My visits to Beijing have always been under restrictive circumstances. The first time I had a couple of hours to kill on my way to Barcelona and so I did little more than ride the subway a couple of stops, take a few photos of Tiananmen Square, wander through the free portion of the Forbidden City and then head off to the airport. The second trip wasn’t planned in the least – I missed my connection and so had only an afternoon to kill. That time I did try to maximize the benefit of my time by going to the Temple of Heaven. Of course it would have been more effectively used had I not gotten lost and taken 2 hours to travel 30 minutes worth of distance. This time, everything was planned and I was prepared right down to the sheet I’d typed up that told me what subway line to take, where to get off and where to walk once back above ground. In addition to that, I’d checked the maps and plotted the routes. I was ready to go.

Before leaving I downloaded a wonderful application for my iPhone called “Explore Beijing.” It’s a nicely detailed rendition of the complete subway system and all you have to do is highlight the station you’re leaving from and the one you want to go to and it plots a route and tells you how long it should take. This part of the day was laid out in exquisite detail – from Shuangjing Station near the hotel we would take the Blue #10 line north and then west to the Teal #4 line where we’d transfer at Haidan Huangzhuang Station and head northwest to Beigongmen Station, the closest my destination, the Summer Palace. It was a little bit disconcerting when the program returned a 54 minute transit time. But it couldn’t be worse than a taxi in Beijing traffic, so off we went.

One of the things about subway travel that may be universal is the grimness of the riders. No one seems happy, no one smiles. Everyone just sits there glowering at their shoes. I’m not sure if this comes from being underground and away from the nourishment of the sun, or from running errands or just because everyone, everywhere is really unhappy. It’s noticeable though and unfortunate because it casts a pall over the whole trip.

True to the prediction we arrived at the station after about an hour of travel. Untrue to prediction, the entrance to the Summer Palace was not across the street from the station once again confirming that forming a vivid picture in your mind’s eye from a map is often a waste of time. The wall around the grounds was right there, but there were no gates or any indications of how to get into the place. Choosing not to try and climb the rock face, we started walking until we saw a street sign that suggested a right turn up ahead might be called for. When we arrived at the next intersection the telltale giveaway was the incredible number of buses converging on a parking lot down the way. We had another walk ahead of us, equal to what we’d just done but this time there was no sidewalk, just the road and the wall. As we motored on I kept wondering how many tourists get smashed up against the ancient bricks by some texting Chinese driver each year. But when faced with impending mashing, it’s best to file thoughts such as those and just keep moving ahead. Perhaps a half a mile down the road we veered off to the right and found the entrance.
Chinese imperial architecture is very apt in conveying a sense of just how special and isolated the royals were. The grounds of these places are vast, and beautiful, often the only “rural” areas within the confines of the city. Once you pass the gates, your surroundings become silent and peaceful and aside from the chatter of the tourists, the only things you hear are the birds in the pine trees. All the walkways were covered with ornately painted roofs that passed between the significant locations on the grounds. The stone pathways were made from smooth river rocks standing on end, and every few yards the pattern of an animal, flower or a mystical symbol was set in among the stones in contrasting rock shards. Overhead every square inch of roof was painted in bright colors with little portraits of mythical beasts on the flat surfaces between the poles. It was impossible not to imagine the Emperor and his attendants slowly walking along these paths, cloaked in gold and red, perhaps a few musicians following and playing softly, with no particular place to go or thing to do as their daily lives were on a celestial plain. Off to our left as we walked along, the big lake was frozen solid and people were out on it taken a straight shortcut to the other sites on the grounds, walks that would have taken hours in the warmer months.

We elected to climb some stairs heading up to the highest hill within the walls. Music was playing off to our left and once we crested the peak, we headed back down, letting our ears guide us. The first group we found was four old Chinese gentlemen using traditional instruments to play that squeaky classical music that we all know. One man was singing and another played a valve-less trumpet. The third man played a crude wooden flute and the fourth the Sheng, one of the oldest of the local instruments, first appearing in 551 AD. It consists of a bundle of 17 or more pipes or varying lengths seated on a bowl with a mouthpiece. It is capable of producing 6 independent notes at a time. I tried to watch them politely, but it never felt right, even when I came around the front of the little temple they were using and sat down on a bench. Often here you get the feeling that people don’t want to be part of a living history museum, rather they just want to be left alone. And so after a few moments I wandered a bit further down the hill to where a small brass band was playing more modern but still traditional Chinese anthems. They had quite a crowd and had handed out songbooks so dozens and dozens of people were singing along. A lone woman was leading the impromptu chorus from the front of the band, using deliberate but greatly overstated gestures, raising a lowering herself at her knees and waving her arms.

