Stop 1: Buddhist Temple
We had some free time before our scheduled tour was to start, so after another delicious hotel breakfast most of our group of students + Professor trekked through the maze of hutongs to a nearby Buddhist temple. On the way we saw a bunch of booths and stores selling incense, fake flowers, and tiny, live turtles – apparently all of these can be left on the alters at the temple as offerings. Having paid the entrance fee, we spent several hours exploring the seemingly never-ending maze of buildings, prayer wheels, and crowds of incense burning/bowing/praying individuals. I even got to witness some of the chants done by the monks in the central building – the chanting, drums, and other instruments was like nothing I’ve heard before. This temple was a Tibetan Buddhist temple, rather than a Chinese Buddhist temple, and I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about Tibetan Buddhism through my classes and other trips this semester.
Stop 2: Olympic Area Drive-By
On our way out to lunch we drove close by the Beijing Olympics stadium/area – we decided not to stop because the outsides are really the most exciting parts anyways, and we wanted more time at the Summer Palace. But I was excited to see the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube with my own two eyes! Our tour guide informed us that the Water Cube has been converted into a public swimming pool with restaurants around the edges so that you can go inside and swim all day.
Stop 3: Revolutionary Restaurant for Lunch
For lunch, we stopped at a Revolutionary-themed restaurant – a lunch spot themed after the Cultural Revolution and years proceeding the Great Leap Forward. There was a performance at the front of the room of various songs the Red Guards sang during those years, and the decor was mostly red, with propaganda posters and slogans all over the walls. There was even a shrine to Mao as you walked in the door. The food was decent – not my favorite – but it was incredibly interesting seeing the reactions of the Chinese tourists to the performances. Some older adults were singing along with the actors – the Cultural Revolution was probably in their childhoods, and they knew the words by heart.
Stop 4: The Summer Palace and Lake Kunming
We spent about three hours exploring the buildings and grounds of the imperial Summer Palace, which overlooks Lake Kunming. Apparently the palace was rebuilt by the aforementioned Dragon Lady empress by embezzling funds from the imperial navy. Dubious moral origins aside, it was a beautiful spot, and we were allowed to roam free during our time there, exploring the palace buildings up on the hill and strolling around the lake on the Long Walk, a covered wooden walkway painted with detailed scenes. It’s interesting how unregulated the tourist sites are here, compared to American tourist hotspots – we walked up the hill through the buildings and were free to roam around the tiled roofs and rocky paths as we pleased, with very little supervision from guards or guides. It lends a free and leisurely feel that I’ve never felt in an organized American tourist area.
Stop 5: Hot Pot Dinner
We stopped for dinner in downtown (as much of a downtown as the sprawling city has) Beijing, and I got to have hot pot for the first time! For those of you who have not experienced it, a heat plate or burner is in the middle of each table, and a pot of sauce and oil is set on it. You then get to choose from an array of meats, veggies, and noodles set on the table and cook your food in the sauce directly before you eat it. I loved it, although there were a few fungi and seafood critters that I didn’t choose to sample.
Stop 6: Beijing Opera
Our last official stop of the day was the Beijing Opera – or rather, a smaller, pieced together version intended for tourists. We watched an actor apply his extensive makeup and costume, and then viewed three short parts of various operas. I enjoyed the performance for its novelty – I’ve never seen or heard such a thing before – the beautiful costuming, and the impressive acrobatic stunts, but I must admit that it was late, after a very tiring day, and I have just eaten dinner… I may have been a bit drowsy during the second half.
Special Note: First Legal Purchase of Alcohol!
Not a planned tour stop, but nevertheless I did buy my first legal beer at the corner store by our hotel to cap off a hot, sweaty day. Our hotel has a beautiful courtyard that is draped in all sorts of vining plants and red lanterns, so a few classmates and I sipped our purchases before heading off to bed.