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Beijing Private Cultural Tour

Through the bells and drums, hutong and public toilets, dumplings and tea, discovering and assuming what is true.

sunny -9 °C

Beijing, December 26th 2012

Before leaving for China, I booked a private cultural tour through Viator for 70 USD (at that time). The tour was runned by Happy Box Travel. I was met at my hotel's lobby 15 minutes earlier than the appointed time.

"It's not time yet. Shall we leave, or do you want to wait?" my guide asked.

"Let's leave now."

It turned out that my hotel, Dongsi Fuyuan, is surrounded by a busy market in the morning. The market ends at 9:00 o'clock. By nine, a patrolman would walk the alleys while announcing time is up through a portable megaphone. Then the marketers would clear up their tables, mats, and etc. Before ten, the vicinity would look as if nothing had been there.

"May I take pictures?" I asked my guide.

"Sure. Go ahead. Especially that you look just like any of us."

He was right. The butcher smiled wide as I pointed my lens towards him. And... I became nervous, because of his smile.

This morning market, I was told, sold at lower prices than regular markets. They don't need electricity and yet the vegetables, fruits, and meats stay fresh. Certainly! Who would need a refrigerator?

"See those tomatoes?" my guide asked.


"They are actually hard. They are frozen."

I needed not test his words.

It took quite a long time for my guide to get us a taxi. Taxis were frequent, thought. Furthermore, in China, it's common to ride on a taxi with another passenger you don't know on the account you are going on the same direction. This should have increased our chance of getting a taxi. But none stopped. Even the unoccupied ones.

"Why don't the taxis stop?"

"I don't know," my guide answered.

While waiting and waiting for a taxi, I told him about the train ticket to Turpan. "I thought it's low season and there are few days in advance. If I could get my train tickets last summer even on the D-Day, it shoudl be easier now. How come they were sold out so fast?"

He didn't say "I don't know." He just said nothing. I repeated. He answered, "Ah ha."

I remained curious.

The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower only lies about 200 meters away from each other. On the left is Drum Tower and on the right is Bell Tower. Copying from Travel China Guide:

"They were originally used as musical instruments in China. Afterward, however, they were used for telling time. As early as in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), there was 'a morning bell and a dusk drum'. Telling the time by them played an important role in helping people live and work regularly when there was no other means to keep track of the time. ... Telling time by them was abolished after Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, left the Forbidden City."

Wikipedia says:
"The Bell and Drum Towers continued to function as the official timepiece of China and government until 1924, when the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty was forced to leave the Forbidden City and western-style clockwork was made the official means of time-keeping."

There are sixty plus nine stairs to reach the Drum Tower. It's not a matter the number of stairs, but the steepness of it. I had to stop in the middle to take a breath. Hah!

Every one hour or two, a drum performance is held. No wonder my guide seemed rather in a hurry. We were just in time for the first performance of the day. Listening to the drum performance is a good way to disguise your heart beat after climbing the stairs. Or... you can imagine you've swallowed a drum. Boom...! Boom, boom!

All the drums here are actually replicas. But this one in the picture, was the original one.

From the tower-top you can get a bird's-eye-view of the city of Beijing. On bottom right there is a frozen lake I had zoomed on.

It's interesting to read that there were 24 drums for the twenty-four Qi (solar terms) of the Chinese traditional lunar calendar. So? Who first decided that there are 24 hours in one day?

It's said.

This is one of the water clocks. Water is poured on the top. As the water gradually flows downwards, the wood indicator will rise up. Time will be indicated by on which number on the bamboo the water level line touches. At a certain period of time (every 15 minutes?) the man-statue on the left will clap.

These are the wood indicators. There are 24 of them!

Here's an incense clock. Copying from "How Does It Work":
"incense clocks would burn underneath of threads with weights attached. After a certain amount of time had passed, the fire from the incense would burn the thread, causing the weight to drop onto a gong below. This was an “alarm” for someone who wanted to know what time it was.

Here's a candle clock. The length of candle burned indicates the time which is showed by the marks on the candle.

