Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Beijing's Summer Palace

Front view of the Summer Palace. I had to dip past the lazy security guard to snap this one.

So glad you've tuned in for another episode of China's rich, royal, and God-ordained. This time, we'll be taking a tour of Beijing's Summer Palace, a sprawling complex that features a huge lake, magnificent pavilions, waves of Chinese people, and of course, a palace.

Again, I'm not a history major, and ours was a crash course in Beijing tourism. We had less than two days to cover the big sites, and we had very little funding to work with. That meant no drawn-out tours with big-mouthed guides stuttering through tiresome routines. I guess we would've gained a lot if we had someone to explain our surroundings, but a my theory is that a guide is only worth as much as an internet connection. I can do my own research, but I can't recreate my experience of the place or the amazing things I observed while walking around.

So let's start with what I do know. With a day of touring experience, we'd become pros at weaving through masses of Chinese people. Buying tickets, Evan and I were pleased to find out that once again our student IDs saved us money, this time about 30 percent off the regular price. We entered through the arched red doors typical of imperial entryways in old China and took a left past a few shops that were already selling Olympic merchandise in preparation for the 2008 games.

In front of us was the lake, riddled with lover-filled paddle-boats puttering along the surface. A concrete peninsula, culminating with a gazebo, jutted out into the lake, offering great views of the grand palace on the other side. Some Chinese women sat alone, using garish umbrellas to shield them from the minimal sun, which still couldn't peek through the gray haze that had fallen on Beijing when we came to town. Families interacted with flurries of laughter and animated conversation while couples like Katy and I posed for pictures on rocks with the palace in the background.

Having exhausted the pavilion, we went to take a closer look at the palace. On the way we encountered colonnades and courtyards--some opulently decorated, some covered by sheets of plastic as they're repainted. We took a back street into one of the many courtyards. As we walked past the trench-like pond, a man standing outside one of the buildings called to us in perfect English.

"Would you like to come in and look at some art?" It was only our second day, but it was great to hear our language come out of a Chinese person's mouth. Whether for that reason or because of simple curiosity we obliged him and were rewarded with a beautiful exhibit. Apparently, this guy and his friends were art majors at a nearby university, selling their work to give scholarships to aspiring art students who can't afford the high costs of college.

I felt bad that I couldn't buy anything. I wanted to support their work and in doing so increase my small collection of Chinese art, which now consists of hand-scrawled notes and simple scrolls adorned with seasonal landscapes and ancient calligraphy. I won't call their paintings expensive because I know that artwork of comparable quality in the States would've cost twice as much. Let's just say I don't have money to spend on things that I can't drive, wear, eat, or study.

When we finally dragged everyone out of the art exhibit, we took the same concrete path past the entrance to the palace, which was manned by a solemn sentinel who didn't mind if you snuck under the alcove to get a clear picture. With the lake on our left we continued till we reached the marble boat. Before you ask, yes, it is a boat made out of stone. It sits in the water, but I don't think I ever got a clear answer as to whether it's floating or not. If it is, the Chinese boat builders must've been amazing engineers. Off-setting marble's density had to be tough.

So why a marble boat? Here's where we get to the "rich and God-ordained" part. The Queen apparently wanted a place to hang out when the palace got too hot and crowded in the summer. So she had her subjects build her a lakeside retreat. And don't forget, this is a lakeside retreat at her vacation home. As to why she wanted marble, I can think of two reasons. One, the foundation for some of the royal structures in Forbidden City and Summer Palace was marble. Two, she just felt like it. If I had the "Mandate of Heaven" and little to no moral compass, you can bet I'd be offering up some crazy commands to suit my whims.

After a long walk through some winding trails, past the "Hall of Listening to Orioles" and some other sites, we made it to the back of the palace. Katy and I waited while the rest of the crew climbed to the top. Then we took the back exit.

Dodging taxis and bikes we crossed the street and collapsed at a place that felt a little like home: Mai Dan Lao.

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