By Mary King
A wonderful place to spend a sunny day is Beihai. This is one of Beijing's most famous parks, and you can very easily spend a whole day exploring it. In fact, it is the perfect place to escape the madding crowds and find some peace and tranquility.
Situated in the heart of the city, this huge garden boasts a history of more than 1,000 years. But its actual creation is rooted in something even older than that. It was actually a Chinese legend that inspired the construction of this magnificent garden that combines the grandiosity of the ancient gardens of northern China with the refinement of traditional gardens found in the country's south.
As you stroll along the waterside or climb up to the White Dagoba, the huge stupa, it is worth dwelling on the legend. Apparently, in ancient times, there were believed to be three magic mountains called Penglai, Yingzhou and Fangzhang. These mountains were said to be situated to the east of China, and the gods who lived there were believed to possess a secret potion that was the elixir of life. As you can imagine, every emperor would have loved to have become immortal, and so throughout China's feudal age emperors aimed to find the three peaks. Emperor Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221- 206 B.C.), sent his servants off to find the magic mountains. But, of course, they failed. To console himself, the emperor ordered that a large pool and three earthen hills be constructed to imitate the magic mountains. Emperor Wudi, the fifth emperor of the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-8 A.D.) was yet another emperor who tried to recreate these grand peaks.
In fact, from then on, nigh on every emperor ordered an imperial garden with one pool and three "mountains" to be built near his palace. Beihai Park was the result of many emperors' dreams. It was initially constructed during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125). Over the centuries it was repaired and rebuilt, right through the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, so from 1115 through 1911. It wasn't until 1925 that ordinary people were allowed to visit Beihai, and today the park attracts visitors from all corners of the world.
More than half of this sprawling park is taken up by the lake. In the middle of the lake and at the heart of the park lies Jade Flower Islet. This islet is topped by the imposing White Dagoba, which is the symbol of Beihai Park.
The White Dagoba was built in 1651 on the former site of the Palace in the Moon where Kublai Khan received Marco Polo. At the suggestion of a famous Tibetan lama, Emperor Shunzhi, the first emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) agreed to build a Tibetan dagoba to show his belief in Buddhism. Sun, moon and flame engravings decorate the surface of the tower.
The stupa was destroyed by an earthquake in 1679 and has been reconstructed twice since then. Now, resting on a huge stone base, the structure stands almost 40 metres high and is capped by two bronze umbrella-like canopies with 14 bronze bells hanging from them. Inside the dagoba there are Buddhist texts, a monk's alms bowl, as well as precious beads found among the ashes of Buddhist lamas.
Since the White Dagoba is the highest point in Beihai Park, it serves as the place to enjoy sweeping views of the park as well as of the Forbidden City and surroundings. From here, you can take steps down to the White Dagoba Temple where the faithful come to pray and burn incense.
There are several renowned Buddhist temples within Beihai Park such as the Yong'an Temple (Temple of Everlasting Peace) and the Chanfu Temple. There are also various halls and pavilions that are worth viewing as well as gardens within gardens. One such garden within a garden is Hao Pu Creek Garden. Built in 1757, this garden was named after two ancient rivers in Anhui Province.
There is a very famous legend attached to the Hao River. It says that during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C) two famous philosophers known as Zhuangzi and Huizi had a blazing row while crossing the bridge that spans the river. Apparently, Zhuangzi remarked how happy the fish were in the river to which Huizi responded, "As you are not a fish, how can you possibly know whether the fish are happy or not?" Zhuangzi is said to have answered, "You are not me, so how can you know that I don't know the happiness of the fish?" This legend is said to have inspired Emperor Qianlong to build the Hao Pu Creek Garden as he wished to find peace of mind and become as free as fish in the river. So if you are feeling frazzled by work and life in this city make sure you spend some time here to meditate