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    Posted June 4, 2012 by
    Beijing, China
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    China travel memories

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    Stunning scenery and imperial whimsy at the Summer Palace in Beijing


    You need look no further than P. Diddy’s yacht to recognize that when someone wants to show off their heaps of wealth and power, they procure a party boat. Such was the case with the profligate Empress Dowager, who in 1902 pillaged the budget for modernizing the navy (a decision that seriously came to haunt China in later years) and commissioned the building of the Stone Boat, a magnificent marble party boat that’s just as un-seaworthy as such a craft sounds like it would be. That must have been one serious party.


    The boat is but one example of the imperial extravagance to behold at the Summer Palace. Looking for a retreat from Beijing’s baking summers and the pressures of palace life, in 1750 Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong decided to construct this sumptuous complex of gardens and pavilions around scenic Kunming Lake in the leafy northwestern suburbs of the city. As a result of being ransacked and pillaged several times (including by European forces in the mid-19th century and by Mao’s Red Guards during the 1960s Cultural Revolution), many features have been lost, but the opulent grandeur of the gardens and palaces is still palpable.


    It’s a truly beautiful spot–no wonder Emperor Qianlong picked it. The scenery is gorgeous in all seasons, with the bright red and gold palaces and temples set against the stunning backdrop of the surrounding forests, which shift from peach-blossom pink to lush green to a vivid scarlet to a haunting silvery gray as the seasons change. I like losing myself in the winding trails connecting the hillside temples and then ambling down the lakeside Long Corridor, a long covered walkway snaking along the shoreline (look overhead for classical novels rendered through intricate pictures on the ceiling beams).


    And while some of buildings have been lost forever, around the end of the 19th century the cash-splashing Empress Dowager did manage to have quite a few of the lavish pavilions reconstructed, making a tour of the existing Summer Palace buildings pretty much a walk-through of her summer doings. In the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, she watched opera. In the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, she received foreign diplomats and accepted laudations. And in the courtyard of Yulan Tang, she kept Emperor Guangxu under house arrest (and thus herself in charge of the national purse). Let’s just say that if the Empress Dowager was in power today, the Summer Palace would sure give P. Diddy’s palatial New Jersey estate a run for its money.


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