Catch the best of Xiangshan’s multi-hued beauty
photos by Jeff Warrington
When was the last time you picnicked in an emperor’s country estate? Seven hundred years ago, Jin dynasty emperors looking for a rustic getaway from Beijing settled on Fragrant Mountain, or Xiangshan, located in the northwest suburban areas of the city. They built imperial palaces and temples on the mountain, which for the next several centuries became an exclusive resort for royal families during summer and autumn.
It wasn’t until 1956 that regular Beijingers could also visit Fragrant Mountain, a spot that the Chinese rank alongside other local treasures such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Besides more than 180 acres of rolling hills, characterized by an array of centuries-old pine trees and maple trees, and a peak that soars half a kilometer into the sky, Xiangshan also provides hiking paths and numerous temples, pavilions and pagodas that will appeal to families looking for a day trip.
The mountain is almost entirely covered by vegetation, much of it consisting of more than a dozen varieties of maple trees. In October, when the temperature drops and the sky clears up in Beijing, maple leaves transform into splendid red, yellow and orange colors. From afar, the whole mountain resembles a watercolor painting against the deep blue sky – a good excuse to bring out your fancy cameras.
The annual Xiangshan Red Leaf Festival takes place here in mid-October, when vendors and artists from around the country gather to showcase their regional foods, arts and crafts and local performances. For a few kuai, you can purchase a set of beautiful handmade red leaf bookmarks or greeting cards. Or roll up your sleeves, search the mountains for red leaves and make personal souvenirs.
For those who want to hike up the mountain, the trail begins at the park’s east gate. The steps are solid and well maintained, with a side lane for strollers or wheelchairs. Every hundred meters or so lies a pavilion, where visitors can stop to appreciate the view while giving their feet a little rest. From here, the southern path extends to the mountain’s peak in a long and at times challenging trail. The walk passes by several landmarks, such as Green Lake (Jingcui Hu), Fragrant Hills Temple (Xiangshan Si), to the highest point of the mountain –
Fragrant Furnace Peak (Xianglu Feng). Even for fast and strong legs, the southern route requires two to three hours (one way). But the fresh air and picturesque view, accompanied by chirping birds and busy squirrels on trees, makes the trip worthwhile. The barbequed yangrou chuan’r (mutton skewers) and other local snacks waiting at the top make up for all the sweat and effort.
The northern route, however, is the easier, quicker way to get up to the peak. From the east gate, the path passes by several sights before culminating in a cable ride up to the peak. The first famous site you’ll come across is Zhao Temple, a 200-year-old structure modeled after a famous Buddhist temple in Tibet, of which now only a few walls and gates remain. At the back of the temple is a 30-meter-high Glass Pagoda, so named because of its roof tiles of green and yellow glass. Southeast of the temple, look for the Lake of Glasses, two half-moon-shaped ponds connected to each other like a pair of spectacles.
North of the Lake of Glasses sits the Temple of Azure Clouds, the most well-preserved structure on the mountain. Dating back almost seven centuries, this temple was expanded several times by emperors in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, resulting in a combination of different architectural styles. Art and culture lovers will discover an abundance of multi-colored statues of Buddhist characters and figures that tell stories from Buddhist scripture, and history buffs will relish exploring the memorial hall of Sun Yat-Sen, the 20th century revolutionary considered the father of modern China.
A ride on the cableway from the Temple of Azure Clouds to Fragrant Furnace Peak (Xianglu Feng), the top of the mountain, takes about 20 minutes. The large boulder shaped like a traditional Chinese incense holder on the peak is said to be the reason for Xiangshan’s name – xiang in Chinese means “incense” as well as “fragrant.” At the peak, take in the panoramic view before you. Treat yourself at plenty of lao Beijing snack shops and food stands. Get acquainted with the squirrels who are eager to befriend visitors.
In this “golden autumn” October (jīn qīu shí yuè, 金秋十月), head to Xiangshan for an experience once reserved only for emperors. Enjoy the fresh air, natural views, the abundant historical sites and take home some red leaf souvenirs.
Tips: Avoid weekends when the park is packed with visitors. Wear comfortable shoes for hiking and consider wearing layers or a windproof jacket, since it is quite windy at the peak.
Daily 6am-6.30pm (Sep-Nov 15); 6am-6pm (Nov 16-Mar)
Fees: RMB 10, RMB 5 for students and kids (Apr-Nov 15); RMB 5 for adults, RMB 2.5 for students and kids (Nov 16-Mar). The Temple of Azure Clouds: RMB 10. Cableway: RMB 50 on weekdays; RMB 60 on weekends and holidays, RMB 20 for kids.
Xiangshan Park, Haidian District (6259 1264)
www.xiangshanpark.com.cn (Chinese only)
By public transportation: Bus 318 from Pingguoyuan terminal on Line 1 subway to Xiangshan stop. Bus 904 from Xizhimen to Xiangshan stop.
By car: From West Third Ring Road, drive west on Zizhuqiao Bridge until you reach the West Fourth Ring Road. Follow signs for Xiangshan.