The next day Unique Lee and I have decided to go to the Summer Palace. I invite Dom to join us and then Guy – a lovel 20 year old student from Leeds asks if he can tag along. Somewhere along the way - Derek Chang – a sweet 26 year old Canadian with Chinese heritage joins us and also invites along the two american tibetan nuns staying in our hostel and their two friends. Suddenly we hae four sixty somethings with us as well. Unique Lee turns around and suddenly sees how many there are of us:
"NO The group! - too big!!!" he's got a point - its going to be slow going navigating the subway.
When we get inside the grounds we split up as Derek and the nuns pay for a tour guide and me and the guys decide we can do without.
The Summer Palace – started out life as The Garden of Ripples in the 18th century and features acres of misty, hilly grounds with temples staggered up Longevity Hill in amongst the pine trees. Much of the building work has been restored to prisitne conditions - shiny terracotta rooftops , beautiful ceilings painted in bright jades and blues and on top of the glimmering tiled rooves there are scrolls of animals leading down to the guttering.
The grounds are split by an enormous lake which has dragon boats on it. I have had a dream – about dragon boats the night before I arrive into China. They are all lined up in a lake and suddenly I become one – but I'm like a brightly painted red and navy animated one. I fly up from the lake into the sky and over the terracotta roof tops of China which is far beow me. I interpret it as being creatively free and my imagination working well!
We end the day by getting the dragon boat across the lake for around 15 yuan (about 1 pound fifty) but as we sail across we see the main palace from the water and realise we haven't visited it yet – hmm maybe we needed a tour guide after all!!
Guy decides to head back – he's about to start studying mandarin and business studies at a university outside of Beijing and will comeback as part of the course to do the Great Wall and Summer Palace again at another date.
I regret not seeing the main bloody temple so Dom and I get a boat back across and make our way to find it. As the afternoon cools down it thins out of Chinese tourists and having found the main series of palace rooms and temples – we sit for some time in contemplative silence surveying the lake and the misty hills below. It really is enchanting.
On our final dragon boat ride of the day a Chinese woman suddenly grabs my hand and Dom's and yanks us down to have a photo taken with her two children. In China Westerners – but particularly the aryan variety like Dom – are like an alien species and the Chinese think nothing of photographing us as if we are exotic butterflies in a zoo.
That evening we all go out together for a meal. Sally, a sparrow like 60 something with sparkling dark eyes and a raucous witche's cackles – friend of the nuns – has found a restaurant that does vegan food near our Hutong – a rarity in China.
We set off down cobblestoned streets watching as middle aged Chinese men stroll around with their shirts rolled up under their nipples -
“What is it with middle aged Chinese men all trying to work the Britney look..” ponders Guy.
The restaurat is called Number 9 – however it traspires that Sally has actually been eating in Number 8 all along (!) - a small cafe where you point to the food you like. The actual Number 9 is a proper restaurant which we decide to try. Dining Chinese style is very sociable – we are seated in a private dining room - around a large circular table with a Lazy Jenny on it – a big wheel on which the various dishes are placed.
The menu has decided to try and help by providing an English translation of the dishes. However with translations such as:
- Skin Pimple Soup
- Pig's fatty intestine
- Fleshy foam spinach crystal powder....
Sometimes you really just wish they'd stick to proving pictures instead!
They really do eat everything here – no part of the animal goes to waste. I think i've got a fairly adventourous palate but even I draw the line at tucking into a whole fried duck's head, sea cucumber or the milky coloured claw of the chicken's feet they shrink wrap and sell as snacks in service stations from here to Taiwan.
“ MEDITATE DON'T MEDICATE! - that's my motto” cackles Sally with a huge guffaw. She is by far the coolest 60 something i've ever met. She works as a photographer – previously in the music industry and now shooting documentary footage. She is also a Buddhist and her and the nuns have come back from a pilgrimage that was supposed to go into Tibet (but their tour was also cancelled by the Chinese authorities - like mine.) She runs a meditation centre in New Orleans – her home town.
On the way back from the Summer Palace I had started talking to Annie – another 60 something American Tibetan Nun. She has closely cropped hair (from when it was shaved off) and large spectacles that magnify her big grey eyes and give her the air of a kindly owl. I ask about her orange robes and she explains that she has been ordained as a Tibetan nun, about the pilgrimage they have been on to meet one of their masters in Tibet. They have stayed in Buddhist temples and remote monasteries up in the mountains with their guide and spiritual master and he has carried out something called empowerment. She tells me about Tantric or Lamaist Buddhism – which is the form of Budhhism practised in Tibet and Southern parts of China.
Its something Naz - the ex Marketing Manager and yoga teacher I met in Guetemala has talked about about in relation to yoga – tantra -and the duality of nature - yin and yang –but like most people I also can't get away from associating it with sex (tantric sex – made famous because Sting and his wife practised it.) I casually mention this and Annie explains about the Karma Sutra- what the words actually mean -and how the act of Tantric sex is all about combining the dual forces of nature...and then I realise...im discussing Tantric sex and the Karma sutra...with an American Tibetan Nun...in Beijing!
On the day they are leaving – Annie comes to find me to give me something. She knows that I have been interested in learning more about Buddhism and has decided to give me her book on the subject written by the Dalai Lama. It has been covered in plain white paper because it is an offence to show his face in China. It is so kind of her I think its one of the most precious gifts I think i've ever received.