It’s been a while since I visited Beijing’s splendid Botanical Gardens (北京植物园), stuck out on the north western extremities of the city near Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills) Park at the foot of the Western Hills. It’s the largest botanical garden in North China, and with stunning weather being forecast for the weekend, my friend Xuefei and I decide the time is ripe for another trip out there.
With so many things to see inside the grounds, there is a range of prices one can pay, though 45 kwai gets you in to see everything, so that’s what we plump for**. A notice warning you to “Check for your change face to face” is rather lost on the ticket seller inside her kiosk, who all but throws the tickets at each of the great unwashed without making any eye contact whatsoever, as if it is their fault that she has to work that day, while everyone else is there to enjoy themselves.
The Botanical Garden has an open area of 2,000,000 square meters (about 500 acres) – about half what was originally planned in 1956, when the project was begun. But with 6,000 species of plants and flowers – amounting to over 1.5 million plants actually cultivated here – I doubt anyone is really that bothered.
There are eleven themed gardens within the overall gardens, and plenty to delight the visitors as they tramp the myriad paths. For instance, this sculpture called Zhuo Sheng (Grow Strong) was initially created by a Japanese artist called Mitsuaki Sora to mark the 30th anniversary in 2002 of the formalisation of Chinese-Japanese diplomatic relations. It was expanded in 2007 to symbolize the friendship of five continents under the Olympic flag – a bit ironic now, given the parlous state of relations between Asia’s main economic movers.
There’s also a statue of Cao Xueqin, one of China’s favourite novelists, who is probably best known for his book ‘A Dream of Red Mansions’. I have no idea why there is a sculpture of him, but no doubt someone, somewhere, thought it would be a good idea.
Further into the Botanical Gardens is Liang Qichao's Tomb, who lies with his wife Li Huixian. Liang was a Chinese scholar, philosopher, journalist and reformist of the late Qing Dynasty who inspired the masses with his reform movement. The graveyard was designed by a famous architect called Liang Sicheng; and inside, there’s a tombstone, roof and part of the altar made of Khaki granite, as well as an octagonal stone pavilion.
One thing I love about the Botanical Gardens is the ever changing face of the scenery, as you are led from one layout to another along twisting avenues. One moment you are enjoying intriguing rockeries, the next you walk by ponds and lakes, or cross over them on elegant bridges. Who can fail to be moved by it all?
And the nice thing about taking pictures of bridges is that you can do all kinds of weird and wonderful things with them in Photoshop later!
One of the most popular additions to the Gardens is the conservatory which lies smack bang in the middle of the place. The greenhouse is reputed to be the largest in Asia, and exhibits thousands of tropical and subtropical plants.
Construction started in 1998 and it was finally open to the public two years later.
It has a footprint of some 2.5 acres and is divided into 4 parts: a Tropical Rain Forest area, cacti and succulents, orchids, bromeliads & carnivorous plants and a four-seasons garden. Don’t let the tackiness of two plastic dinosaurs at the entrance put you off (even the kids seemed to avoid them!) as there is still plenty to enjoy.
We’re told that there are 3,100 varieties of plants here, and many have detailed information about their origins and flower types. Unfortunately the guys who actually made the signs were obviously not English speakers and were also not very good at copy-typing: eg “Plumeria … riginally from tropical Africa. Its flowers are pale re dto pale yellow … used for ex traction of essential 0:1, eaten as a delicacy of used medicinally.” But hey, they made the effort and for that, full marks, I say!
My favourite area of the glasshouse is the orchid room in which there are over 300 different varieties, among them a rootless one that relies on fine hairs to absorb water vapour and nutrients from the air. The purple ones, displayed in a natural environment as they might be found in a tropical forest, are simply stunning…
… as are some of the cacti in the desert area house …
But tackiness is never far beneath the surface in this place. I mean, why should anyone actually want to climb on to an Easter Island head made of polystyrene? Do the curators really think the public are more turned on by such rubbish than by their beautiful plants? How sad!
I decide to ignore the tack, and instead pose in front of some of said beautiful plants. Believe me, I’m not the only vain person here!
Outside in the fresh air again, we walk past the Penjing garden. Penjing (盆景- literally "tray scenery"), is the Chinese equivalent of Japanese bonsai, and falls into three categories: Tree Penjing (shumu) in which one or more trees and optionally other plants are shaped by the creator through trimming, pruning, and wiring; Landscape Penjing (shanshui) where a miniature landscape is made up by carefully selecting and shaping rocks, which are usually placed in a container in contact with water and in which small live plants are placed within the composition to complete the depiction; and Water and Land Penjing (shuihan) which is effectively a combination of the first two, including miniature trees and optionally miniature figures and structures to portray a landscape in detail.
