For between 30-60 RMB ($5-10 CDN) you can find your way up the ridiculously steep stairs at the Bell and Drum towers, famous time-keeping architecture along the North/South meridian of ancient Beijing. Once you’ve managed to climb to the top of the drum tower, you may not want to come down, especially if you avail yourself of the free tour-guide service (in English or Chinese) at quarter past most hours or if you arrive in time (half past most hours from 9:30-5:30, with a break around the lunch hour) for the intensely stirring drum performances. If you arrive off-time, don’t worry, there’s plenty to see: this tower was once used as the city’s timepiece and there are many ancient (and recreated) artifacts to look at and learn about while you wait to hear the drums.
I am not sure when the bell in the Bell Tower is rung, but even just seeing the enormous instrument is worth the steep climb. There are several engravings in English around the sides of the bell, telling interesting history and ancient fables. The views are great and the sense of history palpable.
I didn’t get the feeling this was a really huge tourist spot for Westerners but I think you’d really miss out if you don’t go see these two gorgeous buildings.
One word of caution: after a very bad experience with an unethical rickshaw driver, I would really caution against taking a rickshaw ride in Beijing. There are many rickshaws right outside the Bell and Drum towers but I believe the ones here are licensed (nominally at least) so they may not be so bad. They will easily take no for an answer, at least, and I recommend saying no. However, if you do want to try it, take a photo of the number on the back of the rickshaw, (don’t get in one without a number) and take a photo of the driver’s face. Then, agree on a price BEFORE you get in, and ideally, be headed somewhere you know so you can have a sense if you’re going off course. A very common scam is to take unsuspecting tourists down some local alleys then letting them off in a place that isn’t the agreed upon location but saying “it’s just down that corridor” or “just behind that wall” sort of thing. They then tell you that whatever price you agreed to is NOT the price and demand up to 300 RMB (50CDN). They may have had other drivers follow you and then surround you , trying to intimidate you. Keep in mind you are NOT obligated to pay them and if you get big and aggressive back at them, it is quite likely they will back off—but you’ll still end up giving them more than you agreed to, maybe $100. It is extremely unlikely these people are armed and they are totally trading on the fact you are disoriented, don’t really know the money, and likely feeling scared. It’s a nasty gig and shouldn’t be tolerated but for some reason it is…so remember it’s just money and don’t get in one again. Oh, while we’re at it another scam is to approach you on a busy street and be really friendly then ask you to see some art—no charge. Just an exhibition! They will try to get you down a back lane or something…just use your head and don’t go. They really will back off and look for an easier mark. They will being speaking to you by asking where you are from and then making flattering noises about wherever you say, and they also often ask you what you do back home…I found an effective way to cut the conversation short was to say I am a cop from New York City! I’m not of course, but they don’t really want a cop down an alley, I don’t think!
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