The Retirees Invade China – Day Three – The Summer Palace, The Pandas and the Hutongs

Kerry is not well and needs to rest but insists I carry the flag, so I meet the bus as scheduled and we head for the Summer Palace. Everything is an hour plus in the bus. The hotel is well out of town and the traffic is always horrendous. So after sitting in traffic we arrive. The Summer Palace, is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces. Mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, it covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres three-quarters of which is water.

Longevity Hill is about 60 metres (200 feet) high and has many buildings positioned in sequence. The front hill is rich with splendid halls and pavilions, while the back hill, in sharp contrast, is quiet with natural beauty. The central Kunming Lake, covering 2.2 square kilometres (540 acres), was entirely man-made and the excavated soil was used to build Longevity Hill. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.

Just as the Forbidden City has the political and the pleasurable pavilions so it is with the Summer Palace. Built in the Qing Dynasty it is only 200 years old but continues in the Ming style. The reversed position of the Phoenix and the Dragon comes about because of a female regent exercising her power. The horned beast is a stylised fertility beast outside of the throne room.

As we walked around the grounds we found several senior citizens practising their calligraphy which is said to be very therapeutic. The lake is the feature along with a covered walkway with paintings depicting Chinese history. The visit over we walked back to the bus which had found a park some distance away. On our way, to find the bus and travel to the Zoo, I found another group of Chinese electric cars and their electric bike.

This is Sunday and parents are visiting the Zoo with their children. Cars park 4 deep from the gutter to off load the family whilst Dad seeks a car park so the bottleneck is again horrendous. Finally, we are offloaded and Eddie goes to buy our tickets – he must have known a man because he seemed to get to the top of the queue very quickly. So, in we go. We are here to see the Pandas – nothing else. Eddie knows the short cut to the Panda trail and the three pavilions built for the Olympics and the Asian games. Fortunately, Pandas are very sedate and it was easy to get photos but that day the China Daily carried an article about a wild Panda that attacked and devoured a goat. Are Pandas China’s great white shark????

Eddie then organised a visit to Yandai Byway (also known as Smoking Pipe Lane). There were stores selling tobacco bags and smoking utensils which led to the name “Yandai Byway” after the large wooden sculpture of a large tobacco bag at the eastern end of the street. You can still find the old image of the store now.

Our main purpose was to visit the Hutong lanes. Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with Beijing. Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning “water well” and Hutongs were part of the Ming dynasty town planning on a class basis. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods.

Since the mid-20th century, a large number of Beijing hutongs were demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, many hutongs have been designated as protected, in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. We walked through the alleys to a hutong which had been owned by its present family down through the generations. Along the way, we encountered more of the small electric cars that seem to be do popular as well as some of the past history of bicycles. After many turns and walking past the public ablutions (hutongs share a communal toilet block which does not have any walls or partitions so you get to know your neighbours intimately) we arrive at the front door of the hutong we are to visit.

Inside the court yard we met the eldest son in the parents’ room to hear the history of the hutong, and then check out the remaining rooms. Beijing has now introduced laws to retain the history of these residences.

We finished off the day with a rickshaw ride/race, the drivers must have the best legs with single gear bikes towing two larger Australians and no brakes other than the soles of his shoes. He also had to contend with traffic of all kinds – wheel chairs motor scooters cars and pedestrians.

The Retirees Invade China – Day Two – The Jade Factory, the Great Wall and The Forbidden Palace

The next morning was an early start. One thing we were learning about this tour was that the itinerary was flexible according to Eddie which meant what you expected rarely happened. So, we were expecting to go to the Great Wall but Eddie wanted to go to the Jade Factory firstly. Eddie is very fond of Jade in all its shades and hues and was very chuffed that China included Jade in all the medals awarded to athletes in the Games and the Disability Games.

So, he took us to the factory that made the medals. The factory was nothing to look at but inside we were warmly greeted by Monica (not her real name) who showed us the cubicle where the craftsmen carved the jade to time honoured patterns. Then she took us into the showroom to see their wares and put the bite on us tourists. It was very interesting to hear the reason for the popularity of jade amongst the Chinese, how to distinguish the real from the fake and what a good investment it was. Monica chased us around the show room until she finally got the idea we were not buying. As we were departing I noticed a forlorn group of Chinese and went to visit them. No wonder they were forlorn there was a bear amongst them. Buddha was happy though.

