My first visit of the Summer Palace is not much more than a vague memory, so when I walk to the entrance on a late summer morning, I am curious about what I am going to see. To my surprise, the East Palace Gate is already open, even though there still is half an hour to go to the official opening time. There is no line, I quickly buy a ticket, and when I am inside, I am one of the very few people, apart from a Japanese tour group that sticks together very well. The courtyard in front o the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity contains several bronze statues of existing and imaginary animals (the qilin, a mix of dragon, lion, ox and deer, an animal that only appears in times of harmony); the hall itself is one of the most important buildings of the Summer Palace. Unfortunately, it is not open for the public, so I try to get a glimpse of the interior before moving on. I explore some of the buildings on the eastern slopes of Longevity Hill before I decide to walk around Kunming Lake. The Summer Palace, Yiheyuan in Chinese, was first constructed on this site in 1153. While containing lots of buildings of all kinds, large part of the complex consists of Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill, all of which are manmade. The earth extracted for the creation of the lake was used to build the hill on its northern side. The Summer Palace had its ups and downs; it fell into disrepair, was extended several times, was partly destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860 by the Anglo-French forces - this is reflected in many of the explanatory signs at the many sights around the complex. Empress Cixi redirected funds for the navy to rebuild the Summer Palace in 1888.
Walking around the lake in a clockwise direction, I pass a small island, connected to the mainland by a bridge, containing the Heralding Spring Pavilion. I find a woman singing Chinese songs with a stingy voice, and men using big brushes to write calligraphy in water on the stone floor. I then walk through Wenchang Tower, one of the six gates, and follow the wide walkway in a southerly direction. There are boats in the lake: it is possible to rent them, and there are regular services connecting various parts of the lake, but I decide to walk all around. After seeing a stone tablet, a bronze ox, and the circular Spacious Pavilion, I arrive at the majestic Seventeen-Arch Bridge. It takes me to South Lake Island, which is choke-full of pavilions, temples and the aptly named Hall of Embracing the Universe. One of the attractions of the Summer Palace is the beautiful names given to the pavilions, temples, and halls: what about the Tower of Moonlit Ripples on South Lake Island? At the far southern side of Kunming Lake, I arrive at Xiuyi Bridge, a steep and almost circular bridge spanning the canal that runs south from here. Hordes of tourists come in from the south, and in search of taking picture of the bridge without people on it, I start to develop a hatred for selfie sticks. Most people use the boat services, and walking north on the west side of the lake, there is a serene silence around me, further enhanced by the willows hanging over me.
There are good views of the West Causeway from the west side of West Lake, much of it covered in water plants. I walk back to the beginning of the causeway, to find a confirmation of my impression: Kunming Lake and the causeway were modeled after West Lake in Hangzhou. There are several well-decorated bridges on the causeway, as well as the Pavilion of Bright Scenery where I finally sit down and have something to eat. The Jade Belt Bridge, the Bridge of Pastoral Poems and the Lake-Diving Bridge bring me to the northwestern part of the Summer Palace, and the foot of Longevity Hall. The south side of the hill contains so many places of interest, it is impossible to visit them all, and difficult to pick the most interesting ones. There is the Marble Boat, modeled after the wooden original which was burnt in 1860. There is Hall for Listening to Orioles, currently containing a restaurant. There is, of course, the Long Corridor, connecting Inviting the Moon Gate to Stone Old Man Pavilion in the west, a distance of 728 metres. More than 8,000 paintings are to be found on the wooden beams; on top of that, there are 8 pavilions on the way. I step out of the corridor to visit the most prominent section of the Summer Palace: the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, and the Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha. Next to the tower, I find the Boayun Bronze Pavilion almost forgotten by the hordes of tourists, but not less beautiful. Further up the hill, I pass the Buddhist temple of the Sea of Wisdom, with hundreds of small Buddha statues carved on its exterior walls. Walking down the hill, there are the Tibetan-style temples of the Four Regions. The north side of Longevity Hill contains less buildings than the south side, and there are some rocky sections, giving it the feel of a mountain. After walking down to the North Palace Gate and Suzhou Street, a shopping street, I walk back the ridge of the hill, and descend past various buildings, like the Pavilion of Forgotten Desires and Accompanying Clouds, back to the Long Corridor. It has started to rain now; so I walk to Wenchang Gallery which contains an exhibition of bronze, wooden, jade, and porcelain items from imperial times. I just manage to see it all before the Summer Palace closes again - leaving me with the feeling that I have not seen it all, even though I have spent the entire day exploring the vast complex of the Summer Palace.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
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