The trip out to Yiheyuan – the Summer Palace – is an expedition in itself: Line 1 of the subway till Xizhimen; transfer to Line 13 till Wudaokou; then a ten-minute trip by taxi to the Summer Palace. We did the trip on a Saturday, and discovered that most of Beijing seemed to be picnicking at Yiheyuan the same day. Just our luck, we thought – but decided bravely to toil on.
The Summer Palace has an interesting history. Built across an area of 290 hectares along Lake Kunming, the Summer Palace was originally called the Garden of Clear Ripples and was built by Emperor Qianlong in 1750 to celebrate his mother’s birthday. In 1860 French forces burnt it down; 26 years later the Dowager Empress Cixi used naval funds to resurrect it. She spent quite a bit of time at the Summer Palace, including occasions when she would organise theatrical performances herself playing the part of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.
Having bought our entry tickets (a steep 60 RMB apiece, including entry to major attractions like the hilltop Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, the Wenchang Gallery, and Suzhou Street). For another 10 RMB, we got a very pleasing painted map of the Summer Palace. Map in hand, we set off on our tour, beginning at the East Palace Gate – and immediately started having doubts: the place was very crowded. The Summer Palace, as we realised over the next couple of hours, is very pretty indeed: elegantly painted and carved pavilions and palaces, quaint moon doors and elegant bridges, lotuses blooming on Lake Kunming, cool pines and lush green grass, wild strawberries, crickets thrumming all around – and so many people, it isn’t funny. There were picnics by the score around us, people chatting, toddlers shrieking, entire families bingeing on steamed corn, buns, noodles, sausages and whatnot. Finding a place to stop and admire the view (what one could see of it, through the crowds) was a task in itself.
We finally managed to elbow our way through the crowds, to obtain a peek through the windows of the Hall of Jade Ripples, which contains furniture, pottery and other fairly dusty household items that once belonged to the imperial family. Further on, we looked in on the impressive Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, which was the main governmental building in the complex; that done, we moved on to the picturesquely-named Heralding Spring Pavilion, by Lake Kunming. This pavilion was one of the highlights of our trip, not just because it offers a great view of the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, but also because the lotuses blooming along the shores of the lake are just perfect.
Past the Heralding Spring Pavilion, we swung back into action, battling the mob as we walked along the Long Corridor. With some 14,000-odd paintings decorating its ceiling and pillars, the 728m long corridor snakes its way around the edge of Lake Kunming, and it is supposedly the longest painted gallery in the world. I only wish we’d been able to enjoy it more; as it was, we soon ended up vaulting over the low parapet on either side of the corridor, so that we could escape the crowds crammed into the corridor. Having made a few forays into nearby gardens and pavilions (including the enticing Hall for Listening to Orioles), we finally came to the conclusion that the Summer Palace needs rethinking. It’s beautiful, it’s historic – there’s no denying all of that – but it’s just gone too commercial. All of the pavilions and palaces other than the first few have been converted into souvenir shops, eateries or toilets; the ones that haven’t been converted have simply been locked up. And the crowds are loud, pushy and so all over the place that even we, Indians used to crowds, felt claustrophobic.
We eventually made it to one of the star attractions of the Summer Palace, the Marble Boat. Made of white marble, decorated sparsely but pleasingly with carvings and paint, the Marble Boat is 'moored’ just on the edge of Lake Kunming, and looks all ready to sail any minute. Very nice, but I couldn’t help giggling over the fact that Cixi made the Marble Boat with funds purloined from the navy!
Beyond the Marble Boat, we chose our path carefully to go along the least crowded parts of the Summer Palace. Crossing the Bridge of the Banana Plant, we moved on below the impressive (and impressively named!) Gate Tower of Cloud-Retaining Eaves, and then doubled back to try out another route. This time we went across the zigzag Jiuqi Bridge, past the painted Boathouses, and down to a cluster of elegant buildings: the Heart-Purifying Pavilion, the Pavilion for Enjoying the Rising Sun, and the Wusheng Temple.
By this time, we were pretty fed up of the crowds – which seemed to have increased – so decided to call it quits. We retraced our steps all the way to the Gate Tower of Cloud-Retaining Eaves, from where we turned right and took a path over cool green wooded hillocks, down to Suzhou Street. Suzhou Street spreads out in a series of souvenir shops and restaurants, along the sides of a narrow canal. It’s kitschy, with shopkeepers wearing faux Qing costumes and nervous tourists trying to stay close to the inside edge of the narrow path that separates the shops from the still green waters of the canal.
We managed to summon up the energy to do only one half circuit of Suzhou Street. The other half, we guessed, would probably be much the same as the first was, and since we weren’t really interested in doing any shopping, we decided we’d finished with Suzhou Street and the Summer Palace. We hadn’t been able to see some of the main sights of Yiheyuan – like the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, the Portrait of Cixi, and the Bronze Ox – but I think we can live without that. Or maybe we can tackle them some other time, some other day, when the Summer Palace isn’t quite so hot or crowded.