Hou Hai (pronounced HO-hi) is a manmade lake—the largest of three consecutive lakes lined with willow trees and surrounded by a rambling maze of hutongs, shops, and cafes. Start at (1) the former residence of Madame Soong (46 Hou Hai Beiyan), on the northwest bank, just east of Deshengmennei Dajie. The wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen ("the father of modern China"), Soong Ching Ling's life was a soap opera: Her younger sister married Chiang Kai-shek (leader of the Nationalist Party and until 1949, Mao's greatest opponent), and her political loyalties were questionable. Eventually, she aligned with the Communists and Mao rewarded her with this house in 1963. The house and grounds are beautifully manicured. Badminton players practice here throughout the day and wedding parties often use the grounds to pose for their photos on weekends. (Dusk is also a beautiful time to visit, since the courtyard stays lit through the evening.)
Avoid the pedicabs and their pesky salesmen, and walk south along the northern edge of the lake to (2) Silver Ingot Bridge (Yinding Qiao). Before crossing the bridge, turn left and then a quick right onto (3) Yan Dai Xie Jie, or Slanted Pipe Lane, an alleyway formerly known for a shop that sold long Chinese pipes. The pipes that are left are souvenirs, but the street—with its wooden pushcarts, snack vendors, and courtyard homes with lacquered red doorways—is still a charming way to reach (4) the Drum Tower (Gulou) on Gulou Dajie.
If you're hungry along the way, stop at any of the street vendors on Yan Dai Xie Jie and try Beijing treats, from pork dumplings to CD-sized scallion or meat-stuffed pancakes (xiao bing), to a multilayered, crispy-chewy crepe (jian bing), to the steamed giant flatbread that could feed four (da bing). If you're thirsty, walk north along Jiugoulou Dajie and turn right onto Doufuchi Hutong. Number 43 is (5) Café Sambal, a breezy, trendy bar and restaurant good for an iced tea or cocktail.
A nominal admission fee (about $2.50) gives you access to the Drum Tower, and the steep, ancient steps leading to the fabulous view of the lakes at the top. Find your way back to the Silver Ingot Bridget, a white marble bridge that divides Hou Hai from Qian Hai ("front lake").
Cross the bridge and turn right onto Hou Hai Nanyan, Hou Hai's willow-shaded southern frontage. Turn left onto Liuyin Jie; your final destination is Number 17 (6) Prince Gong's Mansion (Gong Wang Fu), the former home for a Qing dynasty emperor, Qianlong, as well as Heshen, his corrupt eunuch. The house and grounds are extensive, although not entirely accessible (Heshen's pleasure palace is closed off). The pricier admission fee (about $8) includes a performance of opera and acrobatics in the Mansion's Grand Opera House.
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