“As numerous as the hairs on a cow”, Beijing’s hutongs

Before they were systematically destroyed and replaced with communal blocks, Beijing’s hutong alleyways were home to the majority of the city’s population and teemed with life. Walking around the Houhai district you can still get a sense of what Beijing must have been like before the 1960s. It is a fascinating area where modernity seems, temporarily at least, to be held at bay. In this corner of Beijing, it is almost possible to feel a centuries-old rhythm to the daily life of the communities who live here.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A woman cycles in a hutong, Beijing, China

A woman cycles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Even today the dense network of alleys and lanes constantly throw up surprises: turn a corner a group of men are animatedly playing cards, people are preparing and selling food, beautiful temples are hidden behind grey walls and there is a constant buzz of life, simultaneously familiar and alien. The grey walls of the streets are interspersed with sound, colour and beauty. There are more bicycles than cars.

Doorway in a hutong, Beijing, China

Doorway in a hutong, Beijing, China

Fruits on a window ledge in a hutong, Beijing, China

Fruits on a window ledge in a hutong, Beijing, China

A woman sits in a hutong, Beijing, China

A woman sits in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

hutong is really just a narrow street and the name dates from the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century. As Beijing grew into China’s capital so did the number of hutongs, leading one Chinese commentator to claim that they were “fine and more numerous than there were hairs on an cow”. Probably something over an overstatement but by the 20th Century there were estimated to be more than 6000 hutongs.

A temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

A temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Candles at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Candles at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Hutongs were labyrinthine places through which only those with local knowledge could navigate successfully. Wandering around reminded me of the utter confusion I felt when trying to work out which way to go in the medina in Fez, Morocco. In Fez it was necessary to hire guides, normally young children, to take help you find the way. Given the language barrier, that wasn’t going to be possible in Beijing.

Communist posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Communist posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Military recruiting posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Military recruiting posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Men play cards in a hutong, Beijing, China

Men play cards in a hutong, Beijing, China

It seemed pointless to try to follow a pre-planned route around Houhai, and being lost doesn’t have any disadvantages for someone who hasn’t got anywhere to go. I had time and, surrendering myself to the inevitable, explored the hutongs by following my nose.

‘Please cherish your health’, losing yourself in Beijing’s hutong alleyways

Old Beijing, the one before giant skyscrapers and BMWs, is rapidly vanishing from the map. There are still pockets of the tightly knit hutong alleyways that used to characterise life in Bejing, but vast swathes of these plain looking streets have been demolished to make way for progress. Mao’s communists, capturing Beijing in 1949, immediately set about reshaping and rebuilding the Imperial capital in their own inimitable style: erasing symbols of the past became official policy and Communist Party dogma.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

In 1940 there were over eight thousand temples and monuments in Beijing; by the 1960s there were around one hundred and fifty. The entire city had been transformed by the communist sledgehammer. Since the liberalisation of the economy, and official Communist Party blessing for rampant capitalism, greedy developers, in cahoots with corrupt officials, have seen to it that much of the traditional courtyard housing of the hutongs has been demolished.

From the outside, hutong alleyways look uninteresting, but they are home to beautiful courtyard houses. Walking off the street, through a doorway and down a small passage, the transformation between the public and the private couldn’t be greater. This contradiction was despised by Mao and his fellow-travellers, who saw courtyard houses as an expression of individualism and a threat to the Utopia they planned to build in China. These streets smacked of the feudal and were targeted for destruction.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A signpost in a hutong, Beijing, China

A signpost in a hutong, Beijing, China

The destruction of hutongs followed a general pattern of madness wrapped in the garb of modernisation and progress. In 1950 Mao ordered all the dogs in Beijing to be killed. This was followed by the Kill a Sparrow Campaign, itself part of the Four Pests Campaign. Blamed for eating too much grain the sparrow’s had to go, but all this achieved was an infestation of crop eating insects. One of many disastrous policies championed by Mao leading to the deaths of 45 million people in the Great Chinese Famine, 1958-62.

A courtyard house, Beijing, China

A courtyard house, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Paintings in a courtyard house, Beijing, China

Paintings in a courtyard house, Beijing, China

That there are any areas of hutong left is largely due to luck, but their tourist attraction potential means some have now been preserved. I spent a day wandering around the Houhai district of the city which is home to most of the remaining hutong. Although some have been turned into upmarket shopping streets, and others have been taken over by a new and affluent middle class, many are still traditional residential streets as they have been for centuries.

