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Part 2 of A China Saga:   Our Trip to the People's Republic of China, March 17-25, 2001

Beautiful gardens; lovely, slender women; gorgeous babies; playful senior citizens; and strolling, smiling families are among my positive impressions. China has invested heavily in its infrastructure, with newly built expressways; well-maintained streets, public buildings and parks; and lovingly restored monuments. Its bad side includes heavy-handed sales pressure and lack of access for the handicapped.

I began the trip from LAX with my mother and three of her friends (all seniors) and Pat, a co-worker who had agreed to be my roommate. Once in China, we were assigned to a larger bus group of 31 tourists and a Ritz Tours guide. This group would stick together, except for free days, for the remainder of the tour to Beijing, Xiían, and Shanghai. We were also assigned a government-licensed, local guide in each city.

Day 03
Beijing

The Forbidden City
Cloisonné Factory

The Summer Palace

Including Kunming Lake, the Long Corridor, and the Marble Boat

I have something in common with the dreaded "Dragon Lady" of China. We both fell in love with the Summer Palace, located nine miles north of Beijing. My infatuation was based on a passing acquaintance of just a couple of hours on a glorious spring day. Hers was a love affair of several decades. The Dowager Empress Cixi, pronounced "Tsoo Shee," rebuilt and added to the Summer Palace during her 40 years of rule in the late 19th century. She built a canal to connect the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace so that she could arrive by water.

The Summer Palace has delicate willow trees, a heavily wooded hill, and marble-decorated sidewalks surrounding Kunming Hu Lake. While I was there, small boats played on the sparkling water and family groups took leisurely strolls. [See The Little Emperors.]

Unlike the imperial palace at the Forbidden City, which is symmetrical, formal, and built for the business of government, this palace was intended for ease and relaxation. At 716 acres, the Summer Palace is also Chinaís largest park. In contrast to the roofs of the Forbidden City, which are yellow to represent eternity and the earth, the roofs of Summer Palace are blue to represent water. Brilliant blue arches with bright inset designs frame the lake views.

Beijing gets very warm in the summer because of winds off the Gobi Desert. The Summer Palace is downwind from the lake, which serves as a gigantic evaporative air cooler.

Both Kunming Hu Lake and Longevity Hill are manmade. Construction began in 1750. The limestone dredged from the bottom of the lake reappears as garden ornaments at the Summer Palace, the Imperial Garden within the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.

We walked across a bridge to the Precious Cloud Pavilion to pose for a group photo. Then we followed the tour guide around the lake to buildings on the far side. On the way, we walked through the Long Corridor on the north shore. The whole time we looked up in awe at the many pictures painted on the ceiling beams.

Ceiling Beams in the Long Corridor
Ceiling Beams in the Long Corridor

This 796-yard-long covered walkway, all of painted wood, is the longest corridor in the world. The roof is supported by 273 pairs of columns and is decorated with 8000 paintings. A different scene is painted on each ceiling beam.

The tour guide told unflattering tales of how the dowager empress had squandered money on banquets, jewels, and other luxuries. The story was that she was served 150 different dishes at a single banquet, drank from a jade cup, and ate with golden chopsticks. The guide told us how Cixi invited her co-regent to a banquet, then poisoned her. From other sources, I learned that Cixiís co-regent, Tzu An, did not die until 1881. [See Dragon Lady.]

Our final stop within the Summer Palace grounds was the Marble Boat. This is actually a gigantic, permanently docked sculpture of a boat that Cixi had built with funds meant for the Chinese navy.

The Marble Boat
The Marble Boat.
The base of the boat is marble and the upper part is wood.

Behind the Marble Boat is a dock with a flotilla of colorful pleasure barges. Directly in front is a gift shop. A lovely teenager sat on the marble wall over the lake. Dressed fashionably in pink, she looked like a model in a photo shoot.

With a struggle, the guide extracted people, including my mother, from the gift shop so that we could continue to the next tourist site. I departed sadly, regretting not having had time to enjoy the serenity of the Oriental garden. I wanted to feel the sunshine on my back while paddling in a small boat. The allure of the Summer Palace is the small happiness possible in a beautiful setting.

Tian'anmen Square

The largest public square in the world

A plaza that covers nearly 100 acres (40 hectares), Tian'anmen Square is the largest public square in the world. The Forbidden City is on the north, the two-block-long Great Hall of the People on the west, and a large historical museum on the east. Maoís tomb is in the middle of the square on the south.

The Chinese use the square for popular protests and kite flying. The plaza can accommodate more than a half million people, as we saw in televised broadcasts of the student pro-democracy demonstrations in the spring of 1989.

Mother, Pat and I visited Tian'anmen Square twice, first as part of the tour group and again on our free day.

As we approached in the bus for our first visit, the tour leader warned us not to take photographs of protestersí signs or of policemen hitting protesters. He said that the police would consider themselves kind if they only took our film. In the past, they have confiscated cameras.

We arrived just before sunset. A large crowd milled about in anticipation of the flag-lowering ceremony. Many small groups ambled casually throughout the square and several European, college-age youths roller-skated around us. Mother and her friends took snapshots of each other. Pat and I obliged when a Chinese visitor asked us to pose for a photo with him. Pat purchased a little paper Communist flag and a tiny red book of Maoís sayings from one of the many wandering vendors. At a screech from our tour leader, we queued up for a group photo in front of Mao's giant portrait.

Tian'anmen Square
Tian'anmen Square.

Although we could not see the formal ceremony because of the crowd, the sun looked huge and orange as it set in the hazy sky.

"No wonder this is the land of the setting sun," said Mother.

I didnít correct her.

Peking Duck Banquet

Itinerary   |   Introduction   |   Guides   |   Part 1
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