Wandering the Ruins of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing

After finishing my master’s degree at HEC Paris this past June, I decided to embark on a two week trip to China. Why China? The timing felt right. About a fifth of my class was Chinese, and I got along well with these students quite well. This also afforded me the opportunity to have a wealth of insider tips and information, as well as help booking my tickets on Chinese-only websites and planning my itinerary, visa advice, and even opportunities to stay with friends in China. I suppose I developed an interest in China back when I used to live in Chinatown in NYC. China having become the major player it is in today’s economic and political landscape, anyone seeking to acquire a global perspective must eventually get to know and understand China.

In order to minimize culture shock, I started off in arguably the most Western of Asia’s cities: Hong Kong.

The view of Hong Kong from up top Victoria Peak

The view of Hong Kong from up top Victoria Peak

Upon landing in the glittery metropolis, where the towering silver skyscrapers stand in stark contrast with the blue water of the bay and the greenery of the near-tropical climate, I kicked off my trip by making a trek to one of the world’s highest bars, racing against time to catch my first Asian sunset, from the best vantage point in town.

Marveling at the view from Ozone, Asia's highest bar on the 118th top floor of the world's highest hotel.

Marveling at the view from Ozone, Asia’s highest bar on the 118th top floor of the world’s highest hotel.

From inadvertently getting lost in countless luxury shopping malls, to mouth-watering dim sum, Wednesday night horse races, rooftop drinks with old friends, lighting incense in temples, a couple unforgettable panoramic sunsets, and one final day at the beach, my few days in Hong Kong flew by, and it was onto the next destination: Shanghai.

My Chinese friends warned me that my flight to Shanghai would most likely be delayed, so luckily I was mentally prepared to sit in the plane on the tarmac a couple hours while waiting for takeoff. After getting to Shanghai a bit later than planned, I proudly managed to catch the last public bus from the airport into the city center, which got there quite fast as the time was approaching midnight. After hopping off the bus, in an attempt to find my friend’s apartment I started to walk down West Nanjing Road, which I quickly realized is the Fifth Avenue / Oxford Street / Champs Elysées of Shanghai.  After veering off into the equally posh side streets, I unexpectedly passed a couple of street food stands. After having lived in Mexico City, I developed a love for street food, and while I had certainly enjoyed my meals in Hong Kong’s restaurants, I knew that I would undoubtedly get an authentic taste of mainland China at these stands, and at a good price.

And so, unable to communicate with the lady of the stand, I pointed at the dish that the man before me had received, hoping it would be something good. For ten yuan I got one of the best fried rice dishes I’ve ever had. I sat down on a tiny plastic stool at a tiny plastic table, clearly made for children, parked my little suitcase next to me and enjoyed my memorable midnight snack, my very first meal in true mainland China. Eventually two young women also sat down at the table. As I finished my meal I took out the map I had printed of the neighborhood, not having data on my phone. As I attempted to figure out where I was and how to get to my friend’s place, one of the girls asked me in English if I needed help, and then tried to explain to me where to go after I pointed to my friend’s apartment on the map. Clearly seeing that I had literally just landed in China and was still a bit disoriented, she and her friend offered to guide me to the apartment building – not only did they walk me there but they also spoke to the security guard to make sure I was let into the complex. I had only been in Shanghai for a few hours, but already I was impressed with the hospitality (and food) of this city.

The next few days saw me wandering through and exploring all the sights of the China’s concrete jungle; the Paris of the Orient, as they used to call it, having become more of a New York. Like the first time you see the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, you never quite forget the first time you see the Oriental Pearl Tower, with its red, glittering dome that seems to perfectly capture the rays of the sunset – I first caught glimpse of it from afar, down a street that cut through the many buildings paving the way to the Bund river promenade. I followed this street to the Bund, climbed up the steps up to the promenade and was rewarded by the full spectacle of Pudong’s urban façade, each building across the river taller than the one next to it and boasting a more avant-garde design.

I had always imagined Shanghai as a futuristic metropolis, and it certainly did not disappoint. Blessed with unseasonably blue skies, my days in Shanghai drifted by quickly. I left with a positive impression of a truly cosmopolitan city, rich in art, culture, architecture, and nightlife.

