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It’s interesting how the human brain works – or doesn’t work, in some cases; especially when it comes to remembering things that happened in one’s not-so-distant past. It was almost exactly two years ago that I last paid a visit to Beijing’s Old Summer Palace – or YuanMingYuan – and I found it interesting how much I remembered about the place, but in equal degree how much was totally new to me…

After weeks of BJ settling down under its notorious blanket of filthy air, the heavens finally open once more and the night is filled with torrential rain, washing away much of the crud that we have learned to live with here. It is still raining pretty hard at daybreak, but with the skies finally clearing a little by mid morning, I set off dodging the puddles in what in BJ terms is a relatively person-free environment and make my way to the YMY subway station on Line 4.

In keeping with the overall theme, the subway planners have made an effort in its design to reflect the main reason that people come to this station in the first place.

Outside in the drizzle two lovelorn swans decorate the entrance. I discover later on that black swans are one of the attractions of this park. How come I never noticed that before?

To fully appreciate the Old Summer Palace you really do have to know a bit of its history. With many of Beijing’s tourist sites you can remain pig ignorant, nod wisely and say how very pretty (or whatever) and to a certain degree you can get away with that (albeit that you miss out on an awful lot that way). But not so with YuanMingYuan (the Gardens of Perfect Brightness), which once upon a time were known as the Imperial Gardens.

The Old Summer Palace is located in Haidian District just outside the west gate of Tsinghua University, north of Peking University, and east of the (new) Summer Palace. It covers an area of 3.5 square kilometres (860 acres), almost five times the size of the Forbidden City grounds and eight times the size of Vatican City. Hundreds of structures, such as halls, pavilions, temples, galleries, gardens, lakes and bridges stood in these grounds; and in addition, hundreds of examples of Chinese artwork and antiquities were stored in the halls, along with unique copies of literary works and compilations.

The Garden of Gardens (万园之园) was where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty lived and handled government affairs in the 18th and early 19th century (the Forbidden City was used for formal ceremonies only at this time).

In 1860 during the Second Opium War, two British envoys, a journalist for The Times and their small escort of British and Indian troopers met with the Royal Prince under a flag of truce to negotiate. They were imprisoned and tortured, resulting in twenty deaths. Half were reportedly murdered by slow slicing, with the application of tourniquets to severed limbs to prolong the torture; this infuriated the British leadership when they later recovered the unrecognizable bodies. The British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the destruction of the palace, which was then carried out by British and French troops. It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze, taking a total of three days to burn. Only 13 royal buildings survived intact, most of them in remote areas or by the lakeside.

After that little display of strength, the British, French and Russians were all granted a permanent diplomatic presence in Beijing and the Chinese had to pay 8 million taels to Britain and France. Britain acquired Kowloon (the peninsular opposite Hong Kong island); the opium trade was legalised and Christians were granted full civil rights, including the right to own property, and the right to evangelise.

Then in 1900, as if to add insult to injury, many of the buildings that had survived or had been restored at the Old Summer Palace were burnt down for good by the expeditionary forces sent to quell the Boxer Rebellion. And following that, the eras of the Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution were two more significant periods that contributed further to the destruction of the YuanMingYuan. Most of the site was left abandoned and used by local farmers as agricultural land – a fact that is nowadays often conveniently “forgotten”. Following the sacking of the Old Summer Palace, the Imperial Court relocated to the Forbidden City.

So that’s why what had over a century and a half ago been a large park stuffed full of beautiful buildings is now a large park stuffed full of greenery and lakes and a handful of ruins – mainly on the northern side of the park.

In its heyday, YuanMingYuan had nearly 200 bridges. But now, this bridge – known as Canqiao (Ruined Bridge) – is the only old stone bridge preserved after the destruction.

Perhaps one of the reasons the YMY today is not heaving with visitors – quite apart from the inclement weather – is that it looks like I have picked a day when the peonies, which a friend of mine told me were fabulous just a couple of weeks back, are all over and other displays are not yet unfurled. (You have to remember that seasonal weather changes very rapidly in Beijing with the result that if something is flourishing one day, you can bet your bottom yuan that it will be over by the next.)

Instead we are left to “admire” a block of ranunculus – which may be pretty but are somewhat underwhelming…

and swathes of petunias, violas and Busy Lizzie, which again are all very nice, but hardly breathtaking!

