travel junkie goes back to china... and cools off at the Summer Palace

3:35 PM

Malacanang Palace is the official residence of the current President of the Philippines and consequently the most popular house. Why we call it a Palace in the first place is beyond me. After all, we have always been a republic and were never ruled by a monarch (excluding of course, when we were answering to the Spanish crown.) If there’s any royalty in the Philippines, I do believe they are the Datus of Mindanao. (I had a batch mate back in university who was the son of a Datu. He was often charmingly addressed as ‘prince’.) And as far as I can remember from a long ago educational visit to the palace, it failed to impress my twelve year old self.

The other popular palaces in the country are the coconut palace which then first-lady Imelda Marcos built for the late Pope John Paul II when he visited Manila and the unfinished Palace-in-Sky in Tagaytay that was then converted to a good lookout point but an otherwise atrocious park.

So you could probably pardon my excitement and awe at the majesty and sheer magnitude of the Summer Palace when I finally stepped into its grounds.

We entered via the north palace gate, since we got off line 4’s Beigongmen station, and was first struck by the thawing river along Suzhou St. For a tropical flower like me, the sight of it was just too foreign to even conceive. Yes, I’ve seen numerous documentaries of melting icebergs on both poles or the spring season warming its way but even those didn’t prepare me for such a striking sight.

We then climbed up Longevity Hill to several halls, temples, and pavilions. (Which threw me off! The guide book said that Beijing was flat as a plate! Could they have erected this hill as prescribed by the principles of Feng Shui?) The path was steep, rocky, and packed with hordes of domestic tourists. They not only made it hard to navigate through narrow paths but they also made it impossible to have a clear shot as well as simply enjoy the sights.

the river starts to thaw

the gate right after Suzhou St. where we start our trek up the hill

JM, the mountain goat, on top of a boulder on Longevity Hill

Beheaded buddhas of the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom

Perched on top of the slope of Longevity Hill, the Buddhist Fragance Pavillion afforded us a bird’s eye view of the entire grounds. Dominating the view is Kunming Lake and the ever-present Beijing haze gave it an air of mystery. It was beautiful, breath-taking even but it had this eerie stillness. Call me dramatic but it felt like if I fall off into the lake, I won’t be able to swim back to the surface and just die. The spirits around wouldn’t let me disturb the peace they’ve been trying so hard to keep for centuries.

a partial view of Kunming Lake from Longevity Hill 

down from the hill

Most of the structures were along the lake’s periphery though they were no less grand or well-crafted. We were along the stretch of the Long Corridor when Jeff said, which I paraphrase, “Isipin mo, sa isang tao lang ito?” Though it was really the entire imperial court that retreated to the palace for some respite from the summer heat, it was nonetheless the emperor who was the master of it.

lonely planet puts it in more detailed straightforward manner:

“Once a playground for the imperial court fleeing the insufferable summer torpor of the Forbidden City, today the palace grounds, temples, gardens, pavilions, lakes, bridges, gate-towers and corridors are a marvel of imperial landscaping… The site had long been a royal garden and was considerably enlarged and embellished by Qing emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Enlisting 100,000 labourers, he deepened and expanded Kunming Lake and reputedly surveyed imperial naval drills from a hilltop perch.”

Lakeside, we sat down and took a breather while every camera-wielding tourist passed us by. Staring at the hill, the lake, and at the distant 17-arch bridge, I tried to grasp the mere existence of a place like this. This was merely the emperor’s summer house! Imagine that.

How wealthy was Imperial China really? I, who grew up in a world where one could amass a fortune as big as a third world nation’s GDP in his lifetime, had a hard time grasping it all. How was it really like, back then? Of course I’ve read a part of China’s history from books or have seen documentaries; this was built during this dynasty while that was done by that emperor. But as they say, history is written by the winner. (Or in this case, ruler?) So what about the common folk? Were they loyal and generous who would gladly serve their emperor at any cost? Or were they oppressed? Were they working themselves to the ground? Were they starving themselves so they can pay their taxes so the emperor could build another grand structure? (No wonder the Chinese resorted to Communism in the last century.)

Several jumpshots, couple of hotdog sticks, and a bottle of soda later, we took a colorum cab to the metro station and jumped on the train back to the city to meet up with Cathy and another classmate of hers from Hawaii, beijinger William, for dinner. We were promised a typical beijing supper. Yum.

canals were still basically frozen 

Along the famous Long Corridor of the Summer Palace

Longevity Hill from a distance

boats for rent but only in the summer

crowds walking alongside the lake

Fu dogs on guard

the 17-arch bridge of the summer palace 

view from the 17-arch bridge

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