With the smog still lingering but no longer bothering us quite as much, we spent the next couple of days exploring the huge palatial complexes within the city. The Forbidden City, a maze of buildings surrounded by a high wall and moat smack bang in the centre of Beijing was first up, the crowds even early in the morning confirming once again that there is no 'low season' in China!
We purchased a very cheap map at the entrance after giving in a rather persistent hawker, and it turned out to be a stroke of luck. The central route passing through the biggest buildings is quite straightforward, but the endless identical smaller buildings clustered around the sides, intersected by alleys, are a real maze. Interlocking roofs covered perfectly formed courtyards, with ornamental shaped trees and detailed gateways.
The city revealed some unusual features, from a huge fake 'mountain' to trees formed to make arches, and some beautiful examples of traditional statues and sumptuously decorated rooms. There were a few exhibitions well worth checking out, from the elaborate hall of clocks (if you are there at 2pm they wind a few up and set them off) to the gorgeous imperial jewellery rooms, with intricate jade and coral creations.
Hours and a couple of pairs of aching feet later we finally emerged on the other side, impressed with the sheer scale of the city. We spent the evening in the business district, containing the longest LCD screen in the world - a huge open air display stretching out over our heads. After another delicious dinner (this time of Beijing duck), we were ready to tackle the second palace area the next day.
The Summer Palace, located in the north west of Beijing, was a completely different experience. A large park, complete with winding paths up and down slight hills, the buildings were tucked away providing points of interest to stop at. The main focus point is a vast lake, complete with a marble boat and covered walkway. Keeping only half an eye on our map, we wandered through the paths, finding colourful gates, elegant bridges and near-empty buildings. Within a park so large, the crowds soon thin out, and we had periods of time where there was no-one else around.
Although we enjoyed the Summer Palace, I'm sure that its overall effect is better in the summer months. The smog and light rain obscured the lake completely, the colours duller and the paths slippery. It was still a nice relaxing morning, with the added bonus of a bit of fresh air!
After leaving the palace, we hopped on the metro and headed south to the antiques market, a wonderful collection of stalls selling everything from jade to old coins, bronzes and game sets. How many are actually 'antiques' is debatable (although if you believe the sellers there's an awful lot of imperial objects for just a few dollars...), but it's great to wander around and grab a bargain or two.
The rest of our days in Beijing were spent exploring the restaurants (of course!), some small city markets and the very interesting art district, with its imposing sculptures and bare factory buildings filled with edgy shops and numerous art students. Soon it was time to bid farewell to China, and although my stomach was unhappy leaving the cuisine behind, the rest of my body was looking forward to recovering from the smoggy air.