Thursday, May 18, 2017

Beijing May 9, 2017 The Summer Palace

My agenda for today was to visit a Hutong but by then Jack knew that the Summer Palace was my number 1 most desired place to return to and visit while here. He suggested that we do it today as he thought it would be less crowded and the Hutong could be done another day. I guess he didn't do his homework because as it turned out it was the annual school visit and the place was packed with buses and hoards of students lead by their teachers along with multitudes of other visitors. It was extremely crowded and walking was slow and you just sort went with the flow of people. Who knows, maybe in the next few days there could be a dust storm, rain or it could even be closed to the public for the day so I was glad to be there. I enjoy the Chinese people and I love listening to them talking. Some elementary school kids must have been learning English and once in a while i'd hear a kid calling "grandma!" and it made me turn around every single time and then they'd all laugh. It was all in good fun as we proceeded through the Painted Corridor. My pictures don't show the crowds because I waited for breaks in between otherwise my pics would have been of someone's back. The temperature was 32ºC in the city but cooler on the Palace grounds with a nice breeze blowing in from Kunming Lake. The Summer Palace had originally been built by the Qing Dynasty to be the Royal Imperial Garden and summer residence because it was cooler there than in the city. It's predecessor was the Garden of Clear Ripples started in 1750 and burned down by the British and French allied troops in 1860. It was rebuilt bigger and better and I first learned of it through the writings of Pearl S. Buck. Her stories were fiction with snippets of history or reality and all was very, very interesting to me, especially the stories of Empress Cixi who ordered extravagant things to be built such as a marble boat which is a big clumsy looking thing sitting in the lake but of course it doesn't go anywhere, opera houses for her entertainment and many more buildings for her and her servants and entourage of friends to enjoy. It was said she let the ordinary working people of China starve while she spent all or most of the nations military on her fanciful whims.
The first time I had been to the Summer Palace was in 1989 accompanied by my two daughters and a son-in-law. We visited 3 cities, Beijing, to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace, Summer Palace, Confucious Temple, Temple of Heaven, Llama Temple, many other temples and factories like silk, pottery, carpets, cloisonné and more that I cant think of right now. Then we were off to another Province and the city of Xian to see the terra cotta warriors. I liked Xian very much; it's a walled city and we were able to walk on the wall and of course seeing the excavation still in progress of the terra cotta warriors was mind blowingly awesome. From there we flew to Shanghai which was a big busy city that did nothing for me. Beijing is also a big city but it felt friendly and homey and I felt at home there and especially so at the Summer Palace. As we were herded through the Painted Corridor enroute to the Marble Boat I noticed a wide flight of steps leading up Longevity Hill to a Temple like structure with trees behind itand that's all you could see. I was very drawn to it and wanted to go up there to see what was calling me there but I couldn't leave my group to do so. Five years later I was still thinking of it and still intrigued by it and wanted to go and see what was there. A lady friend was interested in going and so we planned quite an extensive visit with a big tour company of about 3 weeks to several interesting places and a 3 or 4 day Yangtze cruise as well. They had on their agenda several days of activities in Beijing plus a free day to go out and do whatever you wanted to do or see. I literally leapt on that chance of that free day! We had to apply for special permission from the Chinese Consolate to visit the Summer Palace without a guide long before we even left home and it took a while but finally my wish was granted to us. Off we went early in the morning of our free day in a taxi (our guide had written the name Summer Palace in Chinese for us as the driver knew no english. On that visit there were few people there as we walked along the Painted Corridor towards those steps that I was finally going to go up.. Suddenly, there it was, my heart was pounding as we climbed those steps up to a big temple like structure with a door. I think there was a girl to pay admission to, or maybe not. In any case we went in, looked around and it appeared to be just a dusty old building with remnants of old cast off things, clothing, bowls, figurines, junque etc that weren't guarded or preserved so we knew it wasn't an important place. We continued walking on through it feeling slightly uneasy like we didn't belong in there. At some point we heard a girl singing in Chinese way off in the distance somewhere and it was very nice and special so we went towards the sound but didn't see the girl.  We kept walking feeling like intruders and we didn't know if this was all we were going to see there but after wandering for awhile we came to an exit. We went out the doors into a garden area with paths leading off in different ways. I remember turning around at some point and and seeing the back side of a building with a lot of what looked like vandalism damage on it and it absolutely broke my heart. My friend and I decided to each go a different way and we'd be able to share our photos later. We were both very interested in the botanicals that were growing there and I collected some wild flowers, grasses, weeds, seeds, various tree bark, fallen leaves and misc. things like some small seashells that were amongst the red rocks. I forget if I added them to my flower press on location or if I did that back at the hotel. Meanwhile we were in communication with each other by shouting over the hill and dale and eventually met at a gazebo where we traded tales of what we had seen and found. One of the awesome things I had found was a small man made rock cave that was partially underground.  Inside was quite dark but I could make out places to sit on the outcroppings of rock by the light of a tiny rectangular window formed between three big rocks. I could tell right away that it wasn't just a random window for light but placed there deliberately to view something special. I looked through it and it seemed to frame and showcase some sort of modern day tv tower far away in the distance. I knew that it was actually designed to view something else hundreds of years ago in the past. What it could have been was to view the moon on a certain night perhaps, or a special star or maybe even an eclipse but I never did find out if I was even close. I just knew that Empress Cixi had designed it there to look at something special and meaningful to her.
I really cannot begin to tell of the wonders of Longevity Hill. Some of my memories have faded and the reason I write this is so I don't forget any more from this point on as I will read this often.  All I know for sure is how I felt familiar with the surroundings there and although I hadn't seen it before or even knew what was on that hill I had a very special feeling for the place. I've wondered about reincarnation because of the effect this hill had on me. Maybe I was a servant there eons ago, maybe a gardener or some other kind of worker. I don't think I was anyone special but I definitely had some kind of connection with this place and I've never had that feeling about any other place.

