West Side Story
Majestic lakes and resplendent gardens are a glorious reminder of Beijing’s imperial past.
Today, some of the mansions around the shores of the lakes, such as the one where the last emperor, Puyi, was born and the residence of Prince Gong, which was once one of the most ornate and extravagant residential buildings in Beijing, are public museums.
The city’s west side stories are tales of wealth and power. The western part of the city, particularly the northwest, has always been home to the city’s movers and shakers, not least because of the lakes and waterways that once brought water from the Western Hills to the Forbidden City. Water has always been important for a city situated in such a parched area, and unsurprisingly the areas around the manmade lakes were either imperial gardens or else exclusive residential areas reserved for people with connections to the imperial family.
Gardens of Escape
Shangri-La Hotel, Beijing is located near the Beijing Art Museum, which is housed in what was once the Longevity Temple. Situated beside a canal that led to Kunming Lake, the temple, built in 1577, was a popular place for the imperial family’s birthday celebrations during the Ming and Qing dynasties and was a favourite stopover for the Qing emperor Qianlong (ruled 1735–96) and his successors, when, eager to escape the confines of the Forbidden City and the rituals established by the Ming emperor Yongle in the early 15th Century, they made their way by boat to the Summer Palace. It’s possible to do the same today as tour boats depart for Kunming Lake from the nearby pleasant Purple Bamboo Park between April and October.
Kunming Lake dominates Qingyi Yuan, the Garden of Clear Ripples, which was created in 1750 by the Qianlong emperor as a birthday gift for his mother. It is one of the two gardens associated with the Summer Palace. The other is Yuanming Yuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness, which was in fact three gardens that formed a vast palace complex, ten times the size of the Forbidden City which included hundreds of wooden buildings and pavilions scattered throughout a vast complex of artificial waterways and classical gardens. The Manchu Qing emperors so disliked the stultifying court rituals at the Forbidden City that they effectively moved the whole court to Yuanming Yuan, where they indulged in lavish theatrical entertainments, such as make-believe towns where the emperor could pretend to go shopping. While the palaces and gardens of Yuanming Yuan were destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860 by French and British forces, some of the their past splendour can still be imagined as you stroll through the ruins.
Wealth and Influence
Heading south, toward the Drum Tower that was the centre of Khublai Khan’s imperial city of Dadu before Emperor Yongle ordered the grand reconstruction programme that established the Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing, you’ll come to Shichahai, which is the collective name for the area encompassing the three lakes — Qianhai, Houhai, and Xihai — that were once the reservoir for Dadu. At one time there were docks, situated at what is now Jishuitan subway station on the west side of Xihai. This is where the bounty of the Yangtze Delta was unloaded after it was shipped along the Grand Canal. However, during the Ming Dynasty, as successive emperor’s granted land to their favourites, the area became home to the rich and powerful.
Today, some of the mansions around the shores of the lakes, such as the one where the last emperor, Puyi, was born and the residence of Prince Gong, which was once one of the most ornate and extravagant residential buildings in Beijing, are public museums. Although the current Silver Ingot Bridge was built in 1984, there has been a bridge separating the two lakes for centuries. Standing on the bridge that was there in the 18th century, the Qianlong emperor declared the view of the Western Hills one of the Eight Great Views of Beijing. Today, you can use it to choose a refuelling stop from among the many restaurants and bars that now line the shores of the two lakes.
Shichahai is also home to some of the best-maintained siheyuan and hutong in the city. The hutongs are the ancient alleyways formed between the siheyuan, or single-story courtyard houses, that used to dominate Beijing. Just down from the Drum Tower, is Nanluoguxiang one of the oldest residential districts in Beijing. Today Nanluoguxiang and the hutongs that run off it have found a new incarnation as a wining and dining area.
Stay and Relax
Shangri-La Hotel, Beijing is the perfect base from which to explore the lakeside gardens and mansions that were once forbidden to the public. Not only does it provide award-winning service, it has its own tranquil garden to relax in, and what is widely regarded as one of the city’s finest, if not finest, French restaurant. S.T.A.Y. is the brainchild of Michelin-starred chef Chef Yannick Alléno, who has playfully deconstructed French dining to make it more fun and accessible.