The Pagodas Of Zhengding

Getting There: Take minibus no. 201 from the enclosure between Zhan Qian Jie and the railway station; it drops you at Zhengding bus station for ¥3. Ignore sanlunche (three-wheeler) drivers and take minibus no. 1 from the same spot to its terminus outside Longxing Si (¥1). A sanlunche will cost you ¥5. A harder-to-find alternative is a tourist service that runs every 15 minutes from near the no. 50 bus stop farther south on the road running directly in front of the station, just north of the bus station, to outside Kaiyuan Si; the fare is ¥3. It is possible to stay at the (nominally) four-star Golden Star Holiday Hotel (tel. 0311/825-8888), just north of Longxing Si, at Xingrong Lu 68.

Start: Longxing Si.

Finish: Changle Men.

Time: At least half a day.

Best Times: Weekdays between 8am and 4pm.

In once-important, long-irrelevant Zhengding, only a little exertion brings a lot of pleasure, including sights like some of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in China, a vast 27m (90-ft.) 10th-century bronze statue of Guanyin, four very different pagodas, and a fragment of city wall.

Bus no. 1 terminates at the main entrance. We recommend that you purchase an all-inclusive ticket (tao piao) for ¥60, which covers all the sights described here, except for the Linji Si, which is managed by the Religious Affairs Bureau. The ticket includes entrance to a Confucian Temple of minor interest, containing a rather gruesome exhibition on the Japanese occupation.

1. Longxing Si

Open 8am to 5:30pm (¥40), the Longxing Si dates its foundation from the Sui dynasty (581-618), and has three particularly unusual and interesting halls. The Moni Dian (Manichean Hall), built around 1052, rebuilt in 1563, and restored with tact from 1977 to 1980, is almost square in plan, with gabled porches on all four sides. Inside, five gilded figures are approached across a dark uneven floor past vast columns, some of which have a slight lean; the walls carry faint traces of early frescoes, miraculously unretouched. Through a gate beyond, a small altar building houses a two-faced, four-armed and rather delicately executed figure from 1493, hung with scarves of honor. To the right the Pavilion of Kindness contains a 7.4m (24-ft.) Maitreya carved from a single piece of wood. To the left, the two-story Zhuanlun Cang Dian (Turning Wheel Storage Hall) of the Northern Song (960-1127) seems to have three stories due to an external gallery with "waist eaves." The ground floor is dominated by a 7m-high (23-ft.) octagonal revolving bookcase, as complex in its design as a miniature temple. The climax is the Pavilion of Great Benevolence, also Northern Song, a vast hall seven bays wide containing a massive 27m (90-ft.) bronze Guanyin with a "thousand arms" whose angularity gives her a rather crustacean look. The figure was cast upon the instructions of the first Northern Song emperor in about 971. You can climb several dusty floors to look her in the eye. The rearmost Ming-era hall was brought to the site from another temple in 1959, and contains a remarkable three-layered statue of 12 figures seated on lotus thrones. One side hall contains a bizarre exhibition (¥5) that includes what is claimed to be a 2,100-year-old Han dynasty jade burial suit, reconstructed from hundreds of small jade plates and held together with cloth-covered gold wire. If it's the genuine article, it's priceless, but the presence in the exhibition of a pickled turtle, a dilapidated butterfly collection, and other bric-a-brac suggests otherwise. Continue through to Kunlu Dian (Hall of Vairocana), an exquisitely carved effigy of four bodhisattvas, dating from the late Ming.

Leaving the temple, note the rough map near the ticket office to the right. Turn right (west) from the temple and walk for 10 minutes.

2. Tianning Si

If you are here in the spring, the wutong (Chinese parasol) trees you'll see will have spectacular cascades of pink blossoms. The Lingxiao Ta (pagoda), all that remains of the temple, is clearly visible to your right. Open 8am to 5:30pm (¥10), the Song dynasty nine-story octagonal brick structure, at 41m (134 ft.), is the tallest of the town's remaining pagodas. To climb it, enter from the far (north) side. If you are lucky the attendant will hand you a flashlight, but if not, the climb to the second, third, and fourth floors is through narrow passages within the brick walls, with short periods of pitch-darkness to start with. Keep your head down. The remainder of the climb to the ninth floor is by wooden staircases in the interior. A central set of trunks bound with hoops of iron, which radiate support beams, sit on fat brackets.

From the top, looking southwest, you can see the squat, square form of your next destination.

