Day 19 - Beijing Day 2

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

Finally, a day to ourselves. Well, almost. There is so much to see in Beijing: Everything is so big. Tiananmen Square – The biggest square in the world, 44 hectares, Forbidden City – The world's largest palace complex, 74 hectares, and our destination for today: The Summer Palace, a whopping 294 hectares, half of which is occupied by Kumming Lake.

The Summer Palace as it is now known served as the summer palace for the Empress Dowager Cixi. It was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902 for her use. It is a huge site with numerous buildings and, of course, the massive lake on which you can take boat cruises. We did not have enough time for that.

The palace is located quite a distance to the north west of the city and our hotel. Not taking any chances we took a taxi the entire distance. It dropped us at the very crowded front entrance of the palace where we were able to quickly purchase a ticket that included entrance to all of the various buildings in the complex (some of the buildings charge a fee on top of the fee you pay to enter the grounds). Finding a map was a bit problematic as the “tourist map” we purchased is quite pretty on simulated parchment and pretty pictures but not useful as a map to find things…The brochure with our tickets is a bit more helpful as it actually has paths on it…

Passing through the meandering crowds through the “East Palace Gate” we found ourselves in front of one of the many halls: “The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity”. Looking at the map I knew we were going to be a bit pressed for time having only the day to visit (we have to be back at the hotel in the early evening). There have to be more than 100 buildings in the entire complex and the whole thing is like a maze. I wanted to see what things looked like from the water so we eventually found ourselves at the “Heralding Spring Pavilion”. At this point we could admire the lake (yes, goldfish and, yes, lily pads) as well as the various structures on “Longevity Hill” including the imposing pagoda that is “The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha”.

Longevity Hill from the Lake

Everything around the complex has such enigmatic and poetic names: “Tower of Cloud Retaining Eaves”, “Abode in Clouds and Pines”, “True meanings of the Scenery”, “Hall of Recognition of Talent”, etc. Obviously, in Chinese I imagine the names would be much more poetic.

The complex consists of the hill on the north side with the pagoda on top (as I have indicated). To the south is the lake. There is a trail leading entirely around the lake and the south side of the lake has a few things such as the “Seventeen-Arch Bridge” (no prizes for guessing what that is).

Here at the Heralding Spring Pavilion a number of tourists are milling around taking pictures as this is a good vantage point for the whole site. There are a number of old men with long poles that they are using to write calligraphy on the paving stones using water. I have no idea what is being said but I can imagine that it is in tribute to the place. The fading poetry can be seen on stones throughout the area with characters from, doubtless, previous days still visible. I think it is quite magical.

Painting Poetry (SW)

We have been told by Jacky that local people can get a yearly pass to visit the various historical parks and areas throughout the city. This means that the locals can enjoy these places of beauty just as much as the tourists. A lot of people around the park were obviously just enjoying the place rather than running around trying to visit everything (as we were).

Around the corner from the pavilion on the lake was the Wenchang Gallery where we used our first “extra” ticket to enter. This is a low building with wonderful paintings in the eaves throughout. Much of the buildings here are like this – Ornate to the extreme. Even these “insignificant” paintings hidden away beneath the roofs would not look out of place in a gallery. I particularly liked one on the outside of a bird. Inside the gallery there are a series of rooms containing cultural artefacts. Some beautiful paintings, pottery, jewellery, and clothing. What we really found interesting was that in the central courtyard of the gallery buildings there is a small stage on which they were playing some ancient Chinese musical instruments – Stringed as well as drums and massive chimes made of large pieces of rock hanging from a frame. We sat for half an hour on some steps listening to them. It was wonderful. It is all fine and dandy having a museum but this is history brought to life. And, in a way, much more beautiful. This, it turned out, would not be our last musical experience today.

Wenchang Gallery Musical Interlude

Leaving the gallery we passed by “Wenchang Tower” then headed back towards where we came from to the far east side of the complex and the “Garden of Harmonious Interests”. This is a water garden with covered paths leading around it. There were a large number of people here listening to an elderly lady and a small group of musicians. She was singing some opera songs and the crowd of largely older people were listening with great attention. We stopped for a few more minutes to enjoy another unexpected concert. The water here is calm with its plants and fish. There were a number of people wandering around the walkways as the music played on. Not necessarily the best musicians in the world but enjoyable in this setting nonetheless. It was played with the heart. More live history…

Opera in the Garden

We regretfully left the garden to climb Longevity Hill to visit the “Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha” (another ticket required). The view is magnificent of the lake and the surrounding park and city.

View of the Complex

The tower has just been refurbished, along with a number of the buildings in the palace. The thick new paint shows up brightly in the sun though it makes me wonder if it is best for the conservation of the buildings themselves or just meant to make them look good for the short term?

Pavilion of Five Locations

View of the Tower

Walking down from the tower we made a small detour to the “Pavilion of Five Locations/Baoyun Bronze Pavilion” which was not so busy with people. Quite pretty.

Climbing Down

Down through the “Hall That Dispels the Clouds” (honestly, I am not making this up) we walked down some narrow staircases that allowed us to have a close-up view of the figures on the corners of all of the roofs and of the roofs themselves.

Roof Figures

A lot of work has gone into these buildings as it was plain to see. Quite incredible. I guess that one thing that China does not lack is labourers.

Hall That Dispels the Clouds

The “Long Corridor” stretches for more than 700 m along the lake at the base of the hill. It is only about 2 m wide with arches every few metres. Each arch is decorated underneath with a painting. There are a number of people sitting on the railings eating their packed lunches and looking around the parkland by the lake.

