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Tanzhe Si & Jietai Si

Tanzhe Si 48km (30 miles) W of Beijing; Jietai Si 35km (22 miles) W of Beijing

Buried in the hills west of Beijing, Tanzhe Si (Temple of the Pool and Wild Mulberry) and Jietai Si (Temple of the Ordination Platform) are the tranquil kinds of Chinese temples visitors imagine before they actually come to China. These temples were unusual because they received imperial support (Qing rulers preferred Tibetan Buddhism), and both have long been popular with local pilgrims. They were also loved by early Western residents, who rented out halls inside the temples.

Essentials

Visitor Information -- Admission to Tanzhe Si (tel. 010/6086-2505) is ¥40; the ticket office is open from 8am to 5pm. Admission to Jietai Si (tel. 010/6980-6611) is ¥35; the ticket office is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5:30pm.

Getting There -- Both temples are easily accessible by taking bus no. 931 from the Pingguo Yuan metro stop to Tanzhe Si (daily 7am-5:30pm, about every 30 min.; 1-hr. trip; ¥2.50). At the far western end of Line 1 at the Pingguo Yuan metro stop, take a right and continue straight a few minutes to the bus station (be sure to take the plain red-and-beige, rather than the red-and-yellow zhi version of the bus). At Tanzhe Si, the last stop on this line, hike up the stone path at the end of the parking lot. From there, take bus no. 931 east 13km (8 miles) to Jietai Si, where you reach the site by walking uphill from the bus stop. On weekends, the tourist (you) bus no. 7 runs from the northeast corner of Qian Men (Sat-Sun 7-8:30am, every 30 min.; ¥60), but it regrettably includes a stop at the garish Shihua Caves. Round-trip by taxi costs less than ¥500, driver's fee for wait time included.

Where to Stay -- At both temples, basic but acceptable accommodations are available for those who want (or need) to spend more time in quietude.

Exploring the Area

Tanzhe Si, set in peaceful forested grounds, dates back to the Western Jin dynasty (265-316), well before Beijing was founded. In the main courtyard on the central axis is a pair of 30m (98-ft.) ginkgo trees, supposedly planted in the Tang dynasty (618-907), as well as several apricot trees, cypresses, peonies, and purple jade orchids. The complex is extensive, and is said to have provided a model for the layout of the Forbidden City. Above and to the right of the main courtyard lies a rare stupa yard (ta yuan), stone monuments built in different styles over a period of several centuries and housing the remains of eminent monks. The Guanyin Dian, at the top of the western axis, was favored by Princess Miao Yan, a daughter of Kublai Khan; she is said to have prayed so fervently here that she left footprints in one of the floor stones (now stored in a box to the left). The main object of interest to local visitors is the stone fish (shi yu) to the left and behind this hall. Rubbing the relevant part of the fish is said to cure the corresponding malady. Everyone seems to rub its stomach.

The ordination platform (jietai) at Jietai Si, China's largest, is a three-tiered structure with 113 statues of the God of Ordination placed in niches around the base; it's located in the Jie Tan Dian (Hall of the Altar of Ordination) in the far-right (northwest) corner of the temple. It looks, as novelist Ann Bridge put it, "like a very high four-poster bed." Ceremonies conducted on this platform to commemorate the ascension of a devotee to full monkhood required permission from the emperor. Often referred to as the "Beida [Peking University, nominally the best university in China] of Buddhism" for its ability to attract the most promising monastic scholars, along with temples in Quanzhou and Hangzhou, it has been the most significant site for the ordination of Buddhist monks for 900 years. Surrounding courtyards have ancient, twisted pines (as venerable as the temple itself) and fragrant peony gardens.

Cuan Di Xia

100km (62 miles) W of Beijing

Originally called Cuan Di Xia (Under the Stove), this tiny village of around 100 is an ideal 2-day trip for those with a passion for Chinese vernacular architecture or keen to experience life in rural China. Set in a narrow valley off the old trade route to Shanxi, Cuan Di Xia has the best-preserved siheyuan (courtyard houses) in the Beijing region. Opened to tourism in 1997, more than 70 dwellings are said to be here.

The impressive dwellings were designed by scholar-officials from the Ming who fled to this remote village toward the end of the dynasty. There they lived out one of the most pervasive legends in Chinese literature, that of the Peach Sanctuary (Taohua Yuan). Inhabitants live peacefully in a hidden rural Arcadia, preserving the traditions of an earlier era. Corn dangles from the eaves of the ancient dwellings, donkeys plow the fields, and the hills are alive with wildflowers.

Esstentials

Visitor Information -- The ticket office (tel. 010/6981-8988) is open 24 hours. Admission to the village costs ¥35.

Getting There -- From the Pingguo Yuan metro stop, turn right out of the southeast exit and continue for a few minutes to the bus no. 929 zhixian stop (the last sign) for the bus to Zhaitang (daily 7am-5pm, every hour; 2[b/f]1/2-hr. trip). While traveling from the city, you'll leave behind the smokestacks of Shou Gang (Capital Iron and Steel Works, Beijing's number one polluter). From Zhaitang, minivans (miandi) (¥10) travel to Cuan Di Xia. The last bus returns from Zhaitang at 4:10pm. A miandi from Pingguo Yuan costs ¥130 one-way. A taxi from Beijing costs ¥400 round-trip.

Where to Stay -- For those staying overnight, most lodgings offer basic accommodations (no shower) for ¥50 for a two-person bed, or one bed for ¥15. We recommend the friendly and freshly renovated Lao Meng Kezhan, no. 23 in the lower part of the village (tel. 010/6981-9788). Their restaurant, which adjoins the rather quiet main road, is an agreeable spot for alfresco dining.

Exploring the Area

The area is a magnet for artists, poets, and period-drama camera crews; many local tourists are mystified by the lack of karaoke bars and duck boats. One Beijinger asked in frustration, "Is there anything at all to do here?" A local, not much caring for his tone, deadpanned, "Absolutely nothing. You'd better go home."

Wander through the narrow lanes, their walls still showing faded slogans from the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, including LONG LIVE CHAIRMAN MAO, WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE, and USE MAO ZEDONG THOUGHT TO ARM YOUR MINDS. Beyond the village, the path continues to rise, passing an intriguing open-air grain mill before entering groves of peach trees. The next village, Baiyu Cun, is around 6km (3 3/4 miles) northwest. The dwellings of this larger settlement are arranged in the more plebeian pingfang (bungalow) style.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.