“Beigongmen, Beigongmen,” Automatic Speaker in metro repeated. .Metro arrived on that station. I am heading towards exit of metro station, through sea of the people. It is hard to find more overcrowded place than metro stations as some people are going in metro while other are going out from metro at the same time. People are in hurry to get into metro like that it is last train going or like that if they skip one they lost their life chance to catch one. Same rushing continues inside train when people are trying to catch free place for sitting. Everyone tries to be faster than you just to catch free seat. If you are older person or pregnant woman people will give their sit to you. In China like in all world today you must be strong and stand for your place, in train, in bus, at street, in life. In today world if you want to survive and have your seat you must be tough and never to give up. You must be priority to yourself. You must stand for yourself and for your own goals. In China there exists Gaokao state exam which every year millions of Chinese students want to take when finish high-school. To achieve good results in Gaokao they need to study more than 15 hours daily to get chance for more appreciated university which will provide them chance for more paid job and better life. Gaokao brings fairness and equal chance for everyone in Chinese society. Exam can take any student which belongs to rich, average or below average family. It means that any student has chance to be successful and get on prestigious university and later have well paid job. Simply it gives chance for everyone who takes exam to get in elites of Chinese society. Therefore spending so much hours learning shouldn’t be useless. For higher position in foreign or Chinese company or position in government competition is very high and only best of the best can get there. You must be always on alert and careful not to lose your chance. Even when you already have job in todays world stress doesn’t disappear and time for relaxing in this fast world is very limited. Such stressful daily life and hardworking requires some place where you can relax and feel yourself with energy after hard working week.
On such place I am going today. After metro ride I took bus 696 , after advice from one man which was on bus-stop and came to us to ask if we need help. He smiled when he heard that we are from Serbia. His first associations were” Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Tito very good, NATO aggression, Kosovo”. He didn’t seemed on first view that his English is not so bad. We exchanged few words with him. That’s what I like among Chinese people that they are always smiling to foreigners and offering to help you if you need to get right direction. I was in bus now. Well I couldn’t believe at that moment where I was going really, it was so unreal and unimaginable for me- to Xiangshan Gongyuan or in English Fragrant Hills Park. It is very beautiful area of hills, lakes, gardens, villas, temples, pavilions…Fragrant Hills are part of Western Hills located 20km from urban Beijing. This area probably got such name because of smell of incense which are burnt in temples- even its peak is called Xianglu Feng( Incense Burner Peak).
It was place where Emperor could spend free time enjoying in gardens or hunting in hills or attend religious ceremonies in some of temples there. Except Xiangshan on Western Hills are located other important areas such as Botanical Garden, Ba Da Chu, Yu Quan Pagoda and nearby is Summer Palace too. I can say that Xiangshan is one of my favorite places not just in China but comparable to other countries and among one of most beautiful places which I ever saw. I love this place because of its beauty, its peace and calmness but also because of amazing memories which connect me to this place.
This place is great because almost all history of China is present there- from Jin dynasty ( 12-13th centuries) including Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, period of Republic and events related to Civil War and communist victory. During story you will realize what I am speaking about.
