I started out at 10AM taking a pleasant taxi ride through the insane traffic of Beijing, which meandered through bicycles, people, cars and buses to the five-story market across from the Beijing Zoo. Unlike a mall, this is five stories of kiosks and clothing stands of all kinds. At each stand everyone haggles until the right price is agreed upon. The Generation X and Y in Beijing are fashionable and with the variety found at the mall I can see the joy in shopping. I didn’t buy clothes for myself, but did buy a few outfits for my baby. I couldn’t resist the crotchless pants.
Did I mention that in China non-potty trained children wear crotchless pants? Parents carry their babies like Prince Charming carries Snow White, butt down. When the child is walking, they just squat when they have to go! The Chinese are very open about bodily functions. It's just viewed as natural, so no diapers. Cost is probably a factor, but I’ve seen all sorts of well dressed babies and they all had their genitals hanging out. It's a cultural thing!
I was unnerved by much of what I saw at the Beijing Zoo. The animals all had such small cages and one would think that their lodging could be considerably nicer. When the animals are aloof, college-aged zoo visitors clap their hands loudly and screech at the creatures to persuade them to look more animated. It was hard for me
The upside of the zoo was the African section. These animals were so tame that children pet the giraffes and zebras and feed them apple slices. Couples pose inches from ostriches for their pictures to be taken, and the large birds just sitting there not eating any one’s ears or fingers. I wondered if they had been drugged.
However, the best part of my day started after leaving the zoo. For an extra 20 Yuan, one can take a boat from the Zoo through the waterways to the Summer Palace. This boat ride is a pleasant forty minutes of cool, calm, relaxed water fun. The emperors enjoyed easy transport between all their play areas, so interestingly the zoo (previously known as The Emperor’s Garden of Ten Thousand Animals), the Summer Palace, and many of the historical imperial areas are connected by 30 foot wide waterways that are lined with marble railings and trees.
The Yi Hu Ren (Summer Palace) is so beautiful, and big! Visiting here, I have felt the most at ease since arriving in Beijing. It is so peaceful, so calm and serene. The place is huge, covering over 290 hectares! It was originally named the Garden of Clear Ripples, built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong in celebration of his mother’s birthday! And to think, most moms just get a card. It was burned down by Anglo-French forces in 1860 and rebuilt in 1886 with funds from the Imperial Navy, supposedly “borrowed” by the government of the Qing Dynasty. Beautiful bronze and stone sculptures dot the landscape and it is a beautifully preserved garden with rich landscapes and amazing architecture. The Summer Palace has been open to the public since 1924.
Walking along the willow lined path and gazing out across Kunming Lake, which covers 3/4 of the area of the entire park, I felt so at ease. It was as if the traffic and noise of Beijing moved 1000 miles away. Walking on Longevity Hill, away from the path and the tourists, I was delighted to find pavilions and buildings that seemed as if no other person had laid eyes on them in hundreds of years. The peeling layers of paint and chipped ceramic covered with dust and bird droppings, surrounded by pine and bird song made me feel like I had secretly entered another time.
I walked from the South Gate across the Seventeen Arch Bridge to South Lake Island where I saw the Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture where the Emperor used to pray to the Dragon King for rain. I also saw the Hall of Embracing the Universe and walked around the beautiful pine covered island.
From South Lake Island I took a boat across Kunming Lake to Longevity Hill and walked through the Long Corridor to the Wenchang Gallery where I saw the most exquisite collection of pottery, pearl jewelry and jade imperial articles like combs and cups. Also on Longevity Hill, there is the 37-meter high Tower of Buddhist Incense that has a five-meter-high bronze Guan Yin in its lovely interior that was built in 1574 and the dock of the Clear and Peaceful Boat, which is a two-story boat carved entirely of marble.
If you are in Beijing, a day should truly be devoted to visiting the Old Summer Palace. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the day! Drinks and snacks are sold along the paths, but unless you are satisfied by sodas and chips, I would suggest bringing your own food to nosh on. The park is beautiful, tranquil, and will leave you refreshed and ready to see the rest of this hectic city. Student entry is only 15 Yuan whereas regular entry is 30 Yuan. This is truly the most enjoyable afternoon I’ve had in Beijing.
Written and photography by Eileen Moran
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