Xuanwu Lake Park is one of the most popular places in Nanjing and one of the biggest tourist attractions here. Supposedly, it is known as “a bright pearl of Nanjing”. It’s not only a place of interest for people visiting the city, but also for the residents who come here to cool down during a hot day or walk or jog around the lake.
I went there in the last days of April to make use of a very nice sunny weather and walk around for a bit (before, I had been busy with finishing my master’s thesis and if it wasn’t to go to work, I had barely left the house). To my surprise, the place was crowded even though it was a Monday morning, especially close to the park entrance.
What does the name of the lake – “Xuanwu” – mean? In history, the lake had many different names; because it was located north of the king’s court in the state of Wu during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), it was called “North Lake” or “Back Lake” (there is also a “Front Lake” – another lake in Nanjing, also called Yanque Lake). Later, during the period of Six Dynasties (220-589, this period includes Three Kingdoms), the lake was often visited by the emperor as a place of recreation. Because Nanjing (then called Jiankang) served as the capital, it needed to have a certain layout in order to conform to religious requirements so that it could receive protection from gods. And Xuanwu is one of the mythical creatures or patron gods of directions in Taoism/folk religions of China. There are four mythical creatures – 玄武 Xuanwu, the Black Tortoise, that is supposed to look like half-tortoise, half-snake – and is the guardian spirit of the north; 朱雀 Zhuque – the Scarlet Bird, guardian spirit of the south, 青龙 Qinglong – the Azure Dragon, guardian spirit of the east, 白虎 Baihu – the White Tiger, guardian spirit of the west. So in order to receive the protection of the god of the north (as the lake was located in the north), and also for the fact that in the waters of the lake someone spotted a black dragon for a few times, the lake was renamed “Xuanwu Lake”.
The gate next to the lake takes its name after it and is called “Xuanwu Gate”. Now serving as an entrance gate to the park, in the past it was actually an exit gate from the city, one of the many gates in the defensive walls surrounding Nanjing. Nowadays, many parts of the walls were destroyed, but in some places in Nanjing, gates with fragments of walls adjacent to them are still very well preserved and can be visited by tourists, especially in Xuanwu Lake, Yueya Lake, Zhonghua Gate – in these spots, you can purchase entrance tickets and climb the wall. In some places, you can admire the fragments of the walls from the outside – like when walking around Xuanwu Lake, in Hanzhong Gate or close to Qingliang Mountain.
The park is quite large. According to the information provided by the park itself, it’s 502 hectares in total, with the lake area of 378 hectares (3.78 sq km) and the land area of 124 hectares (1.24 sq km). You can walk around the whole lake or go to the islets on the lake. There are five islets in total and their names are: Huanzhou or Huan Isle (“Ring” Isle, as it goes around another isle), Yingzhou (“Cherry” Isle, famous for the cherry blossoms in spring), Liangzhou, Liang Isle (called after the prince from Liang dynasty, who favored the islet and built a garden there), Lingzhou, Ling Isle (“Water Chestnut” Isle, named like that because in the past there were many water chestnuts growing there) and Cuizhou, Cui Isle (“Green” Isle taking its name from the green color of bamboo groves and cedar trees growing there).
The islets are connected together by bridges and dikes. You can go there on foot or ride an electric car riding around them (the price of a ride through islets on the lake is 30 yuan/person and for a ride around the lake, without going on the islets, is 50 yuan/person). Another idea to consider is to rent a boat with friends and ride it around the lake (these are motor boats, the price is 140-160 yuan/hour). Also, there’s a ferry going between some specific points in the park, such as one going from the wharf next to Xuanwu Gate to Nanjing Railway Station (which is right at the north shore of the lake), the price being around 20 yuan per ride.
The area of the lake is always bustling with different activities. During the day there are many people in the park, especially elderly people and students who come with school trips. For example, during my walk I saw a group of retired Chinese practicing Xinjiang dance:
There are many pavilions and interesting architecture to see in the area, including some temples such as a lamasery (temple of Tibetan Buddhism) and Nuona Tower located at the eastern end of Huan Isle. They were built in 1937 in the memory of master Nuona (1865-1936), a Buddhist monk from Tibet who became a member of Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission under the Nationalist Government and later joined the army to stop the progressing Japanese invasion after Mukden Incident in 1931.
Another place is Guo Pu Mound and Guo Pu Memorial Hall. Guo Pu (276-324) was a Chinese scholar who is the author of “The Book of Burial” in which he laid foundations for feng shui (Chinese geomancy) and is thus often called the father of feng shui in China.
Close to the mound and the hall people often tie ribbons and plates with their wishes on the trees and pillars.
Another well-known sight in Xuanwu Lake and also one of its symbols is a 12-meter-high statue of Lotus Flower Fairy, surrounded by four Lotus-Flower Boys.
Sometimes there are some events or exhibitions in the area; for instance, when I went to the park, on Liang Isle there were many statues of teddy bears and apparently, there were some activities hosted connected to them. I’m not sure what it was, maybe some sort of an advertising event, but it was obviously a lot of fun for children and many of them were playing around and taking pictures with the bears (adults as well).
Inside the park, there are many small stalls selling all kinds of trinkets and souvenirs.
If you want to eat something, there are a few places in the park that serve food. On the cheaper side, there is one McDonald’s on Huan Isle, and also some shops selling snacks such as barbecue meat skewers, fried chicken, ice-cream, etc. or stands serving “Chinese fast food” where you can buy fried rice, fried noodles or some other simple dishes for a price of 15-20 yuan. However, those with weaker stomachs have to watch out for the oil content in those – they are pretty greasy.
All in all, Xuanwu Lake is a nice park for a long walk or a run, and can be a good place to choose if you want to escape the noise of the city (i.e. swap it for the noise made by Chinese people) and check out some pleasant views and interesting spots connected to Chinese culture. The place looks cool after dark, too.
How to get there: the best way is to take the metro and get off at 玄武门 (Xuanwumen) station on line 1.
Please note that the islets on the lake close around 9 PM, if you are inside after that hour, you can always come out because the guard will open the gate for you, but you cannot go in at night. The main gate is always left ajar so you can walk around the lake even late in the night.