♥♥♥ Jingshan Park
(Daily ; ¥2; bus #5 from Qianmen)
If you’re hot and bothered after a trudge through Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, a short climb in Jingshan Park will bring you some cooler air and great views over the palace to the south and north to the Drum Tower. It also makes a nice place to enjoy a picnic. Try to come in the morning to get the best photos from this great vantage point.
The park was first created during the Ming dynasty in accordance with the principles of geomancy to protect the Forbidden City from the chilling and evil northern winds. The hill it sits upon was made from the earth excavated to create the Forbidden City’s moat.
The park outlasted the dynasty and is now famous as the place where the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hanged himself in 1644. You can still see the spot where he ended his life, although the tree here isn’t the original.
♥ Beihai Park
(Daily ; ¥10 or ¥20 for access to all sites; bus #5 from Qianmen)
Set on the site of the Mongol Yuan dynasty’s Dadu Palaces, Beihai (North Sea) is a continuation of the Zhongnanhai (Middle and South Sea) lakes, which were excavated at Kublai Khan’s orders and run up to Qianhai and Houhai.
Beihai is a lovely park, dominated by water, and it houses a grand dagoba (Lamaist Stupa), which was built for a visit by the Dalai Lama and sits on Qiong Island in the south of the lake. Entering the park through its southern gate, you’ll immediately come to the Round City, the only remaining part of Mongol Dadu.
Here, there is a courtyard where you’ll see a jade bowl that reputedly belonged to Kublai Khan himself. From here a bridge leads to Qiong Island and the Yong’an (Eternal Peace) Temple
At the top of the island hill you’ll see the gleaming white dagoba, while the north of the island holds the renowned imperial restaurant, Fangshan. You can take boats from here across to the northern side of the lake, where you’ll find another of the park’s key attractions, the 88-foot-long Nine Dragon Screen, made up of some 400 tiles and designed to confound evil spirits.
♥♥ Shichahai (Qianhai & Houhai)
Zhongnanhai, Beihai, Qianhai and Houhai are all part of a chain of lakes that stretch northwest from the Forbidden City. There have always been ephemeral watercourses here, appearing during times of flood and disappearing during drought, but these areas were connected and expanded under the Yuan dynasty in 1293 and formed the northern terminus for the Grand Canal from Hangzhou.
The area flourished as a religious, as well as a trade, center and thus earned its current name, Shichahai (10 Temples of the Sea). It became a popular place to come and relax by the water, a function Qianhai and Houhai still serve today. Shichahai’s proximity to the seat of power and waterfront property appealed to those with business in court and the area developed as an upmarket residential hutong district, which has housed imperial relatives like Prince Gong and aristocrats such as Soong Qingling over the years.
The hutong here still offer a real escape from brash modernity and are a great part of the city for a cycle rickshaw ride. But if you want a break from sightseeing, the area is worth a visit for the bars and restaurants that have taken over the waterfront streets.
In the summer the lakes offer boating, bike rental and you’ll even see people swimming; in the winter, skating is popular. You’ll see boat rental places scattered around the lakes, ranging from simple paddle affairs (¥40, plus ¥200 deposit) to electric boats (¥60-120, plus deposit) and 15-person wooden crafts (¥300), which come complete with oarsmen and, if you want to add to the ambience, you can hire an erhu player and even some snacks or a full-blown meal to enjoy onboard.
♥ Prince Gong’s Palace
14A Liuyin Jie (daily ; ¥20; Jishuitan subway)
This grand hutong residence was originally built in 1777 and comprises nine courtyards, connected by covered walkways. Prince Gong was the younger brother of Emperor Xianfeng (1850-61) and was instrumental in bringing the Dowager Empress Cixi to power after his brother’s death. If you come here on a hutong cycle rickshaw trip, you can also witness short performances of Beijing Opera while enjoying a cup of tea.
♥ The Bell and DrumTowers
Di’anmen Dajie (daily ; Gulou Dajie subway)
Beijing’s first drum tower was built in 1272, but the version you can see today dates from the Ming dynasty. In days of old the DrumTower (¥20) was used to mark out the time and the drums are still beaten every half-hour ( & ), although these days this is purely for the enjoyment of tourists rather than to hustle along imperial servants in their duties.