Long Corridor

At the end of corridor we stopped in a small local canteen near the “Shizhang Pavilion” for something to eat. I don't quite know what it was but it was what was on offer: some chicken on rice with a bit of celery thrown in. Pretty tasty. I also amused the gentleman sitting next to me (who spoke a bit of English) on the bench seats when I purchased some of the thin hot sausage sticks he was eating from the counter. Yes, very spicy. Mother tried her luck with a drink that was mixing in a drink machine but did not do so well….

Mother decided not to give the tourist boats a try – We also did not really have a lot of time so we passed over a small bridge to the beautiful “Pavilion for Enjoyment of Rising Sun” (I will just keep mentioning the names as they are so cool…). If we had more time we could spend hours at each of these places but as it was we just had time to really walk by them. Even so we did not get around the lake at all…

Near the Hall of the Buddha

Climbing back up the hill we visited the “Hall of the Buddha Confirming His Doctrine” which did not really have a lot to see. Some big buildings (closed) on the side of the hill. There was no path really so we ended up following a trail through some rocks up to the top of the hill. A number of children were there just sitting and enjoying the view. Otherwise, not much to see in terms of fantastic buildings.

Suzhou Street

We were not as disappointed when we visited “Suzhou Street” which is an area of the palace grounds that has been artificially created to duplicate a place where the empress came from (Suzhou is a small historic canal town just outside of Shanghai). Another ticket and we climbed down the steps to the small walkway around a long stretch of water. Beside the walkway are small shops all attached to one another selling souvenirs but also done up as small museum-type places “selling” things like musical instruments, swords and the like. There are also several places to eat.

Suzhou Street Shops

Following the crooked path over a small bridge and around we stopped for a drink in the shade.


It is very hot, again, here and we have been walking for many hours now. Unfortunately, time is now a bit short so we have to hurry back to the main entrance past the “Hall of Serenity” and the “Garden of Harmonious Pleasures” that we had visited earlier in the day.

I mentioned it before but it is really very good to see the local people enjoying the park. Often it is the case that such places would be closed to local people and not appreciated. With such a national (and international – in this case even UNESCO) treasure it is good to see them here and obviously having a good time – as if it was a public park. History alive, indeed.

Arriving at the main entrance we did not have a lot of time. We needed to get back to the hotel. I always suspected it would be a problem but did not realise it would be such a big one. We see now it was a mistake but we took a black taxi from the front gate of the palace. This is a mistake on a number of different levels. (1) These are the luxury taxis and cost around about 3-4 times what a normal taxi would cost (though are quite nice inside) and (2) it was now evening rush hour and traffic was horrible.

Have I mentioned about the traffic yet? Unbelievable. Particularly when you are in a hurry. The black cabs charge by time as opposed to the normal taxis which charge by distance so when we got into a big traffic jam and the meter started clicking over we knew we had a bit of a problem. As it was the driver said it was going to cost us too much so dropped us at a subway station (81 RMB!). Not much of a help as the subway goes no where near our hotel. I was just getting frustrated and was happy to be dropped anywhere but we were unable to catch a normal cab to the hotel the reason being, see (2) above. Since the cabs charged by distance and things were moving so slowly they were refusing to drive us to the hotel in the middle of the city. Don't blame them really but it left us in a bit of a bind. We ran down the street past the many small shops and eventually managed to flag down another taxi a lot closer to the hotel – We could never have made it back in time to meet Jacky at the hotel.

Red Theatre

Why? Well, we had given in to one of us suggested “extras” (on prompting from mother) to attend a “Kung Fu” show in the evening. He picked us up to take us to the Red Theatre which was in the south east side of the city to see the Chunyi: The Legend of Kungfu show. Now, of course, we could have got their ourselves but he was determined to give us our money's worth and even showed us to our seats in the theatre – I suppose he might also have problems with other tourists losing their way or not knowing how to find a seat in a theatre…Oh well. The theatre is quite new and was reasonable. A young boy from the show was meditating in the foyer (we returned to get some snacks and programmes after Jacky had left, of course) which was quite interesting. The show was based upon the life of a young man coming of age through his mastery of Kung Fu (there were sur-titles in English and Mandarin Chinese). Along the way there were various feats demonstrated such as one of the performers balancing on the end of spears and chopping through blocks, etc. The music and staging was quite good and entertaining. Not what I would call authentic or traditional Chinese – We could really see such shows in America or England.

Over the past few days we have been passing by the theatre a few times so knew the area a little bit so after the show (which ended quite early) we walked up the street past a few small shops to have dinner at a place serving Peking Duck. Or, rather, we did not know it served Peking Duck until we were inside but we were very lucky it did. A long time ago a friend took me to a real Peking duck dinner so I knew what to expect: Duck soup, as well as duck in tortilla (style) wrappers (with hoisin sauce). Most of the time in England you only get the duck with wrappers but here we had a whole duck to the two of us which included the soup. The menu was quite good (in English as well as Mandarin) with various options for the duck so we went for two different sauces. The one option also included edible flowers that you could include in the wrap (quite interesting). When they were ready they actually told us to look towards the back of the room as the chef had brought in our duck and was carving it. This is the way it is done here. We admired his efforts before being able to sample them a few minutes later. It was VERY delicious but very filling…I have never had such wonderful duck and in such interesting surroundings (as we prefer, we were the only tourists there – a good choice in restaurants if you ask me). The staff were very friendly and helpful. Probably the best meal we have had here so far.


A satisfying (and, yet again, busy) day as the taxi took us back to the hotel…

Another hot day: 29°C. I didn't mention the smog…

Day 20 - Beijing Departure

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