Having already seen what we thought was Beijing’s big attraction (exclusive of the Great Wall, I suppose), we decided to spend a day relaxing at the Summer Palace. We assumed, from the name, that the Summer Palace would be smaller and less intense than the Forbidden City. After all, it’s only a part-time palace, right?
We were wrong. It was so intense. But let’s start at the beginning. As always, this means breakfast, because I love to tell you about what I eat. This morning we had our hotel’s breakfast buffet.
After breakfast, we hopped on the subway near our hotel. It was very crowded, but despite the hectic pace of the subway stations we found our way to the Summer Palace without much trouble.
The Forbidden City was composed primarily of stone and arranged into gigantic, empty squares ringed with artistry and opulence. It was beautiful, in its own way, but the Summer Palace was stunning. It featured quiet paths meandering across green hills, canals cutting brilliant swaths through the landscape, spires poking up above the treetops and an enormous lake filled with dragon-shaped boats and lilypads.
All three of us agreed that the Summer Palace was our favourite destination so far. Which, if you’ve been following our previous days’ adventures, is saying a lot.
We entered the Summer Palace through the North Gate, which required us to take a bridge to cross the Suzhou Street canal.
We strolled down a forested path and came to the Gate Tower of Dawn Light. Apparently its name comes from an inscription on its east side that reads “Dawn Light”. The west side reads “Scoop up Coolness”, so I suppose this gate could legitimately be called “Gate Tower of Scooping Up Coolness”. I would be OK with that.
We passed through the gate and wandered down yet more wooded paths. We eventually arrived at the Hall of Serenity. It had two features that ensured that it remained serene: (a) a toll booth requiring a separate admission fee, and (b) lots of stairs, as this particular hall is a split-level.
We left the Hall of Serenity and discovered a small cavern right around the back. No one else seemed to be around, but we assumed that it was totally OK for us to just wander in and look around, because that it probably how things work in China. Right?
The cave turned out to be a short passage through to some canals. They were very nice, and no one told us to leave, although we did not see any other tourists there.
We soon went back to the beaten path and wandered on over to the Garden of Harmonious Interests. It featured a series of open-walled covered walkways surrounding a fish-filled pond.
Kat found a tree hanging out over the pond. She decided to scamper up it for a photo, despite my protestations. I have attached here a photo of her precarious perch, mostly for the benefit of her parents. You are welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Spötzl.
Realizing that the Summer Palace is quite a bit larger in person than it appears on a map, we decided to plan out our route to maximize what time we had left.
Note to future travellers: It takes at least eight hours to see every part of the Summer Palace. We only had six and a half hours.
We continued on, and viewed a number of historical exhibits featuring gardens and buildings that were literally fit for kings (well, emperors). We found the whole thing very exciting.
Our increased pace did not stop us from having a bit of fun.
Not only did we strike silly poses with statues and get to play dress-up, but we also stopped by an opera house to take in a traditional Chinese opera.
By this point we had reached the southernmost point of the Summer Palace. Since we had come down on the eastern side of the grounds, we decided to head back up through the middle of the park to see the big attractions, such as the Temple of the Dragon King and the Tower of the Fragrant Buddha.
Yes, those are real names. The Summer Palace (formerly the Garden of Clear Ripples) is awesome like that.
We had been warned that major tourist destinations would be very busy on the weekend with out-of-town Chinese tourists exploring their national heritage, which is why we left the Great Wall for Monday (and saw the Forbidden City on a Saturday, when many people are still working). We had assumed that the Summer Palace was a lesser attraction, and would therefore not be too crowded on a Sunday.
Up until this point, we had enjoyed the illusion of being correct. We were disabused of this notion upon arriving at the south entrance, which abuts Kunming Lake (which covers over half of the grounds of the Summer Palace). It was much more popular than the north entrance through which we had entered. The place was swarming with people.
The Missus made a trip to the loo (which was amazing in its own right – it came complete with waiting area and gift shop), so Kat found an unoccupied area of lakeside stone and snacked on some popcorn.
We regrouped, ate some hot dogs, and wandered off towards the Spacious Pavilion, which guards the entrance to the Seventeen-Arches Bridge, which is itself the major causeway to the Temple of the Dragon King (which is on an island near the middle of Kunming Lake).
As it happens, the Temple of the Dragon King looked more-or-less like every other building we have seen so far, despite its awesome name and religious significance to the Emperors of old. It was, however, the spot where people grabbed boats across the lake, which just so happened to be where we wanted to go.
We made our way across the lake. From our boat we could spy our destination, the Tower of the Fragrant Buddha. The Tower is located on top of the Hill of Longevity in the centre of the Summer Palace complex. It is also the central attraction; not only is it the tallest building in the Summer Palace, it also houses a number of major Buddhist shrines.
We were running short of time, and desperately wanted to see the Tower of the Fragrant Buddha in person, so we marched straight there double-quick. However, since that moment is now past and we are strolling through the altogether-more-leisurely lanes of memory, I will stop at this time to tell you about two figures that kept popping up on the informational plates and exhibits throughout the Summer Palace.
First was the repeated mention of the Anglo-French allied forces burning down various buildings in 1860. The information signs were generally fairly blasé about this, merely pointing out that the buildings had been burned down and then they had been rebuilt. Nevertheless, it was hard to find a building that had not fallen under the harsh (if impeccably tailored) boot of the Anglo-French forces.
