Beijing is a city that stands still for no one. Huge cranes dot the skyline, raising large buildings at a rate that made China the world's third-largest construction market last year. Diminutive taxis push through traffic jams with a James Bond-like intensity. Speeding bicyclists work their bells overtime to warn pedestrians out of the way.
But even in this town of 15 million, where the 21st century calls like a siren to hurry up, Saturday is Saturday. And for more than a few city dwellers eager to beat a muggy heat, the call of a manmade lake set in the heart of old Beijing can trump more "urgent" matters.
Houhai, with its stone retaining walls and overhanging trees, is one of three Back Lakes, built in the Yuan Dynasty, just north of the Forbidden City. By night, it's a prime Beijing hot spot, where hip bars and cafes with names like No Name, South Silk Road, and, yes, Starbucks, have sprung up in recent years - albeit with mandated vintage exteriors.
But on a hazy summer afternoon, the kind where simply standing still can work up a sweat, it's a showcase for the many modern ways of essentially doing nothing - perpetuating a low-key tradition that reaches back some 700 years.
Long ago, when the lakes formed part of an extensive network of waterways, courtiers and poets strolled the grounds, enjoying the lake's cooling breezes. China's last emperor, Puyi, was born in a nearby mansion. Eventually, common folk were allowed to come as well. In the 1930s, notes one guidebook, visitors would frequent Houhai's teahouses to hear storytellers and musicians.
Even for today's visitors, a certain timelessness holds sway.
"Welcome to China!" a swimmer calls out in English as I paddle past in a rented kayak. He smiles from behind his black goggles, one of some 20 people slicing through the water and dodging the motorized rental boats that form a small flotilla. Their compatriots, mostly older men in Speedos, towel off on a platform on the far shore.
Venice Beach this is not.
Indeed, one would as soon expect to find a swimmer among the paddle boats on the Potomac. But water most charitably characterized as murky is actually "very good, very good," the swimmer insists, adding that he has taken the plunge every other day for years.
As the mercury scales well into 90s, he's one of the few people moving at all. A handful of young men race their kayaks the half-mile across to the arched Yinding Bridge. But most visitors seem grateful just to have escaped the clogged thoroughfares that frame this haven. Young lovers and families drift by in swan boats. Fishermen perched on the stone banks tug absently on their lines. Not far away, men and women play mahjong as onlookers judge their skill. A mother, leaning against one of the many intricate stone fence pillars that circle the lake, swings her squealing toddler in a makeshift hammock. Cafe owners entice strollers to rest on couches they've placed outside.
To Li Zhan-he, it's all evidence of a good day that'll boost the bottom line. "Summer is the best time, especially on the weekends," he says as he powers up his bicycle taxi. After naming a price that he eventually cuts in half, Mr. Li takes me through the hutongs - bumpy, narrow alleyways that ripple through clusters of traditional courtyard homes.
As he pedals, Li points out the stately mansion where Soon Qingling, the widow of China's first president, Sun Yat-sen, and a major figure in her own right, once lived.
In the business for four years, he says it's not a line of work for the timid. Indeed, as if on cue, a car screams around corner. A miss is as good as a mile, and Li scores a two-inch clearance. As a hill approaches, he yells out to no one in particular for a push, and a bystander good-naturedly obliges.
One more turn, and we slip back into the madding crowd, concluding our trip at the subway entrance. He takes a 100-yuan note (about $12) in payment, and hands back 10 yuan. Our deal had been 80. "I think I deserve a tip, don't you?" he smiles. He pauses, waiting for me to protest. But I don't want to, and it's too hot anyway.