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Walking On Water at the Summer Palace, China

The monuments of the world may have been built by genocidal maniacs. But they can still touch, even if you do have a degree in history.

China has never really been a ‘fair’ place. The people were never given the idea of equality, and if we believe the propaganda, then they never really wanted it. Yet we all look upon the history of China with a certain fondness, as we do the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Mayans.

These societies were also ruthless abusers of the people, however. Their glorious histories are simply records of individual men and women using the masses (and to be honest, I hate the masses; I’m not really a people person, you see) to their own sick advantages. Wars were waged and monuments built at the cost of vast human sacrifices, simply so these people, mere humans born with the blood that propaganda dictated was necessary to rule, could be remembered. And while might remember and honour all those who died, instead we worship the ones that killed ’em all. We remember the merciless bastard geniuses who built the pyramids, who conquered foreign lands, and who managed to engrave their image upon history at such hideous costs that it makes my spine shiver to think.

China is no different, except that whereas much of modern world (let’s ignore Germany for now) gave up the immense acts of violence and endeavours for immortality at the cost of innocent lives, this civilisation didn’t give up so easily. China simply switched from dynasties to dictatorship, and kept up the slaughter and cult of icon. Mao butchered those who now love him, and the government still maintains evil and shady practices in the ignorance of those they govern.

But back in the day, it wasn’t Communists building statues, legends, and murdering in the millions. It was the emperors of the dynasties. They ensured their place in the heart of the history of the world, by creating giant playthings and symbols of power that stand, in my mind, as simply icons of a gulf in class and life.

These symbols include the Forbidden City, where only the top dogs lived, the Temple of Heaven, where only the big boys got to pray for the afterlife, and the Summer Palace, where the rich and powerful spent, well, their summers.

All of these places are simply the homes and temples of those with the blood required to be allowed privilege and unimaginable luxury. There was really no way to earn a pass into the palaces of the elite. Yet now, with the discovery of credit cards and foreign investment, access is available for only a few dollars. Fuck the cult of icon, fuck all that which is supposedly sacred. There was even a Starbucks in the legendary Forbidden City, where one would lose ones head for entering without royal blood.

I found the Summer Palace to be the greatest symbol of exclusion. Same with the Forbidden City – it might be the largest palace complex on Earth, but it’s just another palace. It’s not actually a city. Likewise with the Temple of Heaven. I find it hilarious that these people who claimed to be the greatest people on Earth, would pray in their own little prayer spots, thinking they had direct access to some God. It’s like a bunch of cool kids at school, all wearing the hottest clothes, with the raddest hair. Years later, they all just look like a bunch of dicks. The joke’s on them.

But the Summer Palace… That’s capturing the world and civilisation at its finest, and saying ‘Get the fuck out! It’s mine, all mine!’ The place is simply beautiful. From the natural surroundings to the man-made components, the Summer Palace is breath-taking. I say this, and yet I only saw it in the winter. I can’t even imagine seeing the grounds and river and hills in summer. What must that be like?

Yet I felt privileged myself. Whereas I was only one in a few million able to see the Palace for however many yuan it cost (it wasn’t expensive), I did see it in one moment in time, from one place, and through one set of eyes that sets my own memory and interpretation apart from that and those of others.

I had spent several days in a big city, having lived for months in a dirty little city, and before that, in some hideous nightmare of lost hours and dark times. My eyes were a little weary from seeing only that which I did not want to see. The stunning beauty of nature and history was now infrequent and dull. Korea’s version of nature sadly amounted to feeble exercise machines and queuing through forests of bent-double old men and men drunk with soju. The sights were polluted by the awful sounds and smells of the over crowded hills. Note: Mountains DO NOT require North Face endorsement. There is no minimum amount of North Face gear required to gaze upon a mountaintop sunset.

So I looked at the blending of ancient architecture and stunning natural surroundings, and was overwhelmed. In Korea and Scotland, everything had been so tame, and it had only been in America where I’d witness the world at its best; seeing things that almost had me looking for the word God as an answer (almost, but not quite). Mountains rose around, and a giant lake sat in the middle, with some of the finest Asian buildings decorating the landscape as a compliment, rather than an affront, to the nature of the place.

