Beijing is blessed with a number of wonderful parks but for many people, this one’s the best.
Originally dating from the 10th century, Beihai – literally “Northern Sea”, in reference to the huge lake that makes up most of the park – is the oldest surviving imperial park in the capital. But it’s more than just a particularly picturesque historical sight.
Beihai, like all good parks in Beijing, offers wonderful people-watching opportunities, as locals come here to practise taichi, sing operatic songs, dance, fly kites, perfect their water calligraphy, improve their circulation by walking backwards, or exercise their diaphragms by simply shouting out loud.
Top tip: don’t just watch them; join in. Spend some time getting a feel for what’s being done. If you look even remotely interested, the chances are someone will take you under their wing and show you how.
A park of some sort has been here since the Liao Dynasty (916-1125AD), but Yuan-dynasty emperor Kublai Khan is credited with making the lake as well as Jade Islet, which was created from the excavated earth. And the site stood at the centre of his palace, long before the Forbidden City had even been thought of. These days, all that remains of Khan’s ‘Round City’, near the park’s south entrance, is the Chengguang Hall, which contains a white jade statue of Sakyamuni from Myanmar.
Beihai’s most prominent feature – White Dagoba – sits majestically on top of Jade Islet. It was originally built in 1651 for the visiting Dalai Lama and was rebuilt in 1741 after being destroyed in an earthquake. You can reach its base by climbing up through Yong’an Temple.
On the opposite side of the lake (on the northwestern shore) is Xitian Fanjing, an interesting temple, outside which you can often catch taichi being practised.
Near here is the 27m-long Nine Dragon Screen, a beautiful glazed-tile wall built in 1756 and one of only three of its kind remaining in China.
As with all parks in Beijing, Beihai is best visited early in the morning, when more activities are on the go and when tourists are at their fewest.
In the summer you can rent pedal boats on the lake. In winter, ice skating is as popular here as it is on Houhai.
Note, a “through ticket” gives you entrance to the main sights within the park such as Nine Dragon Screen and Yong’an Temple. You have to pay extra for boating (from ¥40 per hour) or ice-skating.
The hutong alleys skirting the outside of the park’s east wall make for a interesting stroll if you want to take the wiggly route back to Houhai Lakes.