China day 15: Summer Palace

Woke up to even stronger solvent fumes. Called front desk to see about changing rooms. They said they would reserve one of the premium rooms on the 17th floor for us, with a scenic view of the Forbidden City. Cool!

On the itinerary today was a visit to the residence of Prince Gong, and then to the Summer Palace of the emperor, the Imperial Cottage as it were.

A day of beautiful weather today, the first blue sky I’ve seen since we arrived in China. The best photos too.

The residence of Prince Gong was built to a state of magnificence by a previous occupant, Heshen. Heshen was a court advisor to Qing dynasty emperor Qian Long, around (year?). He was notoriously corrupt. It is said at one point his annual income was 10 times that of the Imperial government. But he came to well-deserved unpleasant end, when the emperor seized his assets, and gave him a token gift with a special signifigance: an order that he kill himself.

Heshen used his ill-gotten gains to build a magnificent residence for himself, including a wonderful garden with fountains, islands, caves, and lots of that weirdly organic-looking stone sculpture that seems so popular in China.

In later years, it became the home of Prince Gong, and was visited by other emperors. Emperor Kangxi (the good one that enjoyed learning about science and technology) visited, and wrote a large Happiness character on a stone wall in a cave.

I thought this place pretty magnificent, and very well fit for an emperor, but I had not yet seen the Summer Palace, which makes Prince Gong’s residence look like a room at the YMCA. The Summer Palace is vast.

It includes a mountain and a lake. Seems like hundreds of buildings. A group of Tibetan Buddhist temples is on the side of the mountain.

The Summer Palace was used by many emperors over the centuries. Its most recent occupant of note was the Empress Dowager Cixi who, together with the powerful and most-thoroughly corrupt chief eunuch, did much to bring about the decline and fall of the Qing dynasty. Cixi left many marks on the Summer Palace.

Cixi came into power at a young age, as one of the concubines of Emperor Tongzhi. She bore him an heir, which increased her power. While the emperor lived, she worked hard to build her power further. When the emperor died, her son was too young to hold power effectively, so she ruled from behind the throne. She cemented her hold on power, destroying everyone that opposed her. Even into adulthood, her son, the true emperor, remained a puppet. Apparently her own son came to oppose her eventually, but so great was her power at that point that she had him placed under house arrest. He died soon, and some believe she had had him killed, her own son. Not a nice woman.

Enough history. We trooped all about the grounds of the Summer Palace. Didn’t spend so much time in the various buildings. Even the nicest of these old Chinese buildings start to look the same after a while. Instead we headed up the mountain side paths and gardens. At the top we found ourselves in amongst the Buddhist temples there.

Heading down the other side of the mountain took us to another of the main entrances to the Summer Palace complex. Here, there is a river valley, which is lined by shops right on the water. Most of them given over to tourist crap now, but still an interesting and pleasant stroll up one side of the river bank, and down the other.

From there, we decided to try to make it back to the original building complex, to catch a perforce and the theatre building. By avoiding the maze-like temple buildings and sticking to neighbouring paths through the trees, we made it back to the theatre in 15 minutes, and caught the tail end of a music performance, plus a traditional dance show.

From there, we made our way out the other side of our original entry point, to a museum of treasures from the Palace. It was mostly full of the same sort of bronze wine vessels and porcelain pots that we’ve seen a lot of already. Beautiful work, to be sure, but it wears thin. A gallery of miscellaneous artifacts was more interesting.

At that point, we walked along the shore to find the famous Marble Boat of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Cixi took vast amounts of money out of the government coffers to make improvements to the Summer Palace. At one point, she took a large amount that was intended to be used to build up the Chinese navy, and instead used it for Palace improvements. As a small concession to the original purpose of the money, she used a portion of it to build a large marble boat at the edge of the lake. Basically the boat stands as a big shiny hard marble “Fuck You!” from Empress Dowager Cixi to the entire people of China.

We got some photos of that elegant monstrosity, and then decided to rent an electric motor boat to tool around the lake for an hour before the Palace grounds closed.

With Admiral Ye at the helm of our noble vessel, I got more photos of the Marble Boat, then sailed around an island that we never had time to get to. On the way back to the dock, the boat was going much slower, our battery apparently running low. In the end, we got towed back to shore by a motor boat, an ignoble end to the nautical career of Admiral Ye.

With the park closing, and most tourists gone, we were able to enjoy some leisurely walking along the waterfront, before finally heading out to go home.

Back at the hotel, we found the solvent smell now permeating even the hotel lobby. This is crazy shit for a good hotel. Even one-star hotels don’t poison their guests. Stronger in the elevator, then on our floor, it knocks us off our feet.

We returned to the lobby to inquire about changing to the fancy room we asked about in the morning. They said all such rooms were booked, but offered us another room, much like ours, on the 10th floor. We went to look at it, found the smell bearable. We were in the process of moving to it, when we got a call. They had realized that one of the nice rooms that was booked was actually reserved for us, so we could have it after all. Went to look at it, found it truly splendid. Above the noise of renovation, above the apparently-heavier-than-air solvent fumes, spacious, and with a lovely view of the Forbidden City at night. Naturally, we took it.

After we moved in, Sabrina called the manager, and managed to get us a very good rate on the nice room, in compensation for the inconvenience and the night of inhalation of toxic fumes we had already endured.

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