Beijing: Day five — playing hooky at the Summer Palace

Wednesday was supposed to be a full day at the conference, but I only made it through the first (8:00-10:00 AM) session before I decided I would be a bad, bad structural genomicist, skip the rest of the day’s talks, and spend the day at the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace is a complex of buildings near a lake in northwest Beijing where the emperor would go to get away from the stresses of life in the Forbidden City (its palatial expanses, its hundreds of concubines, etc.). Apparently the lake itself was pretty small to start with, but apparently 100,000 slave laborers can do quite a bit to expand the size of a lake, and now it’s probably better than a kilometer east to west and two north to south. The lake is surrounded by a band of forests and gardens. There’s a hill on the north end with a decent-sized Buddhist temple, which is the large building you see in the background of many of these pictures.

We started along the lake on the eastern side, and walked south along the paved shoreline. There were many tourists around, but despite the bustle of people, the place felt noticeably more peaceful than the rest of Beijing. I heard birds chirping, and felt a constant cool breeze blowing across the water. There were several benches along the sidewalk, on which many tourists were resting, watching the water.

About halfway south in the lake, there is a small island, connected to the shore by an ornate, 17-arch bridge, which is creatively named “The Seventeen Arch Bridge”. There are hundreds of small carved lions along the bridge along the railings of the bridge, each one in a different pose.

We walked over to the island, and toured the small pavilions that were there, then took a ferry to the from the island to the hill in the north. When we got off the ferry, the crowds were considerably larger. Clearly the complex around the temple is the most popular draw in the Summer Palace park. We started to work our way up the hill, which is surprisingly steep. Along the way, we passed a building called the “Walking through a Rice Paper Painting” pavilion (the Chinese have such wonderful names for their buildings). This building was integrated into the rock of the hillside and had positively beautiful architecture.

We reached the peak of the hillside, and I made sure I got the requisite “King of the Mountain” picture.

We then went down into the temple proper. The temple itself is a circular building in a small square courtyard with narrow shutters. Within the building itself there is a single large chamber with a 10-foot-tall golden Buddha statue with many arms. I don’t have a picture of the statue, or of any other Buddha statues on this trip for that matter, because most of the temples have a policy forbidding photography within the buildings themselves. The building from the outside, however, is pretty impressive.

What’s even more impressive is the view from the temple. Not only can you see the whole lake in a panoramic view, you can also see the city rising behind the trees ringing the park.

We went back down from the top of the hill, and before we headed back to the hotel, wandered around the back of the hillside to a place called Suzhou Street. In the days of the Ming dynasty, this canal-side street was a marketplace, and was recently restored. Of course, what better way to simulate a Ming dynasty marketplace than to pack each stall with souvenier shops and pushy sellers in period clothes? Add to that the fact that the sidewalk between the stalls and the canal was so narrow that signs asked that people walk along the circuit in a single direction, and what you had was less of a historical display and more of a gauntlet.

Having run the Suzhou gauntlet more or less unscathed (the one fragment of Mandarin I know best means “No, I don’t want to buy anything”), we caught a bus back to the hotel in time for the conference banquet. We had quite a large, impressive Chinese-style meal (I’ll talk more about food in China in the next post). I personally ate way too much and passed out shortly thereafter.