The bus chugged out the gate and slowly climbed to the tourist stop for the Great Wall. Now I had been to the Wall (but at a different location) in 1998, so I knew what to expect but still I was surprised by the steepness of the hills then some of the segments of the Wall along the way and finally the section we were going to climb and looked at it wondering how far I would get on that hill. We gathered at a coffee shop below Fortress No 7. We commenced our climb and Kerry had to turn back – her left foot still troubles her. In the photos, you can see Fortresses 8,9, and 10. Fortress 7 can be made out in one photo in the bottom left hand corner. I made it to Fortress 9 and the photos will tell you what I saw going up when I got to Fortress 9 and coming down – note the ice on the steps and that some fool put a pagoda on top of the opposite hill.

Returning was quite difficult due to the ice and the steepness of the stairs but I made it in one piece. I met up with Kerry at the coffee shop talking to fellow tourist Polly. A chance to sit down and take in a hot cup of coffee. Some of the younger ones made it to Fortress 10 and beyond but I was very happy with my achievement.

The morning was not finished yet. Eddie had line up the Cloisonne workshop and restaurant. Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments to the metal object by soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. In antiquity, the cloisonné technique was mostly used for jewellery and small fittings for clothes, weapons or similar small objects decorated with geometric or schematic designs, with thick cloison walls. In the Byzantine Empire techniques using thinner wires were developed to allow more pictorial images to be produced, mostly used for religious images and jewellery, and by then always using enamel. By the 14th century this enamel technique had spread to China, where it was soon used for much larger vessels such as bowls and vases; the technique remains common in China to the present day, and cloisonné enamel objects using Chinese-derived styles were produced in the West from the 18th century. Eddie arranged a guided tour for us before shuffling us upstairs to another Chinese banquet.

Our appetites sated, Eddie determined we would return to the Forbidden City to see what we had missed out on. Along the route, we passed at speed an unusual building which I photographed poorly but which I have included here because of its strange appearance. We were dropped off a few streets away from the Forbidden City due to the parking problems, and after walking for 15 mins arrived back at the moat and the southern gate to the Forbidden City – Gate of the Divine Might. Of course, we could not enter there but has to walk around to the Eastern Gate – East Glorious Gate where we had left off yesterday.

Inside the inner walls, we encountered the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the Emperor held court received envoys and important persons and generally lorded it over everyone. We followed the meridian through to the Palace of Heavenly Purity where the Emperor resided, spotted the Buddhist White Pagoda where Marco Polo was first received in the 12th century, into the Imperial Garden and then out the gate and onto the street from where we could see the temple where the last Ming Emperor hung himself as the Manchus pillaged and burned Beijing before taking the throne and creating the last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty.

I thought we were at last going home but wait there is more. Another “5 min” walk that turned into 15 or 20 mins to the Chinese Academy of Medicine where we were treated to a lesson on herbal remedies a 20-minute foot bath followed by a massage and the hard sell to buy some of the remedies. Kerry was not fairing very well and had sat out the revisiting to the Forbidden City and desperately wanted to go the hotel. So after travelling to the restaurant for dinner we persuaded Eddie to call us a cab and we travelled back to the hotel and room service.

The Retirees Invade China – Day One – Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City

One thing the travel itinerary did not tell us was how much walking was involved. The bus could never park where we intended to go but some distance from the site and we had to hoof it there. Such was the case with the Forbidden Palace. Now everyone knows the Palace is accessed from Tiananmen Square (not true and I will tell you why – keep reading).

We left the restaurant and we were dropped off near the Square. It has changed a bit since I was there in 1998 so it took me some time to work out that it had been fenced off with a security check installed so you cannot get to the Square without a security check. Unbeknown to everyone an American tourist had been caught with a bullet in his pocket trying to enter the Square and this caused a tizz. There were multiple queues 150 people long and it took an hour of waiting in line to get through so that we could cross to the Square.

From the queue, we could see the Forbidden City and Chairman Mao’s picture on its outer wall. Once in the Square we saw the Column acknowledging all the ordinary people who sacrificed to bring about the new China, Mao’s mausoleum the National Congress Building the National Museum of China and the outer wall to the Forbidden City.

On passing through the outer wall you realise that there were a number of other external walls which have been pulled down over time and all that remains to tell this is the meridian – the central path that runs through the city joining up the random bits that remain of the once mighty walls of the city.

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912. It now houses the Palace Museum. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government for almost 500 years.