I got into park area through main gate. Inside was inner garden, small pond, bridge over small pond and red residence buildings. This was one of residences of emperor when he was coming for hunting. Day was amazing, very hot and very sunny and sky completely pure and azure. Even single white cloud was not present at sky. It’s a place where you can finally have a rest out of city and place which is not so big tourist attraction and not commercialized. This place isn’t famous as Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven… It is more specific than Beihai park or some other parks and temples in middle of Beijing which are very old and interesting but they are in middle of city. Xiangshan area is out of city and that’s what gives it special charm and is not overcrowded by people. It is not on list of 5 most important things which tourists and travelers go to see. Here come those who want to meet and understand China deeper and its ancient value. Because of this calmness there this place becomes more mysterious and unique. Overcrowded and most visited parks and temples in Beijing lose that mystery when they are seen by everyone possible. Such less visited places are better preserved when they are hidden from millions of eyes. Those who experience it will understand me. Even when you meet groups of other walkers there they are more peaceful and calm than noisy groups of tourists in other places. Only period of year when Fragrant Hills are overcrowded by visitors is October when people attend Red Leaves Festival. It is a famous festival during which thousands of people come to see trees covered with red autumn leaves. People like to watch on hills which become red from so much trees covered by red leaves. I attended that festival once in October 2000 and that’s only time in my life that I saw so much people in Fragrant Hills…
During weekends some people like to come here individually to have rest from daily life, busy city, other people, and just to be in nature, and with their own thoughts and enjoy peace. It is not necessary to speak how much air is more fresh and healthy in this highland area. Some of people come early in the morning with their small music players and listen to Chinese traditional music, walk, sit in some pavilion or on grass, and listen to slow wind, birds, watch at leaves, lotus flowers, drink tea or simply they experience peace. I have a feeling that here they experience biggest possibility of doing nothing, having rest, and being in their own world. If I lived in Beijing I would be coming every weekend there to just forget everything what worries me and my daily life. Here I want to be only me and nature, peace and relaxation. Sometimes I think that when I come here I don’t need anything else than this place around me, listening to silence and drinking plum juice and that’s all what I would need for all weekend. Some peaceful music for tai chi would be good. It wouldn’t be bad if some other traveler would interrupt me for short to exchange few words. On such places people that you meet are very friendly and happy when they see that foreigner came here to feel true spirit of China. If someone knows best, what to do for long and healthy life than these are Chinese people, because they know how to make tranquility for mind and body at the same time and how to live in harmony and respect with other people and nature. Chinese people did it more than few thousand years ago. If it was good at that time it should be now. That’s why once a week going here is necessary I think to stand not easy life full of competition, crowds and noise in one of biggest world metropolis where around 20 000 000 people live- Beijing. Tai Chi is good for this inner and outer balancing and it makes you to feel healthy and calm.
China is so big and I am sure that there are at least hundreds similar places hidden behind hills where you can devote time to such thoughts. They are hidden and you must discover them like you must discover and understand traditional Chinese spirit and way of life and to discover mentioned values of peace and balance. I am happy that I discovered one place like that. This is something on what I didn’t paid attention when I was coming to Xiangshan to play and have fun as a child. But even at that time I felt calm and safe there I felt that I could run and jump as much as I want and no one will tell anything to me and car wont hit me what can happen on busy city streets if you are not careful.
I was thinking on mentioned things while I was sitting on rock under willow tree next to Jingzui Lake. Behind me was pavilion with, red pillars and grey roof, where were 3 people playing on ancient Chinese instruments. While playing they spoke very silently. I listened to them, to nature, peace, silence and some bird which still remains mystery for me since childhood, some kind of gale probably. Its mysterious sound was echoing from hills around and slightly interrupting silence and soft sounds of Chinese traditional music. Except 3 players there were just one woman on another side of shore and 2 people practicing tai chi under trees nearby. Only few people passed next to me. Everyone was calm. My parents even my brother became silent too. I watched at green water of lake, reflection of willow leaves in it, beautiful lotus flowers which were blossoming. Then I watched on hills behind lake, on blue sky, shinning sun, than on ground, on stone path which leads between green trunks to lake from direction of entrance gate of park. Slight wind which suddenly appeared didn’t move lotus flowers almost at all, maybe slightly and they remained to stay toughly on surface of lake. That slight wind was slowly moving willow leaves and it was cooling me. Willow branches and soft wind protected me from strong sun passing between willow leaves but they allowed sun to pass enough to warm me. Even lakes name Green Tranquility Lake or Jingzui Lake emphasizes what you should do here: to have rest and enjoy in beautiful nature.
Half an hour passed and I had few drops of plum juice and still I didn’t moved from that place. I was still sitting and relaxing. I could stay here all day… If it was spring it would be even more perfect with pink and white blossoming flowers on trees.
