Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Summer Palace

They cook something in Beijing that stinks to high heaven. We cannot identify the smell, but have noticed it every time we have walked through a residential area or street food vendor area. It reeks so much it makes my stomach do flip flops. Probably don't want to know what they are eating that is causing this noxious odor.

Today we decided to set off on our own to explore the Summer Palace. According to information I found online, we should be able to take the subway from the nearby Jishuitan station on Line 2 westward to the Xizhimen station and switch to Line 4 heading northwest; exiting at the Xiyuan station at exit C2 and walk westward. We waited until morning rush hour should be over and ventured out. The Beijing subway is different from other subways we have used elsewhere. Normally one buys tickets between specific stations; the cost of the ticket depends on how far one is traveling. Not true in Beijing. Here one buys a ticket and that ticket is good for wherever one goes on the subway system. The ticket is scanned upon entry; you can change lines as many times as you want; and the ticket is taken by the machine as you exit, wherever you decide to exit. Cost is the same whether you are going only one stop or 30 stops. The ticket costs one set price regardless of where you are going. Makes it a lot easier for tourists to purchase tickets from the station clerks who speak only Chinese. Just hold up your fingers for 1 or 2 tickets and hand over the money. Doesn't matter where you are going. We followed this routine and made it to our destination without incident. At the entrance of the Summer Palace a twenty-ish local girl presented herself as a licensed English-speaking guide and offered her services for 150 RMB. We settled on 140 RMB. We wouldn't have understood anything we were looking at if we had not enjoyed the benefit of her explanations. She is a student at the University of Beijing and hopes to graduate with a degree in English in June.

By the way, the people of Beijing speak only Chinese. In Shanghai probably one-third of the people spoke at least some English. In Beijing no one speaks any English except hotel desk clerks and licensed English-speaking guides. Even in restaurants frequented by tourists the employees do not speak any English. Nor are there any menus or display boards in restaurants written in English style letters, only in Chinese stick characters. So we can only frequent places with pictures of food to point to or a vendor where we can point to the actual item we want. To go anywhere by taxi in either Shanghai or Beijing, you must have directions written in Chinese stick characters. Never leave your hotel without return directions written in Chinese.

The weather here has improved dramatically since our arrival. It was sunny and bright the morning we arrived, but cold as heck and very windy. Yesterday it was sunny and bright with high temperature of about 87F. Today is predicted to be the same. This is great.

The Summer Palace is about 10 miles from The Forbidden City. It was built during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and additions were made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The emperor and royal family resided at the Summer Palace from April to October each year to escape the heat of central Beijing. The Summer Palace is dedicated to Longevity and Benevolence. And all the houses and halls are called various names dealing with those either longevity or benevolence. Kunming Lake is located next to the Summer Palace. It was originally just a pond, but the Empress Dowager ordered that the pond be deepened and enlarged. The emperor watched navy exercises in the lake. Today there are peddle-boats and tourist boats plying the lake waters.

Originally the land around the palace and gardens was relatively flat. When Kunming Lake was enlarged, the dirt removed from the lake area was used to construct hills at the palace. There are several royal structures built on those hills. One of the major structures is a hall that houses a hundred hand Buddha. This is where the Empress Dowager worshiped. We did not walk up the hill to see the Buddha, so have no idea what a hundred hand Buddha looks like. Supposedly there is the one located here and another one in India.

Like most of the gardens of Beijing, the royal garden and summer home did not elude the rampages of the Anglo-French allied forces and were destroyed by fire during their attacks. In 1888 Empress Dowager Cixi took funds from the navy and ordered the palace to be reconstructed, changing the name to Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). The Empress Dowager spent most of her later years there, dealing with state affairs and entertaining. In 1900 the palace again was ransacked by the Eight-Power Allied Forces. After the successful 1911 peoples revolution, the Summer Palace was opened to the public.

Side note: Bill and I enjoy history, but neither of us knew anything about any Eight-Power Allied Forces (including the USA) attacking China around 1900. The guide had no idea why we attacked China at that time. Later back at our hotel, an internet search provided an answer that both Bill and I were familiar with --- The Boxer Rebellion. The US version of the Boxer Rebellion is that the Chinese impounded all foreign legations and dignitaries and embassy employees in Beijing and Allied Forces entered Beijing and freed our people. The Chinese version of this incident is another instance of history being written by the ultimate victors. In China today, students are taught the following: "September 7, 2001 marks a special day for China and even some developed countries. On this day one century ago, namely, September 7, 1901, the Eight Power Allied Forces formed by Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Austria and Italy forced the Chinese Qing Government to sign the most insolent and unequal Protocol in human civilization. That year was the Year of Xinchou in Chinese lunar calendar, so the Protocol, officially the Protocol of 1901, is historically known as the Protocol of Xinchou." The Chinese are taught about atrocities committed by the Allied Forces during this invasion of their homeland. You can read their version of this part of history at Sorry, you will need to copy and paste that into a browser; I cannot make that into a link because this is being posted via email text only. End of side note.

