A Canadian in Beijing: Being a Tourist at the Summer Palace

I’ve been here for six weeks now and I’ve barely been a tourist. I’ve never been much of a tourist, really, seeing as most of my travelling has been related to my music (i.e. work), but I did imagine that I would do more “tourist-y” things while here in Beijing than I have. That dawned on me this week when I realized that I am half-way through my trip and I have yet to take the bus just ten minutes down the road to check out a major tourist attraction and historic landmark:

The Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan Gong Yuan)

Today, my friend David and I hopped the #726 bus from outside of the university and we headed for the site with cameras in hand. I slathered on the sunscreen (despite the hazy skies) and we geared up to be tourists for once, agreeing to rent the self-guided tour headsets and buy the tourist guides. I even declared that this would be the first occasion that I would buy postcards from the relentless vendors. And so I did. (Successfully bargaining down from 20 kuai to 5 kuai for a package of 10, I might add!)

When we got to the site, it began to rain. It didn’t last long, however, and the freshness in the air combined with the expanse of green (and therefore, oxygen) that surrounds this gorgeous landmark made the air feel light in my lungs. I breathed deeply. Even with the slight chill in the air, I was certain that a bit of cool rain was going to be good for my health.

We bought our tickets, maps and rented our headsets and then started the tour by following our noses, almost ignoring the maps altogether. We went through the east gates and turned right first, finding ourselves walking through beautiful gardens and mounting the “Longevity Hill.” This took us up to a beautiful pagoda that overlooked the grounds. Here, we could see the Kunming Lake and the tips of several other ornate pagodas and towers.

The headsets were configured to sense where you were and then provide a brief history lesson about your surroundings while you’re there. The contraption dangled around our necks like backstage passes and the headset fit on one ear. I felt like a security staff person or something and we laughed at the fact that our sensors were spaced differently so that suddenly mine would start talking when Dave’s hadn’t registered yet. It made for some awkward conversation stoppers. I’d have to interrupt what he was saying with: “oops, uh, someone’s talkin’ in my ear again! Sorry!” and then try to concentrate on what was being said.

We found that most of the content of this self-guided tour was replicated on the signs which were written in both English and Chinese. Still, I didn’t mind the storytelling. For just $40 kuai (less than $6 Canadian), I got the luxury of not having to push my way to the front of the crowd to read every sign.

One of the most magnificent structures was the “Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha” which stretches 41 metres high and is a three-storied octagonal building with four tiers of eaves. The headsets told us that successfully ascending the one-hundred steps leading up to the tower would represent a long life of at least one-hundred years. Since we had come upon this tower from the opposite side, I wondered if descending these steps would have the opposite effect. Let’s hope not!

We walked down them and eventually found ourselves next to the water’s edge and the “Long Corridor.” This is a raised, covered walkway that enabled the Emperor and then the Empress Dowager to walk along the lake without risking the elements. It stretches 728 metres long with 14,000 pictures painted on its ceiling. They are magnificent pictures full of exquisite detail and intricate designs. It is known as the longest painted gallery in the world.

Of course we followed this corridor to its end where we found the stone “boat” pavilion, a structure that was used for leisure and entertainment purposes that looks like a boat but is made entirely of marble and stone — definitely not gearing to float away anytime soon! Behind this ironic relic, we decided to cross over the water by the stone bridge to find out what was on the other side.

What stretched before us then were some of the most beautiful trees I have seen in a long time, the oldest willow and mulberry trees in the Beijing area. The willows were first planted during Qian Long’s reign (1735-1796) and nineteen of these trees still remain. I was touched to see evidence of preservation efforts; a crew was working on one tree while we passed and some of the other trees were propped up with permanent braces as though their age had crippled them and they need canes to stand upright. It struck me as a merciful sight.

On either side of this stone walkway were waterways that were breathtaking. Small inlets with lotus flowers on the right-side or the wide expanse of the Kunming Lake stretching back towards the palace buildings on the left. Small bridges with intricate stone carvings and wide steps. Everything was so beautiful that it was hard not to photograph something new with every step.

It was about here that I started to get really tired. We had walked endlessly and the beauty was remarkable, but I was losing my ability to concentrate and take any more in. We hopped in a boat that took (weary) people across the lake rather than having to walk around and then we checked out just a few more buildings that we’d missed in the beginning before returning our headsets and heading home.

One of the last buildings we entered was one that housed an old car that was bought for the Empress Dowager and is purported to be an early Benz. It was surrounded by four rickshaws and on display behind iron bars. On the other side of this room were several personal items of the Empress Dowager’s including her famous portrait and a few pianos and pieces of furniture.

Two young girls on either side of these displays stood in period costumes including (what appeared to be) extremely uncomfortable high-heeled shoes. They had wide headdresses and looked gorgeous in their outfits, but their eyes were tired and bored and I wanted to take them by the hand and lead them out of there. What a job to have to stand there and be beautiful all day, smiling for photographs and pacing slowly behind iron bars! Of course, I didn’t take their pictures. I smiled at them with a look of sympathy and I received a flash of appreciation from one of the girls, as though she registered my meaning. I wish I’d had something to offer them, but all I could give them was my shy retreat and the silent respect of a lowered camera lens.

When we hopped in a cab for “home,” I was ready for a long nap – being a tourist is exhausting! I highly recommend seeing this landmark, though, because it felt like a moment of countryside in the middle of a bustling city. It’s wonderful that Beijing has preserved such a stunning site. The Summer Palace should definitely be on your list of places to see if you’re passing through Beijing.

(This is us posing before the famous statue of the Bronz Ox, said to be the controller of floods. It was cast during Qian Long’s reign, 1735-1796.)