Friday, August 5, 2011

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is a bit of a drive from our inner-city Beijing apartment, but it was worth the air-conditioned wait in the car in traffic. Not only because we're in hot, muggy, soggy, warm, wet season - but also because it's a damn amazing place. It's almost three square kilometers, and three quarters of that is a completely human-created lake. They literally dug a massive hole in the ground to make a big lake, then put all the dirt together in a big pile to make a mountain. And then they built a gigantic palace on top of the mountain. Classic China.

Got no rain? - Shoot rockets into the clouds to make the water come out!
Got some touchy political issues? - Put the words 'people' and 'republic' in front of your name!
Wanna lake? - Dig it!
Wanna mountain? - Dude, you really can have it all!

Musings aside, it's an incredible national-scale 'can-do' attitude that they've always had, and seeing the Summer Palace reminds you of the wondrous capabilities of the Chinese. I also think that the Summer Palace is the perfect example of China's current attitude towards historical and tourist sites. Most of these kinds of places that I have travelled to share several similar characteristics.

Firstly, because China does everything on such a grand scale, these locations (The Forbidden City, Great Wall and Terracotta Warriors are all perfect examples of this) are extremely high maintenance and difficult to manage. The government could certainly do a much better job, but I can certainly sympathise with the fact that they have a shitload of amazing stuff to keep and eye (and broom) on.

Secondly, and this is a result of the first thing, all of the sites are well maintained in certain areas and left in complete disrepair in others. Most tourists in China are actually Chinese people from all over the massive country going to other areas of their massive country, and this weird thing happens where all of them only ever go to certain sections of the famous places. Of course, they only ever go to the popular and well-presented areas. What this means, is that often in China if you are clever about your destinations, you can often quite easily avoid the crowds...

Which brings me to a third point. The best parts of famous Chinese destinations are never the famous parts. The deserted sections of the Great Wall like Jinshanling have had less restoration and just ooze awesomeness compared to their popular siblings like the Badaling sections. The tiny hutong-like alleys in the Forbidden City open up a whole new world of insight, compared to the classic straight-line-through which most tourists follow along. This brings me back to the Summer Palace.

When you squeeze your way through the customary crowds and make it into the walls of the Summer Palace, you can followed the packed promenade, or you can take a couple of detours amongst the lovely leafy and less-populated higher areas. Almost everyone chooses to walk along the side of the lake, following the designated paths, but my appreciation of the size and complexity of the Summer Palace skyrocketed after I climbed a small stone path and literally got off of the literally beaten track.

 The first thing you notice is, of course, the massive lake and the beautiful panorama is presents. It's an amazingly big expanse of free space considering it's location in China, let alone Beijing. The lake harbours thousand of waterlily plants. Often they are flowering, and are appreciated for their visual appeal. Often they are not flowering, and the lotus roots are harvested for their deliciousness.

This is the lovely walk along the banks of the lake. It is understandably popular and makes for a delightful stroll. I think some people arrive in the morning and treat the Summer Palace almost like a family picnic spot. I have seen parents and children with whole feasts, and I have seen plenty of people snoozing. This place actually has a wonderfully relaxed vibe about it. Ironic considering it was a palace, but hey, it works.

 These stone stairs lead from the water level up to a higher level of almost completely concealed walkways. There is an entire section of empty pagodas and paths in a much leafier and quieter area of the palace grounds. Once we were up these stairs, we were serenaded by beautiful birds and could actually hear our own thoughts. My lungs loved the clear air and my eyes could wander my surroundings without being on constant alert for masses of moving human obstacles.

 In these quieter sections, though, a lot of incredible things had been left to the mercy of time and nature. This fresco painting is a perfect example. Undoubtedly, it was once lovely.

My mother is an incredible artist, and always points out amazing textures to me when we are out together. China is full of fine details. From the paths to the roofs and everything in between, if you stop and look around you will find your are eternally in the presence of interestingness.

 The Summer Palace is actually really massive and so many rooms and so many buildings that I can't even begin to imagine what they might all be for. This place was the royal family's weekend getaway - it wasn't even their proper actual palace!

I know, they were a very indulgent bunch...

Yet another example of old China vs. new China. Like dumplings in Starbucks or plasma advertising screens in ancient city streets, this country sure nails the 'contrast' criteria.

This is the view of the palace itself from a seat on one of the mini barges which will ferry you to the other side of the lake. You can also hire little paddle-boat type things!

The summer palace on Sundays is apparently filled with local makeshift choirs singing out the Chinese classics with grandchildren in tow. We fully intend to return to this great place at least once before leaving Beijing. I cannot recommend it enough. If it interests you, I would also suggest having a look at some of the historical photos of the Summer Palace. It was occupied by different enemies in different wars, and has been through a lot of makeovers. The 1920's was a particularly glamorous time for the Summer Palace and its occupants. Google it!

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