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A walking tour of Beijing's lake district Shichahai

Shichahai, the city's lake district, resembles an oasis within the bustling metropolis. Conveying a sense of space and light, it is an area where recent environmental improvements have enhanced its natural charms.

A feeling of history also intermingles with local life. Its three man-made lakes, Qianhai, Houhai and the lesser-known Xihai once formed part of a waterway system feeding into the Imperial City. For centuries wooden boats brought produce from the south via the Grand Canal.

That role has long passed. After a period of decline the lakes, whose banks are lined with overhanging willow trees, are now a prime recreational destination. With café bars found in many secluded corners it is also a delightful area to relax over a drink while watching life on and off the water.

Opposite Beihai Park's North Gate at the head of Qianhai Lake is a recently renovated square. This area, where rock sculptures mix with seasonal flowers, is popular with locals exercising, flying kites, playing cards or having their hair cut. Curios are on sale and boys wait to carry visitors by pedicabs around the neighbouring hutong.

A paved trail leads round the eastern side of the lake past a dock for motorised pleasure boats. Opposite, from the floating Romance Bar, wooden craft provide dinner on the lakes to the accompaniment of traditional string instruments. To the right behind some trees are some fine new restaurants while offshore a small island with its round pavilion has been transformed into a secluded bar.

Looking down on Qianhai, the magnificent Drum (Gulou) and Bell (Zhonglou) Towers dating from the 15th century were timepieces of the Imperial City. The far shore is lined with traditional grey-tiled low buildings - former homes of officials whose daily lives revolved around the bell chimes.

Ahead is elegant Wanning Bridge - constructed of marble only two years ago it spans a canal which once flowed to the south of the Old City. Much older stone Houmen Bridge, where carved creatures 'guard' the waters, carries Dianmen Wai Dajie, the northern part of the axis line running south through the Forbidden City.

Adjacent, a temple formerly hidden behind unplanned buildings is being restored. Soon the route turns northwest and after passing another boat dock follows a narrow road. Several small restaurants crowd the street next to bars such as No Name. Internally resembling an antique shop it offers great views of the lake.

Behind is the sophisticated Nuage Vietnamese restaurant. New watering holes also stand alongside the long-established Karouji duck and neighbouring Muslem restaurants.

The artistically charming Silver Ingot Bridge spans a canal from Houhai Lake. Earlier an area of great commercial activity, today pleasure boats pass underneath. Clear weather offers superb views from here to the distant Fragrant Hills. Formerly a quiet location frequented by artists, the neighbouring shores are lined with bars that have made it a top spot for weekend relaxation.

Some small dumpling and noodle shops survive around the adjacent compact square crowded with pedicabs. Leading eastwards from it is the Lane of the Long Stem Pipe Makers, a street whose earlier canal-related commercial function has also given way to more cafe bars.

Opposite the lane, Ya Er Hutong heads northwest. This narrow alley free from the bustle around the bridge offers a step back in time. Mostly lined with domestic buildings there are some interesting structures including an elaborate two-storey white building with timber balconies.

Soon, the tranquil Guanghua Temple is reached. Outside, and shielding it from external evil, is a screen wall. Protective figures also run along the edges of its tiles. Originally constructed with imperial support in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it has since been rebuilt. Of immense importance to Buddhists it is not open to non-believers although a glance through its arched door gives hints of internal beauty and glimpses of its brown-robed monks.

Past the temple on the right are new buildings in traditional courtyard style. Some have double garages. This area is being gentrified and is becoming the domain of those wanting a fine townhouse within easy access of the city centre.

Turn left where older houses have been removed. Ahead is the tree-lined lakeside drive, Houhai Beiyan. Turning right, smart new buildings again reflect traditional styles. Some are offices such as No 15, home to the China Medical Tribune. Directly ahead is a recently finished landmark, the Wang Hai Lou Pagoda - stunning when illuminated at night.

Local life is all around. Children walking to school crowd small kiosks selling drinks and noodles. People keep pigeons in rooftop lofts while older men chat beside their suspended bird cages. Opposite, a popular exercise area is great for people watching as is the tree-shaded spot just ahead where swimmers brave the waters throughout the year!

Look for a fine set of red wooden doors with lines of large  'golden' studs. This building is the headquarters of the nation s Religious Affairs Bureau.