Return to the main road and turn right. After less than 5 minutes, Lishi Wenhua Jie "Historical and Cultural Street" is on the left at a bizarre statue-cum-roundabout. Turn left. There's a supermarket with snacks on the corner, and the street has a number of modest restaurants, which are less modest than anything else in the town. Kaiyuan Si is a short distance down to the right.

3. Kaiyuan Si

Two minor buildings stand here, including a heavily renovated late-Tang bell tower, which can be climbed for a closer view of a 2.9m (9 1/2-ft.) bronze bell. Open 8am to 5pm (¥15).

The nine-story Xumi Ta will seem familiar to those who've visited Xi'an -- a tapering, brick, four-sided building, with a projecting ridge between each floor and a plainness that makes the Lingxiao Ta look fussy. There are local claims that it dates from 636, but as Xi'an's Great Goose is supposedly based on information brought back to China by the peripatetic monk Xuanzang, and its construction didn't start until 16 years later, one story is wrong (although Xuanzang is said to have been in the area). But the stately Xumi Ta certainly looks its age -- quite a few of the bricks have fallen out, providing handy niches for nesting sparrows, and it's fenced off. Around the base are eight tubby martial figures, simply carved but full of life. If you do go in, note the carvings of dragons and flowers. The interior floors are missing, and the main floor is slippery with guano, but there's an impressive view up the resulting vertical tunnel.

One area of the temple's ruined remains has been labeled STONE INSCRIPTION GARDEN and contains forlorn rows of chipped statuary and chunks of stelae probably smashed in the Cultural Revolution, along with the cracked remains of the largest bixi you'll ever see, its claws 6 inches long. Often mistakenly described as turtles, bixi are in fact a primitive kind of dragon (not only with claws, but teeth). This one was accidentally discovered in June 2000 during construction work, as illustrated by photographs in the entrance hall as you leave.

Outside, turn right. You'll see a few street vendors selling birds, flowers, plants, and fish, and almost immediately on the left the entrance to the ancestral hall of the Liang family.

4. Liangshi Zongci

This hall is a single unit five bays wide in brown wood, containing a small exhibition (pictures, family tree) of the Liang family. Open 8am to 5pm (closed at lunchtime; ¥5).

Outside, turn left. Along the length of this street are antiques and memorabilia shops (with lower prices than most because they are aimed at domestic tourists) selling everything from Buddhist bits and pieces to Mao memorabilia. Still, expect most objects to be fake, and pay only a small fraction of initial asking prices. There are also places to buy ice cream, and assorted restaurants offering jiaozi and Beijing duck. Keep looking on the left for a large sign with a picture of pagoda, and turn left there.

5. Linji Si

Open 7:30am to 5pm (¥15), this temple claims to have been founded by the Eastern Wei dynasty (534-49). Its Chengling Ta was built to house the remains of the founder of a Zen Buddhist (Chan) sect still popular in Japan, who died late in the Tang dynasty in 867. The slender, octagonal brick pagoda is in a highly ornamental style; an elongated lower floor sits on a brick plinth carved with lotus petals. Eight further tiny stories, each with decorative brick brackets and eave figures, are topped by an umbrella spire. Roughly 30m (98 ft.) high, the pagoda was restored in 2001 and cannot be climbed. A handful of monks are in residence.

Turn right out of the temple and left at the main street. The Guanghui Si is a well-signposted left turn a few minutes farther along.

6. Guanghui Si

This temple's bizarre Hua Ta, dating from around 1200, is obviously a direct descendant of Indian stupas, consisting of a central brick pavilion topped with a stone spire covered with intricate statuary of elephants, other animals, and figures -- some headless, some faceless, and some intact -- finished with a brick point on top. The central pavilion is supported by four smaller, rebuilt pavilions. A climb up two floors to a platform (again, watch your head) gives views of the earthen core of the old city wall, the fields still inside it, and a modern mosque. Open 8am to 5:30pm (¥10).

Again return to the main road and turn left. The south gate of the city wall is straight ahead; the entrance is to the right.

7. Changle Men

As is usual with city walls, the brick has been taken away to use in domestic construction -- all except for those structurally necessary to maintain the gates, unless the wall is breached elsewhere (or removed, earthworks and all). Here the gate and its tower have been rebuilt. Open 8am to 5:30pm (¥10).

To return to Zhengding, flag down the yellow bus no. 2, which returns in the direction you have walked to the long-distance bus station.

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.