Reliving History in the Summer Palace of Beijing
IT was a beautiful mild summer Beijing morning on May 21, and having just returned after a brisk one hour long morning walk I woke up my friend Mukul and asked him to get ready for the 'eat you must' breakfast. Mukul finishes his morning walk in his room. The traditional Chinese hotel Hejingfu Hotel in the Non Luo Gu Xiang area, a small township declared as a heritage sight where we were staying, serves only traditional Chinese breakfast and if you want to have a cup of tea or coffee during your breakfast you are in the wrong place. One must be quite international in his food habits if he wants to enjoy the traditional Chinese food. I was visiting Beijing to participate in the 3rd. Asia Theatre Education Centre (ATEC) Forum as the President of the Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT) along with a fourteen member performers' delegate who would stage the traditional Bangla Palagaan 'Bhelua Sundari.' Mukul was a non performing member of the team. This was his first trip to China and I was revisiting Beijing for the second time after nine years. The township of Non Luo Gu Xiang dates back to few hundred years and the people of the locality has tried to maintain the township in its original form. While the Beijing landscape is changing fast and many old historic sites are making rooms for tall skyscrapers and flashy shopping malls Non Luo Gu Xiang has managed to preserve its feature of one storied buildings, beautiful tree laden cobble stone streets, back alleys and cozy restaurants and massage parlors. The local guide informs us once the Kings and Emperors would stroll the streets in the evening with their wives and concubines. Surprisingly most of the residential quarters of the area do not have private toilets or baths honouring the age old tradition. The Beijing City Government has constructed public toilets and baths for the residents of the locality at convenient places. Though toilets are free for use one has to pay five Yuan for the use of bath each time. Normally the local residents take bath twice a week and never complaints as they are proud of their history and heritage. The hotel residents fortunately did not have to use the public toilets or the baths.
While the CAT performers would be visiting the Great Wall, Mukul and I after finishing our breakfast decided to take a trip to one of the major landmarks of Beijing, the Summer Palace.
Our host in Beijing, The Central Academy of Drama originally did not have a visit to the Great Wall in the sight seeing itinerary. How could one leave China and not visit the Great Wall? So on the previous day I and Mukul hired a Taxi on our own and visited the Great Wall (Later about this trip). Upon strong request our host agreed to take the CAT team to the Great Wall and we decided to head for the Summer Palace. Traveling in China without a Chinese speaking guide and companion can be a nightmare. Lucky for us we had Purna Chakma, a Bangladeshi scholar in the Central Academy of Drama to come with us. Purna spoke perfect Chinese and his Mongoloid feature was an added advantage. He could easily pass on as a Chinese and that proved to be a tremendous advantageous when it came to shopping. Nowhere in the world I have seen the difference between the asking price and the selling price of most of the goods can be so phenomenal. Next time you are in Beijing, you can put to test your bargaining skills.
The Summer Palace is located on the western edge of Beijing, between the fourth and fifth ring roads, close to the western hills, 12 km from central Beijing and about 15 km from our hotel. The ring roads go around the city with feeder roads entering the city centre. You could take a taxi, ride a bus or jump aboard a tour bus. Taxis are quite inexpensive in Beijing and so are buses. The maximum fare in a city service is 2 Yuan. With the initial fare of 10 Yuan on a taxi cab one could travel at least 4km. You just hop in the taxi and tell the driver where you want to go. You simply have to have an address written in Chinese. The distance of your travel can be one block or 100 km. It just does not matter. Imagine that happening in Dhaka. The tour buses are a bit expensive. Purna accompanying us, we decided to take a bus ride though there are no direct buses to the Summer Palace from our hotel. We changed buses thrice, paid a total fare of 3.50 Yuan and reached the Palace in about an hour. Unlike in Europe or US non local riders or the tourists have to buy their bus ticket onboard. The locals normally would have prepaid cards. To economize on fuel consumption the Beijing public buses are two unit trolley busses, only the forward unit having the engine. Most buses run on gas or electricity.