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

One of the completely unexpected aspects of the hutongs is that they are well provided for with public toilets. There appears to be a public toilet every few streets and for the slightly desperate traveller this is, quite literally, a relief. Having said that, even in my limited experience toilet quality varies dramatically. Don’t expect many Western comforts, these are squat toilets that are literally open to the rest of the world – you can happily chat to your neighbour because, if there is a partition at all, it isn’t big enough to give you privacy.

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

Beijing’s public toilets have a (well deserved) reputation for being unclean and smelly, and by smelly I mean ‘could knock over a bull elephant at 100 metres’ smelly. In recognition of this fact, and that the air inside toilets might actually be explosive or toxic, or both, the government has put up some handy warning signs. Please, please don’t smoke when in the toilet, and remember to cherish your health…

Warning sign in Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Warning sign in Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

If the threat of death doesn’t assist with a speedy ‘movement’ I don’t know what will. The government finally decided to take action and, with a slogan that echos the Kill a Sparrow Campaign 50-years earlier, introduced the Two Flies Only public toilet policy. Flies were also a target of the Four Pests Campaign; whether people respond with the same fervour as in 1958 is to be seen, but now is probably not the best time to be a fly in Beijing.

Beihai Park, proof that China invented the Flashmob

China has given the world a lot. The list of Chinese inventions is long and often surprising: gunpowder, paper, printing, the compass, fermentation and alcohol, the banknote, dominoes, fireworks, kites, matches, playing cards, restaurant menus, the stirrup, tea and the teapot, nail polish, hot air balloons, porcelain and, perhaps most critically for Western society, toilet paper. Personally, I’m extremely thankful for the 13th Century invention of the teapot.

Entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Sign at the entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Sign at the entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

An old man With caged songbirds near Beihai Park, Beijing, China

An old man With caged songbirds near Beihai Park, Beijing, China

To this list must now be added the Flashmob. I know this for sure, because I saw it happen in Beihai Park before the West had even heard of the term.

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

In my wanderings around Beijing I was constantly surprised by the outdoor activity. Not just the number of people, but by the activities themselves. Go to any public park and you will find people performing the most extraordinary array of activities. Dancing and playing music are popular, but to this you must add: choral singing, flag dancing, birds in cages, Tai Chi and a variety of martial arts with swords and sticks, backwards walking, stretching, bumping your rear-end against a tree and a thousand other weird and wonderful pastimes.

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Musicians in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Musicians in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

IMG_0232

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

These activities are often done alone, but more often in large groups. As I entered Beihai Park – which legend has it was built by Kublai Khan – I was immediately faced with several hundred people doing a series of coordinated exercises. As I walked further into the park there were dozens of groups of people participating in all sorts of activities. It was brilliant. I have never been so entertained, and the best part was that everyone was really friendly and welcoming.

An old man plays a tiny instrument in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

An old man plays a tiny instrument in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

If you want your perceptions of China and the Chinese to be completely blown away, go to Beihai Park on a weekend morning.

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Between Heaven and Earth, The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven, and the large and beautiful park in which it sits, is a truly impressive place. Constructed in 1420, it was one of the most important religious sites in Imperial China, and host to the single most important religious ceremony of the Imperial calendar – when the Emperor prayed for good harvests on the winter solstice. The Temple of Heaven was symbolic of the relationship between man and heaven, which was central to Chinese cosmology. It wasn’t just a temple though, this was a sacrificial altar.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

After three days of fasting, the Emperor came to the park accompanied by the entire Imperial Court in all its splendour. Here he would meditate and ‘converse’ with the Gods before spending the night in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. As a precaution, in case the Gods weren’t paying attention to all this ceremony, the following morning the Emperor performed a series of animal sacrifices in front of the Throne of Heaven. Amazing how often in human history blood sacrifice was seen as a guarantor of fertility.

A man knits, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

A man knits, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Ancient Chinese beliefs would have it that the Heavens are round and the Earth square, which explains why the Temple of Heaven and many other Chinese temples are round and stand on square plinths. It was in Beijing where Heaven, the realm of the Gods, and Earth, the world of men, met. Unsurprisingly, the intermediary between Heaven and Earth was the Son of Heaven, the Emperor – another theme common to those seeking to legitimise their power.

