Beijing Bucketlist: Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace & the Hutong

The third and final installment of my ‘Beijing Bucketlist’ blogs covers the latter half of our second and final day in the city. After a great morning spent on the Great Wall we headed back into central Beijing to see the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace.

Bucketlist #5 – Temple of Heaven (祈年殿; Qínián diàn)

During the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties, successive Emperors would visit the Temple of Heaven Park each year on the Winter Solstice to pray for a bumper harvest, which they did at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (see below). The three-tiered umbrella roof of the Hall – painted in royal blue with accents of gold and green – is the highlight of the park, and struck a commanding figure against the hazy spring sky.

Sitting on a raised platform and surrounded by a three-tiered marble and stone terrace – perfectly symmetrical as per Confucian aspirations – the circular hall is constructed from wood held together without a single nail. I’m no construction expert (in my 13 years of independent adulthood I’ve never even assembled an IKEA flat-pack) but this sounds like quite an impressive feat!

As with most ‘ancient’ wooden structures which we’ve visited in China, the Hall of Prayer was struck by lightening and burned to ash in 1889. Luckily for us, they built a faithful replica of the original a few years later…

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿, Qínián diàn)
祈年殿 Qínián diàn – literally, ‘pray year palace’

The 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park is enclosed by a long wall, with a gate at each compass point. The Northern rim of the wall is semi-circular while the Southern part is square, reflecting ancient Chinese wisdom that Heaven is round and Earth is square:

圆地方 Tiānyuán Dìfang - Literally translates as 'round sky square earth'

Strolling around the park in the early afternoon, the colours of the man-made structures – warm teracotta, creamy marble, gleaming gold, marine blue – felt both beautiful and calm, blending harmoniously with the natural landscape of ancient knotted cypress trees.

‘Harmony’ is a word you hear quite a lot in China. The quest for harmony in Chinese culture seems to have permeated through the imperial dynasties (in the naming of buildings, bridges etc.) right through to the current day. The indirect style of communication in China is a good example of this, where the word ‘no’ doesn’t have a direct translation into Mandarin Chinese, and “it’s not convenient” may just as well mean “it’s impossible, I’m never going to do it!” – serving to avoid confrontation and maintain a ‘harmonious’ climate. In a demo training workshop I attended yesterday, the (British) trainer referred a couple of times to the ‘Chinese yes’ and ‘Chinese no’, explaining that when he asks a question of the class, if the response is ‘yes’ then it will be vocally expressed, but if the response is ‘no’ then he will be met by silence, and a lot of people looking at the ground.

Anyway, back to the Temple of Heaven – a few more pics below.  The Round Alter (圜丘; Yuán qiū) – a circular platform consisting of a three-tiered white marble terrace – was where the Emperor would pray for rain in times of drought, offering sacrifices to the heavens. In the centre of the uppermost terrace, mum, dad, Matt and I patiently waited our turn (read: pushed our way past others…) to have our photo taken on Heaven’s Heart Stone. The architectural composition of the terrace is such that the voice of the person stood on this stone is amplified to double the volume; although, that’s not easy to determine when it’s teeming with tour groups!

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Bucketlist #6 – The Summer Palace (頤和園 ; Yíhé yuán)

The Summer Palace was the last stop on our Beijing tour itinerary. Lonely Planet recommended we “choose a sunny day for this magnificent regal encampment in the suburbs” and we really lucked out – it was a perfect afternoon.

First constructed in 1750, the Palace was modeled on a famous garden in Suzhou and named ‘Garden of Clear Ripples’. Designed as a summertime escape for the royal family in the Qing Dynasty, it extends over 300 hectares, three quarters of which is covered by Kunming Lake.

The garden was burned down – notice the trend here?! – by Anglo-French forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War, and was renamed the Summer Palace when it was rebuilt a few years later in 1888.


The Long Corridor (长廊 ; Chángláng)

The palace grounds comprise a luxurious landscape of temples, gardens, bridges, archways, pavilions and sculptures. The most memorable part for me was the Long Corridor – a wooden walkway which stretches along the northern shore of Kunming lake from Inviting the Moon Gate in the East to Stone Old Man Gate in the west; a total distance of 728m, divided by crossbeams into 273 sections.

The beams of the corridor are enveloped with over 14,000 individual, intricate, richly coloured paintings, depicting landscapes, birds, flowers and stories from classic Chinese literature. Along the corridor are four octagonal pavilions symbolising the four seasons. Fortunately, I don’t believe this has ever burned down.

