It was one of those typical Beijing winter days when a harsh sun glowers onto a steely haze that makes the line of houses at some distance look like a paper cut’s monochromatic scene. Cold and wind chill to the bone, but at least it’s not one of those days when sun and skylines are completely hidden in a miasma that cannot but be bad for one’s health.
Being in the last weeks of my work-migratory sojourn alone in Beijing, neither bad air nor a bit of a cold could keep me from going out to explore more of Beijing’s (Buddhist) temples, as I had decided on doing a little writing project on those.
This day led me into the area around Houhai, one of the lakes north of the Forbidden City.
From another lunch at Zhang Mama (very good and very affordable Sichuan food)…
…past the just-then soft-opening Rager Pies store/café…
…west along the little hutong road towards the lake, past children just out of school for the day (or for lunch? an afternoon recess?)…
…my feet led me into the neighborhood around the Bell and Drum Towers.
I had been there before, hunting after the sites – and sights – where Western visitors had taken pictures in a Beijing that was only just emerging from the decline of the last Chinese empire. Only the rebuilding that was happening in a square just north of the Bell Tower and the plethora of shops (incongruously, including one with high-scale men’s wear most ‘Westerners’ wouldn’t even recognize) had caught my eye then.
This time around, it was the open gate to the tower that drew my attention.
Turns out one can actually visit them… but of course, in the Bell Tower, as you go in and wonder what sort of place this inside area is, you are shouted back out and around to the ticket check and stairs on the other side. In the tower is one of those tea house/clubs in historic buildings that have recently come under fire for the corruption and highballing lifestyle they may well be representing.
The view, unsurprisingly on a day like this, was not the best, but interesting enough in its monochrome and the village-like character of most of the area that could be seen.
The bell is big enough to be impressive, but what struck a nerve in me was the legend of the bell they were explaining on a poster in the (northern) area the furthest from where one comes up the steep stairs.
That legend tells of the maiden who sacrificed her life in order for the bell to be successfully cast – but the version described here pales in comparison to the one I had read a while ago, just as I was wooing my then-girlfriend and wondering how things would go, as she had only just broken the news of her relationship with a foreigner to her parents.
The legend’s full version has not only the girl’s father, but also her fiancée, trying to advance in the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy by promising the emperor the biggest bell ever, failing to the point where they are threatened with losing their heads (literally, of course), and being saved at the last minute by the virgin daughter who follows the dream in which she was told that it took a pure virgin’s blood to successfully bind the mixture of metals right into the melting pot.
Respect for your elders all well and good, but when it comes to rather Macchiavellian men having to be saved by a daughter and fiancée, I have to admit I’d rather go with a either feminist or Hollywood version…
The adjacent Drum Tower holds a few more of the, basically same, views, and explanations of the agricultural calendar and time-keeping methods of old. Before I ever managed to get up there, however, a group of young women apparently on a little (cosmetics) company trip accosted me with the wish to take photos with me.
It still happens in China, at times – and if you find my face somewhere, seemingly advertising some sort of facial cream or something like that, this is how it happened.
Of course, at least now that they’ve been re-made, the Drum Tower also holds the drums it’s named for. (There is but one original, and the explanation text that accompanies it does not fail to point out the holes in the leather which were made by bayonets wielded by the foreign Allied Forces…)
Why people would be sitting around in a place like the Drum Tower and sinking into their smartphone screens, I found myself wondering.
It was a good question, for “What are they waiting for? (Are they waiting for anything?)” led right to the sign which mentioned that the next drum performance would be taking place a few minutes later. Just the time it would have taken me to get back out and miss the whole thing, had I not wondered.
There it was:
The interesting encounters, just had by walking around and keeping eyes open to experiences, did not end there.
On the way on to the temple I wanted to get to, there was some movie filming going on.
At the temple, a monk at the left side entrance told me that visitors weren’t allowed in back… and when I looked in at the right side entrance, another monk invited me to come in and have a look around. With two Chinese who also just wanted to have a look around, it became a tad more touristy:
After the visit to the temple, as I came out to Houhai Lake, I broke out in laughter to the point where the security guards standing on the road there looked at me strangely – but, it broke the ice and got us to a short chat – and them to understand: The contrast was just too great. The lake where I had last seen people go for a swim was now an ice-skating rink…
… and, as it turned out, it was still a place where the Houhai swimmers went for a swim. Right next to the ice-skaters.
As things sometimes go, later on along the lake, I would also say “Hi” to another Westerner who turned out to be a flight attendant and would also be at the ISPO. Small world.