Day Three: The Summer Palace and endless shopping
The ever-so-talked-about fog finally hazed over the city, making it impossible to see past a few blocks from our 10th-floor rooms. The city had received it´s first dose of snow for the year, and there were seemingly thousands of road-cleaners brushing the dust off of sidewalks and streets. They had all donned bright orange reflective gear and facemasks (used for the pollution, NOT bird flu!) and had brooms made from straw.We met our guide and driver for the next three days, Jack and Mr. Xian. Because of the difficulty with the Chinese language, which is heavily inflected (English has hardly any), many Chinese people working in tourism choose Western names. You get the basics like John and Karen, but we also met Sunshine, River and Leon! Jack is from the southern part of China and moved to Beijing three years ago and work in tourism. Linder has friends from Canada who used him as a guide last year, so my dad hired him and a driver for about 20$/person per day. He´s one of those tall, lanky Chinese with really sharp features, the kinds you see at public places. He introduced us to our driver, short and stout, and assured us he was a good driver.We started out at 8am for the Summer Palace, located at the northwest edge of the city. We hit rush hour traffic, making the trip long (then again, Beijing is about 100 km north to south and about the size of the entire country of Belgium!). We passed more traditional areas of Beijing that haven´t been bulldozed due to rapid growth and saw the Drum and Bell Towers through dirty windows. The whole city looked dreary through the sludge that had accumulated in the early morning commute.Because of that, the tranquility and beauty of the Summer Palace stood out. Upon entering an ornate, two-tiered gate, you encounter and enormous, man-made lake spreads out in front of you. this is the second summer palace, as the first now lays in ruins, and was established for royalty to escape the city´s summer heat. It was also a birthday gift built over three years with the help of tens of thousands of laborers for an empress´s 60th birthday. Kunming Lake is ringed with temples and pavilions, long, covered corridors and bridges. The 17-Arch bridge, immediately opposite Longevity Hill and the tiered temple above it, is stunning. It leads to a small island with a temple and is protected by stone lions at each crest.
Jack walked us around the southeast edge of the lake, which was half-frozen, and through various pavilions. The corridor at the bottom of Longevity Hill is connected by a series of wooden corridors, all decorated with paintings and imperial designs. even the stones next to the lake have designs in them, like flowers and ying yangs. We climbed the steep stairs from one temple to the next, until we had finally reached a octoganal temple with a giant golden buddha. From here, we could see that the front side of the hill was full of small temples, whose pagoda style roofs barely poked out of the trees, as well as the bridges across the lake.
Jack herded us into a pearl factory next store, telling us not to buy anything. A woman explained to us how the pearls are harvested and how to tell a real from a fake pearl before leading us into a showroom (freshwater pearls can come in pearl, coral, pink, lavender or even amber depending on their exposure to certain chemicals in the sea). There were five of us and two dozen attendants, all pulling out strand after strand to show us. we were followed around and poked at until we finally gave in to buying something – me a pair of purplish stud earrings and Linder a gorgeous single pearl on a chain. We bargained our way down, feeling more comfortable with asking for discounts. I read several times that you shouldn´t touch a Chinese person, because their culture dictates that strangers should have distance, but these people had no problems touching our arms and wrists to pull us to another table. Jack led us to a buffet of foreigners next door, where we ate fried potatoes, fried noodles with vegetables, chicken wings, pork and vegetables and pizza. Everything is fried and served with endless amounts of tea!