Through a Certain Strand of Light


A thousand dreams, a thousand prayers.  Enough incense to fill the jasmine sky.  From the relative chaos of ancient Beijing to the tranquility of the northeast mountains, the Summer Palace has served as a spiritual and now cultural relic of China’s imperial past.  Built by the Jin Dynasty in the 12th century and expanded by the Qing in the 17th, the complex is a series of buildings, halls, and towers spread over a handful of kilometers around the dark and deep Kunming Lake.

Originally known as the Garden of Clear Ripples, the site was an important place for the royals to escape the vernal heat of their pancake-flat capital, Beijing, while still being able to perform their important spiritual obligations.  The focal point of the compound is the Tower of Buddhist Incense that sits on the north side of the lake.  From there, temples and pavilions radiate outward around Kunming, coalescing into the tortoise-shaped Nanhu Island in the southeast of the lake, the Hall of Joyful Longevity, and the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom.  Inside of these rooms, bronze pots house incense in the same manner as it has for nearly 800 years.  Etched carving and stone steles adorn the exterior under intricately latticed roofs, a living birthright of timeworn China.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Summer Palace is the archetypal Chinese garden, and is ranked amongst the most noted and classical gardens of the world.

The pictures tell a better story…

After walking about a kilometer from the subway, I entered the Summer Palace at the north gate. Here is Suzhou Town, a small village slightly away from the main sites, this is now filled with reenactments of how it used to look hundreds of years ago.

Crossing the bridge

Another view

Ugh, these bridges are really steep

Traditional lamps

This picture would have been mildly decent, but my camera apparently had some moisture on the lens...

Under the main bridge heading south towards the actual Summer Palace

Another traditional home

An old man will write a Chinese name for you onto parchment

I really like this sort of neoclassical Chinese art

Man selling wind flutes to silly French tourists

Leaving Suzhou Village for the actual Summer Palace...

Spring blossoms adorn the Summer Palace

Schoolchildren blowing bubbles near centuries-old royal halls

Ancient meditation hall

Getting closer to the main site...

...and along the way, a man crafts blades of grass into insects.

Across from him, Buddhas gild the outside of the building. People stopped and prayed to these.

Ah, finally. The main symbol of the Summer Palace, the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The structure stands over 62 meters high (almost 19 stories), arcing gracefully among the clouds and watching over deep Kunming Lake. On the first day and fifteenth day of the lunar month, Empress Dowager Cixi would come here to pray and burn incense.

The view of the rest of the enormous Summer Palace compound the the top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense. Down below is the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, a magnificent complex that served as dressing rooms for Empress Dowager Cixi as well as her birthday celebrations. I want to go to her birthday party.

Facing west from the Tower, the crystalline outline of Fragrant Hills pagoda is visibile. A trip for next week.

The Baayun Pavilion is located directly adjacent to the Tower of Buddhist Incense. It is constructed almost entirely of bronze (barring things that needed to be made from stone), though it's hard to tell from this picture.

Descending from the Tower into the Empress' dressing room and birthday party area, the Hall of Dispelling Clouds. She had some nice stairs...

...as well as some impressive decorations. This is a Kirin, a mythical beast present in many East Asian tales. It's been been covered, probably to prevent annoying tourists from desecrating it with Wrigley's. Side note: this is where I met some young Israelis who had just finished their military service. They saw my IDF shirt and started to talk to me.

Looking up

Leaving the Hall, the view of the path around the huge spring-fed Kunming Lake. I planned on walking the several miles around it, but it soon started to pour.

Silly Chinese tout

On the side of the lake is China's first and most intricate rock art made for the royals. It's, well, interesting.

Granite mist moving over the lake

One of the bridges to the small isles that line the inside coast of Kunming

Willows wave against the backdrop of an imperial pavilion

Sidewalk poetry

As the rain started to fall, I made it my goal to at least get to the main island resting on the east side of the lake

Nanhu Island and the Seventeen-Arch Bridge. The lake looks like a tortoise, though this shot in rain from an off angle doesn't exactly show that, with the long bridge as the stretched neck. It is unknown if the Emperor created it with this in mind, but it's still pretty cool.

From Nanhu looking back through the rain

Running back towards the subway, a good 45 minute journey

A final shot of the Tower of Buddhist Incense before ducking into the Beigongmen subway station.

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