The China Monologues 四 The Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven

Monday arrived and bright and early too, as we were off the Great Wall so needed to be up early to try and get there as soon as possible. Lots of hotels and tourist companies in Beijing offer planned trips to the Wall for up to 200 yuan, but they’re not really our thing as I think going by yourself is much better as you’re less restricted and can spend as much or as little time as you want somewhere.

IMG_0755Helpfully, a colleague told me to follow the advice of this website but with the caveat that it seemed correct, but he used it a couple of years ago the train times could be out of date by now. Thinking it wise to check, we asked in our hotel and the kind lady advised even that we needn’t go to Beijing North station as the website said, but instead from Beijing Train Station itself. She didn’t know when the train left.

Thankful for the up-to-date information, we headed at quarter to eight to Beijing Train Station (you can probably tell where this is headed), only to be told “hah! don’t be ridiculous, you can’t get to the Great Wall from here! you need Beijing North station!” [their English was surprisingly advanced in a city where not much was spoken at all]. In a rage of fury, we headed back for the metro to head now half an hour away to the station we’d originally thought of and in fear of missing the train.

IMG_0774Having arrived at Beijing North, and directed from the subterranean ticket office to the overground one, we were told that we had in fact just missed the train, but we were welcome to wait for the next one; some one hour and fifty minutes later. Needless to say we were not happy bunnies. I don’t think either of us do the “forgive and forget” thing that well, and we spent the day cursing the dozy bint from the hotel and giving her evils every time we saw her in the hotel afterwards.

We didn’t really wish to just sit around and waste 2 hours when we had other things we wanted to see, so we decided to flip our remaining plans and head to the Emperors’ Summer Palace instead, as now in the north we were over that side of the city.

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The Summer Palace was really beautiful. In days of yore, the Emperors used to head out to there in the summer when Beijing becomes an oven (though it also seemed a bit warmer there now in the winter when it is a freezer), as it sits upon the top of Longevity hill and overlooks the huge Kunming lake. It generally seemed a nicer place to hang out, and though the living area was much smaller than the Forbidden City, the environment seemed a much better one in which to live (though maybe in the 21st century that just meant there was less smog). Parts of it seemed literally built into the rock face.

Sitting atop the highest point of the hill was the nicely named Tower of Buddhist Incense, the focal point of the view of the Palace from the lake. We didn’t get round the other side of the lake to see it ourselves from there, but there are some nice pictures on Google.

IMG_0790Although it was as bare now as the Forbidden City is, I got a much better feel for what it would have been like to live there from the little paths and steps round the rocks, though the Emperors must have been fit (or had very fit eunuchs to carry him around) as some of the routes were steep! It also didn’t seem to be as well maintained as the Forbidden City had been, which was a shame.

After some noodles for lunch, we decided to move on from the Summer Palace and head to the opposite side of the city to the Temple of Heaven. From almost the most northwestern point of the metro map to a station in the south took about 40 minutes, and gave us a chance to thoroughly warm up, and we’d almost thawed out completely by the time we arrived and had to head into the cold again.

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There’s not really much to say about the Temple of Heaven; it was beautiful to look at in its own little courtyard, and was surrounded by a park which wasn’t too amazing. Walking up the steps, trying to get a look inside was like the scrums in getting to the front of the lunch queue at school: there was a distinct selfishness and thoughtlessness in trying to get a view of anything in China, which is also true in Hong Kong. The mindset of “as long as I’m alright, sod the rest of you” seems to pervade, and people were barging women, young kids and old men out of the way just so they could get a view of whatever might be inside themselves. It was particularly true also at the Forbidden City in trying to get a look inside the buildings. Would it really be that difficult just to have a line if people wanted to look inside?

IMG_0808We returned to the hotel for a quick lie down and to glare at the woman who had misinformed us the previous night: sadly she wasn’t on duty. In the evening, we were eager to try some more Chinese food (at the Olympic Park, the only place we could find which was open was the golden arches), and settled on some hotpot. Unlike British hotpot, a bubbling urn of broth is brought to your table into which you dip whatsoever you wish (or more likely whatever comes to your table after you’ve bungled through an order pointing at pictures), wait for it to boil then try and take it from the urn to your bowl without dropping it all over the table. Basically sitting in front of a boiling pot on the stove and picking out bits when they’re done. It was much more appetising than I’ve made it sound, and after a long day in the cold also very warming and well received.

Tomorrow we would rise again early for our second attempt at making it to the Great Wall.

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