Being somewhere as different as Beijing makes it much easier, of course, to feel a desire to go out and explore.
Having been there several times and seen the main tourist draws, and then arriving for work, however, quickly makes even a city like this just another one of those places seen and accepted and not really seen anymore except when something majorly different happens.
Or, as I always argue, you decide to actively make yourself at home in a place you find yourself by finding something that strikes a chord with you….
Beijing is developing rapidly, like everything in China seems to be.
People who go to China, who visit Beijing, however, come in large part for the history. The city has been China’s capital for centuries, and consequently holds much of historic value (even with everything that’s been razed).
The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Yonghegong Lama Temple, the Summer Palace – there is a lot to see.
In fact, there would be a whole lot more to see, as in so many a place, but it goes as it always does: Tourists are like ducks.
Where some start to congregate, more will congregate.
The places where people started to flock are the places where people flock even more.
How not, we are a social species after all.
What, however, of all the other sites, and sights?
In Beijing, in particular, places that are less well known and farther afield tell stories, some of religion re-emerging and overlooked sightseeing treasures (see the story of my visit to Badachu, for example), some of destruction and attempts at shaping historical memory and spiritual practice, some of politics and history having taken over and greeting a potential visitor with nothing but closed doors and signs shooing visitors away.
During and now after my recent half-year stay in Beijing, I embarked on a little project about Beijing’s Buddhist temples – that was something that somehow struck a chord with me.
Here are but two sights close by the Summer Palace, which is on most tourist itineraries, that speak of that hidden history, to give a teaser.
Yuquanshan – Jade Fountain Mountain
Alright, alright, it’s usually translated as “Jade Spring Mountain,” but I can’t resist a rhyme.
For someone who has more than just two days to visit Beijing’s sights, the Summer Palace comes up high on the list of must-see places. Look west towards the Xiangshan / Western Hills from there, you will see another one of Beijing’s few hills in between, and one with a nice-looking pagoda on its top.
It’s easy enough to get into the area.
Just walk past the northwestern wall of the Summer Palace, across the canal there, down one of Beijing’s many outer-area roads that look rather more rural than urban, its surface broken open and the car repair shops on the side not looking much more modern.
This already leads you into a rather different Beijing from both the restored-historic or the truly urbanized.
Approach the hill, and the road becomes more modern, the area even more open and somehow cleaned out. Are those villas behind the wall to the north, though? And what’s the temple with the white stupa that becomes visible on a set-off hill just north of the Jade Fountain hill? Is that another religious structure not mentioned on the maps or is it another part of the Jade Mountain ensemble?
Walk on, and the road starts to circle around the hill, and it turns out that the one source which talked about the area is probably quite right: What the maps mark simply as the “Jade Mountain park” is not the “public garden” that the Chinese word for a park seems to indicate.
High wall all around, wires on top, cameras all around, all gates locked and guard soldiers at every entrance, it obviously is a government/military installation now.
Where normal people had already been giving me the usual puzzled looks a foreigner in unexpected places in China usually gets, the guard soldiers here were, of course, eyeing me even more suspiciously.
My camera stayed in my pocket; no need to get in trouble… especially after having read that this hill may be something like the Cheyenne Mountain of China, hiding the installations meant to keep the government operational in case of a nuclear war.
Not the place one wants to stick out as a curious person snapping shots.
The half-loop around the hill complete – it is a nice pagoda up there, indeed, and the little that can be seen of all the buildings that would lead up to it along the southern side of the hill look like they could be just as nice as those in Beihai park going up to the White Dagoba up there – the road leads on to the west in a straight shot, and with quite a surprise.
Where the area on the east side feels like it is meant for nothing, to the public, but to pass through in a car, the west side presents a bike or jogging path along the canal there, complete with guideposts to the sights around the area (and yup, including the Jade Mountain park) and guiding maps of the area (which make it look a little as if one could visit that park).
Again, however, there are some low apartment buildings, first some places that could be barracks – and then it is all modern village-like and cleaned out.
Some trees, but only dry soil underneath; some houses, but mainly just either construction or destruction. Old buildings going and having gone down, a few new houses being built, but mainly a lot of empty space that looks like it should be turning into desert any time.
In the midst of all that lies yet another one of Beijing’s “hidden” temples, the Miaoyun Temple.
I almost went right past it.
Sure, there was the usual boxy entrance gate with a red rounded gate in it, but the house right next to it on the left had been half torn down already, the house one further was roofless and marked for teardown, what looked like it used to be a public toilet was right up against the walls of the temple area, and the restaurant on the right of the temple entrance was probably, hopefully, not in operation; it also looked like it may soon be torn down, or perhaps it’s only the paving in front being rebuilt.
Anyways, once again, here was a temple that looked like it survived much trouble, still stood in the middle of an area that had never been built up or had been razed again, but it was closed.
A ticket booth still stood to the right of the locked gate, even the usual placard denoting this as a tourist place of interest hung on the wall, yet there was no sign of what was going on.
It sure was closed off but that was the only thing one could say for sure.
The same theme would repeat itself at many of Beijing’s temples.
Some have become tourist sites and are open as such; some are places of worship – and often, tourist sites as well; many are in even more of a limbo, having formerly been open to the public but now being restored, needing restoration but just being open – or closed.
Either way, information about any but the best-known and most-visited temples has been proving hard to come by. It’s been a fascinating issue, actually.
You have the rapidly-developing and (in many places) pretty modern capital of this rising country, with more people on public transit disappearing right into their smartphone screens than I’ve ever seen in Europe.
You have a capital city full of history and with large (if apparently, declining) numbers of tourists coming to see the old and the new.
And you have sites of historical (and potentially, continuing) importance which are hard to find in and of themselves. Getting up-to-date information on them, especially as the expectation would be that this should be easy online, proved even harder…
It made for quite an explorer-like feeling as one could never tell, even (if not especially) after online research, whether a temple would be easy or hard to find, presenting one with shut doors or public displays of piety, monks performing religious ceremonies or tourist visitors wielding selfie sticks.
My full guide to Beijing’s Buddhist Temples is in the works…