Suitcase and World: Houhai.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


houhai is the name of a Lake in Beijing and the area that surrounds it. I love this part of town. It has that wonderful mix of urban/suburban, new/edgy, and old/traditional that so appeals to me.

The first time I came was with Jenny and the gang. At that the time, the point of going to Houhai was to go shopping on Pipe Street which is written in all the tourist guidebooks as a good place to do shopping. Pipe Street itself is a very narrow, two block pedestrian only street that is lined on both sides with funky stores, boutiques and restaurants. Definitely not the usual stores selling souvenirs to tourists.

Pipe Street dead ends at the point where Houhai Lake meets up with Qianhai Lake. A small span called the Gold Ingot Bridge serves as the divider between the two lakes. Peddleboats are available for rent and pedicabs are plentiful if you don't feel like walking.

Ringing the lake shore are more restaurants and bars. Unlike your stereotypical Chinese dining establishments, these places had a look and feel to them that would attract a younger, hipper crowd. At first, this was all I thought there was to Houhai until my second visit back there which I did on my own. This time, I wandered away from the commercial area and found myself in a very quiet residential area.

As I left restaurant row, I could see the roof top of Drum Tower in the near distance. I made a note to add a visit to that and the Bell Tower to my itinerary for the day.

The day I was in Houhai, a small neighborhood park was filled with locals enjoying being outdoors. This park was equipped with some exercise equipment and there folks using them.

There was a ping pong table and 4 folks were playing. By the way, the woman was kicking ass!

Even raised metal rounds provided a means to exercise. I imagine these would be good to improve one's balance.....something I could benefit from having as I am the world's biggest klutz :-)

Of all the folks out in the park that day, this elderly gentleman, in particular, captured my attention. Here he is sitting in the lotus position, looking perfectly relaxed. I can't even do that without squealing in pain.

Under the protective shade of old shade trees, I found myself having a very relaxing stroll by the lake. By now, I was on street lined with expensive homes....that is if gated walls are an indication of a high priced home!

On my walk, I came across the residence of Soong Ching Ling who was the wife of Dr. Sun Yat Sen. The home is renowned for its gardens which were once the gardens belonging to Prince Chun, the father of the Emperor Puyi, who was the last Emperor of China.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government intended to build a residence forSoong Ching Ling but she repeatedly declined. Later, President Chou En-Lai had Prince Chun's gardens repaired and renovated and a new two story house built on the grounds. Soong Ching Ling moved in in 1963 and lived there until her death in 1981.

The garden, surrounding the house, has a pond surrounded by rockeries (Chinese are obsessed with rocks), flowers and trees and pavillions. It's a tranquil refuge, just stone's throw away from hubbub of Beijing.

Aside from the gardens, there's not much else to see so I did take a few minutes to sit, relax and enjoy the place. But, then it was time to move on. Back out to the lake.

Next destination, the Drum Tower.

As I walked towards the Drum Tower, I found myself trying to make it past a slow walking tour group from Scandinavia. As I walked past their guide, I over heard her saying that the Drum Tower was closed for repair so I had to quickly change my game plan.

Revised destination, the Bell Tower :-)

I bought my ticket and followed a small group of people to the entrance. What greeted me there was a steep set of stairs :-(

I took my time to clamor to the top. In the center of the tower hung the huge,metal bell. It was cordoned off so I was assured there wasn't going to be any ringing. I could only imagine how deafening the sound would have been had someone actually struck the bell!

From the Bell Tower, I had a view, albeit through the hazy, of Houhai Lake and of the Drum Tower.

It was a short visit to the Bell Tower. By now, the heat and humidity of Beijing had completely sapped of any energy. What I wanted to do next was head back to the air conditioned comfort of the hotel and douse myself in a ice cold shower. So, I headed to the bus stop to catch the number 60 bus back.

Houhai. If I ever live in Beijing, this would be my neighborhood. I was there on weekdays so neither Pipe Street nor the commercial area around the lake was crowded. It was nice. My only regret is that I did not get to enjoy it at night....when the restaurants and bars come to life. Maybe on my next visit to Beijing :-)