Surrounding Lake Kumming, the palace is a series of temples and structures designed to provide the Empress feelings of peace & harmony, which its size alone can accomplish. However, to build this extravagant palace, the empress misappropriated funds intended for the Chinese navy. It hosts the longest covered (1/2 mile) painted corridor in the world.
Most of the existing Summer Palace dates from the 18th century. Being shielded from reality, protected by the sanctity of her palace she was ignorant of the poverty outside the palace walls. While the grounds are absolutely stunning, the waves of tourists pour over us and we seek relief in some of the quieter, forested pathways. It is easy to become disoriented within the park without a map, and while provided, they were all in Chinese. We tried to figure out where we were from the figures but found it a great challenge. Miraculously, when we wanted to go back to our hostel we took the right route and ended up in the starting courtyard. I still don't know how we managed that. We then rode the long bus ride through mind boggling, rule breaking mid-afternoon traffic to central Beijing. Some general observations on Beijing, China: people squatting on street for rest (the frog position in yoga), manual labor construction by ethnic minority migrant workers sometimes working, many times laying down by their work - actually they seem to work mostly at night and on weekends, perhaps due to the traffic?, traffic chaos - bicyclists & pedestrians nonplussed when two buses pass on either side of them, cloudy gray skies and smog combine to make it seem there is a lack of weather. It seems all middle aged men smoke, everywhere. On buses, the busdriver smokes as he weaves his way through the daily chaos. In restaurants, the smoke curls into the air as I eat my noodles. On the street, I play duck and sprint to avoid smoke being puffed into my face, which people don't seem to think is in any way offensive. In fact, they seem to take no offense to anything: being cut off in traffic, blowed smoke in the face, or spit on. Wait, let's back up. Public spitting is everywhere. While I can't recall women doing it (rarely smoking either), the Chinese men spit anywhere and everywhere. It is something one has to get used to, and be quick and agile to avoid!! The worst thing for me was not the actual spitting itself, which was pretty disgusting, but the incredibly horrible, throat and nostril clearing noises which precede the spitting. These men were kings of "hocking one back," and the noise on the streets is constant. My worst experience was a man who did so and spat right on the floor of the public bus, in the middle of all the other passengers. Uggggh!! But the weird thing is, no one else seems to mind, in fact it seems that the louder one can perform this act of throat clearing, the more acceptable one is. It was one of the hardest things for this Westerner to get used to, especially when you are walking down the street humming to yourself, and right behind you is the unmistakable sound....hooghuk!!!! On the other hand, people in Beijing are incredibly friendly and helpful, and other than the traffic, smog and smoking, the city is remarkably safe to walk around and explore. Today on the bus - this was a Tokyo like experience, as the buses were packed for Sunday shopping, I literally was the person the doors were being closed on - a man motioned for me to move my hands from one pole to the doors. I didn't really understand what he wanted me to do, but I just trusted him because he seemed so earnest and insistent in his hand motions. In doing so, he successfully prevented me from being squashed by the bus doors again, as if I left my hands in my chosen spot, they would have been crunched when they opened. Also, the woman who makes my breakfast each day teaches me Mandarin words, although she knows no English. I've learned nee how means 'hello' and sheeya sheeya means 'thank you'. She also tries, with much laughter and smiling, to teach me her name and age and how to say "vegetables only please." I am a poor student.
Today, we ventured an hour by public bus through the city to get to dowager Empress Cixi's Summer Palace. This park is an extraordinary example of Chinese architecture, style, scale and grace.