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Fragrant Hills or sweet smell of success at mountain triumph

By A. Thomas Pasek | China Daily | Updated: 2021-08-10 10:39

I recently had the chance to "climb" the capital's most celebrated summit-Xianglu Feng-all of 557 meters above sea level. It is the signature peak among the Fragrant Hills on the northwestern outskirts of Beijing, with the mountain's moniker aptly translated as "incense burner peak".

The Fragrant Hills are themselves within the environs of the more imposing Western Hills, which on clear days can easily be seen from any of the city's towering human-made edifices as the horizon's natural barrier to the west.

When looking into a Saturday getaway there recently, I was scanning for some quick figures regarding location, transportation and tickets, only to have my gaze fall on this datum: "Opened 1186".

It took a second or two to realize this wasn't a typo as in "Open 11:00-18:00", but was in fact the park's opening year-306 years before Columbus landed on Hispaniola thinking he'd found India.

So the Fragrant Hills are almost as old as the hills, so to speak.

As for the perfunctory data, entry tickets to the park are around 10 yuan ($1.5) and despite there being five bus routes serving the area, I would recommend taking the subway because, well, subways giggle through traffic jams. Xiangshan station is the final stop on the Western Suburb line.

OK, now that we've paid a few bills with the obligatory ads …about the park itself. As mentioned earlier, it's approaching its 1,000th birthday as a tourist site, though I suspect contactless digital payments were hard to come by in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234).

It was renamed Jingyi Palace during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and soon after that final dynasty was replaced, it became quite important for the Communist Party of China under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong as a place to consult with officials. In more contemporary terms, the capital's preeminent palisade has since been recognized as an AAAA national tourist attraction and is a member of the World Famous Mountains Association.

Other than the peak itself, don't forget to check out Jingcui Lake, Fragrant Hills Temple, Heshun Gate, Xiangwu Ku and Yuhua Villa, if time, energy and hydration levels allow.

The park complex covers some 160 hectares and boasts a diverse range of both coniferous and deciduous canopies such as natural pine, cypress, maple and persimmon trees.

Earlier I said I climbed the main peak there, but the intrepid readers among you will notice I put the word "climb" in quotation marks.

Why, you might ask? Was I quoting an alpinist who specializes in hiking terminology? Full disclosure, it wasn't a cloyingly hackneyed grammatical crutch, but rather a convention which gives me as the writer plausible deniability should anyone research my adventure there. As my knees aren't quite what they used to be, I opted for the cable car, which is well worth the price of admission-despite it literally costing several times the price of admission. So my friend and I white-knuckled our way up the mountain, looking at each cable tower for any signs of metal fatigue.

This acrophobia is purely personal, and I am sure will not detract from the sightseeing joys of the average reader out there. However, with both hands firmly grasping the gondola bar, we were in no position to derisively point to the masses meandering up the mountain on that steamy summer day. The view from the summit was spectacular, as we lucked out with clear blue skies that day, and the towers of western Beijing could be made out with the naked eye.

For white-knucklers like myself with a touch of vertigo, selfies are not practical, unless you have three hands. But not to fear! At unannounced and nondescript portions of the cable car ascent (and descent), photos are taken of you and any passengers who might be accompanying you. The photographic results are purely candid, as one never knows which poses will be offered for sale to you at the summit. I suppose it serves as incentive to be on your best behavior in the gondola.

Given my gimpy knees, I loosened my grip momentarily on the "sissy" bar and gestured wildly to the male staffers as the gondola neared the summit stop, pointing to the bar, my knees, back to the bar, and then shouting that help was needed. They must have understood my faux semaphores because two able-bodied staffers were there to whisk my away from the next gondola rapidly approaching as I arrived at the peak.





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