I woke up. My first waking up in Beijing after 12 years. At the same time it seemed like any other usual Beijing morning but also it was unbelievable. I was in bed sweat from wet hot air and watching in direction of window of room of apartment realizing that I am really in Beijing. It was untypically sunny for this period of year. No smog today, blue sky was visible and sun was cheerfully shinning. I told myself: “Get out of bed Beijing is waiting for you”. While eating baozi for breakfast I was watching from window. From that side of building, sounds of cars and people on streets where not heard almost at all. Below window was older residential block. I saw people in that alley who were going to job on bicycles or by walk until closest metro station. In far CBD was visible, part with tallest skyscrapers whose glass was shining on sun.
After ride in metro we were there at one of main gates of Beihai Park. Finally there. “Was it real??” “After 12 years in 1 of my favorite places there”, I was saying in myself. It was place where we took every guest from our family who visited us.
It is historical place, imperial garden from XV century. Emperors spent their free time in these wonderful gardens. Beihai Park is situated northern from Forbidden City. Beihai means Northern Sea in Chinese. It is garden with large lake and island in the middle. Area has significant number of pavilions, few temples, one pagoda in middle of island and few smaller gardens with pavilions and ponds. There are grass areas, many stone paths and various trees with green trunks under which you can hide from sun. Between trees and next to walkways there are morning exercisers of tai chi and other kinds of exercises and dances with traditional music. Even small colorful balls were used for different games and exercises. Usual exercisers are older retired people. Tai Chi is ancient Chinese practice composed of various exercises determined not just for physical but also psychical health. With tai chi you can make balance between your mind and body become softer and with tai chi moves you can float through air but standing on ground. Except exercisers there are people who just came to relax and sit under some tree or on bench.
Listening to traditional music and standing between willows which branches are falling on the water, watching white pagoda which is across lake on small island, you had feeling that you are in some other time there somewhere in past much further past than 2001 or 1997 somewhere in XIX century for example. Sounds and life of modern streets which are not far from here were not heard at all. As I said Beihai Park is good place for relaxing or practicing tai chi. I was able to sit all day here on ground relying with back on some tree and watching big lake or some smaller pond in one of gardens there. Everyone is busy with his way of relaxing or exercising, no crowd no noise. That’s China which I missed the most- peaceful and old China full of friendly people around you. Perfect would be also sitting for example in front of old wooden temple which dates from 11th or 12th century which is also part of Beihai Park. That temple is very mystical place from outside and inside too. From outside temple was all brown with few golden Chinese symbols over entrance.. Inside is not very strong light- half light, half dark, with figure of Buddha which is having inner peace what is visible from his face. This temple was one of favorite places of my father and both of us never believed that we will be ever again in this park and standing in front of wooden temple. I was sitting in front of that temple, drinking my plum juice from my childhood. I found that juice again in 1 shop at Qianmen day before, design of bottle a bit changed but red paper with green plums was same, but most important its taste was same that famous taste of sweet and sour green plums. Despite fact that Behai is good place for relaxing there are other places which are better for that. These places are not in center of city and they are less visited by people. Such places are even bigger mystery and even calmer than Beihai. More will be about such places later.
Not far from temple was dark blue wall with light yellow decorations of dragons- 9 Dragons Wall. Number 9 is most important and lucky number in China. In ancient China it symbolized longevity and it was considered as imperial number. This 9 Dragon Wall is one of three such walls in all China. This wall is made from glazed bricks combined in 7 colors but most visible are those 2 which I mentioned. These 9 dragons are playing in sky on both sides of wall. Such interestingly colored wall and shapes of dragons were always attractive for me since childhood. It is amazing when you know how old it is and when you know how Chinese people were creative in architecture and symbolism. After looking around 9 Dragon Wall we had short rest next to lake in Five Dragon Pavilion. Each of 5 pavilions has dark green roofs with brown edges which are standing on red pillars. I remembered how on spring 2000 when my grandfather Ljubomir visited us, one afternoon we were sitting here and watching sunset. Falling of rays on water of lake made interesting combination of red rays and dark green almost black color of water. I remembered on that afternoon while I was sitting in pavilion over white stone hedge with arches and carved decorations. Around pavilions and over lake were flying and beeping swallows same like that spring afternoon.
Boat took us towards Jade Flower Island same like once it took us there to eat KFC on that island, which fortunately isn’t there anymore because it doesn’t distract attention in this historical and cultural place anymore. It was replaced by Chinese restaurant what is much more suiting for such traditional area. However this KFC was often visited by me and my father when we were going for hot orange juice and fries after skating on frozen lake around island during cold and long Beijing winters. Jade Flower Island is not less peaceful and interesting than park around lake. Shore of island is surrounded by stone arch hedge, paths and few paifangs.
