Beijing is a disturbingly busy city, full of people, movement and noise. You can find quiet places, you can even find yourself alone on occasion, although that generally requires you to get up pretty early. For peace and tranquility, not to mention a hearty measure of atmosphere, you need to jump in a taxi and head 35km West of the city to a wooded hillside where the wonderful and serene Jietai Si Temple can be found.
I hailed a taxi on the street and, with a mixture of written names and garbled Chinese, managed to negotiate a return journey to the Jietai Si. At least I hoped I had, it is very difficult to tell in China. The journey itself was ‘fascinating’, we drove out of the city past seemingly endless blocks of nondescript apartment blocks until, crossing the fifth or sixth of Beijing’s notorious ring roads, we were suddenly driving through a heavily industrialised zone of belching factories and what appeared to be a nuclear power plant.
By this time there was hardly any other traffic on the roads, and I only occasionally glimpsed a person. It was around-about now that I found myself wondering if I had, in fact, been kidnapped but due to language problems no one had bothered to tell me. I needn’t have worried, we started to climb up into the hills outside Beijing and soon found ourselves in a car park next the temple. I double-checked with the taxi driver that he would wait for me, a lot of hand gestures later I headed into the temple none the wiser.
Known as the Temple of Wisdom Accumulation when it was built during the Tang Dynasty in 622, this Buddhist temple complex was renamed The Longevity Temple under the Ming Dynasty – which makes sense if you’re a new dynasty just starting out. It finally became known as Jietai Si, or Ordination Terrace Temple, because this is where Buddhist monks were ordained. It is famous for its ancient pine trees: Nine-Dragon Pine, Reclining-Dragon Pine, Embracing-Pagoda Pine, Unrestrained Pine and Sensitive Pine.
I’d like to say I ‘met’ them all, but all the signage was in Chinese and there was no one around to ‘ask’ in my now traditional mime.
These ancient pines are gnarled and full of mystery, they are revered and have dozens of bright red prayer flags tied to them. They provide an atmospheric backdrop to the sprawling temple complex, which is build with high red walls. The Jietai Si is equally famous for being home to 113 Buddha sculptures, including a couple which are truly extraordinary. One of the Buddhas is craved out of a giant piece of wood and sits calmly at the back of the temple complex wrapped in bright saffron robes. It is a dramatic sight.
Wandering through halls, pagodas and courtyards I only came across a couple of other people. It was remarkably relaxing, I could see why Buddhist monks might choose to found their monastery here. I could have spent hours of calm contemplation, but nagging at the back of my mind was the thought that my taxi driver might get bored and leave. It was starting to get dark, there was no one else around and I really didn’t want to have to sleep under one of those ‘atmospheric’ pines which at night would take on all the menace of The Blair Witch Project.
Of course the driver was patiently waiting for me, and we agreed in an intricate mime that the temple complex was really beautiful. We set off on the epic trek back to the centre of Beijing in silence, allowing me to marvel at the brutish and dehumanising architecture which seemed to be home to many millions of people. It was dark by the time we got back to my hotel and, as I payed, the driver suddenly spoke to me in English.
I’d just spent four hours in his company, during which we’d had several pained ‘conversations’ in a mixture of my terrible Chinese and mime. It turns out he’d been hiding his light under a bushel. Thanks to the Olympics he’d taken English language courses…I was too amazed to ask why he’d not tried his English out on me earlier. This encounter confirmed for me that you should never take Beijing, or its people, for granted.