summer palace/beijing/places/full places/empty places/stories about places/places as stories

Today I went to the Summer Palace. The main features are a hill (Longevity Hill) and a lake (Kunming Lake) — which also coincidentally functions as Beijing’s main water supply (the lake, not the hill). It was built as a palace for an emperor, then that happened for a while until it was destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion (I cringe using that phrase), then it was rebuilt, then it fell into municipal hands once this-and-that happened to the emperors it belonged to, and now it’s the present day and you can buy tickets and go inside. The whole thing is about a square mile all told, though most of that is the lake, and it looks huge and feels huge, and there’s some sort of cognitive dissonance in my head even now where I feel like one square mile isn’t that huge even, but trust me when I say that being there it feels quite huge.

I got there around four. Around four it was very crowded; there’s a placard out front which shows how many people visited that day, and apparently today was a 50,000 visitor kind of day. I’ve never liked crowds myself, so I wound my way towards the far end of the lake, away from the hill, where I saw many nice things:

The Summer Palace closes at eight, so I headed back to the other side of the lake around seven. It was as if a bomb had gone off. There was no one there except me, and some wandering cats, and boarded up shops, and lengthening shadows.

I always find it so insane how different places are when they’re empty. Even one person can bend a landscape to their will: one tyrant can transform a stately castle into a place of misery and fear. 50,000 people together…? It’s almost overwhelming. Now, devoid of it all, the Summer Palace is something quite different. Half estate, half ruin, half murder scene.

That is why I love ruined places and closed places and empty places and out of the way places. “Places” seem impossible to parse when they’re so full of people— the best I can do then is catalog. Only afterwards can we get the gist of things, piecing all the clues and detritus together into something that means something happy or means something sad or means something for us, working softly, singing softly.

Like reading tea leaves in an empty cup.

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Schuyler deVos

opinions reflect me, my employer, my immediate family and circle of friends, the general populace and every sentient being which has ever lived or will live