Excursion information from Holland America gives this history of the Summer Palace: Built during the Qing Dynasty and surrounded by grounds laid out by Emperor Qianlong as a place of retirement for his mother, this summer residence took on special interest for the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi, who fulfilled a wonderful, if expensive, dream by commissioning the palace in 1888. Using money intended for the building of a naval fleet, she constructed the Summer Palace. Originally a concubine of the third rank, Cixi placed herself on the Dragon Throne after the death of the emperor and ruled in an unscrupulous, egocentric way for 50 years, initially in the role of regent for her young child. By deploying young women and other earthly distractions she kept her son away from matters of government until his death at the age of 18. Bypassing the legal inheritance, she installed her young nephew as emperor and governed from ‘behind the throne’ until he reached majority. She then retired to the Summer Palace, but did not refrain from meddling in court politics.
While that sounds a bit contradictory giving two separate builds, according to Unesco, the original palace was built between 1750 and 1764 as the Garden of Clear Ripples. It was destroyed in the Second Opium War of the 1850’s, then reconstructed by Emperor Guangxu for use by Empress Dowager Cixi and renamed the Summer Palace. Although damaged during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, it was restored again and has been a public park since 1924.
On our cruise the Westerdam made an overnight port stop at Tianjin, China, which is the closest cruise ships get to Bejing. From there it’s about a 3½ hour bus ride to the Summer Palace. We took a ship’s excursion which also made a lunch stop at a jade carving factory and store with a restaurant above on the way to our final destination at the Great Wall of China. Although neither the summer palace nor the Great Wall felt like we had enough time there, the total excursion was quite a long one at 13 hours due to the lengthy drive.
About halfway to Bejing the bus made a quick stop at a convenience store with a very large restroom obviously built for tourist buses – apparently for Chinese tourists considering all of the toilets were of the squat variety. Upon sight of the recessed hole-in-the-ground toilets some of the women backed away claiming they could not use those. The only stop of the day to have normal western style toilets was the lunch stop so they either had to eventually give it a shot, drink nothing, or be good at holding it for a very long time. Judging by the smell and the wet floor around the toilets some people who gave it a shot were not all that successful with their aim. Perhaps they’ve never been out in the wilderness far from restroom facilities because it’s not all that different from squatting in the woods other than there’s a hole so you don’t have to worry about making sure your shoes are uphill from any runoff.
Next the bus stopped on a road a short distance from an entrance to the Summer Palace. We walked the rest of the way from there. This spectacular collection of buildings and gardens surrounds a large man-made lake which covers a good percentage of the over 716 acre grounds. Information from there said the Summer Palace was built by Emperor Qianlong in 1750 to celebrate his mother’s birthday and originally called the Garden of Clear Ripples. It was later used as a summer retreat by emperors and empresses as its mountain location made it cooler than the imperial palace in Bejing. In 1860 it was burned down by French and Allied forces, and rebuilt by Dowager Empress Cixi in 1886. It was again seriously damaged by allied forces in 1900 and rebuilt in 1902. So pretty close to the same as the information from Unesco.
The Summer Palace was opened to the public in 1914 as a private property of the Qing imperial family and became a park in 1924. In 1992 it was appraised as the most perfectly preserved imperial garden with the richest man-made scenery and most concentrated architecture of its type in the world. It was listed as a World Heritage site in 1998 and became a very popular tourist destination.
Tourists can walk through the grounds on pathways that run alongside the lake as well as strolling among the different buildings, though none that we saw were open for anyone to go inside other than archways that led from one pavilion to another. We only saw a very small fraction of the buildings and gardens though due to the time limitations of our excursion. A person could probably spend an entire day there and still not see it all.
Clusters of pedal boats sat on the lake awaiting tourists to rent them. Some were out and about cruising slowly around the lake. Our excursion did not allow time for boat rental, but anyone there on their own would be able to see much more of the grounds with a boat as the lake covers an extensive area and many buildings and bridges dot small islands and peninsulas throughout the waterway.
Our tour entered as a group first passing by buildings called the Garden of Virtue and Harmony and Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, which the guide said is where the emperor would meet with people. After walking a short distance to the lake we stopped near the boat pavilion. There we were given about half an hour to stroll around the grounds or walk through a long covered hallway that our guide called a causeway, but the site map refers to as a long corridor. Whatever you call it, it was crowded so we chose the somewhat less congested seaside path, going as far as we could get in half the allowed time, then turning around to insure we had as much time to get back as it took to get there.
