I’m sitting on the rooftop deck at Gladys Gardens, the Airbnb that I’m staying at in Old Beijing. The photo above is only part of the view from where I sit. The roof tops of ancient Beijing stretch out in all directions. This is one of the few areas of Beijing where the original Hutongs still exist- the ancient alleyway neighborhoods that represent the glory of China’s capital.
In the photo, the Drum Tower “Gulou” (on the right), and the Bell Tower “Zonglou” (left) were originally built by Kublai Khan-Genghis’s grandson, in the late 1200s, but their present location only dates to the 1400s.
This old area of Beijing is without a doubt one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Beijing was a town 3000 years ago. The Mongols made it the capital of China in the 1200s A.D. At that time the Drum Tower in the photo above was the city center. Today, the center is represented by the Forbidden City (the emperor’s palace) and the adjacent Tienanmen Square- the locaton of the infamous student protests in 1989, followed by the Tienanmen Square Massacre.
I’m staying with a retired couple who live in a marvelous house in the middle of the Xiaojinsi Hutong just north of the Forbidden City & Tienanman Square. He is Canadian and she is Chinese. They met a long time ago in graduate school at the University of Chicago. They bought their property in the 90’s when the Chinese government opened up the area for private ownership, and they built the wonderful house that I’m staying in.
Every morning I bring my coffee up onto the rooftop to enjoy the view of Old Beijing. Our next door neighbor keeps a pigeon coop on his roof, and every morning while I am having my morning coffee he opens the door to the coop and his 30+ pigeons come flying out in a genuine flurry of wing flapping mania. They circle around our building a couple of times, and then broaden their sweep into a joyful adventure across the skies of Beijing. They love to circle the Bell & Drum Towers. After they fly for about an hour, their keeper waves his big red flag around in circles from his roof and they start making their way back home. Yesterday, he couldn’t get them to land. After several failed attempts to bring them in, I suddenly realized that I was the problem, standing conspicuously atop the adjacent roof. I headed down the stairs as the pigeons headed back into their coop. Throughout the day you can see various flocks of pigeons from various coops taking their daily flights around the city. On weekends the owners hold pigeon races, for the purpose of high-stakes gambling. Last year one fellow won over a million yuan- about $175,ooo.