China – Beijing’s Summer Palace is a dusty must-do
It is vast. Vast and the most amazing blue.
The sheer size of the lake at Beijing’s Summer Palace was the first thing that struck me.
Boats on this expanse of water are just dots, and the colour is simply stunning.
But that is only a precursor to the spectacularly dusty history that hits you as you enter the palace itself.
It really is like stepping into the past, in a Miss Havisham, the rooms haven’t been cleaned for years type of way.
Although the exterior is tidy, the actual rooms inside – which visitors are not allowed to enter – have been left untouched for decades; dust piled thick within.
But despite this feeling of ancientness, the Summer Palace that people see these days only dates back to 1903.
That’s because it is the third incarnation of the building, the first two having been destroyed by Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860 and again during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
The origins of the Summer Palace date back 850 years to 1150, when an imperial garden was constructed there. An imperial palace, named Golden Hill Palace, was also built sometime during the early years of the Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234).
The history of the gardens at the New Summer Palace dates back to Mongol Emperor, Kublai Khan, who ordered the construction of canals to transport water to what is now known as Kunming Lake – the beautiful expanse that greeted my arrival.
Another landmark, Longevity Hill, gained its name in 1750 when Emperor Qian Long built the ‘Garden of Clear Ripples’.
After the buildings were destroyed in 1860, the Dowager Empress CiXi used 30 million taels of silver – embezzled from the Imperial Navy – to reconstruct the Summer Palace and rename it ‘YiHeYuan’ – ‘Garden of Peace and Harmony’.
Tales of her excesses are legendary, with stories suggesting her kitchens consisted of eight courtyards, that there were 128 eunuch cooks employed in her palace and that five million silver taels were spent on her sixtieth birthday party.
But the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent return of the allied forces saw much of this palace razed to the ground.
It wasn’t until the fugitive Cixi returned to Beijing in 1903, did full-scale restoration begin – hence why the current building is known as the New Summer Palace.
It was opened to the public after the 1911 Revolution, and the gardens turned into a park in 1924.
One of the most impressive parts of the palace is the Long Corridor.
First built in 1750 so that Emperor Qian’s mother could enjoy a walk through the gardens while being protected from the elements, it was severely damaged by fire which Anglo-French allied forces laid in 1860.
It was rebuilt in 1886, and its 728 metre length is now covered in paintings.
It has four pavilions, each symbolising a season and named Liu Jia or ‘retaining the goodness’, Ji Lan or ‘living with the ripples’, Qiu Shui or ‘autumn water’, and Qing Yao or ‘clear and far’.
When you think of China, thoughts generally turn to the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army.
If you’re going to have a third thought, make sure it is of the Summer Palace.