Bells be still
quiet wind
No one calls
ancient souls
Still they wait,
just in case
Sheer spirits,
bathed in light

Youth will cry,
and fear loss
Spinning wheels
chime and ping
Gates open
here and there
Without words,
the two speak

Prayer Wheels at a Buddhist Temple, Beijing, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

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c.b.w. 2014

The Summer Palace


Even in a city as large as Beijing, there are pockets of tranquility.  In this bustling city’s northwest corner, the Summer Palace is nestled between Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake where it has stood for the last 900 years. Pavilions, pagodas, gardens, and calming ponds of lilly pads all live up to the Chinese name, Yíhé Yuán, which means “Gardens of Nurtured Harmony.”  To walk through the grounds of the Summer Palace is to know the meaning of peace.

The site was first built during the Jin Dynasty when Emperor  Wányán Liàng move the capital to Beijing in the 12th century.  It would be another 600 years or so before the famous gardens would be commissioned by emperors of the Qing Dynasty.  Just like everywhere else in China, ghosts of the past roam freely around the Summer Palace, whispering their secrets from every corner.

Upon entering the complex, visitors are greeted by a large structure known as the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity.  Stunning mythological creatures cast in bronze stand guard in front of several doorways.

A dragon guards The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Photo by: c.b.w.

Through the doors, a lush garden filled with ponds, greenery, and stillness awaits.  Despite the throngs of people crowding every walkway and bridge, all are quiet as if the gardens cast a spell on those who enter.

A Pavilion looms over a large lilly pond at the Summer Palace. Photo by: c.b.w.

Pink, white, and yellow lilly flowers bloom in shallow pools of water. Walking among the greenery and gurgling streams is like walking through a dream world that lives only in the imagination.  It’s hard to believe the metropolis of Beijing is just outside the boundaries.  I sit on a bench and let the rush of traffic and the noise millions of people dissolve in the trees.

A pond sits quietly as lilly pads float and people cross a single stone bridge. Summer Palace Gardens, Beijing. Photo by: c.b.w.

The air is heavy with the smell of green, while a breeze always seems to blow through at just the right time. Secret passages arouse curiosity and open doors beg for eyes to peek.

Old ghosts may linger behind open doors. Summer Palace, Beijing. Photo by: c.b.w.

Aside from the gardens, the focal point of the Summer Palace is Longevity Hill.  The front side of the hill is dominated by architecture including pavilions, great halls, and pagodas, while the back plays host to the  magnificent gardens.  Surrounding the entire complex is a centuries old man-made water reserve known as Kunming Lake.

Longevity Hill, Summer Palace, Beijing. Photo by: c.b.w.

“Docked” in the water, is the infamous Marble Boat Pavilion, which was originally built by The Quianlong Emperor, but subsequently destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860.  It wasn’t restored until 1893 under the orders of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who took up residence in the palace during the summer months, (hence, the name “Summer Palace”).  The boat is two stories tall and constructed with wood painted to look like marble.

The Marble Boat Pavilion is where East meets West in architectural fusion. Summer Palace, Beijing. Photo by: c.b.w.

The Empress Dowager faced harsh scrutiny for her decision to rebuild the pavilion for a number of reasons.  First, the boat was rebuilt in a more Western style, which was considered offensive during a time when  Western influence was threatening the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and causing unwelcome shifts in traditional Chinese culture.  Second, she spent a fortune to reconstruct and expand the palace when China was in political and economic turmoil.  Worse still, the money she piddled away was originally earmarked for the navy.  Her decisions may not have been popular, but the beauty of the Summer Palace continues to awe those who visit.  Perhaps, the Empress Dowager saw the grounds as her only escape from the frightening chaos ripping China apart.

While history resides at the core of the Summer Palace, the present is not forgotten. Among the lilly pads beautiful flowers bloom to remind us there is always a moment of a beauty to behold.

A lily blooms in the gardens of the Summer Palace. Photo by: c.b.w.

Honor the past, but always breathe in the present.  In the garden of nurtured harmony, anything is possible.

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c.b. 2012

Finding True North


On more than one occasion, I’ve uttered the words, “Oh, great.  I have no idea where I am.”  For a directionally challenged person such as myself, this is a common phrase! Back in 2005, I added Beijing to my list of international cities where I’ve been completely lost.* In a place where English makes a rare appearance and tourists from the West stick out like a sore thumb, it becomes vitally important to find the way back to home base as soon as possible, (nothing attracts a pickpocket or worse than a confused looking tourist!). What set this event apart from all the rest was the fact that I had a compass keychain dangling from my belt loop.  Between a city bus map display, my street map, and the needle of a compass, I was able to find my way back to the hotel by matching up Chinese characters and traveling North and then East. My compass saved me that day by showing me where I needed to go and I’ve never forgotten that gift.  Seven years later, it’s still my lifeline.

I’ve often referred to my recent journey to London as a life-altering experience, despite my struggle to understand the full impact it has had on my life.  Some changes are obvious, but the deeper meaning dangles in front of me like a clue in a mystery waiting to be solved.  I am different in a place so hidden and so deep I can’t see it or even begin to comprehend it’s significance. All I have is the unrelenting sense of a huge shift towards something.  It’s a lot like standing at a fork in the road without knowing what the choices are or why they exist.

Essentially, I am lost all over again without knowing the language. Being lost in this way is both wondrous and frustrating.  Sometimes I revel in the confusion and the inspiration it brings, but there are times I wish I had a road map that at least reveals the basic layout of my new landscape.

Upon returning from London, the feeling of disorientation was overwhelming.  I couldn’t shake the duality of being excited to go home, while at the same time feeling as though I was leaving home. Torn in two, I oscillated between a life I loved and a life I didn’t know was possible, (and loved just as much). Nothing seemed real. In the months that followed, that surreality never left and I grew increasingly restless.  My perspective had changed so drastically, it effected every element of my life and made even the most the familiar things seem foreign.

I remain directionally challenged and my reliance on a compass has manifested itself in an entirely new way. About a month after my return, I was out shopping with family when I spotted a necklace with a compass pendant.  It was beautiful, not only in terms of design, but for the fact that it represented something very special to me.  With every spin of the needle, I am reminded that as lost as I sometimes feel, I will find my way to true north.

My compass necklace wrapped around the place that changed everything.

I wear my compass necklace almost every day so I don’t forget to follow my instincts and listen for hints that will eventually lead to the answer I seek.  All I know for certain is London taught me I am a lot stronger than I ever believed and that serves as my anchor.  At the moment, I walk this path with a smile on my face and growing curiosity of what lies ahead.  Just as it always has, my compass will point me in the right direction.

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*Oh, the stories I have from London, Paris, Rome, Prague, and Dublin!  I suppose that’s another post for another day.

– – –

c.b. 2012