Sunday, April 4, 2010

An Imperial Visit by Subway

On Saturday we checked out the Summer Palace, as my friend who's visiting has never been, and my last visit was in the summer of 2007.

Instead of having to take a taxi or bus, we took the subway Line 4 there which was very convenient.

In what used to be on the outskirts of the city, the Summer Palace has become included into the city proper thanks to this new subway line, potentially bringing with it many more tourists.

In over half an hour we got to Beigongmen station, the second last stop on Line 4 which took us to the back of the Summer Palace.

This was a bit strange, as you usually start out from the east side, walk along the covered walkway and then proceed to climb up the stairs to the various Buddha shrines and then to the back where there is a sad-looking Suzhou Street, a pathetic attempt to look like there is a bustling atmosphere, but instead there are calligraphy and tea shops, and photography studio with well-worn Qing Dynasty costumes with hardly any customers.

So this time we did it backwards, which was alright for first timers, but strange for someone like myself who had done it the other way a few times before.

Nevertheless, it was easier on the legs going down instead of up.

An introductory plaque explains that the Summer Palace was built in 1750 and then destroyed by the Allied forces in 1860. Restorations began 28 years later and now the Chinese government is trying to upkeep the place.

We encountered a number of children with pants that had slits at the back for easy washroom access; my friend was in awe but also disgust at the same time and tried to photograph each one we saw. There were also a number of pine trees that naturally stripped themselves of their bark in patches that seemed very artistic in colour and shape.

Luckily the place wasn't too crowded, the weather was not too hot and the sun was shining.

Nevertheless, my friend remarked on how badly kept the grounds were -- paint peeling off the sides of walls, the heads of buddhas that cover the walls of a shrine were pulled off and not replaced, and chipped or broken tiles not fixed.

While I explained that it was difficult to maintain a place this size, it would not be surprising if it was discovered not all the money budgeted for restoration was properly used.

There weren't many staff policing the palace grounds, only in the Buddhist shrines, with women shrieking at people not to take photographs, of which several violate the rule every few minutes with flashes going off.

On the other hand, there were areas that had definitely been restored with fresh paint, creating a jarring experience. One had to wonder if these buildlings were being properly restored, or these were just quick and thoughtless efforts to make a place look good for VIP guests.

Every few metres there seemed to be a souvenir shop, each selling the same things, from Buddhist bead bracelets in a variety of styles and colours to postcards with pictures taken ages ago, to cloisionne bracelets and trinkets.

However, the views beyond the imperial yellow-tiled roofs looking down onto the East Lake were fabulous -- there were lots of covered paddle boats dotting the lake.

After checking out the Marble Boat, where the Empress Dowager Cixi spent her money on instead of reinforcing her navy, we wandered down a path towards the back of the palace and returned to the subway again without much trouble.

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