This morning we headed north of the Forbidden City to the recreational lake area of Qian Hai and Hou Hai. We decided to start with a visit to the fabulous Mansion of Prince Gong before exploring the delightful surrounding hutong neighborhood. It’s another clear, beautiful, cool day in the city.
The Mansion is the best example of an historic property of its type, built during the reign of the Qianlong emperor and then inhabited by its namesake Prince Gong from 1851-61. As a State Protected Site since 1982, it is a very large and impressive property. For Americans, translating it as a “mansion” is a misnomer, since the property features five rows of courtyards in three columns with numerous buildings, alcoves, smaller patios, and beautiful gardens. Tickets were ¥40 (about $6.50) each and well worth it. We had read and been told there would be huge crowds and it might be difficult to get in. But as luck would have it, we were able to walk right in and easily avoid the groups of Asian tourists also visiting the site.
I am taller, blonder and usually older than most everyone here; and then, of course there is the matter of my curly hair . . . so it is not possible to even think about blending in. For most of today, we were the only two Westerners among thousands wandering around the sites we chose to visit. That’s a good thing as far as we’re concerned.
More about the amazing Mansion: it has more than 56,000 square feet of buildings and grounds and has been beautifully restored and maintained. The vibrant colors of the structures and entries were complemented by the Garden of Various Beauty (Cuijin Garden) with trees just beginning to bloom, ducks in the spring-fed lake and rock gardens. The white apricot blossoms were especially delicate and beautifully well-suited to their environment. I particularly loved the shiny green glaze on the roof tiles, a technique just a little less important than the type of work reserved for use on imperial structures. Even the modern bathrooms now on site were well maintained and pretty nice. For my opera-loving friends – apparently in the summer, the Beijing Opera is performed in the Grand Opera House at this location.
We negotiated a ride in one of the dozens of trishaws lining the streets outside the Mansion for a quick, delightful ride around two lake areas: Hou Hai and Qian Hai. The sparkling lakes featured a couple of bridges resembling those in Venice, of which the most famous is the Yinding Bridge – restored several times since it’s construction during the Ming Dynasty, when it was built to resemble an inverted silver ingot (called a Yinding).
This is such a nice area of the city, there are dozens of inviting shops, bars and restaurants along Lotus Lane right on the lakefront. It was packed with young adults out for an afternoon of fun. One nearby government mandated “Specialty Shopping Street” is the Yandai Byway – named after a “smoking pipe.” Here they direct you to the “Pipe Street” they say is shaped like a pipe; in reality the pedestrian narrow street is about the length of two and a half football fields, and dates back two centuries when it was filled with shops related to pipe smoking. Today, local craftsman display a variety of wares in a very nice, quality environment.
We continued walking to the nearby Drum and Bell Towers. The Towers date from 1420 and both featured very steep stairways a very long way to the top; I lost count and was NOT going back up for a redo! The Drum Tower had one extremely large drum and 24 large watchman’s drums. The Bell Tower features a 15’, 42-ton bell cast in 1420. The drums and the bell were used to mark the various important times in a day such as the close of the city gates, time for bed, dawn, etc. If you time it right you can hear demonstrations of both. One ticket for entry to both is ¥30 (less than $5) per person.
It’s hard to imagine this area was once home to Genghis and Kublai Khan . . .
We walked on and completed our day’s investigation with a stroll down Nan Luo Gu Xiang, part of a neighborhood dating from the Yuan and Ming Dynasties that is now the center for an area preserved as representative of the old hutongs. It is the only remaining example of the chessboard layout style with eight parallel alleys radiating from this central commercial street. Filled with teens and young adults, this was a happening spot today and very busy with well dressed pedestrians, cars trying to navigate, bikes, trishaws, and lots of busy restaurants along the half mile route. So “stroll” might not be the right word – you do have to keep on your toes around here, or you could be run down at any second. We also finally spotted a fluffy, orange Chinese cat in addition to the many fluffy dogs we have already seen.
We called it a day and headed back to our hotel for a welcome Chinese dinner with our Tauck tour director and group. Tomorrow we will begin some guided tours of the major sites.
Tips for the day, negotiate before you do anything and take a moment to enjoy the beauty around you.