Looming large above the trees was the Temple of Buddhist Incense. Another classical piece of architecture it was on the second highest hill in the place and was reached by climbing an awful lot of stone stairs. At one platform a western tourist stood trying to catch her breath, having climbed perhaps 10% of the total distance. There were two ways up, opposing stone block stairs that went up the front or two very steep covered galleries that went up the sides. We went up the middle and at the top there was an old wooden Guanyin statue in the middle of the pagoda. An Italian couple was taking non-stop photographs in spite of the English sign that forbid it. The view from the pagoda platform was spectacular, tiled roofs of the other buildings far below and the frozen lake, crisscrossed by the paths of the people trudging through the snow. Far off in the distance, a steeply arched bridge connected an island to the mainland.

Having done the middle, we decided to go down the side. There we lots of photograph opportunities from the gallery we chose, so we took our time heading down, stopping to enjoy the details. Halfway to the bottom I noticed a family of 3 westerners standing on the bottommost platform, exuding impatience. I figured that dad must have been waiting to take a photo up the stairs, but didn’t want one with us in it. Knowing this and catching his obvious vibe, I really took my going down the last third of the way. When I reached them, he just glared in my general direction not making eye contact but still sending me his little waves of anger. Mom stood huddled in the corner, her fur trimmed hood pulled up and tight around her face. I looked her straight in the eye and she just stared ahead. Junior sat on a low wall talking to dad. As we went around the corner I heard dad say something about how important the perfect photo was and even though mom was freezing it was important enough to wait.

We took the time to wander over to see the famous Marble Boat, the never sailing, never floating stone launch of the Emperor. I guess the royal family and some lucky courtiers would sit on the decks and imagine what a sail would be like if the boat wasn’t impossibly heavy and completely incapable of moving. A virtual wind in the face and they pretended that the boat was visiting far off and exotic seaports. It didn’t look very good being in desperate need of a complete restoration.

The next stop of the day was the Olympic venue. I was really looking forward to the place, having just recently visited the Olympic site in Barcelona and having been really moved by the spirit of the place. The Chinese built a nice little subway spur that ran only to the Olympic Village so we caught it on the way back from our last stop. The stations along this line were sparkling and beautiful, instead of grimy beige brick all the surfaces here were covered in shiny blue and white porcelain tile in the classical Chrysanthemum motif of the Chinese emperors. Enough of a Delft feel to make you wonder if you’d somehow gotten off in Holland. We got off the train and made our way to the security detail that not only x-rayed our bags but wanded and patted us down individually.

To say that I was let down would be an understatement. I had expected so much, the beautiful buildings and stadiums atop Montjuic from the 1992 Games were inspiring in both their grandeur and simplicity. Here, the Bird’s Nest stood on the right looking like a big pile of ultra-modern stainless steel Pick-up Sticks and the Water Cube off on the left, invoked nothing more than a Sam’s Club back home. Perhaps it was the endless line of decorated artificial Christmas trees that stubbed out my flame. I don’t know but I wasn’t getting any sense of the triumph of the human spirit. Getting closer to the stadium didn’t help because from there you could see that it was in need of a good dusting, it being covered with an undisturbed coating of “stuff” from the notorious Beijing air. We chose not to go in as it was apparently set up in some sort of “winter wonderland” and I wasn’t sure what that even meant, nor where to buy tickets. I’ve heard that the next use is going to be a chocolate theme park with countless battalions of edible Terracotta Warriors. I suppose that a theme park is preferable to what the Water Cube is about to become – a shopping mall for top tier brands. It’s too bad that these places are going to lose their original use, but I suppose that the Chinese have every right to do with them what they want in order to turn a profit. On this day, there wasn’t much money to be made from the monuments as the visitors all seemed far more interested in Santa’s Village, replete with a couple of snowmen – one missing a nose – and a life-sized cutout of Cinderella. Such is the power of our western brands.

I had to drag myself back to the subway so burdened with disappointment was I. Back down into the cars with the grim people going who knows where. Having had enough of the sights, we went searching for lunch.