Fragrant Hills Park (Xiāngshān Gōngyuán, 香山公园) is located some 20 km (12 mi) northwest of Beijing, not far from the Summer Palace. Though the name could easily refer to the area's relatively fresh air (for Beijing) and the scent of trees and flowers, it instead comes from the shape of the hills themselves. If you look closely, squint a bit and crank up your imagination, you might just make out the shape of a Chinese incense burner at the summit of the hills.
If this image eludes you, you may be glad to know the park also goes by the name "Garden of Congenial Tranquility," which better gets at the essence of this green refuge from the dusty grays of Beijing. That being said, it's less than tranquil on warm weekend days when congenial crowds flock to the park. Names aside, for great views (atmosphere permitting), take a chairlift or hike up Incense Burner Peak (Xiānglú Fēng, 香炉峰). On a clear day, you'll see the Summer Palace with the mass of modern Beijing beyond it to the east, and a less cluttered forested landscape to the north, south and west.
The best time to hit the park is mid-autumn when the skies tend to be at their clearest and the park's maples turn red, orange and gold; do like the Beijingers do and pick up an auspicious red maple leaf for a dose of good luck and happiness.
As for history, the area was long a favorite country retreat for the imperial court. The lay of the land made it a natural area for temple building. The first temple went up during the Jin Dynasty in 1186 AD. By 1745 in the midst of the Qing Dynasty, 28 temples dotted the wooded hills. Sadly, the imperial gardens and many temples were destroyed by fire in 1860 (Second Opium War) and again in 1900 (Boxer Rebellion). Today, only some of the buildings have been restored, with the Yuan-era Azure Clouds Temple (Bìyún Sì, 碧云寺) being one of the better restored and most impressive.
In more recent times, Mao Zedong took up residence in the park's Double Purity Villa (Shuāngqīng Biéshù, 双清别墅) which is currently open to the public. History aside, the park's real draw is its natural beauty and the great views. From Ghost Fear Peak on a fine day, one can see the Yongding River, Luding Bridge, Prospect Hills, Summer Palace, Yuquan Hill and the expanding outskirts of the city. All in all, a great day trip.
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