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Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden, Hong Kong, China

9th of November 2014

All hail The Tent of Absolute Mediocrity. Beautiful gardens, fancy bowls, nuns and waterwheels. But definitely no bawling, brawling or frolicking.

  • Location: Ha Yuen Leng, Hong Kong, China
  • Start or End: Start and end at Diamond Hill Train Station.
  • Length: 1.5km (0.9mi)
  • Grade: Easy. All paved and very few stairs.

After enjoying the greenery of Kowloon Park I think I might spoil myself with even more garden pleasure. Time to venture to the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden complex located at Diamond Hill in north-east Kowloon. The Lonely Planet Guide I purchased before my trip informs me that the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden are together one of the top sights in Kowloon. A picture in the guide of a golden pavilion set amongst a manicured garden with towering skyscrapers in the distance looks stunning. And it's FREE! Time for me to test Lonely Planet's recommendation.

The Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden form a complex separated by Fung Tak Road and joined by probably the most spectacular pedestrian overpass I have ever seen. The Chi Lin Nunnery dates back to 1934 (but renovated in the 1990's) while Nan Lian Garden, which lies south of the Nunnery, is a more recent addition (opened in November 2006).

The nunnery and the garden are a short walk from the Diamond Hill subway station (exit C2) and the short route is well sign posted. I can't believe how easy and quick it was to get from Kowloon Park to Diamond Hill. The subway system in Hong Kong is awesome, very busy, but still awesome.

A Garden or a Nunnery first? The garden excites me the most and I am a little scared on nuns, so my first port of call is to the Nan Lian Garden. I am greeted by the stunning Black Lintel Gate, the main western entrance to the Garden, with its fine wood carving and lotus sculptures.

I also grab a pamphlet which outlines the garden and provides a map with a suggested route. Here are some quick facts about the Nan Lian Garden that I found in the pamphlet and on the website:

  • The garden has a total area of 35,000 square meters, that is, 3.5 hectare.
  • The garden design is based on the Jiangshouju Garden of the Tang Dynasty in Shanxi Province, China.
  • Nan Lian Garden (南蓮園池), when translated is "Lotus in the South Garden Pond". It is called "Lotus in the South" due Hong Kong's location in the south of China, "Garden" because it is a garden and "Pond" as the focal point of the design are ponds. Please correct me if I am wrong.
  • Many of the rocks in the garden originate from the Hongshui River, that is, hundreds of kilometres away in a north-west direction.
  • There are more than sixty different species of plants in the garden.

The pamphlet also outlines the rules that visitors are requested to abide by. For example, while in the garden there is to be "No bawling or brawling" and "No frolicking or running". Awwwh, I so wanted to frolic about the garden, get in a fight and then cry about it. Unfortunately my plans have been ruined by the hard-line measures of the gardens management. I think the gardens management may want to hire someone else in the future to translate their pamphlets from Chinese to English.

I follow the suggested route to the Chinese Timber Architecture Gallery which, as the name suggests, houses scale models of Tang, Liao and Jin Dynasty structures. The models are very impressive. I hate to know how long it took to build each one. And the patience required would be extraordinary. Unfortunately, not photography was allow so I cannot share the models with you. But I can share a snapshot of the outside.

From the Chinese Timber Architecture Gallery I walk south to the shade of Banyan Grove. I think it's a good idea to have a quick rest, rehydrate and apply some sunscreen before I go walking too far in the sun. And what a tranquil spot for a rest it is.

Under the shade of the Banyan I rest. The twisted trunks of the Banyan memorize me. The twisting, gnarled features are an allegory of the complex intertwine of nature and soul. The bright speckled light from above a message from God. My mind leaves my shell body and ascends ... Wahhhhhhh!!!! A nearby baby bawls and disturbs my transcendence. Did the baby not read the Nan Lian Garden pamphlet? Did the parents not inform the baby of the strict no bawling conditions? Definitely no bawling it states! Now I understand why they have that rule. The inconsiderate bawling really ruined my meditation. I almost reached enlightenment! Luckily the pamphlet states a no brawling rule as I would have kicked that family’s arse.

