A Trip to Beijing Part 6



The final installment of Dr Madhumita Sen's travelogue. I hope there will be more from her in the future.
DAY 4: Today we are going to the Zoo! It has been another dream of ours to see the Pandas. We arrive at the Zoo at 9.30am, but already the crowds are thick. Before we enter, Alice takes us aside and warns us to be careful with our valuables; pickpockets are common here, apparently. This is news, we have always read and heard that crime is really rare in Beijing (which is true, we’ve been here 3 days, in really crowded areas, and would have been definitely pick-pocketed by now in Kolkata!). Anyway, we shift our wallets and passports to secure pockets and dive into the surging crowds. There are two Panda enclosures, called the ‘Asiad’ enclosure and the ‘Olympic’ enclosure.
The pandas are behind glass windows, but we are the ones enclosed, they are in the open. We really need to push through to catch a glimpse of the reclusive animals. We split up, jostled by the crowds (it is school holiday time in Beijing, we learn!) and finally manage to see these two cute black eyed giants, calmly munching some bamboo leaves, completely oblivious of the hundreds of spectators. Son actually managed to get some videos too! We crawl our way out, then see the rest of the Panda enclosure. There is the hollowed out tree where the Mom Panda retires when she is ready to give birth. We see the Panda breeding sites and pictures of panda cubs born in this zoo. We go out and see some more Pandas outside. It is hot, and they are deep in the shade, so these views are not clear.
There are many more animals in this zoo, but we decide not to spend any more time here, there are lots more to see in Beijing. We walk back in the hot sun to the van. It is a long ride to the Summer Palace.

While we sit in the cool comfort of the van, Alice tells us about our next site. The Summer Palace was built by the Ming kings to escape the summer heat of Beijing. It is on a mountain resort a few miles from the city, next to a large lake called Kunming Lake, which keeps the place cool. The Palace was a particular favourite of the ‘Dragon Lady’ Cixi (or Xixi). The story is quite interesting. Alice says, “Empress Xixi ruled China for 48 years, but we Chinese don’t like her. She was powerful but cruel, and really ruined the country in the 19th century.” She was the ruling Emperor’s favourite concubine and the mother of his only child. Apparently, she spent large amounts of the taxpayers money to make a direct water route from Beijing to the summer palace so she could go there by boat, and refurbished the whole palace for her exclusive enjoyment. She eventually shifted all royal operations from the Forbidden city to the Palace. She is also ‘credited’ with killing the King so that her 3 year old son could ascend to the throne. She also had the real Empress killed, and later, and her own son, when he went against her wishes, putting her pliable nephew on the throne!

After this blood-curdling story, as we drive along the beautiful waterway leading from Beijing to the Summer Palace, we reach the palace. We enter the Royal gates and walk through a beautiful old garden, through many gorgeous little buildings, garden statues and amazing rock formations, to the ‘Long Corridor.’ This is another corridor made along the shores of Kunming lake, where the empress used to take her daily constitutional. It extends about 750m, and is truly picturesque. It is made of wood, with beautifully painted rafters and surrounded by trees and bushes; the lake glints in the sunlight and there is a cool breeze blowing from it. A royal experience! We pass the temple which served the royalty in summer and head to the pier for a dragon boat ride.

The Empress Xixi had a two storey marble dragon-boat for her personal use, but we get on a wooden smaller replica for our ride. In the distance we see the rolling hills surrounding the lake, and the modern recreation of the original wooden ‘Marco Polo’ bridge made in honour of the famous explorer from Italy who was graciously hosted here by the Emperor in the 13th century. The boat goes out into the huge lake and then takes us back to the entrance of the Palace (we don’t have to walk back!).

