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Located northwest of the city centre, the Old Summer Palace was laid out in the 12th century. The ever-capable Jesuits were subsequently employed by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century to fashion European-style palaces for the gardens, incorporating elaborate fountains and baroque statuary. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops torched and looted the palace, an event forever inscribed in Chinese history books as a low point in China’s humiliation by foreign powers.
Most of the wooden palace buildings were burned down in the process and little remains, but the hardier Jesuit-designed European Palace buildings were made of stone, and a melancholic tangle of broken columns and marble chunks survives. Note: to see these remains, you need to buy the more expensive 'through ticket'.
The subdued marble ruins of the Palace Buildings Scenic Area (Xīyánglóu Jǐngqū) can be mulled over in the Eternal Spring Garden (Chángchūn Yuán) in the northeast of the park, near the east gate. There were once more than 10 buildings here, designed by Giuseppe Castiglione and Michael Benoist. The buildings were only partially destroyed during the 1860 Anglo-French looting and the structures apparently remained usable for quite some time afterwards. However, the ruins were gradually picked over and carted away by local people all the way up to the 1970s.
The Great Fountain Ruins (Dàshuǐfǎ) themselves are considered the best-preserved relics. Built in 1759, the main building was fronted by a lion-head fountain. Standing opposite is the Guānshuǐfǎ, five large stone screens embellished with European carvings of military flags, armour, swords and guns. The screens were discovered in the grounds of Peking University in the 1970s and later restored to their original positions. Just east of the Great Fountain Ruins stood a four-pillar archway, chunks of which remain.
West of the Great Fountain Ruins are the vestiges of the Hǎiyàntáng Reservoir (Hǎiyàntáng Xùshuǐchí Táijī), where the water for the impressive fountains was stored in a tower and huge water-lifting devices were employed. The metal reservoir was commonly called the Tin Sea (Xīhǎi). Also known as the Water Clock, the Hǎiyàntáng, where 12 bronze human statues with animal heads jetted water for two hours in a 12-hour sequence, was constructed in 1759. The 12 animal heads from this apparatus ended up in collections abroad and Běijīng is attempting to retrieve them (four can now be seen at the Poly Art Museum). Just west of here is the Fāngwàiguàn, a building that was turned into a mosque for an imperial concubine. An artful reproduction of a former labyrinth called the Garden of Yellow Flowers is also nearby.
The palace gardens cover a huge area – 2.5km from east to west – so be prepared for some walking. Besides the ruins, there’s the western section, the Perfection & Brightness Garden (Yuánmíng Yuán) and, in the southern compound, the 10,000 Springs Garden (Wànchūn Yuán).
Bus 331 goes from the south gate (which is by exit B of Yuanmingyuan subway station) to the east gate of the Summer Palace before continuing to the Botanic Gardens and eventually terminating at Fragrant Hills Park.