We feel that everything is changing ever faster, and that maybe it’s better that way, too – but there are also many things that seem hardly changed and all the more interesting for it.
The Buddhist temples in Beijing do all that and more.
One of the great fascinations of photography is the insight into other places and other people’s lives that it gives.
Even in times of seemingly pervasive Photoshop-ing (and even given the long history of photographic fakery), there is a power to the photojournalistic image.
See: Dead Syrian refugee boy on Turkey beach.
But also, if you know of it: “How the Other Half Lives.”
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.
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…
It was one of those typical Beijing winter days when a harsh sun glowers onto a steely haze that makes the line of houses at some distance look like a paper cut’s monochromatic scene. Cold and wind chill to the bone, but at least it’s not one of those days when sun and skylines are completely hidden in a miasma that cannot but be bad for one’s health.
Being in the last weeks of my work-migratory sojourn alone in Beijing, neither bad air nor a bit of a cold could keep me from going out to explore more of Beijing’s (Buddhist) temples, as I had decided on doing a little writing project on those.
This day led me into the area around Houhai, one of the lakes north of the Forbidden City.
From another lunch at Zhang Mama (very good and very affordable Sichuan food)…
…past the just-then soft-opening Rager Pies store/café…
…west along the little hutong road towards the lake, past children just out of school for the day (or for lunch? an afternoon recess?)…
…my feet led me into the neighborhood around the Bell and Drum Towers.
I had been there before, hunting after the sites – and sights – where Western visitors had taken pictures in a Beijing that was only just emerging from the decline of the last Chinese empire. Only the rebuilding that was happening in a square just north of the Bell Tower and the plethora of shops (incongruously, including one with high-scale men’s wear most ‘Westerners’ wouldn’t even recognize) had caught my eye then.
This time around, it was the open gate to the tower that drew my attention.
Turns out one can actually visit them… but of course, in the Bell Tower, as you go in and wonder what sort of place this inside area is, you are shouted back out and around to the ticket check and stairs on the other side. In the tower is one of those tea house/clubs in historic buildings that have recently come under fire for the corruption and highballing lifestyle they may well be representing.
The view, unsurprisingly on a day like this, was not the best, but interesting enough in its monochrome and the village-like character of most of the area that could be seen.
The bell is big enough to be impressive, but what struck a nerve in me was the legend of the bell they were explaining on a poster in the (northern) area the furthest from where one comes up the steep stairs.
That legend tells of the maiden who sacrificed her life in order for the bell to be successfully cast – but the version described here pales in comparison to the one I had read a while ago, just as I was wooing my then-girlfriend and wondering how things would go, as she had only just broken the news of her relationship with a foreigner to her parents.
The legend’s full version has not only the girl’s father, but also her fiancée, trying to advance in the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy by promising the emperor the biggest bell ever, failing to the point where they are threatened with losing their heads (literally, of course), and being saved at the last minute by the virgin daughter who follows the dream in which she was told that it took a pure virgin’s blood to successfully bind the mixture of metals right into the melting pot.
Respect for your elders all well and good, but when it comes to rather Macchiavellian men having to be saved by a daughter and fiancée, I have to admit I’d rather go with a either feminist or Hollywood version…
The adjacent Drum Tower holds a few more of the, basically same, views, and explanations of the agricultural calendar and time-keeping methods of old. Before I ever managed to get up there, however, a group of young women apparently on a little (cosmetics) company trip accosted me with the wish to take photos with me.
It still happens in China, at times – and if you find my face somewhere, seemingly advertising some sort of facial cream or something like that, this is how it happened.
Of course, at least now that they’ve been re-made, the Drum Tower also holds the drums it’s named for. (There is but one original, and the explanation text that accompanies it does not fail to point out the holes in the leather which were made by bayonets wielded by the foreign Allied Forces…)
Why people would be sitting around in a place like the Drum Tower and sinking into their smartphone screens, I found myself wondering.
It was a good question, for “What are they waiting for? (Are they waiting for anything?)” led right to the sign which mentioned that the next drum performance would be taking place a few minutes later. Just the time it would have taken me to get back out and miss the whole thing, had I not wondered.
There it was:
The interesting encounters, just had by walking around and keeping eyes open to experiences, did not end there.
On the way on to the temple I wanted to get to, there was some movie filming going on.
