ONLY 10 years after China's disastrous Cultural Revolution came to an end, the possibilities for foreign tourists in the capital have catapulted from the sublime to the superfluous. It is now possible to ride a roller coaster at a Japanese-built amusement park north of Peking, see the Great Wall from a helicopter owned and operated by the Chinese Air Force, and go bowling at a 10-lane, American-equipped sports center in the Holiday Inn's Lido Hotel. A golf course is scheduled to open soon in the once-sacred valley where 13 Ming Dynasty emperors are buried.
If these latest additions to Peking life hint that China is becoming ``modern,'' if not mundane, they should in no way lead the traveler to think that the mystery is gone. Far from it.
More than ever, visitors can immerse themselves in China's complex past. The layers of history are so thick and the chain of events so complex that they defy efforts of the most energetic visitors to peel away the mysteries. Even for travelers indifferent to the past, shadows of history can delight the eye and stir the imagination. Temple of Tanzhe Si
Peking's largest Buddhist temple, the Temple of Tanzhe Si (``tan-je-se''), nestled in the mountains an hour's drive west of Tian An Men Square, is one of the most pleasant spots in the municipality. It is far from the crowds of regular tourists who flock to the ``must sees'' -- the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and the Summer Palace.
During the Cultural Revolution, almost everything within reach of the antireligious Red Guards was destroyed. Restoration has been under way since 1978, and now all the main buildings have been restored and the statuary replaced. Although now a relic of the past, the temple is one of Peking's best-maintained historical sites.
The temple's name refers to both the pool and the mulberry trees that can be found inside its grounds.
Here a visitor can walk the paths and lean against the same trees that brought pleasure to the likes of Emperors Kublai Khan (1216?-94), Qian Long (1711-95), and the Empress Dowager (1835-1908), as well as countless other distinguished guests over the past thousand years.
There is a traditional saying: ``First there was the Tanzhe Si, then came Peking.'' This indicates not only the age of this religious haven, but also the long history of Buddhist influence in North China that predates the capital itself. The first Buddhist temple was built on this auspicious mountainside during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420), soon after Buddhist communities were first established in China; successive generations have added pagodas and pavilions up to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
The temple is nestled -- or more accurately, chiseled -- into the Western Mountains, and its buildings blend beautifully into the natural setting. The clear mountain air is a delight to city residents. Imperial officials came here for a summer retreat, though it has none of the ostentation of the Qing Emperors' summer palaces or the grandiose buildings erected especially for imperial use.
Visitors enter the inner courtyards after walking past centuries-old knotty pines and crossing a marble bridge, which, according to tradition, was open only to those who had taken the Buddhist vow not to eat meat. The buildings are laid out in the traditional pattern for Chinese Buddhist temples, with a series of pavilions, courtyards, and side halls arranged on a north-south axis.
From the highest point on the central axis at the Vairochana Pavilion, there are restful views of the gray-tiled buildings and courtyards below. Vistas of the surrounding hills are enlivened by silhouettes of mythological animal figures, which inhabit the roofs of the buildings below.
Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and host to Marco Polo during his 13th-century travels, was said to have sought refuge here to soothe his conscience after causing the deaths of so many enemies. There is a legend that his daughter lived here as a Buddhist nun to seek penance for him.
The modest quarters of Emperor Qianlong, which were restored last year, are tucked away behind a grove of bamboo. The Emperor's retreat is near the Floating Cups Pavilion, where spring water once ran through a shallow channel cut in the shape of a dragon on the floor. It was believed that drinking from a cup that had floated through the pattern would avert disaster.
During the summer, visitors can spend the night here and eat in a dining hall (once a residence for retired monks), which serves excellent food. New site open on the Great Wall
For travelers who are ready to do their own legwork, a newly restored section of the Great Wall offers visitors an unspoiled and more scenic setting than the well-worn site at Badaling.
The Great Wall at Mu Tian Yu is two hours' ride directly north of Peking near the Miyun Reservoir. After driving along a newly built roadway and arriving at a way station with restaurants and souvenir shops, the visitor faces a 45-minute walk up some 1,000 steps to the wall itself.
The nearly one mile stretch of the wall that has been restored dips and winds over more rugged terrain than at Badaling. From its watchtowers and other vantage points, China's one-time strategic defense system appears more awesome than ever.
The strenuous climb offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. If you persevere to the end, local entrepreneurs may greet you at the top with Chinese soda pop and ice cream, which they have hauled up themselves for scarcely an added cent.
The restoration work at Mu Tian Yu began in 1983 and cost some $6 million. The site had its formal opening in April, and local officials promise that a cable car will be completed sometime this year to carry tourists to the top.