I awoke to the gentle patter of drizzle and opened my window to another grotty Beijing summer day of acid rain. My spirit though was unashamedly positive as I took a local rickshaw (motorised) from Dongsi to Beihai Park.
Beihai s one of the oldest and most authentic imperial gardens in China. Most of the buildings still in situ were constructed during Emperor Qianlong’s reign during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.). Beihai was opened to the public in 1925 and the park occupies an area of 69 hectares including a 39-hectare lake. In the garden, pavilions and towers nestle in the midst of the gorgeous scenery.
I joined the queue at the northern gate immediately having to dodge the matriarchs umbrellas which instinctively become a dysfunctional extension to their bodies. I received a couple of direct hits one above the right temple and the other at the base of the neck, as is usual, no acknowledgement or apologies were forthcoming. 🙂 Before purchasing my ticket a young Amazonian woman stepped forward expecting to jump the queue but fortunately the posse of elderly women admonished her and sent her packing.
On entering the park I took 5 minutes to get my bearings before deciding to take an anti clockwise circular route through the grounds. Firstly, just to my left, I noticed a raised rockery area full of small groups playing cards, the myriad of characters grabbed my attention so I flaneured through smiling, everyone acknowledge me and many with a “good morning”, so different than South Korea! After stooping for some Jasmine Tea I continued right, some buildings, part of Jingxinzhai (Quiet Heart Studio) Garden, were being repaired and on my left was a boat hire pontoon. As I reached the gates of the heavenly King Hall, I dodged a young kid who was proving a handful for his granddad before stopping to listen to a flautist positioned at the foot of one of the arches. I passed through the arches and visited the Zaci Zhenru Hall a place were the emperor and his consorts would come to sit during the heat of summer. A cat made a friend of me as I sat in the shadows watching the comings and goings. I sauntered through and archway into an area with a huge rockery, here I caught sight of the aquamarine and gold Nine Dragon Screen. It was created in 1756 and is five meters high, 1.2 meters thick and 27 meters long. On either side of it there are nine dragons, made of glazed bricks, each playing with a pearl a midst waves of clouds.
Leaving the screen I caught the gaze of a baby sheltering under his grandpa’s umbrella and then passed a ballroom dancing masterclass with the impresario boldly clad in fuchsia pink! Aside the dancing class was a posse of eccentrics in various guises, one woman clad in combat gear sucked on a fag like it was her last breath, the gut next to her looked like a grunged Karl Lagerfeld.
I continued my stroll on the left are the Five-Dragon Pavilions. They were built in 1602 during the Ming Dynasty. The five waterborne pavilions are connected by zigzagging bridges. The one in the middles is the largest. In old days the emperor and his consorts came here to fish, watch fireworks or stare the moon. Nowadays they are a prefect place to sit and ponder on a hot summers day or take respite from the drizzle on a damp one, I am glad to say my drizzle had just stopped. I took out the iPad, tethered it to my phone and read the Sunday papers, one day late of course! Old women sat heads lowered engaged in idle gossip, old Chinese men (as is the norm) pulled up their shirts and bared their midriff, kids played with toys and the children of cupid engaged in romantic liaisons.
From here I reached Xiaoxitian (land of extreme happiness) pavilion and inside the exotic Mount Sumeru clad in Buddhist imagery including Guanjin (a Bodhisattva) and the 18 Arhats (figures who have reached enlightenment). The inscription of “Extreme Happiness” behind the artificial mount is in the handwriting of Emperor Qian Long. It was a good km stroll from here to roadway that dissects the north and south sections of the park. Across the roadway is the Circular City which was closed and beyond is Qiongdao Island, an artificial island on which sits the White Dagoba atop the hill. I crossed over the white marble bridge to reach the island and the Yong’an Temple.
The temple is on a number of levels set into the man-made hill of the island, whilst pretty busy the atmosphere was quite serene. Despite the overcast day, after finding my way to an elevated platform, the view over the forbidden city were spectacular. The White Dagoba is a lama tower, 35.9 meters tall, round on the top and square on the bottom. There is a crown on the top of the Dagoba covered with a sun, moon and flame motif used to symbolize that the power of The Buddha is radiant like the sun and the moon.
Large sticks of burning incense make the air blue inside the temple, while worshipers light more bundles and place them in bronze urns to bring good fortune. The intermittent sunlight filtered in from various angles and rays beamed through the incense smoke it is so easy to become immersed in the atmosphere and watch the world go by. It’s calm and welcoming and not overcrowded like some temples I have visited and come to think of it neither was the Lama Temple though this one feels much more intimate. I climbed the different levels and explored the terraces before reaching the Dagoba which to be honest needed a fresh lick of paint but the summit afforded great views in all directions. I’d entered from the south and continued my journey south passing a cave shrine and dodging some overly exuberant teenagers before exiting with a panoramic view of the lakes north shore. After exiting the Island over the east bridge I stopped for coffee and a naughty donut also picking up water supplies for I predicted a long afternoon walk. The drizzle had by this time stopped and the skies started to clear, the humidity was bearable.
