Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, Beijing

On the northwest corner of Beijing is the Summer Palace, or Yihe yuan (颐和园).

It is quite a contrast to the dense network of buildings and courtyards of Forbidden City, and is dominated by the “natural” elements of of Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill – “natural” is in quotes as the lake and hill are at least partly artificial. Along the hillside are a series of impressive buildings leading up to the Tower of Buddhist Incense. Other palaces and gardens ring the lake, with similar architectural and sculptural elements:

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In its present incarnation it is more of a park than a palace, with locals and tourists boating on the lake, or having picnics in the gardens and pavilions along the side. However, the main attraction remains the buildings of Longevity Hill. At the base, one enters a court and the Cloud-Dispensing Hall, and can look upward towards the tower up the hill.

From there, one climbs a series of covered and exposed stairways, navigating a series of buildings on the hillside:

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The courtyard of the Temple of Buddhist Virtue at the top of the stairs is relatively tight, and only offers extremely vertical views of the tower:

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One does, however, get a specular view of the lakeside and southeast towards the city center of Beijing.

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The Summer Palace has quite a history. It was destroyed during multiple invasions in the 19th Century and was rebuilt around 1900 in its current form.

Back in the city center is the Temple of Heaven.

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The most prominent building, the circular triple-gabled building depicted in the pictures above, is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Harvests seems to have been a major focus when the temple functioned as a location for ceremonies performed by the emperor. However, the most important structure, from a ceremonial point of view, was the Alter of Heaven, a tiered circular mound at the southern end of the complex:

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Unlike the more architecturally prominent buildings, which have gone through extensive maintenance and renovation, the mound seems to have gone to seed a bit, with lots of grass and weeds coming up the ground. For me, however, this actually makes for interesting photography, as I tend to like buildings that in a bit of disrepair.

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I found more buildings in various states off to the side of the main axis of the complex, such as this dry moat with weeds growing:

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This area of the complex was nearly empty, no tourists and very few locals, and walking around here among more quiet and less maintained buildings was quite comforting, especially after the intensity and the crowds of Beijing.

Wuxi and Lake Tai

The city of Wuxi is to the north of Suzhou, along the huge Lake Tai, or Taihu 太湖, the “grand lake”.

Like Suzhou, Wuxi has several traditional Chinese gardens, with the added bonus of being along the lake front. The Liyuan gardens (really, more of a park) had several ponds and pavilions:

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Musicians were performing traditional Chinese music in this pavilion, one of four on a large pond representing the seasons:

The garden is one the shore of Lake Tai, and just beyond the ponds and pavilions are views of the lake:

< One can see another contrast of old and new, with the traditional architecture of the waterfront restaurant in the foreground and the sleek and modern bridge in the background. Compared to the Liyuan garden, Turtlehead Garden was more “natural”, with wooded hills and views of the lake, including this iconic spot:

The garden did include the traditional “planned” elements, such as ponds filled with koi and rockeries, but a short walk leads one to far more natural scenery such as wooded hills overlooking the lake.

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I was fascinated by this one abandoned building in an overgrown wooded area:
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I was able to walk around it and get glimpses from different sides, but could not get any closer.

Feeding time for the koi:

I suspect it’s always feeding time for the koi, especially when there are children around.

Of course, at this point it was also feeding time for us, before making the trip to the giant Liang Shan Buddha.

Suzhou Museum and Zhong Wang Fu

On Saturday morning, I visited the Suzhou Museum. I have been in the area around the museum, which includes the old canals and the Humble Administrator’s Garden, but never had the time until now to venture inside.

The museum is more a culture and heritage museum than an art museum. Its collection is primarily traditional Chinese items, though it does have a contemporary art wing as well. For me, however, the main attraction was the building itself. It was designed by the architect I. M. Pei, whose family has long resided in Suzhou.

The museum’s architecture incorporates the shapes and elements the adjacent traditional gardens and palaces, including its own gardens, pools and rockeries, but stripping away the ornaments and focusing on the lines and geometry. This extends to the interior as well:

Overall, the architecture and design of the museum was quite photogenic, and readers should look for more examples in future photo series, and of course “Wordless Wednesday.”

One exhibit recreated a traditional Chinese study, and suggest that traditional elements of Chinese design can fit very easily into a modern context:

I wish my office looked like that.

I did take some time to see a few of the traditional artifacts, including several examples of animal figures such as this black-and-white jade cat:

Before the new museum building opened in 2006, it was housed in the neighboring Zhong Wang Fu, a traditional Chinese mansion with gardens and courtyards. The grounds and buildings have been restored and remain open to the public:

One can observe which elements were incorporated into the new building, and which ones were not.