Běihǎi Park, northwest of the Forbidden City, is largely occupied by the North Sea (běihǎi), a huge lake that freezes in winter and blooms with lotuses in summer. Old folk dance together outside temple halls and come twilight, young couples cuddle on benches. It’s a restful place to stroll around, rent a rowing boat in summer and watch calligraphers practising characters on paving slabs with fat brushes and water. Some talented calligraphers can fashion characters simultaneously with both hands, with one side in mirror-writing or with characters on their sides!
The site is associated with Kublai Khan’s palace, Běijīng’s navel before the arrival of the Forbidden City. All that survives of the Khan’s court is a large jar made of green jade in the Round City (团城; Tuánchéng), near the southern entrance. Also within the Round City is the Chengguang Hall (Chéngguāng Diàn), where a white jade statue of Sakyamuni from Myanmar (Burma) can be found, its arm wounded by the allied forces that swarmed through Běijīng in 1900 to quash the Boxer Rebellion. Attached to the North Sea, the South (Nánhǎi) and Middle (Zhōnghǎi) Seas to the south lend their name to the nerve centre of the Communist Party west of the Forbidden City,Zhōngnánhǎi (literally ‘Middle and South Seas’).
Topping Jade Islet (琼岛; Qióngdǎo) on the lake, the 36m-high Tibetan-style White Dagoba (白塔; Báitǎ) was originally built in 1651 for a visit by the Dalai Lama, and was rebuilt in 1741. Climb up to the dagoba via the Yǒng’ān Temple (永安寺; Yǒng’ān Sì).
Xītiān Fánjìng (西天梵境; Western Paradise), situated on the northern shore of the lake, is a lovely temple (admission included in park ticket). The nearby Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁; Jiǔlóng Bì), a 5m-high and 27m-long spirit wall, is a glimmering stretch of coloured glazed tiles depicting coiling dragons, similar to its counterpart in the Forbidden City. West along the shore is the pleasant Little Western Heaven (小西天; Xiǎo Xītiān), a further shrine.