Friday, September 05, 2008

Prince Gong's Mansion

There's this place we've been dying to go back to ever since we first visited it four years ago. Beautiful rock gardens. A small theater with an acrobat show. And our personal favorite...a tiny gazebo with water running through it in narrow channels carved into the stone floor. (It's really hard to describe...just look at the picture!). This was the place where, centuries ago, imperial officials would imbibe from glasses of wine that had been left floating in the water channels. Talk about decadence! it was this unique aspect of the grounds that left an impression on us and had us plotting a return trip.

There was only one problem...we had no idea what the place was called! Back in 2004, we spoke no Chinese, and our tour guide spoke no English. All we knew was that these were the former courtyards of some really rich dude. So...how to find it again?

We had some clues burnt into our memories. We knew that to get there, you had to go deep into the heart of the hutongs, Beijing's old alleyway neighborhoods. We also had some guide books that describe various sites around the city. None of these books, though, mention a water-wine gazebo.

One site kept capturing our attention. Looked like the right location. Described as a great example of a Qing dynasty official's compound. We decided to go for it.

Right off the bat, things looked bleak. We remembered trees and gardens, but we walked into newly-refurbished, baked-in-the-sunshine courtyards. Turns out, this was just another example of how quickly things change in Beijing. From the pretty but soulless courtyards, we stumbled right into the tree-lined gardens of our memories. And, there around a bend, was the gazebo, just as we remembered it.

With no wine to drink (it was morning!), we floated water and green tea bottles back and forth, and listened to passing Chinese tourists describe this quirky little place to one another. (Jiu bei was the key phrase...glasses of wine.) Gong Wangfu, thank you for leaving behind such a nice place to discover and whittle away a few hours with someone you love.

~Steve

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