This is our last day in Beijing. We have tickets for a train leaving for Xi’an at 9:30pm. We check out of our hotel and have them hold our luggage for the day. In the meantime we still have the whole day to go to the Summer Palace, which used to be the summer residence of the royal court it is surrounded by an immense park and situated on a lake. Its 12 kilometers from the city center, so we take the metro with a couple switchovers and go almost to the end of one of the recently built branches.
Once inside the serene park opens up in all directions and we follow some stepped paths up to a number of Buddhist temples crowning the hill overlooking the park. The Buddhist temple of the Sea of Wisdom is tiled with effigies of Buddha and surrounded by landscaped rock formations. Many of these temples were burned down by the Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium war (1856-1860), so what we see are mostly later restorations of those temples. Not like we would know the difference.
Still sore from the hike on the Great Wall, we slowly make our way down through the park to the lake. By the time we get down from the mountain its 3pm, so we are getting short on time since it gets dark at 5pm. We go looking for the 4 paid sites that are on the ticket. The lake presents a beautiful setting for walking around, even with the haze from the ever present Beijing smog and skyscrapers peeking over the park trees. There are many Chinese tour groups, tourists, locals enjoying the day and even modeling photo shoots all going on along the lake front. We walk along the Long Corridor, a wooden archway with scenes of Chinese countryside painted every couple meters, which runs along the shore of the lake. We find one of the attractions; a marble boat pavilion that juts out into the lake, it was built by the corrupt empress Dowager Cixi in 1888 with money earmarked for the royal navy, the empress used to enjoy her afternoon tea there.
Then we rush back along the lake in the other direction and hike back up the mountain to the Temple of Buddhist Incense. This temple towers over the lake on the same hill from which we descended earlier but there is no way to get to it without going down and then climb back up. Doh! The temple has a 15th century bronze Buddha enshrined in the center, it has twelve heads and twenty four arms and stands 16 feet tall. The empress used to pray in the tower and burn incense twice every month. From the porch of the temple, we see an amazing view of the entire lake, the surrounding hills, and the buildings of Beijing in the distance. Just in time for closing the sunset over the frozen lake is spectacular.
We grab the metro to the shopping street with the restaurant famous for Beijing duck, we knew we should make a reservation, but didn’t know what time we could make it. No luck, the line is out the door once again, and that’s for people who already made reservations. Oh well, no big deal, we can try duck some other time. We go to our favorite mall and eat at a great Japanese noodles place. The mall on Wangfujing Street, by our hotel, turned out to be a great place to try all kinds of cuisine. We tried Japanese noodle, Schechuan, Hot Pot and Cantonese. Maybe not the best in the city, but we are not Chinese food gourmets yet.
With our train leaving in an hour, our hotel calls us a cab and tells him to take us to Beijing West train station for us. Even a simple thing like taking a taxi to the train station becomes complicated when you can’t tell him where to go. Sometimes the taxi driver isn’t that great at reading the address either in Chinese. With 2000 characters in simplified Chinese, who knows what his education level can be, since many of them are from rural areas of China.
The train station is like an ant hill, with every cross section of Chinese society represented. We see rich middle class Beijingers waiting in small restaurants and in the waiting areas. There are groups of soldiers waiting in groups and smoking. Mongolian or tatar looking farmers dressed in collective farm “vatniki” either coming to the city for work, or leaving with huge rice or potato bags filled with clothes. There are students, western tourists, backpackers and tour groups waiting for their train to arrive and drinking Chinese beer bought from the paper stand. Small shriveled and half blind 95 year old grandmothers dressed in cotton kimono looking coats with Chinese flower or dragon prints are sitting on the floor on belongings rolled in blankets, while their equally shriveled husbands are playing cards and spitting on the floor.
We make our way through all of this mix of humanity, all waiting for their train, to our waiting area. In 20 minutes they open boarding, and we passing a platform with one soviet looking train, we get on to our more modern soft sleeper train. Well it turns out that our upgraded “soft sleeper” class train doesn’t have space in the compartment for our big American bags. The bottom bunk doesn’t even lift up like the Russian and European trains that we have been on usually do. At the beginning we make do with putting our bags in the corner of our bunks, and then we get lucky that our compartment is missing a fourth person, so we put our bags on that bunk.
Our compartment mate is a 30 something Spaniard from Barcelona, who is learning Chinese and traveling around China for 6 weeks. We chat a bit about traveling, about various European countries we have been to, and swap tips about the places we are going in China.
Before bed time the train attendant comes by and asks if we want tea or coffee in the morning, we get excited for a second and say “tea”. 20 Y the attendant says. We should have known better – nothing in china is free. Upon hearing the cost we decline and go to bed.
Tomorrow it’s Xi’An and the Terracotta Warriors.
Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.