On a January night, full of smog, we wander through darkened alleyways, somewhere north of the Forbidden City. It is cold and the air is noxious, so not many people are out. The PM 2.5 scale is over 500, some of the highest readings in history, but it gives the old city a sense of mystery. Visibility cuts off within perhaps 50 meters and streetlights and signs glow eerily.
In our walk we pass down empty alleyways. We catch glimpses of people in restaurant windows or hear noises from the insides of lane houses. My friend has an idea of where we are going, but its rough, adding to the sense of anticipation in our destination.
Suddenly an ancient building emerges from the thick fog. . . the outlines of a temple roof. It appears as if it has come from some distant ancient time, appearing like a ghost in the modern city. There is a doorway to the compound and a large man, dressed in an old fashioned suit stands guard. He ushers us into the courtyard.
This is the Temple Hotel and Restaurant. . . a Buddhist temple whose history goes back to the Ming Dynasty. It was originally a temple for Buddhist scribes, then home to a 'Living Buddha' during the Qing. Later it was a bike and television factory during the Communist period. Now it has been restored into a luxury boutique hotel, one of the trendiest restaurants in the city, and an art gallery.
This restoration is different from other similar projects. There is none of the faux restoration, trying to make it look too perfect but just making it seem fake and new, that permeates so many other historical sites. This one is artfully done, but at the same time letting the age and history through, keeping the different layers of history that exist in this site as part of the whole spectacle. Visitors can walk through some of the halls and look in the art gallery, before spending the night or eating in the restaurant.
This is one of my favorite places in Beijing. . . partially because of the magical night when I first saw it. For others that was a night of dirt and smog, of Beijing's horrible weather, but within that, for me, something wonderful and magical emerged . . .
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