It may seem odd to Beijing residents to describe Houhai as 'off the beaten track' but you can hardly stick it up with the Forbidden City and The Wall as 'must see'.
Houhai is the collective name for the two most northerly of the four lakes that run up from Zhongnanhai through Beihai Park and right up to the Second Ring Road.
Although a generic name, the hub of Houhai is at the Silver Ingot Bridge which is the bridge at the narrow channel joining the two northern lakes.
In all directions there are quiet hutongs, slowly disappearing from Beijing as the developers put up new skyscrapers. Actually, there are still thousands of hutongs in and around Beijing, but as most of the hip journalists and commentators can't get more than 200 metres from the Buddha Bar, they focus on the demolition of hutongs in this area. Many hutongs are being restored and renovated. There are good hutong tours by pedicab, but you can get a lot by just walking in any direction, around in circles and just exploring. People are friendly, but laowai will attract a lot of attention.
Look for the architectural details, doorway design, the way people live out in the street as well, the community spirit, the frequent public toilets (most hutongs have no plumbing), the use of bicycles everywhere, the old stones used for dismounting from horseback.
A little tip: if you get lost and it is hazy or you just can't tell directions from the position of the sun, look which way houses are facing. Most (but not all) houses face south (but remember that the main doorway could be on any of the east, south and west facades). Not infallible, but good as a rule of thumb.
Getting lost in the hutongs is easy and actually part of the attraction.
houhai has some very good restaurants, many good cafes and bars, and a very transient scene. It is becoming "passe" for the cool, trendy Beijing cognoscenti, but it is a definite step up from the crap on Sanlitun.
Houhai is a good place for lunch after the Forbidden City or the Drum and Bell Towers.
I took this picture secretly of this lady sitting in the hutong but i must mention that I was chided by my friends for not asking her permission first. To the chinese, when you take a picture, some who are superstitious may view it as taking a part of their spirit away....to others, its just an invasion of privacy, so take pictures of people secretly or with their permission (watch out! some may ask for $ just to take pictures with them!)
What beats a group of friends, squatting at the side of the road, playing chess or cards? Apparently, this common sight in the hutong is China's favourite past time (not drinking tea or coffee at Starbucks)
Walking through the hutongs of Qianmen, you will see the locals scrutinizing you from head to toe just because you are local. To them, a "Lao Wai" as they term foreigners, is an object of curiosity...they are pretty nice and i managed to converse with a few of them (on the pretext of getting directions)
If you have time, why not climb up a few stairs to see the most ancient bell in Beijing ?
It would take around half an hour and 5 RMB to see it. I thought it is nice if you're in the neighbourhood. I would also have liked to see the Drum Tower (which is 100 metres from the Bell Tower) but it was still close at the end of June...
Gong Wang Fu can be translated in English as the Residence of Prince Gong. It is situated in the hutongs on the west of the lake Houhai. This area was where the imperial relatives lived.
Prince Gong was the brother of Qing Emperor, Xianfeng.
It's a lovely garden, especially during spring and summer when all the flowers blossom.
This is one of my favorite places in Beijing : Houhai. Nothing can be more relaxing than walking around the lake in a sunny day...
North of the North gate of Beihai Park (you just need to cross the street and walk a bit to the east), you will often find a lot of old people getting together to play cards. This is the south of Qianhai. There are three lakes, from south to north : Qianhai, Houhai and Xihai.
Furthermore, there are a lot of hutongs in this area and it has the charm of old Beijing.
But all along Houhai, a lot of cafes and bars have opened up. They are all nicely decorated and it feels cozy, especially in winter time.
The photos below are the ones taken during our own exploration in a traditional residential area, which would be demolished soon.
We had the greatest time chatting with local people, knowing their current life and their concerns after their houses to be demolished, to make room for an expanded CBD.
The following 20 or so photos shows part of the traditional residential area, Hutong area.
The first 14 photos were taken during a guided tour, while the last few, our own 'exploration'.
I don't know just how much of the old Beijing is left these days, but you will find that in the very heart of the city, east of the Forbidden City, there are still some back-alleys and small houses, which offer a great contrast to the rest of the metropolis.
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