Beijing: Summer Palace

Our guide Emmet insisted that we see the Summer Palace, even though we were all a little tired from our day of sightseeing. It is a beautiful royal park, set beside a scenic lake, and many people, locals included, visit this tranquil place to enjoy boating activities, or just to stroll around.

Emmet starts our tour, as all good guides should, with a map of the area, so that we could get our bearings, and see exactly where we were going (and not going). Since we didn’t have enough time to go around the entire lake, Emmet had to give us the abridged tour.

The lake is the centerpiece of the Summer Palace, and is encircled by a well-paved road. This is a beautiful walk for the visitors, and leads to the palace proper.

On the lake are pedal boats for rent, so that families can enjoy paddling out on the lake.

Adding to the beauty of the lake were the many lilies and lotuses that framed the shore.

For the ones who prefer something less strenuous than paddling, one can take this boat.

There were also Beijing’s version of “street performers” along the path. One of them demonstrated his skill in calligraphy by writing complicated chinese characters with his “water brush”.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what these characters mean, so my apologies if they’re inappropriate in any way. 🙂

At the palace proper, we could view the various rooms from the outside only.

Here are my folks peering into one of the bedrooms.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest attractions of the Summer Palace is the Long Gallery, a 728m long corridor decorated with paintings of historical events and beautiful places. Source

For more history and details about the Summer Palace, you can try this website.

“Required” Shopping in Beijing

I call it “required” because our tour guide said that we had to go to 3 shopping places as part of the tour, despite our declarations that we DIDN’T want to go shopping. At least these 3 shopping sites were not just shops, but also included some sort of educational tour/lecture about the products. I’ve experienced this in other countries (most memorably Turkey and Nepal), and knew what to expect… interesting lecture, then a push to buy. Rather annoying, I thought, but at least we weren’t required to buy anything, and it’s always good to learn something new.

Our tour was 5 days, so we spread out these shopping sites over this time period.

Our first stop was the jade store. Here we saw gorgeous pieces of jade of all colors, and carved in many intricate forms. It was breathtaking!

Green apparently is the most valuable color of jade, but the other colors are quite attractive as well.

While the large sculptures were compelling, they were really just too huge and not practical to even consider purchasing. We were actually more attracted to the jewelry pieces, such as pendants and earrings.

As in all stores in China, haggling is expected and encouraged, and be ready to low-ball them with your initial offer (I would say, 25% of the asking price). Of course you’ll get their requisite aghast look, but don’t worry…. this is all a ploy, and part of the ritual.

Here was my purchase from the shop: a pair of T’ang Horses which is supposed to encourage prosperity.

I was just attracted to the design of the horses, being somewhat unusual. I was told their short tails are typical of T’ang Horses.

Next shop was the cloisonné factory. Unlike the jade store, here we actually got to see HOW cloisonné was made.

First step is to solder metal strips onto the metal object, to form little compartments, called cloisons.

Here you can see the cloisons up close. Imagine that the whole metal object is covered like this.

The next step is the EACH compartment is filled with little bits of enamel, each a different color depending on the design. Sharp eyesight is needed for such fine detail.

After each compartment is filled, the object is then fired in kiln, where the enamel is baked and takes on its characteristic shine. The result is a beautiful piece of stunning colors.

Here’s a table that I saw in the showroom. Beautiful!

Again, practicality (and budget!) won over, and I contented myself with a pair of tea containers as my souvenir.

Our last “required” shop was the silk factory.

We started at the factory, where we were shown mulberry leaves that the silkworm were fed, and the whole cycle of the silkworm’s life.

The cocoon is actually made up of only 1 long silk thread, so after the silkworm is finished spinning its cocoon, the end of the silk thread is found and is tied to a spool, and the cocoon is unwound. You can see the many spools in the picture below.

Everything is highly automated, so the process is quite fast. I suppose the slowest part is waiting for the silkworm to finish spinning.

BTW, the cocoon (and the silkworm) are placed in boiling water while the cocoon is being unwound, so at the end, the factory ends up with a lot of boiled worms.