Suddenly I remembered how on same lake many years ago me, Milica and Danica ( my Serbian friends in China) used to catch tadpoles. We experienced amazing games here as children. We used to climb on rocks and hills around Jingzui Lake. Once I fell in lake when I was running away from big hornet which tried to bite me. During cold winters we were walking over frozen lake.
I am continuing my trip, and speaking what I saw around. There are few places on Xiangshan where I felt similarly like here next to Jingzui Lake, even through slow walks. Now stone path is taking me through hills between pines and cherries to Mao Zedongs residence and one of old PLA headquarters- Shuangqing Villa. On road I saw few exercisers of tai chi and few walkers. Next to villa is pond and small pavilion next to pond. In that villa Chairman Mao lived and commanded PLA troops in last years of civil war before victory of communists. In front of villa was large billboard with flag of Chinese Communist party. At entrance of villa was Maos large black and white portrait. Inside were few chairs, table, teapot and one room for conferences… Few Chinese traditional calligraphic paintings were on walls. Maos private room looked modest: simple wardrobe, shelf, bed, shoes and his famous grey coat. From this place Mao was coordinating last battle and liberation of Beijing from hands of Kuomintang, in winter 1948-1949. That battle brought communist victory and setting order in China. I climbed on mound in front of pound where Chinese flag was proudly standing under sun and pure blue sky. I took a look behind. There was bunker in hill. Bunker was determined for hiding from airstrikes of Kuomintang. Two older women were sitting next to flag and staring at me curiously. I looked straight at pond. .Next to pond where exercisers: group of older ladies which danced with green and red fans waving in rhythm of music. Flashes from past passed through my head: I remembered on running around pond as a child and on one old carved statue of Buddha in white stone which was next to villa and which used to attract my attention when I was child but also today. I came in front of statue. Dark green liana was covering wall around Buddha. Sun rays were falling on them. It looked so puzzling. Origin and age of this statue remains mystery for me. While I was watching at stone Buddha I felt like that I was here everyday 12 years, but at same time it was unbelievable that I am again in my life on one of my favorite if not favorite places, my Xiangshan. We continued up on path from stone towards remains of Fragrant Hills Temple- oldest temple on Xiangshan built during Jin dynasty… It was destroyed and burnt by colonial British and French imperialistic troops. This temple was oldest construction at Xiangshan dating from 12th century. Unfortunately only few stones, base and pieces of pillars remained. On some remains were carved scriptures of Chinese symbols. I watched at beautiful hills and I saw few pavilions in far… We came to have rest at peaceful place in shadow, under white pines in small pavilion. Tall pines and pavilion roof produced good shade for relaxing and having rest after walking on such high temperature.
After short rest trip continued. We went down further to visit other parts of this place. During going down from higher parts of hill me as child and my father used to run away from mum and brother and shout “Bas nas dva briga” or “We don’t care about you”. It was funny game which we played always when we were going down in this part of Fragrant Hills. Next to that path was small canal with small stream, where we used to put leaves into stream as we played that this are boats and were competing whose boat will be faster… Path took us, to one grass field which was next to flower gardens. Gardens were full of red and white roses. Many years ago me and my brother used to play and lie on grass here. Often we used to play anaconda catching and killing man, he was victim of course. We used to play that while parents were having rest in nearby pavilion.
