A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of …. Bullshit!

I should have guessed, I suppose. When a tourist web site tells you that something in Beijing is one of the major tourist attractions and that travellers had better go there on week days to avoid the great numbers of visitors at the weekends, then next time, maybe, I will pay more attention.

I'm talking of nothing less that Xiangshan Park (香山公园) otherwise known as Fragrant Hills Park. "The most spectacular natural scenery is the red smoke tree leaves over the mountains which, when autumn arrives, blanket the entire mountain," the website gushes.

Every year, they even have a Red Leaves Festival which this year is being held from October 12th to November 6th.

Because summer turns to winter here very quickly, you can be forgiven if you blink and miss the autumn. Already some of the leaves in downtown Beijing which were green last week have turned to a livid red…

As rain isn't forecast, I decide that today I will break the habits of a lifetime and actually get out of bed at the crack of dawn … well, 7.30 which is as near dawn as I care to imagine – and visit this little paradise on earth.

Now Fragrant Hills Park is a public park at the foot of the Western Mountains in Haidian to the north west of Beijing. It covers some 395 acres and consists of natural pine-cypress forests, hills with maple trees, smoke trees and persimmon trees, as well as landscaped areas with the traditional architecture and cultural relics you find almost everywhere over here (oh how blasé have I become!). Every year, thousands of tourists ride the cable cars through the park in order see the hills in autumn colours and not surprisingly the grand opening of Beijing's annual Red Leaf Festival also takes place here.

The problem is that as it turns out, one or two other people have had the same idea as your favourite blogger. I get onto the metro train which at 8.30 is already heaving with people. Eight stations along line 10, the entire human cargo decamps from the train and heads for line 4. I am carried along with the crowd. The incoming train sinks down onto its suspension as we spend the next 15 minutes enjoying one another's arm pits and hanging onto the carriage handles for dear life until we reach Beigongmen Station whence the train is finally able to disgorge its load and I am carried upwards towards the daylight.

There are 10 different bus routes that serve Xiangshan and it seems that every other bus in Beijing has been commandeered to provide a non stop stream of transportation for the masses. I see a bus labelled 000 which is actually a 447 bus masquerading as a 563 bus. But no one is too worried about what route it is serving, for every vehicle in Beijing, it appears, is heading in the same direction.
Whether I had wanted to get on this bus or not, it isn't as if I have any choice. I can hardly feel the road under my feet as I am swept up into the charabanc and a bruiser of a conductress finally screams at the remainder of the baying mob and manages to get the doors closed.

One advantage of taking a number 000 is that it doesn't stop at any intervening bus stops. Not that that actually makes much difference today since the 10 minute bus ride actually stretches out to one hour and 15 minutes. Stop, start, stop, start…. But the excitement visibly mounts  in the bus as we see a clump of red trees at the side of the carriageway fighting for survival against the acrid motor fumes that are engulfing it. Ohhhhh…Ahhhh the bus sighs in happy unison, followed a few moments later by another clump of red trees and an equally happy ooooooooh…aaaaaaahhhhh. (Google Translate helpfully tells me that what I actually heard was a rendition of 哦啊 in the local dialect, but let's not split hairs.)

Finally we reach the end of the line and the bus spews out its contents onto an already crowded pavement. The entrance to the park is normally a 10 minute walk away… but today it takes 25 minutes…

But the crowd is well behaved and we surge ahead to the end of the road. To ensure there is no trouble, there are police everywhere and I see a number of stall keepers at the side of the road being castigated by the said police for a number of misdemeanours including slowing down the human traffic. There are even "PLICEONDUTY" boxes manned by zealous officers of the law to keep a watchful eye on proceedings.

At the entrance to the park it is obviously carnival time. Floral displays accentuate the red leaf motif …

and the two main entrances are bedecked with red plastic leaves …

But something is amiss. For once inside there appears to be a total dearth of red leaves. How can this be? Sure, there are beautiful trees all around,

but the problem is most are green or yellow. But wait… over there is a tree turning orange… does that count, I wonder? Obviously others, too, are somewhat mystified, as they head toward the orange spectre…

Now, the problem is that the Chinese LOVE the colour red, as the feng shui energy of red is that of arousal. It is hot, passionate, rich and celebratory. Red is the Chinese colour of luck and happiness. So now everyone is looking for something red to be photographed with. Some have their pictures taken in front of posters showing what the place would have looked like if nature hadn't put two fingers up to the world and actually done what it was meant to do.