One big pavilion is also at shore. One of paths which leads to top of island is roofed and above that path are beams which are standing on pillars. Beams are decorated with interesting paintings. I was going now towards famous white pagoda or Bai Ta through temple garden between bamboo trees, over high stairs and next to few souvenir shops,. I climbed into one bell tower in temple garden. I hit the bell and it made its mystical sounds which echoed through temple garden. Temple trees were decorated with red ribbons, and branches were almost not visible from them. These are ribbons on which wishes are written by people and hanged on tree as according to traditional belief written wishes on ribbons hanged on trees in temple gardens should become true. I bought one ribbon and wrote my wish and I placed it on one branch among hundreds of other red ribbons. “Road to Heaven” Chinese patriotic song performed by Han Nong and Peng Liyuan(wife of current Chinese president Xi Jinping) was listened by exercisers next to path on small radio. That song describes train heading from Xining (Qinghai) to Lhasa (Tibet). It is first rail line connecting Tibet with other parts of China directly and one of highest if not highest in world. I heard this song few times on You Tube. This song and area around were very specific combination. Maybe stairs leading to pagoda are also kind of road to heaven as on the top of island it looked like that pagoda is touching blue sky. Before Bai Ta stairs are taking you to one lower viewpoint decorated with roof. That viewpoint wasn’t enough high to see above trees. It was possible just to watch through leaves and branches. I continued through short tunnel decorated with carved Buddhas and one bigger statue of white stone Buddha.
I approached Bai Ta. I am here on top of Jade Flower Island standing in front of White Pagoda. Sun,Moon and Flame are carved on surface of pagoda which are important symbols in Chinese culture and traditional beliefs. From top of Beihai you can see all lake around you and all Beijing, blue sky over old and new Beijing. It looked interesting but I knew for a place with more interesting view – Jingshan Park. It is another park which was part of imperial gardens. Before leaving Beihai I wanted to visit one special part of this park. It is set of amazingly beautiful gardens with small ponds, willows and pavilions next to them. I wished to visit it so much remembering how beautiful they are. I remember that in ponds lived goldfishes what is typical feature of Chinese gardening. If you visit few Chinese gardens you will see that goldfishes in bigger or smaller ponds or lakes, pavilions, and willow trees next to pond or lake are main components of Chinese gardens. It is believed that goldfishes together with lotus flowers in pond or lake in your garden bring wealth, harmony and energy intro your life. Father often used to tell me about importance of goldfishes, lotus flowers and gardening in ancient China. But unfortunately these gardens were closed. It was written that they are under reconstruction. I hope next time when I visit Beijing I will have luck to get in there and sit a bit there to enjoy their beauty.
We left Beihai Park and we went to Jingshan Park. That park is situated on north side of Forbidden City walls. Most important thing in this park is high peak with viewpoint. Pavilion on viewpoint is visible from Forbidden City and Beihai Park as well. Amazing was that view from top of Jingshan park, from which you can see all panorama of Forbidden City, its roofs washed by afternoon sun. White pagoda is visible as well. A bit farther are visible Great Hall of the People and also new opera house which is modernly designed and has shape of egg. Its light grey glass was shining under sun. In far were visible skyscrapers of Beijing CBD. All this your eyes can see from 1 single viewpoint. This Jingshan Park has historical meaning as in middle of XVII century on one of trees last emperor from Ming dynasty hanged himself to avoid torture because rebels were chasing him. After that Ming dynasty was replaced by ethnical Manchu Qing dynasty, which ruled over China and over majority Han population until dissolution of empire in 1912. You can get this information about last Ming emperor on guide board which stands next to tree where he committed suicide. Jingshan Park has a lot of gardens, green trees and tall stairs which are leading to main viewpoint. I liked this place during winter too. During my life in Beijing we visited it often and we were: watching ice figures- different figures of animals, buildings made from ice. They looked so realistically as they were very carefully designed. It was visible that during making them attention was given to every detail. They were similar to those made in Harbin( Heilongjiang province) which are made for biggest ice festival in world.
I hope that once I will visit that festival. After watching ice figures we used to drink warmed orange juice and eat chips sticks with ketchup. In this park people were often making calligraphy with big brush dipped in water and they painted it on ground. Also it is place where many old people which experienced beginning of communism and Cultural Revolution are gathering to share their nostalgia for old times. They were singing old communist songs here in choir. Most often was sung “East is Red”. Song which was almost like national anthem of China during Cultural Revolution period when Chairman Mao was mostly glorified.