Now it's 2017 and here I am trying to recreate that visit and things aren't coming together the same way. Maybe 23 years is too long to have waited; maybe i'm too old now and I should leave it in the past. I don't think Jack has guided any or many seniors. He seems surprised every time he turns around and sees me lagging way behind him. Jack is about 30 and his parents are fit and healthy at 50. His grandparents, well they're dead and he doesn't realise that that's the category he should see me in except i'm not dead yet. I have grandkids his age but he expects me to keep up to him as he strides along and climbs millions of steps effortlessly. But he is doing the job that his company sent him to do with me and my special requests. So i'll just go along with it and try to keep smiling as I do need his help and so i'll hope for the best.

Well, long story shorter.......well, a little anyway.....we finally came to the end of the Painted Corridor and I anxiously looked up expecting to see those familiar steps to the pagoda on the hill. There were steps but with a sinking feeling I knew they were different and the pagoda was different too. I told Jack this doesn't look like how I remember it; we must have gone the wrong way! He responded it's the only entrance to Longevity Hill so I thought ok, 23 years have passed and the memory can get fuzzy or maybe it's been redesigned so up we went. And up some more and then some more stair climbing until I thought I was going to die there with all the stair climbing in the 30º blazing sun. It wasn't like this at all before, what the hell happened?!?!? There was no covered corridor to walk up a slanted wooden floor around the outside of the pagodas and then dirt pathways just slightly sloped like last time that lead out into the gardens; this was all flights of very steep rock steps between several pagodas to walk through out onto another set of steep steps to go up, up, up and repeat many times!!!  Holy crap; is my memory that bad??? Did I come here  to die?  I thought those blasted steps would never end but they did and eventually we were on top of the hill. And still, nothing familiar was seen or felt. I looked for the kinds of plant materials that i'd collected before and none were there but then it was a different season than last time so i'll give that a pass. Some areas were bone dry and the weeds were either already dead or dying. There was no rock cave with a little window, no gazebo, no mysterious seashells stuck in the red clay soil, no red rocks. It was so disappointing to not find the same place or anything even close to it, and no feeling of familiarity on my favourite hill in the world.

We didn't linger there long at the top before starting the trek back down. and some of the route was more difficult going down than it was going up as jagged rocks stuck out everywhere.  At the bottom we were back at the Painted Corridor again and that was also wrong and totally different as the last time my friend and I had walked over a curved little bridge of some sort and there was a road and parked right there at the gate was our taxi; the only car left still waiting for us although we hadn't made arrangements for him to wait for us or even dreamed that he'd still be there. After all we'd been gone all day and only left because we saw a sign that said the gates were closed at 6p.m. and here we were with just minutes to spare or we would have spent the night behind the tall walls of the Summer Palace!

So ends my very long story of Longevity Hill and the Summer Palace. I don't expect that i'll ever return again even though I still love Beijing and it's people. Maybe I shouldn't have gone expecting to find the past and i'd still have my old memories and feelings intact. Travel is more difficult now even with a shorter flight and private guides and drivers with comfy air conditioned cars. I'm somewhat disappointed but I knew this might happen "because you can never go home again" I'm glad I went and experienced what I did. I accept the fact that in 23 years I no longer  have the mentality, the energy or the time to waste chasing dreams anymore.


Here's the crazy thing. Once I was back at the hotel looking at my pictures and video guess what I spotted on the video? I caught a glimpse of the long covered corridors that ran alongside the pagodas on the hill that I hadn't noticed in person. Probably the reason for this is that I had to watch my every step as these old places were built hundreds of years ago with natural and therefore uneven rocks and as well I was sitting huffing and puffing wherever I could find a bit of shade. Jack was wrong; there was two ways to get up there and we had gone the wrong way!  Later on I mentioned it to Jack thinking that he didn't know about that route and I wanted him to know for any other old folks that he would take there. But he knew!!!! He already knew. He said he had chosen the steps as he thought i'd do better climbing them than the sloped floors in the fricking shade. WTH?   Holy crap, that little mistake robbed me of a good experience on my main reason for coming back to Beijing. I couldn't believe it. I had done my best to make it clear to him what I wanted to see and do there.
We had bypassed the right way by a few meters and God only knows if  I would have gotten my bearings and been able to relive my last visit had we gone that way.

In retrospect I saw lots of really old people there at the top of the hill and lots of little kids as well. So I mentioned to Jack that it must have been  really difficult for them as those steps were so tall and little 3 and 4 yr olds were so short. He responded that the parents had probably carried them. Whoa...I saw no parents carrying kids up those thousands of steep steps in the blazing sun and I know there was no way they could have done it themselves. I should have clued in by then that they had to have gone a different route than we did. On the path that took us down Jack pointed out a little 4 yr old boy who was jumping from step to step and he said see, kids figure it out. But I know as a mom and grandma that they might be able to jump down but they cannot jump up all those high steps; who's he trying to kid.
Obviously Jack wasn't quite honest about a few things......there is indeed a few ways to get up Longevity Hill and also there had been dust storms on 2 of my days there that he didn't mention. Not saying don't trust your guide but don't accept his answers without really thinking it through.
The end, finally.



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