This was perhaps my twentieth or so day spent sightseeing in Beijing. I’ve been here so many times that I’ve visited all of the major sites at least two or three times and so today’s goal was quite different – far flung districts and third level attractions – three temples and one pagoda from the 11th century. While Beijing is an old city there really isn’t much left of it that predates the extensive building that the Mongols did in the 14th century at their beginning of their Yuan Dynasty and most of that was rebuilt after the British and the French were done burning all of it down at the end of one of the Opium Wars. I have a sweet tooth for really old stuff and so I was excited about these places – off the beaten tourist path and so perhaps quiet and empty. There was an additional last place I hoped to see, a bridge that figured prominently in the travel writings of Marco Polo but its location on the far western fringe of the city and away from a convenient subway station was enough for me to take it off my list.
On my next to last night here, I sat in the Lounge and had a conversation with a colleague about the nature of Beijing. He raised an interesting point, that although this city was big, an international capital and loaded with culture, it had not yet risen to the level of “one of the world’s great cities.” That idea got me thinking about what exactly qualified a place for this exalted list. Culture, history, appeal, night life, shopping, and “presence” – all things that we would attribute to the cities each of us might consider “great.”Beijing is certainly flush with all of those. I took it a bit further, fitting it to my recent experience, namely a place that would be judged by one and all as ideal for an expatriate life. I think if you asked just about anyone knowledgeable of the world, London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Zurich, Rome and Tokyo would fit this lone criterion. Beijing I think would be categorized the way My Lovely Wife did so when I told her I had the chance to move to China, “Where on our list of places to live does China fall?” and the answer at the time (and today) was “It’s not on the list.”
So what’s wrong with Beijing? I’ve come to really love it after many visits. But its list of detriments is daunting – traffic, crowding, pollution, a restrictive government, an opaque culture and an incomprehensible language. Now most of the majors suffer from the first two and some of them from the third although the pollution in Beijing is in a class of its own. I mean, you don’t get Gobi desert sandstorms that turn the sky bright orange at midday in any desirable city that I know of. The nature of the governance doesn’t really affect most visitors so I don’t think it’s that. Rather, I think what keeps Beijing off the list of the most desirable cities are the last two items – the language and the culture simply make this an interesting place to visit but a tough place to live. A long term stay here simply grinds you down. And that jives pretty darn well with my experience at the end of these two years on this side of the Pacific.
It turns out that September must be one of the ideal months here in north central China. Mid-60’s temperature, crisp blue sky, and the hint of fall in the air. On this morning the traffic was still pretty messed up from the holiday as most people were off of work but still off visiting. I was committed on this trip to make liberal use of the subways so I left the hotel and headed north to Guomao Station choosing it instead of the closer Shuangjing Station because it meant not having to do a transfer. I walked past the restaurant where Aidan and I had seen the black bunny fattening up in a cage on the stoop on her visit in March. I went down the escalator, bought a ticket and caught the #1 line heading west. I was headed towards Fuxingmen Station on the far side of the city, it offering the shortest walk to the places I was going. While Beijing does have an extensive subway system, the distance between stations remains quite big in some locations and there is always some walking involved. But on a day like this I was not averse to a little exercise. The cars were full of people heading to Tiananmen Square for a holiday visit and as we passed those stops the crowd thinned out and I was able to sit down for a change.