On a rainy Monday morning, I made my way through Shanghai to the train station and boarded the ultra-fast bullet train to Beijing, slicing across an astounding 1,300 kilometers in just five hours. Here, I found a place that reminded me of Mexico City: often polluted and congested with traffic, but so profoundly rich in history and tradition that it is easy to overlook these problems for the sake of cultural discovery. It also turned out that my strategy to minimize culture shock had been well-guided; Hong Kong, then Shanghai, had only but prepared me for Beijing, for here I felt I was truly deep in China. Unfortunately, I had happened to arrive during the most polluted week of the year up until then. Fortunately, one of my classmates from HEC had put me in touch with a friend who became my perfect local guide and friend, especially since unlike in Shanghai and Hong Kong, none of my friends from Beijing happened to be in town during my visit.

My Beijing guide, seen here ordering some of the city's best Peking duck at Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant

My Beijing guide, seen here ordering some of the city’s best Peking duck at Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant

In addition to introducing me to some of the city’s best and most authentic cuisine, this friend also took me to one of the tourist sites that I may have otherwise skipped: the Old Summer Palace. Most visitors to Beijing make a trek to see the majestic Summer Palace, but very few foreign visitors know of the Old Summer Palace nearby, a quick bus ride away. The Old Summer Palace site commemorates the location of the original Summer Palace. Built at the beginning of the 18th century, the emperor Qianlong later enlisted Jesuits to design European-style grounds around the palace, complete with pavilions, fountains, and Baroque statues, to complement the existing Chinese-style architecture. However, in 1860, during the Second Opium War, the Palace and its grounds were unforgivingly rampaged and completely destroyed by Anglo-French troops. Rather than rebuild the Palace on its original grounds, it was rebuilt nearby, the original site left as a reminder of the threat of foreign invaders – a physical manifestation of the emotional scar seared into the collective national memory by the Palace’s traumatic destruction.

To visit the site today is to stroll through a sprawling expanse of well-maintained, beautiful gardens and pagodas. When I visited in mid-June, the lotus flowers that cover the grounds’ many lakes were in full bloom, and after five days of grey smog in Beijing, I was even treated to a bit of sunshine and blue sky. Housed inside a small building, a replica of the Old Summer Palace before the rampage, a noble site sprawling with ornate temples and sophisticated gardens, gives an idea of the full extent of its destruction. However, the most striking part of the visit is a walk through the actual ruins of the Palace buildings. Of epic proportions and design that would not seem out of place in Rome, it is truly surprising to see such ruins in the middle of Beijing. The remains of the Palace’s Great Fountain rival Rome’s Trevi fountain in size and grandeur, and give an idea of the lost beauty of the Old Summer Palace.

Visitors who make it to the very end of the ruined site are rewarded by a bust of Victor Hugo, complete with an eloquent passage of his regretting the pillaging of the Old Summer Palace site by the Anglo-French troops. The statue was a gift by the Federation of Associations of French-Chinese Friendships, and China’s acceptance of this statue in this almost sacred site is hopefully of sign of the country’s willingness to put past conflicts behind it in favor of more cooperative and harmonious future with its neighbors.

Bust of Victor Hugo at the Old Summer Palace

Bust of Victor Hugo at the Old Summer Palace

While I gazed at the statue, contemplating how I had poetically travelled all the way from France just to be here, the event I had been waiting for during the nearly two weeks I had been in China finally occurred: a Chinese tourist asked to have his picture taken with me.

After seeing the best of Beijing, from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall, my time in China had come to an end.

The Forbidden City, seen from Jingshan Park

The Forbidden City, seen from Jingshan Park

On my very last day, I slowly packed my bags and made my way to my hostel’s small café to have one last meal before beginning a very long journey back to Paris. I had gotten to know the staff a bit over the last few days, and had noticed that everyday around noon they had a quick lunch themselves in the café. Although they only served Western food at the hostel, I decided that for my last meal in China I wanted to eat like a local, so I asked the staff if I could eat whatever it is that they were going to have for lunch. They seemed rather surprised at the uncommon request, but acquiesced, and a few minutes later I found myself tucking into a piping hot bowl of rice, potatoes, vegetables, and spices. It may have been a simple dish, but it tasted authentic; it was a fitting end to my trip in China, and I ate every last grain of rice.

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One comment

  1. Hi Dear Victor,
    Read through your lovely article as promised 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your personal experience! It would be nice if more westerners had the chance to come to China and feel this country themselves – especially when I heard about the news that during the Chinese president’s visit to US, a 14 yo boy said he thought China is still ruled by an emperor…

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