Beijing: "Sovereign at the Summer Palace"



January 8, 2008


Dear Family and Friends,

“The rich are different from you and me.” They have homes and compounds in Palm Beach or Palm Springs, or Beverly Hills or Pocantico Hills, on Cape Cod or Cape May, or in Oyster Bay or South Hampton on Long Island.

Royalty are very different. HRH the King of Thailand owns a palace on the seashore and one in the mountains as well one in the capital. South of Thailand, the Sultans of Malaysia collect Rolls Royce motorcars. And the Maharajas of India? Do they collect everything?

Drawn by the curiosity of a bourgeoisie, I eschew the public bus of the hoi polloi and engage a driver and automobile for an excursion to the imperial retreat of “my betters” in Beijing: The Summer Palace of the Emperors of China.

And today I am alone. I am the sovereign of my day.

I enter the Summer Palace through the ornate East Palace Gate. I wander past a menagerie of bronze animals and through several art galleries. The lintels and beams of the red columned buildings are decorated with bright paintings of boats on rivers, peaceful lakes and cloud-topped mountains. On display are the carved jade, painted porcelain, and cast bronze Jeroboam-size utensils of the Emperors.

I emerge from the complex of galleries through another tall and extravagant gate. Shimmering before me is the enormous Kunming Lake, a bit icy, a bit misty, yet gleaming in the late morning sun.

Kunming Lake covers at least two thirds of the grounds of the Summer Palace (716 acres, 290 hectares). The lake is an oversized centerpiece, the hub, the focal point of the Palace. The lake and its environs surely provided a watery imperial retreat from the hot summer confines of The Forbidden City.

Covered walkways, pavilions, and hilltop temples surround Kunming Lake. Bridges connect the mainland to the islands with yet more pavilions and temples. Beneath the strong sun and the cloudless winter sky, the broad inviting lake is a truly magical sight. I decide to take my time. I decide to spend the day.

A marble lion crowns each of the 544 balusters along the length of the elegant Seventeen Arch Bridge that connects the eastern shore to South Lake Island. I explore the island. I reach the hilltop Dragon King Temple that is dedicated to the gods of rivers, seas and rain.

Back across the bridge, I pause and pose with the lions. The lake is frozen here. A few, mostly young visitors ignore the warning signs and cavort on the ice. Not me. I watch the local kite fliers. They unwind a strong plastic line, a line so long I cannot see the kite.

On shore a large bronze ox sits and stares at the lake. It is believed he will prevent floods and pacify the waters. From this vantage point I spy another tall hill. On the crest sits a tantalizing group of pagodas and temples. Yes!

On the way to the hill I pass though a covered walkway. Like the museums, the beams along The Long Corridor (2388 ft, 728 m) are decorated with hundreds of scenic paintings. Do the cool, blue scenes cool the warm, summertime Royals?

At the far end of the corridor and to my right is the hillside with the stone stairway of Longevity Hill, sixty meters high.

Up and up I climb, through the Cloud Dispensing Gate, and the double-eaved Cloud Dispensing Hall. The slope of the hillside is dominated by the impressive and prominent Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, the center of the Summer Palace landscape. The glowing statue of the thousand-handed Guanshiyin Buddha, cast in bronze and gilded with gold, stands inside the three-tiered tower. The statue is five meters high and weighs five tons. * The crest of the hill is crowned by the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom. The Towers and Temples survey the silent lake and the harmonious structures far below.

The striking, shining western wall of Temple of the Sea of Wisdom is coated deep gold by the waning sun. All the walls are covered with dozens of small niches; each niche is filled with a seated Buddha. The dim interior of the temple is shadowy and mysterious. Large, obscure golden Buddha images await my presence inside dark caves that are carved into the rock of the hill. This sacred sanctuary is the final, magical touch to what has been a truly magical day. A royal day, indeed.

Now I am no noble, but is there something imperial in my soul? I am happy to follow my own course, sometimes planned, sometimes impulsive. I am happy to set my own pace. I am happy to be different. And if I am alone, I travel alone. Alone, I meet other “royals” who also pamper their sovereign spirit. And together, for an hour, or day, or longer, we are a noble class.

All the best,

Jan Robert, of the Hilltop Highbridge Hoi Polloi



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