Friday, July 20

The power to move mountains

In Beijing, Jingshan Park, is perhaps the most impressive example of an emperor’s absolute power.  Unlike the Forbidden City and other monumental structures, the park's imperial influence generally goes unnoticed.  At its centre stands a 46-metre high hill that attracts visitors seeking unrivalled views or a quiet, green oasis offering respise from a polluted, bustling city.  Most mistakenly believe they’re enjoying nature at its finest.

However, incredibly, the entire hill is artificial. It was constructed during the Ming Dynasty using spoil excavated from nearby canals and the Imperial Palace moat. The emperor, YongLe, ordered its construction in 1420 to improve the Forbidden City’s Feng Shui.  Apparently a building’s good fortune is enhanced if it’s located south of a nearby hill.  At the time of the imperial capital’s relocation to Beijing, no such hill existed.

The park covers more than 230,000 m², dominated by its artifical hill.  The hill was original constructed with five peaks. These remained bare until 1751 when elegant Buddhist pavilions were built on each summit. A copper Buddha statue was placed inside each building, representing one of the five taste sensations; sour, bitter, sweet, umami and salt.  On the highest peak, sits the largest and most impressive of these structures, the Wanchun Pavilion (Ten Thousand Spring Pavilion).  It’s dominates the hill's skyline from every vantage point in the city.
For years I’ve promised myself I’d climb the hill one day and enjoy the view.  I finally made an effort to conqueror it after dropping my parents off at Beijing Airport in June.  At first I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.  Minutes after paying my park entrance fee the heavens opened and a torrential downpour, complete with thunder and lightning, soaked the area. 
For almost an hour I sheltered under the eaves of Qiwang Pavilion which sits opposite the main gate. The pavilion once housed an important tablet memorializing Confucius.  Back when the park was a private imperial garden, the emperor would come here regularly to pay his respects.

The downpour proved to be hidden blessing.  It literally washed the smog and pollution from the city’s air, resulting in perfect viewing conditions.  Earlier in the day I’d almost cancelled my plans as after being somewhat concerned by the hazy conditions.  In the end the views from the hill’s summit were simply stunning as shown by the panorama I've stitched together above.  The imposing maze of the Forbidden City stretched out into the distance, while the foothills surrounding Beijing were clearly visible for the first time in days.  I’m glad I waited until now to make the climb.

The journey back down the hill was equally pleasant.  In one of the smaller pavilions, a group of elderly musicians had gathered to play traditional instruments.  Their music floated through the trees creating a wonderfully surreal Hollywood atmosphere.  At the base of the hill sits a popular plaque.  It notes the spot where the last Ming Dynasty emperor, Chongzhen, hung himself in 1644 to avoid capture by approaching insurgents. It would appear that the power to move mountains isn't enough to save one's own life in a time of peril.

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