The summer palace can easily be reached by metro, but it takes a while to get there as it is quite a bit away from the centre. Entering from the nearest gate I first found an old street along both sides of a frozen river. The scenery is lovely. The houses are nowadays used for small shops or restaurants.
Further on you get to climb up a hill with a temple/palace on it. Many pagodas, doorways, and passageways on or through rocks make the climb very enjoyable. Once at the top, one can slowly descend again on the other side, which sports even bigger and more impressive temple structures.
Exiting the temple you reach the lake. Going left takes you to the empress dowager Cixi’s marble boat and even later on to some pretty gardens. Walking right will lead to a few more temples as well as a different gate.
Sadly, I got to the summer palace relatively late and was thus unable to explore it in its entirety, but I think I covered most of it.
The Temple of Heaven was used by the emperor to make offerings to the gods for a fruitful harvest. There are several stages for this. The emperor would reside on a special purpose building onsite to fast for three days before the main offering. A personal favourite of mine was a door that only one man ever went through. An especially old emperor was not able to walk for a long duration anymore, so they built a shortcut for him. Afraid that his successors might abuse this shortcut out of laziness he decreed that only emperors of age 70 or greater may pass through the door – but no emperor afterwards ever achieved this age.
The Temple site is actually more of a park with the odd building here and there. It is filled with people doing any of the following: dancing in bulk, dancing in pairs, individuals practicing their chi between the trees, and the occasional senior drawing calligraphy on the stone floor.
Afterwards I looked through the Pearl Market (unimpressive – I bought socks), and then walked all the way to the Qianmen pedestrian area where I got honked at by a tram. Some of the side alleys harbor some nice building fronts in the old style.
In the evening the entire dorm group of eight people went to the night market to eat curiosities. Alone I might have eaten at most one of them, but in a group you end up daring each other and building up expectations that I ended up eating a scorpion (crispy and mostly tasted like the seasoning), tarantula (legs are crispy and tasteless, body is yuck), deep-fried ice-cream (yumm), and starfish (tasted like plastic and only got worse with every second it spent in your mouth – yuck).
When I arrived at the Beijing railway station after my 24 hour trip from Hong Kong I ran into colleagues from university – one of which lives in Beijing. In the few minutes we had waiting to get through immigration we planned to meet up two days after to make the trip up to the Great Wall. The big advantage of having a Beijing resident as a friend, is that you can take the car to the Wall, which simplifies everything and makes it more fun as well.
We went to Badaling, which is the nearest part of the Great Wall to Beijing. Sadly, also the most touristy. Not only are there a lot of people, but you also get a renovated wall instead of the nice crumbling one, and there are giant atrocities of light shows and stages. I’m pretty sure they are currently building an ice skating park and slides around the wall. Perverse if you ask me.
Winter has its merits though, as there were a lot less people than usual (still too many) and most of them only went along the north part. The south part was pretty much empty. Going back and forth both parts, including taking pictures and chatting took us about three hours after which we fell exhausted into the car. Most of us slept on the way back.
In the evening my hostel had a free dumpling party. Everybody got to make and later eat dumplings. Getting the right riffling on the edges is not the easiest of things. Very tasty!
My train ride to Beijing was wonderful. It was warm, relaxing and I probably had the best sleep in weeks – which says something about the low quality of sleep I get in my hall.
I quickly found my hostel, called Dragon King, which is located in a quiet alley under 5 minutes away from the nearest metro station. Beijing’s metro-system is superb. You can get anywhere in the city, provided that you can wait – Beijing’s metros are incredibly slow. I had dinner not far from Dragon King, at a noodle soup place where you had to choose all your ingredients yourself. You take lettuce, noodles, and all sorts of veggies, meats, and tofus on sticks and put them in a basket. The cook then proceeds to make the soup for you. Cheap (usually between 13 and 23 rmb) and tasty, unless if you, like me, put pepper flour on top. I had a completely new ‘too spicy’ experience which had more in common with the numbness of anaesthetics. I also got some sweets from a shop with a long queue in front (the long queue being why I was interested in the first place). One of them was crab meat (yuck), but the rest was excellent sweet stuff, so I was happy.
The next day I got up early, had breakfast at my hostel (the electrical sockets in my room didn’t work, so I had to charge my phone in the lounge) and went to the Forbidden City. There I spent the next 5 hours looking at old houses, gardens, treasures, some very pompous clocks, and sometimes just standing next to a heater to warm up again. The Forbidden City offers an immense collection of antiques and is probably one of the finest museums in all China.
After walking out the north gate I went up Beijing’s highest hill to get a wonderful view of the palace and get blinded by the sun, which at its highest point during the day still made it impossible to see anything looking south without squinting your eyes – now I know why Chinese people look like they do :/ Luckily there was “low pollution”, so I got loads of blue sky.
Taking a long walk around the palace I once again got to Tiananmen Square, which, after queueing up for a security check, I explored. It’s huge. Gigantic even. The Mausoleum in the middle is grotesque, though.
Back at my hostel I went out with some people to a restaurant where we had some duck, chicken, and the most amazing eggplant.
In August 2013 I started my exchange year at The University of Hong Kong. My first term, apart from studying, I hiked some of HK’s hills, gaped at tourist attractions, haggled on markets, partied with friends, and much much more. I even backpacked through the Zhejiang province for a week. Furthermore, I took a Mandarin course during my first term here at HKU and thus was very well prepared for what I had planned for my winter holidays. Being so close to Mainland China (as a HK resident you quickly start to differentiate between Mainland China and all its special territories) I just had to take the opportunity to explore it as vastly as possible – which is why I chose, for the first time in 23 years, not to spend Christmas with my family, as much as I ended up missing them. Thus, for 28 days I backpacked through the cities of China, met many new people from all over the world, saw the many attractions, spoke in broken Mandarin and ate the whole spectrum of food, from street stall delicacies to high-class restaurants.
I hope you will enjoy my written experiences in much the same way I enjoyed making them.