A (New) Red Dawn

Today is a bright new day, I've (sadly) left our old group and the Trans-Mongolian Express and am now facing the bright new future, with new possibilities and new people. I stepped out of the lift, full of expectation and wonder for what the morning might hold, and... ran right into half of the old group. To be honest, most of the TME group are staying in Beijing for a few days, either awaiting their flights or in preparation for further travels, so we knew we'd be saying goodbye in batches across a couple of days. 

After some hugs and goodbyes to the peeps leaving that day, we carried on towards the Metro to visit our destination for the day - the Summer Palace. It's worth saying now that I didn't visit the Olympic Village, so there won't be any pictures. It's sacrilege for an architect I know, but given the timing of our tours we only had one free day in Beijing so we had to make a choice between the Summer Palace and the Olympic Village, both of which are located quite a way outside the central mass of the city and in opposite directions. Big K (Kevin, the local guide) had told us that the Olympic Village, as you might expect, is mostly empty of people and whilst the architecture is obviously impressive, it can be quite a sterile place in between the the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube et al. On the other hand, the Summer Palace is one of Beijing's biggest tourist attractions and the second stop on the 'Beijing Pilgrimage' that most Chinese people try to do at least once in their lifetime, after Tiananmen Square / Forbidden City / Mao's Mausoleum. After that recommendation, and without wanting to subject Kate to a day of following me and my camera around (I can hear Vanderson tutting from here), we went with the Summer Palace. 

After yet another amazingly simple Metro ride, forty minutes this time, and we arrived at the station closest to the Summer Palace. 'Closest' is a word I use with some hesitation as it actually took us another 35 minutes to walk to the entrance square. Admittedly, we did walk in the wrong direction - although we had started out in the right direction, but had given up as it hadn't 'felt right' - but the journey started to expose something of the scale of the Summer Palace and it's grounds. The Palace occupies a site of around 750 acres, four-fifths of which comprises (staggeringly) a man-made lake, the excavated earth from which was used in the construction of a 60 metre (that's 200 feet Dad) artificial hill. Say what you want about the ancient Chinese emperors, but they sure did have ambition (and free, unlimited slave labour, an unending help to the ambitious). 

We entered through the western gateway and consulted the map. All of the 3,000+ buildings and parks had delightfully oriental names, such as 'Longevity Hill', 'The Hall of Embroidered Clouds' and 'The Garden of Harmonious Interests'. These names are clichéd but everywhere in Beijing, even outside of the tourist spots, and really are evocative of the places. Now oriented, we set off on a route that we thought would carry us around all the main sights and then around the Lake, back to where we entered, in around 4-5 hours. 

Heading straight for the aforementioned Gardens, I soon realised this estimate was woefully inaccurate. The place is massive, and it took twenty minutes to reach our first destination. It is also immensely beautiful as well. The whole site is immaculately maintained, with the transitional areas almost as pleasing as the 'main attractions'. 

As I drifted past giant pagodas, sweeping rivers and thousands of tiny carvings of Buddha, I was struck at how serene the whole place managed to be. A masterpiece of landscape design in general, it's the pacing of the experience that stands out. Each of the landmarks is expertly separated, with winding tracks, sudden (but gentle) climbs and shady passageways meaning that you never feel the 'tourist fatigue' I've experienced at other places of major cultural expression. It seems sometimes that castles, gardens, museums etc. are so keen to bombard you with what they have to offer that you (or I, at least) get to a point where you can no longer take anymore on board, at least not in any meaningful way. The Hermitage was guilty of this, desperate to get as many Matisse's, Van Gogh's and Rembrandt's under your nose as possible that I almost walked past the Da Vinci's through sheer exhaustion at having seen so many great works without a break. But whoever laid out the Summer Palace understood the value of breathing space and its relationship to the 'main events' so well that just as you're beginning to wonder when this path or track is going to go on for much further, a pagoda or garden appears around the next bend. This pacing adds to the experience significantly, at least it did for me, and makes the place seem much calmer, despite the presence of so many people. 

And what a lot of people there were. Admittedly, we'd coincided our trip with the Chinese National Holiday, the 62nd Anniversary of the Formation of the People's Republic and a Sunday, but as we headed towards Kunming Lake, the place definitely took on a Disneyland kind of feel. Chinese were everywhere, young and old, and there were ribbons and drinks stands and even a place to buy funny hats. The day was unendingly hazy and our walk, which had taken four and a half hours and hadn't even included a walk around the lake - merely along it - had left us feeling weary. We headed back to the Metro station, the right way this time, stopping for a Starbucks (I know, I know...) and then arrived at the hotel in time to get showered and changed before meeting our new group for the Tibet Adventure in the lobby. 

This new group was again 14-strong and comprised five Canadians (including three from French Quebec) and three Australians with the rest from Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Holland. They seem like a good group, although compared to the last lot there seems to be a lot more (and I'm aware of my own readership here) experience on this tour with at least half being over 40. We were also introduced to our new tour leader, Drujal, a composed and incredibly slight Tibetan who seems polite and attentive. We all went for dinner at a little place behind the hotel, and ate pretty much the same food we had the other night, including the seemingly obligatory Peking Duck. It was very pleasant, with people starting to warm up by the end and it seemed like a good, if slightly restrained, start to the next leg of the journey. 

We're all heading off to somewhere very special tomorrow, so it's an early night for me and I'll write about it soon. 

Hope you're all well and take care.