At the southern end of Di’anmen Dajie, the BellTower (¥15) was constructed at the same time as the DrumTower, but was destroyed and rebuilt after a fire in 1747. The tower still holds its original 63-ton bronze bell (which you can gong during Chinese New Year for a price). The towers define the neighborhood, hence its name, Zhonggulou (Bell and DrumTower), and both offer good views over the surrounding hutong.
♥ Soong Qingling’s Former Residence
46 Houhai Beiyan (Tues-Sun ; ¥20; Gulou Dajie subway)
The Qing mansion of Soong Qingling’s former residence sits in a large, ornate garden and holds displays that detail aspects of her life, including the pistol given to her as a wedding gift by Sun Yatsen. Of the various other houses where Soong lived, her Shanghai residence is one of the most attractive.
13 Guozijian Jie (daily ; ¥10; Yonghegong subway)
The paifang (memorial arch) decorated hutong which houses the Confucius Temple has long been home to scholars and the temple’s quiet courtyard and few visitors make it a great place to soak up the old school ambience, surrounded by stone tablets and cypresses.
As with most Confucian institutes and temples this was a place of learning and there are stelae (stone tablets) denoting those who passed the civil service exams set around the courtyard.
On the western side of the grounds you’ll find more tablets inscribed with the Thirteen Classic philosophical writings that were attributed to Confucius.
There’s also a display of ancient musical instruments, which are played on the Old Sage’s birthday, celebrated annually on September 28th (National Teachers’ day).
Note: The temple was undergoing extensive restorations at the time of writing.
♥♥ Tibetan LamaTemple
12 Yonghegong Dajie (daily ; ¥25, audio tour ¥20; Yonghe Gong subway)
Lama Temple pictures
This is Beijing’s premier Buddhist tourist attraction and thus, while it’s certainly worth a visit, don’t come expecting monastic silence and isolation.
The temple was originally built in 1694 as Prince Yong’s palace (hence the Chinese name Yonghe Gong), which he renounced when he ascended to the dragon throne and became Emperor Yongzheng in 1723. The palace was converted to a lama temple in 1744 under Emperor Qianlong and offers a fusion of Lamaism, Buddhism and Shamanism. The latter fueled rumors of human sacrifice in the early 20th century !
The temple’s architecture reflects an equally dazzling array of styles, including original palace features, along with Manchurian, Mongolian and Tibetan design elements. The temple prospered during the Qing and there were reported to be over 500 monks from Inner Mongolia and Tibet in residence here under Emperor Qianlong.
You can still see the golden urn that was used to elect the Mongolian Dalai Lama in days of old, and the temple is also the site where the puppet Panchen Lama was instated in 1995.
After the foundation of the PRC in 1949 the temple was closed for 30 years, which may well have been its saving grace, as it completely escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. The temple re-opened in 1981, but these days it is as busy with tourists as it is with monks, but you’ll still see them chanting sutras in the morning.
Visiting the Temple
Above the entrance to the Yonghe Gate Hall you’ll see gold inscriptions on a blue background in four languages (Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese and Manchurian) – the Chinese characters were written by Emperor Qianlong.
On entry you’ll immediately be confronted by a statue of Maitreya who is accompanied by the four Heavenly Kings.
Through the next courtyard you’ll find the YonghePalace, which houses arhat statues and a stunningly decorated ceiling.
Continuing on, the Qing dynasty Hall of the Wheel of Law holds a statue of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of Lamaism’s Yellow Hat sect.
Beyond here the Wanfu Pavilion contains a colossal 85-foot-tall statue of Buddha which was donated to Qianlong in 1750 by the seventh Dalai Lama and took three years to transport from Nepal.
Tibetan Lama Temple (Yonghe Temple)
The Buddha is carved from a single trunk of sandalwood and is actually sunk 20 feet into the ground in order to prevent it from toppling over.
At the very rear of the temple there is a display of Qing dynasty Tibetan articles, including dharma wheels and a multi-armed statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.
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