Despite popular belief, there are still a handful of areas in Beijing where you can see glimpses of natural beauty. For the time-efficient traveller who loves to walk (aka. yours truly), you can visit Houhai right after walking down Nanluoguxiang and bundle a visit to Beihai and Jingshan Park together.
HOUHAI | BEIHAI | JINGSHAN | CHINA 2015
Houhai (后海) comprises one of the three lakes that make up 什刹海 (Shichahai) district and is a convenient 15min walk away from Nanluoguxiang. You can clearly see the influence of the hustle and bustle vibe of its neighbour in the stores that line the gigantic lake. Famed for its bars and nightlife, it's a hugely active place of winding hutongs and open spaces on the weekend. Walk along the lake and you'll find old men playing cards, Chinese drumming groups doing public performances in open spaces, old ladies sitting by the steps of shops looking like an idol girl group and the rickshaw drivers, one of whom kept offering to chauffeur us around the area (do not talk to them unless you're prepared to actually engage their services because they are very persistent and do not take kindly to rejection)
In winter, half the lake is frozen over and converted into an ice rink. Seeing 'live' water within a couple of meters from the boundary of the ice rink was a little nerve-wracking, but the ducks playing in the water (and slipping adorably on ice) didn't seem to mind - and neither did the skaters.
Say what you like about the pollution in China but sometimes, the golden sunset and soft layers created by the smoggy air... makes for pretty good photographs. That afternoon golden light is beautiful. Silver linings are silver linings, I suppose? You may even find a host of interesting characters, from extremely skilled photographers to the Monkey King.
BEIHAI PARK 北海公園
To be honest, Beihai Park is a very sedate sort of place in winter as it's definitely not warm enough to enjoy a picnic on the grass or spend any extended period of time soaking up the nature that surrounds you when walking around the gigantic lake. It is, however, never a bad time to appreciate the bright intricacy of the design of the gates to the White Dagoba (白塔) and the monument itself at the top of Jade Flower Island (琼华岛). Climbing up will warm you up a little and give you a sweeping view of the park and a bit of Beijing in the distance and walking along the river will take you to yet another ice rink that Beijing is so fond of creating on their frozen lakes.
Exit the East Gate to find the number one store selling one of Beijing's must-have street foods (patience, dear ones - food post is coming soon!) and walk down the street to get to the West Entrance of Jingshan Park. Don't try and find a restaurant that sells hot food at 3PM like we did and get even colder because you dressed too lightly that day for the weather.
JINGSHAN PARK 景山公园
Upon entering Jingshan Park 景山公园, we ran into a veritable army of middle aged Chinese men (I'm talking almost two dozen), armed with ridiculous telephoto lenses, all aimed at what appeared to be an old red wall. My first knee-jerk reaction was to think they were shooting some sort of movie (and they were the crew, waiting between takes) or that they were press journalists and someone important was about to make an announcement standing in front of the wall.
But there was no one there.
Confused, my friend Siobhan and I inched closer until I mustered the courage to ask one of the photographers what they were shooting.
This little guy, apparently.
This was my first time travelling with Asia with foreign friends (read: non-Asian people) and it was definitely an interesting experience to be thrust into the 'spotlight', so to speak, by association. Beijing residents have definitely become less sensitive to the presence of foreigners, especially Chinese-speaking foreigners, but as soon as we approached the photographers, we - or more accurately Siobhan, who is your statuesque example of a 老外 (laowai) girl - suddenly became just as interesting as the bird.
Only one solution: take photos in return. Hopefully my presence on the harddrives of random middle aged Beijing men will just be hands, and a lens.
Climb to the pagoda on the top of the mountain for the aforementioned amazing views of the Forbidden City (note you will be competing with 50 other tourists for a good spot) and also virtually a 360 degree panorama of Beijing from its literal centerpoint.
Visiting Jingshan will also give you a stunning demonstration of the rich, social lives of Chinese senior citizens, who use the park as a venue for (presumably) weekly choir sessions of patriotic anthems (accordian accompanist included and able to be heard halfway across the park) and square dancing to traditional music. It's really quite endearing.