But to be a tourist is to miss the reality of the world. A tourist looks, whereas a participant sees. Think about that. I don’t wish to say that I travelled back in time and joined the emperor for a boat race in the Summer Palace lake or anything, but rather that I prefer to disregard the signs and directions, and get a feel for a place more so than a Facebook or Flickr worthy photo. In China this is not the easiest approach to sightseeing, as the country is covered entirely by soldiers, police officers and guards, armed with more CCTV cameras than anywhere else on Earth.

There were signs, however, surrounding the lake, where tourists were not so inclined to go, and consequently where the guards and cameras were not in such a great density. These signs warned in at least three languages of the dangers of walking on thin ice, the stuff that covered most of the lake. I hadn’t noticed at first, because the edges were water, and the ice started a bit further out, but there were places that for some reason had more ice than others, and consequently people must have been tempted to go for a stroll.

I saw one person walking across the ice, with the backdrop being some majestic collection of images before the sun, and I was jealous. I wanted that. I wanted someone looking out there and feeling the way I did, and thinking, Wow, that is one lucky, ballsy motherfucker. I wanted to walk on the ice. It must be partly my childish nature, I suppose, and not all my drive for adventure and stories, that makes me do these things. I think I see signs and feel challenged, and see people and feel jealous, rather than a mere opportunity for a memory that will last a lifetime.

So I went on out to the island in the middle, over a long, ornate arched bridge. I didn’t care about the island. It was small and comprised mostly of buildings of some description, and by this time I’d already seen man’s treasures and achievements from behind fences and upclose. I was here for the ice, man. I wanted to walk on water. There was no way of getting on the ice from the outskirts without taking a dip, and the temperature was around minus ten or eleven, and we were no where near a hospital. I didn’t mind dying, but I wanted to at least stand on the ice first.

I could see others on the frozen surface; two walkers in the distance, a woman doing tai-chi in the dying sun’s shadow upon an ancient tower, and a few skaters near the island. There weren’t many. Maybe we’d all be statistics in a newspaper tomorrow under ‘reckless deaths’.

But that’s what I like. It’s what I’ve always liked. Risk makes the fun more fun, and if something was fun in the first place, then risk is worth it in my opinion. So I looked for the place where they’d gotten on the ice and found a cluster of anxious waiters and onlookers, and one man flying a kite so high he must have had string measured by the mile. Nobody spoke for fear of breaking the ice. All around me was water, and by the step there was a patch of thin ice that almost made contact with the concrete, but, importantly, not quite. That meant one thing. To get on the ice required a jump.

Fortunately, the ice wasn’t as slippery as I’d imagined ice would be. Why is it that ice on a freezer floor or a cold road can make a man fall on his ice, but a whole solid lake of the stuff can have the surface grip of sandpaper carpet? When I finally got the courage to jump – to be fair, it wasn’t that huge a jump, but it’s the principal of the thing – I landed not with a backflip into the water, or split head, but with finesse and poise. I was on the lake, standing straight, and it was only going to get safer from here on out. Probably.

All around me I could see water, and for a narrow path ahead there was ice. Under that ice, I knew, was water. Cracks, reassuringly for some strange reason, ran through the ice, and I could see where it stopped and became liquid. I desperately didn’t want to think about it, but whenever I did I felt giddy. Like with any dangerous plan, it seemed scary in the beginning, but exhilarating later. I could fall to my death and at least I’d have accomplished my last living goal – to walk on water.

Indeed, I thought it a good death place, as far as they go. I’d rather have fallen through the ice whilst taking in the beautiful sights and daring the Earth to take me, than be crossing the road and thinking some mundane thought before being ploughed down by a bus.

Finally I reached the point where fear overtook the tranquillity. I had to jump off the ice, and managed to mess up my knee pretty badly on the hard concrete step. I was taking no chances, you see. I had done what I’d wanted to do without dying, so there was now something to fear. I had something worth remembering. If nothing else I kind of wanted to get back to Korea and tell people how amazed I’d been, as that sense of splendid isolation wore off and I yearned for the next thing.

David Wills

David Wills is the editor of Beatdom magazine, literary journal devoted to the Beat Generation.