Thursday, November 29, 2007

Chengde: Summer Palace (避暑山庄) Part 1

Chengde is a small provincial city about 230km northeast of Beijing. It took the tour bus close to eight hours to reach the city. Eight hours of butt-numbing boredom in the bus. I remember telling Aaron, that this place had better be worth it!

Early the next morning, we woke up to this castle-like gate that opens up to the world-famous Summer Retreat. Its Chinese name literally means Mountain Resort to Escape The Heat. The Emperors built this retreat in the mountainous Hebei province where they would escape to during the stiflingly hot summer months.

The Palace grounds is situated on a hill and according to the guide, it is typically 3ºC colder than Chengde City. Which means it's at least 5 - 6ºC cooler than Beijing. This may be welcomed during the hot summer months, but since it's autumn and Beijing was currently experiencing a cold snap, 5 - 6ºC cooler meant dipping below the freezing point!

In Imperial China, as the Emperor WAS the government, Chengde became the defacto seat of government during the summer months when the Emperor went there. And I assumed all the other ministers and eunuchs and palace officials had to tag along for the ride.

These days, you probably won't be able to find any palace officials here anymore. In their place, I found some army police officers patrolling the grounds. This lady officer took the opportunity to practice some qigong and also wushu. Better not mess with her.

The garden was very well kept, and most of the walkways were lined with tall cypress trees, which shielded us from the bright late morning sun. But don't let the brightness fool ya... it was still only 3ºC!

As befitting its status as the Imperial retreat, the palace grounds contained a vast complex of palaces, administrative and ceremonial buildings as well as temples of various architectural styles.

We only had one morning to cover the entire place, so needless to say, it was quite a hurried and superficial walk through the main attractions.

One of the more interesting exhibits were these stone drums within the Confuscian Temple.

Actually they're not drums. They're really just drum-shaped stone sculptures used by the emperors to record their civil and military decrees for posterity.

And this was one of Emperors who made use of the Summer Palace, Emperor KangXi, whose 61-year reign made him the longest reigning Chinese Emperors in all of Chinese history.

We were given a glimpse of life during the 18th and 19th century imperial China through the living room displays which were all glassed up. There were a lot of interestingly weird ornaments and exotic gifts given to the emperors by visiting diplomats from far and near.

On Oct 28, 1960, it was on this bedside table in the Warm Chamber that Emperor Xianfeng was forced to ratify the Beijing Treaty with Britain, Russia and France, which resulted in China ceeding vast areas of land to the foreign powers.

It was indeed an eye-opener to be able to learn so much about Chinese history just by visiting this beautiful and awe-inspiring place.

As we got back out into the open garden, the cool air was indeed very refreshing, even as our hands had begun to freeze again....

...and the solution was wrapping our hands around a very hot can of Nescafe heated up using coal-fire, which was ingeniously prepared by the people manning this stall. Oh and the souvenirs sold here were quite cheap too. ;)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Beijing: Ming Tombs (明朝十三陵)

50km outside of Beijing lies a necropolis that is larger than Egypt's City of The Dead (85 sq km) and houses the remains of 13 Emperors and their treasures. Welcome to the Ming Tombs.

It's Chinese name literally means the thirteen tombs of the Ming dynasty. The site was chosen by the third Ming emperor, Yong Le when he moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in the 15th century.

According to our guide, this burial site had very good feng-shui, with the hills in the background and a river running through the front. And who says I don't pay attention to the guide?

According to legend, the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi also wanted to be buried here, but was rejected. She had to settle for another similar site east of Beijing, where years later, the Kuomintang raided and unceremoniously dumped her intact body aside to get to the treasures within her gravesite. I guess 'similar' wasn't good enough feng shui.

This is the main gate into one of the tombs. Entering the park through this gate means entering the netherworld symbolically. Upon returning into the 'world of the living', one must perform a ritual brushing off the dust from one's arms and torso and proclaim out loud, "I have returned!"

As there was not enough time to see all thirteen tombs (which we couldn't anyway as most of the others are still buried or out of bounds to tourists), we were brought to see just one, which was Ding Ling, the mausoleum of Emperor Wan Li. And no, I have no idea what 'visitace' means.