We went for lunch in one of our favorite Chinese restaurant which totally didn’t changed since 2001, and food was amazing and delicious. After great lunch we continued trip. Next important place was pond in front of remaining walls and hall of Zhao Miao Temple ( Bright Temple) build by Qianlong emperor in 1780. It was built with aim to be residence for sixth Panchen Lama during his visits to Beijing. It was Tibetan style lamasery with white walls, red covers of windows, golden brown roof, and high stairs which take you towards red door in the middle. That’s visible from this what remained. In 1900 it was destroyed by English and French colonial armies. It was part of their surpassing of Boxer Rebellion. “Who gave them right to make such harm to this holly temple, to culture and tradition in Chinese land”, I asked myself. They did it, made harm to this old civilization which blossomed for few thousand years before they even existed. As a children me, Milica and Danica called this Zhao Miao Temple –“Castle of Ghosts” because it looked scary for us. At that time it had faded red walls and entrance of the corridor in middle of hall was open. Dark corridor which was leading to inner garden was very scary. At end of corridor was always visible mystical light from sun which was falling into inner garden and passing through dark corridor. We often imitated sounds of ghosts here. Once one Chinese man replied through corridor with similar sounds, we were scared but still we continued going in through corridor to inner garden. Garden was surrounded from inner side by grey burnt and damaged walls. Especially it was frightening at dusk when parts of temple looked even more mystical and strange because red rays from sunset were falling on roof and door and tall paifang which was in front of temple.
Zhao Miao Temple is under reconstruction now. As I said bigger parts of main wall and hall are recolored in original white, behind I saw new walls which were excavated in recent years still not reconstructed- more walls which were around inner garden of temple. Except history of this temple on guide board which was standing next to temple it was written that plan is that it will be completely reconstructed until 2018 or 2020. Pity that inner garden was closed this time as I would like to walk inside again. Who knows what will workers and scientists find during excavating and reconstructing temple. I am sure that under destroyed walls are interesting bronze or jade statues of Buddha or some other religious subjects. Also probably there can be found out interesting carved stone Buddhas hidden under ruins.
Sounds of mysterious bird were all the time present and were following us during walking through this area. Some stairs which lead down from Zhao Miao Temple were taking us to small pond with old white stone bridge in middle. Over that bridge we used to run and chase each other when we were children- Me, Milica and Danica. We were often sitting under apricot tree next to pond, and telling stories about ghosts, Serbia, China, Pokemons, airplanes, fishes, frogs. Mine and their parents were speaking nearby too. At that time my small brother Dushan used to run around pond and he tried all the time to jump into water to undo high temperatures. I never wanted to imagine swimming in that dark green water, full of frogs. Once we caught one. One Chinese man tried to explain us that this type of frog isn’t for eating, he had full package of frogs which he caught for dinner in same pond. In China frog meat is considered as healthy and pure and as I heard from my father it reminds on chicken meat.
When I speak about this sometimes it seems like that it was some other life.. It seems so far and mystical. I was so exhausted from so hot weather and after hours of walking I wanted to have a rest next to pond under apricot tree. I was sitting for few minutes watching at pond, bridge, on Bright Temple which was above stairs, behind wall and behind paifang. There was no one except one fisherman and one older man who was lying under pine tree and one young couple sitting on bench next to pond. I was so nostalgic and I wanted to stay here, wait for dusk, see sunset and red rays falling on paifang and Bright Temple and wait evening here like we did many times many years ago. But If I wanted to see other important places I had to go now.
I continued up towards green pagoda which remained almost undamaged. It was part of Bright Temple too. Pagoda was standing on one small hill above temple. Sun was hitting pagoda directly. Green glazed pagoda among hills under blue sky and under sun were interesting scenery. This pagoda is famous for those who know Xiangshan and is one of most common associations for Xiangshan. Next to pagoda I took picture with 3 Chinese boys which were very friendly when they saw red star on my hat. We went on another side of hill on which was pagoda. We went next to pond which was surrounded by rounded roofed corridor. Now we were sitting next to pond which was full of goldfishes. On both sides of passage are green pillars, connected with blue and green decorative beams between them. Beams had paintings of cranes and people dressed in ancient colorful clothes. Interesting was that each beam had different painting… Tall pines were reflected in water. It was peaceful and calm like 15 years ago. My father bought food for fishes, like in old days. We started throwing food – in shape of small balls. Bigger and bigger fishes were appearing on surface trying to catch food. In China taking care and feeding goldfishes has important place in their culture. Almost every .garden has smaller or bigger pond with fishes. I already mentioned that goldfishes are unseparable part of most of Chinese gardens. I enjoyed feeding them now like before as child and still curiously watching which one is bigger and which one is able to jump higher to catch food. When I was child I was even a bit scared of them thinking that with their big mouths they can jump and swallow me. Some of them were big even more than 1 meter. Nearby us few people were drinking tea and enjoying nearby and some boys and girls fed fishes too.
