One of the most striking features of autumn in Beijing is the changing of the leaves. From now until mid-November, we can expect to see the city’s foliage turning bright shades of yellow, orange, and red. Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan) might be the most popular destination to appreciate the changing of the seasons, but it also tends to be one of the busiest.
Instead, we decided to explore the quiet, sprawling grounds of Beijing’s storied academic institutions for a fall family outing rich in history and scenery. This journey takes place in Haidian District and features a walk around Peking University’s (PKU) Weiming Lake, a bike ride and lunch at neighbouring Tsinghua University, a detour to the Old Summer Palace, and dinner at Changchunyuan Gourmet Street.
Most expats are aware that PKU and Tsinghua are two of the most prestigious universities in China, but their appeal goes far beyond the intellectual. That’s why you are as likely to see tour groups as you are to see students on campus. Formerly known as the Imperial University of Peking (京师大学堂), PKU was built in 1898 and the campus hosts many famous attractions. The must-visits for autumn are the beautiful Weiming Lake and Boya Tower on its southeast bank.
To start your journey, take subway line 4 to East Gate of Peking University station and get out at exit A. You will see two admission gates nearby. The one near the newspaper stand is for students and school staff, and the other one is for visitors. If you know someone at PKU, they can bring you in with them; otherwise, you will have to take your passport and register at the other gate.
The PKU campus is relatively small and most places are within walking distance. After you enter the gate, walk straight for about 200m and turn right on Weiming Beilu (未名北路). You will see Boya Tower within 100m. Walking under the trees around the lake, you will pass students reading books on the benches by the water. There are several young ginkgo trees around the lake; their leaves should be a luminous shade of gold by the time this issue is out. Although scarlet maple leaves are what many think of when it comes to autumn foliage, the elegant fan-shaped leaves from this rare, slow-growing tree have a special beauty of their own.
The ginko tree is one of the oldest trees in the world and is described as a “living fossil” because it is closely related to trees dating back before the time of the dinosaurs. Beyond its importance to botanists, it is also a symbol of longevity and vitality in Chinese culture. It is said that Confucius lectured his students under a ginkgo tree, which may explain why gingkos are selectively planted in the country’s best universities.
Gingko trees can also be spotted at Tsinghua University, our next destination. Exit PKU the way you came in. Then, walk for 500m on Chengfu Lu (成府路) in front of PKU’s east gate and turn left on Qinghua Nanlu (清华南路). Tsinghua’s west gate is about 400m ahead. About halfway there, you will run into several tents that rent out bicycles. The rental fee is RMB 20 per bicycle with no time limit, plus RMB 300 (or your passport) as deposit. Most of the stands close at 9pm, but ask to be sure. You can also borrow a bike lock at no extra cost, though they won’t give you one unless you ask. Be warned: Without a bike, you will be helpless within Tsinghua’s 400-hectare grounds.
Tsinghua is the former site of a princely private garden during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Many Qing-style gardens, ponds, and lakes can be found near the school’s west gate. The campus is divided into the western and the eastern zones. The western zone (also known as the old district) features a famous lotus pool, which inspired the renown poem Hetang Yuese (“The Lotus Pool by Moonlight” 荷塘月色) by Zhu Ziqing. The eastern zone is newer, with modern classroom buildings, offices, gyms, music halls, and more.
Once you enter the campus, there are two main roads to remember: Qinghua Lu (清华路), which goes east-west, and Xuetang Lu (学堂路), which goes north-south. The two roads cross at Mengminwei Music Hall (蒙民伟音乐厅) at the center of the university.
Take Qinghua Lu at the west gate and pedal 200m; you will see Jinchun Lu (近春路) on your left side. This will lead to Jinchun Garden (近春园), where you can see the famous lotus pool in the center. Although there are no more lotus flowers, the big pool of golden and yellow lotus leaves looks magnificent in the sun. Lock your bikes around the entrance and take a walk in the garden. As you watch the willows swaying in the breeze, you may understand why Forbes ranked Tsinghua among the most beautiful beautiful campuses in the world. Not only that, it was the only university in Asia to make the list.
At this point, the kids may be getting hungry. East of Jinchun Garden on Xichun Lu (熙春路), you will find a Chinese restaurant called Xichuanyuan (熙春园). This is a popular place for school staff to host visiting scholars. The fish with pickled Chinese cabbage (酸菜鱼, RMB 58) and braised eggplant (红烧茄子, RMB 32) come in small portions, but are decent enough in terms of quality. There are also children-friendly dishes such as gongbao chicken (宫保鸡丁) and fried corn with pine nuts (松仁玉米).
As you walk back to the entrance of Jinchun Garden to get your bicycles, you will pass the recently-opened Lotus Cafe near the lotus pool. Get an Americano (RMB 22) for your caffeine fix and kick back for a while to allow the meal to digest. After that, unlock your bikes and get ready for a long, beautiful campus ride. There is the newly-constructed Ginkgo Avenue (新银杏大道) at the northeast gate near the Zijing Dormitory (紫荆公寓). If you keep the two main roads in mind, you should be able to locate it using the campus’ bilingual Chinese and English signs. Take your time just having fun, exploring, and riding through the campus streets.
If you still have energy after Tsinghua, exit the west gate and cycle north. Turn left on Zhongguancun Beilu (中关村北路) after 200m and travel for another 200m on Qinghua Xilu (清华西路); you will eventually see the Old Summer Palace on your right. Admission costs RMB 10 for adults, half price for students and free for children under 1.2m. The spacious park is another underrated place to view the autumn foliage in a relaxed way.
When you are done, ride west on Qinghua Xilu for 500m and turn left on Yiheyuan Lu (颐和园路). Within 1km, you will see Changchunyuan Gourmet Street (畅春园食街), where you can end your day with Japanese noodles, Sichuan hotpot, barbecued chuanr with beer, or waffles at Zoo Coffee (among many other options). Before going home, don’t forget to return your bikes.
Weiming Lake 未名湖
Near East Gate of Peking University,
1 Yiheyuan Lu, Haidian District (6275 1230) 海淀区颐和园路1号（近北京大学东门）
Jinchun Garden 近春园
Near west gate of Tsinghua University, Chengfu Lu, Haidian District (6278 9437) 海淀区成府路（近清华大学西门）
Daily 10am-10pm. Xichun Lu (inside Tsinghua University), Chengfu Lu, Haidian District (6278 3074) 海淀区成府路西春路（清华大学校园内）
Lotus Cafe 清华大学荷塘悦舍
Daily 10am-10pm. Beside Jinchun Garden (near West Gate of Tsinghua University), Haidian District (no telephone number yet) 海淀区近春园旁边（近清华大学西门）
Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) 圆明园
Daily 7am-7pm (May-Aug); 7am-5.30pm (Nov-Mar); 7am-630.pm (Apr, Sep-Oct). 28 Qinghua Xilu, Haidian District (6262 8501) 海淀区清华西路28号
Changchunyuan Gourmet Street 畅春园食街
Daily 9am-10pm. 8 Yuanmingyuan Lu, Haidian District (6262 6256) 海淀区颐和园路8号
Photos by Clemence Jiang
This article originally appeared on p30-33 of the beijingkids November 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com