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Published: November 18th 2007
Strong deity character inside Ming-Dynasty era shrine at Bei Hai Park
Another intensive business week closed last night when I concluded my conference calls with Europe and North America very close to midnight local Beijing time. Though I was happy to have a few bonus hours that I could dedicate to my continuing explorations of this great city, I badly needed extra sleep this morning, so I did not leave my hotel until about 9:00 AM. Beijing had turned a lot colder (single digits In the Celsius scale) since Wednesday morning so I wore warm clothes anticipating my being outdoors during the entire daylight hours.
Prince Gong’s Mansion, my first destination had been open for about one hour by the time the taxi dropped me by the entrance gate. Arriving there early had been highly recommended to me because of the popularity of the site with local tour groups.
This particular site is one of the few princely residences from the Qing dynasty era that survives today. Originally built by Heshen a favored official of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796) who made his fortune the old fashioned way: manipulating the finances of the empire and the appointment of civil officials for his own personal gain. After Emperor’s Qinglong death, Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820)
appropriated the property and executed Heshen for corruption. Eventually, Emperor Xianfeng (1851-1862) gave the palace to Prince Gong after whom it is now named.
As soon as I stepped out of the taxi, several rickshaw drivers approached me to propose tours of the neighboring hutongs or traditional Chinese houses. Hutongs are rapidly disappearing in modern China but a few still remain in this area. I noticed that the drivers were a lot more aggressive with me than with the other Chinese tourists. I had been warned that these guys are used to charge foreigners sometimes a hundred fold the fares charged to Chinese. I tried to communicate to them that at this particular time I was interested on seeing Prince Gong’s mansion and that a hutong tour may be a subject for later. I was impressed by the entrepreneurial-ship of the bunch. All of them appeared to have individual color brochures describing their services with an included map of the proposed route. Of course, the prices were also documented to be in the hundreds-RMB range so that the unsuspecting foreign tourist would believe that he or she is getting a good deal when paying ten-times the fare charged to
Prince Gong Palace's Passageways
These passageways linking the main structures within the palace must have been handy on rainy days
the locals. As a basic reference, a short taxi ride in Beijing costs around 10-15 RMB. A taxi ride across town may cost 50-60 RMB.
My tour of the mansion soon became punctuated by large Chinese tours. During my entire visit to the mansion, I did not quite brake the code for seeing a seemingly repeating show at the mansion’s theater. At a couple of times during my visit there were large crowds of people at one of the doors of the theater. The doors would open and the crowd would rush in and the doors would immediately close behind them. I came back several times to see if it was possible for me to join one of the crowds but I did not know when these performances where staged and my timing was always off. This theater is were the mansion’s former royalty owners used to stage opera or theater performances for their guests. This theater is supposed to be superbly decorated with wisteria designs as to create the impression that the performances are staged outdoors under the canopy of these plants highly appreciated in the China of this era.
When I left the mansion, my intention
Sunning on the ledge of a 230-year-old palace hall
was to hire one of the rickshaws for a tour of the neighboring hutongs (the surviving ones may not last much longer, given China’s down with the old attitude). I even bargained hard with one of the drivers until the price got down to 20 RMB, but I then realized that it was already Noon and I needed to move on if I wanted to have enough time at Bei Hai Park, my next intended destination.
Catching a taxi near Prince Gong Mansion’s gate was going to be difficult since rickshaw drivers were always surrounding me, bidding for my business. I decided to walk a little further down the street, but as I continued walking and no taxi materialized, I knew that I needed to get to a main road to improve my chances. I actually walked further than I anticipated before I got to a busy street. This one in particular was in the midst of construction and large piles of dirt everywhere were producing large clouds of dust as cars and pedestrians passed by. The dust and the windy conditions of the day were not a pleasant combination for a person wearing rigid contact lenses. I was
glad that my digital SLR, with its propensity to get dust on its sensor was safe inside my backpack.
A taxi soon passed by, but when I told the driver what my destination was, he refused to take me there, claiming that Bei Hai Park was just around the corner. I thanked the driver for the information and got off his taxi. As I walked in the direction that he had indicated, I asked other passersby to make sure I was going the right way.
Soon, I reached Bei Hai Park’s north gate. This park comprises Bei Hai (or Northern Lake, alluding to its position relative to the Forbidden City), an island in the middle of the lake and the narrow strip of land surrounding the lake on its north, west and east shores. Upon entering the park from the north, you go through a short bamboo-lined path that leads you into a complex of buildings used by various Chinese emperors. I did not quite realize the strong connection of the site to the imperial life of days past. Ming and Qing dynasty emperors used to spend a lot of time around the lake and the building complexes
Emperor's Leisure Environs
This complex located in the northern shore of the Northern Lake or "Bei Hai" provided areas for Qing Dynasty emperors to sip tea, read, or write poetry
Though many of the buildings in this area are in the process of being restored (entire sections are closed off to visitors) you can watch from a distance the work of various artisans restoring the structures’ wood trimmings and colorful painted designs according to how they looked when the emperors were around. In several of the halls, original furnishings and artifacts are still on display (visitors can peek through the windows as no one is allowed to go inside these halls).
After I visited most of the halls and shrines in the north side of the park, including the Five-Dragon Pavilions on the edge of the northern shore, I walked southbound on the west side of the park, hoping to gain access to Bei Hai Island where the best-recognized landmark of the park is located: the White Pagoda. Though I enjoyed the walk through the west side on a very nice path parallel to the edge of the water and lined with wiping willow trees, I realized that this path only leads to the west gate of the park. There is no way to access the island from that side, so I had to re-trace my
steps back north so I could follow the eastern shore southbound. As I was walking back, I noticed various signs warning that the path leads only to the west gate. I should have paid more attention to these signs earlier!
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