If you’ve already taken the bumpy ride out to the hills that gird the city in the northwest to see the crimson display of autumn leaves at Fragrant Hills, take it on good advice that you’ll also want to catch a glimpse of the foliage at the Botanical Gardens.
While non-Japanese readers may wonder if a day spent tree-spottingreally constitutes a good time, rest assured that there’s enough variationin the exhibits – including superb picnic areas and a quiet temple – to make it a pleasant escape from the Beijing bustle.
The grounds, which in total cover an area of 400 hectares (making this the largest botanical exhibition in the county), are divided into various distinct gardens – each of which showcases the beauty of predominantly northern Chinese flora. This is not just a park – it’s a scientific reserve, and from every tree in the enclosure, both rare and common, hangs a detailed plaque.
It’s the specialty gardens that make for the most rewarding viewing,and all of them except the tropical conservatory are free. The conservatory(RMB 50) is a massive greenhouse with politely laid-out walkways leading through an artificial jungle of colorful orchids, broad-leaved green tropical trees, cacti and other rare plants, including a good selection of carnivorous varieties, and there’s a special display prepared every month. For something a little more delicate, wander through the peach and cherry blossom gardens (when in season), and try to remain unmoved as the breeze gently carries the thousand-fold silky petals through the air. The blossoms of each orchard shyly blush in distinctive pastel shades, making a stroll through these gardens a simple delight. The peony gardens are perhaps the most stereotypically Chinese, with large, colorful flowers prized for their decorative and medicinal properties, and referred to in China as the "king of flowers."The rose garden alone covers seven hectares and contains over 1,000 varieties of roses. Other gardens feature lilacs, conifers, maples, bamboo and pines.
Of particular interest is the penjing collection – more commonly known as bonsai, although the tradition originates from China, not Japan – which features miniature trees from around the country, including one 1,300 year-old gingko. Displays encourage visitors to learn more about the subtle and contemplative nature of the art as well as to explain how it’s done.
In the far north of the park, a long, tree-lined avenue leads to the entrance of the Shifangpujue Temple, more commonly referred to as Wofo Si, which means the Templeof the Sleeping Buddha. The name refers to the 54-ton reclining Sakyamuni Buddhacast in bronze back in the Yuan dynasty in the year 1321 AD. The temple was built to house the Buddha and the completion of the project cost 10 million guan (the currency of the age) and required the efforts of 7,000 slaves. Despite the name, the Buddha is not reclining in sleep, but dying. The clay figures around his expiring form are receiving his last instructions. Despite its age, frequent repairs have made the temple look as sparkling as the day it was completed – which may convey an inauthentic tone to enthusiasts of traditional Chinese architectural sites.
Wander up behind the temple grounds to discover some very attractive grassy areas with nice scenic views – the perfect spot for a picnic.Cao Xueqin found it just as ideal when he stayed here while working on his manuscriptfor Dream of the Red Chamber, which would become one of China’s four greatest classic works.
An exceptional complex, Beijing Botanical Gardens is worth a visit for families looking for a peaceful day amidst China’s history and nature.
Beijing Botanical Garden 植物园
Tickets sold daily 6am-7pm, closes 9pm (summer), tickets 7am-5pm, closes 7pm (winter).RMB 5. Wofosi Lu, Xiangshan, Haidian District. (6259 1283) www.beijingbg.com海淀区香山卧佛寺路北京植物园
Daily 8am-4.30pm (summer), 8.30am-4pm (winter). RMB 50. (6259 1561)
Wofo Temple 卧佛寺
Daily 8am-4pm (summer), 8.30am-4pm (winter). RMB 5.
Bus: Take bus 714 from Fuchengmen, 318 from Pingguoyuan, 331 from Xinjiekou, 360 from Dongwuyuan (the zoo) or 904 from Xizhimen.
Car: Take Xi Sihuan and get off at the Sihai Qiao exit (四海桥), head northwest and take Beiwucun Lu (北坞村路) or Minzhuang Lu (闵庄路) and follow the signs.
Approximate distance: 19km