Monday, 29 April 2019

A Jewel in Beijing - The Summer Palace on Kunming Lake

I must confess that I hadn't heard of Beijing's Summer Palace before this trip so it was a delightful discovery for me. It is a jewel of a place and visiting it was a lovely and fitting way to end a tour of some of the best sights of China.

The Summer Palace stretches along the edge of Kunming Lake and up Longevity Hill
Built by Qing emperor, Qianlong between 1750 and 1764, as a summer retreat, the Summer Palace, beside Lake Kunming, has a very colourful history. Originally a reservoir for Beijing's water supply, the 450 acre lake was entirely man made with the excavated soil used to build Longevity Hill overlooking the lake. Despite the fact that the garden contains a number of halls, pavilions, palaces, temples and bridges it did not have the facilities for long term stays or diplomatic meetings so the emperor chose not live there, using it instead for day visits only

The 728 metre Long Corridor,  for a sheltered walk in the rain

As the Qing dynasty declined the Summer Palace became neglected and was looted and burned in 1860 by the British and French during the second opium war. This wanton destruction has never been forgotten by the Chinese, however, in 1884, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu, his mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, used funds intended for the navy to repair and enlarge the Palace to celebrate her 60th birthday.  One of the best features of the palace, and my favourite is the 728 metre Long Corridor, skirting the lake edge, built so that the Empress Dowager could exercise in all weathers.  It is lavishly decorated with paintings of places in China and scenes from Chinese folk tales and mythology. It is stunningly beautiful, I would be more than happy to exercise there daily.

The  Summer Palace was damaged again in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when the Eight Nation Alliance looted the artifacts and destroyed the gardens.  Two years later the palace was once again restored. In 1914 the palace was opened to the public but after the revolution of 1949 was used as a meeting place for Mao Zedong and some top ranking communist party officials. Finally, in 1953, restorations and renovations were done to the palace and it was opened to the public once again.
UNESCO have added it to their world heritage list stating that it is "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design".

A serene and beautiful corner of the Summer Palace gardens

I love the names of the buildings and pavilions - Hall of Jade Billows, Hall of Joy and Longevity, Hall of Dispelling Clouds, Pavilion of Precious Clouds, Oriole Listening Hall, Garden of Harmonious Pleasures - to name a few. Overlooking all, from the top of Longevity Hill, is the eight storey high Tower of Buddhist Incense where the Dowager Empress went to pray and burn incense. At one end of the complex is the Marble Boat, a purely decorative 96 metre long western style paddle steamer, built to replace a burnt out wooden one which was used as a summer house and for excursions on the lake.  Needless to say the marble boat cannot float.  At the other end of the complex is the graceful, 17 arch bridge.

The ornate and purely decorative Marble Boat

Above: Exercise class in the palace grounds
Left: Writing poetry in water as a contemplation
exercise. It disappears as quickly as it is written

There is so much to see in this beautiful place.  I could have spent a whole day there.  Apart from the surroundings and buildings I loved seeing the Chinese enjoying the grounds for activities such as exercise classes, dancing, watching magicians and writing poetry in water as a form of contemplation. And, I also found some lovely serene corners of the gardens to just enjoy their beauty on my own.  I highly recommend a visit to The Summer Palace.

Left: The Tower of Buddhist Incense on top of Longevity Hill

Monday, 15 April 2019

The Great Wall of China

The view from the bottom of The Great Wall looked challenging and somewhat daunting  but I couldn't wait to climb it.  This is an absolute "must do" on any tour of China and we were finally here. It is fair to say I was pretty excited, especially since climbing the wall was on my bucket list and something I  never thought I would get to do.    

The Great Wall snakes its way over hills and through valleys
 The atmosphere of excitement on our bus was palpable as we wound our way out through the suburbs of Beijing and through the countryside towards the Great Wall. It took around an hour and a half to get there but it seemed that one minute we were on the outskirts of Beijing and the next minute we were in a mountainous area looking at the Great Wall snaking its way across the hillsides.  Thrilling!

Once again it was a magnificent day with sunshine, blue skies and cool crisp air, perfect conditions for our climb up a restored part of the wall. The 6000km long wall includes parts in good condition and other parts which are derelict. There are several areas where many of the stones were filched by locals to build houses during the cultural revolution.

Two watchtowers on the section we climbed

Construction of the Great Wall began 2000 years ago, firstly as protection from Mongol invading armies and then later as a means of border control for duty collection as part of the silk road.  It has been built and rebuilt many times with the current wall being built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1646).  It is estimated that over 1 million workers died during the construction of the Qin dynasty (221 - 207 BC) period.

Our guide was quick to point out that it is a myth that the Great Wall can be seen from space.  Although this is a widely held belief it makes sense that it can't be seen being only 29 feet wide and pretty much the same colour as the surrounding landscape.

View from a watch tower

We had arrived early so luckily there were few people around therefore no pressure and plenty of time to enjoy the experience.  After staring up in awe for a while I couldn't wait to start the climb. It is very steep and the step treads range from shallow to deep in no set pattern.  It is quite an effort to ascend to the first watchtower but well worth it. The views over the countryside are panoramic and it is breath taking to see the wall meandering its way into the distance over hills and valleys.  I stopped for a while at the first watch tower before heading up to the second one.  

It is steep!

Coming down was more is very steep so I clutched a hand rail most of the way.  Near the bottom a young boy of about 10 was sitting on a step paralysed with fear.  His family could not get him to go up or down.  I felt so sorry for him. One of our group, a fit runner, sprinted up and managed to make it to several watch towers.  Another uses a walking stick, due to knee problems, but was so determined to climb up the wall she did part of it using her hands and feet.  Full marks to both of them! 

All set to head up.  Excited!

I was fizzing when I arrived back at the bottom. It is always a thrill to achieve a long held goal and get some pretty hefty exercise into the bargain, maybe that would make up for some of those  dumpling dinners! 
At the bottom.  The wall can be seen on the ridge behind

When I arrived back in New Zealand I told someone I had walked on the Great Wall, she asked if I had walked all of it!  As if!