Getting back took considerably less time because we were not bunched up behind slow people nor stopping to take as many photos. Since we got back to the meeting point with about 10 minutes to spare we took a bit of time to see some nearby buildings which someone said were the imperial residence, though buildings on the map all have names like Hall of Dispelling Clouds or Pavilion of Forgotten Desires and none are actually labeled as their residence.
It would have been nice to have the whole day to spend there, but since our tour had more places to go as well as the long drive we did not have enough time for more than a brief glimpse of what the Summer Palace holds before climbing back on the bus to our next destination at our lunch stop. I would have preferred to stay there an extra half hour and cut the lunch stop time in half, but since lunch was in a jade store they were probably required to allow plenty of time for people to shop. Although we didn’t buy anything there, they did have a lot of very nice jade carvings and some exquisite jewelry so it was interesting to see. Sort of like wandering through a jade museum where everything’s for sale. The store was big enough and had a large enough variety of things to be a museum.
The restaurant above the jade store had numerous round tables for 10 set up in a large room, each marked for the people on a specific cruise ship tour bus. We went to the tour meeting place an hour early this time and were for once on the first bus of our tour rather than our usual place on the stragglers bus. The guide on this bus was quite entertaining and spoke perfect English. We’ve found that on tours with multiple busses the best guides tend to be on the first busses to fill. Our bus left port about half an hour before the scheduled departure time and was the first to arrive at the lunch stop, followed by people from other tours as well as the other busses on our tour who had left a bit later as people arrived to fill them. Besides western style toilets the restrooms at this stop even had toilet paper – a luxury in China where you often have to bring your own.
The lunch was typical for Chinese restaurants of that sort with numerous dishes of a variety of things set on a large rotating lazy susan for people to help themselves as they wished. It also contained a pot of tea, bottle of coke recognizable by the packaging colors and style rather than the writing since that was in Chinese, and a couple wine-bottle sized bottles of Chinese beer. One by one a variety of different dishes appeared, most with a serving spoon though the last 3 or so came without. While most people just used the spoon from a different dish, a couple who said they were from Switzerland both speared watermelon and pot stickers with the same forks they were eating with, sometimes touching other food on the plate with said dirty fork so anyone who didn’t get any before it got to them did without. No wonder the cruise ship buffet had no serve yourself food on this cruise, keeping everything behind a plastic barrier to be served up by the crew. This was before Covid when self-serve buffets were the norm on most cruise ships. There won’t likely be self serve buffets on any cruise ship any time soon.
After finishing lunch we spent a bit of time to wandering through the very large jade store to admire the jewelry and carvings. If we spent too long looking at any one piece someone was on us like vultures, trying to get us to buy it. We’d say no and go look at something else, but sometimes they’d follow with the piece if it was a small one like a necklace. If we walked anywhere close to something we’d previously looked at for a few minutes they’d be there in a flash trying to sell it to us again. So we tried not to look at any one thing for too long even though some of it was pretty fantastic.
The entrance hallway into the building was lined with many large sculptures not guarded by sales people. Before we had a chance to see much in that area one overly enthusiastic old man trying to take a selfie knocked a bunch of pieces off the largest sculpture at the far end of the hall. Not wanting to get blamed or be standing next to it when security arrived, nobody else went near it. The careless old man apparently didn’t want to accept responsibility either. He managed to vanish into the crowd almost instantly. He was not from our bus, but everybody in the vicinity pretty much poured out of the building immediately following the crash. Our bus left rather quickly after that so I don’t know if the store ever caught him or found out who he was. Not having gone anywhere near it, I have no idea if the pieces that fell had been attached to the sculpture or were just loose pieces sitting on it or whether any of them were damaged. If anything did break it could be thousands of dollars in damage because that was a gigantic larger-than-a-person sculpture.
From there we had another half hour on the bus to get to the Great Wall. My husband often talks about the section of wall he visited in the past where tourists can ride a toboggan down instead of taking the stairs, but we did not go to that spot so stairs were our only choice up or down the wall.