The water lilies – what few of them are out yet – are however impressive as always, and many people are aiming their cameras at the few specimens that have thought fit to open their petals on this overcast day…

The kids don’t really seem to care one iota either way – just as long as there is a plastic water melon to jump around… (Hey, someone should send this kid down to Daxing if he is so easily thrilled!)

Said brat is certainly not interested in a diversion signposted off the path. From the look of things this little building features reproductions of twelve bronze animal heads that were looted by the Allied forces in 1860 from the HaiYanTang Zodiac fountain.

Inside, the animals are once again underwhelming in the extreme. This is meant to be a tiger, would you believe!

While this is a rat…

You can even purchase copies of these copies of copies in various sizes to grace your mantelpiece at home, should you have the urge – though why anyone would want these in their homes really beats me.

Bronze animal heads not your cup of tea? How about some wall hangings – only eight times more than what you would pay for them over near the Fragrant Hills …

Nearby is a ziggedy zaggedy bridge which reminds me of the ziggedy zaggedy bridge I walked over in Shanghai. Apparently they were made that way since everyone knows that devils can not make sudden turns when chasing you. So remember… if ever you are chased by a devil, head immediately for the nearest ziggedy zaggedy bridge!

Most visitors to YMY head for the ruins, once they can work out which way they should be heading. And that means keeping an eye out for signs to the XiYangLou – 西洋楼, literally "Western mansions” – area.

Once upon a time, the 70,000 sq m garden at XiYangLou had over 10 buildings and courtyards. Planning began in 1747 and construction was largely completed by 1759. It was designed under the guidance of Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione and French missionary Michel Benoist and was built by Chinese craftsmen. The architectural style was Baroque and in its heyday the Qing imperial court made a set of copper plates comprising 20 elevation perspective architectural drawings, which is why after all the destruction it is still known what the place used to look like.

In 1860 when the Allied forces burnt YMY to ruins, most of the European style halls and pavilions partially survived, because they were built with stone materials.

A building known as XieQiQu (谐奇趣, or ‘Harmonious Wonder’) was located on the southern tip of the western part of XiYangLou. It was the first European building to be completed in the autumn of 1751 (the 16th year of Emperor Qianlong). Its main building was a three storey structure with the top floor having three rooms and the ground and first floors having seven rooms each. It had a nine-room arc corridor on both sides at its front to link with a couple of two-storey octagonal buildings and was used for playing both Chinese and Western music.

The complex is noted for containing China's first European-style water feature. The basins of the key fountains had a floral layout (shaped like chrysanthemum flowers); and these were fed by bronze waterspouts in the shape of animals. Water for the fountains came from a water tower which was filled by a mule-drawn water wheel.

Something that has been restored back to its former glory is the HuangHuaZhen (黄花阵, or ‘yellow-flower maze’), which was formed of 1.2 metre-high embossed-brick walls covering an area of 89 by 59 metres. The total length of the walls is 1.6 kilometres.

At its centre is a European-style circular pavilion in which the emperor is said to have sat to watch his concubines competing in a race with yellow lanterns through the labyrinth on the occasion of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

I guess those old Chinese emperors certainly knew how to enjoy themselves; but is it only me who wonders why those silly young concubines didn’t just peer over the walls like visitors do nowadays in order to complete the “labyrinth” in all of three or four minutes?

My thoughts are interrupted too soon. It being very close to International Children’s Day, some parents have taken it upon themselves to offer to be blindfolded and to be led by their brats who aren’t yet tall enough to peer over the walls.

Yet even these kids are smart enough to twig pretty quickly that if everyone else is heading down a particular route, then maybe it wouldn’t be such a silly idea if they followed sheep-wise!

What these emperors did when the novelty of seeing their floosies chase one another through the maze wore off is not recorded. (And did the concubines watch as the emperor groped his own way out? Or was he led out by a flunkie so he didn't lose face showing he couldn't work it out for himself?) Perhaps they wandered the 50 metres along to the next must-see attraction, which was the YangQueLong (养雀笼, or Bird Cage) which was built in 1759 (in the 24th year of Emperor Qianlong).

The central room was a European-style gateway and the south and north side-wings housed aviaries which kept lots of exotic birds presented by foreign countries. Outside the east and west doors of the Bird Cage were small water spraying towers.