Silk is a very versatile fabric. Being a natural fabric, it is very cool to wear during the summer, yet warm during cooler weather. After the factory we were brought to the showroom (of course!), and shown their many products.

Here we demonstrate how strong and flexible the silk fibers are, as we stretch a single cocoon across a queen sized bed.

The finished products came in a variety of vibrant colors, and the most popular ones were the bed linens. No purchases for me here, since they were rather bulky, and I don’t relish the thought of dry-cleaning often.

Of course I couldn’t leave this post with saying something about the REAL tourist shopping: Wangfujing Street, which is their famous shopping street. Similar to New York’s 5th Avenue or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Wangfujing is energetic and vibrant, even, or maybe especially, at night.

It is lined with many stores, some the big department stores filled with designer goods, but the ones I liked were the smaller ones that sold native goods.

My favorite was this quaint shop that just sold chopsticks.

I saw chopsticks for all occasions: plain wood ones for everyday, lacquered ones for fancier fare, and precious silver ones for heirloom pieces. Really beautiful items! I now regret not buying a couple of sets. You never know when you want to serve a fancy Chinese dinner.

Beijing Olympic Sites: The Water Cube

Our Olympic tour didn’t end at the Bird’s Nest. Right beside it (as in walking distance) was the Water Cube, or the Beijing National Aquatics Center. Again, Chinese design rises to another level. We’re not talking about a boring cube, but something that was able to convey the sense of water and its fluidity.

According to Wikipedia, the Water Cube is covered with Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), which not only causes the bubble-like facade, but also allows light and heat penetration.

Too bad we weren’t able to see it at night, as it looks incredible in the evening, based on the pictures I’ve seen.

Similar to the Bird’s Nest, the theme of the building (in this case, bubbles or water), is echoed in many of the details, such as walls…..

……and the ceiling.

There are 2 main pools in the center (I didn’t notice if there were smaller pools hidden behind the main arena, for warming up): the diving pool….

……and the main pool. There was actually a local competition going on when we were there, so the seats were semi-filled with spectators (probably proud relatives).

An interesting fact from Wikipedia (and of course, please double check this): this swimming pool is reputed to be the “fastest” Olympic pool because it is deeper by 1.314 meters. Apparently the deeper the pool (up to a certain limit), the faster a swimmer can swim because deeper pools have less water disturbance (the extra depth dissipates the waves). This, and because of Speedo’s LZR Racer swim suit, could be a reason why so many world records were broken in the 2008 games.

Flags of the different participating countries in the Olympics were displayed all around the arena, so of course I looked for the Philippine flag.

Currently, the Water Cube not only hosts aquatic sporting events, but was also the site for a production of Swan Lake!

Beijing Olympic Sites: Bird’s Nest

Having been to Beijing before, I was most interested to see the new structures that China built for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. I’m sure most of us watched the Opening Ceremonies (and what an amazing production that was!), and because of that, I was very eager to see the Bird’s Nest (or, its more formal name, the Beijing National Stadium).

It was nicknamed the Bird’s Nest because of the random pattern the steel beams formed in its exterior.

According to Wikipedia, these beams were used in the design to primarily hide the retractable roof, which was a requirement to host the Games. If you want to read more about the Bird’s Nest, click here.

What I noticed about the Bird’s Nest was that a lot of the elements of the building were in theme. For example, the small lights that lit the path going to the Bird’s Nest proper.

Inside, we saw a lot of tourists, mostly, from the looks of it, from provincial China. I didn’t see too many foreigners there. Visitors are allowed to enter the stadium seats, and go up to the track oval.

However, no one was allowed to go ON the track oval. I can just imagine how many visitors will be trampling on the oval for photo ops! To enforce this, security guards were posted at various intervals. Mercifully, they were given an umbrella for a bit of shade, since the sun could be quite brutal.

Here’s my attempt at a panoramic shot.

Currently, the stadium continues to host several sporting events, and even an opera (again, according to Wikipedia).