The Summer Palace is essentially a park – a playground for the emperors. We took the subway to Beigongmen (about 9km from the city centre) and started at the North Palace Gate.
Past the Suzhou Market, we first saw the Four Great Regions – a Tibetan-style temple sitting quietly atop Longevity Hill, which deceptively covers the extent of the gardens, buildings, boats, bridges, pavilions, towers, corridors and other wonders beyond it.
The Summer Palace covers 300 hectares. Lake Kunming takes up 200 hectares, while the 3,000 ancient man-made structures and gardens make up the rest. It was started in 1750 as a garden for the Qing dynasty families but was mostly destroyed in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The structures seen today were rebuilt in the late 1880s, with some further rebuilding after the Boxer Rebellion. It finally opened to the public in 1953, after Mao’s friends and key figures moved out, and received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1998.
The five hours we spent there wasn’t enough to discover the full extent of its splendour.
1. A boat ride across the lake: save some energy and hop on a boat – you can always walk back. Plus it’s a great way to see the buildings from a different perspective. We took the ferry from the Dock, past the Marble Boat, to South Lake Isle and the Dragon King’s Temple.
2. Marble boat: this pavilion, shaped like a boat, is not actually made from marble. It’s made from wood, painted to imitate marble, on a base of stone blocks. It symbolises the extravagance and otherworldliness of the emperors in the final days of Chinese imperial rule.
3. The colourful beams, ceilings and walls: like the Forbidden Palace, the attention to detail is exquisite. Your neck will probably ache from always looking up at the bright blue, red and orange of the intricately painted beams. Sometimes, even the walls get a good storytelling, although they tend to be painted in block red.
4. The bridges: away from the hustle of the main attractions, Arch Bridge and its neighbouring Willow trees look like a classical painting waiting to happen. It was nice to sit by the shade of the tree and watch the birds play under the bridge. On the eastern shore of Lake Kunming is Seventeen-Arch Bridge, the largest of the 30 bridges you’ll find in the complex and the gateway to the South Lake Isle. We got a good close-up of the bridge from the ferry.
5. The kites on the South Lake Isle: as you cross Seventeen-Arch Bridge onto the isle, you’ll notice the men holding elaborate contraptions around their waists, with lines that seem to run up in the clouds. The kite that looks about a kilometre away probably belongs to the man standing closest to you. It’s amazing how far those kites go!
Price: April to October: 30¥ or November to March: 20¥
Travel advice: the Summer Palace is huge and there aren’t always facilities around. Bring plenty of water with you and wear comfortable shoes to help you with all the walking. You will probably needs at least three hours to explore (we spent five!).
Food: we bought our lunch at one of the cafes into the Summer Palace. If you’re organised, it might be nice to bring a picnic and sit the garden (the very big garden).
Accommodation: we stayed at Xiao Yuan Alley Courtyard Hotel, which we booked via booking.com. The location of our accommodation, inside Lishi Hutong, was perfect! However, our room didn’t have windows and we found it to be quite dusty. Breakfast wasn’t included (we did eat there the first morning and found the food to be pretty average) but we had a nice cappuccino each morning up the road at Beijing 161 Wangfujing Hotel.
Transport: we either walked around or took the subway. For the subway, we bought tickets as we went.
Photo: the Marble Boat and the Cloud Gathering Temple at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China