Beijing’s scenic spots are often dismissed as touristy by those of us who have called this city home for longer than, say, six months. This summer, however, you may want to pay them another visit bearing these alternative activities in mind.
Picnic at Beihai Park
Let’s start with an easy one. Yes, Beihai Park can be crowded on the weekends especially along the lakeside. But to beat the crowds, head away from the teaming hordes along the shoreline. Among the rocks and trees along the eastern edge of the park are several secluded gardens and pavilions which, if not exactly empty, are sure to seem like quiet oases even on the busiest weekends. We recommend the garden known as Hao Pu Jian. The name, which translates as “Between the Hao and the Pu,” refers to two rivers in allegories made famous by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi. Originally built by the Qianlong Emperor in 1757, the Hao Pu Jian was also a favorite perch of the Empress Dowager Cixi. It is a multi-level collection of pavilions, pools, and bridges and features several excellent spots to bust out a picnic lunch (and even a bottle of wine or two if you keep it on the down low). To find it, walk along the Eastern shoreline of the lake about 120 meters north of the East Gate and turn away from the lake.
Reading at the Confucian Temple
We were initially going to suggest the yard inside the former residence of Lao She, a Beijing author best known for his use of Beijing dialect, but his home is once again closed for renovations, this time through to January 2018. A worthy replacement for literary getaways is the courtyard of the Confucian Temple and the Imperial Academy (Guozijian). It won’t be perfect solitude but lacking the glitz of its colorful neighbor Yonghegong, this venerable complex is often spared the megaphones and matching hats of the large tour groups. There has also been a recent uptick in the number of “Confucius Camps” activities at the site involving groups of young children wearing traditional scholar robes doing call-and-response Confucianism. That said, there is something eminently cool about grabbing a good book on Chinese philosophy (you can’t go wrong with the classic A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Feng Yu-lan) and sitting among the ancient trees and stone steles.
Naval Warfare at Summer Palace
Fair warning: We know from personal experience that this is an activity not sanctioned by the park authorities. We also know from personal experience that you may get kicked out of the Summer Palace for doing this but … it’s a lot of fun on a hot summer day. Kunming Lake is the large artificial reservoir at the center of the Summer Palace. The game is simple: smuggle a few water guns or other similar implements into the palace, rent a boat, head out on the lake, and get in touch with your inner admiral. Word of caution: Be careful of collateral damage. If one of your water cannons hits another boat, say one full of innocent park goers, this will hasten your departure from the premises.
Birdwatching at Yuanmingyuan
Yuanmingyuan is famous as a historic site and a place for teachers to remind their patriotic young students that as much as they might love Adele never to forget how her British ancestors are responsible for the burning of their sacred heritage. Nevertheless, it is also an enormous park of woodlands and lakes. At 864 acres (350 hectares), there is a lot of ground to explore, and much of it is seldom visited. Beijing’s birds know this too, and the park is an important habitat for many local species as well as a rest stop for migratory flocks passing through the region. In addition to the ubiquitous magpies, the park also features dozens of other species including a resident population of black swans. As 90 percent of visitors make a beeline for the ruins of the “Western Palaces” in the northern section of the park, any diversion to the left or right will take you to solitude after only a short amount of walking. Head over to the “Fu Hai” (Lake Fu) area for a quiet spot to check out the park’s feathered denizens.
Hiking at Olympic Forest Park
At 6.8 square kilometers, the Olympic Forest Park is one of Beijing’s largest green spaces. Built as a recreational site for the athletes participating in the 2008 Olympic Games, the park boasts an extensive set of hiking trails, jogging paths, lakes, and wetlands. Accessible by the Line 8 Metro, it also makes a great getaway for urban dwellers seeking green spaces without having to head out to the Great Wall and beyond. Those looking for something a little wilder should instead head over to the northern section (the park is divided by the Fifth Ring Road).