Back on the van again and we ride back to Beijing for lunch. This time we eat at the Olympic restaurant, one of the places which served the many Olympic athletes during the games! This is now a popular retreat for Beijingers. After another scrumptious Chinese lunch (I’m really going to miss this!) we head for the world famous Olympic village, built for the amazing 2008 Olympics.
The afternoon is hazy with heat, and we stop the van near the Olympic village Metro station. From here it is a full 1 km walk to the Bird’s Nest stadium. This was the route taken by the Olympic Torch holders. In August! And in this blazing heat, too!! We stroll, and that is hard enough. We cross the Olympic park with its ice sculptures under glass boxes, amazing art works and many shops selling soft drinks, ice cream and souvenirs.

We walk up to the Stadium and then the Water cube which was the venue for the water sports, and then the Beijing Olympic mascots. We cannot enter the stadium but take many pictures. The buildings to house the athletes is a group of five skyscrapers in a row, made to look like a dragon from a distance. And the first building seen in isolation, looks like an Olympic torch! We marvel at the architecture. Another lifetime experience!
The sun is setting and we drive back to the centre of Beijing to one of their largest malls, fittingly called ‘The Place.’ It has a huge LED screen (supposedly the biggest in China), which screens advertisements. It is off right now (good!). It is surrounded by shops and restaurants of all the well-known international brands. It is supposed to be favourite haunt of the rich and famous of Beijing, but we are not in the mood for a high end shopping experience (besides not being able to afford more than window shopping!), so after roaming around for a mere 30 minutes or so, we decide to head back to the van, much to Alice’s disappointment.
Next we go to another shopping mall (Ya Xiu market) which sells Chinese heritage stuff and locally made artefacts. This is more interesting. At the entrance is a huge greyish green stone, the biggest jade ever found. It must weigh a ton! We roam around, buy a few Chinese masks, screens, some terra-cotta warrior replicas and some gifts for friends and relatives. Back in the van, dinner and back to the hotel.
Bath and bed sounds good! An end to another eventful day.

DAY 5: Our last day in Beijing! We get up late, though, catching up on much needed sleep. We pack up all our stuff, we have to check out by noon. We leave our luggage with the hotel concierge and head out. Today we explore around the hotel area. This whole place is owned by the OCT group, including our hotel, the Vecchio mall and the ‘Happy Valley’ amusement park across the road. This is a HUGE Disney style park with massive roller-coasters, a mountain train and water parks. Not for us! Son shows some interest, but we dissuade him, we don’t want a broken bone on the last day. There is a high-end housing complex on the other side of the hotel with beautiful parks around it, behind high walls and bristling guards. Behind this are the western shopping complexes replete with MacD, Pizza Hut, Subway, etc. Sprinkled in between are some Chinese restaurants, where we have lunch. A huge bowl of noodles and a side salad costs just 20 yuan; we cannot finish it, wow!

In the afternoon, we have tickets to another amazing show, the famous Beijing Mask Opera. This one is called “Golden Mask Dynasty.” We are escorted there by a friend of Alice’s, and we seat ourselves in a darkened theatre. The show is the most amazing we have ever seen! This one is in Chinese but there are English and Korean subtitles on a screen on the side. No photography is allowed again, and story is simple, but the stage effects are magnificent! The stage is split into many parts which open or close, divide or come together when needed, and there are rivers, pools, electric storms and a real flood (the spectators on the sides and front got splashed! Fortunately, we were in the middle) along with moving palaces, trees, gardens and hills .... not to be missed!
After this dizzying show, we come out, dazed. The centre of the theatre downstairs is selling memorabilia; we buy a replica doll of one of the masked-dynasty characters and head back to the hotel.

Alice and Joe are waiting to take us to the Airport. We pick up our luggage and pile into the van. We reach the Airport soon enough, the amazing architecture and lights of Beijing flashing past us for the last time. We settle our final payments to Alice and Joe, and walk into the Airport departure lounge. Alice comes with us, she hugs each of us, me twice; she is a little tearful. I feel embarrassed, did we do anything to make her so attached to us, or is this the usual for her? We promise to keep in touch and she tells me she will definitely contact us if she ever comes to Malaysia. We shake hands again and she is off.

We walk into the departure area. It is the end of our holiday and back to our everyday lives

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