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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Memorializing Beijing, Part 1

Our bed at the Bamboo Garden 竹园宾馆

This past Memorial Day weekend saw us in Bĕījing 北京, China’s capital, for the second time since we arrived in this country last summer. Unlike our first visit, this time we flew there from Shànghăi 上海, landing on Friday night at the city’s lesser-used Nányuàn Airport 南苑机场, where our hotel was a long taxi ride through crowded streets away. Saturday morning brought rain and chillier-than-expected temperatures, but the weather didn’t hamper our enthusiasm as we took the Metro to one of Beijing’s more popular sightseeing attractions, the Summer Palace 颐和园.

Formerly the hot weather respite locale for Chinese emperors, the Summer Palace was a royal garden that took on its more lavish form during the reign of Emperor Qianlong 乾隆帝in the 18th century. The palace was pretty much razed to the ground by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, as virtually every signboard in the park reminded visitors in Chinese, English and Japanese. The notorious Empress Dowager Cíxĭ 慈禧太后 used money earmarked to modernize China’s navy to instead rebuild her summer playground. Today, the bridges, corridors, lakes, pavilions and temples bring in the sightseers by the busloads. We entered the palace through the relatively quiet North Palace Gate, crossing over an area known as Sūzhōu Street 苏州街, to which we would return later on our way out:

Cixi’s marble boat 清晏船, an amazing F-you gesture to those desperate to bring China’s navy up to then-modern standards. Spectacular it may be, but it didn’t do much to stave off China’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-5:

Amber dresses up as a Manchu ᠮᠠᠨᠵᡠ princess:

The Long Corridor 长廊, decorated with colorful paintings:

Behind the Long Corridor sits Longevity Hill 万寿山, home to the Cloud Dispelling Hall 排云殿, which obviously was failing to do its job on the day we visited:

Here, Cixi sat and admired her birthday presents from Chinese nobles and foreign dignitaries:

Amber during a rare break from the crowds:

A corridor connects the Cloud Dispelling Hall with the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion 佛香阁

At the top of Longevity Hill sits the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom 智慧海. The view from there takes in Kūnmíng Lake 昆明湖, including South Lake Island南湖岛 and its 17-arch bridge龙王桥:

Leaving the temple, we made our way along the top of Longevity Hill toward the Summer Palace’s most popular building, the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity 仁寿殿, conveniently located near to where the tour buses pull up to disgorge their loads. Cixi took a load off there, making her hardwood throne a must-photograph item with the Chinese visitors:

Another must is the griffin statue:

Nearby sits the Palace of Virtue and Harmony, featuring a three-story theater. Various performances were being held on the stage:

The three of us later took a stroll along the lake, crossing the aforementioned 17-arch bridge over to the also-aforementioned South Lake Island, whose Dragon King Temple龙王庙 was unfortunately closed for renovations:

We then took a boat back across the water to Longevity Hill:

On our way out of the Summer Palace, we walked down the steps to Suzhou Street, a riverside area filled with souvenir shops:

It was a nice spot to take a break and enjoy an Arctic Ocean orange soda:

Like so many other places in China, the Summer Palace occupies a huge area, far too big to explore in one day. Size matters in this country. Still, what we were able to see was worthwhile, despite the crowds. Less worthy was the area around Qiánhăi Lake, filled with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops…and people:

Dinner ended up being at an overpriced Vietnamese restaurant:

All in all, however, it was a successful first day in Beijing. Tomorrow would bring about the Wall…

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