Musician, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musician, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven is a 2km walk from the Forbidden City. The route from one to the other was a grand ceremonial procession for the Imperial household; when the Emperor made his way here just before the winter solstice, commoners weren’t allowed to look upon the Imperial procession. Forced to lock themselves indoors they were instructed not to make any noise. I suspect that if the Emperor saw the mass of people swarming over the site today he wouldn’t be too thrilled: ‘silent’ is not the word that readily comes to mind when I think about my visit.

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven has to be one of the most impressive places to visit in Beijing, but it is the park and the people in it that make a visit here truly worth while. I could have spent all day wandering around observing. It was an eye-opener to be amongst this crowd of people playing music, playing cards, knitting, chatting, practising calligraphy with water and a brush and exercising in a variety of peculiar ways. This was the first, but not the last, time I saw people doing backwards walking and, what can only be termed ‘rear end bumping’ against trees.

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

On my way out of the park I heard music and shouting. A wedding party, resplendent in traditional red wedding clothes, was making its way through the park, bringing to mind the Imperial Court when they visited the Temple of Heaven. The couple posed for photos and I was encouraged to join the photo shoot. It was fascinating and very cheerful. The bride had her head covered the whole time by a red cloth, a non-seethrough bridal veil. More intriguingly she also carried an apple.

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The perfect way to end my visit to the Temple of Heaven…

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The vast and sterile Tiananmen Square

There is too much violence and extinguished hope associated with Tiananmen Square to visit it and not feel like you’re participating in the cleansing of history. The Tiananmen Square protests that broke out in 1989 – a Chinese version of the 1968 Prague Spring – happened in the year I started university. Television news, newspaper reports and photos of the vicious suppression of genuinely popular protests – and mainly of Chinese students – had a profound impact.

Walking through this vast and troubling place, the dystopian future of ‘doublethink’ and ‘doublespeak’ which George Orwell predicted in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, seemed only too real. This couldn’t be better illustrated than by the huge, monolithic Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the Great Hall of the People. A monument to a man who shares responsibility for the deaths of millions; and a gigantic building where the ‘representatives’ of the people gather, but from which the ‘people’ are barred.

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

If you want evidence that under the right conditions ‘doublethink’ can survive into the internet age, Tiananmen Square is it. Thousands of people queued to gain entry to Mao’s Mausoleum; inside they solemnly file past one of the world’s most notorious mass murderers, performing acts of reverence wholly unfitting for a man of Mao’s despotic ‘achievements’. It is both bizarre and horrific, but there are millions in China who still worship Mao.

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldiers and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldiers and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square has seen numerous protests, most of which have been crushed violently. It is something of a Chinese tradition, regardless of the type of government. In Europe we remember the Treaty of Versailles as the moment the First World War officially ended. In China it brought protesters into Tiananmen Square.

Despite providing over one hundred-thousand labourers to the Allied war effort, the Chinese were humiliated when the Treaty of Versailles granted former German concessions in China to Japan – we all know how well that ended. This was the start of a series of 20th Century popular protests in Tiananmen, culminating in the massacre of 1989.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square is a modern invention. Traditional Chinese town planning never incorporated squares where people and protestors might gather. In that sense it represented the vision of Imperial China as absolutely as it currently represents the vision of Communist China. It was once part of a great ceremonial route between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven to the south; a ceremonial gate stood where Mao’s Mausoleum now stands. The old Imperial buildings were torn down and today’s vast concrete desert appeared in their place.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, ChinaTiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

The only surviving Imperial buildings are Tiananmen (North Gate), famous for its giant picture of Mao and as the official entrance to the Forbidden City, Zhenyangmen (South Gate), which you can climb up to get a panorama over the whole square, and Qianmen gate. Seen from up here the true size of the square hits you. Down on the ground the whole area is full of people happily snapping photos of each other. Most people were clearly enjoying themselves, but for me the square was a sterile place.