The next activity was a rickshaw ride through the "hutong". It was something I had been looking forward to. The word "hutong" actually originated from Mongolian which meant "water well".
After my tour guide and I sat on the rickshaw, the rickshaw-man placed a quilt on our laps. If you look closely on the picture top left, on the right side you can see a zipper. This quilt has padding inside. The quilt gave extreme warmth as we pushed our way against the freezing wind of minus 9 degrees. When we stopped and the rickshaw-man pulled off the quilt, I could feel the instant deference. Magical. It worked almost like an electric blanket without electricity.

Those clay pots are wine pots. At first I thought they were ash pots... eeewww. Hutongs have ever since been painted grey, I was told. Each family has their own electricity-meter. By counting how many electricity-meter there are, you can know how many families live in one courtyard or complex.

"When I was in Jiayuguan," I told my guide. "I saw complexes of houses enclosed by walls and just one big entrance doorway in front.

"They are also here!" my tour guide replied. "Look!"

So... actually I had already seen hutongs before I came to Beijing?! Ah, ah... How all these times I had been fooled by the tourist industry! When I told this to Mom, she replied, "Ah, those are like the Chinese residential area in Kediri (Central Java, Indonesia.)" She was like, "What's so exciting about that?" I'm not sure whether the hutongs in Kediri do still exist today, because what Mom told me about was something before I was born. Anyway, I felt more fooled by the tourist industry. Too much information from the tourism side can be misleading from knowing the true life. Ah, ah! But, how many do care? Ah, ah!

As we rode on the rickshaw, my tour guide explained to me about life in Beijing and in the hutongs. (Hopefully, that's the true life.) The story then came to a favorite subject of China: Toilets. Along our way there had been signs of "Public Toilet".

"Have you been to a public toilet ?" my tour guide asked.

Proudly I answered, "I have been to the worst one!"

"You see that one? That's a three-star public toilet. It's moderately clean, but the walls are low. You can see your neighbors. For the Chinese, a public toilet is a good place to socialize.... Look, look! That's the two-star one. There's no air conditioning inside. Therefore you cannot take too long inside."

"Last night I went to a public toilet not so far from Forbidden City, by the side of the street. It was surprisingly clean to me. Each compartment had a door and lock, with high partitions. There were clean sinks also. It was almost like a hotel's toilet."

"That must be a five-star toilet," my tour guide commented.

"Hey!" I cried. "You are funny. You describe public toilets like describing hotels. Two-star, three-star, five-star.... hahaha!"

"Well... that's how people classify them."

"You mean... the locals say 'two-star', 'three-star', and so on?"

"Of course. Just like hotels, we can tell if it's a two-star toilet or a five-star by the outer appearance."

"Oh, I thought you had been joking when you said 'two-star', 'three-star'."

"No! I'm not!"

Rather contrary to what I had in mind about hutongs was that many cars were parked in front of the houses. "Do you know why some people cover the wheels with a wooden board?" my tour guide asked.

"Because it's freezing cold."

"Huahaha... hahaha!" he laughed aloud.

"Then why?"

"To prevent dogs from pooing on the wheels." Furthermore he explained, "When you see a car with the wheels covered like that, you can be sure it's an American car. Dogs won't poo on a Chinese or Japanese car."

"Now! Are you also serious, or are you kidding?"

"That's a matter of fact!"

"The dogs know which one is an American car!?"

"Apparently they do."

"So they consider an American car a five-star public toilet?"


"Ah, I think I know where those dogs come from," I whispered to myself. "If Malaysia had produced automobiles, they (the cars, I mean) would have gotten their share of poo also."

We stopped by at a market. The market was silent and clean. I saw a local shopping there, but I wondered if it was a market designed for locals or for tourists. It looked too good a market. It looked inauthentic.

"Those are seaweed."

"Yup, I know. I like it very much."

"You do?"

"Very much."

"Do you have seafood in Jakarta?"

"Lots and lots of! All over Indonesia!"

"How lucky..."

