Thursday, July 19

Birds Nests and Pandas

Our last day in Beijing was filled with plenty of memorable “bucket list” activities.  The highlights began with a side trip to Beijing Zoo to view its modern Panda enclosure.  Cindy, our private guide, had repeatedly warned us that there was no guarantee we’d see any Pandas.  They’re reclusive creatures at the best of times.  At first her caution appeared warranted as we made our way through the indoor observation enclosure.  Not a single animal could be seen.

However, our luck took a turn for the better as we rounded the corner of the neighbouring outdoor area.  Much to our delight, we encountered not one, but two Pandas, each chewing contentedly on fresh bamboo stakes.  As we watched, one of the bears rose several times to alternate between wandering its enclosure to sitting on its hunches, looking directly at us.   

The sight of these majestic animals was mesmerizing.  We spent more than half an hour watching their antics, praising our good fortune.  My Dad was thrilled.  He’d listed the Terracotta Warriors and Pandas on his bucket list and couldn’t believe his luck with this incredible viewing. Even our guide, Cindy, was ecstatic; later confessing this was also her best viewing experience.

From the Zoo we headed north to the Summer Palace.  This was my first visit to the Palace since 1998.  It was just as I remembered it.  The complex is relatively new by Chinese standards.  Construction began in 1750, the 15th year of Qianlong Emporer’s reign.  The palace buildings and surrounding gardens cover a staggering 2.9 square kilometers.  This area includes, Kumming Lake, a meretriciously sculpted artificial lake.  Contouring the shoreline and lake bed resulted in a debris mound on the lake’s northern shore.  It was subsequently landscaped into a tree-clad 60 metre high hill called Longevity Hill.

The hill’s dramatic focal point is an impressive Buddhist temple, Fo Xiang Ge.  The temple includes a hillside tower which reached by climbing a heart-stopping series of stairways.  The tower itself is 41 metres high, sitting atop an equally dramatic 20-metre high stone platform.  Below the temple, tracing the lake foreshore for a staggering 728 metres, is an elaborate open-sided wooden corridor.  I’ve heard it’s adorned by more than 14,000 separate paintings.

We walked the corridor’s entire length.  At the end visitors are greeted by the sight of a full scale paddle steamer, built entirely of white marble, resting on the lake’s shore.  The Empress Dowager Cixi had it built to provide a shaded place to sit and enjoy refreshing Summer breezes.  We then crossed Kumming Lake by boat to meet up with our personal driver. 

Our next sight was another bucket list moment for both of my parents.  We drove back into the city to see Olympic Park, the home of the 2008 Summer Games.  A hefty entrance fee soon had us sitting in the lower tiers of the famous Bird Nest Stadium.  My father sat for some time looking out across the athletic track reflecting no doubt on my brother’s participation in the Games. 

Four years earlier my brother Hamish had stood in the midst of the field soaking up the colour and spectacle of the Games’ closing ceremony.  Sadly, today the centre field is used by visitors weaving their way around a temporary obstacle course on shiny new Segways.  We finished our day with a wander through the neighbouring Aquatic Centre, affectionately known as the Water Cube.

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