Next door at No 46 is a Ming-style palace set in delightful gardens. This is the former residence of Song Qingling, the wife of Dr Sun Yat Sen. She lived there from 19631981. The lake is wide at this point although narrowness soon becomes a theme.

Just past a boating centre with several fast racing craft is a canal. Our route follows it up to a quiet, hidden gem, the almost circular Xihai or West Lake. 

Beneath, an elegant building with large picture windows overlooking the waters is the upmarket Shan Hai Lou (Mountain and Sea Building) restaurant. It is entered through a moongate on Deshengmen Dongdajie, a road we briefly follow.

Neighbouring Shan Fu Korean restaurant seems built right into the hill containing the entrance to Jishuitan Metro Station. The crimson walled structure on top, dating from 1986, replaced a former memorial hall dedicated to a Yuan Dynasty scientist. Emperor Qianlong had it renamed Tong Hui reflecting neighbouring waterway construction. Originally constructed in the Ming Dynasty and rebuilt in 1761 it was pulled down in 1976 to make way for the metro construction.

The views from the hill are good. Rising to the east are the twin towers of Zhonggulou while beyond lies the commercial skyline of Dongzhimen, Chaoyang and Guomao. To the west is Xizhimen while in the distance past CCTV's tower lies the Western Hills.

Turning left, the quiet charm of the West Lake reflects a mixture of old and new with the fashionable Ready Bar rising amidst timeless hutong life. At a prominent T-junction a fashionable gate with gold lettering on a black background heralds the West Lake Fish Restaurant. In warmer weather, diners enjoy their meals afloat on 'royal' barges.

Following the tiled path along the lake's pine-tree clad shore, massive Deshengmen Gate dominates the northern skyline. Imperial armies passed through it on the way to battle. The canal leading to Houhai is again reached. It is narrow and was formerly a real bottleneck for boats trying to pass through.

The bridge carrying Deshengmen Nei Dajie is supported by an arch built from heavy stone blocks. The present road surface also shows some of the original stonework. Ahead, a narrow lane descends to Houhai. This scene ahead presents a different perspective on the area previously walked through.

Behind a grey tiled wall rises a colourful pavilion - part of the water sports centre. Beyond, across the lake, sits Wang Hai Lou Pagoda and magnificent Gulou and Zhonglou. This area is much busier than Xihai. A popular local fishing spot, bicycle and boat hire is also available. A park provides entertainment for children.

Fine new buildings and others internally refurbished offer amenity and interest. The prominent Cha Jia Fu teahouse boasts Ming- and Qing-style furniture. Continuing past long brick walls enclosing buildings related to the Catholic Church, the route turns southeast with a panorama stretching towards the canal leading into Qianhai. Attractive little bars are well placed for leisurely views over the waters towards the pagoda.

Passing a smart outdoor beer garden rebuilt from a crumbling pavilion, a metal sculpture shows an elderly man performing tai chi.This street, Yangfang Hutong, is also popular with the pedicab tours whose excited passengers try to film every passing image.

Nearing Silver Ingot Bridge, bars continue to open. With bountiful use of wood and grey tiles some capture the feel of the hutong. However one building, a craft shop, resembles a Tibetan home. At the bridge, older bars such as the Buddha Bar provide places to relax and watch the constant flow of life.

Now following the western shore of Qianhai, the scene changes. To the north across the water, Gulou rises over grey rooftops while No Name Bar with its wooden lattice shutter windows enhances the lakefront. The pavement was recently relaid and a lakeside garden where older people exercise has been upgraded. Buildings including new bars, restaurants and art stores are being constructed with traditional carpentry.

Some lovely reminders of the past survive - look for the fine door at the lane junction opposite the 100009 postal district sign. There are excellent siheyuan courtyards along this section particularly No.17 and 18. Large recessed doors with distinctive stone piers lead into former substantial homes. No.15, overlooking the lake is a lovely building undergoing considerable refurbishment for commercial purposes.

Its entrance has fine white stone piers complete with carved dragons. An archway opens to the lake s south shore. Past the well-known Shuai Fu Beijing Hotpot Restaurant is the entrance to Lotus Lane, one of the citys latest bar streets and until recently a quiet antique district.

A new 'art form', wooden blocks supporting glass cases displaying vodka bottles, appear at intervals along the boardwalk. With excellent views across the water to Gulou, many restaurants with their large windows and outdoor seating are ideal for relaxing and reflecting over the beauty and contrasts around the lakes. A great end to a lovely walk



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