Icing on the Lake

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Polish up the skates, it’s time to zip across Houhai Lake, arguably the most atmospheric spot for skating buffs in Beijing – beginner and pro alike

Houhai lake is something of a Beijing institution, sitting in a prime city locale and ringed by some of the most intriguing hutong neighbourhoods – a rabbit warren of enchanting streets, funky eateries, squeaking jerry cabs and bric-a-brac stores clutching dusty treasures. Houhai is a joy in summer when wooden boats dot the slick surface of the water. Autumn is great fun for kicking amber leaves and sipping hot tea on Yandai Xiejie. Spring is perfect for hunting out the perfect magnolia blossom and flying kites. But the true lure of Houhai lies in winter, when a thick icy crust forms on the lake’s surface, opening up an entirely new playground surface-area for kids – and big kids, too.

There are many skating areas around Beijing, indoor and outdoor, but Houhai has that little something extra. Maybe it’s the nearby cafés to thaw out in afterwards. Maybe it’s the close proximity of McDonalds on Di’anmenwai to fill little bellies with a warm, post-skating lunch. Maybe it’s the size – one can skate for miles, it seems, unhindered by space constraints. Or perhaps it’s just the sights around the lake – the pale arch of Yingding bridge, the skeleton-bare trees lining the shore, the Chinese pavilions brightly red against the sky, and the tired little summer boats glued firmly into the ice.

The other delightful thing about Houhai is the blend of people. There’s Ayi puffing behind a chair sled, pushing her young charge across the surface. There’s Grandpa riding his bike onto the ice before fixing skates to his feet for a leisurely slide. There’s young lovers holding hands and falling over themselves with laughter, and teens whizzing around on bicycle sleds until their leg muscles groan.

Although the lake is collectively known as Houhai, it is actually divided into two parts, separated by Yingding bridge. The northern part of the dogleg shape is Houhai and the southern part is called Qianhai, which includes a small island in the middle. Qianhai is a smaller and more skate-friendly area of Houhai, and its location is more kid-friendly due to its ease of access and proximity to other facilities.

Weekends are definitely busiest, with all manner of kids, from tiny tots to teens, skating, slipping, sliding and plonking down on their backsides without a skerrick of embarrassment – so beginners never fear. It’s also a joy to watch the competent skaters, old and young, coasting across the heavily-tracked surface of the ice. The southern end of Qianhai is barricaded with multicoloured flags and used as an ice hockey rink where men and their sticks zigzag skilfully around a puck.
Entry to the lake for skating is free and there are several entry points, the easiest being right at the southern end of Qianhai on Di’anmen Xidajie. The next point is a little further north on the east side of the lake on Qianhai Dongyan (past Huoshen Temple), and yet another can be found around on the northern side of Qianhai, near Yingding Bridge.

There are several kinds of skating equipment for hire including skates, cartoonish bicycles that skid across the ice using leg power, and somewhat cumbersome two-seater chairs that require ski poles or someone running behind them to get in motion. These might be something of a workout but they are enormous fun. A refundable deposit is required and payment options run by the hour. Hold onto your deposit ticket if you want the refund.

A word of warning – avoid any roped-off areas or the edges of the lake where the ice is usually less solid and prone to crack. Being so heavily trafficked, the surface is not overly slippery, however you will need shoes with tread and a thick sole in order to be comfortable from the cold.

Skating on Houhai is one of the most entertaining activities you can find in a Beijing winter. Centered in this beautiful and historical part of the city, the whole family will love this fun day out, and parents will delight in watching their kids giggle and slip. And any excuse to see their cheeks flushed cherry red.

Houhai lake
To check ice conditions, call 6612 7652 (no English spoken).
Dianmenwai Dajie (aka Pingían Dadao), across from the north gate of Beihai Park, Xicheng District

Photos by Tania McCartney.

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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