A couple notice that an itinerant Mickey Mouse (whom I could have sworn I saw at the Olympic Green last week) has red trousers and insist on taking each other's pictures with the ruddy rodent.

Everywhere there are signs to ensure that no one can even think of getting lost. But I have to wonder how come the place names all have only three or four ideograms, but the word for 'wheelchair led person' has five characters, while 'Rubbish Receptacle' has no fewer than 11! (Actually Google Translate offers up only three ideograms for its translation, which all goes to prove that the signmakers at Xiangshan don't rely on such technology.)

It seems that I, along with a few million others, are not going to be lucky today. The fickle finger of fate has seen to it that we will all have to come back another day – perhaps after the Red Leaves Festival is actually over – if we want to see any red leaves at all here.

Undaunted, I head over to my favourite part of the park, which actually isn't officially in the park at all, though you have to pay the park entrance fee to be able to actually reach the entrance to the Temple of Azure Clouds which will set you back a further 10 yuan on top of the 10 yuan you have already forked out.

The Temple of Azure Clouds (碧云寺), is a Buddhist temple complex built in the 14th century during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) which is built on six different levels over an elevation of 100 metres. It also includes a Memorial Hall to the celebrated Chinese nationalist, Sun Yat-sen.

As you pass through the Gate Hall, constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), you are greeted by two warriors known as Generals Heng and Ha in Buddhism. It is their role to safeguard the temple gate. This one is General Ha, who I guess is slightly more cute than his companion …

You now pass through a series of gate houses and halls, each with statues of divine beings inside…

One hall houses a smiling bronze statue of Buddha Maitreya, 2.5 metres in height, while another features Buddha Sakyamuni with Manjusri and Samantabhadra together with two disciples – Jiaye and Anan on either side.

Something for which the Temple of Azure Clouds is famous is its Arhat Hall, built in 1748 for the first convocation in Buddhist history. It is the best preserved among the four arhat halls in China.

Inside there are 512 statues, of which 500 are gilded wooden arhats (spiritual practitioners who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and thereby achieved nirvana), 11 bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who, out of compassion, forgoe nirvana in order to save others) and one statue of Ji Gong (a famous Buddhist monk). All the arhats are life-size statues with different poses and expressions. It has been said that two of these were the statues of Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty.

Something else that this temple complex is famous for is the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. Dr Sun, who died in 1925 is regarded as the foremost pioneer of Nationalist China, and is often referred to as the 'Father of the Nation' (國父). He played an instrumental role in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty during the Xinhai Revolution and was the first provisional president when the Republic of China was founded in 1912.

Inside, to the right of his statue, is an empty crystal coffin presented by the Soviet government in 1925 – though they were a bit tardy as his body had already been buried in Nanjing, having first been interred here before being sent to the Jiangsu capital!

Photos of Sun Yat-sen, his handwriting, books and statue are also on display in two side halls...

where there is also a thoughtful placard referring to the Giant of the Last Century:

"This is not a normal temple, really not," it reads. "…This temple, once formally visited by numerous Chinese descendents from all over the world, is more than a place for personal pray…."

"In his whole life, he loved his country, revoluted and made progress" it goes on in the same adulating tone, concluding "Over the past 100 years from the Revolution of 1911 to present day, people would have missed him at every important historical moment owing to his ideal, spirit and brilliant personality."

So there you have it. Dr Sun – a giant of the last century.

Sufficiently moved, I go off in search of a 'little boys' room' and am struck by the admonition stuck to the wall above the urinals…

Now I have to say this intrigues me. Yes, even I am impressed for once at how clean the facility is (unlike, it has to be said, numerous other public facilities in China). Keeping it clean is an admirable goal, of course. But keeping it cleaner? I half expect to see a flunky handing me a mop and bucket as I leave the facility and hurry out into the afternoon sunshine lest said flunky actually materialises.

As I walk down the hill towards the waiting buses once more I notice that for some it has been a hard day with all the crowds and excitement. I tiptoe quietly past the sleeping craftsman who appears oblivious to the world.

Avoiding the queues for the 563, I walk on an extra 200 metres to the bus station round the corner and have no problem getting onto a 696 (and even manage to grab a yellow seat - reserved for the elderly, sick and pregnant) which I discover takes me practically all the way home. OK, it takes over an hour with the heavy weekend traffic, but for the princely sum of one yuan (about 10p), who am I to complain?