FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A taste of summer

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 18, 2012

The Summer Palace was one of the sights that I most wanted to see in Beijing, having been drawn in by the rich illustrations of the Palace and its grounds in my guidebooks. It is also an attraction that has become much easier to reach since the opening of line 4 of the subway in September 2009. After picking up a Yikatong card (the Beijing equivalent of the Oyster card) I headed out on the metro to Xiyuan, a short walk away from the east gate of the Summer Palace.

The palace was a much loved retreat for the Qing Dynasty and one that we are lucky to see, given the destruction wrought upon it by Anglo-French forces in the nineteenth century (as information boards around the complex repeatedly drill home). Thankfully, the determination of the Empress Dowager Cixi to see the Palace rebuilt that effectively secured the future of the complex for today’s visitors, though whether she would be thrilled by the hordes trampling over the site is a moot point!

The Summer Palace in the morning mist

The Summer Palace in the morning mist

I had intended to spend the best part of a day exploring the extensive grounds of the Summer Palace but after emerging from the metro on a cold and foggy morning I realised that this may be a less than rewarding way to spend my time, particularly as many of the classic views would be obscured by mist. Re-writing my plans on the hoof, I decided to focus on the main buildings in and around Longevity Hill.

The complex was busy throughout my visit (even with it being a weekend during the low season) but not overwhelmingly so. The large groups seemed to stick to ground level, so once I started to make the steep climb up to the hilltop temples the crowds disappeared.

One of the rewards for making the trek up the hillside was the beautiful Hall of the Sea of Wisdom which was decorated with over one thousand glazed statues of Buddha. Although the building itself survived the fire of 1860 the small decorative statues fared less well, the soldiers having smashed their heads and hands. Although the damage has been repaired it doesn’t appear to have been of the highest quality – at least from the examples I looked at up close. Sadly, the temple’s interior holds a commercial enterprise which rather detracts from the experience – although, the same is true of many of the buildings throughout the complex.

Glazed Buddha statue from the exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom

Glazed Buddha statue from the exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom

Having reached the top, the way back down on the other side takes you down through an equally interesting series of classical Tibetan Buddhist buildings. The lack of sun today was evident from the layer of ice on the surface which made for trickier walking. After descending I took a wander around a recreation of a Suzhou market street around a part-frozen waterway, where the Emperorer Qianlong once play-acted being a commoner. It’s a fairly tacky tourist trap these days, but a harmless enough diversion.

A wander back to the frontage alongside Kunming Lake took me to some of the other highlights of the complex – such as the long corridor, the marble boat and the seventeen arch bridge – all of which deserve to be seen. The sun made a brief appearance through the clouds but apart from this it remained resolutely misty, which helped me decide to call it a day in the early afternoon. I was glad to have made the trek out to visit the Palace but it would be much better seen in a different season and in better weather!

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