Beihai Park: The 1000 Year Old Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City

Hey honey:

This is the third day of my real vacation in Beijing. It is a Monday. I was mindful of this as this is a working day. I figure that today would be the day where the tourists spots are going to be a lot more quieter. This is unlike the previous two weekend days. So I was looking forward to a more relaxed and slow day.

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So I got out of the hotel a little earlier today. It was just past 7:00 AM. I wanted to take the time to have breakfast and to read about the sightseeing for the day. Yeah, I was winging it for this trip. If you recall, I had just less than two days notice to come to Beijing and how quickly you got the guide books for me from the library. For this day, my aim was to visit the Beihai park.

People do seems to start work very early here. Even at this early an hour, a lot of people were already out and about streaming in and out of the subway station. I walked a little past the subway station because I had seen a few small local restaurants there. True enough, they were opened and they were deep frying things outside the restaurant. Lots of people were there getting something for work.

Since I did not know how to order, I had to wait for an opening when they were quieter. Everyone seems to be in the rush and I was kind of afraid to get in their way.

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They have a big bucket of tofufa or at least that is what I think it is. Hehehe, I tried to hide the fact I know little Mandarin and just said “Geh woh yi wan, xie xie” which simply means “give me a bowl, thank you”. And then she asked me something which I could not understand and so I just said “how lah” which means “OK”. I guessed then she was asking me if … I wanted to add stuff in it and I know this is not a situation to ask them what it is.

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Oh man, this is so awesome as a breakfast. The tofu is of the savoury type and they also added chilli to it. I was so tempted to ask for a second bowl of this.

Actually the shop is really messy with greasy tables and all. This is a restaurant where the locals eat and that is what I want.

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They were deep frying all sorts of food out in the open. I got the item that most people were ordering. This is Youtiao (Chinese donut). The difference is that this is not in pairs like the Cantonese type. This is not crunchy and crispy but soft. And it is big too.

Guess how much it all costs? 60 cents Canadian! Can you believe it? Of course I was very pleased.

Oh BTW, did you know the story about youtiao and why they are twinned? This is called “yaw jar kwai” in Cantonese which means “oil-fried ghost”. The ghost refers to a husband and wife traitor who tried to topple an emperor. They were caught and sentenced to deep frying together. That is why. Can you believe this? I saw it from the guidebook.

Anyway, that restaurant wasn’t really conducive to reading and so I left after a short while.

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The day’s sightseeing trip is going to the Beihai Park. In English this is translated as the “North Sea”. Before I tell you more about the Beihai Park, I want to tell you about the lakes and parks in and around the Forbidden City.

In the old days, the Beihai together with the Zhongnan Hai was part of the Imperial City and connected to the Forbidden City. Although Beihai is my destination, I was more intrigued by the Zhongnan Hai.

See how big an area Zhongnan Hai is? Zhongnan Hai today is shrouded in mystery. This is the part of Beijing where there are police who will prevent you from taking pictures even of the outside walls. In the old days, the political center of China was the Forbidden City. Today, the political center of China is Zhongnan Hai.

This is where the Chinese communist leaders live and work. There were no pictures of how it is like inside ever published and so it is shrouded in mystery. I would love to visit Zhongnan Hai for sure! I tried walking past the front gate two days before but I was too intimidated to pull out the camera to take a picture.

As you can see above, the names of the lakes (which they call it seas for some reason) are just simply named for their location. While Zhongnan Hai is off limits today, Beihai is opened to the public and is one of the largest park in China.

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I had my first tiff with the taxi driver that day. I just had to be assertive. You see, sometimes the taxi drivers pick and choose the destination. I got so annoyed that I got on the taxi and not asked if they will go to Beihai Park. I guess the traffic was pretty bad from the hotel to Beihai Park and that is why so many taxis were turning me down.

So, I got into this cab and told him I want to go to Beihai Park. I was already in his cab and he tried to get me out of the cab. I keep pretending I don’t understand him and say “Beihai” while pointing to the map. He gave up and kept muttering throughout the trip.

And guess what, he dropped me off in another park, the Jingshan Park. I knew it was not the Beihai Park because I was around Jingshan Park two days before. I told him it was wrong and he got angry and said I gave him the wrong name. Well, I stood my ground and told him “Beihai”. He knows because about the only words I uttered to him was “Beihai” all these while. I refused to get off.

I don’t see a problem because Beihai Park is just around the corner from the Jingshan Park. Must be a bad day for him. I know you might not understand this but I left him a tip. LOL! In Beijing you do not have to tip and he was quite surprised I tipped him quite nicely although it was just a couple of dollars to me. I guess that made his day.

Anyway, good thing he dropped me off the southern entrance of the Beihai Park because that was where I hoped to start the visit.

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I got off the taxi and looked across the road and saw Zhongnan Hai, the compound of the Chinese leaders. I half felt like crossing the road to take a closer look and take pictures with my long lens. I did not because there was a barrier to crossing the road and it is also quite a walk to the nearest crosswalk too.

