Day 18 Beijing
As expected, our day began with a bus ride - of course! - to the Summer Palace, North West of the city. Dating back almost 900 years, this vast complex of lakes and palaces is a splendid example of Chinese landscaping. The huge main lake - Lake Kunming - is entirely man made and the spoil from the excavation of more than 2 square kilometres was used to construct Longevity Hill, upon which many of the palace buildings were constructed.
In more recent times, parts of the palace was burned and looted by the French and British, in retaliation for the murder of two envoys in 1860; and again in 1900 during the Boxer rebellion. In between, the Empress Dowager Cixi used the Palace as her private retreat and for special celebrations, such as her 60th birthday. Today, the Summer Palace is a major tourist attraction and insight into imperial China.
Despite a relatively generous two hours at the Palace, we could enjoy only a small fraction of this remarkable place. From the impressive entrance, the Eastern Palace Gate, to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, the Long Corridor, and Lake Kunming itself, we were constantly impressed with the craftsmanship and beauty of the Palace, despite the very overcast day. Perhaps even more impressive - noticed earlier on the tour, too, but more pronounced here in Beijing - is the pride and reverence the Chinese have for their Imperial forebears, despite the supposed egalitarian nature of their modern society and government. An interesting counterpoint.
Our next port of call was almost like going from the sublime to the crass. We visited the Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, where we were hoping to gain some insight into the history and science of Traditional Chinese medicine. After a very few minutes of a discussion of the above, we were then seduced by a free foot massage and subjected to about 30 minutes of what can only be described as a snake oil salesman pitch. As an example, the revered doctor, as he was introduced, asked Ray his age (late 60s) and if he had to regularly get up in the night to go to the toilet. From this, he made the remarkable diagnosis that Ray had an enlarged prostate, was seriously ill and needed an expensive purse of Chinese herbal medicine to effect a cure. Now, I don’t doubt the efficacy of some traditional medicines, but this approach was such a blatant hard sell that it was difficult not to laugh and easy to pass up the invitation. The best part of this visit was that it did not occupy much of the day!
After lunch, we moved on to Tiananmen Square, which has been central to Chinese history for close to 400 years. In modern times, the PRC expanded the square to four times its original size and constructed several major buildings around the perimeter, including the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. As intended by the communist expansion of the square in 1958, it is a vast, impressive space, and to stand in the middle was to feel overwhelmed by its sheer scale. However, we are old enough to remember the iconic photo of the shopping bag man and the tank, from June 1989, and the subsequent massacre of many protesters, so our sense of the grandeur of Tiananmen Square was tinged by the sadness of being in such a poignant place. Despite the loss of life, we saw no memorial to or mention of the incident around the square. We moved on quite quickly from the square to the adjacent Forbidden City, which we will describe more in the next entry!