The total number of people living in Nanjing equals roughly a quarter of the population of Canada. It’s not even the biggest city in the region, that dubious honour belongs to Shanghai, yet it is noisy, busy, loud and packed with people. The students who have arrived from around the province for IELTS instruction to a person comment on the perpetual noise and the terrible air quality. They’re right on both counts.
Luckily for those of us living in the northwest corner of the city, Nanjing offers up a few places of solitude and (relative) quiet. One is Xuanwu Lake Park, another is Purple Mountain (although getting there can be an adventure) and finally Jiuhua Hill Park.
One sunny Saturday morning a few weeks back I struck out destination unknown. Too glorious a day to be cooped up playing video games (as many of my students told me they were), my initial plan to make my way downtown seemed pointless, why surround myself with concrete and steel and overprice designer goods when I crave the outdoors and the old charms of China.
Instead of shopping malls and brand names, my unmapped path took me to a hill overlooking Xuanwu Lake crowned with a Buddhist Temple. I nearly missed the street leading up to the gates, but fortune smiled upon me much like the rays of the sun warming the plants after this long winter. The curve of the road led to a massive construction site, Chinese workers dutifully hosing down dusty, broken concrete to temporarily delay the wind gusting through and kicking up more dusty to add to the tainted atmosphere of the city. With no desire to manuever through an open worksite, I hung a left and within a few steps found myself dining on fried rice and even more fried dumplings with locals, and loving the experience.
Intent to avoid backhoes and bulldozers I continued up the seemingly quiet side street, searching for a circuitous route around the area. The road ended abruptly, however it offered up the impressive gates of Jiuhua Park. Fierce golden dragons astride triple-tusked bronzed elephants beckoned and I entered willingly, only to be turned away by a meek, silent woman with a broom.
In China, never mess with broom wielding women, you will never win.
Taking the hint and making a guess, I returned to what I thought might be the ticket window, no one appeared at the desk earlier so the park must be free. Nope, just Chinese diligence… meaning lunch or a nap trumped taking my 10 Yuan fee, at least until returning, wherein the broom wielder informed the ticket taker and my quai duly joined the others and entry was granted.
After over four years, of living on n’ off in Asia, Buddhist temples aren’t exactly new fare, yet they continually find ways to delight. This humble complex providing a respite from the noise of Nanjing and spectacular views over the lake and of the mountain. (In Nanjing one lake and one mountain stand out over any competitors). The unassuming buildings and compact arrangement, wherein walking through the gift shop opened into the main living square of the place and through to a stairway leading up the hillside seemed to invite intimacy. An open gesture of welcome and compassion for those seeking it.
The Buddhas and prayer places decorated with a minimalist touch, properly appeasing their religion without any attempts at vanity or being ostentatious. A few other souls shared the site with me on this afternoon. In fact, I didn’t use the main stairway since it seemed a place for the monks of the order, I took the hobbit door off to the side for an unhurried and relaxing stroll upwards. Which lead directly to a collection of statues on the hill. Spring means that the flora erupts in fresh shoots and blossoms, helping to further obscure the city with new growth and scent the air with a natural perfume. No need to rush, the city could wait, the college could wait, whatever plans for the day could wait.
It is not a big park, not really, but tucked behind its own walls and abutting the Ming Walls of the city it offers up a simple solace so often lacking from major urban centres.
In addition to the aforementioned statues, the paths opened up a stupa atop the peak of the place, dedicated to a monk of some renown. Plus from the apex the whole of Xuanwu Lake unfolded before me, just the other side of the ancient fortifications used in defence of the city. Today, the lake swarmed with canoes and catamarans, kites and birds. Too far to hear the noise of the lakeside revellers, it was apparent how lively it gets on beautiful days.
Purple Mountain pressed higher still into the heavens to the north and east, further off yet likely just as lively with visitors both local and foreign.
The trip down the mountain looped around into the shadow of the city walls, but as I am loathe to backtrack I continued onwards and received a reward, a tunnel through the mountain with many statues of various icons of Buddhism in the darkened passageway. An exchanged “Nihao” with a monk and guest heading in the other direction, their laughter at my greeting and pronunciation highlighting how just a short walk from where I currently live, Nanjing remains mostly foreigner-free. Living and teaching English, with Nanjing University and its plethora of international students, I can forget how rare a sighting a Caucasian can be – although memories of Binhai remind of how distinctively I can stick out too.
Heading back down the path, I find the stairwell that delivers me back into the monks’ quarters and I realize I’m not finished with this place yet. It’s too peaceful, too relaxing, too much a break from the noise and the norm around the college and the university. I double back, looping up the hill once more while aging muscles burn and complain, only to be rewarded by sprawling out in the sunlight under a pagoda, a breeze blowing off the water, across from an off-duty security guard. That or he really wanted to make sure that pagoda remained in place (and offering shade). I dozed for a while, before unhurriedly continuing to explore some paths I opted not to take on the first circuit of the grounds. Discovering, in the process, some truly devout people repeatedly prostrating themselves for some spiritual reason beyond my limited theology.
For me, this park with its natural solitude and simple buildings granted me precisely what I didn’t realize I needed when I set out this morning. A beautiful, scenic spot tucked away from the hustle and clamour of the city. A place to rest my head and eyes, my mind and spirit. To slough off the unessential pressures and insecurities of continuing to find my own path and own pace in this world.
To just be.