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This is the south entrance to the Beihai Park. It seems like a lot of people were going in with some season passes which they scanned at the entrance.

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The entrance was just 20 RMB ($3.30 Canadian) and I got the map to the park for another 10 RMB ($1.60). I thought I get the map since I was so unprepared for this visit. It turns out that I did not really bother using it. It was too big and too cumbersome to use.

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Walking in I was greeted by music. I did not expect Beihai to be this beautiful. It was just exciting to see how beautiful it was. Everywhere I turn was a great spot to shoot.

And I picked a nice day to be here too. The air was much cleaner today. So a perfect day for taking pictures.

I had never been able to describe what a Chinese garden is. Coming and seeing what it is gives me a different perspective of the Chinese classical garden.

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Even at that time, there were already a lot of people in the park. I am just amazed at all the exercising activities that the local people are engaged in everywhere I go.

I recall my team mates (from the US) remarked to me how healthy looking Chinese are. I thought about what they said and was wondering why is it so. I mean, the Chinese is preoccupied with eating and yet you don’t see a lot of fat people around. I don’t think it is just these exercising I see but it sure contributes to a healthy lifestyle.

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Strange thing is that I don’t see a lot of people doing taichi anymore. They are engaged in other exercises. Maybe this is how taichi evolves into the modern era.

I was quite taken in by the ball and racket exercise above. It seems like they are purpose made for this. Maybe there is a big industry where people creates and makes these sorts of exercise stuff in the country.

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Other than all the dancing and exercises, people were moving about slowly. I spent sometime here. Just sitting there and read the guidebook. It was a perfect day.

It is pretty amazing to know that this Chinese garden was first built 1000 years ago. I am not sure if this qualifies Beihai Park as the oldest surviving garden in the world but it sure is a long time. Whatever it is, it is known as the oldest garden in China.

Beihai Park is first built in 938 AD during the period of the lesser known Liao Dynasty.

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When Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty, one of the first thing he did was to move his capital to the present day Beijing. Back then, Beijing is known as Dadu which means “Great Capital” in Chinese. As a matter of fact, the center of Dadu is in the Beihai Park. Yeah, this is where Kublai Khan once walked.

If Marco Polo did indeed met Kublai Khan as he claimed he did, then surely Marco Polo would also have walked in this park too. Maybe I’ll talk a bit more about Marco Polo some other day. There were doubt whether if Marco Polo did actually travel all the way to Beijing like he said he did. This is because there were glaring omission of facts in Marco Polo’s account of the life in Beijing (Dadu) and that there were no records of Marco Polo in Chinese annals.

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The park underwent the biggest reconstruction during the reign of the greatest Qing Dynasty emperor, Emperor Qianlong. What you see in Beihai is pretty much the same as it was back in the 1770. I find this pretty amazing stuff. 🙂

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I wanted so much to take a boat ride around the Beihai Lake but it felt strange doing it alone. Next time, honey. Next time, we’ll do it together. This is a very large lake.

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Not only this park but in all the gardens and parks I went to in Beijing, people from all walks of life gather here for group activities.

Anyway, I wanted to go to the highest point in the park. Right in the middle of the park is the small island called the Qionghua Island. It is connected by two beautiful bridges. And right in the middle of the island is a Buddhist stupa which they call the White Dagoba.

I was told that to get up to the White Dagoba, I gotta pay an extra entrance. It was not expensive, just $2 Canadian.

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Apparently I was the only who was there. It might be because it was too early for the tourists and the locals were not interested in coming in here. Sorry, no pictures inside the temple.

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After the temple, there was a lot of climbing.

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There was a bit to explore around the midway to the top.

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And it was here that I first got a glimpse of the Forbidden City from the top.

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But there were more climbing to do to get to the top where the stupa is.

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Ah … here is a closer look at the figurines at the ridges of the imperial structures and buildings in Beijing. Remember that the number of figurines denotes the rank and importance of the building? There is only ONE building with 10 figurines in China and that is the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City.

This one has two figurines and as such it is not that important of a building. Note that the first and and the last one does not count. A tour guide told me that each of these have a name but I can’t remember it.

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Gold roof and the images of the dragon are symbols of the emperor. So I guess that particular building serves a purpose for the emperor.

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One thing I did not quite get is the red things above. I see them in many temples around the city. Does anyone know what they are?

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The last section of the climb is the hardest and the steepest. Who says that Beijing is flat?

Ah … finally. From this point I can see the compound of Zhongnan Hai, the home of China’s leaders. Also the political center of all of China. I really hope I get to visit Zhongnan Hai one day. Fat chance, I know.

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The pollution came back. It is harder to see the buildings of the Forbidden City. See the tallest and the largest building? That is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the building with 10 figurines. The original building was twice as large but it was burned down.