Time for me to walk (definitely not frolic) to the next place of interest, the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection. Sounds good. Sounds absolutely perfect. The Pavilion of Absolute Perfection is one of the main reasons I ventured out here. The picture of a golden pavilion set within a serene pond displayed in the Lonely Planet guide really got me excited. And here it is ...

All hail the unconditional, absolutely absolute, without a doubt, perfectly perfect perfection of the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection. Cower at the absolute perfection mere mortal! My eyes, my soul, my being, my future and my past are orgasmically infused into a kaleidoscopic heavenly form by the absolute perfection of the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection ... wait a second ... something's not right ... that's just some ugly f#@king tent! It looks like a bamboo scaffold with cheap white plastic on it. Absolute perfection my arse! This garden really needs to raise its standards if this is its idea of absolute perfection. What is going on? Construction? Maintenance? Whatever the reason, the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection obviously wasn't absolutely perfect and needed some work. Right now it is The Tent of Absolute Mediocrity. What a disappointment. I can't blame the Garden though, features do sometimes need to be shut down and fixed. Oh well, guess I will just have to enjoy the picture in the Lonely Planet book or on the Nan Lian Garden website.

Holding back tears of disappointment and trying not to bawl, I continue walking in an easterly direction towards Xiang Hai Xuan, a multi-purpose exhibition venue. On the way my spirits are uplifted by an amazing area of the garden filled with ornamental Bougainvillea.

Today's exhibit in the Xiang Hai Xuan is the "Exhibition of Chinese Enamel Wares and Japanese Cloisonné Enamels". In layman's terms, really fancy bowls and vases. I'm not really into wares, but if the quality of the gardens around me is any indication (ignoring the state of the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection) the wares inside are bound to be good. Entry was HK$20, but I didn't mind paying as the rest of the garden was free. With my HK$20 I received about 20 minutes of entertainment and a brochure, unfortunately all in Chinese. Fortunately, there were English information boards with each exhibit. The artwork was extremely ornate and very intricate. These are definitely not the sort of bowls for a serving ramen or curry.

My favourite display wasn't an actual piece of art, but a demonstration of the steps required to create a piece. For each stage a real example of an unfinished work was displayed. There are many steps and it looks like lot of work! I definitely wouldn't have the patience. I would love to show you some of the exhibits but photography wasn't allow. However, I did find this video on YouTube if you are interested. How come this guy was allowed to take images? Doesn't matter, I couldn't have done the artwork as much justice. I was allowed to take pictures of the garden within the courtyard of Xiang Hai Xuan though.

Next on the list of things to see in Nan Lian Garden is the Blue Pond, which can be accessed via the Lunar Reflection Terrace. From the terrace there are good views of the pond, the adjoining Song Cha Xie Teahouse and the Pavilion Bridge.

The pamphlet describes the Blue Pond as "a larger water feature in the east in which colourful koi carps are frolicking". Frolicking? So the carp are allowed to frolic are they? What about the no frolicking rule clearly stated in the pamphlet? How come the koi carps can frolic but I can't? Bigotry!

The views from the Lunar Reflection Pond are glorious. But I can't spend all day gazing at frolicking koi carp so I continue along the path to the eastern most section of the garden where I find The Mill and a small crowd. The crowd are waiting for the Long Men Lou, Chi Lin Vegetarian Restaurant to open. Looks popular. I am feeling a bit peckish, however my attention turns to the waterwheel of The Mill instead. It's time to try something new with my camera. I'm going to set it to Manual Mode (the scary setting) and see if I can capture the movement of the waterwheel in a still photograph. I increased the exposure time and this is what I captured.

See the movement of the waterwheel? Think I might have caught too much movement though. The waterwheels movement is actually very gentle. Here it looks like the wheel is about to spin off its axle and hurtle into the crowd of hungry tourists loitering around Long Men Lou.

