China: Pandas and a palace

We arrived in Beijing and were mildly surprised by the high security presence and putrid smells on the streets.

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But other than that, we were happy to have arrived and remarked on how lovely the city looked at night. It was only the next day when we embarked on your first attempt at sightseeing did the problems start.

Mission 1: The Beijing Zoo

We left our guesthouse and headed to the subway station only to find it closed. On a Sunday morning. At 10am. My astonishment knew no bounds. I couldn’t fathom a reason for its closure and no one could tell us why either. The Chinese policemen were standing by to direct people to what we assumed was another subway station. So Faraaz & I kept close and followed the massive crowd.

Eventually we ended up in front of Tiananmen Square in a crowd of approximately 200 people, pushing and shoving as though we were in a riot (we were not).  After an hour of following this crowd, being stopped for random security checks and being constantly pushed, we were no closer to a subway station. All those people were headed to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City- not our destination.

We ended up back at the guesthouse so that we could get some (English) help to redirect us. Needless to say, we walked another 20 minutes in the sun to the next closest subway station and caught the subway to Beijing Zoo.

We began to relax on the train, confident that we knew we were going. Until the train bypassed the Beijing Zoo subway stop. There was no announcement to tell us that we wouldn’t be stopping there- the train just motored on past it. We were alarmed and got off at the next stop.

A man at the station pointed us in the general direction of the zoo and we assumed it would be a short walk.

After about 15 minutes of walking we finally saw a sign that said “Beijing Zoo.” So we just kept going in the direction the sign was pointing. What we thought was about a half a kilometre away was actually about 2km and instead of taking 20 minutes, like we were thinking, it took us about an hour.

We got there around midday, and it was pretty crowded outside at the gate. Still new to China at this point, we didn’t understand how you are supposed to get in line. For those of you that don’t know, the art of lining up consists of picking out the shortest line, then walking in front of everybody that has been standing there in the hot sun for 15 minutes and pushing your way to the window. At least this is how it seemed everyone else was doing it. So I decided that must be the way it works. So for the first time we queued like Chinese people. By this I mean we walked to the front and put some money down, ignoring those standing alongside us. Remarkably this worked perfectly and a few seconds later we walked into the zoo, feeling an equal mixture of success and shame.


The first animal enclosure is the zoo’s big draw: the Giant Panda house.

On entering, the first item on display is a panda skeleton, which isn’t very encouraging. Neither is the complete panda fur, hanging above.

But once we got past that, we saw the pandas! Let me say that they are sooooo adorable. Seeing those pandas made the arduous journey to the zoo bearable (almost). Take a look for yourself:


It doesn’t get cuter than this!


But then I started noticing a few things. They actually had 2 pandas inside and two more outside. The pandas could see each other through metal gates and they would call out to each other and try to claw at the gates. It seemed so sad to separate them when they desperately wanted to be with their siblings/parents.

The next thing I noticed was that their food was kept on one end of the enclosure and their water was kept on the other end. To me, this seemed like a really odd thing to do until Faraaz said that they keep their food and water separate in order to ensure that they walk across the enclosure giving people a chance to take pictures, bang on the glass and throw things into the open enclosures. The majority of visitors had no concept of animal rights. The staff could and should put a stop to this cruelty, but they’re nowhere to be seen.

I’m not one to get emotional about animals (unless they come with a tasty gravy), but I feel that if you’re going to trap them at least make their surroundings decent!


After that, I couldn’t even be bothered to look at the other animals but we walked past a few exhibits and the enclosures were sparse, cramped and horrible looking. The animals looked visibly stressed and sat in the corner of the enclosures, as far away from the people as possible.

 Pandas love bamboo and so does Faraaz:

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There are stories of certain animals being served up in the restaurant (hippo foot, anyone?) and big cats being fed live goats whilst visitors take photos. We didn’t see such things though (thankfully).

Mission 2: The Summer Palace

Included in our ticket price was a boat ride. After being rudely ignored/turned down by the zoo employees and tourist information staff, we made our own way to the deck and queued for a boat. I tried asking people if this boat would take us to the Summer Palace but of course… no one could or would help us. Here is a picture of our boat:


This was the view from the boat ride out of the zoo (we were so happy to be leaving that place):

Not to bog you down with details but the boat dropped us off in a random park where, after wandering around looking for the Summer Palace, a helpful man told us it was 20 minutes away (by taxi) from where we were.

It was just before sunset when we arrived at the Summer Palace. The moment we saw Kunming Lake and the Longevity Hill, we were in awe. Trees everywhere, bridges crossing ponds, flowers in charming little corners — if only there weren’t any tourists there, the entire place would look like a dream. But everyday, thousands upon thousands visit this tourist spot.

The Summer Palace is considered the biggest and the most well-preserved park in China. The entire park holds palaces, temples, pavilions, halls, bridges, and well-designed gardens. It occupies a little more than 300 hectares.

I love gardens. It is great joy for me to be surrounded by flowers and trees. So I was automatically happy when I got to the Summer Palace. I was incredibly astounded by its grandeur, awestruck at the exquisite artistry of its structures and paintings, and marvelled at the beauty of the garden landscape.

And like most parks in Beijing, locals come here in droves — to dance, to play cards, to read, to just while away time.

In 1998, UNESCO declared the Summer Palace among its World Heritage Sites.


The Seventeen Arch Bridge connects the eastern shore of Kunming Lake and Nanhu Island. There are about 30 bridges in the Summer Palace, but this is said to be the largest one.

Tourists and locals could rent paddle boats and enjoy the scenery.

The Kunming Lake overlooks the Longevity Hill and the Tower of Buddhist Incense.

As you can see, it was a stunning place and the perfect way to end off a day after all the drama we experienced. We had planned to head to the Olympic Park that night but fell sound asleep after a late supper!

Coming up next- China: The Wall & Bird’s Nest


13 thoughts on “China: Pandas and a palace

  1. The pictures of the summer palace are gorgeous. I had wondered if the air pollution would be something you noticed and of course you did. I’m not sure I could have handled going to the zoo. I have a hard enough time going to our zoos here in the US, but at least they try to be humane. I wouldn’t have been happy to see the skeleton and hide of the Pandas.

    • In South Africa when we want to see anmals we go on safaris to see animals in their natural habitat. As a result, I am also not a fan of zoos. It it wasn’t for the pandas, I would’ve skipped it out entirely. Honestly, I think the Beijing Zoo may have put me off zoos for life!

      • I recently went to the local zoo, and was so uncomfortable. the looks of the animals broke my heart. The tiger paced the front window like it was having a panic attack. The only highlight to my day was seeing the new exhibit of orangutangs, there was one that didn’t want to be bothered by the people and took a blanket and covered itself up head to toe. While I felt for the animal, I couldn’t help laughing because here were all these people wanting to see him and he got the last laugh by refusing them what they wanted.

  2. I went to the zoo as part of a daylong tour that included other activities, so we were there very briefly, and only visited the pandas. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be able to skip the lines altogether.

    I saved the Summer Palace for my next visit in the hopes that I WILL travel there again someday.

    • You saw the only part of the zoo worth seeing. The rest of the place is a real mess with unclear directions and filth strewn everywhere. Oh and an organised tour is the best way to travel in Beijing!

  3. Wowza! Sounds like you guys definitely had some adventures. OK, the line thing would be tough for me to swallow. I would probably never make it to the front! The zoo story was horrifying…I might have started a protest. Thank goodness for the Summer Palace…stunning and peaceful.

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