Beijing: Summer Palace & Olympic Park

My second full day in Beijing involved me heading to the Haidan District to check out the revered Summer Palace. Situated right next to Beigongmen subway station, it’s yet another huge space in Beijing, filled with massive lakes, plenty of Chinese architecture and loads of greenery. I chose the perfect day for it as the Autumn sunshine was out in force, giving the whole place a dazzling glow.

¥60 gets you ‘through entry’ which basically allows you entrance into everything (though nobody checked my ticket once I got through the first bit). There’s a labyrinthine quality to the place and whilst you can buy a map, I found it much more fun to wander amongst the woodland, occasionally stumbling across a Chinese building/temple or a sterling view of Kunming Lake. After a picnic lunch directly above the dazzling water, I headed down to stroll beside the lake.

Kuming Lake, Summer Palace
Kuming Lake, Summer Palace

My celebrity status came back to haunt me as a couple of people wanted photos with me (I have no idea who they think I am – perhaps it was the shock of me wearing shorts) before I found a large tree to sit and chill under whilst soaking up some rays. It was a fantastic way to spend a summery morning/early afternoon.

Staying in this area, I hopped on the 563 bus (¥1 for a single ride) to the nearby Fragrant Hills, another big open space which is supposedly famed for its picturesque autumnal glow at this time of year. You can get the bus from directly opposite the Summer Palace, right near the Beigongmen subway exit (in front of KFC – I wasn’t tempted). It terminates at Xianshangongyuan Dongmen, which is the South-East entrance to the Fragrant Hills. Just walk through the car park and past the food stalls and you’ll get in.

563 bus to Fragrant Hills (
563 bus to Fragrant Hills (Xianshangongyuan Dongmen)

For ¥10 you get another huge park, though there wasn’t much orange when I arrived. I’m not sure if mid-October was too early or if autumn was arriving late in Beijing, but 99% of the leaves were still green. Still, it was a nice park. Seeing a sign for Xinlu Peak, I was unable to resist an invitation for a good view and, figuring it would be a similar climb to Jingshan Park the day before, I gave it a go.

That’s the last time I underestimate a climb! It took about 50 minutes to haul my way up thousands of steps. I’ve got a new found love for hiking and climbing but not so unexpectedly and I certainly didn’t want to knacker myself the day before the Great Wall! Not one to give up and turn back, I persevered and was rewarded with a truly breathtaking view of Beijing at the top. It was one of the best views I’ve seen (though I feel like I’ve said that for every hike I’ve done). Extra brownie points for the stall selling cold beers at the top too – that certainly helped the climb back down.

In other news, Shortsgate continues in earnest. Even on a beautifully sunny day like today, a group of men stopped right in front of me, their mouths agape in horror at my attire. You’d think I was parading round with nothing on at all. And it was around 20C and the sun was out. You’d be judged for not wearing shorts in those conditions back home.

Their judgemental stares did not deter and, after a trip to the Great Wall, I returned to Beijing (shorts and all) for my final day in the city. My plan to visit one of the national parks went awry when the bus stop I’d found online didn’t exist so I changed my plans and decided to check out the Olympic Park (Subway Line 8) which is a huge part of the city built to accommodate the 2008 Games.

Within this section, I started off at the forest park which is a massive (and free!) area of woodland with lakes, bridges and plenty of pathways to get lost down. The sunshine on the autumn leaves made for some brilliant photography and I enjoyed a lazy afternoon here. I think I only managed to get round about half of it – it’s seriously big.

Exiting the South Gate of the forest park, I was then on the stretch heading towards Olympic park, where all the relics of the 2008 event still remain. To the left, they’re building a gigantic observatory tower which looks seriously cool. Apparently it should be open to the public around November so I’m gutted I just missed out on the opportunity to see it.

Bird's Nest Stadium at night
Bird’s Nest Stadium at night

I kept going and, after passing through security, arrived in the hub of the park. The focal point is the stunning Bird’s Nest National Stadium which I visited twice – once in daylight and once when it lights up at night. It’s a seriously cool building and is still in use. Just days before, it hosted a football game between Brazil and Argentina. It’s visually stunning from all angles and really comes to life when they light it up at night.

Elsewhere, they’ve got the Water Cube which was used for aquatic sports and various other sporty venues, as well as all the usual Olympic memorabilia and statues you’d expect from such an area. It’s well worth a look, especially as it’s all free to look around. Night time is the best time to go as just about everything lights up.

Bizarrely though, today the stadium wasn’t the main attraction as the Olympic park had two gigantic mechanical guests. Moving up and down the central walkway was a giant animatronic spider and a similarly designed mechanical dragon. I later found out they’re made by French company ‘La Machina’ and seem to tour about a bit. The Chinese were loving them.

It all looked very 50s B-movie to me but it was good fun and when the spider and the dragon faced off, it gave a glimpse of what might happen if one of the naff Hollywood sci-fi/horror films became reality. When everything went dark, the dragon even breathed fire which was pretty cool, though it was less impressive when accompanied by its roar, which sounded rather like Chewbacca on helium.

2014's big autumn blockbuster
2014’s big autumn blockbuster

It was a unique experience though and I feel that gigantic mechanical creatures facing off on the site of the Olympic Games summed up Beijing’s oddities and quirks quite nicely. Much like the dragon’s cumbersome movements as it sprayed water at fangirling locals, my trip to China hasn’t always been the smoothest, but it’s almost certainly been one of a kind… and that’s really all that counts.

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