Image by SK HO 500px Images
Běihǎi Park, northwest of the Forbidden City, is largely occupied by the North Sea (Běihǎi), a lake fringed by willows that freezes in winter and blooms with lotuses in summer. Old folk dance together outside temple halls and come twilight, young couples cuddle on benches. It’s a restful place to stroll around (come after 5pm in summer to beat the crowds), rent a rowing boat or watch calligraphers performing dìshū (地書), inscribing characters on the ground with brushes and water.
Topping Jade Islet (琼岛; Qióngdǎo) on the lake, the 36m-high Tibetan-style White Dagoba was built in 1651 for a visit by the Dalai Lama, and was rebuilt in 1741. Climb up to the dagoba via the Yǒng’ān Temple (永安寺; Yǒng’ān Sì). If you enter the park via the north entrance, you can also catch a ferry across the water to the islet (¥10). A scatter of eateries skirt the western shore of Jade Islet, including a branch of venerable Běijīng snack emporium Huguosi, and steamed pork bun purveyor Qìngfēng.
Běihǎi Park is associated with Kublai Khan’s palace, Běijīng’s navel before the arrival of the Forbidden City. All that survives of the Khan’s court is a large jar made of green jade in the Round City, near the southern entrance. Also within the Round City is the Chéngguāng Hall (Chéngguāng Diàn), where a white jade statue of Sakyamuni from Myanmar (Burma) can be found, its arm wounded by the allied forces that swarmed through Běijīng in 1900 to quash the Boxer Rebellion.
Located on the lake’s northern shore, Xītiān Fánjìng is one of the most interesting temples in Běijīng, though it was closed for renovations at time of writing. Next door, the Jīngqīng Studio reopened in 2017, an idyllic Chinese garden favoured by Qing emperor Qianlong. The nearby Nine Dragon Screen, a 5m-high and 27m-long spirit wall dating back further to the Ming dynasty, is a glimmering panorama of coloured glazed tiles depicting coiling dragons, similar to its counterpart in the Forbidden City. West, along the shore, is the unique Xiǎoxītiān, the largest square pavilion-style palace in China. Its centrepiece features a rather garish diorama of Mt Sumeru with Bodhisattva seated at its peak along with arhats on rocky outcrops.
Attached to the North Sea, the South (Nánhǎi) and Middle (Zhōnghǎi) Seas to the south lend their name to Zhōngnánhǎi (literally ‘Middle and South Seas’), the heavily guarded compound less than a mile south of the park where the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership live.