Me and Chairman Mao
  Seasonal housing.
Today we went to look around the Summer Palace, which basically served as the emperor's summer home. Yes, when he got sick of running around his 177 acre city palace (AKA the Forbidden City), he hopped on a boat and floated on over to the Summer Palace, a tiny little 715 acre homestead built around Kunming Lake. I know, that plus godlike power over your tens of millions of subjects--rough life.

Anyway, the Summer Palace is very cool, if you don't mind me describing such an amazing complex with a word that is not only overused but is also pretty much completely meaningless. (Yes, I am a writer. Why do you ask?) Most of the buildings are clustered around the northern end of the lake--thankfully, since 700-plus acres is a little too much for a tourist like myself to cover in an afternoon--and consists of a bunch of pavilions, buildings, and temples with names like "The Hall of Benevolent Longevity" and "The Garden of Harmonious Interest." Which, granted, are much cooler sounding than our generic names--although I may rechristen our living room the "The Rectangle of Lazy Television Viewing"--but it makes it hard to figure out where you are. I mean, what happens in the "Precious Clouds Pavilion"? And what did they call the bathrooms? One can only imagine. (Are you imagining yet?)

At any rate, Summer Palace highlights include:

The Long Corridor, which is a covered promenade that runs along the northern end of the lake for roughly half a mile, the entire length of which is covered with different scenes from Chinese history, myths, and so on. According to Frommer's, there's about 10,000 different scenes in all, but I didn't take the time to count. I'm sure you understand.

The Seventeen-Arch Bridge, a bridge with seventeen arches--go figure--that connects the mainland to South Lake Island. (I know--what happened to the creative names?) The railings on both sides of the bridge are covered with tiny stone lions, each in a slightly different pose. Or at least that's what the sign I didn't bother reading apparently said. I didn't notice myself until I was almost halfway across the bridge and actually bothered to look closely at a pair of lions. "Hey," I said, "these lions are different!" At which point, one of the people we were with said "Yes, the sign said they were all different." Oops.

The Marble Boat. Ah, the marble boat--possibly the single most famous thing in the Summer Palace. In the late 1800s, the Dowager Empress Cixi (tsuh-shee) took the money that was supposed to be used to build a new Chinese navy and used it to remodel the Summer Palace instead--women--then had the marble boat built just to rub it in. Remember the movie The Last Emperor? That takes place not too long after the marble boat incident. Go figure.

The only bad thing about our visit to the Summer Palace was that it is now, in fact, winter--or at least late fall--and, as opposed to being hot and muggy, it's windy and really freaking cold. Yes, there's nothing quite like wandering around the Summer Palace's many winding, lakeside footpaths in your winter coat, hat, and gloves to make you appreciate how nice the place must be when it's actually summer. And what made the cold even worse was the fact that, remarkably, there was no Starbucks to be found. I guess maybe in the summer the emperor didn't want coffee, although why he just didn't get it iced I have no idea. Instead, we were forced to huddle around a table in an unheated teahouse for warmth, hands wrapped tightly around the tiny porcelain cups in an effort to thaw our numb fingers, which is not even close to the same. (The heat doesn't come on in China until November 15; no, I have no idea why; yes, that does include our apartment; and yes, it is weird.)

Bundled Up at the Summer Palace

As you might expect, tea here is a little different, too. They give you a teacup with a lid, put some loose-leaf tea in it, fill the cup up with boiling water, and that’s pretty much it. The more observant among you will notice that the step where you take out the tea leaves or, say, use a strainer to get rid of them is missing. That’s because it doesn't happen. Instead, you have to use the teacup lid to try to keep the floating tea leaves out of your mouth as you're drinking, sort of like using the lid to drain the water from a pot of spaghetti when you're finished cooking it.

Except with spaghetti, it actually works. Not so much with tea, though. However, this experience did bring up another question I never thought I'd ask: "Do I have any tea in my teeth?" I mean, that is a weird question, right? Sometimes around here, it's hard to tell . . .

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