Not to be overshadowed by the Forbidden City and nearby sections of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace is exactly what Chinese Emperors had used this site for: a retreat from the sweltering heat of the Forbidden City. Not to be confused with the Old Summer Palace elsewhere in Beijing, this ancient royal garden was enlarged by Qing Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Its lake deepened and expanded and structures erected, turning this retreat into the Summer Palace.
The palace grounds are filled with temples, gardens, pavilions, lakes and covered walkways. Not to mention hordes of local Chinese tourists. We entered from the North Palace Gate and crossed a bridge over a canal. Being winter, it was frozen and teeming with the now-familiar ice-skate chairs.
The spiny trees open up to the grand Buddhists Tenants Hall and even grander Cloud Dispelling Hall beyond.
All complete with stone statues of lions, dragons and other interesting roof guards.
Dominating the sight is Kunming Lake. In summer it would be a spectacular setting to escape the heat and relax by the cool water. Now it was mostly frozen over, but still spectacular.
The Marble Boat (Boat of Purity and Ease), sitting calmly on the shore, is actually a lakeside pavilion built of wood sitting on a base of large stone rocks. It was painted to imitate marble. After the original was destroyed in 1860 by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War, Empress Dowager Cixi had it restored.
In stark contrast to the relaxing Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square is well known as the largest public square in the world. 440,000 sqm of dark grey paving stones makes for a lot of empty space. With the beautiful clear blue skies now gone, the relentless dull grey skies and pollution threw a huge dampener on enjoying this vast square which faces the imposing Forbidden City’s Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), which lends its name to the square.
We decided to skip the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and just admired the communist statues instead.
Around the corner from our hostel, Dragon King Hostel, is an excellent local restaurant called Dawanju Restaurant. Very famous with locals, it has been around for ages and once you go up the stairs, you are met with the quintessential Chinese restaurant experience. Tanks with live seafood, large round tables with the ‘lazy susan’, feisty chefs and zippy waiters/waitresses busily clearing tables and serving up hot dishes.
With a vast menu in English and pictures of all items to tempt the brave Westerner, it is reasonably priced and of excellent quality. The speciality is Peking Duck, the quintessential Beijing dish. We ordered the ‘Roast Duck’ and waited for it to be prepared by the specially trained chef. We dined on our favourite fried eggplant with beans and a pieced mutton dish, before finishing it off with traditional Peking Duck pancakes.
Boy oh boy. Was it worth it!
We left with full but greatly satisfied stomachs. Dawanju Restaurant definitely made our exclusive “Must come back to this restaurant again” list.
Visited 8th and 14th February 2014.