After feeding fishes we went towards Azure Clouds Temple or Buyin Si. It is a Buddhist temple from XIV century. I passed over stone bridge between 2 smaller lakes. In one of lakes was reflected tall pavilion. Next to second lake were tall stones with cave and waterfall. I came inside cave and I was watching on bridge and pavilion through falling water. It reminded me on movies about ancient China, for example on some Kung Fu movies. I stayed here a bit to take a shade and to enjoy drops of water which were falling on me and refreshing my body which was all sticky from sweat. After that I continued towards Azure Cloud Temple.
It is amazing temple, very specific ,silent and mystical. Its entrance is protected by few meters tall and scary statues of guardians of temple. They have big strict and scary eyes, large heads, strong muscles , sword or spear ( determined for defense of temple). According to traditional belief they have purpose to protect temple from evil ghosts. I am not sure from which material they were made. When I was coming here as child mother to calm down my unpredictable behavior had to tell me that if I wont be silent they will eat me. This usually worked and made me to be most silent and polite boy during all visit of temple. In first hall of temple is big brown statue of fat Chinese Buddha. He is watching tranquilly and around neck has chaplet ( determined for praying) made from big balls. Entering inner garden of temple influences your thoughts about peace and harmony like everything in this area. It was so quiet inside garden between halls of temple..
Pillars and facades were red, roofs dark green and grey. Naturally there was pond with lotus flowers and goldfishes. Pond was surrounded by stone fence. On few trees were hanged red ribbons with written wishes. It is a typical Buddhist temple. But untypically silent and different than other temples in Beijing which are overcrowded and noisy. Discovering this temple seems going back to some ancient century. In all Xiangshan you have feeling that you are in some different world, different than Beijing which isn’t so far. It seemed like that time stopped in Azure Cloud Temple.
Few monks passed in dark orange robes. In temple except monks were only few visitors sitting on grass or on stairs without making a noise. Sun rays were very specifically falling from sky between roofs and through leaves on walls, stairs, trees and ground. It created very mystical atmosphere. Buyin Si is so isolated and preserved from modern world. Because of walls around temple you feel like that you are in some other dimension. That’s why if someone asks me what is my favorite temple that I saw I would say this one. But I am sure that mountains of China are full of many other mysterious and silent temples.
Funny was one man with completely naked sweated fat stomach who was sitting on ground He was looking at me curiously when I was buying incense sticks. Me and my family were only foreigners in temple that afternoon. I burned my sticks and put them in incense burner- big metal container determined for burning of incense sticks. Burning incense sticks has long tradition in China. It is done for praying to deities and ancestors. It is way of showing respect and worshiping them. Ancestors have important place in Chinese families. Chinese people traditionally believe that ancestors deserve high respect and honors.
I passed next to memorial hall of Sun Yatsen, first president of Republic of China He was initially buried here. There is his big white statue in one hall. I entered one mystical dark room in which light was only coming from small windows. In that room is collection of brown wooden statues of Arhats. As it is said on board Arhats are those perfected in Buddhism, those who reached complete inner peace, complete harmony with themselves and with all other beings and nature. There were also statues of Buddhisatvas and one statue of famous Buddhist monk Ji Gong. It was unique atmosphere in this room. Something what I never experienced before. Like some secret place, like in some ancient time, some specific world.
