After breakfast in the backpacker bar we’d visited last night, and the second set of farewells to remaining group members, we headed off to find the subway to visit the Summer Palace. We ended up walking for about fifteen minutes through the hutong area north of our hotel and it reminded me a lot of the spots I’d visited on my last trip here. The hutongs around Houhai, that we’d visited earlier in the trip, seem to have been gentrified. They are certainly on the cleaner, better-maintained end of the spectrum. Here, everything was more run down, but also felt like more of a community rather than a showpiece. We had to navigate around a large boarded-off area, bordering the main road to the north though, which had clearly been recently demolished and was being redeveloped.
The Summer Palace complex, to which the imperial court would decamp in the heat of summer, is set around the edges of a large lake to the northwest of the city and is a beautiful place to explore. Like the Forbidden City, a lot of the murals and ceiling decorations have been beautifully restored – no mean feat given how many there are around the palace; literally every few feet along a corridor, there will be another cross-beam with a scene painted on it. There are miles of corridor here.
They have an automatic audio guide system here, the same as at the Temple of Heaven, but we found it no more usable. I had to take mine back twice before getting a combination of guide and earphone that worked. I would rather have received a printed map of the site, which is quite extensive and easy to get lost in.
Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place to get lost in. Like the Forbidden City there are lots of displays of personal artefacts of the imperial court. Unlike the Forbidden City, the pavilions are surrounded by trees and gardens, often adjacent to a lake, so it feels like a much less formal and more enjoyable residence. Climbing the hill up to the Tower of Buddhist Incense takes you past several follies and grottos you can explore before revealing dramatic views across Kunming Lake. On a clear day (as we more or less had) you can see way beyond the park which encompasses the palace, out to greater Beijing beyond.
There was a perfect moment for me, late in the afternoon. We’d come down from the hill and had some refreshments near the Marble Boat, then took one of the tourist boats across to South Lake Island. It was just blissful to stretch out on the bench on the side of the boat, feel the breeze and watch as the pavilions and trees sailed by, bathed in the more gentle afternoon sunlight. I could have stayed in that moment forever.
Sadly though, the world moves on. We explored the South Lake Island a little before crossing the seventeen-arch bridge back to the lake shore and taking a slow stroll back around to the exit.
From there, it was a bit of a rush to get back to the hotel and get cleaned up. In the end we made it in good time and hailed a taxi to take us to dinner. For all that we left the hotel in good time, the driver misread the address of the restaurant we were going to and, unbeknownst to us, dropped us on the wrong corner of Tiananmen Square. This caused a certain amount of confusion when Mark and Chris arrived to meet us on the opposite corner and it took us a little while to realise what had happened.
We hadn’t seen Chris on our first swing through Beijing as he’d been away with work, so it was good to catch up and, as ever, they’d chosen a lovely restaurant for our last dinner. Capital M sits on the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square and has a terrace with views of the Qianmen gate and Mao’s Mausoluem – both attractively illuminated at night. We dined on some delicious, crispy-skinned suckling pig and had a generous serving of the house pavlova for dessert before saying our final goodbyes and walking back along the square to our hotel.
Neither of us felt much like packing when we got back, so we set an early alarm and fell into a very contented sleep.