The faithful gather at the gates of the Lama Temple at dawn, carrying massive Tibetan incense sticks made of sandalwood to burn before the 55-foot-tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha within. Here at one of Beijing’s rare working lamaseries, tourists rub shoulders with pilgrims deep in prayer for prosperity and plum-robed monks hurrying to worship.
Once the palace of Prince Yong Zheng, the compound was converted into a temple in 1744 following the prince’s rise to the imperial throne, and amid the city’s office towers and traffic it retains a majestic energy inside its high vermilion walls. The air is thick with fragrant smoke, which the Chinese believe carries their wishes to the gods as it rises from huge bronze burners.
I sometimes come here in the mornings to watch my neighbors connect with tradition before they head to work or school. In late spring, hundreds of high school students from across the country come to pray for college acceptance; septuagenarians often meditate in the shade. A visit here is a must, as is a jaunt down the nearby road where shops sell incense, worry beads and fake money to burn as an offering.
While no trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Forbidden City, a former imperial palace, many travelers miss the stunning vista of the emperor’s private domain from the top of Coal Hill, which was shaped from the dirt excavated to form the palace moat across the boulevard. On a clear day, while standing in the Ten Thousand Springs pagoda perched on the hill’s peak, you can see the palace’s hundreds of pitched yellow roofs stretching southward all the way to Tiananmen Square.
Inhaling the sweet scent of blooming roses in Jingshan Park below, you feel like you’re at the center of the world. And in a sense you are, since the Forbidden City lies at the heart of Beijing and thus is China’s central ceremonial axis. Feng shui masters believed that Coal Hill protected the imperial court from negative energy, and indeed the surrounding park exudes a deep aura of tranquility. But be prepared for an orchestra of leisure. Amid the tai chi masters and the women dancing with fl owing ribbons are dozens of people who gather here on weekends to belt out traditional songs (some of them a bit off-key), assisted by a microphone and accompanied by accordion players. Fortunately, there are dozens of places to relax quietly, guidebook in hand.