Summer Palace, Beijing: One Heck of a Vacation Home

 In Asia, China

Holy smokes was it cold on the water. Of course most of the best views were on the water, so we couldn’t stay away. It was windy and cold, but we were so happy to finally be at the Summer Palace.

Reeds frozen in place by the icy waters of the lake

After about a 30 minute taxi ride that cost around US$12, we had arrived. Everything we saw on the drive over was just kind of generic city shops, apartment buildings, schools and complexes. Nothing really screamed that we were headed to a palace. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect. The Forbidden City really had dwarfed most sights for us so far, although we were still having an amazing time exploring all that Beijing had to offer.

The Summer Palace did not disappoint. It was truly a monument worthy of an emperor. Like the Forbidden City, it was not lacking in embellishments and grandeur either.

The Summer Palace is actually one of two summer palaces. There is an older one, basically ruins now, we did not see. This newer palace that we visited was built by Empress Dowager Cixi in the late 1800s. Cixi spent most of her time here and many of the buildings now hold the evidence of her reign, including an old Mercedes-Benz and a telephone that was set up so Cixi could stay in touch with her military commanders and other politicians in the Forbidden City.

There are many ways to get to the Summer Palace. Originally we had wanted to take a boat up the canal. We love boats and thought it would be fun to arrive in style. We were not 100 percent sure the boats ran in the winter however and it was so cold, we figured we should skip it. You can also take a bus, but we opted for the taxi. It just simplified the journey and worked better with our time constraints.

Brightly colored doorway

The palace is set on Kumming Lake in Haidian. There are many buildings, bridges, gardens and beautiful walks along the shoreline. It is a very popular tourist destination as well. A man walked up to Mike and signaled that he would like to take a picture. We automatically thought he meant to take a picture with our son, since everyone else in the city seemed to want to, but this was not the case. Mike must have looked especially cool that day in his dark sunglasses and black jacket, because the man wanted a picture with him and then one with the whole family.

After our 5 seconds of fame, we started our exploration by heading towards the Seven- Arch Bridge, but quickly realized that what we wanted to see most was in the other direction towards Wanshou Shan (Longevity Hill). We had been pushing Dek pretty hard the past few days and were not sure how long he would last, so we wanted to make sure we saw the temple at the top of the hill before he melted down for the day. I was also trying to be mindful of the weather and not keep him out too long. Although the sky was cloudless and blue, the wind was kicking up off the lake, and our fingers and toes were icicles already.

Moving helped though. We strolled along the Chang Lang (Long Corridor), a covered walkway that stretched along the lake, and quickly lost the general throng of tourists. We had gotten an all-inclusive pass, so we were able to enter temples and buildings that visitors with a general park entrance pass could not. We weaved our way in and out of buildings, checking out what life might have looked like if we had been born into royalty.

Fight scene on the outdoor opera stage

Dowager Empress Cixi was a fan of the opera and had built an outdoor theater. We were lucky enough to happen upon the stage as two performers were acting out a complicated fight scene to music. It was choreographed, but very convincing. I wasn’t sure who to be rooting for by the end. I think the man in black won.

Pagoda of Buddhist Virtue

To keep warm, we headed away from the lake and up the hill to Foxiangge, the Pagoda of Buddhist Virtue. The gardens were not in bloom at this time of year, but we could get a general sense of them. The hike up was invigorating and certainly warmed us up. Dek was already strapped into the Ergo for a nap, so he was toasty warm, but also a nice dead weight as I huffed and puffed my way up the multiple staircases.

The view from the top of the hill was spectacular and worth all the wheezing (I really needed to work out more when we got back). There was a pagoda off in the distance that I thought was part of the park when we had seen it from below, but once we got up higher, I could see that it was really quite far away. Sadly we would miss it this visit.

Buddha set into face of building

As we wound our way back down the hill, we found a green and yellow tiled building with many Buddha set into it. Some of the statues had been worn down with age or were missing their heads, probably stolen by plunderers or very naughty school children. The inside housed a few antiques and a little gift stand.

Once we got back to ground level, we popped into a snack shop. Dek was up and hungry and we needed a hot beverage to warm our aching bones. Across from the snack shop was the Marble Boat, a very cool, but very impractical, two-story boat on the water. It had cost a fortune to build and is another one of Cixi’s extravagant additions to the palace grounds.

Past the Marble Boat there was not much else to see, so we headed back towards the Seven-Arch Bridge. We had almost reached the base, when once again, Dek let us know it was time to end our wanders, get back to the hotel and get warm. I was really sad not to make it across the bridge, but even I had to admit, I couldn’t feel my toes and I wanted to take a little nap. That big bed in our hotel was calling my name.

The Marble Boat

We took a slightly different exit than the one we had come in. It was closer to the bridge and seemed to have taxis waiting outside. As soon as we stepped out we were surrounded by taxi drivers wanting to take us wherever we wanted to go. I had my handy slip of paper with our hotel in very large Chinese characters and also in English ready to go. The first and most aggressive driver told me it would cost twice as much to take us back to our hotel as we had paid to get to the Summer Palace.

Something you should know about me is that I really hate being taken advantage of, and although I’m not always a fan of haggling, I will definitely do it. Mike is usually mortified, because he figures it’s usually not that much more money. For me, it’s the principal of the matter and yes, I do enjoy doing it on occasion and winning. Really, who doesn’t like to win now and then especially if you have a one year old who really can’t be bothered to listen to you ever? By golly, someone was going to listen to me today and give me a ride back to the hotel at a fair price.

I found a taxi driver willing to play the game. He showed us his working meter and rate, so we hopped on in. We were exhausted, cold, hungry and tired, but we had just seen the Summer Palace. Nothing could mar this day, not even cranky cab drivers annoyed at a crazy white girl refusing to pay their high prices.

I’m still not sure if I liked the Summer Palace more than the Forbidden City. It was definitely beautiful, and I do love anything near water, so maybe it does hold a slightly closer place in my heart. I think I might need a second visit to really decide. Maybe in the Spring when it is a bit warmer.

A view from (almost) the top

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Showing 13 comments
  • Marissa Meyer

    Hey, this is the palace that I used for inspiration when imagining the palace in CINDER! Loved the write-up and great details. Gosh I need to go to Beijing. ^^

    • Reply

      I have a TON more pictures if you want any more reference. I’m so excited you used this palace though. Now I’ll know what to imagine when I finally get to read your fabulous book!!!

  • Jessica

    I am just drooling with envy at this fantastic trip! Great pictures.

    • Reply

      I keep trying to write my post about the Great Wall. Each post has just been so hard to wrap my head around. We had such an amazing time!

  • Sonja

    What an adventure, especially with a one year old in tow. Good for you.

  • Wanderluster

    The Marble Boat is amazing!

    • Reply

      I really wish it could work on the water. How amazing would that be? And I just found out me and the little man might be headed back to HK and Shenzhen next week for my job, so I’m super excited to get a second go around there. Just wish there was time to go back to Beijing and keep exploring. I love that city!

  • Huolong

    I’ve lived in Beijing for ten years and have been to the Summer Palace several times. I must say you went in the wrong season. Summer and autum are the best. Not the notorious chilly Beijing spring!

    • Reply

      December definitely would not have been my ideal month to go, but I was there on business and taking advantage of the free plane ticket. Next time we will head to Beijing when the weather is a tad warmer. Not that the cold stopped us at all 🙂

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