I visit the Great Wall of China again – this time the Mutianyu section – and we explore the beautiful Summer Palace, the largest royal park in China.
6 June 2016
We are on board our bus at 6.30am with breakfast boxes in hand. We have a 2 hour bus trip north east of Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Although there is some grumbling about the early start, it will mean that we are there before the heat of the day and before the crowds. There is another section of the wall (the Badaling section) that is very popular with Chinese tourists because Chairman Mao visited there – it is always very crowded. The Mutianyu section is popular with other tourists because it is relatively close to Beijing. At the beginning of my trip I visited the Jinshanling section which is further away and therefore less crowded again.
Although Mutianyu is also north-east of Beijing, the scenery we pass on the way is totally different from the forests, tunnels and viaducts that we saw on the way to Jinshanling. Today we are passing through very lush countryside full of fruit trees and chestnut ‘forests’; pick-your-own fruit signs are everywhere and little roadside stalls full of apricots, cherries, berries and other fruits. There are lots of little villages with patches of crops as well – some of the villages are very monochrome, all painted in the same shade of grey.
We get a VIP pass at the entrance to the wall meaning that the bus can drop us off near the top of the road rather than having to queue for the shuttle bus. I am really pleased that I did my walking tour of the wall earlier, covering quite some distance – this is generally measured by the number of watchtowers passed (I did 22) rather than by actual distance – because now I am happy to just relax and enjoy my time experiencing this Great Wonder of the World.
At Mutianyu there is the option of taking one of two cable cars – we are going to the Northern sections and most of us opt for the cable car (100 yuan/NZ$20 return is well worth it). Ian and Helen decide to walk up but quickly discover that it is very steep and they are climbing ladders, so turn back and take the cable car.
Our early start and VIP status mean that when we get to the top there is virtually no-one else there and we are able to enjoy the peace and spectacular scenery. It is wonderful to be able to listen to the birds and see the butterflies floating by. Anu and I wander along taking copious photos – everywhere you turn there is another spectacular view and even just a few metres further along we see another amazing vista or angle. There are 6 watchtowers that are accessible on this section before you get to a no entry sign, but the last of these sections is extremely steep so I decide to just go to the 5th watchtower and enjoy the walk. Some of the group do climb up. Anu has decided to forgo the lunch at a farmers house so that she can spend more time on the wall, so I leave her to do the climb while I head back with most of the group.
Our lunch is at Mr Wang’s farmhouse (although most of these ‘farmhouses’ are really just restaurants now) and is another wonderful selection of stir fry dishes with lots of vegetables as well as some pork, chicken and prawn dishes. Outside is a myna bird in a cage that surprises Mary-Ellen by saying ‘hello, how are you’.
Then it is back on the bus for a couple of hours driving to the Summer Palace. This is the palace that a select few of the Emperor’s household went to escape the heat of the summer. It was originally built about 500 years ago by an emperor for his mother in the hope of giving her a long life, but much was destroyed by the British and French after the Opium Wars in 1860. Again I am particularly interested as it was a favourite of Dowager Empress Cixi and I had read that she had ordered the rebuilding of this special retreat as a haven for herself in her retirement. She led a very lonely life and took great solace in enjoying nature – this place is certainly testament to that. There is again controversy about her ‘wasting so much money’ on rebuilding this for herself but according to the new records there is certainly another side to the story.
The Summer Palace is a magical place set in wondrous gardens with a huge lake in the middle. Palace business still had to continue during the heat of summer so there is a meeting hall near the entrance. The Dowager Empress had the largest and most beautiful residence there, perfectly situated on the edge of the lake and with easy access to the 700m long covered walkway along the edge of the lake. This walkway is totally covered in paintings – not a single one the same – with pavilions representing each of the seasons at intervals along the length. As well as the paintings, she has beautiful bronze sculptures of cranes, stags and other creatures.
There was a smaller residence for her adopted son (nephew) who is often referred to as the Puppet Emperor. He was ‘imprisoned’ here by Cixi and the brick walls are still visible – but according to the book he appears to have been imprisoned for good reason as far as I can tell. (Later he is imprisoned on an island in the middle of the lake.) His wife the Empress had comfortable quarters there also and we can look through the windows at some of the original furniture.
At the end of the covered walkway there is a wharf area where there is a giant marble boat. There was a saying that likened the fortune of the Emperor to that of a boat on water: the people can keep the emperor in power but can just as easily tip him over. The emperor apparently built this marble boat that couldn’t be tipped over as a sign of his eternal rule (he overlooked the fact that marble didn’t float particularly well!). Today we can ride on more conventional boats across the lake to the island – this is joined to the shore by the Bridge of Seventeen Arches. This is also a good spot to follow Chris’ lead and indulge in an ice-cream (Chris seems to have a great penchant for ice-cream).
Even though we have been appreciating the shade of the trees and the walkway, and been cooled by the breeze off the lake, it has still been a long hot day with lots of walking and we are very pleased to get to our bus and then back to the hotel for a cold drink and a welcome shower.
This is sadly the last real day of our tour, and we farewell Mike and Colleen who fly out that evening and will miss our farewell dinner. We also present Jing with a sparkly panda ring (for her birthday a couple of days away) to add to her collection of panda items that she brings out for the tour. We are booked into a Peking Duck Restaurant about 10 minutes walk away for our dinner. Again Jing excels with her selection of dishes for us to enjoy, with the finale being the Peking Duck.
We have all made good friends on this trip and exchange email details. We spend quite some time discussing what special meals each would prepare when the others come to visit. Fran, Chris, Ian and Helen all live in the same small town in Western Australia and will definitely catch up soon. Mike and Colleen also live in Auckland so we plan a get together over a beer or wine and reminisce about our travels. We thank Jing for being such a great guide and friend and present her with tips and gifts. Then it is back to the hotel to organise luggage as many have early flights or trains out in the morning.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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