I only had a little free time this time around in Beijing, I’d have to use it wisely. Having seen a fair amount of the central historical sites last year including the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and several important temples, there was one site I was still dying to see: the Summer Palace. And who knew that spring would actually be the best time of year to visit?
Last trip, I’d had such a wonderful time exploring the hidden section of the Great Wall, that the crowds of the Forbidden Palace had immediately deflated my enthusiasm of visiting the tremendous site. It had been a weekend, which my colleague reckoned was the cause of the masses of Chinese tourists visiting the capital, perhaps for their first time just like me, maybe I should have been more understanding of them pushing away every in their path as they stampeded through the place. Luckily, I eventually took refuge in some of the side courtyards, finally being able to enjoy my visit. So I’d braced myself for similar chaos at the Summer Palace.
Secrets, Blossoms and Evading Crowds
Purposely making time during the week, to avoid weekend craziness, I’d completely lucked out with the weather. The wind had breezed in overnight, blowing away the Beijing smog, leaving the skies a crystal blue. Arriving at the palace (easily accessible on the subway), it looked like I might just have the same good fortune regarding the crowds with hardly anyone in the ticket line. Since the Great Firewall of China was inhibiting my internet access, I hadn’t been able to do all that much advance research into the Palace’s history and what parts to see, so I picked up the GPS audio guide and off I went.
Part of my interest in visiting the Summer Palace was my intrigue over its principal founder Empress Dowager Cixi, who’d practically ruled China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908. I love strong women, though Cixi did seem like quite the tyrant. An important imperial site dating back to the 12th century, the British and French burned down a great deal of the former palace at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, mind you, for good reason, in response to the Chinese torture and killing of a European peace delegation. Afterwards Cixi gradually rebuilt a palace here to serve as her summer resort, the final result now on the UNESCO World Heritage list. I could always use a little inspiration for the villa I hope to have one day, I promise, no peace delegations will be harmed in the process!
After crossing the bridge and the strange little street market built to have a village feel (much like Marie Antoinette’s country hamlet at Versailles), I turned right, holding back my eagerness to see the buildings with first an amble through the gardens, I also thought this would curb the potential crowds. Climbing a gentle hill I rounded a corner to be met by the most gorgeous lane covered in purple and white lilacs, their beauty only surpassed by their incredible fragrance. I was in awe. I knew my visit would be a magical one.
Soon I came across even more blossoms, this time various types of cherries. How lucky, considering we hadn’t seen all that many in Japan this time. I came upon the side lake, with its graceful bridges, elaborate gates and the paths dotted with deep pink blossoms and just budding whisky weepy willows. What’s more, up to here, there were very few people, broadening my already wide smile.
I passed the famed marble boat, imagining the lavishness of parties and teatime back when commoners were not allowed to peruse the lovely grounds. Cixi must certainly be rolling in her grave. My meander eventually took me to the covered promenade flanking the main lake. I once again resisted temptation to head straight up to the top of the hill, getting in a visit to all the lower palace buildings first. I was bemused by the paintings illustrating Chinese stories decorating the walkway and the small clusters (not mobs) of Chinese visitors taking a break with some tea and snacks in the shade.
One of the things that I loved most about the buildings, were their evocative names. The site itself is called the Longevity Hill whereas each building is bestowed with titles such as the Hall of Jade Ripples, the Hall of Happiness and Longevity or the Cloud-Dispelling Hall – on this glorious day, all of them making their namesake proud.
I managed to tour virtually all the halls or their courtyards, taking a little extra time in the one holding some of the few remaining artefacts of the palace, most were looted by the eight allied nations, including France and the U.K. in 1900. It was time to trek up the step peak to the Temple of Buddhist Virtue. This is the large building multilayered-roof building at the top of the hill. I have to admit, before arriving, I’d thought that this was a residential palace building, only to find out its true religious purpose on my visit. I guess that’s one of the great things of travel, discoveries and revelations.
Before embarking up the many steps, I had what is becoming a little Chinese tradition of mine. Over the course of my time at the Summer Palace, I’d featured in several of the Chinese tourists photos, either requested or snuck. Last time I’d experienced this while walking along the Bund in Shanghai, another popular spot for tourists from the provinces who aren’t used to foreigners. Since so many people wanted to take my photo, it was my turn to be curious, befriending a group of adorable elderly Chinese, the feeling turned out to be mutual as I was hugged and kissed after our pose. I was already on cloud nine, then achieving an even higher level of bliss reaching the top, looking out over this special site and into modern Beijing in the distance. I’d stay here in the past, letting it linger a little longer before heading back to reality and the 21st century with its traffic and smog.
If you’d like to visit the Summer Palace with a local professor and sinologist, have a look at the great small group and private tours offer by Context Travel.