Beijing. What, All Of It?

23rd September 2017

The Bird's Nest stadium is still impressiveLonely Planet’s guide to Beijing has a nice little walking tour around one of Beijing’s hutongs – the traditional districts of the city that comprise a warren of courtyard homes linked by narrow alleyways. LP intend this to be a main activity for the day – afterwards, relax have a coffee or do some shopping. That isn’t our style. Yesterday we went to the Great Wall and tomorrow we are going to see the Forbidden City, so today is our day to see everything else in Beijing. I think Janet is taking that instruction literally.

A peek through the doorway in a hutong homeThe Nanluogu Xiang hutong is supposedly Beijing’s most famous and has the homes of generals and a wife of China’s last emperor (remember Qing dynasty lasted until 1911). The entrance to the hutong is surprisingly busy but, less surprisingly, most tourists just stick to the main street (which seems to consist just of the usual tourist shops). Following LP’s instructions, we zigzag down the side streets looking out for the doorways and statues mentioned in the guide. As we wander round, some of the things that we have learned on this trip come back to us – the more electricity meters there are in a entrance-way, the more families live in that house; male lion statues have a (power) ball under their right foot. Though we weren’t sure as to the significance of the drum stones outside some houses.

So that would be 10 families here thenIt was hard to understand the significance of the hutong – other than that is a traditional style of housing and that they are disappearing as Beijing is redeveloped. The streets were narrow and largely unadorned and the houses were made of grey stone that lent a sombre air to the place. Most of the courtyards had their entrances closed and so we weren’t able to see inside. Even the hopes of a coffee at the Irresistible Café or a beer at Great Leap Brewing were thwarted as there was no sign of life at either of these places.

Not much demand for the bicycle rickshawsAs we exit the hutong, we see the bicycle rickshaw drivers lined up and touting for business. They look bored and, although we do see a handful of tourists riding around in them, under utilised. We have no interest whatsoever and head on towards Drum & Bell Square. No prizes for guessing what we find here. Beijing’s Bell & Drum towers are smaller and less impressive – but closer together than their equivalents in Xi’an. I wonder if this is because Beijing is a more recent capital of China than Xi’an and so the towers are more ceremonial / symbolic than functional?

Standing by the Bell Tower looking at the Drum TowerWhatever, we still have a lot to see today and so decide against going in either and content ourselves with a couple of holiday snaps in the square separating the two. As we were on the train going to Badaling yesterday, we caught a brief glimpse of the Bird’s Nest stadium and were reminded that the Olympics were a thing in Beijing. So, it is off to the nearest metro station for a train to the Olympic park.

Getting ready for something at the Bird's Nest

Strange creatures at the Olympic ParkOne of my most vivid memories of the London Olympics is of walking around a deserted Olympic Park in the sunshine the week before the games opened. There was a tangible feeling of readiness and excitement for the Games that turned out to be justified. These memories come back as we walk down the main boulevard of Beijing’s equivalent. The stadium is being cleaned or painted – I suspect that this is a never-ending job such is the complexity. Alternatively, as there is some sort of display being set up, it may be for the Communist Party jamboree that is happening in a month or two’s time.

As with London, the Olympic Park is bigAs in London, the Olympic Park is huge and as luck would have it, the metro station we want to get us to the Summer Palace is at the other end of it. Fortunately Janet is wearing her fitness band, so all of the steps count. Even better, there is a small shopping mall on the way to the station and so we’re able to grab a bite of lunch (in a Costa Coffee as it turns out). Lonely Planet describes the Summer Palace as being as mandatory a Beijing sight as the Great Wall or Forbidden City and that it merit’s an entire day’s exploration. With hindsight, this might have been a better approach as I suspect we crammed too much in to the day and left too little time or energy to appreciate what we were seeing.

At least they chose a good location & aren't taking selfies!Whilst the Olympic Park was largely empty of tourists, it was back to the reality of China with a thud as we join the crowds at the entrance of the Summer Palace. The label ‘Summer Palace’ applies both to a specific building as well as to the large park and lake that it is set in. The palace was developed as a place for emperors to escape the heat of Beijing with the palace building and assorted Buddhist temples set on Longevity Hill at the north end of the lake. LP recommends doing a circuit of the lake – for the views, the workout and (crucially) to get away from the crowds.

Beautiful decorations on the roofsHere the flaw in our plan is apparent. We’ve already done a lot of walking today, we’re getting tired and running out of time. So, instead of enjoying a quiet stroll around the lake we have to join the crowds at the main attractions in the grounds. The palace and temple buildings are impressive enough and looking at the views out over the lake we can appreciate why the location was chosen – while remembering how exclusive the view would have been back in imperial times. In hindsight, it would probably have been better to reverse our agenda for today and come here first – beating the crowd and having more time to appreciate the park.

Better the marble boat than the tourist oneWalking on down the hill, by the shore of the lake are huge ponds full of (presumably) lotus plants – when we were in Kunming, the last of the lotus blossoms were out. Also, “moored” up against the shore is a large marble boat. I’m not entirely sure of the point of this latter, but I’d far rather spend time on this than on any of the myriad tourist boat that are criss-crossing the lake – though taking the ferry to the other side of the lake would be one way to see more of the park.

One of many temples (and lotus ponds)The Summer Palace itself sits at the bottom of the hill just in front of the lake, and here the crowds are back with a vengeance. There only seems to be one path from the palace entrance along the front of the lake. This is especially so if you want to walk along a section of the Long Corridor admiring the paintings that adorn the wooden archways along its length. Very impressive, but it acts like a funnel compressing people into the passageway. We wouldn’t enjoy this at the best of times but we’re getting tired after all the walking today and it really isn’t any fun at all. There is little option other than to mooch along at the speed of the crowd and try to work our way toward the exit.

A good spread in the Japanese restaurantIt is definitely beer o’clock by the time we get back to our hotel and catch up with Chris & Paul. Chris seems to have had a lazy day (he has been to the Forbidden City before) but Paul has just spent 7 hours there and taken a ridiculous number of photographs. Over dinner – back to our new favourite shopping mall and choosing a Japanese restaurant this time – we swap notes on the highlights of our day and quiz Paul as to what we should be sure to see on our visit to the Forbidden City tomorrow.

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