The most famous one on display here is a 3.8m tall, 1300-year-old ancient ginkgo stub which gets Penjing aficionados drooling - apparently!
As in so many parts of Beijing one is never surprised to come across yet another temple; and here is no exception. The Temple of Recumbent Buddha (Wofo Temple) - also known as Shifang Pujue Temple (Shifang in Buddism means the ten directions and Pujue means universal awakening) - was built in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907AD) and is one of the oldest in Beijing.
There’s a tree-lined avenue going up to the temple complex starting from a triple archway which has four Chinese characters above it meaning “enlightenment of wisdom - consult the mystery of Buddhism”.
As always there are some “fierce” warriors guarding the main gate!
But for me the real beauty lies in the way it is all landscaped – including this amazing pond that is just stuffed full of goldfish…
… although I did like this splendid gentleman serenading the passers-by – even if there are no strings on his instrument!
And I just love this character … totally bald on top with all his hair growing out of his eyebrows!
Back in the main part of the park again, and we pass a little landmark marking the 40 degree latitude line that runs through the gardens. (It feels a bit like stepping over the zero meridian line at Greenwich in London.) I had always thought of Beijing lying at 39 degrees north, but apparently the main runway at BJ’s Capital Airport is located at 40.05895° north 116.61760° east so I guess this makes perfect sense!
It’s all so peaceful and happy here. Everyone is enjoying themselves. Maybe we are all too complacent? Around the park are notices exhorting everyone to “watch you belongs” and to call the police in emergency…
.. and sure enough the local boys-in-blue are out in force whizzing through the gardens in their electric people-movers ensuring that everybody keeps to the straight and narrow…
… while the kids are on their very best behaviour …
… not to mention some of the other visitors – such as this guy practising on his flute in a remote end of the garden, far from the maddening crowds.
As I might have mentioned, there are numerous gardens within gardens in this park. There’s an arboretum; a potted landscape garden; and loads of gardens with themes such as lilacs, Chinese roses, flowering peaches, peonies, conifers and so on. There are swathes of maples that turn a lurid red in the late autumn; or malus, prunus and other such like that are filled with blossom in the spring. Timing is everything when you come to these Gardens. But even this cotoneaster section out of season is a wonderful sight, set off as they are by weeping willows and mountainous vistas.
Perhaps my favourite end of the Botanical Gardens, though, is the north west section in which a wooded landscape complete with wooden plank paths, meandering water and cute little bridges has been created. It reminds me a little of some of the splendid walks in Yorkshire in the north of England…
… though unlike in the UK, where you are mollycoddled into a cotton wool existence, here you have to look out for your own safety. No one is going to do it for you!
The north east side of the park is also a delight. Here there’s a beautiful lake you can walk around which, in the main, is pretty empty of the crowds of visitors who prefer to stick to the main areas. Tranquil and relaxing. Aaaahhhhhhh!
Mind you, anyone with a Jesus complex is certainly put in their place…
Further along the bank is a small watch tower which was built during the reign of the 18th century Emperor Qianlong, who ordered the construction of 60 blockhouses in the region for defence. Legend has it that Qianlong found the Fragrant Hill area a place of “good geomantic omen” and there were often dragon shaped clouds around there. So in order to protect the dragon vein (ie the Imperial pulse) he ordered the construction of the bunkers to ensure the longevity of his rule. What a wise emperor!
I guess all good things must draw to a close, and eventually we find ourselves heading for the gate, where a number of people, inspired by what they have seen in the Botanical Gardens, seem tempted to wonder if they too could make their very own mini-garden back home. There is a brisk flurry of commercial activity as plants and seeds get snapped up by the punters, while we make for the gates
You’d think that with all this tramping about the Botanical Gardens, we’d be feeling pretty shattered by now. But Xuefei comes up with a suggestion… It appears that she has a friend from her home town of Xi’an who works right across the road from the south east gate of the Gardens in The Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Maybe, if I am interested, he could show us around?
Never one to miss an opportunity I urge her to make the call.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day! >>>>>
- Addendum: If instead of entering through the south, south east or west gates, you walk round to the north west gate, you can get into the Botanical Gardens for free! Just ask for the Bee Museum (which you will never find!) and they wave you through!