The rate-board above the ticket counter calls it an “ice-sleigh”, which in the cold month of January, still conjures up images of Santa’s sleigh. But that is too fancy a word for what we rode yesterday –school-kid sized metal chairs welded to L-shaped metal angles serving as runners to skate on ice with no brakes and no steering. These contraptions, best referred to as chair-sleds, typically had a smaller metal stool welded a little in front of the chair making the sled a two-seater. A mock steering wheel up front made of a small metal ring gave something to hold on to. The adornment included chipped paint in primary colors and seats covered with patches of office carpet. Screwdrivers welded to pointy iron bars served as steering poles, enabling the riders to propel these wonderful contraptions with great glee!
Chair-sledding is a quintessential Beijing experience. People can be seen enjoying sledding, as well as skating and playing ice hockey, or simply walking to school, on frozen canals in many parts of Beijing. But nothing can top the chair-sledding experience at Lake HouHai.
Lake HouHai — a centuries old lake located close to the Drum Tower (Gu Lou) in central Beijing — is anyway worth a visit at any time of the year. Dating back to the 11th century, it’s a long lake with a narrow ‘waist’ at the center that is just wide enough for two paddle boats to pass each other without too many bumps. This lake center is spanned by an old arched pedestrian bridge in stone and is the hub of activity at Lake HouHai.
All around the bridge, and really going all around the lake in either direction, the streets are chock-full of bars, shops, and restaurants that are lit up by a million lights at night and are a favored hangout of youngsters and expats. The streets are mainly pedestrian except for the occasional car that gets in mysteriously, and the not-infrequent red pedicabs that are another quintessential Beijing feature. Walking on the stone-paved streets under the willow trees that line the lake, eating gigantic cotton candy while jostling with hundreds of fellow visitors, it’s an experience not to be missed.
Getting to Lake HouHai is an experience in itself. You can’t drive up and park next to it. The only way to get to it is by walking through one of the historical old hutong neighborhoods with tightly-built courtyard-homes surrounding the lake. My favorite way to get there is by parking close to the Drum Tower (GuLou) and walking along YanDai XieJie (skewed tobacco pouch street). Apparently, there were many smoking pipe stores along the street in the Qing Dynasty (17th to early 20th century), hence the name. This street leads straight to the central bridge over the lake. It was redeveloped in 2007 to preserve its historical character and, although not original, it has a great atmosphere with street hawkers and shops selling antiques, unique Chinese and Beijing gifts, handicrafts, and of course, smoking pipes. There is even an old post office with a lovely brass statue in front of a child posting a letter – a favorite prop in many visitors’ pictures. Unique restaurants and snack shops line the street.
Find out more here Footwalker
This post first appeared in the author’s blog Footwalker on December 14, 2013.
The author, Smita Chandra Thomas, is a wanderer and wonderer seeking truth, and magic. Her lens gravitates to the enriching, the bemusing, art and architecture, efficiency, and natural beauty. Her day job brings much of this together in sustainability projects that save energy in buildings and reduce impact on the environment. She is also the delighted and distracted mother of a 3-year-old.
Photos by Smita Chandra Thomas