North of the Forbidden City, 3 lakes — Qianhai (Front Lake), Houhai (Rear Lake) and Xihai (West Lake) — are known collectively as Shichahai and are ringed by restaurants and bars. The water area of Shichahai was called “haizi” prior to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Around 20 temples were built in the area of Shichahai. “Cha” refers to a small temple while “shi” can mean “tens”, hence the name of Shichahai.
HouHai (pronounced HO-hi) is a manmade lake—the largest of three consecutive lakes lined with willow trees and surrounded by a rambling maze of hutongs, shops, and cafes. Centuries ago, Houhai Lake was the final stop along the Grand Canal, the historic waterway upon which cargo, soldiers and officials were ferried into the imperial city of Peking from all over China.
Taxi’s will generally drop you off at the south end of Qianhai lake, conveniently adjacent to a Starbucks. From there, you walk up the main bar street on the western side of Qianhai lake towards HouHai. (in winter time watch for the “ice skating” locals sliding around Qianhao on metal seats). [see map, F5]
- Bar Street [see my map, F5] filled with unusual restaurants, bars, karaoke and cafe’s this is a fun and picturesque experience at night. Live bands, prostitutes, touts, police and tourists all mix together creating an eclectic glimpse of Beijing night life.
- Prince Gong’s Mansion (Gong Wang Fu) [see my map, D5], Constructed in the late 1700s, the former home of Prince Gong is one of the most carefully preserved examples of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) architecture in all of China. The former home for a Qing dynasty emperor, Qianlong, as well as Heshen, his corrupt eunuch – a young, handsome and purportedly very wise officer of the Imperial Guard. The house and grounds are extensive, although not entirely accessible (Heshen’s pleasure palace is closed off). The mansion still gives you a glimpse of the past, and of an imperial era’s privileged class. Admission fee (~ RMB 60) includes a performance of opera and acrobatics in the Mansion’s Grand Opera House.
- Silver Ingot Bridge [see my map, F4], a white marble bridge that divides Hou Hai from Qian Hai (“front lake”). Written records show that Yinding Bridge was a wooden bridge at the beginning and got its name from looking like a silver ingot. In later years, it underwent repeated renovation and was finally transformed into a stone bridge with a white marble arch. In the evening, standing on the Yinding Bridge provides the best view of Shichahai Lakes. It’s not difficult to envisage that the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal finally ended here. Everyday the ships carrying grain from the places south of the Yangtze River anchored here.
- Bob Marley Cafe [see my map, F4], a tiny eclectic cafe filled with cats, hemp and images of Bob Marley.
- Yan Dai Xie Jie, or Slanted Pipe Lane [see my map, G4], an alleyway formerly known for a shop that sold long Chinese pipes. The pipes that are left are souvenirs, but the street—with its wooden pushcarts, snack vendors, and courtyard homes with lacquered red doorways is photographers paradise.
- The Drum Tower (Gulou) [see my map, G3] on Gulou Dajie was built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan, at which time it stood at eh very heart of the Yuan capital Dadu, with steep, ancient steps leading to fabulous view of the lakes at the top. The first level of the Drum Tower is a solid square terrace pierced with arched openings. The broad, squat multi-eaved wooden structure built atop the terrace is impressive with its red wall and yellow glazed roof. In ancient days, the Drum Tower was the time keeping center for the whole city and was equipped with bronze clepsydras (water clocks) and drums that were beaten to mark the hours, were reputed to date from the Song Dynasty. Between these devices was a large bronze gong, which through a series of mechanical devices was linked to the water clocks and sounded each quarter of an hour. In ancient times the upper story of the building housed 24 drums, of which only one survives. Its head is made of an entire ox hide and is 1.5 meters in diameter. A sword score on the side of the drum is a souvenir of the 8-Power Allied Forces’ invasion of Beijing in 1900. Admission fee (~ RMB 15)
- The former residence of Madame Soong Ching Ling [see my map, G3] (46 Hou Hai Beiyan), on the northwest bank, just east of Deshengmennei Dajie. The wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (“the father of modern China”), Soong Ching Ling’s life was a soap opera: Her younger sister married Chiang Kai-shek (leader of the Nationalist Party and until 1949, Mao’s greatest opponent), and her political loyalties were questionable. Eventually, she aligned with the Communists and Mao rewarded her with this house in 1963. The house and grounds are beautifully manicured. Badminton players practice here throughout the day and wedding parties often use the grounds to pose for their photos on weekends. (Dusk is also a beautiful time to visit, since the courtyard stays lit through the evening)
- Mei Lanfang Museum [see my map, B5] is south-west of Houhai is the traditional courtyard residence of former Beijing Opera star Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), which has now been turned into a museum. The renowned singer, actor and dancer was a prominent figure in Chinese theatre, and he was the first artist to popularize Beijing Opera overseas. Traveling to the US, Europe and Japan, Mei Lanfang met such Hollywood luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The museum has a peaceful atmosphere and is worth a visit for those interested in Beijing’s traditional architectural styles and way of life, as well as Beijing Opera. The museum houses Mei Lanfang’s traditional Chinese Opera costumes and a large painting collection.
If you’re hungry, stop at any of the street vendors on Yan Dai Xie Jie and try Beijing snacks, from pork dumplings to CD-sized scallion or meat-stuffed pancakes (xiao bing), to a multilayered, crispy-chewy crepe (jian bing), to the steamed giant flatbread that could feed four (da bing).