Since Aman shares a wall with the Summer Palace, access is direct, and I slipped in quietly. It was a winter wonderland. Also known as Yihe Yuanor ‘Gardens of Nurtured Harmony’, the Summer Palace proper was built in 1750, although the area was settled as early as 1153 by the Jin dynasty. Added to over the centuries, the 290-hectare garden estate served as an imperial summer retreat for the Qing Dynasty.
The complex is built around the entirely man-made Kunming Lake. The waterbody covers three quarters of the complex. In summer, it’s a popular venue for boating. In the depths of winter, it was frozen solid, and wore a serene look. The soil which was excavated for the lake went into creating Longevity Hill. The section of the hill facing the lake has most of the buildings and pavilions, while the back side is tranquil and wooded, some of the trees impressively ancient.
The layout of the Summer Palace complex is inspired by Chinese mythology, where there are three divine mountains in the East Sea. The three islands in Kunming Lake were built to represent these three mountains, the lake itself inspired by the West Lake in Hangzhou. In 1998, it was designated a World Heritage site by Unesco, which called it “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.” “The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value,” the citation noted.
The many halls and pavilions are definitely worth a look. Rather remarkable is the Long Corridor, running along the lake, and connecting the Hall of Joy and Longevity in the east to the Shizhang Pavilion in the west. It’s 728 metres long and beautifully decorated, with scenes from mythology and the four great novels of classical Chinese literature.
The highlight for me was Suzhou Street on the back side. It was commissioned in 1762 by the Qianlong Emperor who had just returned from a tour of the Jiangnan region and wanted a shopping street resembling Shantang Street in Suzhou. Destroyed by the British and French in 1860, it was restored in 1988.
The Summer Palace was so beautiful in winter, I could only imagine how glorious it would be in summer. A secret door led me back into Aman, where I went about thawing my frozen knuckles.
Aman is noted for being a luxury chain whose properties exude a sense of place.The Aman Summer Palace, by design, is indistinguishable in architectural terms from the rest of the Summer Palace buildings. The complex in which the property is set was originally used by guests of the Summer Palace who were awaiting an audience with the Empress Dowager Cixi. Even the setting of rooms around courtyards is a nod to the Summer Palace. Local musicians perform in the afternoons and evenings on warm days at Aman’s Music Pavilion which overlooks a serene reflection pond. At the Cultural Pavilion there are daily demonstrations of traditional Chinese arts such as calligraphy and kite-making.
They’ve even managed to fit in a double-level subterranean spa, sprawling over 5,000 sq m with nine self-contained treatment rooms. There’s a 25m indoor, heated lap pool ensconced by loungers. And, oh, there’s even a theatre with reclining leather seats and a 21sq m screen.
As with any Aman, the food was superlative and impressive in its variety, ranging from Ming Dynasty-inspired Cantonese cuisine and Imperial dishes to French-Japanese fusion offerings as well as prime cuts of meat cooked Western style. My dinner of Peking duck (how can you go to Beijing and not?) was sweetened by the Chinese lute performance, while the hot pear and white fungus drink ensured I was in no immediate danger of freezing.
If Shanghai is softened by its plethora of colonial neighbourhoods, Beijing remains monumental and imposing, meant to impress. There’s the occasional burst of creativity, like the deconstructivist Bird’s Nest Stadium which was unveiled for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Nothing is more impressive than the Forbidden City, which was completed in 1420 and lies at the very heart of Beijing. It was home to 24 emperors, and the ceremonial and political centre of government for nearly five centuries. It commands a whopping 720,000 sq m area and contains 980 surviving buildings. In 2017, Donald Trump became the first US President to be hosted for a state dinner at the Forbidden City since China became a republic. There are a boggling array of gates and palaces, which one passes in succession. You’ve not seen anything if you haven’t seen the Forbidden City in Beijing. Unsurprisingly, it’s Beijing’s biggest attraction.
But the highlight of the trip for me was a walk through the Houhai hutong.
Hutongs are narrow alleys created by traditional courtyard residences common in northern Chinese cities like Beijing. Many were demolished in the 20th century to make way for new development but some have protected status now and are, expectedly, getting chic and gentrified and full of posh restaurants and boutiques. If you want to get a sense of what old Beijing looked like, you have to visit a hutong. I promise,you’ll be charmed forever.
Air China flies direct between Delhi and Beijing. One-stop options from India include China Eastern, China Southern and Cathay Pacific.
Where To Stay
The Aman Summer Palace is a luxurious retreat sitting at the East Gate of the Summer Palace,15km northwest of Beijing’s city centre and 35km from Beijing Capital International Airport, and enjoys proximity to several cultural sites like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. The 51 rooms and suites reflect the traditional courtyard style of the neighbouring heritage complex.
Tariff: from CNY 3,500 excluding taxes and fees (includes daily breakfast for two, complimentary access to the Summer Palace, daily indoor & outdoor activities, daily Chinese tea ceremony, daily refreshment of selected juice, soft drink). Contact:+86-10-59879999, +800-9909990 (for reservations)
What To See & Do
When in Beijing, don’t miss the four Unesco World Heritage sites, namely the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven. Also visit a hutong or two. These atmospheric alleys are clustered around the Forbidden City. Other sights in Beijing include Tiananmen Square, Lama Temple and Fayuan Temple.
Beijing is also a treasure trove of contemporary Chinese art. Aman recommends 798 Art Zone, a Soviet-designed former weapons factory, which has been transformed into a centre for local modern art and fashion.