Lama Temple (Yonghegong) is by far the most pleasant temple in Beijing – beautiful gardens, stunning frescoes and tapestries, incredible carpentry. Get to this one before you are "templed out" – it won't chew up your day.
The Beijing Lama Temple is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple within China outside Tibet itself. Located toward Andingmen, it became after extensive renovation the official residence of Count Yin Zhen. Nothing unusual in that – but in 1723 he was promoted to Emperor, and moved to the Forbidden City. His name was changed to Yong Zheng, and his former residence became Yonghe Palace (the Palace of Harmony). The green tiles were changed to yellow, the imperial color, and – as was the custom – the place could not be used except as a temple. In 1744 it was converted into a lamasery, and became a residence of monks from Mongolia and Tibet, large numbers of them.
In 1792, Qianlong having quelled an uprising in Tibet instituted a system whereby the government issued two gold vases. One was kept at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa for determining the reincarnation of the Dalai Lam (under the supervision of the Minister for Tibetan Affairs), and the other was kept at Yonghegong for the lottery for the Mongolian Grand Living Buddha. The Lama Temple thus assumed a new importance in minority control.
The lamasery has three richly-worked archways, and five main halls strung in a line down the middle, each taller than the preceding one, Styles are mixed – Mongolian, Tibetan and Han, with courtyard guardians; the first hall, Lokapala, houses a statue facing the back door is Weituo, guardian of Buddhism, made of white sandalwood. Beyond, in the courtyard, is a pond with a bronze mandala depicting Xumi Mountain, the Buddhist paradise.
The next hall, Yonghedian, has three figures of Buddha (past, present, future); the third hall, Yongyoudian has statues of the Buddha of Longevity, and the Buddha of Medicine (to the left). The courtyard following has galleries with some Nandikesvaras – joyful Buddhas tangled up in multi-armed close encounters. There are coyly draped lest you be corrupted by the sight, and are to be found in other esoteric locations.
Of interest to visitors in the Lama Temple are the 18-metre-high Maitreya statue engraved from a 26-metre-long white sandalwood log, "the Five hundred Arhats Hill" made of gold, silver, copper, iron and tin, and the niche carved out of nanmu (this kind of Phoebe nanmu can give off a unusual scent reputed to repel mosquitoes in summer). These three objects are accredited as the three matchless masterpieces in the Lama Temple.
The Lama Temple is open 9 am to 5 pm. You can get there by suburban train or bus line 13, 62, 116, and 807.