Oasis in the Heart of Hong Kong

By Patti Shales Lefkos


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Nestled in the heart of one of the world's busiest cities is the immaculate, traditional Nan Lian Gardens. Photos: Barry Hodgins

Even if you can’t stand the heat, there’s no need to get out of the city. A peaceful haven awaits in the midst of an often chaotic metropolis.

So, this is the eye of the storm. Revelling in the sliver of silence, my soul is cocooned by lacy waterfalls, erosion sculpted limestone, dwarfed pine and creamy floating lotus, all amid highly polished wooden-carved pavilions and zigzag sandstone cobbled walkways.

Listed by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten “must-sees” in Hong Kong, the Chi Lin Nunnery dates from the 1930s but was rebuilt in the style of the Tang Dynasty in 1998. The design, involving intricately interlocking sections of shiny lacquered wood joined without a single nail, is meant to reflect the harmony of humans with nature.

My husband and I had intended our stopover in Hong Kong as a brief interlude of jet lag recovery on the way to a trekking adventure in Nepal.

But the humidity of the surrounding city caused rivulets of sweat to dribble down our backs under our T-shirts, descend the legs of our quick dry pants and form soggy pools in our supposedly breathable hiking socks.

“That’s it for me,” my husband said, as he dropped his pack and flopped across the cool hotel bed sheets and the end of day one. “Forget the tourist stuff.”

Not ready to capitulate, I frantically flipped through the guidebook for a suitable solution.

“OK, I’ll give it one more try,” my husband said after breakfast the next morning. “But, yesterday was like an all-day steam shower. There’d better be some shady spots.”

We found them. After a short rapid-transit ride, we pass through the elaborate Mountain Gate, into a paradise of cool serenity.

“Listen to this. Harmony of humans and nature,” my husband reads aloud from the guidebook. “Pretty convincing, until you look up at the looming neighbourhood.”

Located in Diamond Hill, the heart of Kowloon, the nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden are dwarfed by high-rise apartment blocks and cement skyscrapers hovering against the granite sky. Hammer Hill Road on the east, Lung Cheung Road on the south, Hollywood Plaza shopping mall on the west and an MTR station near the main gate.

“So, let’s not look up,” I say.

The Chinese classical style garden, almost the size of San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park, shields the nunnery from the outside world. Constructed by the Chi Lin Nunnery in cooperation with the Hong Kong government, the garden and temples have provided a daily place of respite for the public, free of charge, since 2006. The four major elements of a traditional garden, hillocks and rocks, water features, timber structures and ornamental trees, are designed to create a peaceful escape from the city life outside its walls.

As birds exchange morning messages, their songs mingle with the gurgle and roar of falling water to overwhelm the nearby traffic noise. We inhale the rosemary-like scent of pine and sweet aroma of the banyan groves. A refreshing mist follows us on the one-way route past fountains and waterfalls, reflecting ponds of pink and vanilla lotus blossoms and the central water feature ablaze with milky white and tangerine giant koi. Broad straw hats protect the bowed heads of countless workers tending to the myriad green-shaded grasses of the meticulously manicured gardens.

“I’ve never seen so many bonsai trees in my life,” I say.

Now completely charmed by the elegant yet restful surroundings, we slip behind the Silver Strand waterfall and enter the Chin Lin Vegetarian Restaurant.

We chose our lunch, an exquisite sampler of beetroot salad, mushroom, tofu and tea, despite some obvious confusion over the menu written completely in Chinese characters. Noticing our dilemma, a middle-aged woman, on a Sunday outing with her elderly mother, at the next table comes to the rescue. “Please try. You are welcome,” she is offering in halting English to share from the variety of dishes spread before them.

“We have too much,” says her smiling companion, passing a plate of delicacies in our direction.

Later, we enter the nunnery complex through Sam Mun, a series of three gates representing the Buddhist precepts of compassion, wisdom and skill. The Lotus Pond Garden gives way to the Hall of Celestial Kings. A statue of Sakyamuni Buddha, on whose teaching Buddhism was founded, presides over the serene dimly lit main hall.

By 4 p.m., relaxed and refreshed, we catch the airport shuttle for the evening flight to Kathmandu. A day in an oasis filled with moments of natural wonder and rejuvenating stillness has fortified us for the adventure ahead.

For IF YOU GO information, visit www.seniorlivingmag.com/articles/nan-lian-gardens

When not trekking in the Himalaya Patti Shales Lefkos loves living in the woods of Silver Star Mountain near Vernon, British Columbia, Canada where she skis, snowshoes, hikes and combats writer’s block by gazing out her office window at the antics of the Stellar Jays and squirrels eating her prayer flags.

IF YOU GO:
Located in Diamond Hill, Kowloon. Take exit C2 of the Diamond Hill MTR station. A five-minute walk through the Hollywood Plaza shopping centre, then turn east on to Fung Tak Rd.

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