For as long as I can remember, I have been a planner. In the years (yes, years!) leading up to leaving on this journey, I wiled away countless hours reading, researching and dreaming about all the things Tony & I would see and do when it was finally our time to burst into the world. I don’t doubt that some of my reluctance when the time came to actually transmute dreaming into doing stemmed from the fact that part of me wasn’t ready for the fun of planning to be over! I was also more than a little worried about what would happen when we left Japan, because while that leg of our trip had been hammered out in near exquisite detail, I had not really had any time to devote to planning out a real itinerary for Hong Kong.
In the end, this wound up being a blessing in disguise. By the time we left Japan, one thing we knew for certain was that as full as our days had been there, we really didn’t enjoy adhering to a strict schedule. While our initial idea had been that having everything figured out in advance would make things less stressful once we were on the road as it would free up our time to see and do things rather than research and plan, we found it actually did the opposite. A premade itinerary failed to take into account our feelings right then and there, and made us feel guilty if something didn’t go as we had anticipated. We found ourselves craving a little spontaneity and the ability to just let our whims and intuitions guide us, letting a country reveal itself to us on its own terms, rather than our preconceived notions of what would be worth doing before we had even set foot on its soil. We arrived in Hong Kong excited but pretty much clueless of things to do. Sure we had some obvious “greatest hits” we meant to see, but we also found ourselves embracing the possibility of the discovering things that heretofore been completely unknown to us.
Chi Lin Nunnery definitely falls into the latter category! When we had envisioned our trip to Hong Kong, our priorities had been pretty singularly focused on attractions of the gastronomic variety, with a healthy dose of bustling, somewhat gritty urban cityscapes thrown in for good measure. While Hong Kong certainly delivered on both those fronts, not ever in my wildest imaginings would I have presumed it to also include pockets of ethereal beauty. Were it not due to the recommendation of our friends & Hong Kong natives, Yetta & Alan, we never would have known that Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Gardens ever existed. What a huge loss it would have been if we had missed out on visiting these two places; though they were completely incongruous with our limited & trite preconceived notions of what Hong Kong would offer us, we swiftly came to view them as the twin jewels of Hong Kong’s Diamond Hill neighborhood.
Exiting from the nearby MTR station, we little suspected what lay in store for us, as despite Yetta and Alan’s claims that incomparable beauty awaited us, the surrounding environment looked (and sounded) like any other district in this city-state hybrid we had visited thus far. Yet within seconds of stepping inside the walls of Nan Lian Gardens, it was like Alice tumbling through the looking glass into an entirely new world. Safe within its hallowed walls, the discordant calmor of car horns died away, the lush greenery of the gardening damping out the sounds far better than any velevet curtain ever could.
Like all good Asian gardens, Nan Lian is impeccably manicured, not a leaf or stone out of place. The shrubs and plants were all so green, the teahouses and bridges so utterly perfect and pristine, none of it seemed quite real. Around ever curve in the various winding paths that we wandered was one stunning view after the other, so that we had the sensation that we were continuously stumbling into an ancient Chinese painting somehhow brought to life. Looking at the photos, you might think that the gorgeous natural splendor of the park might have been lessened by the towering skyscrapers that circle it like urban thorns, and yet rather than detracting from the beauty of the place, the juxtaposition only served to enhance the beauty around us and heighten just how surreal our surroundings were.
So spellbound by Nan Lian was I, that as the pale blue of the sky began to fade into increasingly darker shades of gray, I merely thought this new, slightly ominous backdrop served as a more dramatic canvas for the garden. And though I was already quite certain that this was by far the prettiest garden I had ever had the good fortune to see, when rain finally began to fall, I thought it the slick sheen it gave to the stones only made them more lovely and the golden pavilion at the garden’s center only shone all the brighter for it.
