Details are everywhere, if you only know where to look.[China.org.cn]
The Summer Palace is regarded to some as the single best preserved imperial garden in the world and is the largest of its kind in modern-day China. Traditionally this was used as a summer "beat the heat" plan for the Imperial Family, but in modern times many more people are taking the hint and heading out to the palace for the day. Complete with a beautiful lake, lots of culture, and a multitude of places to explore, the Summer Palace of northwest Beijing is a great place to kick back or go on an adventure of your own.
◇ What to know before you go:
The Summer Palace is a palace riddled with as much mystery as explorers care to find on their afternoon journey, often leaving more questions than answers and many more stones left unturned. Since its original construction sometime in the 12th century, the Summer Palace has been ransacked twice, and been subject to a couple of independent upgrades. For a while, it was the permanent residence of Dowager Empress Cixi, which brought about extravagant tales of her workings in politics and everyday life.
100 years after initial construction, Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) drafted the first expansion project to enlarge the lake. Without realizing it, his vein efforts required extra canals into Beijing and ended up improving the water supply to the whole of the city.
1750 brought about more construction on the palace. 100,000 workers were brought in to complete projects such as reproducing various gardens and palaces from across the Chinese empire, expand the lake to model after Hangzhou's famous West Lake, and also remodel the Temple of Gratitude and Longevity in celebration of Emperor Qianlong's mother's birthday.
After 100 years the palace was ransacked by the Anglo-French forces of the Opium Wars. They burned many of the buildings and destroying the gardens. Dowager Empress Cixi was though determined to rebuild the palace and return it to its former glory only 20 years after it was destroyed. The colossal amount of money spent was diverted from the Imperial Navy (that her brother-in-law was in charge of). While in residence it is said that she required 100 dishes to be prepared at any meal she had and loved the theatre. Her iron grip on the government was well founded from the palace and she is said to have brought conservative rule during challenging times.
By the end of 1800s, the Boxer Rebellion broke loose in China, and with that the Summer Palace was again ransacked by the Eight Allied Powers because of Cixi's ties to Boxer support. The family was forced to sign a humiliating treaty in 1900, three years after the rebellion, in order to return to the palace and again begin reconstruction.
The Palace was officially opened to the public in 1911, even though the last Emperor, Puyi, retained use of the private apartments until 1924 when he took up residence in Tianjin. After this the Palace was declared officially public.
◇ Navigating the Palace:
The Chinese fondly refer to this place as Yihe Yuan, or the Garden of Restful Peace. The gardens, temples, and pavilions around the palace were designed to achieve harmony with nature and true to form, have not fallen short. The Palace is naturally divided into three sections: administrative, living, and relaxation, and was added to the World Heritage List in 1998.
The East Palace Gate is the administrative area of the park and is home to the buildings where Dowager Empress Cixi and Emperor Guangxu used to stay and conduct matters of government. This section consists of several buildings and a path leading down to the lakefront. Upon entering here, it is not uncommon to see many elderly people performing local folk dances to music or playing games along the walkway. This injection of current culture into the past brings the palace to life and brings a smile to visitors' faces.
From the walkway, visitors can choose to walk on several of the paths beside the lake, or underneath the "long corridor." This colorful walkway is encased in brilliant painted pattern and can lend some shade in the hot summer days. Here visitors will find clusters of older men gambling with cards or playing go. Sweet tunes of local instruments and singing fill the air here also; people play their erhus and sing along to traditional Chinese melodies. The culture found here is a comfortable paradox to the luxurious scenery of Kunming Lake.
Along the lakeside path, visitors stroll beside Longevity Hill. Admission to the Hill is an additional 10RMB but very worth it. There are several temples and breathtaking views along the upward climb to the top. After a relentless amount of stairs, nature consumes the path around the temple and it is hard to imagine this place exists within the palace walls. Climbing out onto a rock face, a bird's eye view of the city is possible and it lends a sense of harmony to visitors. It is not hard to lose track of time from what seems to be the top of the world and imagine Beijing how it would have looked for Dowager Empress Cixi long ago. It is not necessary to take the same path off the Longevity Hill as was taken up. Another path through the rock leads visitors straight down and ends at the West Gate of the palace.
Cool riverside shops have been recreated here in what is referred to as "Suzhou Market Street." Many of the shops are only accessible by boat. It was rumored that the Emperor and his many concubines enjoyed "pretend shopping" by the river in these especially created shops and stalls just for the occasion.
Typical trips can take half a day or more, so be sure to allot appropriate time. Also, if visitors are interested, boats also depart from the Summer Palace to the Beijing Zoo.
(China.org.cn August 24, 2009)