Continuing on with the Chinese story.
Sunday 6th September was one of our few sunny days. The plan was to visit the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven park first thing, walk up to Tiananmen square and spend the rest of the day in the Forbidden city. After a short ride on the Metro we arrived at the park to find lots of elderly Chinese people using the park for Taichi, singing, card games and a game that looked like a cross between chess and draughts. Whatever it was it caused a lot of shouting and light hearted arguing.
Then we found another closure, the whole of the Tian Tan complex of the Hall of Prayer, the imperial vault of heaven and the marble platform was closed. I was SO disappointed, apparently some of the visiting dignitaries were due to have a tour of the temple that morning and it was shut for security. Having seen some of the photos of the inside it’s supposed to be stunning but all we could see was the triple eaved blue roof from a distance. We were also on the wrong side of the park for the walk to Tiananmen square so we walked back to the east entrance and took the Metro there.
When we got to Tiananmen square we found throngs of people all heading in the same direction. As it was a Sunday we assumed it was extra busy, we were later to realise that all Chinese monuments are always busy. So what to do? We only had 4 days in Beijing and the Forbidden city is closed on Mondays so we continued with Tuesday’s plan of the Summer palace and got back on the Metro.
We were very impressed with their metro. This station is open but most of them have barriers built along the platform which don’t open until the train stops plus they are all very clean. No graffiti or rubbish anywhere.
The summer palace was a way outside the city so took about half an hour to get there and cost a whole pound for two of us. We’ve found China to be very cheap so far.
There were pedicycles waiting by the station to take us to the entrance. Not being sure how far it was we got on. It turned out to be about a KM could have easily walked it and it cost Y25 about £2.50 more than the Metro ride half way across town! Live and learn!
Along the street there were beautiful flower displays again as part of the city celebrations.
The summer palace was a former playground for emperors fleeing the summer heat. The grounds, temples, gardens, pavilions, lakes and bridges are most striking. It had olng been a royal garden before being considerably enlarged and embellished by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. It is said a 100,000 army of labourers deepened and expanded Kumming Lake which swallows up three-quarters of the 716 acres and takes about 2 hours to walk round. The lake is overlooked by Longevity hill topped by the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha along with other impressive buildings. The palace has been rebuilt twice after it had been vandalised first by Anglo-French troops during the opium wars in 1856 and secondly by foreign troops who torched it in 1900 prompting further restoration work. By 1949 it had fallen into disrepair prompting a major state funded overhaul.
The principal structure by the east gate that we visited first was the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (I love these wonderfully translated names) with a set of bronze animals decorating its courtyard cast during the reign of Emperor Qianlong which includes the mythical kylin. The kylin was an auspicious legendary animal that had the power to punish evil and repel the wicked, it has a dragon’s head, lion tail, ox hooves, deer antlers and scales all over its body. Please note the amount of people around, it’s impossible to get a photo without someone in it.
We moved onto the Garden of Virtue and Harmony which was a three-story building that had served as a theatre where the court’s 348 member opera troupe entertained the emperor who watched from a gallery opposite. The restoration of the decoration around the eaves was superb.
This is the major stage on the ground floor but there was also a second stage on the floor above as well as trapdoors above and below the stages.
There were private boxes around the courtyard for various dignitaries to watch the show. It must have been a spectacular scene.
We walked around part of the lake to South Lake island which had this wonderful entrance gate. A graceful 17-arch bridge spans the 150m to the shore. The island houses the Dragon King temple which again had been beautifully restored.
As we had arrived late there wasn’t time to do the two hour circumnavigation of the lake so we hopped onto a boat that took us diagonally across the lake to the Imperial boathouses giving us this wonderful view of Longevity hill as we passed it.
In front of the boathouses was this magnificent marble ‘boat’. The Empress Dowager Cixi, a right little madam by all accounts, paid for this extravagant folly with funds meant for the modernisation of the Imperial navy at the end of the eighteenth century but she squandered the money and this was the only vaguely nautical thing that she spent it on.
After walking along the fore shore we arrived at Longevity hill with its slopes and crest adorned with Buddhist temples on a north-south axis. As with many of these temples the lower part is square and the upper part is round in accordance with the notion ‘Tianyuan Difang’, ‘Heaven is round, Earth is square. The first building you enter is the Hall of Dispelling clouds. The original construction here was the Hall of Great Buddha of the Temple of Immense Gratitude and Longevity in the Garden of Clear Ripples – what an amazing address, which was burned down by the Anglo-French allied forces in 1860 and this building was constructed on the same site to celebrate one of Empress Dowager Cixi’s birthdays.
Bearing in mind its title this cloud formation, which appears to be coming off the roof, looked very striking.
After the hall the steps start. To get to the top there are a lot of steps. The lower steps were covered protecting you from the sun or the rain.
The rafters under the roof are covered in a plethora of paintings.
You can see in this photo how the steps climbed up the side of the building to the next temple and continued up behind it. The view from the top was amazing looking back across the lake to the Seventeen Arch bridge and the city beyond.
The crowning glory was The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha. It was gloriously painted and impossible to get into a single photo.
The side of the hill is adorned with little Buddhist temples all exquisitely painted.
The attention to detail was amazing. We had had some discussion about the row of doggies along the roof because Bill said they were dragons. Further round the temple looking across at the roof we could see some others and they were indeed dragons – I still think it would be nicer if they were doggies!
Look how the eaves are painted, just stunning.
We sat and got our breathe back while admiring the buildings. There were more beautifully painted cloisters surrounding the tower. We stepped into the tower to admire the frescoes although photography wasn’t allowed and it was a bit dark inside. The whole scene was just stunning – all for one emperor.
After about half an hour we made our way back down. The steps were numerous and steep.
On our way down Bill spotted another set of little temples but this time there was something extraordinary in the middle.
This entire temple is made from exquisitely detailed cast bronze. Bill was fascinated by it. He thought it would have been cast in sections and assembled on the site. Goodness knows how much it weighed or, more importantly, cost! A lot on both counts. There wasn’t any information of it’s origin or use but for Bill it was his favourite of the day.
After reaching the bottom step we made our way towards the north of the park. This was a good sign!
We walked along the west causeway towards the delightful hump of the grey and white marble of the Jade Belt bridge. It crosses the point where the Jade river enters the lake . It dates from the 18th century and must surely have some stories to tell of the people who have used it and been photographed on it.
Continuing towards the north palace gate our final walk took us onto Suzhou street. An entertaining diversion of riverside walkways linked with quaint bridges where Emperor Qianlong and his concubines would shop. Today it houses souvenir stalls but was very picturesque in the sunshine.
We stopped for Chinese tea which turned out to be the most expensive tea in all of China, literally!
We’d had a wonderful day.
There are a number of other sites in the area such as the Botanic gardens and the Fragrant Hills park and I believe the tours visit all three in an afternoon but we prefer to spend more time enjoying one site rather than rushing around them all. If you visit Beijing I would recommend the Summer Palace as a must see. A day is better but an afternoon is possible.
From the north gate we walked back to the Metro station and headed back into the city.