My attention turns back to my rumbling stomach. Do I join the crowd waiting for Chi Lin Vegetarian? Or try some tea at the Song Cha Xie Teahouse? I'm not interested in tea or crowds, so instead I venture over to the Tang Gallery Snack Shop. The food was simple, delicious and cheap. I'm not sure what it was, but it was vegetarian. I just pointed at some food that they were dishing up and ate that. I'm not a fussy eater (remember I did eat frog legs at the start of my Hong Kong adventure).

With my stomach full my time in Nan Lian Garden is almost over. It is time to check out The Rockery before I head over to the Chi Lin Nunnery. As expected The Rockery is full of rocks, but not just any rocks, special shiny rocks that are kept inside. How the hell they got this one inside I will never know.

The 260 million year old sedimentary rocks in The Rockery were excavated from the Red River, Dahua County in Guangxi Province, China. If big shiny rocks is your thing, The Rockery is for you. Rocks are ok, but I think my time in Nan Lian Garden is up. Time to explore Chi Lin Nunnery.

The Lonely Planet Guide is right. Nan Lian Garden is definitely worth a visit. The gardens are absolutely stunning and absolutely free (unless there is an exhibition), but not absolutely perfect. Despite the disappointment of a bamboo and plastic tent covering the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection I really enjoyed my time wandering the gardens. I spent an hour and a half, but you could easily take more time by relaxing in quiet little corners such as the Thatched Pavilion (located near the exit to Chi Lin Nunnery).

Chi Lin Nunnery is accessed from Nan Lian Garden by a pedestrian overpass of Fung Tak Road. And what a pedestrian overpass! Definitely the most spectacular overpass I have ever walked.

At the front gate of the Chi Lin Nunnery is a sign (yay in English!) explaining "Shan Men", the entrance to a monastery (so is this a monastery or a nunnery? I don't know the difference). Shan Men literally means Mountain Gate "as most monasteries are situated in the mountains, far from the crowd". I like the sound of that, no crowds would be brilliant. I'm not sure how well "far from the crowd" describes Chi Lin Nunnery though, there are main roads and towering skyscrapers all around the place. Also, where is the mountain? Maybe I am taking this too literally.

Anyway, the sign at the front gate also stipulates that Shan Men is also called San Men, or three gates, referring to "faith, understanding and practice, the three important methods to gain liberation". Supposedly "when one enters the monastery, it is hoped that one can attain spiritual liberation". I am very welcome to spiritual liberation, but I am a little apprehensive about Nuns (for some reason I find them a little scary). What will I find when I walk in?

I find the Hall of Celestial Kings overlooking the Lotus Pond Garden and very few people. No Nuns. The surrounds are brilliant, the lotus ponds, the Tang style architecture, the perfectly pruned trees, but my favourite feature is the giant lantern smack-bang in the middle of the garden.

Within the Hall of Celestial Kings is a large seated Buddha statue surrounded by four deities which represent the four cardinal points (i.e. north, south, east and west). No photography is allowed, but I can provide a close up of the Hall of Celestial Kings.

Beyond the Hall of Celestial Kings is another courtyard and then the massive Main Hall. The Main Hall is so huge and so wide that it is impossible to get the whole building into frame when directly in front. I don’t have a wide angle lens, so the only way to get the entire building in shot was to shoot from an angle. And even then I just fit it in.

The centre piece of the Main Hall is a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha with Bodhisattva Manjusre and Bodhisattva Samantabhandra on either side. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed so I cannot share. You will just have to visit yourself, which I recommend.

Lonely Planet was right, the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden are definitely worth a visit. I thought the entire complex was so impressive I even left a donation in the box at the front of the Main Hall in the Nunnery. Not sure if that is the purpose of the donation box or not? From the actions of others it appears that you provide a monetary offering and then perform some sort of prayer which includes bowing. I’m not a religious man and I thought it would be rude to ask what they are doing. Any Buddhist out there who can enlighten me?

All this praying, nunnery and spiritual liberation has got me into a religious mood. Think I might check out another religious building I have read about, the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. That's a really long name, but fortunately it's only a short distance away. A five minute walk and then one subway stop. Now that's convenience.

Gallery

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