I first read about the Summer Palace in the fictional Empress Orchid by Anchee Min.
In the book, the Concubine Lady Yehonala (the future Empress Cixi) would accompany her husband, Emperor Hsien Feng to the Summer Palaces. The palace was called Yuan Ming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) and it was the emperor’s getaway during China’s turbulent times. Up until then I have never heard of such Palace, as China is usually so synonym with either the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. Built in the 17th century by the Qing Emperors, it is said to be one the most beautiful architectural masterpieces of China and sometimes called the Chinese Versailles.
Unfortunately, Yuan Ming Yuan was destroyed by foreign troops in 1860 after the Second Opium War Ended. The historical Empress Cixi, would build a second Summer Palace a few years later, really named Yihe Yuan (Garden of Nurtured Harmony) using funds meant for the Chinese Navy. Comprising of a complex of buildings, Longetivity Hill and the vast Kunming Lake, this palace stands today and is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Stepping into the estate for the first time, I wondered that perhaps the very reason it was called the Summer Palace is because the whole place would have looked glorious during the summertime. The Kunming Lake was almost as vast as two football stadiums, divided by the Seventeen-Arch Bridge. On the right end of the lake, the palace complex stood tall and proud at the edge of Longevity Hill, a set of pavilions and other classical-style structures surrounded by trees. The lake were surrounded by stone pavements, with trees on each side. In the summer, the lakeside would have been a pleasant place for a stroll, with the trees shadowing the pavements from the sun. However, here during winter, it has a different sort of charm altogether.
I did not have the opportunity to explore the actual palace. The two hours that we have there were spent around the Seventeen-Arch bridge- named because of the seventeen arches upholding the bridge over the lake. I especially loved the stone carvings of different lions perched over the railings. From afar the bridge seemed to be like white marble, although it is really built and carved in stone. On this bridge there were plenty of vendors selling cheap merchandises: souvenirs as well as scarves and gloves for the cold weather. The challenge with these sellers was to turn them down and walk away unscathed, as they were
persistent and would still shove their goods into your faces even after you’ve said no. There were a group of elderly men flying kites in the middle of the bridge. Something that, apparently, seemed to be a favourite pastime there.
The walk from one point to the other on this bridge is not really that far, but I took my time looking across the lake at every other step. The lake itself is a masterpiece, I had to actually pause for a moment to take in just how vast it is. Winter meant that it was frozen, though not solid enough to do any walking or ice-skating (can’t say I didn’t think about that!). But when I peer over the bridge, I saw underwater plants being frozen solid. It was quite a sight!
Although the trees surrounding the lake and bridge were pretty much bare during the season, it was pleasant to walk across the stone pavements around the lake, which I would have liked to do if we had more time there. The biting cold actually caused my mother’s tongue to freeze, and she had a hard time talking, but it no longer bothers me.
And as I trudged down towards the front entrance, I could close my eyes and envision the Empress Cixi taking a stroll by this lake with her entourage, her head as high and proud as her palace not very far away. Perhaps she would be even prouder, if only she had heard UNESCO claiming this palace to be “”a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.”
And rightly so too.