Long Corridor (长廊 ; Cháng láng)

The Bankruptcy Stone (败家石 ; Bàijiā shí)

When we came across this rock (which is 8-meters-long and 2-meters-wide), our tour guide Andy explained that it’s the one place in the park where you don’t want to gather for a Jítǐ zhào (group picture) due to it’s ominous reputation as the ‘bankruptcy stone’.


Blue Iris Stone (青芝岫 ; Qīngzhī xiù), aka ‘Bankruptcy Stone’!



Way back in the Ming Dynasty, a wealthy official and avid stone collector (?!) named Mi Wanzhong came across the stone and – captivated by it’s size and natural beauty – plotted to transport it 40km across Beijing to his home. Inspired by techniques used to build the Great Wall, Mi hired laborers to cut a long well and, when winter came, to pour water into the well creating an ice-road along which the stone could be pulled. Sadly for Mi, he had to abandon the rock mid-journey, when his money ran out. From this point, it was nicknamed Bàijiā shí. In Chinese, the word baijia is used to refer to a person whose extravagant spending brings ruin to his or her family. I can just imagine Mi Wangzhong trying to explain to his wife why they couldn’t go on holiday that year. “You bought a what? Where? How? Ice? Well, as long as you only spent a small amount of our total wealth on it…”

So there the stone sat, until it was spotted years later by Emperor Qianlong (1711 – 1799) who insisted on installing it in his Garden of Clear Ripples. Here, the stone once again caused distress when it was too large to pass through the doors to the Hall of Joyful Longevity; the Emperor’s mother believed the stone to have been responsible for the Mi family’s bankrupcy and was reluctant to dismantle the doors to bring it inside. Eventually, a scholarly official named Liu Yong convinced the Empress Dowager Cixi that the stone resembled an auspicious healing mushroom which symbolises longevity and prosperity and would bring good luck to the Qing Dynasty – so inside the palace it came! And was re-named the Blue Iris Stone. Despite that, very few people had their photo taken with the stone (or indeed, photographed the stone at all).

Traditional beam decoration
Blossom trees outside the Hall of Joyful Longevity

The Marble Boat (石舫 ; Shí fǎng)

Having walked down the Long Corridor and past the Summer Palace, we reached the northwest corner of Kunming Lake where the Marble Boat (also known as the Boat of Purity and Ease) sits on a solid stone base, obscured by the lake water.

The boat was installed in 1755 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong – the same guy that ordered the Bankruptcy stone to be carted to the Summer Palace – but was subject to the same fiery fate as the rest of the palace gardens during the Second Opium War. Despite it’s name, the boat was then – and is now – made from wood, not marble. Originally built in a Chinese style, the boat was rebuilt in a more Western style in 1893 on the mandate of the Emperess Dowager Cixi*, using funds – ironically(!) – embezzled from the Chinese Navy.

* I first came across Cixi in Empress Orchid, a novel by Anchee Min which gives a sympathetic portrayal of China’s last Empress, from a first-person-perspective. It’s an easy read, and quite funny in parts – a good introduction (albeit largely fictional) to what life would have been like for a concubine in 1850’s China.


Dragon Boats

Bucketlist #7 – The Beijing Hútòng (胡同)

Lastly to the Hútòng – the alleyways and residence buildings which criss-cross the Capital city and form the heart of Beijing itself, bridging the ancient and the modern in a charming mish-mash of courtyards and coffee-shops which reminded me a little of Shanghai’s leafy Former French Concession, where Matt and I live – albeit with fewer high-rise apartment buildings.

Hútòng – literally ‘narrow alleyway’

In 1950’s there were estimated to be around 6,000 passageways; now this figure is around 1,000, but it’s still incredibly easy to get lost! On our last morning in Beijing Matt and I ambled around, half-following a route and half not. This was a highlight of Beijng for me, I loved wandering through the warren of noisy, disheveled alleyways; crumbling brick, peeling paint and alive with normal day-to-day activity.

Possibly the best photo I’ve ever taken.
Fabulous communist-style graffiti.



And that wraps up our Beijing Bucketlist!

Next up a lesser known Chinese city: Píngyáo 平遥 – an impeccably intact walled Chinese town in Shanxi province.