The Summer Palace consists of over 3,000 structures including pavilions, towers, bridges and corridors. It holds the world's longest corridor, which is 728 meters long (2366 feet).

The emperor liked to walk the corridor as he felt it was good for his health. It was very crowded the day we visited, but we did manage to walk the entire length to the marble boat area. We opted to walk outside on our return to the entrance because the grounds were less crowded outside the corridor.

Each of the more than 250 beams in the corridor is painted with a different garden scene. Actually, each SIDE of each beam is painted with a different garden scene. Bill did a quick math calculation and announced that there must be 684 painted garden scenes inside this corridor. And each one is different!

At all national parks in China the very old trees are marked with small plaques. A red plaque means the tree is more than 500 years old. A green plaque means the tree is more than 300 years old. There is a pine tree (of all things!!) in the Summer Palace that is more than 500 years old. The top was chopped off and it was trained to resemble the tail of a pheasant. This is an extremely unusual tree because pines just don't live that long. It is not an attractive tree, but it is unique.

There were hundreds of magnolia trees in bloom on the day we visited, covered in small pink blossoms. In Houston, these are often called tulip trees. Should be called Chinese magnolias, which could never be confused with our southern magnolias with their huge white blossoms.

Empress Dowager Cixi was known as the Dragon Lady. Her son became emperor at the age of 3. She would sit behind a screen behind the throne and tell the emperor what to do. So, in effect, she acted as emperor for 48 years. Her natural son died at the age of 19 and her adopted son was placed on the throne as emperor. She followed the same screen routine with that son.

Outside the front of one of the main buildings are bronze statues --- one of a mythical dragon creature and one of a stork. The dragon represents the emperor (man) and the stork represents the empress (woman). Normally the statues would be placed with the dragon closest to the entry door since the emperor was the most important person. However, at the Summer Palace the statue positions are switched by order of the Empress Dowager. A subtle reminder that she was in charge of the country, not her son.

The empress enjoyed opium. Her son did not want opium in China; that was the whole point of the opium wars. Near the end of the second opium war she ordered that the emperor be placed under house arrest at the Summer Palace. She ordered that the doorway that would be used by the emperor be sealed so that the emperor could not escape. He remained under house arrest for 10 years. This was some mean lady to do this to her own son.

Also at the Summer Palace is a large marble boat. Probably the only such boat in the world. The marble boat is tied to a dock and has never moved, but it is floating. The Empress Dowager liked to sit on the upper level of this boat in front of a large mirror. She enjoyed admiring her reflection while sitting in the cool marble on the lake during the heat of summer. Look closely and you will see that mirror still in place. The side of the boat facing away from the shore was damaged during the battle when the Eight-Power Allied Forces "attacked" Beijing, and that side has been repaired with wood. But the entire boat originally was constructed of white marble.

Another place of interest was the replica of the Marco Polo Bridge which connects to the smaller South Island in Kunming Lake. The original Marco Polo Bridge was across a small branch of a river on the south side of Beijing. This bridge was constructed to honor Marco Polo shortly after his visit to China 700 years ago. The replica Marco Polo Bridge is actually larger than the original. The replica has 17 arches, with the center arch being slightly larger than the others. This is because 9 is the mystical supreme number reserved for the emperor. Anyone even saying the number 9 was instantly put to death; this number was reserved strictly for the emperor. If you count the arches from either the left or the right, you arrive at the number 9 as the center arch.

When we arrived at the entrance to the Summer Palace it was extremely crowded. May 1st is an important national holiday (celebrating the birth of communism). It is also called Labor Day and everyone is off work for 3 days. I swear half of Beijing was at the Summer Palace today, and the other half was down riding the subways. The subways were even more packed today than yesterday morning during rush hour.
On the return trip we thought about stopping at the Beijing Zoo and seeing the famous pandas. But the subway train did not stop at that station. So we got off at the National Library station and caught a train back towards the zoo. That train did not stop either. Our only explanation for this is that the zoo was either closed on this important national holiday. Or the zoo was filled to capacity and they weren't letting any more people in the gates so they weren't letting the subway stop there any more today. At any rate, we missed seeing the pandas.

Tomorrow morning we were supposed to have an English-speaking guide take us to see the Great Wall. But the hotel desk clerk said tonight that it would be extremely crowded tomorrow, so I asked that the guide be rescheduled for Monday morning. We plan for a relaxing day tomorrow. My feet and legs ache from walking up and down stone steps all day long for the past 2 days. Really wish I had brought gel inserts for my normally comfortable shoes. Marble stairs are hard on the legs and feet.

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