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.

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Retired Australian Lawyer having worked representing the innocent and the not so innocent in Australia and some of the remote parts of the world and having travelled widely through Europe, Western Russia, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Thailand Malaysia Solomon Islands northern China, Hong Kong and the UAE So now that I have the time I am writing about my travels present and past. Hope you enjoy exploring off the beaten track.