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Day 3: Beijing—The Great Wall | Day 5: Datong—The Hanging Monastery & Yungang Caves >>
Beijing—The Summer Palace & 798 Arts District
When planning our China trip, I had read many pros and cons of having a tour guide. For our final day in Beijing, I had pre-arranged to have a tour guide accompany us for several reasons.
First, I wasn’t sure how we would be holding up in light of the abundant stories of how “difficult” it supposedly is to travel through China on your own. (The reality was that we had managed just fine, even with the miscommunications and losing our way occasionally—as those aspects actually add to the joy of the adventure, sometimes more so in hindsight.) Second, I wanted to visit several places today and thought a guide could whisk us from place to place with ease; this proved to be true, and it was freeing not to have to worry about which buses to catch or finding a taxi.
Third, I thought that a local guide might be able to share insights about cultural aspects that we might not otherwise have known or been exposed to. This also proved to be true. Our guide, Qing (pronounced “Ching”), was not only a wealth of information, but she graciously welcomed us into her home. There, her parents generously prepared a feast for us, taught us to make dumplings, and gave us lessons on some new physical exercises.
Here is Qing with Sebastian and Genevieve:
Our plan was to spend the morning touring the Summer Palace in Beijing. Qing met us outside our hutong right on time. She was accompanied by her husband Wangchen, who would be driving us around in their minivan.
The drive to the Summer Palace, located in the northwestern area of Beijing, was smooth and easy. Here are some sights along the way.
An electric bike shop:
The freeway wasn’t backed up with traffic today.
Olympic symbols were painted on the road surface:
At the front gate of the Summer Palace:
A sign near the entrance instructed us on proper behavior during our visit: “Please be self-restraint and be a good tourist to mold a well-mannered imagination.”
Unarmed soldiers marched by:
The buildings had many elaborate details:
One of the key historical figures associated with the Summer Palace is the Empress Dowager Cixi, who essentially ruled China for almost half a century, 1861 until her death in 1908. She used the palace as a summer resort from April to October each year. There are many conflicting and colorful stories about Cixi, often depicting her as a shrewd, ruthless woman who made choices regarding finances and political alliances that led to the ultimate fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.
Photo of Cixi:
Our guide Qing referred to Cixi as the “evil lady” and told us a story of how Cixi was born to a common family but adopted by a rich Manchu family. Because she had good facial measurements, Cixi was selected to become a concubine in the Emperor’s harem (supposedly a great honor). Cixi had a favorite eunuch who was a creative hairdresser; and he fixed Cixi’s hair in a special way that attracted the Emperor’s attention. Cixi gave birth to the Emperor’s only male heir, who was five years old when the Emperor died. Cixi then became the “empress dowager” and ruled China while hidden by a screen behind her son’s throne, as women were not allowed to meet the public then. When her son died at the young age of 19, Cixi again became the “empress dowager”, this time to her 3-year old nephew Guangxu.
We paid a separate small entrance fee to watch a short performance in the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. The Grand Stage was a 3-story building that was originally finished in 1895.
Sebastian and Genevieve in front of the stage:
We watched the performance from some sunny steps across from the stage:
First, there was a pleasant musical show with many bells and other traditional Chinese instruments.
Then came a silent comedy involving 2 men who were supposed to be fighting each other in the dark; the movements were very entertaining and well done:
Finally, some women performed a rather half-hearted dance:
Qing explained that the dancing was from the Han dynasty, around 100 B.C., where girls would try to move their bodies during the dance to entice the Emperor to choose them to be his concubines.
Some of the urns and statues around the Summer Palace were wrapped in a protective wire:
On display was the first car in China, given to Cixi by the Japanese:
Qing told us that Cixi used it once but then stored it away because she did not like anyone (i.e., the driver) to sit in front of her.
For her transportation, Cixi preferred a chair carried by strong men:
Here is our family in front of the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, which was the main ceremonial hall containing Cixi’s throne.
Details of the Hall:
We didn't pass up a chance to have our photo taken in front of the beast Qilin--that mere act supposedly endowed us with the capability of telling good from evil forever more.
The man-made Kunming Lake stretched in front of the Summer Palace.
The soil excavated from the lake pit was piled onto Longevity Hill, shown here with its impressive Tower of the Buddha’s Incense (Foxiang Ge).
Along the lake was a 2,388-foot covered walkway, the Long Corridor, that was built so that Cixi could enjoy the lake views in the rain.
The Long Corridor was covered in paintings and designs:
There were a few elaborately painted pagodas, such as this one, within the Long Corridor:
The Interior ceiling beams of the pagoda:
Our family, in front of the Tower of the Buddha’s Incense:
Looking up at the Tower:
The Tower was originally built in the late 1700’s but was burned down by invading French/English armies in 1860. It was rebuilt in the late 1800’s, and was completely renovated in 2005 in preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
We joined the throngs who just couldn’t resist the magnetic pull of a steep set of stairs and the promise of a magnificent view.
The view from the top was indeed lovely:
Beyond the Summer Palace, we could see the modern city buildings of downtown Beijing.
Inside the Tower was the golden Guanyin Buddha, with a thousand hands.
Our guide Qing told us that Guan Yin is a female Buddha and is the most popular Buddha in China. The statue was cast during the Ming Dynasty.
Directly behind the Tower was the Temple of the Ocean of Wisdom, which is made of metal, brick and stone; it was one of the few buildings not destroyed by the 1860 foreign invaders.
