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As mandatory a Běijīng sight as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace was the playground for emperors fleeing the suffocating summer torpor of the old imperial city. A marvel of design, the palace – with its huge lake and hilltop views – offers a pastoral escape into the landscapes of traditional Chinese painting. It merits an entire day’s exploration, although a (high-paced) morning or afternoon exploring the temples, gardens, pavilions, bridges and corridors may suffice.
The domain had long been a royal garden before being considerably enlarged and embellished by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. He marshalled a 100,000-strong army of labourers to deepen and expand Kūnmíng Lake (昆明湖; Kūnmíng Hú), and reputedly surveyed imperial navy drills from a hilltop perch.
Anglo-French troops vandalised the palace during the Second Opium War (1856–60). Empress Dowager Cixi launched into a refit in 1888 with money earmarked for a modern navy; the marble boat at the northern edge of the lake was her only nautical, albeit quite unsinkable, concession. Foreign troops, angered by the Boxer Rebellion, had another go at torching the Summer Palace in 1900, prompting further restoration work. By 1949 the palace had once more fallen into disrepair, eliciting a major overhaul.
Glittering Kūnmíng Lake swallows up three-quarters of the park, overlooked by Longevity Hill (万寿山; Wànshòu Shān). The principal structure is the Hall of Benevolence & Longevity, by the east gate, housing a hardwood throne and attached to a courtyard decorated with bronze animals, including the mythical qílín (a hybrid animal that only appeared on earth at times of harmony). Unfortunately, the hall is barricaded so you can only peer in.
An elegant stretch of woodwork along the northern shore, the Long Corridor is trimmed with a plethora of paintings, while the slopes and crest of Longevity Hill behind are adorned with Buddhist temples. Slung out uphill on a north–south axis, the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion and the Cloud Dispelling Hall are linked by corridors. Crowning the peak is the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, tiled with effigies of Buddha, many with obliterated heads.
Cixi’s marble boat sits immobile on the north shore, south of some fine Qing boathouses. When the lake is not frozen, you can traverse Kūnmíng Lake by ferry to South Lake Island (南湖岛; Nánhú Dǎo), where Cixi went to beseech the Dragon King Temple for rain in times of drought. A graceful 17-arch bridge spans the 150m to the eastern shore of the lake. In warm weather pedal boats are also available from the dock.
Try to do a circuit of the lake along the West Causeway to return along the east shore (or vice versa). It gets you away from the crowds, the views are gorgeous and it’s a great cardiovascular workout. Based on the famous Su Causeway in Hángzhōu, and lined with willow and mulberry trees, the causeway kicks off just west of the boathouses. With its delightful hump, the grey- and white-marble Jade Belt Bridge dates from the reign of emperor Qianlong and crosses the point where the Jade River enters the lake (when it flows).
Towards the North Palace Gate, Sūzhōu St (苏州街; Sūzhōu Jiē) is an entertaining and light-hearted diversion of riverside walkways, shops and eateries, which are designed to mimic the famous Jiāngsū canal town.