Mao's mausoleum, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Mao’s mausoleum, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Zhenyangmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Zhenyangmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Qianmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Qianmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

I walked through the square en route to the far more interesting Temple of Heaven. Although it is an obligatory spot to visit on anyone’s trip to Beijing, I felt underwhelmed by the experience. The scale is intentionally inhuman and Beijing is essentially a city of humanity. Plus the square is reputed to be awash with undercover police. Time to move on…

Road into Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Road into Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Fire and smoke, scenes from Yonghe Gong Temple

There is a real mixture of the ancient and modern on show at the Yonghe Gong temple. The buildings provide the ancient, their contemporary visitors the modern. You see the same thing in the great cathedrals of Europe, but this is slightly different. In Europe people are there to take photos, at the Yonghe Gong people were their to perform devotions and rituals – and take photos, obviously. Besides, most European historical sites tend towards caution when it comes to visitors wandering around with inflammable materials.

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

There is a lot of action swirling around the temple as people go from building to building, burning incense and praying, chatting and snapping photos of each other and bits of architecture. You can spot rare moments of contemplation amidst the hubbub, moments full of meaning and, to the casual observer, otherworldly. One thing is certain, people bring an informality and joy to their observances, unceremoniously performing ceremonies that have been passed from generation to generation for well over a thousand years.

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

This juxtaposition between the old and new could not be better illustrated than by the woman I saw lighting her incense sticks while wearing a jacket with the words, “I don’t give a fuck” sewn on the back. Appropriate for a pub on the Liverpool docks maybe, but a Buddhist temple? Then again, modern clothing generally looks out of place in historic settings. Something summed up perfectly when an elegant young woman strode past me wearing bright pink Doctor Martin boots. Welcome to the modern China.

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

The Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses and a Guinness World Record

Back in Beijing after my trip to the ‘countryside‘ I decided to indulge in some more Buddhist temple action. I’d naively imagined most, if not all, Buddhist temples had been turned into pigsties during the Cultural Revolution, so my visit to the Jietai Si temple was a surprise and made me want to discover more about the relationship between China and Buddhism. It turns out that Buddhism is alive and well, not to mention enjoying a remarkable revival, albeit under the ever watchful, suspicious eye of the Government.

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

I asked the receptionist in my hotel for a recommendation, she told me to visit Yonghe Gong temple. This, it turned out, was an inspired recommendation, and not only because it was an easy journey on the metro – you can’t get lost, the metro station is also called Yonghe Gong. The name means Tibetan Lama Temple, and in the 18th Century it was home to monks from Tibet and Mongolia. It had been home to the future Emperor Yong Zheng, only becoming a monastery when he moved into the Forbidden City.

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Stepping out of the metro station I was confronted by shops selling brightly coloured temple paraphernalia – incense, candles, statues, flags – alongside a lot of tourist tat, including hats and bags decorated with images of Mao. If there was any justice the tourist tat would carry the image of former Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, whose personal intervention is reputed to have saved the temple from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

As I entered Yonghe Gong I felt personal gratitude towards Zhou Enlai, because this is a truly wonderful place, full of colour, noise and life. I was also glad that following the Civil War the building was closed to the public for 30 years, probably saving it from serious damage. My guidebook said it was touristy – meaning Chinese tourists – but this only added to the experience as people, keen to show their devotion, burned vast bundles of incense and prayed in front of statues of Buddha.

Guinness World Record, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Guinness World Record, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

The halls, pagodas and ornamental gardens are home to extraordinary sights. The Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses contains an 26m tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of white sandalwood – good enough to get it included in the Guinness Book of Records. Coming across the plaque marking this event is nothing short of bizarre.

A 400 year-old building which survived the Cultural Revolution only because the second most powerful man in China prevented its destruction, has a plaque signed by Norris McWhirter. If this needs more context, the statue was a gift to the Emperor Qianlong from the seventh Dalai Lama, it took three years to have it shipped from Tibet to Beijing. Yet someone thought it was appropriate to call in the Guinness Book of Records because the statue happens to be quite tall. I hope the Emperor liked it when it finally arrived. Really, really liked it.

Incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

In the Pavilion of Eternal Happiness are a number of carvings of Buddhas having sex, which were used as educational tools for the sons of Chinese Emperors. Apparently eternal happiness was only for boys. Who knew? Today they are covered by curtains. I suspect an over-zealous government believes it needs to protect the moral fibre of its citizens from such shocking images; although its possible they want to protect the carvings from prying eyes and cameras.