Beijing Bucketlist: The Great Wall (Chángchéng)

The Great Wall: said to be China’s greatest engineering triumph, ranked #1 in Lonely Planet China’s ‘Top Highlights’, and inspiration of hyperbolic metaphors the world over (I imagine). When planning our trip to Beijing – where the most robust stretches of Great Wall remain – a detour into the countryside to walk on the thing itself was irresistible… and our expectations were high!


Bucketlist #4 – Mùtiányù Chángchéng (慕田峪)

First a bit of background. The original wall was begun more than 2000 years ago during the Qin dynasty – a defensive structure designed to keep the Northern “mongol hordes” from invading central China. Thereafter it was built brick-by-brick by tens of thousands of slaves, upon the command of a succession of all-powerful Emperors.

Significant additions and renovations being made during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century, and in it’s prime, the Great Wall snaked over 20,000 kilometres from East to West China along what was historically the Northern boarder. You may have heard that it is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space… a claim which has been subject to debate over the years. Having never been to space I don’t feel suitably qualified to weigh in on that issue; however, I can’t argue with the fact that on some days, you can have your feet firmly planted on the thing and still not get a glimpse of it…

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So I guess we were lucky…

The Great Wall VIP Experience!

It won’t have hurt that we avoided Golden Week – China’s annual week-long national holiday in October and one of the only opportunities that most Chinese citizens get to take a vacation… In 2014, it was estimated there were 16 million visitors in this week alone!

great wall sections
image borrowed from

The majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty, and there are a number of stretches open to visitors, ranging from wild and perilous ruins to painstakingly restored tourist-friendly reproductions. We chose to visit Mùtiányù; a popular and recently renovated 3km stretch which was easy to reach from Beijing (about 90mins by car from our Hutong hotel) and boasted incredible mountain views, Ming-era guard towers and – wait for it – a toboggan ride! (i feel dutifully ashamed that I held equal excitement for the toboggan as I did for the wall).

I hadn’t given much thought about how we would come to be standing on the wall until we arrived at the cable-car station – which was complete with impeccably clean public toilets, a rarity in China, therefore worth a shout-out. Our ascent exposed craggy brown mountains and scraggy brown trees, a harsh, windswept landscape stark against the blue sky and intersected by a snaking line of stone.


At the top we hopped off the cable car, turned left along the wall, and started to walk. It was still early morning but the temperature had already warmed up and before long we’d shed our coats, then sweatshirts, and started to stare in amazement at people around us wearing black overcoats, heavy down-filled jackets, and even woolly hats!


Every now and then we passed through a watch-tower, a dark little warren of damp corridors, narrow stone staircases and arched windows which framed the mountains beyond. In one watchtower a sheet of white fabric had been pinned to the wall, and inscribed with the colourful autographs of thousands of people who had passed through before us.


Our visit to the wall was in early April, and the cherry blossom trees were flowering. When I look back on these photos (non of which have even glimpsed a filter), I am so grateful for the beautiful weather, it really did make for a special day.


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Approaching lunchtime with rumbling stomachs after a good walk, we joined the (not-insubstantial) queue for the toboggan and read the safety instructions with care:

  1. All drivers and passengers use the toboggan run at their own risk.
  2. Passengers below mustn’t ride: suffer from high blood pressure, heart sick, heart functional disease, epilepsy, mental disease, drinker and mother to be, permanent disability have difficulty getting about, old and weak.

After the obligatory debate with my parents about whether they classed as ‘old and weak’, I got into my buggy and shot off to a brilliant start with the brake fully released and calls from the attendant to SLOW DOWN! as I approached the first corner (#toboggangoals). Unfortunately a group of 6-or-so hefty Russians had decided it would be a super idea to stop half way down and take a group-selfie; cue screeching breaks and a hard stop seconds before I smashed into the back of them. They eventually got going again and I managed to pick up speed, hurtling down to the bottom. Aside from skiing, it’s honestly the best way to get down a mountain!

If I had to pick one highlight from our Beijing Bucketlist adventures, it would be the Great Wall. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, you would expect it to be impressive; however, I find that sometimes the excitement of visiting places with such lofty credentials is accompanied by a New Year’s Eve kind of anti-climax… this was not the case here. The Great Wall took my breath away and I could have walked along it in awe for miles and miles (had I not really needed to eat lunch). If you get the chance to visit, grab it with both hands – and let me know if you agree!

NB: you can read my first Beijing blog here.

– Emma