Often over-shadowed by The Great Wall, The Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square, The Summer Palace was one of my favourite places in Beijing.
Situated in the Haidian district, the Summer Palace is 15 kilometres north west of central Beijing, although it feels like a world away from the overwhelming cacophony of the city’s chaotic streets. Originally constructed in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong, as a luxurious garden in which Royal families could rest and entertain, it has since been partially destroyed and rebuilt, and finally attained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1998. The Palace encompasses Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan) and Kunming Lake, occupying an area of almost 750 acres altogether.
The Summer Palace is now the largest and best preserved imperial garden in China, and is scattered with temples, covered walkways, pavilions and bridges.
As we entered the grounds via the North Palace Gate, on a beautifully crisp, sunny October day, we crossed the long bridge and beheld the colourful buildings lining either side of the Suzhou river, lanterns and flags decorating their exteriors. Water lilies rested on the surface of the still river and a dense thicket of autumnal trees provided a rich, warm backdrop to this serene vista which stretched out before me.
We wandered alongside the river, peering inquisitively into the doorways of each of the buildings we passed.
A few were inhabited by artists, collections of their work hung on the walls for tourists to marvel at, and other smaller pieces stacked up on dressers, wrapped in clear plastic sleeves.
In another was a gentleman demonstrating the art of crafting, engraving, and playing an ocarina. These are wonderfully simple musical instruments (one of which I purchased later on in my trip, at a slightly less inflated price than they were selling for here) made from fine pottery that is formed into an egg shape which is flat on the bottom, and into which smaller holes of varying sizes are cut. The musician then plays it by putting his/her mouth over the hole in the top, and covering certain holes with their fingers in order to create specific musical notes.
However my favourite was this wonderful old man, who looks like the epitome of a wise old sage. He was practicing the ancient art of calligraphy for passing tourists. You could choose from a number of different designs, including your name in Chinese characters, the animal which represents your Chinese year of birth (mine’s a dragon) or some quintessential Chinese scenery such as The Great Wall or the picturesque Li River, all of which could be drawn beautifully on to a silk script for you to hang on your wall at home.
Considering that the artists here rely on the tourists for their income, and the fact that we were actively showing an interest in their craft, not one person we spoke to seemed pushy or sales-focussed. Instead they appeared genuinely interested in demonstrating the products they had created, and the methods they had used to create them.
As we wandered further back up the river, I admired the beautiful golden hues on the trees, the Weeping Willows overhanging the water, the rich colours and delicate styling of the architecture, and the reflections in the ripples on the surface of the river. It’s difficult to believe that such a place can exist within the boundaries of such a densely populated, urban metropolis – but I’m so glad it does.
Within the grounds of the Palace and its gardens, it is possible to follow a number of trails through shaded woodland areas, some of which lead down towards Kunming Lake, to the Long Corridor that wraps around it’s edge, and to the magnificent Marble Boat.
Others lead further up Longevity Hill, to the Pavilions and temples that decorate the hillside.
Unlike the Forbidden City, I found the Summer Palace to be largely devoid of tourists, and being surrounded by so much water and so many trees, it retained a natural, serene, almost spiritual ambience.
Whilst on one hand I loved the energy and buzz of central Beijing, it’s comforting to know that there are places like the Summer Palace, the Hutongs, and the Lama (Yonghe) Temple, that offer a magical and peaceful contrast to the city’s polluted, traffic-filled streets.
How to get to the Summer Palace:
Have you visited the Summer Palace before or is it somewhere you’d like to go?