Shichahai-boat tour a brand new sightseeing experience
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 and the other pockets of Old Beijing which are called "hutongs" lie hidden away but within walking distance of some of the capital city's newest developments. While they have aspects of the movie set, they are in fact very real, and exist today because of the intransigence and fighting spirit of their residents, who were determined to retain their particularly attractive way of life through a number of efforts to replace it.What we there have today are not reproductions but real. Gated entrances that open into one or more courtyards surrounded by a surprisingly large, single story residence, often home to an extended family. Designed according to long-held principles, each residence has its main rooms facing south toward the sun and heat, eastern and western "wings" and "reverse-positioned" rooms located on the north side. Taller, brighter and better ventilated than the other areas, the main accommodations are reserved for the family head. Younger family members and their children occupy the wings, while the reverse-positioned spaces are used as family activity rooms.

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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