I’ve already been to Beijing’s Summer Palace on three previous occasions – last time it was pouring with rain – but it has to be one of my favourite places in the northern capital.
The Summer Palace (颐和园) or Yíhé Yuán, which literally means "Gardens of Nurtured Harmony", covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres, three quarters of which is water.
Line 4 of the subway system takes you virtually there. From Xiyuan 西苑 station, it’s a 10 minute lope past loads of street food stalls and fighting your way through the army of rickshaw drivers who are intent on parting you from your well earned renminbi to drive you the length of the street.
But within minutes you’ll know you have arrived. What hits the eye is a grand paifang not doing a very good job of hiding a bus terminus.
But what visitors often fail to notice, is that there is a little museum, otherwise known as a Visitors’ Centre right by the paifang which is free to enter and actually remarkably good in telling you practically everything you ever wanted to know about the Summer Palace but were afraid to ask.
It also has what must be one of the most beautifully constructed loos, which is actually clean inside and well worth walking through the museum just to try out its facilities before venturing into the park.
In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List, declaring it "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value," it said. And quite right too!
The Summer Palace started life as the 'Garden of Clear Ripples' (清漪园or Qīngyī Yuán) in 1750. Artisans reproduced the garden architectural styles of various palaces across the Middle Kingdom.
The first thing you see when you enter the Summer Palace gardens is a lovely bronze Qilin statue standing guard over the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. It’s a great way to start your tour of the massive park, albeit that you normally have to fight your way through the hoards of visitors who have the same idea as you in what they want to see.
Apart from the Qilin, there are other statues around, such as stalks, lions and dragons, all of which will have attracted loads of Kodak Brownie camera owners in their day.
One thing that many visitors are unaware of, though, are the railings that have been specially constructed to keep their grimy mitts off the said statues. The Chinese obviously hold these in very high esteem, though in my ignorance I had never realised their importance until I saw a notice pointing this fact out to me.
For me, though, the main attraction of the Summer Palace is not the railings, but the central Kunming Lake which covers 2.2 square kilometres. It is entirely man made and the excavated soil was used to build the so-called Longevity Hill with its variety of palaces, gardens, and other classical-style architectural structures.
In the past I have always headed straight off to Longevity Hill along with the millions of other tourists; but this time I turned left through the Wenchang Tower (built in 1750 and the largest of the Palace Garden’s six gate forts)…
and along the banks of the lake, which was actually created to imitate the West Lake in Hangzhou. The palace complex suffered two major attacks—during the Anglo-French allied invasion of 1860 and during the Boxer Rebellion, in an attack by the eight allied powers in 1900.
The garden survived and was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902. In 1888, it was given its current name, Yíhé Yuán. It served as a summer resort for the naughty Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, said to be originally designated for the Chinese navy, into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace. But I guess everyone is now pretty pleased she did and far from having her wrists slapped for what nowadays would be considered fraud, not to mention grand larceny, she must surely be the toast of the Beijing Tourism Bureau.
All around the lake you get fabulous views of the Longevity Hill as boats criss-cross their way over the water. A little further on you reach the Seventeen-Arch Bridge which is packed with people crossing over to Nanhu Island on the other side... and probably wondering why they bothered.
OK, maybe that isn’t really fair. Nanhu Island covers 2.5 acres and is the largest one among the three islands in Kunming Lake. Seen from a distance, the island together with the Seventeen-Arch Bridge is said to look like a tortoise stretching his neck. As the tortoise is a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture, the similarity in shape justly satisfied Emperor Qianlong, who, being the mummy’s boy that he was, built this garden to celebrate his mother's sixtieth birthday.
The island has a little temple poetically called the Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture, though it used to be called the Dragon King Temple. The pavilion-style Hanxu Hall is the shelter where Empress Dowager Cixi inspected the navy drill. In ancient times, the Dragon King was deemed as a mythical divine master of the rain. Every time Cixi came to the Summer Palace by waterway, she made a stop-over for the set purpose of worshiping at the temple.
From the island you get even better views of Longevity Hill – well you do if you have a telephoto lens at any rate!
Throughout the park hawkers sell their wares in the time honoured way. Yi kwai Yi kwai (one yuan) shrieked this annoying woman, ruining any possibility of a quiet afternoon spent enjoying the beauties of nature. The false plastic glasses and moustache were too irresistible to miss for all the naughty little boys who would harass their parents into parting with their cash and then jumping out from behind trees shouting the Chinese equivalent of “boo!” at anyone who was passing by.