At the temple, a monk at the left side entrance told me that visitors weren’t allowed in back… and when I looked in at the right side entrance, another monk invited me to come in and have a look around. With two Chinese who also just wanted to have a look around, it became a tad more touristy:
After the visit to the temple, as I came out to Houhai Lake, I broke out in laughter to the point where the security guards standing on the road there looked at me strangely – but, it broke the ice and got us to a short chat – and them to understand: The contrast was just too great. The lake where I had last seen people go for a swim was now an ice-skating rink…
… and, as it turned out, it was still a place where the Houhai swimmers went for a swim. Right next to the ice-skaters.
As things sometimes go, later on along the lake, I would also say “Hi” to another Westerner who turned out to be a flight attendant and would also be at the ISPO. Small world.
One of the practices of at-home-making I have discovered for myself is the simple practice of moving through the places I find myself in and want to more deeply immerse myself in.
It doesn’t have to be running, it can also just be running around, walking and being a flaneur, but it often does take the form of run-seeing through cities, along places both famous and far away from the touristically much-visited.
Running just too nicely combines the physical, oriented inside the body, and the psychological-exploratory, oriented towards the outside, the place in the world and the attention paid to the world.
My place in the world, for the last few months, has been as something of an international migrant worker who, like so many Chinese migrant workers and others looking for a chance to get ahead, headed for the Chinese capital, Beijing.
This city, though, can seem to have some rules of its own, in many a regard – and especially when it comes to something as seemingly simple as heading outdoors for a run.
Running as a regular practice has been described as a great start into willpower training: you go out according to your training plan, you build the grit and conscientiousness that will help you in other areas of life as well.
All well and good, but not in a city like Beijing where the very air seems out to deliver a slow death of a thousand breaths.
The problematic situation with air pollution is well known, and a look at the AQI (air quality index) becomes as routine a part of everyday life, if you care about your health in the least, as a morning’s step on the scale is in many a life.
It’s simple: AQI below 100, which isn’t great but as good as it gets? Go running.
AQI between 100 and 150? Get your face mask and go for a slow run, if you feel that you must.
AQI above 150? Try and stay indoors with an air filter running.
Someone with the slightest experience with China will know that actually, there are traffic rules in China, they are just different – and followed in very “different” ways again, in practice.
When in doubt, cars have the right of way, for example. Always. Cars may come from many an unexpected direction, and people on two or three wheels from even more unexpected ones.
So, keep your eyes open when you need to cross roads, be they small or large, with traffic lights or without. Prefer under- or overpasses, they are good for getting in a bit of “hill training” in otherwise flat Beijing, too.
Listening to podcasts while running outdoors? Maybe not so good.
The value of city parks becomes all the more apparent in a city where so much space is reserved for vehicular traffic and so much pollution is all around. Even on good days, most outdoors running that is not in parks will be close by roads, and the (still leaded) gasoline makes for not the best of air even when the air quality is not as bad as usual. Even in the parks, there will still be quite enough smokers to make for some breaths you’d really wish you hadn’t taken.
Parks, still, even with throngs of people, some of them smokers, make for much nicer places to run than almost anywhere else, given trees and meandering paths – and also, perhaps, the manifold sights and sounds of people practicing taijiquan, dancing together, singing and making music, and so much more.
China seems a pretty closed and mono-ethnic society, in some respects. A foreigner is still a pretty noteworthy sight, be that where there are too many who are too easy to rid of more money than Chinese or where there are so few that they are worth a comment.
Especially in the parks, however, everybody dresses the way they do, does what they do – and even if running is still less popular than more traditional pastimes and practices (though I wonder what’s the history of the public dancing in parks), it is becoming more popular and one can see all kinds of clothes employed in its practice.
So, you’ll get looks for your foreign face, and you may get looks for your running clothes, but most anyone can potentially draw a crowd, anyways. So, never mind that.
Sure, there are days when it’s considerably healthier to stay indoors and keep an air filter running than to go out at all. Beijing is not a good place for, well, for even just existing, as long as that includes having to take breaths.
If you don’t believe me, check out my video from the Beijing Marathon, “the most depressing running video ever,” as a friend of mine called it.
The lack of movement that can come with that, however, makes it all the more important to go out and exercise whenever the air quality is good enough.
Now that my time here is drawing to a close, I must admit to failure when it comes to the plan of seeking out and presenting Beijing trails for running (though I did find some, but with them rather farther out, I usually just walked and did not record them). Yet, having sat around only too much with all the days that made the outdoors unappealing, the (few) days that included runs outdoors were all the more precious.