I’ve recently discovered what must be one of the most elaborate frontages for a McDonalds “restaurant” that I have ever seen. It lies just south of Guloudajie station on line 2 and you pass it if you are on your way to the Drum & Bell towers or the Hutong area.
Emboldened by my visit a week or so back to Prince Gong’s mansion, I decided to return to the Hutong areas and this time to explore the north side of the Shichahai Lake which I have only ever wandered along once before.
Despite it being New Year’s Day, there were men hard at work cleaning the white stone of the lake’s surroundings, their jet-stream washers making clouds of steam in the below-zero temperatures.
A little further along the lake, which had almost totally frozen over during the past week, was a man fishing through three holes he had made in the ice, while others spent their Sunday afternoon walking on the lake as if to say “hey look at me” to their friends on the lakesides.
Amazingly there were fish to be caught, as evidenced by a couple of them lying on top of the ice a few metres away near another fisherman.
In fact, further north along the lake there were loads of fishermen sitting on the ice waiting with endless patience the way fishermen appear to do all over the world as if there is nothing else to do with their pointless lives. I never cease to be amazed at times what little mental stimulus some people put up with for the sake of their hobbies.
Not that lack of brain power stops with fishermen. Despite the midday sun having warmed the air temperature to a balmy minus 2, I counted not one, but five different people togged up in their swimwear and jumping into about the only non-frozen part of the lake for a thrash around in the water. I have to admit that my first thought was whether the water had remained unfrozen there due to some sewage outlet running into the lake. Passers-by actually on the ice looked in the direction of the shoreline, perhaps relieved that there were others more stupid than themselves!
Not surprisingly the local boat hire company had given up the unequal task of trying to get anyone to rent their boats as they would only have been able to go a few metres before calling it a day.
But entrepreneurs further down the lake were doing a great trade in hiring out chairs attached to planks of wood which acted as makeshift toboggans, propelled forward by metal rods thrust into the ice, or else doting daddies taking their kids out for a spin on the lake.
There was even another spot where you could hire real skates for a mere 2 yuan – 20p - (with a deposit of 200 yuan - £2) in order to slither your way around the lake.
Eventually, though, I found what I had originally set out to discover - the house and grounds of what had once been lived in by Sung Qing-ling, also known as Madame Sun Yat-sen. It’s a beautiful unexpected oasis of peace and quiet that contrasts starkly with the hoards of tourists that pass by its front gates, many of them totally unaware of what lies inside. Inside there are elegant rockeries and ponds set off by pines and cypresses. Winding covered corridors link traditional-style halls and pavilions.
In front of the house, that has been kept very much the way she left it in 1981, is a lake and gardens that no doubt look a lot more lush than they do at this time of year. Water from the lake outside has been diverted through an underground channel into a stream that winds its way through the garden, when it is not frozen solid. But even in winter, their starkness is somehow quite attractive.
I’m afraid that in my ignorance I had never heard of this woman before coming to Beijing; but Sung Qing-ling was one of three sisters who, along with their husbands, were among China's most significant political figures in the early 20th century.
She married Sun Yat Sen in Japan on 25 October 1915 – he was 26 years her senior. After Sun's death 10 years later, she was elected to the Kuomintang (KMT) Central Executive Committee in 1926. However, she exiled herself to Moscow after the expulsion of the Communists from the KMT in 1927.
At one stage, she was the Vice President of the People's Republic of China and became the first female President of the PRC from 1968 to 1972. She again became head of state in 1981, briefly before her death, with the title of Honorary President of the People's Republic of China bestowed upon her two weeks before she died.
Apparently one of her obsessions was keeping pigeons – a common interest she shared with Dr Sun…
and walking past her dove cot takes me straight back to my earlier days dodging errant pigeons in Trafalgar Square – except here they are treated as welcome guests instead of the pests they are regarded as in London.
Inside the house you walk back 30 years in time. Apart from erecting some glass screens to keep the masses back from the exhibits, you can see the place as it must have been when she entertained international guests and spent her last years here.
After the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Party and government made plans to build a residence for Sung Qing-ling in Beijing, and decided to renovate one of the Qing princes' gardens for the purpose.
The grounds cover an area of more than 20,000 square metres, of which three quarters are devoted to gardens, ponds and lawns. It was first built during the reign of Emperor Kangxi and successively occupied by various nobles and high-ranking officials until 1888 when Empress Dowager Cixi granted it to Yixuan or Prince Chun, Emperor Guangxu's father. He was succeeded by Zaifeng, Prince Regent and father of Emperor Xuantong (1909-1911), the last emperor of the Qing dynasty.
Sung Qing-ling moved into the mansion in 1963 and worked, studied and lived here until she passed away on May 29, 1981.
Another of Qing-ling’s passions was playing caroms – a kind of Chinese billiards – which she played with her staff when not obsessed with her pigeons.
From the dining room one gets a good view of a little courtyard garden that is surrounded on all sides by buildings that one can walk through at will.
And there are even pictures of memorable moments in her life – like when she was lying on her death bed and being told that she had just been voted the honorary title of President. Golly – that must have cheered her up!
So, all in all another memorable visit during my stay in Beijing and another lesson in history that may go some way to lessening my ignorance of my host country.