We left Jingshan and we went to Shichihai – complex composed of 3 lakes. It is not far from Beihai and Jingshan. We were walking around lake where many people were around you on path. Next to lake is nice and clean pedestrian area with many bars. It seemed that some of these bars were not ordinary bars but they were more expensive. I remember that beer which I had there cost around 50RMB. Almost every third bar was offering shisha for smoking. Many people were sitting outside and smoking it. In China shisha was never typical but it seems that it became one of popular way of entertaining for young Chinese people. You could notice scenery from XVIII or XIX century nearby lake. Many hutong streets were there and Drum Tower was visible in far- red tower with dark green roof.
When you go through hutongs nearby lake you see that this are commercialized hutongs. Most of them are clothes or souvenir shops and coffee houses or tea houses. When you get in these streets you see that traditional spirit doesn’t dominate because of so many tourists and people who came for shopping. But still walking through them old spirit is felt in some part because of many traditional souvenirs which are sold there: vases, Buddha figures, traditional lucky frogs and turtles, Xian soldiers figures, CDs with traditional music, tea, cups for tea, teapots, traditional paintings with fishes, leaves, birds, tigers, pandas, bamboo and of course with dragon and crane. They offered traditional clothes made from silk or cotton in different colors with classical Chinese decorations such as flowers or dragons. There also are sold many communist and patriotic souvenirs -flags, Mao Zedongs pictures, clock with Mao head, green hats with red stars, dark green bags… Street food was sold there too. Some tea houses were in traditional style as well. But McDonalds restaurant is at the end of one street which leads to Drum Tower. Presence of McDonalds restaurant changes impression of this old area. But anyway such combination of old and new makes this area specific and attractive and more about it I will speak later.
Between Qianhai and Houhai lake( 2 of 3 Shichihai lakes) there is one old white stone bridge, with traditional decorations and stone dragons heads in middle of bridge. This bridge was border between mentioned 2 lakes. Larger lake is surrounded by sea of undiscovered hutongs. I was standing on bridge and watching at sunset. Sun was becoming more red, its rays were falling on dark green water making golden color from water, rays were passing between green leaves of trees which were on both sides of lake. Wooden boats with tourists were passing under bridge. This were things which I was watching while I was thinking on so many things…
For concluding this day I will mention what I saw walking between this 3 areas. Between Beihai, Jingshan and Shichihai. When I walked from Beihai to Jingshan and from Jingshan to Shichihai I passed through real unchanged hutongs. They were not commercialized hutongs like those which I mentioned previously. There were no clothes or souvenir shops, no McDonalds and no bars. They weren’t overcrowded by people, customers or tourists which were taking photos of everything. These streets were calm with only 2 food shops. Old lifestyle was present here. Few bicycle drivers passed next to me. Many of bikes were parked near gates. Gates were red some of them even faded and very old. Some of gates on both sides were decorated with 2 red typical Chinese lanterns. Few gates were open and inside were visible flowers and smaller trees in inner gardens of hutong houses.
In one of inner gardens I saw old man who was sitting alone and playing erhu, ancient Chinese traditional instrument. Through other opened gates were visible people doing some house and garden works. Gardening for Chinese people who live in hutongs is important hobby and way of life. In front of one gate was fixer of bikes in old faded clothes and was repairing wheel of one bicycle, working hard and sweating to earn money for his family. Houses here were grey with a bit dilapidated facades, but it is point. They should look like ordinary, like 100-150 ago. One street seller of fruits when we were buying bananas was friendly towards us. On few corners were groups of neighbors eating noodles and drinking Yanjing beer. I saw very friendly relations among people living in hutongs- eating together on streets, playing Chinese chess and everyone speaking and smiling to everyone. Simply their close relations were reminding me on friendliness and close ties among people living in villages in Serbia. That’s how life in old China looks like, those who will see it here they can conclude same as me. I was happy when I saw that old lifestyle and China which I remember didn’t die.
I hope old lifestyle in this area will never die, that this area will never be changed and that these hutongs wont experience commercialization, opening of clothes shops, crowds, big attention of tourists, or in another case that all area will be completely destroyed and replaced by some modern shopping center or skyscrapers. That was destiny to many hutongs. I heard few times from some Chinese friends that this area is protected from any changes by state authorities. Old life style is more rare and rare. It is fading like walls of hutongs but still exists and will exist.
FOR FIRST PART CHECK- https://windowintochina.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/china-my-way-my-story-1-after-12-years-and-revisiting-of-tiananmen-forbidden-city-qianmen-and-sanlitun/
At Guangming daily- http://en.gmw.cn/2015-03/27/content_19672264.htm here is last story but on right corner you can enter all previous stories and see all collection!!!