Remember back when China was cheap?
Beijing Travel Blog› entry 33 of 251 › view all entries
April 18th, 2008 – by: cmgervais
Yesterday, I thought Tianamen Square evoked pure communism: concrete and guards, stark and intimidating. The Summer Palace is a picture of the extreme excess of what was dynastic rule in China. What is a now a 290-hectare park filled with dozens of ornate structures (and lots of tourists) was once the completely over-the-top lake home of the Empress Dowager Cixi.
The palaces and many buildings were ransacked and burned by French and English troops in 1860. Cixi diverted Naval funds (and it must have been a huge sum) to pay for the renovations.
It was a long cab ride (and relatively expensive, which would be the theme for the day) to the Summer Palace, which is in the opposite, northwest, corner of Beijing. We were let out on the east side and surprised by the quietness of the area. (Turns out the tour groups were there, they just weren't right there.) We enjoyed the cool breeze from the lake and I wondered what it must have been like in Cixi's time, without the haze and pollution that sat over the lake.
First we wandered through a maze of buildings, some of which we could peek into through dirty windows to see the dusty furnishings inside.
We then walked up a long, winding series of small-rise steps (did Cixi walk up these stairs or was she carried? Turns out Lisa and I were both wondering the same thing at the same time!) to a hilltop temple and a many-armed Buddha. The man hours that must have gone into these structures -- not only for construction but for all the detailed painting -- is mind-boggling!
From there, we walked through a wooded area populated by rowdy 14-year old boys -- I couldn't get away from them fast enough -- to Suzhou Street.
We were dragged into a restaurant by a young girl in Qing dynasty garb (kind of like pajamas) and settled onto pinhead sized stools. We were brought small plates of food on flimsy plastic plates and an oversized check, but the lunch was delicious. Lisa and I shared spicy tofu and an eggplant dish, while Steve had chicken in peanuts.
After lunch the bathroom break I had been avoiding all day could no longer be put off. In all my travels I have successfully avoided the squat toilet. Even through Vietnam, Thailand, Morocco where pit toilets are really all you have unless you are in a Western-style hotel. Well, Beijing got the better of me and sullied my perfect record. I won't get into details except to say I did not enjoy myself and got out as quickly as possible!
In order to use the bathroom we had to exit the Suzhou Street area, and the ticket lady wouldn't let us back in since we were already stamped for that area. Now does that make any sense at all?! We wanted to hire one of the boats down there.
On the water there were Qing-era boats for rent, operated by boats men in Qing era clothing. Total tourist kitsch, but we really wanted to go out on the water. The published price was about $68, but they offered a longer ride for $40, so we took it with no haggling. There were no other customers to be found, so I guess we could have done better on the price. But it was a windy day, and our guy had a hard job. He apparently wasn't all that experienced -- he ran the boat into the bridge, and then some rocks. Finally, he sat down to look at the map with Lisa and have a cigarette, while a guy in normal clothes boarded our boat at the bridge and took over.
It was getting to be late in the afternoon, but we thought we still had time to check out the Old Summer Palace. (No luck...closed for renovation). As we stood there and debated our next action, we were approached by one of the taxi guys, who offered to take us to the Great Wall. Or the Tombs. Or anywhere, really. Finally we decided on the Silk Alley Market, where many knock offs are sold. It's a long drive back to our apartment, and this is kind of on the way. So we got in this guy's cab which wasn't marked like a proper cab. This set off alarm bells in my head, but I saw he had a meter so we thought it was OK. All right, here's a tip: DO NOT RIDE IN UNMARKED TAXIS.
From there it went downhill in a way. The market was teeming with tourists. Steve bought a pair of way-too-small pants for way-too-much money. The foot massage place was full, and overpriced. The stalls seemed to all being selling the same jackets and t-shirts ... yuck. We escaped and decided to find dinner. There were several good options listed in Fodor's, so we set off on foot (of course, we know that to be a mistake, but we forgot again). After much navigating and crossing of busy streets, we just couldn't find either of the two places we wanted to try.
We ended up at a place near where we happened to be standing. It seemed to be trying to be high end, but failed. The menu was nice, the prices were relatively high, and the tables were nicely set with linen and cloth. They served our beer like it was a fine wine. But the lights were too bright, there was a cooler out in the dining area, and the dining are itself seemed to be a kind of a cramped L-shaped hallway. We shared small dishes of nicely presented, completely flavorless food. I think it was based on Cantonese dishes. One dish was served on a bed of raw egg! We sent it back, and they gave it back to us without the egg. We were anxious to just pay the bill and get out of there.
Back at the apartment, we laughed at Steve's pants (this will be a great source of humor for weeks to come), and chalked up the cab ride as an expensive lesson. Tomorrow we will know better.
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