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Published: August 15th 2020
Most people that come to Beijing know of the Summer Palace, which was an imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty. It is a vast and beautiful place. The Old Summer Palace (圆明园/Yuanmingyuan), which is close to the Summer Palace, in contrast is not that well known. A co-worker had been and had enjoyed the place so I decided to give it a visit. It has its own subway station, Yuanmingyuan Park on line 4, so it is really easy to get to. When I arrived at there were quite a few people about, but no where near the hordes of people I saw when I visited the Summer Palace. Tickets are needed to enter and are pretty cheap compared to a ticket to the regular Summer Palace as it was only about 30 RMB. In front of he entrance to the palace, there was a display marking the 70th anniversary of the PRC, which I tried to get a photo of, but was impossible to get one free from people.
The Old Summer Palace also dates from the Qing Dynasty. The first constructions took place during the reign of Emperor Kangxi in 1709 and over the course of the next
150 years, the garden expanded and was used as the emperors' private gardens. The garden was initially intended to be a gift for Emperor Kangxi's fourth son, Prince Yong. However, during the Second Opium War, the Old Summer Palace was attacked and destroyed by British and French in retaliation against Chinese resistance. Looking at the map, I was surprised at how big the place was, I probably shouldn't have been. but I realised that it would take me a lot longer than I had anticipated to get around the place. The place is made up of three parts; Yuangmingyuan (the Garden of Peace and Light), Wanchunyuan (the Garden of Blossoming Spring), and Changchunyuan (the Garden of Eternal Spring). The entrance lead me into Wanchunyuan and I passed some gorgeous flowers on the way. Being the entrance to the whole complex, this part was pretty busy. I followed the path and came to a Juchi Lake, which was lined with trees with long drooping branches. In the middle of the lake, there was a pavilion called Jianbiting. The pavilion was built during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing and he wrote several poems extolling the beauty of the place. The building that
stands there now is a reconstruction dating back to the 1990s. I had a stroll around the exterior of the pavilion taking in the gorgeous views of the lake and the pavilion. Back on the main path, I walked along by some gorgeous high arched stone bridges. One bridge was called Canqiao, which means ruined bridge. This is the only bridge left from the 200 that had originally been part of Yuanmingyuan. I really like this architectural style and it really symbolises China to me.
I wandered along a different path and came to Zhengjue Temple. The complex was quite big and pretty quiet, so I enjoyed walking around that. I met a friendly Chinese woman and had a chat with her. The temple had some pictures that showed what the area looked like before it was destroyed. Also the halls were immaculate and the painted ceilings were beautiful. From here, I wandered through the park under the shade of the trees. It was pretty quiet and very peaceful. I headed to the Yuanmingyuan section of the park. This part was really quiet, it seems not many people venture over to this side of the complex. There were some
cute bridges to cross the water. There were quite a few medium sized lakes that I walked around. I came to Chun Ze Zhai, which was where the emperors could take in the beautiful views in the different seasons. Bieyou Dongtian was another scenic spot in the garden and is also known as Xiuqing Village. It was used as the place for Taoists to make immortality pills. Green Cloud Piece, a famous rock, was housed here, but now placed near the South Gate of Zhongshan Park. You used to be able to see a marble boat in this area, too. As I was walking along, on the opposite bank of the stream, there were some very bright flowers, which added a really nice summer vibe to the place. Now I was in the Jiuzhou Scenic Area. I wandered around the different sections and read the information about them. The different viewpoints were so pretty that they were said to resemble paintings. I also enjoyed watching the black swans that were gliding along on top of the lake.
My walking took me to the back of Yuanmingyuan. Here, there were some rock formations sticking out of the water. I didn't
know if they'd formed there naturally or had been sculpted and placed there for decorative purposes. I also came across a set of stone stairs that seemed to lead to nowhere and the structure that had previously been around it had been destroyed. There was also a very beautiful stone bridge that had been covered over. It was blocked off from visitors otherwise I would have loved to have taken a walk over it. I kept seeing random piles of rocks. Some of these had information boards next to them, such as Shangxia Tianguang. These piles of rocks were the foundations of structures that had been uncovered during excavations in 2004. For example, Shangxia Tianguang was a waterside building that overlooked Dongting Lake.
I wandered back towards the centre of the Old Summer Palace. I came across Cheng Xu Xie (Terraced Pavilion of the Purifying Mind), which was an east facing three bay hall in the south western part of Fuhai Lake. From here, Emperors and their entourages would watch the races of the Dragon Boat Festival. Now there are just some ruins, but it was nice to walk along the site of the former pavilion and take in
the views. There were also some models of emperors that were fun for kids and adults to look at. Along the side of Fuhai Lake, there were more ruins of old buildings, such as pavilions that had been used by the emperors. In the middle of the lake, there was a small island, which had a building on it. It would have been fun to hire a boat and row out to the island to take a look. I passed some larger piles of rocks that had been buildings, which had been destroyed by the allied forces.
My walk around the lake took me to Changchunyuan, the last of the three gardens I had to visit. This is where the European mansions are, and is the most popular part of the Old Summer Palace. There were a lot more tourists here. I also needed my ticket to gain access to this area. While the other sections of ruins were mainly just piles of rubble, here the architectural style can be seen more clearly in the ruins. These 18th century European style palaces were planned and designed by the Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, who served as an artist at the
imperial court of three emperors. The fountains and waterworks were designed by Michel Benoist, who was a Jesuit scientist who served for thirty years during the Qing Dynasty. The Emperor Qianlong had employed Castiglione and Benoist after seeing an engraving of a European fountain. Despite being really popular, this part of the Old Summer Palace only occupies a really small proportion of the place, only about 5%. The ruins were well protected as there were fences around them and they were off limits to the tourists. It was nice too see the different carvings in the stone and try to imagine where they had been in the buildings. I really liked the part, where they'd placed one of the arches back together. It really stood out against the blue sky and the green grass. There was a small exhibition hall that I visited, it was about the fountain that had the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, but since everything was in Chinese, I left no wiser than when I had entered. The last place I visited in the Western mansion section was the maze. There was a small beautifully carved tower in the centre of the maze and it
was fun trying to find my way to it. It was also quite easy as there were quite a few people in the maze so I could follow others and learn from their mistakes. While not as popular as the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace was worth a visit. I enjoyed walking around the quieter parts of the garden taking in the nice views and the ruins of the European style mansions were quite a unique sight to see.
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