April 29, 2009

The Summer Palace

The most spectacular of the non-Great Wall sites that I have visited in and around Beijing has been the Summer Palace. It was a place of rest and entertainment for the ruling families, combining natural beauty with the comforts required by royalty. The three square kilometres of the palace are composed of majestic landscaping and architecture surrounding the man made Kunming Lake. I spent six hours at the regal complex, known in Chinese as "The Garden of Clear Ripples" or "The Garden of Nurtured Harmony" at different times in its history. The most famous occupant of the Summer Palace was the cunning Empress Dowager Cixi, who went from being one of the Emperor's many concubines to the de facto ruler of China for almost 50 years after his death.

I explored the temples, halls, pavilions, and pathways of the Summer Palace. I was visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site a week before the official start of busy season, but the tourists were already out in full force. Many of these visitors opted for a relaxing boat ride to one of the islands in the middle of the lake. The best views of the imperial gardens are afforded from atop Longevity Hill, which was built using the soil that had to be excavated to form Kunming Lake. Inside the hall where opera and theatre performances took place is a room for the artists get prepared and put on their make up. Within this room is a hidden treasure - the first car to be imported into China.

I also strolled along the recently restored Suzhou Street, a canal with a bevy of stores bordering each side. This was built so that the royals could go there and pretend to shop like regular folks. I attempted to play a musical instrument that resembled a bowling ball at one store, while other merchants tried to sell me calligraphic versions of my name, noodles, and clothes that resembled what the emperors wore so that I could pose for a nice souvenir photo.


"For us who live in cities Nature is not natural. Nature is supernatural. Just as monks watched and strove to get a glimpse of heaven, so we watch and strive to get a glimpse of earth. It is as if men had cake and wine every day but were sometimes allowed common bread." - Gilbert Keith Chesterton