it was built as a summer getaway but there are good reasons to visit the summer palace in all seasons, where it is said that all of china shows itself through art, architecture and its people.
everything is bigger in china. drive along the multi-lane streets or boulevards of beijing and as you crane your neck to look up at one mammoth structure after another towering high-rise, you will realise another inevitable truth: that despite the ever-growing built environment of colossal proportions, there are still expanses of space waiting to be filled. to be precise, the world’s second largest country covers a total area of 3.7 million square miles divided into over 20 provinces and more than 600 cities, while supporting a population of 1.3 billion and counting.
in tourism-speak, china is a bottomless treasure pit with something for every wanderer, whether you’re an art lover or architectural enthusiast, budding historian or nature sightseer. even the most ardent of traveller, however, could not possibly traverse every inch although you come pretty close to it at one of the country’s biggest crowd pullers. as the saying goes, “see the summer palace and you will have seen all that china has to offer in art and architecture.”
just 15 kilometres north-west of central beijing, this was where the royal family would go to seek respite from the unbearable summer heat. in today’s road conditions, it’s a trip of 30 minutes or so by car, a fraction of the day-long foot journey it was centuries ago when the imperial escapade was first completed. the empress dowager cixi, who ruled behind the scenes for much of the qing dynasty, was to have none of such a strenuous road trip and so she commanded the construction of a canal that connected the forbidden city and the summer palace by a three-hour dragon boat ride.
the canals have long closed but boat cruises are part of the attractions at kunming lake, the focal point of summer palace that covers about three quarters of its total land area. like hangzhou’s west lake that was its inspiration, it is fringed by willowy trees, pavilions crowned with intricate roofs and bridges that range from simple wooden frames to dramatic stone arches.
where the west lake has the six harmonies pagoda presiding over it from a nearby hill, at the summer palace, it is the 60 metre-high longevity hill that’s the coveted vantage point, its summit home to grand halls and buddhist temples. they make up the more than 3,000 manmade structures found on the palace grounds that represent every known chinese architectural style.
the seventeen-arch bridge, for one, combines the aesthetics of beijing’s lugou bridge with suzhou’s baodai bridge and is marked by more than 500 marble parapets that are each crowned by a stone lion. at both ends of the bridge sits a carved figurine of the qilin, a mythical chimera-like creature that portends prosperity.
along the northern shore of the lake, the 728-metre covered long corridor is adorned with details consistent with both ming and qing dynasties, while vibrant paintings and frescoes tell of famous legends. step through this world’s lengthiest corridor and you will know what makes a truly long story. it is also believed that lovers who stroll this walkway together will end up in happy matrimony.
less joyful an ending but equally majestic an achievement is the marble boat, moored near the western end of the corridor and resembling a paddle steamer. marble only by name and appearance – it’s actually constructed from wood but painted to look like the metamorphic rock – it was destroyed during the second opium war and then rebuilt under the orders of empress cixi.
legend has it that upon its completion, the empress invited the craftsmen to a celebratory dinner that turned out to be their last meal; she wanted to make sure there would be no replicas of the boat anywhere else in the world.
more of a pavilion than an actual sailing boat, although it is equipped with a drainage system, the marble marvel sits lakeside, looking out to the waters that’s a hive of activities in warm weather as a daily melee of visitors descend upon it from day break to day’s end.
in the thick of winter, when temperatures dip below -10°c and the wind beats incessantly against the face, the lake freezes to solid ground. you can walk on it, sled across it, carve a hole and throw a line in, or do like the locals and take a dip in the frigid waters first thing in the morning. all around, the scenery takes on a sentimental, almost romantic vibe as trees lose their foliage, their bare branches forming a wispy silhouette against cloudy skies. once-green lawns take on the same colourless, opaque appearance as the lake and together with the white stone bridges, blend into a monochromatic landscape. vessels that were left bobbing in the lake before the cold hit become extensions of it, rendered immobile and unmoving like the surface water.
it may be frozen in all appearance but the summer palace never stops. the crowds continue to throng through its three main entrances and more interestingly for these visitors, locals go about their routines just as they do in other seasons. it’s the older folks who make the most of this regal surrounds; local ladies brisk walk or jog, making their rounds along the hilly terrain and winding past pavilions where groups of men gather to play a round of chess or perform a traditional orchestra, and cut through old courtyard buildings that once played prominent functions when the royal family was in residence.
at suzhou street, a promenade filled with souvenir shops and fuss-free eateries that is a flattering imitation of jiangsu, it’s business as usual, even for the calligraphist who wields a gigantic brush that he dips into a small pail of water and with a few easy flicks of his arm, writes out phrases or names of countries – he likes to corner tourists and ask where they’re from – on the stone floor tiles in elegant hanzi. he puts on an entertaining show, for free, before trying to persuade you to buy one of his regular ink-on-paper scrolls.
in all seasons, the summer palace lives up to its promise of showcasing all of china in one breathtaking site, not only through its architecture, natural landscape and more tellingly, the people who make it a part of their daily lives. but it’s the grandmother rollerblading happily at one of the many ancient pavilions while clad in fuzzy ear muffs and a rainbow of leg warmers who best epitomise that essence – anything goes and you’ll find it all at the summer palace, even in winter.
this story first appeared in the edge review