Although the garden is free to visit, when the rain became more insistent, we chose to pay a small fee to visit the small ceramic exhibit housed in one of the buildings. Though we had initially paid the entrance fee simply as a means of waiting out the weather (rain is only charming in small, gentle doses!), we wound up being completely amazed by the exhibit. Unfortunately photography was not allowed, but the gallery featured ceramic vases and flat panels and screens that had been painted by a modern master who has actually pioneered new glaze techniques which have allowed him to achieve some truly impressive pieces of art. The brushwork featured on the pieces was astounding, and it was evident to both Tony’s skilled and my unskilled eyes that each work had been rendered through pure passion. Admission to the exhibit was only $20HKD (about $3USD), which is insane! Although the collection was not huge, the quality far surpassed that small pricetag.
We wandered over to another building, this one housing multiple wooden scale replicas of various temples and buildings found in mainland China. First Takayama and it’s scale model of Nikko, now this! What is with Asian countries and their obsession with minaturizing things?!?
After exhausting all of our indoor time-waster options, we decided to sit on the ground under an awning outside the replicas building. A friendly guard then informed us that sitting on the ground is generally viewed as an act of protest in Hong Kong and so is frowned upon. He let it slide as he knew we were not making a political statement (perhaps we are just anti-replicas?) and merely wished to wait out the rain, but another guard eventually came along and caused a large fuss and shooed us away. So when in Hong Kong, don’t sit on anything that isn’t a bench!
Scurrying across the street, we left Nan Lian Garden and entered Chi Lin Nunnery. I didn’t think it would be possible for anything to compete with Nan Lian, but Chi Lin was so exquisite it was almost painful. The central courtyard features several gorgeous lotus ponds, and the architecture and landscaping of the bright hydrangeas that pepper the area is so exact that it bypasses clinical and seems almost dreamlike instead. As we trailed through the building, we entered the sacred space where visitors come to worship and make offerings to local deities, melodic and hypnotic chanting driftiting through inconspicuosly placed speakers, encouring a sense of utter calm and peace. Due to the sacred nature of the space, no photography was allowed past the courtyard, but imagine shrines featuring riotous explosions of color and gilded extravagance, and you’ll be on the right track.
To cap off our time here, we returned to Nan Lian and had a late lunch at the vegetarian restaurant that looks out onto the garden and lies beneath a waterfall. You might think that at a restaurant affiliated with a Buddhist nunnery the food might risk being simple and bland, but in keeping with all the expectations that had thus far been turned on their head that day, we wound up dining on a sumptuous feast. We began with curry puffs, which were truly like little dollops of cloud, followed by rich pieces of silky eggplant and chewy morsels of tofu skin that were slathered in a sweet & sour sauce.
But truly, the pièce de la résistance of the meal had to be the noodles in a braised mushroom & creamy truffle sauce. The earthiness of the truffles paired with the rich cream was unreal! The ultimate umami explosion, this dish was utter decadence and incredibly filling. I felt I was bursting at the seams when we finally put our chopsticks down, but I still had to refrain from licking the plate. All the more incredible, this dish only cost us $12USD! A splurge to be sure in a city with plenty of cheap food options, but when we consider the generosity of the portion and the liberal use of truffles, we’re more than confident that we would have paid three times that price back home!
Chi Lin Nunnery & Nan Lian Garden are both paragons of Asian architectural and horticultural beauty, and truly offer an island of tranquility in the surrounding sea of madness that is Hong Kong. They are places that encourage their visitors to take the time pause and reflect, and enjoy the peace and happiness that come in taking the time to gaze on and contemplate beauty, and to be still.
From first sight, I loved Hong Kong fiercely, for its energy, its metropolitan splendor, its gritty beauty. Chi Lin Nunnery & Nan Lian Garden are the complete antithesis of all that, and yet my response to them was so visceral it verged on spiritual. I am certain that of all the slices of my heart that I left in this city, the largest piece lives somewhere on their grounds. If you’re ever in Hong Kong and looking for the extraordinary, or even just a place to escape the crowds and the noise, I think you’ll find it here.