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Shichahai, an Oasis in the City
2006-01-19 09:26:28

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Shichahai is a majestic lake situated in downtown Beijing. For centuries it has provided local residents with a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the day. More recently, the lake has benefited from improvements to its environment which has worked to enhance its natural charms. Today, it is a true oasis amidst the sea of activity taking place in the surrounding metropolis and provides a tranquil escape to stressed workers seeking a sense of space and well-being. So today we hit the road with Yunfeng for a much-needed relaxing walk around this ancient yet peaceful lake district --- Shichahai!




When you walk around Shichahai, a sense of its history inevitably hits you. Composed of three man-made lakes, Qianhai ("Front Sea" Lake), Houhai ("Rear Sea" Lake) and the lesser-known Xihai ("West Sea" Lake) once formed part of a system of waterways that fed into the Imperial Capital. For centuries wooden boats carrying produce from the south would make the journey up the Grand Canal and enter the city via these waterways.

Those days are long gone. After a period of decline, the lakes, are now a prime recreational destination. With overhanging willows lining its banks and café bars tucked away in its many secluded corners, it is also a delightful area to relax over a drink while watching life on and off the water.

At the south end of Qianhai Lake and opposite the North Gate of neighboring Beihai Park's North Gate is a recently renovated square where flowers in full bloom serve as the perfect background to stunning rock sculptures. The square is popular with locals who come here to exercise, fly kites, play cards or even have their hair cut. Curios are also on sale while pedicab drivers chat as they wait for passengers wanting to be carried around the neighboring hutongs. This is almost a scene out of a movie set in "Old Beijing".

As the paved track winds around the eastern side of the lake it passes a dock lined with motorized pleasure boats. On the other side, the floating Romance Bar provides dinner on the lake to the accompaniment of traditional string instruments. Hidden behind some trees to the right are several fine new restaurants while offshore a small island with its round pavilion has been transformed into a secluded bar.

Looking down across Qianhai our eyes are drawn to the magnificent Drum (Gulou) and Bell (Zhonglou) Towers which functioned as important timepieces of the Imperial Capital from as early as the 15th century. Just below the two towers, the far shore is lined with traditional grey-tiled low buildings - former homes of officials whose daily lives revolved around the bell chimes.

As we walk farther ahead we arrive at the elegant Wanning Bridge. Constructed from marble only two years ago, it stands above a canal which once flowed to the south of the Old City. Nearby, the much older Houmen stone Bridge, on which carved creatures 'guard' the waters, carries Dianmen Xi Dajie across the canal where it then forms the western part of an east-west axis line running through the Old City. Adjacent, we stumble upon a temple being restored to its former glory after of being hidden behind unplanned buildings.

Soon the path turns northwest and after passing another boat dock it goes down a narrow road. Several more small restaurants crowd the street next to bars including the popular No Name. Despite its name, the bar is far from being unknown as urbanites regularly gather there for its charming, antique shop like interior and the picturesque lake views it provides. Just behind is the very sophisticated Nuage Vietnamese restaurant while other new watering holes also stand nearby. Further down the lane are the long-established Kaorouji, which is famous for its duck, and several neighboring Muslim restaurants.

As we leave Qianhai and reach Houhai, we spot the intricately decorated Silver Ingot Bridge which crosses a canal leading from the lake. Once an area full of commercial activity, today it quietly overlooks the pleasure boats passing underneath. Clear weather offers superb views from here to the distant Fragrant Hills. It seems that much of the commercial activity has moved to the neighboring shores. Although once a quiet location frequented by artists, it is now lined with yet more bars and restaurants. But it seems some vestiges of Old Beijing eateries have survived this modernization as small dumpling and noodle parlors serve pedicab drivers crowded in the nearby square.

Heading eastwards we arrive at the Lane of the Long Stem Pipe Makers, a street whose earlier canal-related commercial function has also, you guessed it, given way to more cafe bars.

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

Related Stories:
Leisure in Beijing        Old Beijing Touch         Most Beautiful City Zones: Top 5
Shichahai Entertainment Guide


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