February 7th, 2012
The Summer Palace + Jingshan Park
We jumped on the metro for the Summer Palace. After a quick transfer (Subway Line 1 to Line 4) and a 40 minute journey, we concluded that personal space was obviously defined differently in Beijing. Avoid travelling around morning rush hour on the subway because I was simultaneously the big spoon and the little spoon for a significant portion of the trip. Luckily most passengers had no intentions of traveling to our destination and there were ample space midway through our metro ride. Once we arrived at Beigongmen station, aka the north gate of Summer Palace, it only took a few minutes to reach the admission gate. Today was incidentally the Lantern Festival (last day of the 15-day lunar New Year celebration) and many parts of the city were decorated with bright red paper lanterns. It had been almost a decade since I last celebrated Chinese New Year in any capacity (even longer for my wife, if ever) so it was pleasant to experience some bonus cultural excitement.
Upon entry to the Summer Palace we were greeted by hundreds of sizeable lanterns overhead. This imperial summer retreat/garden was gigantic and we didn’t want to spend an entire day there, so we decided to limit our visit strictly to the northern and eastern portions where most structures were concentrated (yet still a healthy distance to cover). We were visiting a summer retreat in the middle of winter: the central Kunming Lake was frozen solid and the temperature was a few degrees below anyone’s comfort (it was really the wind that bothered me the most… even with face-shields).
One of the main attractions in the summer palace was the Tower of Buddhist Incense (aka Foxiangge) located at the top of Longevity Hill. At the top we were treated to a wonderful panoramic view of the entire Kunming Lake along with various structures that surrounded the lake. I was even more impressed at the view upon being informed that Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill were entirely man-made centuries ago without the aid of machineries. The architecture style of the Summer Palace was similar to Temple of the Heavenly where these wooden structures were painted in a mix of harmonious red, blue, and green. The Tower of Buddhist Incense was an engineering marvel considering the height of the structure and the material used to reach such height (wood). In addition, the entire complex also doubled as an ancient art exhibit because each overhead beam was decorated with an unique painting (there must’ve been thousands of beams). The meticulous artwork, the ingenious engineering, and the grand landscaping propelled this ancient imperial retreat onto the UNESCO heritage list. However, this structure also represented a painful chapter in Chinese history because this extravagant palace was built from diversion of military funds which eventually led to the successful occupation of China by the Eight-Nation Alliance.
As we descended from Longevity Hill we reached the Long Corridor by the lake (aka Changlang/ Long Gallery). Continuing the architecture style of the Summer Palace, Long Corridor also featured countless colored paintings on overhead cross-beams each depicting an unique tale. We continued down the corridor and there were only a handful of other tourists (a perk when visiting during winter months I suppose) until we reached another symbol of frivolous spending: A marble pavilion constructed to imitate a two-story boat. We were getting hungry by that point so we exited out of the closest gate (east gate). To our surprise it was a 15-20 minute walk from the east gate to the closest metro station (Xiyuan station) and unfortunately there were no restaurants along the way… By the time we traveled back into the city center and had our empty stomach filled, there were only a couple hours of daylight remaining.
Instead of visiting the Forbidden City, I had done some research the night before and many people had recommended Jingshan park which was adjacent to the Forbidden City. Jingshan Park offered a fantastic 360 degree view of Beijing including the imperial palace… once again we traveled by public transit and we found not only were Beijing buses efficient, navigating on the bus was a breeze as well (there was a display in both Chinese and English indicating the next stop). Once we arrived at Jingshan Park (and of course after another small entrance fee… nothing is free in Beijing) it was clear where we should go: up the hill.
Jingshan Park was originally an imperial garden (and part of the Forbidden City) and had since been repatriated to Beijing’s citizens. We saw a group of locals practicing taichi and line dancing; It seemed synchronized activities such as line dancing/morning stretches are popular in Beijing because during our brief visit we encountered many such activities practiced en masse. As we powered up the hill there was a gazebo 3/4 up the hill with an amazing view of the modern Beijing with its skyscrapers, and a short distance from the gazebo was the main lookout. By pure luck we arrived at the lookout around sunset where the sun casted its warm gentle glow over the entire city including the Forbidden City in the foreground (I will let the pictures do the talking). We concluded our day surrounded by sporadic fireworks as locals celebrated the conclusion of Chinese New Year and festivities radiated throughout the city.