The front of the Temple was covered in small Buddhas.
Treasure seekers had pried or broken the heads off of many of the Buddhas, especially those that were within reach.
New heads had been fabricated and attached to many of the figures. However, Qing pointed out that the materials and color used for the new heads did not exactly match the original statues. Look closely . . . .
This boy and girl were both wearing “concubine hat” souvenirs.
Qing told us that having both a boy and a girl in China is referred to as “Double Happiness” for the parents. She also explained that even though China has had a “one child” policy, there have been some recent changes to the rules. She and Wangchen can now have two children because both of them came from one-child families.
At the side of the lake was a decorative marble boat.
It was initially built in 1755 in Chinese style, but was burned in 1860 by the Anglo-French invaders. Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilt it in the late 1800’s with funds that were supposed to go to the Chinese navy. She chose a design that resembled “Western style”, with the hope that future foreign invaders might refrain from burning it.
We decided to take a dragon boat across the lake. Here is our “Double Happiness” package waiting for the boat to arrive:
Our boat was very colorful:
A view back toward Longevity Hill from the dragon boat:
We passed by the marble Seventeen-Arch Bridge, which connects a small island to the main land.
Qing and Wangchen then drove us to a small “local” restaurant called Jun Sao (Soldier’s Wife Restaurant). It was a very casual place with a steady flow of customers. We were the only obvious tourists. The food was excellent and very inexpensive. It had the best sweet and sour pork that I have ever tasted (and I normally do not care for that dish at all).
Our next stop was the 798 Art Zone, which has many galleries showing contemporary art. Ben and I both hold fine arts degrees, and we love to check out what is happening in the art scene when we travel. We were not disappointed here.
At the entrance (it was crowded):
Genevieve and Sebastian mimicked some of the statues:
A Chinese woman asked if she could take a photo of the children in front of a cement brick car sculpture.
This painting, called “Paper Bride”, is by artist Xeng Chuanxing:
Genevieve was drawn to “Fly Wing to Wing” by Li Guijun:
Sebastian was inspired to create his own performance art:
The energy of the arts district was very dynamic. We had a great time wandering around, browsing through the galleries, and enjoying the eclectic array of creativity.
We weren’t the only ones who posed with the artwork!
Now, here’s a real masterpiece—a Chinese 125cc motorcycle:
This mom was trying to get her child to sit on the horse sculpture, but once the girl turned around and saw the warrior’s face, she let out some wails of unhappiness (reminding me of our attempts to sit the children on Santa’s lap when they were younger—all was fine until they turned around and saw “that scary face”).
By far, my favorite exhibit in the 798 district was “Word Chains” by Zhou Xiaohu.
His show involved small clay figures in a multitude of scenes, caught in sculpture and video animation. The children and I were mesmerized by the video which showed clay figures morphing and transforming. Here are some of the sculptures, many of which depict scenes in the video:
Our final stop today was the home of Qing and Wangchen, who live in a small hutong (Lishi Hutong) with Qing’s parents. Qing explained that the hutong was built for a famous general, so the streets are wider than many other hutongs.
At the entrance to the hutong, which holds over 50 families:
Qing and her mother, with Wangchen:
When planning this trip, I had asked Qing if there was somewhere we could go to have some basic lessons in tai chi. Qing had responded that tai chi was considered “old fashioned” now and was rarely done except by older people; however, her mother had graciously offered to give us some instructions on the new exercises that she does every day with a group of friends in a local park.
Qing’s family has their own small tiled courtyard, where we received our exercise lessons. We were eager students, and had some good laughs.
First, we started by stretching:
Qing joined in the fun:
We really worked our muscles:
Genevieve and Sebastian even tried some hip-swirling hula-hooping:
Wangchen showed us his extensive toy car collection, which covered almost every spare inch of shelving, drawers and cupboards in Qing and Wangchen’s room:
Next came our lesson on how to make dumplings. Qing’s mother and father had generously prepared a dumpling feast for us. They started out in the kitchen, where Qing’s mother showed us how to make small circles of dumpling dough.
Then they provided us with a small station in the living room, where we would be filling the dough circles with a pork mixture.
The instructions seemed simple enough—put a small amount of mixture onto the dough, fold the circle in half, and pinch the edges together.
We gave it a try:
Ha! We discovered that putting even a tad too much filling inside made the mixture squish out from the edges when we tried to seal the dumpling. And pinching the edges required a practiced rhythm that remained elusive to us. Can you tell which “finished” dumplings were made by us, and which ones were made by more skilled hands?
Qing’s father joined us in filling and sealing the dumplings—he was quite the expert!
Genevieve assisted Qing’s mother in putting the dumplings into the pot of hot water for cooking.
What a feast we had—dumplings, lamb kabobs, apples with yogurt sauce, strawberries, figs, raisins, a mushroom/cucumber salad, a green salad with tomatoes, greens and peanuts, and more!
Everything was delicious! And Qing and her family were attentive hosts, filling our plates again and again and making sure that we didn’t want for anything.
The special time with Qing, her parents, and Wangchen was one of the highlights of our journey through China. We will never forget Qing’s enthusiasm and honesty, and the warmth with which her family embraced us and made us feel truly welcome in their home.
Day 3: Beijing—The Great Wall | Day 5: Datong—The Hanging Monastery & Yungang Caves >>
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