The first snowflakes of winter had just started falling when my bullet train from Hangzhou arrived at Beijing Station, where a Striking sharp cold mixed with the buzz of people who were rushing about the station. I was slightly lost as most of the signs were in Chinese and my so-called guide was nowhere to be seen. Luckily after a few phone texts, I finally found him and the driver, and was on my way.
Text by Erza S.T.
Photos by Erza S.T. and Aman at Summer Palace
As our car started along the highway, I could see how dense and big this city really was. Snowflakes were still falling as I a reached the edge of Beijing where the famous Summer Palace is located and the idea of staying in one of the real guest pavilions inside the UNESCO World Heritage Summer Palace was simply mind-blowing. A favorite place of Empress Dowager Cixi from the Qing Dynasty (aka The Dragon Lady), The Summer Palace represents one of China’s best architectural buildings.
The opportunity to stay in this part of the Summer Palace was made possible thanks to Aman Resorts who have been given the opportunity to run it as a high-end hideaway. The group does more then just run it, they bring the luxury back, with 18 guests rooms, 33 suites, all with amenities fit for an emperor. Aman at Summer Palace made us feel as if we were the guests of the Empress Dowager herself.
My eyes just couldn’t get enough of the beauty of the Reflection Pavilion in this hotel with the sound of the crying wind and falling snowflakes as the background as I walked to my suite. It was truly a serene retreat with peaceful courtyards embracing traditional Chinese architecture. Shaded by lines of bamboo, I finally found my suite in front of a petite courtyard.
Though the building is still in its original form, inside the suite offers all the comforts of modern luxury. Separated into a living room, bedroom and bathroom, the suite makes aesthetic references to the imperial period with furniture, latticework and crafted decorations made from traditional materials. The suite is simple and elegant yet oozes the romanticism of a bygone era. Aman at Summer Palace also offers facilities that would surely please any modern royal family. Located beneath the reception pavilion is a spectacular, 25-metre, underground indoor swimming pool, a spa, whirlpool tubs, juice bar, fitness and pilates centre, squash courts and a 37-seat cinema. On the ground floor is a Chinese restaurant that serves authentic breakfasts every morning; the Grill that serves Western food, and Naoki, which specializes in French degustation. It is most likely that Empress Dowager Cixi would have been much happier if she had lived at this current time.
Like a true guest of the palace, we had the benefit of getting a private guided tour of the Summer Palace. The morning after my arrival was filled with sunshine, though the sharp winter wind was continuing to blow hard. Entering the main palace area from the East Gate, I was so impressed to see the beauty of the whole compound, especially the landscape gardening; a combination of pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges formed a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic splendor. The most stunning part is the man-made Kunming Lake, which freezes over in winter and is used for ice skating.Click to view slideshow.
Wanting to know more about the grander side of Chinese history, I decided to go to the famous Forbidden City, where Empress Dowager Cixi and her nephew Emperor Pu Yi (known as the Last Emperor) reigned during the last days of the Qing Dynasty. Big and intimidating, The Forbidden City, built from 1406 to 1420, was the home of 24 successive emperors and their households for almost 500 years, and it is truly a distinctive experience to go inside. Tensions were building high as we walked the long distance from the gates before we finally reached the centre of the city. Immediately our minds were transformed to an era when emperors, concubines and eunuchs were still living here. We even visited a part where Empress Dowager Cixi once lived and I was awed and overwhelmed with the whole experience.
Going out from the north side of Forbidden City, I noticed a beautiful park that once belonged to the emperor’s eyes only. The name is Jingshan Park or “Prospect Hill”, and the name is coming from the focal point of the artificial hill with a small temple for worshipping Buddha on top of it. Aside from the landscape beauty, here at the park you can also see elderly folks singing opera or doing kuaiban (fast oral storytelling following the beat of bamboo clappers).
Not far from the Forbidden City there are many local attractions and activities in the southeastern part of Central Beijing to take in. The Temple of Heaven is a complex of religious buildings dedicated to emperors that ruled from the Ming Dynasty through to the Qing Dynasty. Here I saw a man writing Chinese hieroglyphics using water on the stone tiles, while a group of elderly people were dancing cha-cha to Chinese pop songs.
My fascination with Empress Dowager Cixi also took me to the Eastern Qing Tombs, the largest, most complete and best preserved extant mausoleum complex in China. Inside are five emperors, 15 empresses, 136 imperial concubines, three princes and two princesses of the Qing Dynasty buried here, surrounding by four mountains in a total area of 80 square kilometres. It would take days in order to see all tombs here, so I decided to just go directly to Empress Dowager Cixi’s tomb to pay my respects.
There was snow everywhere and we had to use a mini cab to go to each tomb, but it was really worth it as the Empress Dowager Cixi tomb was really beautiful with so much luxurious decoration. With a hall that reminds us of Forbidden City, the tomb itself is located underground and covered by sculpted marble. There inside the mausoleum, laying in a glass box is the coffin of the empress known as the Dragon Lady.
Going on a historical walk in Beijing is not complete without a visit to the Great Wall of China. Renowned as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, this amazing wall was started between 220-206 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. From all sections of the wall that we were allowed to climb, I chose the Muitanyu section as it is less popular then others and great for a photo or two.
It is really amazing to see how far these walls stretch into the distance. It almost seems endless. Make sure you have real boots to go up here during wintertime as the frozen snow could be quite slippery to walk on, but once you are there, the view of the China’s landscape and the wall itself will leave you speechless.
It’s a good thing to go during winter, as it is less crowded as summer time but there is still so much more to see in Beijing than what we have covered here on these pages. Beijing offers so much.
Aman at Summer Palace
1 Gongmenqian Street