For my birthday (late January) during the Spring Festival, my husband and I decided to go to the Summer Palace! We had been planning to go for so long but kept getting derailed, now it was finally our chance! Because we went a few days after New Years. The palace was empty and our tour guide was amazed that we were able to get such amazing pictures!
The Summer Palace was built in 1750 and was a retreat for the emperor and his (many) wives and children. The grounds are huge and are only a fraction of the size they were when there was an emperor! A beautiful lake covers 3/4 of the existing area and we spent a wonderful 3 hours exploring the area! We called our friend/tour guide Atilla that showed us around the Beihai and Jingshan parks and he agreed to meet us at the subway exit outside the site! We took the subway to Beigongmen and were about to exit the obvious exit D that read Summer Palace, but got a text from Atila to instead use exit A. We didn’t understand why, but realized that there are two park entrances off of exit A that are much less crowded because they are the North and Northwest entrances. Entering the North entrance means that we would have to go up an extra hill so our clever guide had us enter through the Northwest entrance. We paid the 20 rmb per person and headed into the park!
Even though it is wintertime, I was still surprised that we saw so very few people when we entered! I had been told that Beijing would be a ghost-town during the break but I wasn’t prepared for the tourist attractions to be so open! We could take all these pictures of the architecture and the lake without dozens of people doing the same thing! After we crossed the bridge, we started to see the lake in the center of the park. The lake was huge and we were informed that we were only viewing about 30% of it total size. Usually the lake has boats traveling along it but the lake was frozen, causing the sunlight to reflect off the ice beautifully! We saw the first amazing site which was called the ‘Clear and Peaceful Boat’, which was a boat made of marble and did not actually move! The base is made of stone the top is made of wood and glass. It is so big and is actually built into the lake. Our guide told us that the boat was made by the emperor using funds from the navy and became a bit of a joke in China. He joked that the navy had actually “made a boat that couldn’t move! No wonder we lost the Sino-Japanese War!”
We continued along the lake and eventually came upon the ‘Long Corridor’. The corridor is basically an outdoor hallway that stretches around 728 meters long. This 270 year old corridor has over 14,000 pictures on the ceiling depicting different Chinese folklore/mythology and sites within China. It is known as the longest painted gallery in the world and still depicted the same stories that they pictured during its’ creation. Our guide informed us that these paintings had at one time been covered by paintings of Chairman Mao’s face, but eventually were changed back to their original format. I was surprised that they were able to recreate them all, but their records in the archives were so complete that they knew where each painting was meant to be. Because the corridor is so long and typically busy, it is extremely rare that you can take a picture of the corridor without dozens of people sitting along the corridor eating lunch. However, I was so fortunate to come during the Spring Festival break when there were so few people! We walked along the corridor as our guide told us the stories of the White Snake, the million arrows, the Chinese idiom about pears, and the emperor with 3,000 wives. It was a long walk but so amazing to see all of the history and beauty.
We went to the famous Tingliguan Restaurant which was originally built as a three-story opera house for the emperors’ mother. It would eventually become a restaurant to the rich and famous VIP guests of China like Margaret Thatcher, President George Bush, etc. Unfortunately, people entering the park many not enter or dine in the restaurant..so there you go. As we continued, we began to see the Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha. It is one of the largest examples of architecture in the park and it helps that is also sits on one of the highest hills in the park. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we wanted to visit (just kidding, it wasn’t that unfortunate because I didn’t want to climb all those steps anyways) and we were forced to take amazingly beautiful pictures from the ground. The temple was where the imperial family would worship and has become a major landmark in Beijing. Our guide told us that generations of family would take their picture in front of this temple and show their family’s growth throughout the years. Our guide’s parents had taken a similar photo when his mother was pregnant with him and is a longstanding tradition with many Chinese families. We thought this was awesome and decided to go to an island-area near the temple and took our own picture! Who knows? Maybe in 20-30 years we will recreate it or our children will recreate it!
After viewing a few more pavilions along the waters’ edge, we left the lake area and continued inland. The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity was next and had many incense burners and statues that were part of the original area (a lot of this park was burnt by the Anglos in the 1800s). This was the building where the emperor and empress held court and administered state affairs. They do not typically allow people to go inside but the statues outside were all original and also housed a few large bonsai trees. We eventually headed to the residential areas of the park where the highest lady (usually the empress) would stay whilst living at the Summer Palace. Keep in mind, this palace was mostly used for party time and not exactly running the country. There were a lot of beautiful trails and garden areas for the ladies and emperor to spend their time. Our guide said the many imperial families (especially the princes) would use the Grand Canal to get from the Forbidden City to the palace and would spend their time having fun with their many mistresses. So we headed that way and it was also closed!! 😦 We tried to get a better view of it but unfortunately was not able to see much besides dozens of pavilion roofs and a mini-lake in the center. So, I guess you could say I was happy that there weren’t a lot of crowds but also bummed that they chose not to open all the sites.
One of the last stops of our tour was ‘Suzhou Street’, named after the Chinese city known as the ‘Venice of Italy’ with its many canals, bridges, and waterways. This market-like area was created so that the emperor could go buy items in a market setting without putting his life in danger. There were 64 shops created and runs along a small canal. Typically, there would still be shops with many different over-priced goods and food for sale along a beautiful flowing river. Our guide said the salespeople where traditional clothes and it is quite an experience for tourists visiting the Summer Palace. Unfortunately once again, it was winter and during the Spring Festival break so there were no over-priced goods, shop keepers, or an open entrance to the street…closed again! Still, the street was gorgeous from the walkways above and I can’t wait to go back in the fall to see how it all looks when it has thawed a bit.
We left the Summer Palace out of the North gate and headed to the subway. Korey and I picked up a beautiful painted map of the Summer Palace for 10 rmb and are thinking of getting it framed! Since it was my birthday and I was trying to milk it for all it was worth, we decided to make a run to Starbucks one subway stop over at Xiyuan station, exit C1. We found the cutest Western area called ‘Starry Street’. It had basically every western fast food joint you could think of in one area: Dairy Queen, Subway, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, a French bakery, and an alcohol store comprised completely of imported alcohol. It was literally a paradise to any/all Westerners that have absolutely no sense of portion control. I can say that this day was one of the best birthdays I have had in a long time, just me and the hubby enjoying some 270-year old architecture! I hope to have a few more trips coming in the next few months, including a trip to South Korea in late March! Hope to talk to you soon!