What the locals call “the bright pearl of North China” is a mere 160km from Beijing in Hebei Province, making for an easy and pleasant weekend getaway. While peak season is in summer, when lotuses are in full bloom, the other seasons yield beautiful landscapes as well. Autumn weather is cool and crisp, and locals are busy catching fish and crabs. Winter causes the lake to freeze, providing a skating rink for children to take a spin on. When spring rolls around, the water clears up and the reeds turn a bright green.
It was in these marshlands that the Chinese hid from the Japanese at the height of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1940). The locals turned the invaders away, and their heroics are now the stuff of a comedic pantomime that exhibits some of the locals’ penchant for storytelling, as well as acrobatic and kung fu skills.
We visited Baiyangdian in a small group that traveled from Beijing via motorbike. Though our own trip back from Hebei was ill-fated, the stay itself at the lake resort was enjoyable and provided total immersion in the local culture.
We also learned a bit about the local environment. We were impressed by the sheer size of the wetlands, but the lake has suffered severely from climate change. Over the last four decades, the marshlands suffered a one third decrease. Last year, 100 million kilograms of fish were found dead in the lake.
We were accompanied by an English-speaking guide who contracted a local guide to show us around. He arranged everything, from boat rides to confirming hotel bookings (we were nearly turned away for being foreigners) and booking tables at the very busy restaurant on the island.
I wish that the English-speaking guide had been better about translating. However, the boat trip to the island and the pantomime performance that followed were just too noisy. So, we decided to sit back and enjoy the trip as much as possible without understanding everything that was going on.
The pantomime was a joy to watch for its satirical portrayal of the enemy and the well-loved local hero and his grandmother. But don’t expect high art; this is local theater at its best and near-torture at its worst.
Three young men came out on stilts, performing flips and cartwheels. But just as they whetted the audience’s appetite, they disappeared offstage, and the emcee said that they wouldn’t come back until they received money from the audience. As if on cue, two men emerged to place one RMB 100 bill and one RMB 50 bill on the ground. Staged? Probably.
Eventually, a third person came up with another red bill. The impasse continued for another three minutes with neither performers nor audience wanting to make the next move. It felt almost like haggling for a T-shirt at Yashow. Seeing this wasn’t going anywhere, the young men then did a few more tricks and ended up picking up the money with their mouths and walking away.
During the trip, we also meandered among the lotus ponds. The best time to admire and photograph the flowers was very early in the morning, but they were beautiful even late in the day. Clearly, other enthusiasts had the same idea as us; on Sunday morning at 5.30am, the lanes were already crawling with locals toting bulky photography gear.
There were several boats available around the 366sqkm marshlands. Most idyllic are the sampans navigated by fishermen. These seat a maximum of six passengers and stay mostly in the “slow lane” in the rightmost lane of the water. The slightly bigger pump boats take up to 12 people. Lastly, there are large ferries that can take around 50 people.
When they’re not catering to tourists, the fishermen dig up lotus roots to sell at the market and catch fish alongside cormorants. When it’s dark out, you can spot night fishermen with lanterns on the water.
Breakfast the next morning was another cultural first. Our hotel’s offerings were exclusively of the local variety, with hot steamed mantou, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs, and a very thin porridge. This was the first time we’d had a completely Chinese breakfast; we were surprised by how filling it was. If you have picky eaters, consider packing some biscuits or a box of cereal. There’s a small convenience store nearby if you need to pick up anything else.
Though there were crowded moments, it’s worth adding Baiyangdian to your list of short getaways out of Beijing. There was still plenty of room in the marshlands to recharge and have some quiet time. The bright pearl of northern China is a treasure worth discovering.
Lake Baiyangdian 白洋淀景区
RMB 20 entrance (adults and children over 1.3m). RMB 50 per person per day for pumpboat. All scenic spots must be visited on the boat. RMB 50 Lotus Garden. RMB 20 Fishermen’s Eden. RMB 20 Leisure Isle. RMB100 per person (including food and board) for Wangjiazhai Folk Custom Village.
Daily 8am-6pm. Anxin County, Baoding, Hebei Province (0312-533 0211, 535 5258) 河北省保定市安新县
Photos by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.