As I wandered around I couldn’t help but marvel at all the activity, and the amount of smoke being produced by the incense burning. It suddenly occurred to me that Beijing’s fabled air pollution might just be incense from this one temple. People were actually disappearing in clouds of smoke billowing out of the incense burner. The smell was overwhelming; to prevent asphyxiation I had to keep moving when the wind blew the cloud toward me.

Now you see her...Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Now you see her…Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Now you don't...Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Now you don’t…Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

The Yonghe Gong is a Geluk (Yellow Hat) School of Tibetan Buddhism, and is one of the most important Tibetan monasteries outside of Tibet. That said, this one is firmly under the control of the Chinese government who, it must be remembered, control Tibet with an iron fist. You won’t find many pictures of the current Dalai Lama around here. Whether the monks have real religious freedom is disputed, in fact there is debate over whether the monks are truly genuine.

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

In a country with a long and vicious track record of systematic abuse of minorities and religious groups, it is a dilemma whether to visit a ‘government approved’ religious centre. I’m glad I went though, it was a revealing experience, infused with an infectious fun generated by the worshipers. I doubt your average Tibetan would feel the same way though.

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Finding tranquility in the Temple of Wisdom Accumulation

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.

Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

IMG_9663

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.

Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

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.

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

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.

Ancient pine tree, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Ancient pine tree, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Prayer flags, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Prayer flags, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

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.

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

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.

Incense burner, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Incense burner, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Incense burner, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Incense burner, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

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.

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Bell, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Bell, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Buddhist statue, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

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.

“Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners”, the legend of Empress Cixi

Beijing’s Summer Palace is entwined with the legend of one of China’s most colourful characters, the Empress Dowager Cixi. A woman so much larger than life it is only when you see the scale and the grandeur of the Summer Palace that her story can be fully understood. Aged fifteen she entered the Imperial palace as a concubine of the Emperor, Xianfeng; quickly established herself as his favourite, assisted by bearing him a son; and, following his death in 1861, became regent and ruled China in the name of her son.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Seventeen Arched Bridge, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Seventeen Arched Bridge, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Buildings on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Buildings on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

History has largely been unfavourable to Empress Cixi, she is regarded as a despotic ruler who foolishly tried to rid her country of foreign interference, provoking a war with the superior military power of an eight nation alliance of European countries, the United States and Japan. Subsequently, she led her nation to a crushing defeat which, shortly after her death, saw the end of China’s Imperial dynasties and ushered in a republic. She also installed her nephew as a puppet Emperor, had him imprisoned and murdered.

Jade Bridge on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Jade Bridge on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Jade Bridge on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Jade Bridge on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Socially conservative, she was also considered extremely extravagant, emptying the Imperial coffers. While hardly unusual amongst Chinese rulers, her insistence on having 10,000 caged birds released on her birthday was just provocative. More harmful was her looting of the military budget for the Summer Palace, including building a marble boat which was paid for using money earmarked for the Chinese navy. Something she probably regretted when the European armies arrived by boat.

The Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644, taking over from the Ming Dynasty which had been in charge for the previous 300 years. Cixi’s fate was to be the last true Imperial ruler of China; her misfortune was to be China’s ruler at a time of massive social and political upheaval. People increasingly called for reform, and the influence of foreign nations annexing chunks of the country and controlling trade had a hugely destabilising effect. China was a melting pot.

Buildings on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Buildings on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Bridge on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Bridge on Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

People dancing at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

People dancing at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

European meddling in China, and the lucrative trade concessions that Europe’s most powerful nations demanded of the Chinese Imperial Court, didn’t end with the Second Opium War (1856-60). The anti-foreigner, anti-Christian sentiment grew ever more powerful in the years that followed China’s defeat and humiliation. This atmosphere gave rise to the extremely xenophobic Boxer Movement, dedicated to the destruction of foreign influence, particularly Christianity.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Paintings at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Paintings at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Roof sculpture at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Roof sculpture at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Empress Cixi let the Boxer Rebellion loose on foreigners in 1899, eventually ordering the Imperial Chinese Army to join the attack on foreign forces holding out in the Legation Quarter of Beijing. Things were going well right up until 20,000 heavily armed European, American and Japanese troops arrived and inflicted a terrible defeat on the Imperial Army, followed by the slaughter, rape and pillage of the civilian population.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Paintings at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Paintings at The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Sadly for China’s Imperial rulers, the Boxer motto of, “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners”, resulted in the destruction of Imperial China and more foreign meddling. The Summer Palace was attacked and many buildings burned, thankfully unlike the previous attack on the ‘old’ Summer Palace’ during the Opium Wars, the Chinese rebuilt and preserved this one. Something I was thankful for when wondering around its magnificent lakes, over its exquisitely constructed bridges and through its ornate palaces.

