When the bus from Beigongmen subway station drops me off at the foot of Fragrant Hills, I realize that this park is very popular even in early spring, while it sees most visitors in autumn when the leaves of the trees turn red. Fortunately, it is a big park, and when I work my way up the hills, there are various trails and stairs to choose from. After the Imperial Residence near the entrance, I pass several pavilions, viewpoints, and other landmark spots on my way up. The last stretch is a long line of stone steps on the slopes of Incense Burner Peak, or Xianglu Feng - when I reach the top, I am at the highest point of Fragrant Hills at 557 metres. I have pushed myself to the top without any breaks, and now, I finally turn around to enjoy the panorama. Beyond the slopes, I see the Summer Palace, and further away, the skyline of Beijing floating in the smog. There are many people around here, and many have left small red tags on the branches of the trees at the top for good luck. I walk on the ridge of the hill, sit on one of the boulders to enjoy the views, but the chilly wind reminds me that spring has just started, and I start walking down.
From the top, I have seen many trails on the hills, most of them empty, and I soon find one on which I walk for a long time without seeing anyone else. It suddenly gives me a feeling of being out in nature, especially because the trees are blocking the views of Beijing. A steep section takes me further down, to a small pavilion, and when I continue my walk down, I come across more buildings and people, until I reach the foot of Fragrant Hills. I now shift my focus from nature to exploring the cultural assets of the park, and my first stop is the Tibetan Temple of Brilliance, with an impressive entrance gate. The temple itself is closed, and when I walk around it and reach a higher vantage point, it seems that much of the inside is empty. A little higher up, I find a green-glazed pagoda of the Zongjing monastery, which survived the looting of foreign troops in 1900 (after they did do a lot of damage to the Summer Palace).
Close to the pavilion, I find a carp-filled semi-circular pond in Jianxin Garden, with a richly decorated wooden gallery with several old paintings depicting life in ancient China. A short walk takes me to the Spectacles Lake, a pleasant spot to relax and take pictures. I am on my way to Biyun Temple, or the Temple of the Azure Clouds, and when I walk the stone bridge past two large stone lions with red decorations, I am happy to notice that I am almost alone. The Mountain Gate Hall has two impressive protective deities, and walking up more stone steps, I find a small courtyard with attractive buildings which are, unfortunately, closed. But the best is yet to come. There is the Hall of Arhats with some 500 statues of arhats, saintly people who may have reached nirvana. Each of the statues has its own identity and is unique, and the semi-darkness in the hall adds to a feeling of mystery. There is the golden Sakyamuni in its separate hall, but also a chubby blackened bronze Maitreya statue. Then there is the Lokapala Hall where deities are placed with sacred animals in a sky-like setting with clouds. There is a statue of Sun Yat-Sen, and glass coffin donated by the USSR. Unfortunately, part of the Biyun Temple is closed, and I retrace my steps, taking time in all the halls to see them a second time - always leading to new discoveries. Sitting under a tree, surrounded by silence only sporadically interrupted by other visitors, I not only give my feet some well-deserved rest, but also soak in the peace of this place before returning to the crowds of the main gate of Fragrant Hills park.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Fragrant Hills (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Fragrant Hills.
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