Great Escape: China's Zhongshan Mountain

The national park delivers stunning natural beauty that is rich in history and culture By: Christopher Batin
Zhongshan Mountain National Park // (C) 2010 Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch
Zhongshan Mountain National Park // (C) 2010 Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch

The Details

Zhongshan Mountain National Park
Zhongshan Mountain National Park is to China what Yellowstone National Park is to the U.S. Both are destinations of historical significance, huge crowds and unparalleled natural beauty. But the similarities end there.

Zhongshan Mountain, located on the outskirts of Nanjing, offers an inexpensive, safe and highly rewarding historical adventure limited only by how far and how long your clients can walk. The area is one of China’s top national resorts, so there is plenty of tourism infrastructure to support both do-it-yourselfers and guided tour participants.

Here is my advice: Book your clients on a guided tour, then have them go back and spend several days enjoying this natural wonder at a slower pace. I found it mandatory to schedule ample time for quiet walks to absorb the serenity of Zhongshan Mountain. Clients will need walking shoes, perhaps a trekking pole and a small daypack for water and food.

Although buses and shuttles are offered as transportation to various parts of this park, it is a walking park, so clients should be prepared to hike.

While Zhongshan Mountain has many faces in each of the four seasons, the most beautiful is during the Plum Blossom Festival in late February, which is when I scheduled my visit.

I began by attending the early morning festivities of the Plum Blossom Festival in downtown Nanjing, where I enjoyed watching performances by Chinese dancers in colorful garments who turned the simplest act of waving streaming banners into an art form. After lunch, I took a bus to Zhongshan Mountain, where I learned all I could about the area I was to visit for the next two days. The festival offers much to do and see during its run from mid to late February to mid-March.

The opening ceremony and afternoon entertainment at the Plum Flower Valley Plaza offered entertainment for which it is worth bringing along a folding chair. I watched famous singers, kung-fu exhibitions and dancers perform their cultural specialties and admired photography and calligraphy demonstrations and expositions from across Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and China.

The next day, I followed hundreds of people up a mountainside of emerging plum blossoms. This alone can take days to experience at this time of year, not because of the crowds, but rather because there is
so much to see. More than 35,000 plum trees, from as many as 350 different varieties, have been planted on Plum Flower Mountain and in Plum Flower Valley.

With such a profusion of color and the antiquity of China’s history interspersed across the mountainside, I opted to start exploring as many trails as time would allow.

The centerpieces of Zhongshan Mountain are Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum to the west and Linggu Temple to the east. One of my favorite trails led to Sweet Osmanthus Garden, and the bamboo groves on the way up to Linggu Pagoda and Temple are not to be missed.

Sun Yat-sen is a highly respected figure in the Chinese Revolution and politics. He led the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which significantly changed feudal China into its now current form of government. Prior to his death in 1925, Sun Yat-sen requested to be buried on Zhongshan Mountain.

I took my time climbing the 392 steps and 10 landings of the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum. The colorful birdlife easing in from the surrounding forest to the grassy and bushy area near the stairs is worth stopping to observe. It also pays to stop and observe the sheer variety of people who have come here to pay their respects. At the top, the sacrificial hall and coffin chamber contain sculptures and printed details in English of Sun Yat-sen’s life’s work.

The Ming Xiaoling Tomb is the grave of Zhu Yuanzhang, founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. While the tomb itself is of historical interest, for me the attraction was The Sacred Path. This is a walking street to the tomb, which is lined on both sides with huge stone sculptures of camels, lions, elephants, horses, unicorns and people. The path is superbly maintained and wonderfully manicured with trees and blossoming flowers.

Another path leads to 120-foot tall Linggu Pagoda, which serves as a memorial to Chinese nationalist soldiers of the 1926-1928 revolution. Be sure to take the staircase to the top, where you can get a superb view of City of Nanjing and the dense forests of Purple Mountain, as well as the colorful explosions of plum blossoms.

Nearby Linggu Temple honors Xuanzang, a monk who studied Buddhism in India. He returned to China and translated his knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Here, clients can listen to their own tour guide or eavesdrop on another English-speaking tour for a few details of Xuanzang’s journey.

The Beamless Hall is an architectural wonder, both in its own time as well as today. Built in 1381, it has no beams, nails or supports, only bricks that were carefully mortared into place in massive arches. Originally a place of Buddhist worship, it now serves as a memorial to more than 33,000 Chinese Nationalist servicemen who fought in the Northern Expedition War, their names etched into 110 stone tablets.

That evening, I took a trip downtown to Yat-sen Lakeside Park, which offers more than 750 acres of outdoor fun, including a 50-acre lake. The walking trails and quaint bridges that wind through groves of willow make this a popular location for Tai Chi exercise classes in the morning and young lovers at night. There is a section with manicured bonsai trees, a small amusement park, a health center and a restaurant.

The next day, I spent time at the Tomb of Tan Yankai, before hiking up blossomed hillsides to the Pine Wind Pavilion.

It’s worth the climb to see the Ruins of Dongling Tomb, Dinglin Villa and on up to Zixia Lake, a beautiful body of water near the top of the mountain. Attractions near the top include the Zhengqi Pavilion and Altar of the Six Dynasties. It wasn’t long before I joined hundreds of other Chinese who just sat amid the plum blossoms and took in the wonders of this memorial park. And, after three days, the emerging plum blossoms gave the mountainside a completely different look.

I spent my last day immersing myself in the garden section of the mountain, walking the trails of the Cherry Garden and the Plum Garden, checking out the various blossoms and making note of the name and species. Here’s a tip: Look for the groves of “Red of Nanjing,” “Early Jade Butterfly,” “Pink Vermilion” and “Red Beard of Nanjing.” The best places to take photos are at the top and southern slope of the Plum Blossom Hill.

As I soaked up the beauty of Plum Blossom Hill, I hiked up to Wenwu Gate and the forested section that holds the Universal Fraternity Tower, the Imperial Tablet Hall and the Sacrificial Palace. The view does not disappoint from the top of Treasure Mound on Wanzhu Hill. While heading back down, I called it quits with a stop at the Zhongshan Botanical Gardens, which offer a variety research exhibits, including a plant display for the blind.

These gardens and historical treasures on Zhongshan Mountain may not have the pizzazz of some amusement parks in the U.S. but, quite frankly, I’m glad they do not. With beauty like this, I can’t wait to plan my next trip back in the fall, when I hear the red maples and autumn colors rival the springtime blossoms.

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