspicious-looking Siheyuan 四合院
The next stop was at a 四合院 which the trishaw uncle claimed is even better than Prince Gong’s Mansion 恭王府 – that bold statement set off my internal alarm; luckily I have done my homework – 恭王府 has been praised as one of the best siheyuan to check out in Beijing and this siheyuan that he drove us to did not even have any signages indicating ticket prices and explaining what this place was about. Yet he claimed that it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Beijing and a must-see for all hutong tours and that admission only cost RMB 30 per person. We were also very coincidentally just in time for a major performance and indeed when we neared the siheyuan, it was quite noisy inside but the door was closed so we can’t see what was going on inside.
He knocked on the door and a lady opened the door slightly (it definitely didn’t looked right from how secretive she was) while I was still deciding whether to go in. We decided against going in and the lady slammed the door shut immediately. The trishaw uncle tried to psycho us into going in further but we just stood on our ground and requested to move on with the rest of the tour.
My guess (again unverified) is that there is properly nothing much inside – maybe just a few videos (i heard canned laughter coming from within) in a run-down siheyuan and it is likely not a museum showcasing hutong life as the trishaw uncle claimed. He seemed very disappointed that we chose not to go in and this led me to the conclusion that he would most likely be paid a commission for each tourist he managed to trick in.
If anyone of you had entered such siheyuan during similar hutong tours, please share with me your experience. I am curious about what’s inside. 🙂
He drove us to another siheyuan and this time, there were more activities outside as a group of trishaw riders were shepherding their Caucasian guests inside this siheyuan. Now, he said that this siheyuan is more famous, judging from the fact that there were so many tourists going in now – we decided we had enough and refused to go in.
All in all, I felt that the hutong tour was quite ok – we drove by quite a few different alleys (with some sales pitch for some strange and suspicious-looking museums along the way) and saw the local Beijingers doing their laundry and playing chess. The tour took exactly 40 minutes. Aside from the hard sell for the “fake” siheyuans, I thought the trishaw uncle was quite ok in his explanation of life in the hutongs – I wouldn’t mind tipping him for the tour but definitely not the RMB 100 – RMB 150 tip he was asking for throughout the tour. He would come up with some unconvincing sob stories about he had to work under such hot Beijing weather now and then.
Upon arrival at the place where he said was near Prince Gong’s Mansion 恭王府 (which was pretty much where we started – i.e. 30-40 minutes walk away from the 恭王府), I shoved him the RMB 20 that I prepared beforehand (a fair tip of 20% in my opinion for a slightly below average tour) and escaped quickly to somewhere further away (while he exclaimed that it was too little!).
The Youtube video below is quick summary of our trishaw ride in the Beijing hutongs.
The Youku version of the same video above for our friends in China 🙂
Yan Dai Xie Jie 烟袋斜街
One of the most happening (busy) streets leading to Houhai is Yan Dai Xie Jie 烟袋斜街 (literally translated as Tobacco Pouch Slanting Street; some called it Smoke Bag Slanting Street). Yan Dai Xie Jie is about 300 metres in length and there are quite a number of interesting shops selling different types of Beijing souvenirs, restaurants as well as themed shops e.g. there is one shop dedicated to selling postcards in Beijing. However, a century ago, this street was known for its a bustling tobacco business in tobacco pipes or “smoke-bags”; residents also noticed that the street was shaped like a smoke-bag (With the 300-meter street as the stem of the pipe, the east end is shaped like the pipe bowl while the west end, leading to the Yinding Bridge 银锭桥 in the south, resembles the mouthpiece) and thus this street earned its name – Yan Dai Xie Jie.
Houhai 后海 literally translates to “Rear Sea” refers to a lake and its surrounding neighborhood in Xicheng District of central Beijing. Houhai is the largest of the three lakes, along with Qianhai and Xihai, that comprise Shichahai, the collective name for the three northern-most lakes in central Beijing. Since the early 2000s, the hutong neighborhood around Houhai has become known for its nightlife as many residences along the lake shore have been converted into restaurants, bars, and cafes. The area – Houhai Pub Street 后海酒吧街 is especially popular with foreign tourists visiting Beijing and is also often visited by the expatriate community and the younger generations of locals. The following short video provides a quick preview of the atmosphere of Houhai’s Pub Street.
One of the key attractions at Houhai is Prince Gong’s Mansion (Gong Wang Fu 恭王府), the former home for a Qing dynasty emperor, Qianlong, as well as Heshen, his corrupt eunuch. The house and grounds are extensive, although not entirely accessible (Heshen’s pleasure palace is closed off). The pricier admission fee (about RMB 70) includes a performance of opera and acrobatics in the Mansion’s Grand Opera House. If you just want to visit the Prince Gong’s Mansion grounds, the admission fee is RMB 40.
Some guidebooks will recommend that you walk to Prince Gong’s Mansion from Silver Ingot Bridge 银锭桥 – do note that the walk will take you about 20-30 minutes from the bridge – along the way, you will walk past quiet hutongs (except for the occasional trishaw tour groups). If you don’t like to walk for so long, you can consider taking a hutong trishaw tour here (instead of at Drum Tower area) but bargain hard and ensure that they drop you off at Prince Gong’s Mansion at the end of the tour. We didn’t try the hutong trishaw tour here so can’t comment on the experience.
For accommodation options in Beijing, we recommend Shangri-La China World Summit Wing. If you want to try the famous Peking Duck, the Horizon restaurant at Kerry Beijing serves an excellent dish of Peking Duck!