♥♥♥ The Summer Palace
Yiheyuan Lu, Haidian (daily ; ¥30, ¥20 Nov 1-Mar 31; bus #808 from Qianmen)
Located in the city’s northwestern suburbs, the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) isn’t as grand or striking as the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, but its lakeside setting offers a refreshing sense of tranquility and space, along with its historic buildings.
The lake upon which the palace rests dates from the 12th century, but the original versions of the buildings that surround it weren’t constructed until the Qing dynasty under Emperor Qianlong. Since then the Summer Palace has been re-built twice, both times on the order of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who chose to rule from here year round between 1903 and 1908. The palace was first destroyed by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War, and 40 years later it was ransacked by the British in response to the Boxer Rebellion.
A winter day at the Temple of Heaven These days it is a popular retreat from Beijing’s baking summers but is equally, perhaps more, attractive during the icy winters. The whole complex has recently been spruced up in preparation for the Olympics.
Visiting the Palace
There are plenty of guides on hand at the entry gates, but the palace grounds are easy enough to navigate and if you want to hear their spiel (mostly about Cixi’s excesses and cruelty) you can always eavesdrop on a tour group as you make your way around.
The palace is laid out around Kunming Lake and has a number of pretty bridges on its shores, notably the 17-arch bridge in the southeast, the Jade Bridge in the west and the Humpbacked Bridge in the south. The bulk of historic buildings (and thus visitors) are found on the north shore, while the south remains quieter and a good spot for a picnic.
Though the buildings are certainly of interest and some, like the temples on Longevity Hill, offer fine views, the palace is enjoyed as much for its lake and grounds and a gentle few hours strolling or paddling a pedal boat can work wonders if you’re feeling a bit overloaded with temples and palaces.
Boats can be rented from below the Sea of Wisdom Temple and by the marble boat, costing ¥10 an hour. Alternatively, if you don’t want to do the legwork, tourist motorboats run between the Dragon King Temple (Longwangmiao) on South Lake Island and the marble boat.
In winter the lake becomes a natural ice rink and you can rent skates. Taxi is the easiest way to get to the palace, but buses run here, or for a different approach you can arrive by boat, just as Cixi did over 100 years ago.
The Royal Residences & Theater
The East Palace Gate brings you into a large courtyard, which leads to the Hall of Benevolent Longevity (Renshoudian) where Cixi kept court. You can still see her throne, although you can’t enter the hall. In the courtyard you’ll see huge river-carved stones and statues of an imperial dragon and phoenix, along with a less usual offering – the mythical qilin, a hotchpotch hybrid of creatures.
You’ll also come across the longevity symbol, which features prominently throughout the palace. Just beyond here, the Palace of Virtue and Harmony (Deheyuan) contains a theater, which is worth the extra ¥10 to look around.
Inside you’ll find a grand three-tiered stage and the resplendent imperial viewing area, complete with bed, which may seem excessive until you realize that performances often lasted days! Cixi was a keen fan of theater and is rumored to have acted herself here, ironically selecting the role of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.
There’s also a display of operatic costumes, palanquins and paintings. Continuing on from here, the Hall of Jade Ripples (Yulantang) was where Guangxu was imprisoned while Cixi dealt with his affairs of state. Just to the west, looking out over Kunming Lake, the Hall of Joyful Longevity (Leshoutang) was Cixi’s residence and has been left as she lived in it – you can still see the table where she reputedly grazed over her 108 course meals.
The Long Gallery & Longevity Hill
From here the path opens out onto Kunming Lake, created to give cool breezes during Beijing’s hot summer and you’ll be able to see the graceful 17-arch bridge to the south. A covered corridor, the finely painted and recently restored Long Gallery runs for half a mile along the lake’s northern shore, backed by Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan), which holds the Sea of Wisdom Temple and is worth ascending for the views.
Back at the bottom, the Long Gallery skirts the lake for a few more minutes and leads to one of the Summer Palace’s most famous monuments, a hideous, but finely crafted marble boat built under the dowager empress, Cixi, with funds that were intended to rebuild the navy.
Marble boat at the Summer PalaceContinuing on from here along the same side as the boat, you’ll cross a bridge and the path takes you through beautiful parkland more reminiscent of Oxford in England than Beijing, eventually leading to the western exit. Behind Longevity Hill the kitschy ‘Suzhou Street’ leads out to the northern exit, which is a better bet for getting a taxi.
See also Summer Palace pictures, map of Beijing summer palace
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