As in any other country entry fees to museums and tourist spots have risen substantially in China too. In 1999 when I first went to visit the Great Wall I paid only 20 Yuan. This time we had to pay 45 Yuan per person (US$ 6.50). The bus #386 terminates just at the gate of the Summer Palace. The entry fee to the Palace grounds is 30 Yuan and the thorough fee is 60 Yuan. If you have a thorough ticket you do not have to buy any more tickets inside the Palace compound to enter some special areas. Purna as a student had to pay only half the price of the normal ticket.
As its name implies, the Summer Palace was used as a summer residence by China's imperial rulers-as a retreat from the main imperial palace now known as the Palace Museum or the Forbidden City located in the heart of the city, near the famous Tiananmen Square. The Summer Palace dates from the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and is sprawled over an area of 726.5 acres, three quarters of which is lake.
It is a perfect combination of mountains, lakes, garden and the palaces. Guided by nature, artists designed the gardens exquisitely so that visitors would see marvelous views and be amazed by perfect examples of refined craftwork using the finest materials.
There is a 795 yards long walkway that runs parallel to the lake with relaxing pavilions overlooking the lake at regular intervals. The Summer Palace in real sense is the archetypal Chinese garden, and is ranked amongst the most noted and classical gardens of the world. In 1998, it was listed as one of the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Though the Summer Palace dates back to the early 12th. century it has gone through many changes and transformations as well as destruction by the invading forces. The Great Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368), who conquered and ruled China wanted to improve Beijing's water supply, ordered the construction of canals to transport water from the Western Hills to the Summer Palace lake (now known as the KunMing Lake) which was used as a vast reservoir. The history of the Summer Palace will not be complete without the mention of infamous Empress Dowager CiXi.
Empress CiXi was a powerful and charismatic figure who became the de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, ruling China for 47 years from 1861 to her death in 1908. She was a concubine (one of the many wives) of Emperor Xianfeng and exercised almost total control over the court during Emperor Xianfeng, her son Tongzhi and nephew Guangxu's rule. CiXi reminded me of Empress Noorjehan, wife of Mughal Emperor Jehangir. Empress Noorjehan was a very powerful lady in Jehangir's court also. CiXi loved the Summer Palace and would often embezzle funds from the Imperial Navy to add to the grandeur of the Summer Place Gardens. She had an exclusive and lavish Marble Boat made for her which was used for her exclusive retreat within the Summer Palace. The Boat is still preserved for the tourists.
The Summer Palace is sometimes referred to as the 'New Summer Palace.' The original primary Summer Palace was demolished by invading Anglo-French forces in 1860. Then, shortly after, the Eight Power Allied Forces formed by Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Tsarist Russia, Austria and Italy plundered and destroyed the Palace in 1901. The major restoration of the Summer Place was done by Empress CiXi in 1903 and was opened to the public in 1911. Today for thousands of tourists from across the world the Summer Palace is the second attraction after the Great Wall in China.
With Beijing Summer Olympics just few weeks away the Palace Grounds are getting a face lift. Toilets are being renovated and the tour guides are busy brushing up their rusty English. Arrangements are being made for additional buses to run between the city and the Summer Palace. Souvenir factories are working overtime and the fast food vendors are struggling to find a prime location for their store on wheels.
After a two hour long stroll around the exotic grounds I lie down on a stone slab overlooking lake and listening Rabindra Sangeet on my MP3 and imagining snow clad Summer Palace in winter where thousands of skaters are skating on the lake. Suddenly everything appeared so heavenly. For me it was meditation time. However my meditation moments are soon punctured by worldlier Mukul and Pruna. Time for lunch they declare. What an anti-climax I thought.
Indeed the Summer Palace represents a quintessentially Chinese ideal of harmony between man and nature.
Professor Abdul Mannan is a former Vice-chancellor of Chittagong University. Currently he teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org