Exiting the station I went south crossing one of the canals that winds through this side of town. A hundred years ago barges containing Qing Dynasty nobles would have been passing beneath these bridges carrying the elite from one spot of splendor to the other. Today nothing plied these waters but the scene was peaceful – a deep blue sky and the brown water of the canal slowing rolling along its way. I found my first stop pretty quickly – Baiyun Guan (Temple of the White Cloud) – Taoism’s major center of worship here in the capital. In Chinese, Taoist holy sites are not officially known as “temples” but rather Guan. There is no deeper meaning in the language; rather the use of unique words merely indicates the differing religious affiliations of the structures. Alternately, Buddhist temples are known as Si or Miao, the latter suggesting the presence of a monastery. The site was first built on in 739, but those structures were destroyed by fire late in the 11th century. Genghis Khan ordered a major renovation in 1224 as part of his overall rebuilding of Beijing, but what stands today dates from 1443. It was a wonderful spot but not very different than any of the dozens of other temples I’ve visited here. The guidebooks say “the incense smells sweeter” and I suppose that might be true, but perhaps at this point I’m simply a victim of temple burnout. The architecture, gardens and worshipers seem to have become pretty much interchangeable for me although I will admit that the lack of tourists made it a hair nicer. This is a functioning site full of regular people and not generally a tour bus stop. Given my goal of getting off the beaten path, this first stop was a success. I roamed the grounds watching Chinese performing their rituals in front of the popular deities that promised wealth and fortune and having had enough wandered back out into the streets.
Tianning Pagoda was next on the agenda and the path there was not particularly clear. There are a lot of major roads in Beijing that get in the way of walkers, often making it very hard to get to the other side. I could tell from the map that this was going to be one of those situations, with a Ring Road in between me and where I wanted to be. The map showed a couple of ways under it, but information like that really doesn’t mean much here – maps are little more than suggestions and the roads are laid out to serve drivers, not walkers. Walking east, I purposely overshot the place where I thought the pagoda might be, walking through some nice simple neighborhoods while looking for a right turn in order to head south. I found one that looked promising and sure enough I could see the top stories of the pagoda rising high about the freeways, looking at once marvelous, dingy and completely out of place. Next to it rose a much taller and far less interesting smoke stack, the perfect companion here in a country that doesn’t seem to be able to get anything right.
I fell in walking alongside an attractive young woman who gave me a smile mixed with friendliness and bemusement as though I was an attractive guy who stupidly far out of place. I stopped to take some photographs of Morning Glories partly because I thought that they were interesting but mostly because I wanted to get behind her thinking I’d feel far less self-conscious if she was ignoring me. She found this even more interesting, almost to the point of laughing at me. I considered making conversation but I’ve learned through many painful encounters that it’s a dangerous step to take given my limited listening comprehension skills. You speak and then they get this misguided notion that you can understand. After a block we hit the road that ran parallel and below the Ring Road and unfortunately she turned in the same direction as I did. I picked up speed, passed her and left her behind as I went looking for a way under the highway.
A couple of blocks up the road I found myself on the original street I had walked to find Baiyun Guan – apparently my sojourn in the neighborhoods had been unnecessary, I could have simply left the temple and walked straight here. I took a left and went under the Ring Road and taking another left headed towards where I thought the pagoda might be. I could no longer see it as these buildings were tall enough to block it but the smokestack still loomed so I knew I was on the right track. At the next intersection I took a right, again heading south and so hemming the pagoda within the city block to my right. As they presented themselves, I took a moment at each right turn trying to decide if these narrow streets were the correct way in. On a whim or a hunch I turned at the third opportunity and once through a busy neighborhood street market I found myself at the entrance.
I could tell immediately that this place was special. The compound was pretty much deserted aside from some construction workers busy on a renovation project and a handful of worshipers doing the same clockwise circumambulation of the shrine that once finds at the Jokhang Temple in Tibet although minus the prayer wheels and the beads. At the center of a courtyard formed by low crimson buildings with gray stone tile roofs stands a 189 ft. tall eight sided stone pagoda carved with the pantheon of Buddhism. These pagodas were built to house the scriptures and relics brought to China more than 10 centuries ago by itinerant monks who traveled the trade routes between here and India and as a result you see motifs that reflect not only the emergence of Buddhism here, but also those associated with the place of its roots. Indian Elephants carry Guanyin and Bodhisattvas across doorways guarded by the same fierce temple guardians you see in Lhasa. Persian fairies float in the air and Chinese saints stand guard above the bricked off windows. Everything stands supported by a base of overturned Lotus leaves, carved in the same gray stone and representing eternity. At the lower levels the carvings lack heads, knocked off by zealots during the Cultural Revolution but above, they’re intact, swirling above the now much changed urban landscape.
