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Gulou: The heart of old Beijing still beats
The neighborhood around the Drum and Bell Towers, which for centuries kept time in the capital, flows with life, despite being left behind by the rest of the city
Around the centuries-old Drum and Bell towers, rickshaw drivers ferry tourists past hidden courtyard homes, fruit shops, kebab stands and trendy cafes and bars. Old folks in red “security volunteer” armbands monitor the goings on. A group of men take lunch over stiff glasses of baijiu (white liquor), while a woman hauling a squeaky cart calls out for recycling.
This narrow warren of hutong alleyways called Gulou, a charming 12.94 hectares in the middle of the Chinese capital, is one of Beijing’s most endearing neighborhoods, offering a glimpse into the city’s fading past.
Gulou isn’t without problems. Many of the neighborhood’s courtyard homes are without adequate plumbing and heating. For many residents, a visit to the bathroom means bundling up and strolling down to the nearest public toilet. Valuable property prices also prompt talk of redevelopment, such as the recently scrapped “Beijing Time Cultural City.”
For preservationists, however, Gulou is the heart of Old Beijing, part of a past that has been largely set aside during the country’s rapid development. Roughly 80 percent of Beijing’s hutongs have met with the wrecking ball in recent years.
“Beijing can be transformed into New York in five decades, but it would take New York 5,000 years to become a city like Beijing,” says Zhang Wei, founder of OldBeijing.org. As He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, puts it: “Gulou is precious.”
The bell tower
Posing by beer
Time for a nap