"Look, Chinese pizza."

"Naan. The Uyghur's bread."

"Ah yeah, yeah, the Uyghur people use to eat that. Have you tried one?"

"Yes, last summer."

"Oh yeah, and you said you are going to Turpan! What's so interesting about Xinjiang?"

"So do many of my country folks think. If you aren't interested in the Silk Road, maybe it's hard to be interested in Xinjiang."

I grinned at the sight of the naan bakery. Naan baked in an electric stove, aye. That's like making lontong in plastic sheets.

I learned paper cutting at a local's house. This character meant 'double happiness'. They had one big one on the ceiling, as seen on top left picture. It looked simple, but it wasn't really. I had to concentrate well. Twice I made wrong cuts and I needed a new piece of paper.

Although it was a home prepared on purpose for tourists, she spoke no English. My guide interpreted for me. But while I did my work, my guide and my teacher fell into a seemingly interesting conversation. From that moment on, I was left to guess for myself what my teacher was saying. Is this a paper cutting lesson or a Chinese lesson? Aye. While cutting, I had to strain my ears and pay attention to her talking more than to my scissors. My guide was busy with his gadget.

This time my "Wǒ shuō zhǐ yīdiǎn hànyǔ." turned into a disadvantage instead. And then the more I succeeded picking up words, the more serious my guide got with his gadget.

Although I see that the quality of the brush wasn't so good and that inevitably impacts the quality of writing, I was disappointed at my teacher's calligraphy writing. It was a very so and so writing. However, as I am no actress, apparently she read my mind.

My guide interpreted for me this time, "She said that she is just showing you how to do it, but she knows she doesn't do it well."

Ah, if she could read my mind, why didn't she read also that I was missing my guide's interpretation for me? The fee I paid to Viator was supposed to include an English-speaking guide.

Dumpling making was fun. It would have been more interesting if I could fully understand my teacher's talk. I was taught to make three kinds of shape: fish, money, and ear. The money-shape is usually made during new year which represents prosperity.

When we were done, I asked my guide, "What did she say the ear-shape symbolizes?"

"Oh, I wasn't listening."

Nevertheless, despite being busy with whatsoever on his gadget, my guide made sure to take some pictures for me, without me asking. I'm thankful for that.

A snapshot of the kitchen.

What a cute thing to have an aquarium in the dining room.

Tara! Here comes lunch! See? My guide is still busy with his gadget. It was a delicious lunch. Duck meat, fried chicken, fine rice and warm, with fragrant green tea. Fried dumplings also!

Tea Ceremony! No, it isn't! It's a promo presentation! If you have the Japanese tea ceremony in mind, you would be even more astonished if not disappointed.

Do you see those glass jars? Those are the kinds of tea. I was made to drink a cup of each, one after another. Like any professional sales girl, she explained to me the benefit of each type. Oh yeah, she spoke English pretty well, for a Chinese. And, my guide had disappeared.

My favorite was the fruit tea. It smelled so nice. It contained 18 kinds of fruits, I was told.

When I kept my cup of tea for awhile, because the tea was too hot for my tongue, she said to me impatiently, "Are you going to drink that or not?"

"Oh yes, Mommy. I am." No, I didn't say that.

As soon as I finished the cup, she poured in the next kind of tea. As soon as the so called ceremony was done, she ushered me to the tea shop at the back. In such a way she pursued me to buy tea. And they were not cheap. The smallest box or tin cost 200 yuan. At last I purchased a magic glass with panda on it. At least I love pandas, I thought. That was the cheapest item, 100 yuan. It's called magic glass, because as you pour hot water (or tea) into it, the characters 熊猫 will fade away and change into panda's photograph.

Here's a short video clip when I managed to steal time between her rush from one cup to another.

My tour guide and I departed at the bus stop. "Don't forget to post the photos and show your friends!" That was his last sentence.

Posted by automidori 00:06 Archived in China Tagged tower city china beijing tour drum bell hutong rickshaw viator private_cultural_ dumpling_making paper_cutting tea_ceremony

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