Built between 1100 and 1120 AD at the end of the Liao Dynasty, Tianning is truly a thing of beauty. Unlike the wooden pagodas throughout China that it mimics, this structure is completely solid and so was never used to house artifacts as its inspirations were. 3500 bells still hang from the tip of every eave and during a strong wind the place is said to be musical. On this day it was a bit breezy, but not enough to get the bells moving. A Buddhist nunnery stands at the back of the compound and saffron robed nuns were coming and going carrying food to some midday repast in one of the courtyard buildings. Out of respect I did three passes around the structure meditating on how I came to be at this place walking among people doing the same thing, although most of them must have been on their hundredth circuit by the time I joined in. I spent the rest of my time trying for the perfect picture, waiting for a while at one point while some Frenchman tried for the same shot. He stopped to talk and told me that he had been here once before a few years earlier but found it closed. He said he was happy it was open today and I agreed.
I have been to a few places that really pained me to leave, and this was one of them. But there remained things to do so I left and retraced my steps back towards the subway station. It was now midday and things were changing in the streets. I passed a long line of parked taxis, each with a driver stretched out and sleeping on the back seat, waiting for the lunchtime break at some factory. I walked past some sort of government gentlemen’s club (judging from the Mao over the front door). Inside a long line of beautiful young women stood shoulder to shoulder chatting, each dressed in identical yellow and pink cheongsam waiting for some functionary to arrive. It was a long walk back to the subway (isn’t it always longer heading back?) but I made good time, caught the next train and rode it to Wangfujing Station for a bite of lunch.
Wangfujing is a very fancy upscale shopping center a few blocks from the Forbidden City. There were a lot of eating opportunities but I chose Starbucks simply because it seemed the easiest. I grabbed my coffee and sandwich and sat back in a corner to do a bit of people watching. It was an interesting mix of wealthy Chinese out for a day of shopping with their kids, western tourists and what I would guess were expats. A group of ample Russians sat at the table next to me, chasing off a couple of quiet businessmen. They were there for deserts, sharing one of each on the menu. A western dad sat at a table with his son, neither speaking. He was engrossed with his Blackberry and the kid was occupied with a handheld gaming device – just a dad and his boy out for a day together, separately.
I left the mall and started walking roughly in the direction of my next destination, Dongyue Temple. Instead of walking the main streets I took a turn and wandered into Lumincang Hutong, one of the old neighborhoods that ring the former Imperial capital. These charming little ghettos used to house the people that worked in the Forbidden City and today they house regular people. Their condition got me thinking about a piece I had read the day before in the New York Times. Thomas Friedman was writing about his trip to the World Economic Summit and he was musing about the 200 mph bullet train that he was riding from Beijing to Tianjin. He said that they built it in only 9 months and he was wondering why America can’t do the same thing. I thought these hutongs said quite a bit about this. Tiled concrete blockhouse communal latrines every 10 yards and water taps at the intersection of the crooked little lanes, all within a half-mile of the center of the Chinese government made me think perhaps that the Chinese might be a tad more interested in providing impressive engineering projects for the consumption of naïve western journalists than in giving the most basic services in the literal shadow of the center of power. Built by men living in communal prefab dormitories governed by few safety regulations, things can indeed go up very fast over here. I didn’t arrive at an answer as to why westerners can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to China, but I did have a nice time taking in the sights along the shady lanes. One thing I have taken away from my time here is that so much can be gained by just spending you time among regular people doing everyday things. Eventually I literally stumbled on Zhihua Temple, one that had eluded me on a previous visit to this district. It wasn’t a surprise that I had missed it before – it was one of those places that you can only find when you’re not looking for it as it was tucked into a niche at the end of a tiny lane.
