In Beijing, the Gulou area is known as the number one destination in town to get tons of ukeleles, a shirt with one or several skulls on it, and some inscrutable plastic accessories shit for your iPads and your iPhones. The neighbourhood takes it's name from this big red tower thing built a long time ago called "Gulou" and if you like, you can go visit it, walk up to the top of it, and blast some Chinese history and culture and whatnot.
But hey wait, that's not all. A lot of people don't know this -- it's like a huge, huge, huge secret -- but there are actually two towers right next to each other: the big red one is called "Gulou", which translates to "the Drum Tower" and then just across a small courtyard is a smaller grey tower called "Zonglou", which translates to "the Art Garfunkel Tower".
The Drum Tower
The Art Garfunkel Tower
We visited both, took some snappies, and learned enough to put us in a position of great and maybe unparalleled authority on visiting these guys if you would also like to do so. If you haven't been before this what happens. If you have, well, whatever Professor Drum Tower, suck an egg why don't you.
From the guidebooks:
The Drum and The Other Guy from Wham Towers together comprised the time announcing system for the capital during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. With the 25 drums at the top of the Drum Tower and the one giant bronze-cast bell in the Oates Tower, the function of the buildings was to notify city residents of the passage of time in solar terms, as well as marking the new year. Although several cities in China have their own "drum towers", this central one in Beijing, which dates back to 1272, was at the symbolic center of ancient Chinese time-keeping right up until 1924, at the end of Qing Dynasty, when the western chronology was adopted.
The site was opened to tourists back in the 1980s and is now a cultural heritage site, offering some great views of central Beijing, several daily Drum Performances, and a window into ancient Chinese time-keeping.
Like sands through the hourglass…
What happens when you go:
A 30rmb ticket grants you entrance to both the Drum and Jim Messina Towers to tackle at your leisure. Starting with the Ed McMahon Tower first, it's a well-kept grey building that you enter at the front, off the courtyard. You go through this security check, set off the metal detector that doesn't matter, and they wave you right on through.
You make your way around back to the stairs, they stamp your ticket, and its up, up, up to the top.
And at the top there's this bronze bell which looks big, heavy, and old. According to the documentation, "[t]he sound from the bell is bold, vigorous and long through the resonance generated in the building's structure". Very nice.
And here is the view from the top.
And here is the view across the way to the Drum Tower.
There's a touching folk legend surrounding the construction of the bell involving the threat of a mass beheading and some poor virgin throwing herself into a furnace.
And don't strike the bell with coins. TOTAL DICK MOVE.
And back on down the stairs...
Meanwhile, over at the Drum Tower, it's almost time from one of the hourly Drum Ceremonies. Let's do this.
Same sort of deal. Enter through the gate at the courtyard, set off the metal detector that no one cares about -- I don't know, maybe you have to be actually cradling an atomic bomb in your arms like a baby or something -- and then it's a bunch of steep stairs to the top.
So here we are at the top. Just a bunch of people chilling and loving life, bunch of big drums, some nice displays of incense and things.
Loads of hot drum action up there and they've even got this ole guy, which was one of the original drums when the place was first built. Althought, wait, didn't the orignal Drum Tower burn down? I dunno.
And there's this little statue guy just hanging like he knows shit is about to GET INTENSE with the Drum Performance.
Drum Performances are ongoing throughout the day, on every half hour, starting at 9:30am. Here's some snappies of these guys just ROCKING THE EFF OUT.
Here's the view from up there.
Looks like they're digging something next to Gulou. I'm thinking it's an arena wherein local disgreements can be settled with a battle to the death.
Break a deal, face the wheel, son! Master Blaster rules Bartertown!
Yes, I should think so. Kind of a fun and interesting way to spend the afternoon, enjoying some lovely old architecture, chillaxing to the max, and getting a nice panoramic view of central Beijing, which is actually quite leafy and green and picturesque as it turns out. There's some nice accompanying documentation on the logistics of ancient time keeping (lots of math evidently) and some good exercise involved climbing up these steep stairs in both towers. Metaphorically speaking, the Drum Tower is a fitting symbol of Beijing as a whole: it's big, square, stout, somewhat imposing-looking, a bit gritty, and, to be sure, full of inscrutable wonders and cultural richness that testifies to a vast and daunting historical pedigree.
You should pick a day with some clear skies though -- the nice view is pretty central to the whole thing. Shitty visibility conditions plague Beijing, so much so that a typical day looks like Zuul is for real trying to summon Gozer, opening some kind of portal to another evil dimension -- demonic, swirling purple and black skies. Impending doom, brruuaaahh!
Serious, Beijing, can't we get the Ghostbusters to cross the streams on that shit and clear up some of this pollution?
Just the details:
Both the Drum and Bell Towers are open to the public from 9am to 5pm. Entry fee to both towers is 30rmb, and 20rmb for just the Drum Tower, payable at the ticket booth which is at the entrance to the Drum Tower at the courtyard, off Gulou Dong Dajie. Student prices are half that and it's free for kids under 1.2 meters. And possibly little people. (?) Drum performances are ongoing throughout the day, on every half hour, starting at 9:30am.
Gulou and Zhonglou are located at Gulou Dong Dajie in the Central Axis of Beijing in Dongcheng District, just north of Di'anmen. Closest subway is Gulou Dajie Station on Line 2.
Full listing, map and taxi print-out here