I have already posted a review about Houhai, but it is worth adding to that, recommending that the visitor takes a boat trip on the lake at sunset.
Hiring a boat provides a leisurely end to the afternoon. Electric (battery) powered motorboats cost from RMB60 (with RMB240 deposit) for an hour, with rowing boats less.
There are maybe ten different places to rent boats.
Many of the boats have a table in the middle, and whole families and gangs of people rent a boat, head out with a few beers and just play cards, drink or read on the peaceful waters.
The southernmost lake, which for many people *is* Houhai is usually more crowded, especially the bottleneck through the bridge. The much larger northern lake opens out and provides plenty of space to slowly motor or row around.
Watching the sun go down over the lake is just great!
I always believe that if you want to experience the real Beijing, you have to venture into the hutong. Hutong means the lanes. In the old days, all Beijingers lived in the hutongs. You may still find some courtyard houses in hutong around the Forbidden City area and some has been converted into theme restaurant or galleries.
A good experience will be to take a bicycle and move around the lanes.. It is safe and nothing to worry about. You will discover the true local lifestyle in the deepest part of the hutong.
You may also be surprised with some interesting discoveries in it. Things that you will never expect to exist in the middle of a modern city.
The photo here shows a typical sundry shop cum breakfast place in a hutong during winter. A full breakfast here cost only 2 RMB that is less than 0.25 US cents.
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.
The Heart of the Chinese capital - narrow streets which are referring on-chinese "hutong". They are characteristic for ancient city architecture. The majority of streets are constructed in days of board of a Yuan dynasty.
Last years there were also usual for us city buildings, but in the old city the untouched corner of ancient imperial Pekin was kept. Traditional Chinese houses with square court yard are restricted along streets - "hutongs"/
Beijing's traditional courtyards (siheyuan) still house many of the city's residents within the second ring road, which marks the limits of old Beijing. Siheyuan line the small lanes, or hutongs, that make up most of the central part of the city. However, many of the siheyuan, which consist of four rooms around a central yard, are being torn down at present, and quite a large proportion of those who have enjoyed courtyard living for generations have now moved to high-rise blocks of flats in new residential areas.
The siheyuan is a typical form of ancient Chinese architecture, especially in the north of China. They are designed to make it as comfortable as possible to live in a climate that is at times inhospitable. For instance, the siheyuan are enclosed and inward facing to protect them from the harsh winter winds and the dust storms of spring. Their design also reflects the traditions of China, following the rules of feng shui and the patriarchal, Confucian tenants of order and heirarchy that were so important to society.
Housing is now one of the most difficult problems facing Beijing, a city that is growing both spatially and in terms of population at a fast rate. As such, one siheyuan now often houses several families and many yards have been taken up with additional rooms. This contributes to the "rabbit-warren" nature of the hutongs. The living conditions in many siheyuans are now considered squalid, especially as very few have private toilets or washrooms. To solve the apparent problems of overcrowding, the siheyuan are being torn down and replaced by modern blocks of flats. There are, however, still some grand siheyuan in Beijing that have been preserved in all their former glory. Mainly built for nobles and high officials before the turn of the century, many have been turned into museums, and others are being lived in by present-day governmental officials or used as government offices, go along with shishahai area, you can find the typical Siheyuan.
In Beijing you must visit the hutongs! It is amazing just passing through a hutong and watch the daily life going on.
Since the 1950s, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, some hutongs have been selected as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.
In the hutongs you can find laundries, where you can have your cloth washed and ironed for a very little money.
Hutongs [胡同] are narrow streets or alleys formed by lines of "Siheyuan" [四合院], traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one Siheyuan to another to form a Hutong, and then joining one Hutong to another.
The word "Hutong" comes from the Mongolian "Hottog" meaning "water well." During the growth of towns and cities, wells dug by villagers formed the centres of new communities.
Beijing Hutongs range in width from 10 metres down to only 40 centimetres.
Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing Hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. Wonderfully, the foolishness of this has been recently reversed with some Hutongs designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.
My Hostel happen to be a refurbished Siheyuan amidst a Hutong so I literally had Hutong living surrounding me. So this isn't a tourist side-show. You'll see families crowding around chatting away in the evenings or sipping tea and playing Chinese chess, each knowing each other. Don't be surprised to see old gentlemen, san shirt, only in their boxers and shorts, chatting the world away. There are also Mahjong Rooms for folks to get together to exercise their brains. There are also plenty of local eateries for me to had fun with.
Finally, on the auspices of one of the owners, I entered a Siheyuan to really see the matchbox style of living so associated with Siheyuan living. It's mind boggling to see so many families squeezed into 1 courtyard with shared toilet facilities.
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.
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.
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...
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.
At least that was my view when I looked at these dustbin in the park. Even at other attactions I visited, each have their uniqueness. Amazed that they paid so much attention right down to things that people hardly notice. They were always three side-by-side; batteries, non-recycle & recycle.
There are many advertised bike tours through the Hutongs (traditional courtyard houses) but we found them on the map and walked around them on foot. The buildings were close together and rather ramshackle but this felt much more Chinese than the main roads and department stores did.
There were no crowds here and it was a lot more relaxed. We went to a poorer area but apparently there are some beautiful examples to the east of the Forbidden City. Most people in Beijing now live in ugly run-down high rise condominiums, each with a dripping air conditioning unit out of the window, so it was nice to see the traditional old buildings whilst they still exist.
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)
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)