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Illumination at Fahai Temple

Beijing is dotted heavily with Buddhist temples, keys to the capital's rich history which are reasonably successful at staving off the wrecking balls of progress. The Lama Temple may be the celebrity of the bunch, attracting lineups of tour buses, but countless others have escaped that focus, holding onto some tranquility in the process.

Out in the western stretches of Beijing, Fahai temple nestles itself into the foot of Cuiwei Mountain. This Ming Dynasty temple is a comfortable and well-preserved complex which has just one feature to set it apart from the rest: its frescoes.

And Fahai's frescoes are stunning. The Beijing Administration of Cultural Protection took its job of protecting them seriously. Over 200 square metres of frescoes are now closed up in the Mahavira Hall, cloaked in solid blackness to ward off light and pollutants.

Luckily, the 100 yuan entrance fee provides viewers with a guide (who only speaks Chinese) and the use of a powerful LED flashlight, which can be carefully swept over the 500 year old frescoes. There's a mystical feeling of experiencing history this way, an almost eerie feeling of being somewhere you're not quite supposed to be. 

Necessarily viewing the room with your own personal spotlight also has the effect of limiting one's focus to a small area, enabling viewers to delve into the expressions of the Boddhisattvas' faces and intricate patterns of their clothes, replete with gold appliqué detailing.

 

The frescoes are extensive, showcasing 77 figures, each one portrayed with immaculate attention to detail. Gods, nobles, animals and monsters weave tightly amongst each other in a world that was carefully orchestrated by 15 of China's best Ming dynasty artists.

At the back of the hall is a 1.6 metre tall fresco of the goddess Guanyin, the impressive central figure of a trio of Buddhas. She serenely floats in a perfect halo of light, draped with ornate jewelry, the singular focus of the animals and boddhisattvas who gaze upon her from the circumference.Three large Budddhas occupy the centre of the room, but they don't carry the gravity of the surrounding frescoes, which is unsurprising considering that they were just brought in around 1995. The original sculptures of the eunuch responsible for creating the temple and accompanying Buddhas were sadly destroyedduring the Cultural Revolution. There's no denying that the half-century-old frescoes are impressively preserved, but for those who want a clearer picture of their original magnificence (or who are afraid of the dark), there are replicas in the Apothecary temple, where viewers can more easily piece together pieces of the puzzle. Admittedly, the replicas may give you a better understanding of what's happening, but… the magic's not there.

The temple itself is quite pleasant, with thousand-year-old white bark pine trees and quiet garden grounds. Viewers have to keep looking behind the halls to discover more staircases, halls, and impressive views.

Fahai Temple is outside of the city centre, but it's not too hard to find. Everyone in the bustling market nearby will point you in the right direction. It's worth the trek out to gaze upon the well-preserved craft methods of the top imperial painters and their cronies.

Temple entry including the protected frescoes: 100 yuan (50 yuan without frescoes)

Directions: From Pingguoyuan subway station, take bus 331or 336 to Shou Gang Xiao Qu, and walk through 200m through the street market.