Asia, China

The Summer Palace in Beijing: A tranquil spot amidst the chaos

January 26, 2014

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.

My first view along the Suzhou river inside the grounds of the Summer Palace. The autumnal hues on the trees blend beautifully with the colourful buildings.

Brightly coloured flags blow gently in the breeze and a few tourists meander around

The primary colours of red, yellow, and blue are draped beautifully over the front of this building, and a boat sits calmly on the water below them.


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.

Practising the ancient art of Calligraphy at The Summer Palace

The tiny bridge which carried tourists over to the walkway on the opposite side


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.

The Calligraphy artist (bottom right) has an audience

A beautiful tranquil spot amidst the chaos of central Beijing


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.

The famous marble boat resting on the banks of Kunming Lake

Attractive, intricately decorated corridors

Attractive, intricately decorated corridors


Others lead further up Longevity Hill, to the Pavilions and temples that decorate the hillside.

I never did find out why there are 3 different scripts (other than English) on this sign. Apart from Mandarin, can anyone identify the other two?

View from the top of Longevity Hill

These tiny little Buddha statues (right) were carved into the walls of the temple (left)

These tiny little Buddha statues (right) were carved into the walls of the temple (left)

Animal decorations on the eaves. Each character represents some form of protection (against elements such as fire or thunder) or is said to bring good fortune (peace, happiness)


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:

Transportation to Summer Palace for print

Have you visited the Summer Palace before or is it somewhere you’d like to go?

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  • Reply Nanette January 26, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    What a beautiful and thorough photo essay. I also love the picture of the man doing the calligraphy.

    • Reply Kiara Gallop January 26, 2014 at 10:09 PM

      Hey, thanks very much for stopping by my blog and for your positive feedback on my post 🙂

  • Reply Chasing the Donkey January 26, 2014 at 11:08 PM

    By golly, those photos are stunning!! What a wonderful adventure.

  • Reply The Guy January 27, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    I’ve only been to Beijing once, so far and didn’t manage to see this place. You sell it well and I think I’d have to include it on an itinerary if I ever return.

    For some reason most of your pictures would not load properly for me. It might be my browser settings. I refreshed the page a few times and it still would not load correctly 🙁

    • Reply Kiara Gallop January 27, 2014 at 1:24 PM

      You’re not the only one who’s said that, about my photos being slow to load. I think I’ll have to look at a plugin which will reduce the size of them. Thanks for letting me know and bear with me while I try to figure it out!

  • Reply Amanda January 27, 2014 at 3:13 PM

    It certainly does look tranquil! I think I like the side-by-side shots of the colorful corridors the best.

  • Reply Sammi Egan January 27, 2014 at 4:59 PM

    Beautiful pictures 🙂

  • Reply John from Entrepreneur's Odyssey February 15, 2015 at 10:07 PM

    Your post is great, thanks for going to huge effort.
    John from Entrepreneur’s Odyssey recently posted…14 Reasons Why, You Should Try a CruiseMy Profile

    • Reply Kiara Gallop February 16, 2015 at 5:52 PM

      Thank you for taking the time to stop by my site and read it 🙂 I have got more posts in the pipeline about China, but have kinda been distracted by writing articles about my recent South American trip for now!

  • Reply Hasan Mia November 8, 2023 at 5:40 PM

    I’ve only been to Beijing once, so far and didn’t manage to see this place. You sell it well and I think I’d have to include it on an itinerary if I ever return.

    For some reason most of your pictures would not load properly for me. It might be my browser settings. I refreshed the page a some times and it still would not load correctly. Thank you

    • Reply Kiara Gallop November 27, 2023 at 1:14 PM

      Oh that’s weird! But, thank you for the heads up – I’ll look into it 🙂

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