The Summer Palace

Apparently central Beijing was a place be avoided in summer, even before the smog. So the later emperors would escape to a pleasant country retreat a few miles to the north west. It’s a sprawling collection of buildings dotted around a lake and hill, now filled with locals and tourists. None of the structures are particularly old – the original buildings having been demolished, by, uh, us ((twice, no less – with some help from the French, another of those fine Anglo-French collaborations that have so improved mankind’s lot)) – so the whole complex was rebuilt by the Dowager Empress Cixi, using money which had been ear-marked for the frivolous task of rebuilding the Chinese navy ((The previous navy having been sunk by, err, us)). The hill and lake are completely man-made, and indeed the whole landscape feels completely managed and artificial – it’s nature, and beautiful, but meticulously arranged and regulated. Incidentally, the aforementioned empress appears to have been a crazed, power-hungry despot to rival the best of them, and possibly even precipitated the collapse of Imperial China due to her excesses and complete disregard for the general population.

The haze and smog meant the views across the lake weren’t spectacular, but it’s a pleasant place to stroll around, with paths, hills and gardens dotted with pagodas, gates, bridges and temples. Apparently in winter the lake freezes and is used for skating – it’s definitely a place I’d return to if visiting Beijing in a different season. Incidentally, it’s another place which will soon have a direct metro stop, greatly simplifying access.

Posted Sunday, July 6th, 2008 under history, travel.

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