Zhihua, which means “Temple of Wisdom Attained”, was also built in 1443 by one of the powerful court eunuchs by the name of Wang Zhen. He went in and out of favor with the court, eventually he was killed along with all of his family only to be restored post mortemto prominence by a succeeding emperor. Eventually his relics were destroyed again and the temple was given over entirely to Buddhist statuary of which there were several remarkable examples. At the back of the complex, a hall held an impressive diorama depicting the meeting between a Buddhist scholar and the Khan. Instead of a fresco, this tale was told via thousands of tiny carvings of mounted Mongol warriors surrounding a large covered wagon which hosted the meeting of the two notables. Zhihua used to also have a complicated set of carved panels that were somehow spirited away by some monks during the convulsions of the 1930’s, ending up in a museum in the US. Little temples like this are often gems – relatively unknown and yet quite beautiful. Zhihua did not disappoint me.
Before leaving Dalian I had taken the time to print out some maps of the location of the Dongyue Guan and as I walked along, I pulled them out for a review. Judging from the amount of traffic and construction, things didn’t look too promising – I found the right combination of streets but most of the area was hemmed in by construction fences and skyscrapers; all new building which led me to think that either the temple was gone or currently hidden or being incorporated into some sort of retail theme park. I tried the same trick I’d used at Tianning, walking the perimeter of entire block where Dongyue was supposed to be but there was no evidence that it was there, just offices, parking garages and shopping malls. Having just had the serendipity of finding Zhihua I took this as a sign and decided it wasn’t worth the effort so I left, heading back along Chaoyang Road towards the subway station home. Two blocks up the way I looked across the street and found myself starting at the red walls of a block-wide compound – Dongyue! I had been victimized once again by the Google Maps Offset that sometimes puts addresses a quarter of a mile off in the wrong place, so worried is the Chinese Government that someone might call in a missile strike. I crossed and went in.
Dongyue Guan was built during the Yuan Dynasty between 1319 and 1322. It was rebuilt in 1447 and twice more in 1698 and 1761 during the Qing Dynasty. For most of the 20th century it was variously offices, a school or an apartment block until 1996 when it was declared a cultural treasure and returned to its intended use.
At first this one seemed to be yet another temple but this one had something I’d not seen before. Forming the outer walls were dozens of little alcoves arrayed along long porticos, each representing the pantheon of Taoist deities. These little groupings are called “departments” and they cover the full spectrum of Taoist life in the spiritual world. Rivers, Forests, Truth, Heaven, Punishment, Records, Wisdom, Lies, Theft, Life and Death – each room had ten or so life-sized painted plaster carvings of the various players on their vast cosmic stage. Fishmen, Frogmen, Demons, Sages, Buddhas and Farmers – all present and accounted for in a half circle to each side of the celestial department manager. Taoist has 76 of these departments and there was a room for each, holding nearly 1000 statues. Out of respect I usually don’t take pictures in these places but I snuck a few on this occasion when no one was around. In the most remote courtyard I found artists selling their rendition of the Jade Rabbit, that floppy eared fellow who lives in the moon making medicines for the gods. He is popular here as he is known to put an end to plagues. I fell into a conversation with one of the vendors, admiring his work and talking about the spotted animal that the Jade Rabbit was riding. I thought Appaloosa and so I picked out two to purchase. Upon closer review they turned out to have antler and so were not horses but deer but it didn’t matter, they were a nice trinket in spite of being the wrong mount. Dongyue also had a fine collection of stone stele, perhaps 1000 in total. The columns, recording the most mundane of life’s details – births, deaths, tax collections, visits by dignitaries and holy men – are a common feature at cultural sites across China. In this case they were arrayed in little squares beneath towering pines and offered a nice opportunity for a reflective walk.
I spent my last night in this fair city the same way I’d spent it a hundred times before – sitting in the lounge, eating snacks and working on a glass of wine. A planned dinner with a friend fell through when his plane was late so instead of heading back out I spent my time perfecting a photograph of a clear full moon rising against an indigo sky, above construction cranes across the street. The moment was one of those golden ones where just about everything seems to come into harmony. Never mind that the next day was another day of challenging travel, or that the upcoming weeks meant fitting back into my regular life and transitioning my career to its next phase. For this night, the view was beautiful, the light soft, the Lounge hostesses happy to admire photos and things just felt right – perhaps the best possible way to end my full time life on this side of the world.