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The picturesque area around Hou Hai (the Back Lake) just northwest of the Forbidden City

The picturesque area around Hou Hai (the Back Lake) just northwest of the Forbidden City

Today being Saturday, Mark was off work and offered to guide us around some more out-of-the-way sites that Western tourists often don’t visit. It all sounded like a great idea so we hopped on the Metro along to Shi Cha Hai and took a stroll around Hou Hai, one of the lakes in central Beijing.

It was really quite picturesque, with the white, carved stone balustrade around the water’s edge, looking very traditionally Chinese. There’s a narrow park and public footpath that follows the lake shore and there’s a great cross-section of local life to be seen around it.

On the East side of the lake it seemed to back straight on to Hutongs (traditional one-storey, courtyard houses) and there was quite a relaxed, local community feel about it.

We came through a recreation area, similar to the one we saw in Ritan Park, with exercise and movement machines, as well as games tables. It seemed like quite a social hub, with all generations hanging out to play games or keep fit together. But there were also barbers plying their trade with just a chair and a dressing table on the roadside. There were joggers and some swimmers. We saw dragon-boaters practising on the lake, along with a couple of people in pedal-yourself pleasure craft.

Some of the old Hutongs alongside the lake

Some of the old Hutongs alongside the lake

As we rounded the north end of the lake, the path narrowed and didn’t seem to back so directly on to a residential area. Here were traders laying their goods out on blankets next to the path – and they seemed to be doing a decent trade, although probably more with Chinese visitors to the capital, rather than the locals. We passed one lady who had a small cauldron of molten sugar, from which she would take a dollop and, much as you would blow glass, she crafted sugar balloons into fat little dogs and pigs on a stick for children to eat.

As we came down the west side of the lake, we turned off into the Hutongs proper. They were actually much nicer than I remember from my last visit – and I wonder if, at the time, I was visiting slums which have since been cleared. The Hutongs now are of clean grey brick, set beside narrow, but well-maintained roads. The area seemed to be a bit of a tourist attraction, as we passed lots of groups of Chinese, some on foot and some in little eight-person golf-cart-types of tuk-tuk.

From the Hutongs, we crossed Di’anmen West and paid the small fee to get into Beihai Park, a more extensive park around a lake – this lake having a temple on an island in the middle. This was a much more lively area; Mark described it as a venue for A Day Out, whereas Houhai was more of a day-to-day site. On the lake here was a fleet of pedal boats meandering about and lots of people strolling the wide paths around it.

A group of ladies line-dancing in Beihai Park

A group of ladies line-dancing in Beihai Park

We passed a group of middle-aged ladies line-dancing – popular in China, it seems – and several ladies and one gentlemen each separately rehearsing pieces in the style of the Beijing Opera (although I suspect at least one of them might just have been really bad karaoke!)

As we walked, Mark began giving us our first lesson in reading and speaking Mandarin. I now understand that Bei means north (Bei Hai is Northern Lake – even though Hou Hai is north of it. Go figure!) Jong means central and Nan means south; hence Bei Jing = Northern Capital while Nan Jing means Southern Capital. I can now also recognise the symbol for the Capital City which adorns the license plates of Beijing-registered vehicles.

From Beihai Park, we crossed over into Jingshan Park and climbed one of the only hills in Beijing to the Wanchun Pavilion to get some lovely – if slightly hazy – views back down over Beihai and south over the Forbidden City – an attraction I’m really looking forward to exploring fully when we are back next weekend!

After that, we were rather in need of some refreshment, so we climbed down from the shrine and found a taxi to take us to lunch. Today we were exploring dumplings and had a gut-busting twenty each for a total of ¥50 (around £5/$7.80) per person.

Then we went home for a nap!

Actually, I spent the afternoon working through my pictures so far and beginning to write my blog.

In the evening though, it was of course time to eat again. For our final night, we visited some of Beijing’s bright lights in the form of a modern centre full of international brands (Nike, Apple, Starbucks, Swarovski). It was clearly a happening place; throughout dinner and into the night it was thronged with young people looking like they were on a night out. Tonight we sampled Yunan style cuisine at a restaurant called Middle-8 (and I can now recognise the pictogram for Middle!).

At the new gay bar, Adam's, for after-dinner cocktails

At the new gay bar, Adam’s, for after-dinner cocktails

After another evening of gorgeous food, we went along to Adam’s, Beijing’s first “openly gay” bar, for after-dinner cocktails. It turned out to be a tiny space, but we got prime seats at a table on the balcony overlooking the street and did our bit for the pink economy by having two rounds of cocktails (I really should have stopped after one, though!)

Although the place was decked-out with rainbow flags, most of the clientele seemed to be straight, but Brett did get chatting to three German guys at the table next to us and, in his typically gregarious (drunken?) style, also got talking to a fellow British programmer at one of the pavement tables.

On the whole it was a lovely evening, between discussing politics and culture with Mark and watching the beautiful people of Beijing enjoying a night out, it was a very pleasant end to our first sojourn here.