One of the things I love about exploring a city on my own is when I come across something totally unexpected and, better still, that so few other people appear to know much – if anything about.
It was when I was exploring the hutong area of Beijing last week that my eye fell on a smudge on the map that represented an old mansion that had been standing on that same spot since 1777.
Variously known as Prince Gong/Kung’s Mansion/Palace, depending on your map or guide book, it turned out to be one of those charming ‘finds’ a little off the beaten track that I am sure I will return to again and again.
It lies quite close to Shichahai Lake to the northwest of the Forbidden City. It was the private home of He Shen, who was the Grant Secretary and a favourite minister of Emperor Qianlong and he lived here between 1776 and 1799. In 1851, the mansion was offered to Prince Gong (also known as Yixin), Minster of Legislation, by Emperor Xianfeng and he lived here from 1852 to 1898, hence its name. Now it is the most well preserved mansion and most complete royal residence that still exists today in Beijing.
Outside, the entrance is guarded by a splendid pair of lions, who look extremely well fed. And inside there are numerous lesser lions and Pi Xiu.
The Mansion itself, which covers a total of 60,000 sq metres, is made up of three sets of courtyards each containing complexes of buildings: central, eastern and western, conforming to standard mansions of princes in those days.
The green glazed tiles on some of the roofs in the middle column designate an architectural grade second only to the imperial palace. The rear hall is a two-storey structure more than 180 metres wide.
The authorities here leave nothing to chance, however. One of the central buildings was destroyed by fire and now they are prepared for all eventualities, as can be seen by the not-very-well-disguised fire hydrants that have been made to “look like” little bushes standing on top of manhole covers.
The main courtyard of the western complex includes the Xijin Studio as its main hall and is entered via a gate with the name of "Courtyard of Heavenly Fragrance" carved above it. Surrounding the courtyard is a series of elegant rooms separated by "nanmu" (a type of cedar tree) partitions. In the centre of the courtyard are two rare midget crab-apple trees nearly 300 years old.
When I was there they also had an exhibition called “Introspection and Expression: Paintings of Xu Chenyang” which featured a couple of dozen pictures by this artist whose pictures sell for around $25,000 each. I’m afraid, though, the philistine in me won through, again. They were pleasant enough, and formed a good excuse to enter from the freezing cold outside (it was minus 7 that day) but I can’t imagine that I would ever part with my hard earned cash to get one of these on my wall.
The gardens of the mansion were, for me though, the delight of the entire complex. The princes' mansions and large private houses in Beijing were often built with walled flower gardens laid out either behind or to the sides of the main buildings. Nowadays, there are very few such mansions dating from the Ming Dynasty. These gardens are ingeniously constructed with complementary buildings and terraces, well spaced vegetation and hill paths that wind their way around cool and tranquil grottos. They are an exquisite combination of classical Chinese architecture and tasteful landscaping. There’s even a little temple with loads of red flags outside representing prayer wishes…
and also a long row of Tibetan prayer wheels that you are encouraged to turn as you walk past them.
There is also a man-made lake, which of course was almost totally frozen over when I was there, together with a peninsula islet sitting in its middle.
From the lake a mini-river meanders its way past stone cliffs and under stone bridges…
…into an ice bound fishing pond.
An unusual wooden artificial hill forms a flight of stairs which gives access to a building set at the top. A Chinese wisteria dating back more than 200 years is still growing in front of it.
But in the depths of winter, instead of flowers, the only thing that seems to cover the flower beds is pieces of broken ice.
Perhaps this is what the warning signs refer to (stuck up on the walls, there is no mention of what it actually is we have to be “cantious” about).
Definitely this place will deserve a future visit from me, hopefully when there are more flowers about and less reason to err on the side of cantion!