Fragrant Hills Park 香山公园

Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s coverage of Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond

The parkland here, an imperial playground since 1168 during the Jīn dynasty, was also renovated by the Yuán, Míng, and Qīng, and in 1745 the Qiánlóng emperor made further improvements. More than 20km from Běijīng, the modern park covers 160 hectares. The highest peak on the hilly site is 557m and is supposed to look like an incense-burner. A chair lift to the top costs ¥50 each way or ¥60 on public holidays. Sights within the park, and the curious Temple of the Azure Clouds, just outside it, are ticketed separately.

There are officially 28 scenic spots, among them multiple pools, pavilions, temples, villas, and ancient trees, many of only modest interest. Several ancient buildings in the park were damaged by British and French troops in 1860, and again by the Eight Allied Powers in 1900, it’s claimed. In 1949 Máo Zédōng stayed here while commanding the battle of crossing the Yangtze River (长江, Cháng Jiāng), which clinched victory over the Nationalist forces. Needless to say, the building where he stayed is maintained as a shrine.

The tree-shaded paths have a welcoming coolness in the summer, and there are park benches near puttering sprinklers. But early November is the best time to visit as the trees turn red and yellow, and 14 November is officially the best day for viewing the autumn foliage. Stalls sell deep red laminated maple leaves.

Trees and shrubs are neatly and bilingually labelled, and there are various small restaurants and guesthouses dotted about the park. The ticket office sells a useful map to the key sights, listed below, for ¥10.

Temple of the Azure Clouds 碧云寺

Bìyún Sì, t 6259 2154, 8.30am–3.30pm. ¥10.

We are thinking of making a move to the hills next Monday; we have almost decided on a temple called Pi Yün Ssǔ, abut 12½ miles from this. I shall be very glad to go, for the town is becoming abominably stuffy and hot, and the dust is something beyond belief. We shall probably stay six weeks or two months, coming into Peking on mail days.

Algernon B. Freeman-Mitford, The Attaché at Peking, London, 1900 (written 1865)

Residents of Běijīng in the 19th and 20th centuries, including caricature, monocle-wearing, Old Etonian diplomat Algernon Freeman-Mitford, treated rural temples as country cottages — he decamped here for several weeks in the summer of 1865. After your ticket is torn at the park’s main gate, turn right following signs for the chairlift, and beyond that, through a gate, turn left to find the entrance to the temple — less than 10 minutes’ walk. Or skirt the park anti-clockwise to reach the same point without entering. This and the other sights are signposted.

This temple is pleasantly different in several ways, being a succession of halls ever higher up the hillside connected by flights of steps passing through a number of glazed tile and marble páilou, and gate buildings with plain, red-painted brick exteriors and calligraphy boards in Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchu, and Chinese. The climb through bamboo-filled courtyards ends at the large stone pagoda-topped cube of the Diamond Throne, a more substantial version of that at the Five Pagoda Temple behind the Zoo, and, like it, supposedly a copy of a temple at Bodhgaya in India. Chinese guides like to say that the temple is ‘conspicuously Chinese’, a remark of such obvious redundancy if true that it alerts you to expect the opposite even before you arrive.

In the Mountain Gate Hall lively Hēng and Hā statues lean forward in a particularly threatening way with bulging eyes and weapons in raised fists. Further up, beyond the drum and bell towers, the Míng dynasty Maitreya Buddha Hall has a particularly podgy and substantial Maitreya. Further up still are two octagonal carved stupas with dragons writhing up their corners and halls with a collection of lively statuary. Unexpectedly in these surroundings, this is followed by the Memorial Hall for Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), whose body was stored in the pagoda until 1929, when it was taken with great pomp to the railway station at Qián Mén and put on a train to Nánjīng for burial there. But his hat and clothes remain sealed up in the pagoda. This is odd, given that Sun was supposedly a Methodist. The hall contains a statue, a grotesquely baroque glass-topped sarcophagus that was a gift from the Soviet Union, photographs, and small displays about his life in English and Chinese that farcically claim his dying words were: ‘Peace…struggle…to save China.’

