Now you’ve gone and ruined it

More time travel, this time to 13 October 2007. Photos by D & me.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Beijing is a big city with a long history, and there are enough interesting things here that even tourists who devote more than a week to the city are going to miss things. Even a foreigner who’s lived here almost a year can discover new things. Yuanming Yuan is a case in point. The guide book calls it “Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness, sometimes known as the Old Summer Palace)” which clears up nothing, and certainly doesn’t make it seem special enough to be at the top of anyone’s list. I don’t even know any locals who have been there.

It’s a huge park adjacent to the more famous Yihe Yuan (Summer Palace) in the northwest part of town. We visited there towards the end of a very long day of running around town.
We started out by taking the subway to Tiananmen Square, hoping to get to see it this time – the last time we tried was a couple days before the National Day festival was to start, and the square was roped off while they set up some special decorations. As it turned out, on this day we had similar luck. The Central Committee was meeting in the Great Hall of the People and the whole square was roped off and had soldiers everywhere guarding it.

Also on our agenda was trying to find a music store that D had read about in the American media – a place where independent Chinese music was sold. We only had and address, not the name of the store, so I located the general area on the map and we rode the subway to the nearest station. We ended up walking over a mile along the street before we came to the specified address, and it was a closed-up doorway.

By this time, we were feeling pretty hungry, so we continued walking towards what seemed to be a commercial center searching for a place that looked good for lunch. What we found was a whole district devoted to selling musical instruments, with dozens of shops featuring everything from Chinese traditional instruments to electric guitars and the latest hi-tech keyboards. I will definitely be going back there. After wandering for a while in amazement (seriously, there were several blocks containing nothing but instrument stores on both sides of the street), we finally settled on McDonald’s, which was the only reasonable-looking food place we came across.

After a quick meal, we found a taxi and asked for Yuanming Yuan. I guess I didn’t pronounce it very well, because the driver asked to see my map. Or maybe it’s just that nobody ever asks to go there. I think we must have taken an indirect route (or maybe he missed a turn), but we eventually got to the entrance.
It was all decorated with the same kind of fabric-on-frames structures I saw back during the Spring Festival. We paid for our Through Tickets and went in.
It’s very nice looking at the entrance, and like many parts of town, is augmented by arrays of plants in plastic pots. It’s a lot easier than actually putting the things in the ground, I suppose.

It was a clear, chilly afternoon, and there are lots of ponds suitable for lotus.
And mosquitoes, unfortunately.
The signs were a bit confusing, and we found ourselves walking along a long path decorated with various animals and characters overhead.
Eventually we got to the ruins. Back in the Qing Dynasty (the last of China’s dynasties), the emperors had built a complex of European-style structures at his Summer Residence. Obviously the originals do not survive, but from the descriptions and drawings from the time, it was quite spectacular, and said to rival Versailles in France. They were constructed over the periods from roughly 1750-1850. Please forgive my fuzzy history.
In 1860, during what is called the Second Opium War, British and French forces captured Beijing and destroyed the palaces, knocking down the beautiful buildings and breaking up the carved marble.
Over the years following the sacking, locals salvaged much of the building material for their own purposes, leaving a stark collection of blocks and columns.
We watched with a little sadness to see how poorly today’s locals treat the site. There are signs that say not to climb on the ruins. We also watched in amazement as a woman wrestled with a tree, pulling and twisting a branch until if finally came off. She then stripped off all the twigs and handed it to her young son to use as a walking stick, leaving the poor tree sagging and damaged.
This is what remains of a huge water display. The emperor would sit on a throne located about where this photo was shot from, and watch as the massive fountain in front of him spouted in some kind of show.
This upside-down looking structure is what remains of the water tower. There was a large cistern on top of it, and it’s at the right elevation to have been used to supply water to the fountains.
As you can see, it was starting to get dark, so we began to make our way towards the exit. As we walked, the lanterns along the path came on in a sporadic fashion. One string would light up, then another off in one direction, the one off the other way. There was certainly no central control of the lighting.
D caught sight of something unexpected on the sidewalk, and I popped the lens cap off the camera to get a portrait. That’s qingwa in Mandarin. Pretty big one too.

As we walked along, we started catching sight of cats. First one would dart across the sidewalk, then we’d see a movement in the bushes.
Eventually we saw a whole bunch of them hanging near on a bridge. Yes, there were fish in the water.
Then there was a commotion and most of the cats came rushing towards us. There was a lady dropping some cat food onto the sidewalk. Must be a regular occurrence – the cats all knew what to expect.
At seemingly random times, the fabric decorations lit up.

If you’re thinking this is slightly goofy, you’re thinking exactly what I was thinking as we walked along. Of course, I saw the same kind of stuff in Chaoyang Park during the Spring Ffestival, but I’m easily amused.
Speaking of goofy, here we have miniature glowing replicas of two of the most famous venues being built for the 2008 Olympics – the Aquatics Center (aka Water Cube) and National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest).


  1. wow!! nice pictures. the walk through the old summer palace gardens sounds soo romantic!!

    more obiwan, more pictures.


  2. There is one other bit I maybe should mention. The main Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan) is actually older than the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan), which is called "old" because it's in ruins. The "new" Summer Palace was also destroyed by the European armies (more than once), but it was rebuilt.

    Make sense?

    And I've remembered something else. The more prominent ruins had big plaques with explanations, which is where I got most of the history I picked up. The really interesting thing is that every single one of the descriptions ended with "British and French armies destroyed _____ when they took the city in 1860."

    Since the Second Opium War is not very well known, here's a link.

    As you can see, it was a particularly unpleasant conflict, with plenty of bad behavior on all sides. Note that the victorious Europeans forced the Chinese to legalize the opium trade. The British (and Americans as well, though they did not participate in the fighting) had been making money selling opium to Chinese people, and the Qing Dynasty outlawing the drug was one of the sparks for the war.