The unsinkable marble boat at the Summer Palace.
The unsinkable marble boat at the Summer Palace. Jim Eagles

Tranquillity among the palace hordes

THE great corridor of Chang Lang, which stretches 700m through the grounds of Beijing's Summer Palace, so China's emperors could walk through the gardens without having to go outdoors, is covered with thousands of scenes of rural tranquillity.

So it was a bit of a shock when my examination of an idyllic mountain vista was abruptly interrupted by a grinning Chinese woman with black glasses, a red nose and a large black moustache which, when she blew into it, gave a loud squawk and expanded into a giant handlebar some 30cm across.

Obviously pleased with the effect she had achieved, the woman then offered to sell me one of these devices at a "very special price" of Y5 (about $1).

Unfortunately my efforts to create a picture of negativity - holding up my hand, shaking my head and muttering "u qu"(no) - were a total failure because more hawkers instantly arrived.

One flipped open a metal suitcase and offered a selection of "Rolex watches". A second blew into a plastic whistle which produced shrill bird noises.

A third produced a carved dragon and reduced its price with amazing speed.

What with all that, the tour party guides shouting commentaries from their portable sound systems and thousands of tourists yelling in response, it was difficult to think straight, let alone appreciate the subtle beauty that was all around us.

Clearly things had changed in the three centuries since the Emperor Quianlong brought in 100,000 labourers to transform a royal park into a summer residence.

Back then the aim was to escape the heat and dirt, noise and bustle of Beijing and its Chinese name, according to Bin our guide, meant "something like many villas and peaceful gardens".

Well, it's still cooler than in the city centre some 12km away, but these days there's no escape from the brown haze, the crowds of people and the noise.

Still, the great man-made Kungming Lake, which takes up three quarters of the grounds, does possess a serene charm, and in a way the misty haze made the palaces and temples lining its shores and perched on the artificial islands more mysterious.

These days you can even explore the lake by hiring a pedalboat or taking a cruise on a brilliantly painted dragon boat with a huge toothy head smiling benignly at the bow.

If you don't have the time or energy to climb the lofty heights of Longevity Peak, which towers above the palace, then a cruise is the best way to admire the ornate structures on its slopes, and the crowning glory, the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom at the top.

Adjacent to one of the cruise jetties is possibly the most bizarre creation in this entire complex, an extraordinary marble boat, three storeys high, beautifully sculpted and apparently with a glass top floor, built by the Dowager Empress Cixi with money intended to be used to revamp the Chinese Navy after the defeats of the Opium Wars.

Still, at least it was unsinkable, and apparently the imperial family did enjoy playing there in the dying days of the dynasty.

Happily, the palace's network of gardens and courtyards, decorated with idyllic paintings, powerful rocks and carefully trimmed trees, also survived the revolution which toppled its creators, and sometimes, if you manage to find one beyond the usual tourist trail, it is even tranquil. And even if you are surrounded by a flock of noisy hawkers, the windows on to the garden, individually shaped to frame a particular view and painted with leaves and flowers to enhance it, can still provide a touch of the solace they must have offered to a world-weary emperor.

The imperial quarters are still here, too, most notably the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, where the emperor presided over the business of the nation. It's not open to the public but I was able to fight off other tourists long enough to peer through the windows and spy a giant carved chair which I presumed was the throne.

I was more interested in the adjacent courtyard which is inhabited by a particularly impressive collection of mythical beasts including the remarkable qilin, which is said to appear only on the Earth in times of harmony ... and, as an English tourist remarked sardonically amid the clamour, "obviously hasn't been seen here for a very long time".

I did try to get a picture of the qilin but it was surrounded by such a crowd of Chinese visitors, actually fighting to get close enough to have their photos taken in front, that I gave up. Not much harmony there.

But, as I left the palace, I did receive an unexpected touch of harmony. A little man sidled quietly up alongside and wordlessly showed a black and white silhouette of me he had cut out of a piece of paper.

Without thinking about it I shook my head, as you do after a few days of fighting off hawkers, and he vanished as unobtrusively as he had appeared.

When I had belated second thoughts, because it was a rather good likeness, he was nowhere to be seen.

Now, of course, I'm sorry I didn't buy his little piece of art. Upon reflection, unlike pretty much everyone else at the summer palace on that bustling day, he did seem to be the sort of person who might once have served the emperors - skilful, self-effacing ... and very good at disappearing when he wasn't wanted.

So, in a way, he helped to preserve the feeling of what this beautiful place must have been like once upon a time.

Jim Eagles travelled the Silk Road with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

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