An index to the China series appears at the first post.
I visited Beijing in its most lovely season. Because the worst heat of summer had passed, the two students and I were able to visit the Summer Palace in comfort. The site is one of six World Heritage Sites near Beijing. Of course, when I think “palace” and Beijing, I am thinking of the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace, by contrast, is a massive park, featuring a lake dotted by three islands with scores of structures. The Summer Palace is not a massive European-style schloss!
First, though, we had to get there. The grad students and I tumbled into our third taxi of the day, this time driven by a woman. Soon we were on our way to the northwest corner of town to visit the Summer Palace. Traffic, however, was quite terrible, and two of our party fell asleep on the ride. When I opened my eyes, I realized that almost an hour had passed since we left Qianmen Street. All told, our travel time to the Summer Palace was almost an hour and a half. We pulled into the site at 3:30 PM.
The Summer Palace is not a place to rush. For one, it’s incredibly popular. During our visit, we were frequently interrupted by security zones for a visiting dignitary. The security personnel would generally have a line of police on the outside, each facing toward the crowds and effectively staving off anyone approaching them. A military honor guard was not far behind, with impressive impassivity. Tourists simply had to wait whenever this apparatus appeared. The next reason one should not rush is that the complex is simply enormous, spanning all the grounds bordering a large reservoir (Kunming Lake). We had only two and a half hours at the park before the site closed at six (EDIT: We later learned it was open until eight P.M.).
The park was constructed in 1750 by the Qing Dynasty; it even served as a temporary palace for the royal family. The lake was created by moving quite a lot of earth to the eastern slopes of Longevity Hill (the dominant height of the park) and joining existing springs and moats. In 1860, however, an atrocity took place that might have taken this park from the world forever. The Second Opium War had pitted the English and French against the Chinese, with the Europeans wanting unrestricted trade and the Chinese working to restore their sovereignty. When European forces occupied Beijing, they looted and burned much of the Summer Palace, particularly the structure that would have served as the royal residence. The government of the People’s Republic of China, however, prioritized the restoration of these grounds soon after coming to power seventy years ago.
Back in the present, we had arrived at the East Palace Gate. We purchased tickets that allowed us into the main park, rather than the comprehensive tickets allowing access to everything. When we strolled in, I felt completely surrounded by culture. A historic building could be seen in any direction. This is one of the challenges of the Summer Palace; with pavilions and temples everywhere, it can be hard to find the ones that will resonate as most significant. Soon, though, we began walking counter-clockwise around the lake. I had spotted the imposing Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, and I wanted to see it up close.
We wandered through courtyards of statues, sculpted rocks, and lovely greenery on our way. We passed a watery garden of sorts at the northeast corner of the lake. Although one cannot see the bottom of the lake through the murky water, it only averages 1.7 meters of depth. The huge water plants in the northeast corner seemed to be making the most of it! I was happy to see that one could rent paddle boats for a bit of an excursion on the water. As we reached the north side of the lake, we encountered a narrow covered walkway. We had reached the long corridor!
Once we were below the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, we were stopped again by a line of security guards. Since we could not purchase our tickets, we simply held position for a few minutes. I took a picture with a mighty lion who reminded me strongly of the statues for the Orient Express at Worlds of Fun. The rich reds, blues, greens and golds of the gates and pavilion had already become quite familiar signs of the emperor.
As one might expect, the closer we came to the tower, the harder it was to photograph. We glanced at the Hall of Dispelling Clouds (1886), which contains birthday presents offered to Empress Dowager Cixi. We saw the Hall of Virtuous Splendor, where she dressed when visiting the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha. Then we found the stairs! The Tower is built atop Longevity Hill, and climbing up there was a fair bit of work. By the time we reached the final set of 100 stairs to ascend the twenty meters to the base of the tower, we had already climbed a few smaller staircases.
The view from the top, though, was entirely worth it. Inside the tower is an immense 5-ton statue of Guanyin Buddha, cast in bronze and gilt with gold. The photographers, however, cluster at the front porch of the Tower, where one is rewarded with an amazing view of the entire Summer Palace grounds, with modern Beijing on display all around its edges.
We wandered further at the top and had almost reached the Clouds Gathering Temple when we turned back toward the lake. In finding the way back down, we took a wrong turning and instead climbed to the Baoyun Bronze Pavilion. The 207 ton structure has mostly been restored to its 1755 design, though it had been looted by Allied Forces in 1860 and its windows had been shipped overseas by Anglo-French forces in 1900 (the Starr Foundation re-acquired these elements and shipped them back to China).
Without further adventures, we returned to lakeside and returned to the clockwise path around the water. We stopped at the seventeen-arch bridge to visit the South Lake Island. A crew of workers arrived to unpack a children’s art exhibit. They set up dozens of bunny sculptures at the foot of the bridge. The sun was approaching the horizon, and so I took a few last photos to remind me of this peaceful and beautiful place.