Up in the northern part of Beijing, some 90km or 1.5 hour drive from the city’s center, lies Yunmengshan, a scenic area very close to the Miyun reservoir. In summer, visitors can “hike” the stairs up the mountain, past waterfalls and steep mountain cliffs. In winter, it becomes a frozen fairytale land when the water turns to ice and creates fantastic shapes and natural sculptures.
When coming here during winter, visitors can access only the first quarter of the overall scenic area, making this destination suitable for a relaxed half-day trip. It is not a particularly strenuous climb, as you mostly walk up stairs and along the frozen pools. You can certainly take it slowly and not even break a sweat. The only time it does get a little tricky is when passing through a “cave”, but this can also be avoided by taking the steps to the right side up the mountain.
Within the Yunmengshan scenic area there are several areas with ice sculptures, frozen branches and hanging icicles. While most of the icy sights are man made the park is still a pretty place to visit, and it’s nice to explore Yunmeng mountain on a sunny day with a hot tea in a thermos to keep you warm.
We finished our exploration of this frozen winter wonderland in time to head for a late lunch in our favorite restaurant in Miyun. After five times going there I still don’t know its name, but their barbecued sauerkraut (or 酸菜 in Chinese) is incredible and if it wasn’t for the fact that it is located almost 80km outside the city we would come here much more often.
The past week has been uncharacteristically cold with almost everyone agreeing that this is the coldest winter in Beijing since a along time. While I think its somewhat similarly cold as in February 2016 – when one of my best friends came to visit Beijing and we were almost unable to leave the comfort of the indoors – I have to agree that is was (and still is) ice cold. Figuratively as well as literally. And unlike last year when temperatures did barely go subzero, the arctic weather of the last few weeks had all bodies of water freeze over permanently. Perfect conditions for one of Beijing’s most beloved winter traditions to come to the fore – ice biking and skating on Shichahai.
What I remembered from two years ago and the years before was that on the west side of Shichahai (basically the west end of lake Houhai) the amount of visitors would be a little less. It turned out however that despite our relatively late arrival at around 3pm the crowds were still arriving, with queues to go onto the ice some two hours long. Different was also the location of the ice skating “rink” and the open ice for other games, such as the ice biking. It used to be the same entrance with two different sections leading either onto skating or riding ice, yet this year the two activities had completely separated access locations. We went around the ice until we finally – and after two false starts at queue up – arrived at gate #6, from which we could go onto the ice biking section of Lake Houhai with only a 15 minute wait. We diligently showed our green health code, paid the stiff 80 RMB entrance fee and then were off onto the ice. Grabbing a bike was easy enough and once you remembered how to steer it and accelerate, the only trick left to learn is to dodge the other people on the ice who have not yet learned those crucial skills. Every year I’m newly surprised at how much fun this is.
And while it was not super cold this Sunday we were still glad to have brought a thermos with hot tea and heated soles inside our shoes. Usually you cannot be longer than 60 minutes on the frozen lake and after a few rounds around and across the lake, your fingers and feet start freezing no matter your degree of preparation. Traditionally we go for hotpot after this frozen adventure, but this time we settled for Vietnamese Pho to heat us back up instead. A truly delicious end to a fun afternoon out during Beijing’s winter.
Beijing has many sighs and historic gems that attract millions of people every year. We visited most of them in the five+ years we have lived in this bustling city. At some point we stopped going there under the pretense that we will return with friends who visit town and show them around. With last year’s developments and the uncertainties of both inbound and outbound travel, not only have we redecorated our guest room into a study, we also vowed to return these icon places in 2021.
The Temple of Heaven
The temple of heaven, built in 1420, used to be the place where the Qing and Ming dynasties went to worship heaven, pray for bumper harvests and favorable rain. Most of the architecture we see today were reconstructed in the Qing dynasty and are based on the designs handed down from the Ming dynasty.
Beijing’s Haidian district is home to the Zhenjue temple, which is a people magnet in late autumn due to its golden ginkgo trees. The main sight is the diamond throne in the center of the temple complex looking strangely like the pagodas in Cambodia or India. Built from bricks and white marble, the buildings have developed an orange tint over the years due to the oxidation of iron traces in the stones. Magnificent ginkgo trees can be found within the inner courtyards, and two ancient trees line the entrance to the main pagoda.
Jiumenkou is the only section of the Great Wall built across water. Nine arcs make up the 100m long bridge that crosses the Jinjiang river. While everywhere else bodies of water were consider natural barriers, Jiumenkou is a unique architectural variance and a stunning sight to behold.
Only a few hours by car away from Beijing the Old Dragon’s Head leads into the Bohai sea. It’s the easternmost section of the Great Wall that looks like stone dragon resting on its belly on the sand drinking from the sea. Laolongtou 老龙头, as it is called in Chinese, makes for a great weekend get away.
We have been given a rare treat this winter in Beijing – two consecutive days of snow have covered the city under a fluffy white blanket. In Chaoyang Park, where we usually have our picnics during summer, the lawns are hidden below more than 10cm of snow. Taking a walk in the park is a welcome relief after days of quarantined home office to prevent the corona virus from spreading. While it isn’t airborne it is still recommended to wear face masks when mingling in larger groups of people. Fortunately, the park is still fairly deserted and it wasn’t necessary to keep your face covered. The cold air felt nice and clean and gave a much needed release after days indoors.
Apart from the many well-known tourist attractions Beijing has on offer there is a surprisingly large number of remarkable sights that draw a lot less attention to themselves. Beijing Bai Yun Guan is honored as the chief temple of the Three Ancestral Temples of the Quan Zhen Taoist tradition. Originally called Temple of Eternal Heaven, it was built in 741 A.D. under Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty. In the Song dynasty it was renamed Tai Ji Gong. At the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, Master Qiu Chang Chun was appointed to this temple by Genghis Khan to preside over Taoism in China, upon which it was renamed Temple of Eternal Spring. After Qiu Chang Chun’s death, Chu Shun Tang was built to enshrine his physical remains, a hall located east of the Chang Chun Gong. In the early Ming Dynasty, the temple was ruined by war. Since only Chu Shun Tang remained it became the center of rebuilding and the temple was renamed White Cloud Temple. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the temple has undergone three extensive renovations with support from the Chinese government and so the traditional magnificence of this time-honored temple had been revitalized. At present the temple buildings cover an area of approximately 10.000 square meters, including nineteen deity halls carefully aligned along three north-south axes, with a rear garden, the overall area of the temple is about 60.000 square meters. Listed as a historic site under the protection of the Chinese government in 2001, it houses the offices of the Chinese Taoist Association, The Institute of Chinese Taoist Culture, the Chinese Taoist College and the Editorial Department of the Journal of Chinese Taoism.