Ok, here's the story. Emperor Wanli, also known as Emperor Shenzong is the guy in the middle. He was the longest reigning Emperor during the Ming Dynasty, a total of 48 years. His wife, the Empress, is the lady to the right, Empress Xiaoduan. Now, the lady to the right was actually his favourite concubine, Lady Gong. But, as she was the mother of the future Emperor Gang Xong, she was posthumously conferred the title Empress Dowager.

The mausoleum had a really large and beautiful park . I guess, even the dead need to get their daily walk and fresh air....

Just trying out some macro shots.... Yummm..... Berries.....

Just another funny Chinglish signboard. Luxuriant??? Grassland???

This is not just any ditch. It is the Tunnel Gate that leads to the Brick Tunnel. Which leads to erm.... something underground, I think. I wasn't paying attention.

Ok, so here we are at the underground palace. Note the golden doors with its signature nine rows of nine knobs, symbolising the Emperor.

The tomb itself was about 150 feet deep, and contained a series of subterranean interlocking vaults and tunnels. And with no heating, it got really really cold. Good for the dead Emperors, definitely not good for us poor tourists...

And the first hall we enter, we see this sign. Dammit, how come we always get led through the 'back side' ????

Anyway, this was where the coffin was laid. There were a few Chinese tourists throwing coins and dollar notes into the 'coffin bed'.... Hmm... I wonder if it works the same way as the Fountain of Trevi... in which case, I ain't gonna be throwing any money here!

The Emperor's personal assistants were all killed and buried in these big red boxes, to accompany him on his journey to the netherworld. Hehehe just kidding.

Even when dead, the Emperor needs a place to lounge around, right? Hence they have prepared an elaborate marble throne for him, for when he gets too tired of .... erm....lying down.

We were then led through different halls, chambers and tunnels, all the while trying to figure out why on earth a dead guy (no offense) would need so much space???

And then it all ended here. Where we ... stop!

Ah we're back out in the open again. Next, we headed to another hall, this time to see the various artifacts and treasures that were preserved along with the Emperors.

Don't scribble.... but can I scratch? Or crash? Or steal?

Just about everything was gold or at least golden in colour. From gold coins....

to golden bathrobes.... even gold teapots and bowls.

There were also a quartet of horses, which I assumed was for the Emperor to play cowboys and indians in Hades....

And these were.... erm... chess pieces? Voodoo dolls? ...

Ah... back out in the world of the living again..... I have returned!!! ;)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beijing: Underground City (北京地下城)

In a forgotten corner of old Beijing, where narrow alleys give way to even narrower doorways, a bunch of Malaysian tourists were led down a footpath amidst curious stares by the locals....

... through a cramped alley they went, past tiny windows, smelly drains and old women.....

and then straight down underground through a dimly lit tunnel where we were greeted by...

none other than Chairman Mao himself all dressed in white. ;)

Welcome to Beijing's Underground City. Built in the 1970's as a response to alarmists threats of an imminent Russian nuclear attack, this subterranean network of tunnels covers an area of 85 sq km and even has a tunnel that leads all the way to the city of TianJin 130km away!

Our English speaking guide was clad in a drab green army getup, and ably led us through a series of tunnels which led to rooms designated as a hospital, library and even a cinema. Most of the rooms however were either locked up or were barricaded, so we had to take her word for it.

Along the way, there was a stretch where pictures of American war planes were displayed...

...along with relics of soldiers' clothes, backpacks and equipments as well as debris of the planes which I assumed were shot down by the Chinese army....

This door led to Chairman Mao's secret hideout as well as secret getaway exit. No none knows where it leads to because, well, it was a secret.

And this was the lounge where one could take a rest after hours of shovelling and siphoning out flood waters from one of the thousands of miles of tunnels.

Someone left their handbag here? Ooh.. I think I hear the cellphone ringing.... Nice ringtone. ;)

And this is the local Tower Records listening station.... except the hits of the day were secret Russian radio transmission.... Moscow calling... Moscow calling....

As we got deeper into the tunnels, it was very damp, even flooding some parts and moss was growing on the walls and ceiling.

And right at end of our tour, was the lone airshaft, built to expel poisonous gases within the tunnels. Yes, just one teeny tiny hole in the ceiling.

"Y'all come back now, y'hear..."