A trip to the Summer palace and Olympic Park is an easy do-it-yourself tour, there really is no need to pay a premium to take an organised excursion. There is a subway line right to the park and the whole journey from the centre of Beijing (we were staying on the edge of the Forbidden City) took us about 45 minutes. You will need to leave yourselves a good morning or afternoon here, the palace and grounds are much bigger than they look on the tourist map, and you will want time to wander and take in the sights and the sounds.
We started at the north gate and worked our way south through the park as our next destination that day was to be the Olympic park . The subway line that runs directly there, is at the southern end of the Summer Palace. See, we are learning to plan more to cut out those lengthy metro subway connections in Beijing, trust me it pays back in time.
The Summer Palace
The Palace, the buildings and the lakes are all stunning to look at and, as we are learning in China, also very popular with local tourists too. So you will need to wander off the main paths here if you want to find some tranquillity, but it can be found if you tire of the people watching and interactions with the Chinese, mainly requests to take your picture.
It’s a good place here to talk about the Chinese people we have encountered so far. We have had nothing but smiles from those we have been with and it is completely out of kilter with some reports we have had from others on their visits to China. We have had our pictures taken on numerous occasions both in clandestine papping by the kids on their smart phones and more upfront ones who come and ask. They see you sitting near to one of the sights and come in close, make a picture hand signal, smile and then snuggle in next to you with a beaming smile for the snap for their family album. Very pleasant moments.
It was a bit of a walk from the Summer Palace exit to the subway station, we wanted to save some time so we went in search of a bus and one of the locals who spoke a few words of English helped locate the right stop and the bus number that would get us there. The bus driver also stopped the bus, got out of his seat and told us this was our stop and directed us to the dual carriageway overpass to reach the station. This was all done in Chinese. Now if that isn’t helpful I don’t know what is, and he didn’t even want a picture!
The Chinese seem to like the fact that we’re both from England, as the next word that drops from their mouth is usually Olympics (well actually its more like Orimpeeks). Bejingians (not sure if I made that word up) are very proud of their Olympic history, and rightly so. It would appear they liked what they saw in London 2012 too.
We snacked at a local cafe for lunch. Again we had to struggle through a menu in Chinese but managed to order ourselves two beers and twelve assorted scrumptious dumplings all for the princely sum of 23 Yuan (US $3.50). It really does pay to eat local and not depend on tourist restaurants with English menus, they will cost you a whole lot more in China for the luxury of easy ordering.
We also now appreciate more fully that shouting and speaking slowly does not make you understandable to those that don’t speak your language. We have had it done to us in Chinese; at a higher decibel level and/or a slower pace which just makes it clearer that you don’t understand a single word. There who said we weren’t just like the Chinese, shouting at foreigners! I can sort of understand how some people might find the Chinese rude, however I think this is a cultural misunderstanding as we have found everyone really helpful despite the language barrier.
Summer Palace to Summer Olympics
It was our second iconic image of the Beijing visit as we walked up the steps from the subway to emerge onto the Olympic green and spotted the Birds Nest Stadium (or the National Stadium if you want to use its official title) in the distance. I know the Olympic atmosphere disappeared from here over four years ago, but you can still feel an excitement in the air and a sense of what it must have been like to be here during the games.
The place is alive with tourists now instead of Olympic athletes but it makes for a great sight and the buildings appear to have stood the test of time on the whole. We again posed for many photographs with the locals and John did a bit of bargaining for some nifty kites which were being hawked by the local sellers before paying our way into the stadium itself. It seemed a bit pricey at US $8 to get in to have a look, but as we were here it could not be missed, even empty the place is a fantastic sight from both outside and inside. I had to laugh at two elderly Chinese women, who just refused to pay and just walked in.
What we were not expecting was that inside you could shell out another $15 and get ten minutes on a segway making laps of the stadium where all the medal action took place. It was a no brainer for us, especially as another woman who wanted her picture taken with us did a bit of a deal in Chinese with the operators and got us upgraded to 15 minutes for free after in was clear they weren’t going to negotiate on the price. Her advice, negotiate on the price for everything, you are in China and it is expected. We had already realised this, and you have to bargain for everything including the price of hotel rooms. It is assumed as a tourist you have vast amounts of cash and don’t care how much anything costs, given that it is almost certainly cheaper than the country you’re from.
A segway ride had been on my list of things to do for ages and this was probably one of the most brilliant places on earth in which to do it. It was a little weird to control at first, but when we got the hang of it we were being told to slow down by our segway minders at regular intervals. It was a brilliant 15 minutes of sheer fun and we have a video to give you a taste of the experience .
It was sunset time and we bagged a few more shots of the stadium and Olympic Park and settled in to wait for it to get dark so we could see the multicoloured National Aquatics Centre come to life at night. It was well worth waiting for and we stood and watched it for half an hour as people wandered up and down and bagged those special photos posing in front of it.
The Olympic park a lovely place to wander; it is full of life, and hawkers’ mingle with the tourists selling their wares. They are widespread but not persistent and the kites are pretty cool. The tackiest souvenir on offer so far has to be the plastic Olympic gold medals,which are worn with pride by Chinese men.
On our way home to the subway we were also treated to a piece of street theater with Older Chinese women dancing to a rather hypnotic Chinese traditional ditty belted out by the nearby players on bells and drums. It involved lots of fabric waving and what appeared to be fighting donkeys and required one woman to be adorned with a set of false naked breasts! We are completely in the dark as to the significance of this dance, but it was a pleasure to watch, and ended a very memorable day amongst Beijing’s sights, but more importantly its people.