Hall of Benevolence and Longevity ( Rénshòu Diàn 仁寿殿)
On the east side of Kunming Lake sits the main building of the palace complex, the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Inside is a hardwood throne, used by Cixi for important administrative meetings. The front courtyard is laid with several bronze animals.
Longevity Hill ( Wànshòu Shān 万寿山)
Emperor Qianlong conceived the manmade Longevity Hill as a gift to his mother on her 60th birthday – probably the most impressive pile of dirt you could give anyone for their birthday present. Coincidentally, the hill presents a 60 m (197 ft) incline and is littered with Buddhist temples and pavilions. As you mount the stairs, stop off at the serene Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion ( Fóxiāng Gé 佛香阁) and the wonderful Cloud Dispersing Hall ( Páiyún Diàn 排云殿). At the top of the hill sits the beautiful Sea of Wisdom Temple ( Zhìhuì Hǎi 智慧海). The temple’s three levels of upturned eaves are an awesome sight, almost as awesome as the view of Beijing (on clear days of course) from its top. Inside you can check out a sea of glazed tiles with little Buddha portraits on them.
Kunming Lake ( Kūnmíng Hú 昆明湖)
Extending across three quarters of the Yiheyuan parkland, Kunming Lake has a different personality for each season (and by each season we mostly mean winter and summer). In the winter, it is unbeatable for ice-skating, so head over and join the Chinese completely ignoring all the “Don’t Walk On The Ice” signs. Summer invites the blooming of great round lotus leaves and their flowers, which blanket the lake in a sea of green and pink. Among the temples and pavilions, the summer character of Kunming Lake’s field of lotuses is a sublime sight.
Take a walk around the lake to see some of the magnificent buildings that dot the shores. Opposite Longevity Hill’s north shore, the Dragon King Temple (Lóngwáng Miào 龙王庙) sits on the South Lake Island, where royalty came to pray to a statue of the Dragon King for rain. Don’t miss the Marble Boat; it’s made of wood, which is funny, but not a joke. The boat was built in 1755 from wood and then painted to look like marble.
Getting on the lake is easy. Vendors can equip you with skates in the winter, and boats are available in the form of paddleboats (4-6 people; ¥60 per hour, ¥300 deposit) or electric powered (¥100 per hour, ¥400 deposit) in the warm months.
The Long Corridor (Cháng Láng 长廊 )
The Long Corridor is basically an extended hallway with a roof and open sides that shielded the emperor from the elements as he walked along the base of Longevity Hill. It’s also one of the most beautiful and elaborate hallways you’ll ever see, and it will remind you how rough life was for the emperors who had to walk down it every singe day during the summer. What a drag. It extends 728 m (2,388 ft) along the southern bank of the hill, running parallel to the northern shore of Kunming Lake. The sides open up to the fantastic scenery outside, while the ceiling bears 14,000 intricately painted scenes from Chinese history and legends, as well as classic Chinese literary excerpts, such as Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber. This is one of the best parts of the area – don’t miss it.
West Causeway ( Xī Dī 西堤)
Many tourists at Yiheyuan begin their journey by swinging east towards the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Avoid the crowds by taking the West Causeway instead, where you can take a stroll through a nice grove of mulberry and willow trees. Along this less beaten counterclockwise lap of Kunming Lake you will encounter two ancient bridges: the Jade Belt Bridge ( Yùdài Qiáo 玉带桥), built by Qianlong in the 18th century, and the 17 Arch Bridge ( Shíqīkǒng Qiáo 十七孔桥) which leads over to South Lake Island.
Wenchang Pavilion ( Wénchāng Gé 文昌阁)
The Wenchang Pavillion (aka the Flourishing Culture Pavilion), sits just south of the Hall of Longevity and Benevolence.
Housed within is the Wenchang Gallery, which is thoroughly worth a visit. Here you can find most of the remaining artifacts and relics that weren’t looted by the allied powers. Among them are samples of Cixi’s calligraphy, some pretty bronze and jade pieces, and beautiful Chinese porcelain.