This enormous complex of gardens, official buildings, and pagodas was commissioned in 1750 by the great fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong, but is probably best associated with the so-called Dragon Lady, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), a formidable royal concubine turned regent who essentially ruled China from 1861 until her death, making a big mess of it along the way. The grounds are vast, and you could easily spend a day here, but you've come in the late afternoon when the crowds are thinning out and you can see the sun begin to make its creeping descent. Unless you're an aspiring Qing dynasty scholar, you won't need to see every last building and pagoda, but don't miss the spectacular covered hallway that follows the shore of the man-made lake, which was built to resemble the shape of a peach, the traditional symbol for longevity. This is the longest covered hallway in the world and is not only lovely but functional: On a hot day, the hallway creates a sort of wind tunnel, with the breeze off the lake circulating coolly throughout the walkway.
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