I left the park by the east gate having still not seen the south “sea” (next time!) and passed into a street with traditional single story housing, it had restaurants, grocers, butchers and a Vespa garage (love it). Doting grandparents pushed food into eager mouths while mountains of people slept on benches in the shadow of Chinese Cedar trees (Chinese Toon 香椿 [xiāngchūn]/toona siniensis). My cerebral compass was functioning superbly as I emerged opposite the West Gate of Jingshan Park repository of the famous Coal Hill.
Jingshan Park sits directly north of the Forbidden City and once served as an imperial garden during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Not only is it a haven for flora, it also boasts a spectacular view of the Royal Palace from the summit of one of Beijing’s very few hills. Jingshan was constructed from earth that was removed to create the moat of the Forbidden City. Each morning the park fills with middle-aged and older Chinese who congregate in groups to sing the revolutionary songs of their youth, play the time-honoured two-stringed Erhu or perform the slow, refined movements of tai chi.
I followed a path to my right passing an elderly woman pruning the hair of a young girl, I then took a stone stairway upwards which led to the hilltop, for views of the Forbidden City to the south, Drum and Bell Towers to the north and Beihai Park to the west. There was an electric atmosphere as I climbed the final staircase to the top as kids slid down the stairwell, chasing, playing hide and seek; others played traditional instruments and flutes, some engaged in card games, one lady sang opera and many folk just rested and took in the views, particularly across the Forbidden City. I settled for a good 45 minutes before heading down the path to the east, as I reached a lower pathway I heard and was drawn by the faint sound of classical Chinese music. Two people sat cross-legged playing Hulusi Pipes, they’d attracted a small attentive audience which I joined, the most relaxing free concert I’d ever enjoyed! A man ushered me over and it turned out he had returned to Beijing after 10 years in Boston, his English was excellent and we talked about travel and education for the best part of an hour. From here I headed north through the park, my destination being the Qianhai Sea.
In Beijing there are several lakes that are almost connected to each other. The Nanhat lake and the Zhonhai lake lie to the west side the Forbidden City and the North Sea lies in Beihai Park. On the North side of this lake is located the Qianhai lake. On the banks of this lake you’re able to take a boat or a water bike and there are several bars, restaurants and cafe’s. I crossed the Jinding Bridge close to the Mao’er Hutong, snapping a giggling kid hanging off the rear of his dad’s cycle and an al fresco female gentleman’s barber. Old folk engaged in card schools whilst others napped or read newspapers in the shade. I passed a calligrapher before reaching a bridge by which the Qianhai Lake is connected through a narrow canal to the Houhai Lake.
At this bridge are a few bars where you can sit comfortably on the roof and have a good gander at the hustle and bustle of people and bicycles. The area is fast becoming gentrified and trendy with a number of small boutiques and craft shops emerging. Here you can also cycle around to make a hutong tour. Following the gentrified street from the bridge I stopped to purchase a wallet for peanuts and after 5 minutes emerged in the immediate vicinity of the Drum and Bell Towers. These two towers are definitely worth a visit but don’t leave it too late as admission is around 4:15pm even in summer. Between the two towers rickshaw hover to take you on tours of the surrounding, well-preserved hutongs, decline and explore on foot! I was accosted by a charming young girl who wanted to practice her English she was working with her mother who was an official “domestic” guide for the two towers. Her mother also came over and chatted, I was offered green tea, and we sat in the shade for a good 50 minutes before I headed off into the neighbouring hutongs to explore.
I’d worked out if I headed east I would eventually reach “home” what I hadn’t compute was that it would take around 2 hours! In saying that it was a delightful stroll around a preserved Beijing area which in all probability will eventually fall prey to development. Hutongs are an exclusive feature of Beijing. For more than 800 years, hutongs have formed the bones of Beijing’s inner city, and I wonder if their original builders in the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) could have imagined that the complicated web woven by these simplistic alleyways would one day become a tourist haven.
The Hutong, which I first explored, is also where Chairman Mao Lived. From the Bell-Tower market turn (East) to find the Doufuchi Hutong leading eastwards for as far as the eye can see. Head into the Hutong past the ever-present red banners and keep going, Mao Zedong’s former home is a rather inconspicuous dwelling located at Number 15. Various slogans calling for a better attitude among citizens are usually present which is meant as a small tribute to the “Chairman”.
His house is easy to identify by the various plaques displayed on the front. One plaque identifies the house as a State Level Protected Relic and the Home of Mao Zedong. Another gives a short history of the site. I observed old men sitting at tables playing chess, kids running around with their school bags dragging behind them, and old women walking their ancient Pekingese pooches, all with smiling faces, a far cry from the seriousness of the Cultural Revolution.
I eventually made my way back to my humble abode to refresh, grab some more of those excellent ultra-cheap pot sticker dumplings and a beer in the bar, the next morning I would visit Confucius before heading for the airport and Londinium.