Second was the lionizing of Empress Dowager Cixi, who did (or at least ordered) the rebuilding of all of those burned buildings so that she could repose in style during Beijing’s scorching summers. She sounds like quite the lady, and whoever it was who put the exhibits together seemed to be quite a fan of her. The Imperial Navy, on the other hand, was less fond of Cixi, as she used nearly their entire budget to rebuild the ravaged Summer Palace.
The Navy was of the opinion that they ought to get at least one ship, being as their fleet had recently been reduced to a pile of driftwood. The Empress Dowager Cixi, having a wacky sense of humour, did build them a boat. Out of marble.
Anyways, we made our way to the Tower of the Fragrant Buddha. The journey itself was pretty intense, as it featured bridges, squares, and stairs cutting back and forth across the lake-facing side of the tower.
Once we had climbed the tower we arrived at a shrine with a statue of the Guanyin Buddha. Guanyin is also known as the Goddess of Mercy. In one legend, in an attempt to free everyone from reincarnation, her head and arms were shattered only to be reformed into eleven heads and a thousand new arms. The shrine attempted to capture this form of Guanyin.
The Tower of the Fragrant Buddha is built into the side of a large hill, so when we left the shrine through the back door we found ourselves on a rolling hill with more shrines and buildings. There was also a popsicle vendor selling his wares at a rate of about 50¢ each. We each bought one, and could not place the taste initially – they were sweet, in a sort of flavourless way. I concluded that they were probably just frozen sugar-water. Regardless, they were a welcome reprieve.
I’ll admit that the popsicles don’t make a very interesting shot, so here are some more picturesque buildings for you:
Behind the tower was a small shrine with hundreds of little buddhas inset into the walls. Inside were three much larger buddhas. This was apparently a central site of worship, and it once housed thousands of miniature masterpieces along the walls and ceilings. Most of these were destroyed by the Anglo-French forces.
As I noted earlier, most of the informational signs located throughout the Summer Palace seemed to take the damage caused by the Anglo-French forces in stride. This exhibit’s signs did not – they described the damage as “savage” and “terrible”. In addition to the somewhat more caustic signage, there was a lady who was very aggressively enforcing the “no photos” policy, meaning that I can only give you a snapshot of the exterior.
There was a pile of rocks nearby with a great view and a mass of “Do not climb” signs clustered around it. So, naturally, we climbed it.
Our time at the Summer Palace drew to a close. We meandered our way through the gardens, saw a few adorable sights, and left the compound.
Upon leaving the Summer Palace we were surprised to discover a small concert just outside the palace gates. We paused for a few minutes to take in the sounds. We took some photos, but a video really seemed more appropriate.
I should note here that The Missus has been playing a little game since she arrived in Shanghai. You see, Kat has a habit of running ahead to see the next thing, and The Missus has a habit of staying behind to frame a certain shot just so. As a result, The Missus often ends up a little ways behind Kat. She does not, however, have any troubles locating her errant companion.
And thus “Where in China is Kat?” was born. The Missus would like you to know that you may begin playing the Carmen Sandiego theme song in your head now. Anyways, it goes like this:
There are quite a lot of these photos, and I intend to make a Facebook album of them at some point. This one in particular is one of my personal favourites.
Feeling quite satisfied with our day at the Summer Palace, we resolved to find another restaurant that Kat had read about. This one was a vegetarian place run by a group of Buddhist monks, which sounded pretty great. Unfortunately, we sought, but did not find. We even asked, but the location of delicious vegetarian eats was not given to us. No monks’ doors were knocked on, and thus none were opened to us.
I’m pretty sure that my Dad is the only person who will laugh at that. For the rest of you, let’s continue on.
We ended up finding a place that looked nice and had signage solely in Chinese. We figured going to a place that catered to locals might be a fun and adventurous way to cap off the day. We lucked out, as they had a server who spoke enough English to get by, and their menu had large photos for each dish. We were in for a surprise though, as the place turned out to deal in Hunan cuisine.
It was a hot-pot place, to be specific. Kat hadn’t been too crazy about the hot-pot at the previous place, so she walked in with low expectations. The Missus and I saw the meat in the menus and fell for the place instantly.
I do not know whether you are familiar with Hunan cuisine. It is very spicy. Now, let me give you some context. My father is Jamaican, and through that lineage I have acquired enough of a tolerance to make it through most dishes. Although we asked for “no spice”, all our server was able to do was get us the least spicy hotpot on the burner. It was the spiciest thing I have ever eaten. My tongue gained sentience solely for the purpose of being angry with me.
But the lamb was delicious, so I ate it anyways. So did Kat and The Missus, both of whom had previously professed an intense dislike for spicy food. Kat found that she actually liked the spicy food, which was a startling revelation for her. The Missus, on the other hand, hated every bite, and continued on purely out of stubbornness.
Luckily for The Missus, we spotted her discomfort and moved her on to the unspiced meats that had been served alongside the lava-infused lamb in the hot pot. She enjoyed that much more – cooking the meats in the hot pot did not seem to give them the same spiciness that the lamb had, which gave The Missus a chance to enjoy her meal too.
We were also served some short, dense, uncooked noodles with our meal. I found that they were stretchy, pulled at one a bit and tossed it in a pot. Spying my ineptitude, one of the servers came over and stretched out our noodles for us. It was quite the display.
Kat nabbed one of the unstretched noodles just before the server came over, so she got to follow suit with her very own noodle. The Missus did not grab one in time.
We finished our dinner, each of us feeling full and satisfied. Although Kat and The Missus had been hoping to have enough time for a foot massage after dinner (and, indeed, had been hoping this for the last several nights), we found that it was very late and we were quite tired. We resolved to go back to the hotel and go to sleep.
Tomorrow we storm the Great Wall.