While people cram for space at neighboring Lake Houhai, a quieter Beijing winter scene plays out in Beihai Park. The imperial garden may be littered with historical sites, but when winter rolls around it's obvious that the ice of Beihai Lake becomes the main attraction.
Five separate sections of ice are spread out across the 35-hectare lake, which include areas specifically for activities like sliding around on ice chairs, sprinting on ice bikes, skating, and even driving ice bumper cars.
The main section is by the park's southern gate, where there's space for every activity. A set of speakers play Chinese pop songs out to the buzzing congregation on the ice. The minus ten degree temperatures have failed miserably to keep the crowds indoors.
Skate rentals are popular, but the area designated for skating is surprisingly small, less than half the size of a professional hockey rink. Those on the ice don't seem to mind, however as quite a few of them unsteadily teeter along.
"At Beihai most people don't know how to skate well," noted the man who was helping out with some young hockey players. It's true that Beihai seems to cater to novices, and show-offs are hardly to be found.
"I've never skated at Houhai, so I don't know how it is there," admitted Dai, a young man visiting with his girlfriend, "but his is my second time skating here at Beihai."
"Our friends recommended we come here," said Yingying, a visitor from Shenzhen, before adding, "People from outside of Beijing know more about Beihai than Houhai."
Beihai's busiest section of ice is the south gate multi-use space, next to the skating section. Chairs modified to slide on the ice as propelled by handheld poles are surprisingly popular, though the ice bikes are clearly more exciting to ride. They weave through the ice chairs, occasionally tipping over from attempting too-tight turns.
The ice bikes may be fast, but could they match the thrills of the ice bumper cars? Probably. The battery-powered bumper cars make their impact based on novelty as opposed to thrills. Nonetheless, Wang Di really enjoyed driving the car. "It's winter so there isn't so much other fun to have in Beijing. I like the happy environment here." After lifting his daughter out of the inflated rubber tube , he admitted that the car was pretty slow for adults. "Safety comes first in Beijing," he laughed.
Closer to the north gate are two more areas of ice, one specifically for ice chairs, and one is a long strip of ice for ice bikes to charge up and down on. But these sheets of ice tend to be quieter, both literally and in terms of numbers. There's no music broadcast, and the feeling definitely leans more towards peacefulness here.
Bordered in by bars at all sides, Houhai Lake may be where the party is at, but when their skates are all rented out, or if you prefer a less crowded place to embarrass yourself after lacing up skates for the first time, then Beihai Park is the obvious alternative. Also, any Beijinger knows that the historical importance of Beihai Park may perhaps only be seconded by its beauty. Even in winter.
How to get there: you can take subway line 6 to Beihai North station.
Ice hours: 09:00 – 16:30
Park entrance: 5 Yuan (off-peak season)
Ice area entrance including various rentals: 30 Yuan and up, plus deposits (100 Yuan or 200 Yuan for bikes).
Ice area entrance with no rental: 10 Yuan.
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