I managed to resist the urge to get myself some plastic glasses and moustache. To be honest, shyness prevailed; that, plus I wasn’t really sure how the Chinese would react to your favourite blogger jumping out from behind a tree shouting “boo!”
Some of the girls, on the other hand, who wanted to be topped out with a large red flower, looked much cuter than their male counterparts.
Of course, there were the usual street musicians, including this guy who had been playing at this self same spot every time I had previously made it out to this park. His female companion tried all the while to sell a CD of his best tracks, but not all tourists are gullible enough to fork out the required 80 kwai when you can probably get a much better CD rendition in a downtown shop for between 15 and 20￥.
And in contrast to the more “modern” attractions of Beijing such as the Olympic Park - where Mickey Mouse and his fellow rodents want payment for being photographed with you (note: I am led to believe it isn’t the real Mickey Mouse who probably suffers from arthritis by now anyway, but an impostor masquerading as M.M.) – here you are more likely to be approached by someone masquerading as an emperor, or emperor’s flunky at least, and wanting similar payment.
Back in the “civilised” end of the park, it was time to walk along the Long Corridor towards the many buildings that are the main draw for the visitors.
The Long Corridor ( 长廊 or Cháng Láng) is a covered walkway erected in the middle of the 18th century, and famous not only for its length (728 m) but also its more than 14,000 richly painted decorations, which depict episodes from Chinese classical literature, folk tales, both historical and legendary figures, and famous Chinese buildings and landscapes along with flowers, birds, fish and insects.. It leads from the Gate for Greeting the Moon in the east along the northern shore of Kunming Lake.
It was constructed so that the emperor's mother could enjoy a walk through the gardens protected from the elements. Like most of the Summer Palace, the Long Corridor was severely damaged by fire which the Anglo-French allied forces laid in 1860 during the Second Opium War. It was rebuilt in 1886.
Along its entire length, it keeps to the transitional zone between the lake shore and the foot of the Longevity Hill, passing in a southward bend around the central building complex on the lake side of Longevity Hill.
On its southern slope, Longevity Hill is adorned with an ensemble of grand buildings: The Cloud-Dispelling Hall, the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, and the Sea of Wisdom Temple, flanked by various other buildings. In the centre of the Temple of Buddhist Virtue stands the Tower of Buddhist Incense, which forms the focal point for the buildings on the southern slope of Longevity Hill.
Visitors can climb the tower for a panoramic view of the area. As an imperial worshipping tower, it enshrines a Buddha made in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) known as the Buddha with One Thousand Hands and Eyes (although in reality it only has twelve heads and twenty-four arms). Empress Dowager Cixi, workaholic that she obviously was, burned incense and prayed in the tower on the first and fifteenth days of every lunar month.
Despite the size of the park and the myriad buildings that you will want to see, the park authorities have gone out of their way to offer helpful advice as to the best route to take …
and you can be sure that where there is a special vista, there will usually be a sign board pointing this out for you, just so you can’t possibly miss it.
You can tell at a glance that safety is a high priority …
which is just as well as there is quite a bit of walking up and down steep stone staircases to some of the buildings perched on the side of the hill..
As you would expect, there are fabulous views to be had from the top as you survey the splendour of the lake below.
Or casting your eyes a little nearer, you get a wonderful bird’s eye view of the buildings below.
But sooner or later, what goes up must come down. So, continuing one’s stroll along the side of the lake leads one to The Marble Boat (石舫 or Shí Fǎng), also known as the Boat of Purity and Ease (who one earth thought up these pretentious, but lovely names, I wonder?).
This is a lakeside pavilion, 36 meters long, erected in 1755 during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the pavilion was destroyed by those dratted Anglo-French forces, who have a lot to answer for, IMHO. But it was restored in 1893 on the orders of the Empress Dowager Cixi (who I reckon enjoyed a bit of retail therapy now and then).
In this restoration, a new two-storey superstructure was designed which incorporated elements of European architecture. Like its predecessor, the new superstructure is made out of wood but it was painted to imitate marble. On each "deck", there is a large mirror to reflect the waters of the lake and give an impression of total immersion in the aquatic environment. Imitation paddle-wheels on each side of the pavilion makes it look like a paddle steamer. I even heard one American couple wondering how often it sets sail into the lake!
From here on around the rest of the lake it gets pretty quiet as most people like yours truly eventually run out of steam to go any further. I’m sure that is something I will have to rectify one day as there are a whole load of cute bridges like this one that you can see in the distance (bless my telephoto lens!) to discover…
So instead, I crossed one final bridge before heading out of the grounds to Beigongmen station to begin the long trek home.