Right on the outskirts of Beijing is a hidden valley where flowers are a way of life and have been for generations. Li Jing smells the roses on Miaofeng Mountain.
The term "rose valley?conjures up a secluded ravine festooned with countless blooms exuding a lingering floral perfume. Bearing this picturesque image in mind, we headed for Rose Valley at the foot of Miaofeng Mountain in Mengtougou district. As we wound our way into the valley, terraced fields of roses appeared on the towering slopes on both sides.
"The road will be packed with cars in a few days when the roses are in full bloom," said our taxi driver. Although the unseasonal drought and cold had pushed the flowering period later than usual, it is still a soothing ride up the mountainous road, with birdsong in the background, and interesting trees and outcrops dotting the way.
After an hour's drive from Pingguoyuan metro station, we finally arrived at Jiangou county, the only village at the foot of the Miaofeng Mountain and nestled inside the valley of roses. It may be a favorite destination for flower lovers, but to the residents, the roses here are part of their daily lives. The scent of roses permeates every little detail of life here.
When we asked for water, we were promptly served a cup of rose tea - which the locals consider as common as drinking water.
Villager Wu Fenglin has managed a farmhouse hostel, Dasiheyuan or The Big Courtyard, since 2003. When the roses bloom in June, that's when his business peaks. He says reservations must be made at least two days in advance to get a room, and the same applies for the dozens of little hostels in the village.
Visitors stop for the roses, but they also come to savor the special cuisine -featuring a floral banquet - that uses rose petals.
There is rose pancake and stir-fried egg with roses. The signature dish is rose-petal fritters, where the rose petals are dipped into an egg and flour batter and then deep-fried till golden brown.
"We make this with fresh-picked rose petals taken from a flowers that have just blossomed," Wu said. When he was a little boy, Wu's mother also made rose jam by cooking the rose petals with sugar, "only for special festivals". These days, rose jam is on sale at every stall lining the valley.
I bought a few bottles at the top of the rose forest reserve at a shop run by 69-year-old florist Wang Shurui.
He assured me the jam is pure and natural and a "green" food without any additives.
"It is made according to our local tradition by brewing fresh rose petals and sugar in a ratio of 1:3. The longer it is kept, the more fragrant it becomes."
Wang also said we should come again when the purple roses are in bloom.
"The roses will be all over the mountains. It is really intoxicating."
He said the roses are big and fragrant, with intense color, thick velvety petals and high oil content.
"If you take a few in your hand, the fragrance will stay for as long as three days."
Miaofeng Mountain is known for its reputation as the "land of roses" in China, and the flowers here are recognized as "a wonder in North China."
The yearly yield amounts to tens of thousands of kilograms, and local farmers have to bring in migrant workers to harvest the roses in June.
The Sacred Golden Summit on Miaofeng Mountain is just next to the rose park, and it has a different appeal. It is popular among pilgrims who come in the thousands from all over China to worship some really ancient deities in its shrines. A century ago, the Empress Dowager Cixi was among them.
The faithful come to pray for good luck, prosperity and to the maternal goddesses who reside on the summit.
Travelers can now either follow a century-old pilgrim's trail to reach the summit or take the easy way up on a shuttle bus.
There had been no more monks at the temple since it was rebuilt in the 1980s, but the annual temple fair is among the largest in the northern part of the country, a tradition preserved since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is held on the first to 15th day of the fourth lunar month.
During the temple fairs, tea stalls sprout like spring grass along the pathways up the mountain, and at nightfall, their lamps shine like a string of fairy lights.
The main shrine at the summit houses Bixiayuanjun, also known as niangniang, or Royal Lady. She was the daughter of the god of Tai Shan and her many miracles on the sacred mountain have cemented her reputation.
Apart from the ancient rituals at the temple, some young people also go to Miaofeng Mountain for a very modern pursuit. We met 25-year-old Yang Tao, who had ridden his motorcycle from downtown Beijing with three friends. They were about to race up to the top.
"There are few people or trucks on the paved road. It is a great place for speed amid all the natural beauty."