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In the not too distant hill is a pavilion of some kind. I wonder what that was.

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Other than the view, there were nothing much to see here. The White Dagoba is said to hold scriptures, prayer implements and monk’s bones. I did not spend much time here. Just took pictures and decided to leave.

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Anyway, I was quite puzzled when I saw a lot of people up here on the top but yet when I walked up I saw no one. And they all seems like local people and not tourists. So I decided to follow them. I half suspected that they came up using another way.

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And true enough, they did! You can avoid paying that $2 Canadian entrance if you take the side paths up.

The many people who walked up through here are elderly people and they were so nimble in their steps. They certainly walked faster than I did.

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There is a moon bridge on the island which is a common thing in Chinese (and Japanese) gardens. You know why this is called a moon bridge? They normally build this type of bridge on a still area and the reflection of the bridge on the water makes it look like a moon.

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An elderly lady asked me to take a picture of her and I was surprised she could speak English. So it was great being able to exchange some words with someone for a change. Hehehe … it is lonely travelling alone. That is why I wished you were here with me.

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It was quiet at this part of the island. There were quite a few buildings of note but I did not spend time in them.

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Around the north end of the island was an imperial court restaurant which offers dishes from the Qing imperial kitchens, the same type of food served to emperors and empress. I would love to go have an imperial meal someday. Does anyone know how much a meal like that costs? I heard that you need a table to make a dinner. I can’t recall now but if my memory serves me correct, this restaurant is run by the Peking Duck people, Quan Ju De.

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I continued to walk to the eastern side of the island. This place is a lot more busier with the some bustle as I saw in the south entrance. This is where the east entrance is.

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There were harmonica players. I used to be able to play the harmonica when I was in my teens, did you know that?

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I stood there watching some people practising calligraphy on the floor using giant brushes and water. Apparently you can buy those brushes from the shops. Their strokes are so firm and beautiful.

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I sat there and had more reading.

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After a while, I decided to leave. I hardly cover much of Beihai Park. I only saw the part marked in red above. It was such a large park that it would perhaps take a good part of a day visiting every place here. Next time we get the chance to come to Beijing, we can visit the rest of the park!

I left through the East Gate. Outside the East Gate was a lot of local shops with lines of people. The shops that sells Beijing candies had exceptionally long line. I did not go and buy any partly because of the lines.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Hi Ben regarding Zhongnan hai,there are a couple of good articles on the Kremlin of China online with some pictures.My friend who visited a Vice Minister office said,It is really nice inside with the elite living in restored modernized palace buildings with lots of security every 10-15 meters

    1. Hi Pinoy Gourmet: You are right. I just found a trove of info on Wikipedia with accompanying links. Ben

  2. There are several restaurants serving the “Emperor Meal”. What I have found is that the dishes are small, like tapas. We were told the emperor wanted to have at least 50 – 100 different dishes each meal though he would only eat a small portion. Some of the dishes were quite pretty, like pau in all sorts of animal shapes etc.

    1. Hi Chris: I found reviews of Emperor Meal from the Fangshan restaurant in Beihai. See http://goo.gl/JTnFA … Some of the reviews are not positive but I will still want to go to one for the experience. Seems like their prices starts from 100 RMB to 500 RMB per person which is about $20 to $85, thereabouts. Not too expensive. The meals we had in Spain were $200-$300 per person. Ben

  3. Hi Ben,
    Those little red squares with the tassels, I believe, are hand-written wishes from people who come to the temples to pray and ask for blessings. I don’t know the going rate for each, but you buy a square and write down your wishes and prayers, and place them on the object (it could even be a sacred tree!) where monks will pray for the wishes to come true. If you’re a cynic like I am, they sure are a money maker for the temple/monastery. Look they’re all over!

  4. Hi Ben,
    Savory tofu pudding. Looks generously yummy! We like eating like the locals n going to the supermarkets when we travel. In Hong Kong, we walked around the side streets near our hotel n stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall eatery where for C$6 we had two bowls of wonton mein n gailan with oyster sauce.

    1. Hey cmee8: Yeah, finding something so cheap makes the food tastes even better! Ben

  5. Ben, just want to let you that you can the Beijing subway line 1 to the park, it only costs $2 YMB wherever you go. I travelled to most of the tourist points by subway. Like the Yonghe temple, people saquare etc. only the great wall you need to go to the main bus hop. Those imperial type of meals are tiurist trap, don’t waste your your money there. Did you get a chance to Beihai bar street??

    1. Hi DonaldD: Take subway Line 1 to the Beihai Park? Wow, that is walking from the south side of the Forbidden City to the place. That is walking the length of the entire palace complex. 🙂 I did not even know that there is a Beihai Bar Street. Is it at the north side of it. I only managed to cover a quarter of the Beihai Park because it was so massive. Anyway, I did go to the Qianhai-Houhai bar street area. Ben

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