To the east of the Bird Cage was the two-storey three-room FangWaiGuan (方外观) – a European-style building. The mansion is said to have been frequented by an Uyghur concubine called Rong (fragrant concubine) that Emperor Qianlong rather took a fancy to; and historical records indicate that it was then changed into a mosque for her to attend religious services. There were two stone tablets inside FangWaiGuan, inscribed with Islamic teachings; but these were ‘lost’ in the early 20th century.

East of the FangWaiGuan was the HaiYanTang (海晏堂, Hall of National Peace) which was a building and garden complex also erected in 1759. It consisted of a two-storied main building with a large fountain in front and an h-shaped water tower behind it. The fountain was known as the "Water Clock" because it was surrounded by twelve bronze waterspouts in the shape of human bodies with animal heads.

Each of these animals jetted water for two hours in the sequence of China's 12 two-hour time dividing system and all the animals jetted water simultaneously at noon.

Actually these emperors were pretty much into fountains in a big way here. DaShuiFa was yet another garden fountains feature. The main building was a huge stone shrine in front of which were a lion head fountain producing a seven-level waterfall and an oval shaped chrysanthemum fountain. In the middle was a bronze spotted deer whose horns jetted out eight water spouts. On both sides of the deer were 10 bronze dogs that also jetted out water spouts (or “sprouts” as the official blurb explains it!) aimed at the body of the deer. This, apparently, was meant to represent the hounds pursuing the deer.

Of course, with all the trouble it took to create this aquatic work of art, it was obvious the emperor – bless his cotton socks – would want a good ogle at it; hence that same year they also built GuiShuiFa – a place at which the Qing emperors could place their ample situpons when appreciating the DaShuiFa Fountain.

It had an imperial throne on a stone terrace, which was backed by five large stone screens which had carvings depicting European military flags, armour, swords and guns. On each side of the stone screens stood a white marble square pagoda.

Around the corner from all this construction is a small statue of the French writer Victor Hugo. He’s a bit of a hero in China, it seems, even to this day.

In an open letter to a French captain who had returned to France with many of the looted treasures, Hugo is widely quoted as saying, "With all its treasures, Notre Dame in Paris is no match for Yuanmingyuan, that enormous and magnificent museum in the East… Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain… The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.”

It’s time to move on from the ruins and to think of other things. Before long, a pair of black swans and their offspring appear on top of a plinth. These birds, we are told, nest here every year…

Some people are wandering around aimlessly in front of a hideout hut looking for the actual birds thmselves…

Actually, if you were a swan, would you be daft enough to set your nest in front of endless gawking rubberneckers? I mean does everyone expect swans to be that stupid?

Uh oh … it seems I spoke too soon. OK I can report that yes … swans ARE that stupid. There’s one sitting on its nest right now, not 50 metres away from us all. (Or maybe the park attendants have tied a piece of string to its leg to make sure it stays there so it can be photographed? I wouldn’t put it past anyone here not to do that! LOL)

Another 50 metres away in the opposite direction from the swan is a very plain looking building which looks totally underwhelming. Except…

… it turns out to be a mini museum. Something else I missed two years ago. Inside there is a glorified model of what YMY used to look like in its heyday.

Hey, there’s the maze I wandered through just a short while ago…

The European-style buildings, of course, only occupied an area along the back of the Eternal Spring Garden that was small compared to the area of the overall gardens.

More than 95% of the Imperial Gardens were made up of Chinese-style buildings, as well as a few in Tibetan and Mongol styles, reflecting the diversity of the Qing Empire.

The ‘museum’ takes up a good 10 minutes before it is time to move on again. This time the path wends its way in a clockwise direction back towards the southern exit where the subway station is located. There are a handful of boats clearing weed from the lakes where it seems to grow pretty freely. I wonder what they do with it. Use it for cattle feed? Make it into compost? I guess I will never find out…

Once more – something I do remember from last time – the schematic of what the gardens looked like before the 1860 ransack, which is well positioned on the exit pathway. Now, I don’t know about you, but don’t you think this would be better placed where people could see it when they first come in, rather than when they are leaving the park? It just seems a strange logic to me, that’s all. But hey, what do I know. I’m just an ignorant laowai; and you would think I would have learned to know my place by now!