To the left of the main axis as you climb is the Luóhàn Hall containing an astonishing 500 near-lifesize Qīng dynasty painted clay statues of luóhàn, seven gods, and a small figure carved into a roof beam. English signs explain who key figures are, such as a character called the ‘mad monk’, who looks like a stand-up comedian caught mid-patter, and the fierce temple guardian Skanda (韦驮, Wéituó). Most of the remainder look more serene, some are confettied with small banknotes left by devotees, and one has a cat sitting at his feet. This single hall would be worth the entrance fee in its own right.

Behind, up yet more stairs, is a very fine stone three-arch páilou carved in direct imitation of wood and tile right down to the detailed bracketing, dragons, and eave-top animals. Through here stands the Diamond Throne Pagoda of 1748, erected by the Qiánlóng emperor. Climb the stone base to enter the main body, which is covered with animal and human figures on the outside. It’s a short climb through the interior to the roof, where there are several stupas with 13 sets of miniature eaves, topped with metal umbrellas and with finely carved surfaces. There are views across hills dotted with pagodas and pylons.

Jiànxīn Zhāi 见心斋

¥10 including a packet of fish food.

Return to the park and turn right after crossing Spectacles Lake, easily recognisable as two circular pools. The Pavilion of Introspection was built during the reign of the Míng Jiājìng emperor (1522–66) and enlarged in 1796. An irregularly shaped corridor encloses a pool of thick greenness in which the vague soft orange shapes of Nautilus-class goldfish move murkily. Your efforts with the fish food will cause a piscine riot and turn the pool golden-red. The passage climbs to the upper floor of the pavilion and gives access to odd exhibitions, including a stone-carved star chart, portraits of emperors, and butterflies.

Zhāo Miào 昭庙

Free.

The remains of this temple lie beyond the Jiànxīn Zhāi, beginning with a spectacular three-arched yellow-topped páilou with Tibetan influences. Indeed the temple itself, initially impressive, is modelled after Tashilumpo in Tibet and was built to house the 6th Panchen Lama on his way to visit the Qiánlóng emperor in 1780. It was severely damaged in 1860 and 1900, and the rest of the ruining has been done by the Chinese, as there are ugly modern additions to the top of the remaining building, and the blank-windowed mock-Tibetan buildings behind are in a desperate state of repair.

Xiāng Shān Gōngyuán, outside NW Fifth Ring road, 1.4km W of the Botanical Garden main gate, about 11.5km beyond the Summer Palace, gps 39º59’23”N, 116)11’25”E, t 6259 1264, www.xiangshanpark.com.cn, 6am–6pm 1 Apr–30 Jun & 1 Sep–15 Nov; 6am–6.30pm 1 Jul–31 Aug; 6am–5.30pm remainder. ¥ 10 (¥5 winter). m Fragrant Hills (Western Suburban Line, 2017). b to 香山公园东门: 563 (from m Xī Zhī Mén, the Zoo, Summer Palace North Gate, Botanical Garden); 563区间 (from Botanical Gardens).

Leaving the main entrance, instead of taking steps down to right to where buses are parked, go straight on along Mǎimài Jiē (买卖街) past souvenir shops, many selling nuts and dried fruit from local orchards in season. There are assorted small restaurants, including a branch of Sculpting in Time café with Western-ish meals and decent coffee, 11am–10pm. Beyond that turn left at the T-junction and follow the main road round to the right as it becomes Yī Kē Sōng Lù (一棵松路). To the left at the next junction there’s a branch of the Manchu Restaurant Nà Jiā Xiǎo Guǎn (那家小馆).

Just back from here the 香山 stop has b 331 to the Botanical Garden, ‘Old’ Summer Palace, and Summer Palace; b 360 to the Zoo and m Xī Zhī Mén; and more.

Next in Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond: Bā Dà Chù
Previously: Císhàn Sì
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.