It would be quite forgivable, even normal, for a visitor who wanders on foot or takes a trishaw pedicab into Shichahai, the district just to the north of Beijing's famed Beihai Park, to think he had gone through some sort of time warp that has taken him back into Beijing's fairly distant past.
Shichahai is of particular interest, and should be sought out by visitors wanting to get near to the Chinese people without actually interfering in their lives. However, no one should be fooled by the apparent antiquity of these structures, even if Sanmaio Street, close to the Guohua Shopping Center, is, at more than 900 years, the oldest surviving hutong in the western suburbs, is more than 900 years old. Brick-lined on the outside, they have often been modernized within.
There is, of course, the possibility of a visit, since some residents are proud to show off their living accommodations -- and often, through generations of occupancy, their cultural heritage.
However, their gates may be closed, not so much against the traveler as against the incursion into the sedate interiors of passers-by and, especially, spirits.
Part of the tranquillity these neighborhoods enjoy can be traced to the shallow, manmade lakes -- Qianghai, Houhai and Xihai -- that were once the northernmost sections of the Grand Canal, the marine artery that stretched south from Beijing along China's east coast.
Today, these three lakes that stretch intermittently between the Second Ring Road and Beihai Park have boat tours which are especially attractive on cool autumn days, when they provide the traveler with glimpses of the 700-year-old Drum Tower, once the city's tallest structure, and the dramatically-beautiful White Pagoda in Beihai Park .
In the city's often stiflingly hot, dusty summer, such trips would give a panoramic view of people swimming, fishing or strolling around these waterways. It is said to be possible to see heroic -- some would say foolhardy -- wintertime bathers enjoying a clip through holes they have cut through the ice.
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