Constructed from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings with 8,886 bays of rooms and covers 72 ha (over 180 acres). The Forbidden City is a rectangle, with 961 metres from north to south and 753 metres from east to west. The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum, whose extensive collection of artwork and artefacts were built upon the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties. We passed through the inner wall and were confronted with a fenced off entrance to the Imperial Palace – the long delay at the security check meant we were too late to visit the Forbidden City.

However, I took photos of the buildings and the architecture which included the sign which I think says Gate of Supreme Harmony.

We left by the eastern gate called East Glorious Gate and outside found remnants of the old moat. At the four corners of the wall sit towers with intricate roofs boasting 72 ridges, reproducing the Pavilion of Prince Teng and the Yellow Crane Pavilion. These towers are the most visible parts of the palace to commoners outside the walls. We walked along an unknown street following Eddie’s yellow flag supposedly a long walk back to the bus which changed to a long walk to “5th Avenue” and a long wait for dinner. The walk allowed us to see more of the old Beijing until we hit 5th Avenue when it all changed and we were in down town New York except everything was in Chinese. We also saw some interesting street art but fled to McDonald’s for warmth and a cup of coffee where we met the “Little Rabbit “. She and her mother sat beside us and her mother allowed us this photo.

Finally, Eddie returned to take us to dinner. We catch the bus for the shortest bus trip of the tour thus far to our restaurant for dinner.  As we get out of the bus, there in front of us is Wangfujing Catholic Church. It was originally named after Joseph, the father of Jesus Christ, as ‘Saint Joseph’s Church. As we walk along I encounter one of the scooters with the cold weather enhancement seen all over Beijing, Dinner was pretty good – five Star restaurant and we left very satisfied for a long ride to our hotel through some traffic snags and I began to realise the Chinese driver is very patient driver to go through this each day. Our trip took us past one of the Olympic Games site all of which was illuminated against the night sky. We also saw the huge growth in apartments that was to be repeated everywhere we went.

The Retirees Invade China – Day One – Temple of Heaven

The following morning, we meet all our fellow travellers – 23 of us altogether. Our first tour was to the Temple of Heaven. However, the trip on the way gave us some surprises. Firstly, we saw the Olympic rings above the city, the Birds Nest and the Pool cube some mysterious totems and as always new innovations on the traditional motorbike. Beijing is now full of man – made canals and most were partly frozen.

The temple is surrounded by walls and until the revolution was only accessed by the Emperor. Inside the walls are gardens with various bits and pieces one being the Seven Star Stones. During the Ming Emperor Jiajing’s Reign, seven gigantic pacifying stones were placed to the southeast of the Great Hall of Sacrifice. These are stones with motifs of mountains engraved on them, not the meteors as the hearsay goes, symbolizing the seven peaks of the Taishan Mountains. After the Manchus came to the throne in central China, in order to show that the Manchu is one of the nationalities in China, Emperor Qianlong issued an edict for another stone to be placed in the direction of the northeast, meaning the Chinese nation is a big family and the country is unified. Interestingly this is also the site of China’s biggest dating agency – all the grandparents meet to exchange photos of their grandchildren and try to match them up with future partners because they are too busy to look for themselves. At least that is the explanation given for the crowd of grandparents congregating at the Seven-Star Stones by our guide Eddie.

The Temple of Heaven was built in the Ming Dynasty (AD 1420) by the emperor Zhu Di in the royal garden. Once a year, at winter solstice, the emperors came here to worship Heaven and to solemnly pray for a good harvest.

The design of the Temple of Heaven is complex, and reflects the mystical cosmological laws believed to be central to the workings of the universe. Both the overall arrangement and the buildings themselves reflect the relationship between sky and earth, the core of understanding of the Universe at that time.

The Temple is made up of various buildings including the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the interior twenty-eight columns are divided into four central pillars to represent the seasons, twelve inner columns to represent the months, and twelve outer columns to represent the two – hour sections that make up a day. There are many such examples of this intense numerology at play. Another interesting fact is that the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is built completely without nails.

I took plenty of photos including one of the locals playing dress up.

After a hard morning’s work we were scheduled to have lunch at Beijing’s best Peking Duck restaurant (Eddies’ words not mine). We boarded the bus and travelled deep into the heart of the city with the bus pulling up on a roundabout and discharging us to fight our way to the restaurant which was cleverly camouflaged as a building site. Another motorbike innovation sat out the front – the Peking Duck takeaways delivery van. You want to know the name of this restaurant – see below. We had the joy of watching the chefs cut up two ducks and fortunately there was other food to supplement this meagre amount of Peking Duck. I don’t know whether it was good or not – I hate duck.