Beijing's wonder

Enjoy the evocative lake Houhai like the locals this autumn

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25 September 2012

Going west along Gulou Avenue East across the bustling Yandaixie Street, you will come to the Chinese capital’s famous Houhai. Houhai is a popular urban getaway for locals and travellers alike and although ‘Hai’ means ‘sea’ in Chinese, in reality it is a very large man-made lake located in the picturesque Shichahai area. During autumn, there is less of a crowd so you can enjoy the scenery. Swaying willows, jade-green boxwood, fiery red wild peach trees, dusty white Asiatic apple tree blossoms and purple cloves paint a beautiful, tranquil landscape, a far cry from the congested city.

Rows and rows of Han dynasty-inspired white marble railings that elegantly line the entire lakefront are contrasted by rocks of all strange shapes and forms dotting the shore. Members of ancient China’s Beile noble family and well-known personalities from that period used to call Houhai home. Today, you can still see their historic residences, where almost every courtyard had very tall, old trees reaching into the sky. What’s different now is that most of these houses have been transformed into modern homes, with typical light grey automated garage doors.

Yinding Bridge links Houhai’s north and south shores. A rock painted with the name of the bridge beckons you to come observe a unique sight. On a clear day, you can see Xishan (which literally means ‘west mountain’) in the distance from the top of this bridge. This sight, referred to as 'mountain viewing from Yinding' in Chinese, is one of Beijing’s famous 'eight wonders.' Head northeast from this bridge where you will find many bars and restaurants. Why not pick a sofa seat on the terrace, kick back and watch the sun set while enjoying refreshing drinks?

You can also rent a tandem bicycle and go for a pleasant ride around the lake. Hire a rickshaw and experience Beijing the nostalgic way. Your driver will take you through the hutongs - Beijing’s historic alleys that are quickly disappearing due to rapid urbanization – and recount stories of the capital’s old days.

The locals love Houhai for many different reasons. Office workers go there for a drink at the bar after a long day of work, while couples linger on this lake for its romantic atmosphere. It is also an ideal spot to get together with a few friends or row a boat in the cool evenings. Among the locals, you will without doubt notice foreign tourists in full travel gear as well.

On the water, rowing boats, paddle boats and boats with black awnings (modern replicas of ancient China’s ‘wupeng chuan’) slowly float by. The most striking vessels are without doubt the sampans decorated with red lanterns. Reminiscent of the Summer Palace’s great Marble Boat, these sampans are a wonderful way to enjoy Houhai. At the bow, a lady dressed in period costume plays a characteristic Chinese musical instrument called a Guqin, while a sailor sculls lazily at the stern.

As night falls, Houhai transforms into a magical place. The cool breeze seems to blow away the noise of the frantic day, clearing the night sky for the moon to shine through and paint the lake with a silver glow. As the bars open one by one, their red, green and purple neon lights illuminate the lakeshore and cast colour shadows on the still water. The sound of live music can be heard above the babel of languages spoken by international visitors, while their glasses of cold beer sparkle in the candlelight, like the stars in the sky... Houhai exerts a never-ending fascination.

A melodic song can be heard from one of the lone boats in the distance as the evening continues. Music on and offshore mingle into the late hours, creating a truly unique Beijingnese experience.