I went through corridor towards peak of white Tibetan style- Vajrasana pagoda with few stepwise cupolas and golden colored rounded peaks. On top was main golden peak. Walls of corridor towards pagoda were decorated by carved Buddhas. View from top of pagoda, on afternoon sun and on all area of Xiangshan was very nice.
After visiting Vajrasana pagoda we made circle around it through small forest. On road back from temple it wasn’t possible not to notice one special gingko tree and board about 3 generation tree. On that board was written that from same place were growing 3 trees- Chinese scholartree, cypress and gingko one after another and that each lived for several hundred years. Currently there is still alive for 300 old gingko tree. We went out from Temple of Azure Clouds. We continued climbing to another hill over walkway between bamboo and pines. After a lot of climbing, we came to one of viewpoints of Xiangshan.. This viewpoint provides nice view on hills and buildings of suburbs of Beijing. There is old villa next to viewpoint. In this villa emperor after hunting drunk tea and had fun with his concubines. Today part of this villa is closed for public while another part has function of small shop of cold drinks, chips and sweets. I was siting on stairs and drinking my favorite plum drink as I did many years ago.. Also I used to shout and try to listen my echo from this viewpoint. Now I was just sitting and enjoying shade because finally sun was on another side of hill and was not chasing me anymore. Few older walkers came and they just said “Hi” and smiled to me. I replied in Chinese: “ Ni Hao” and they smiled even more. They continued their path. These walkers just appeared and disappeared on path through pine forest. I saw their faces and forgot them. Like many other faces I saw in China. They were going back from Xianglu Feng (Incense Burner Peak) highest point of Xiangshan, which provides best view on all area. Height of Xianglu Feng is 557m. As I heard from some people which have been there I know that on peak are two rocks which shape reminds on incense burners- that’s why this peak got such name. On photos that I googled I saw that this peak provides breathtaking view. From viewpoint of Xianglu Feng you can see even Summer Palace. It takes 2-3 hours by walk to get to that peak but today isn’t day to go there. I never had luck to get there. When I was child parents though that I am too small for so much climbing that I would get nervous and bored… Today I gave priority to visit other places in area of Xiangshan. So if I wanted now to continue to Xianglu Feng night would catch me in forests of these hills. There is also cable car which can take you up very fast but it isn’t point. I wanted to achieve peak of Xiangshan by myself. Reaching Xianglu Peak is my aim in next visit of Beijing when I will have more time. I am sure that I will be at Xianglu Feng once at least.
Day was coming to an end we already went out through main gate. I looked back last time to main entrance to Xiangshan. This was first place of Xiangshan which I saw this morning after 12 years when I thought: “ am I really here??? Is it again in my life?? That I am again here??” Now its last place of Xiangshan which I see- I was thinking :“ Good bye my Xiangshan it was nice to see you again, thanks for refreshing memories from childhood and thanks for helping me to experience and understand China in some deeper way, appreciate and love this place even more. Hope to see you soon. ” I rushed fast to Botanical Garden which wasn’t so far from Xiangshan with aim to see one interesting place. I thought that all China can be discovered like that -Walking, having short rest, walking.. But as much hard as you try to be fast and travel all day to see everything what you planned you will be always late somewhere. There will always be temple whose gates will be closed for you one day. I was standing in front of closed red gate of Wofo Si ( Temple of Sleeping Buddha ) ancient temple famous for statue of Buddha which lies and sleeps.. It was on my plan for today to visit this silent and isolated temple. I am standing in front of closed gate because I spent all day on Xiangshan. I didn’t had time to come to Wofo Temple before it was closed for visitors. By standing on fingers I was trying to see at least something inside. I saw, only few stairs, and some red door, and one grey wall. That’s all. Light wasn’t enough bright there to see everything better. “What is behind that door?? Sleeping Buddha or room for praying or something else.??” It remains mystery like all China . Watching through gate seemed like trying to see all China completely. Than I remembered that I was never on Xianglu Peak too. So already two important things I couldn’t see today. Anyway I was happy that I saw so much what I wrote.