Empress Cixi died in 1908 and her dynasty ran out of steam three years later. China officially became a republic on January 1st, 1912. Ironically, had the Imperial line lasted for another eighteen months, Europe would have been in turmoil as the First World War brought utter destruction to many of China’s enemies. The long slow death of European colonial ambitions came too late for the Qing Dynasty.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

An Imperial pleasure garden, Beijing’s monumental Summer Palace

Beijing’s Summer Palace is vast. Extraordinary, tranquil and vast. Built to reflect the grandeur of China’s Imperial dynasties, even today it has the power to take your breath away. The Imperial family would retreat here to relax and entertain away from the city, you can see why. The  beautifully gardens were labelled a “masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design” by UNESCO, when they placed the Summer Palace on the World Heritage List in 1998. Even a short stroll will have you nodding in agreement.

The Summer Palace and Kunming Lake, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace and Kunming Lake, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The ‘modern’ Summer Palace, or Yiheyuan as it is known, shouldn’t be confused with the ‘old’ Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan. This palace and gardens was once known as “China’s Versailles” by Europeans, which doesn’t help explain why the British and French felt it necessary to burn the entire thing to the ground during the Second Opium War (1856-60). European imperial expansion was steamrolling its way around the globe and China’s Quing dynasty was firmly in the sights of the British and French.

Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Seventeen Arched Bridge, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Seventeen Arched Bridge, The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The First Opium War (1839-42) started when the Chinese, not unreasonably, decided to stop the British turning the entire Chinese nation into opium addicts. Chinese authorities seized 1.2 million kilos of opium from British traders, putting modern-day drug hauls into context. This act led to British retaliation. The end result was never in doubt, Chinese defeat was recognised at the Treaty of Nanking, the British gained trading concessions and control of Hong Kong. The opium started to flow once again.

Statue, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Statue, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

People dance in The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

People dance in The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Colonialism has many low points, but waging a war so you can turn millions of people into junkies must be one of the lowest. Perhaps this is what British Education Minister, Michael Gove, has in mind when he dementedly talks about British schools teaching “British values”? Mind you, he’s someone who believes colonialism only brought benefits to the colonised. Lovely man.

European’s were never satisfied and it took only a few years before the Treaty of Nanking collapsed; an Anglo-French force marched north of Beijing and utterly destroyed the ‘old’ Summer Palace. An act of cultural vandalism up there with the Sacking of Rome by the Visigoths. The destruction was overseen by the Earl of Elgin ostensibly to make the Chinese Imperial Court “see reason”. Charming man Elgin, he fathered three illegitimate children with his Chinese concubine in-between the bloodshed.

The Jade Belt bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Jade Belt bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Jade Belt bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Jade Belt bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The current Summer Palace was originally named the ‘Garden of Clear Ripples’, presumably because of the huge Kunming Lake which forms the park’s majestic centrepiece. The majority of the site dates from the 18th Century, the creation of Manchu Emperor Qianlong, and it is a wondrous place. It takes a bit of effort to reach it from the centre of town and this is not a place to try to rush.

A woman practices Chinese Ribbon Dancing, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

A woman practices Chinese Ribbon Dancing, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Summer Palace, Beijing, China

I arrived early to avoid the crowds, and found myself strolling with very few others around the lake, a walk that was constantly throwing up weird and wonderful sights. Underneath a tree by a bridge I came across several couples dancing to music played on a record payer. Elsewhere, people were dancing with ribbons, an exceptionally elegant form of exercise. On the truly beautiful Seventeen Arched Bridge people flew kites, and everywhere I went there were magnificent views over the lake towards the palace buildings on a hillside to the north.

Protect the railings, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Protect the railings, Summer Palace, Beijing, China