It was a gift: the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour, Sydney.

To celebrate the Bicentenary of Australian European settlement, Sydney's Chinese sister city Guangdong designed and paid for the construction of a botanical garden, the largest outside of China. The architects used fifth century landscaping principles to create a sanctuary within the city.

"Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight . . . "

The Chinese Garden of Friendship is located across from the Sydney Entertainment Centre to the south of Darling Harbour, Sydney's mild-mannered tourist playground. Set against a backdrop of white sails on the blue sea, Darling Harbour is usually vivid with a gaggle of gawking visitors. The garden is encompassed by a high brick wall, looking rather like the Great Wall of China in minutiae: the wall acts as a first defence against the constant murmur of the city.

It was Midsummer Day and we needed to escape. I needed solace
and he needed a sanctuary. We fled to the garden.

A screened temple guards the entrance to the garden, to prevent bad spirits from following visitors inside. The garden is a mere $4.50 for adults, $2 for children, seniors and people with concession cards. A tiny lady in a silk dress takes your coins, still warm from the palm of your hand, and gives you a ticket. And this is how the journey begins: a sense of distance between you and the steel canyons of the city.

He said, "I can still hear other people's phones ringing in my ears and every time
the ticket machine on the bus clicks, I feel it punching into my mind." I said, "Follow me."

The garden maintains a measure of stillness. While the garden is never truly silent, many traditional feng shui principles are cleverly applied to soften the noise level: trickling waterfalls and towering willows feature heavily in the garden. The rustling of stiff bamboo creates a gentle susurration that masks the city beyond.

Tumbling over roughly-cut rocks and river-smooth pebbles along the depth
of the entire garden, a stone waterfall flows, gently, gently.

One of the garden's unique features is that it is impossible to see the whole of the garden from any point within it. In fact, the neatly-pebbled paths wind like a river of cobblestones all around the gardens, creating a sense of infinite space. With willow trees covering the city skyline, it's difficult to tell where you are in the garden or which direction you are facing. The gardens seem to exist outside of space: when you are in the gardens, you are in the gardens and nothing else.

We wound our way along a tiny path until we reached a clearing by the waterfall.

The garden is a place of spiritual respite. One may rest one's head on the shoulder of the Reclining Boy Buddha statue and listen to its bronze echo. Bamboo groves and shaded wooden seats are dotted throughout the space. A lake at the centre of the gardens curves under a little red bridge, teeming with water lillies, lotus blossoms and koi. Alongside the lake is the Dragon Wall, where two glazed dragons recline entwined: one representing New South Wales, the other the Guangdong province.

I took his hands and placed them flat against a rock on the riverbed. I wove my fingers over his.
The waterfall tumbled over us. We closed our eyes. We knelt before heaven.

Peaked pavillions with finial curves create places to rest. The Water Pavillion of Lotus Fragrance, the Twin Pavillion, Jade Pavillion Above the Cleansing Waterfall and the Pavillion of Clear View; each pavillion has historical and spiritual significance. Some pavillions bear signs asking visitors for silence; others ask visitors to talk. The idea of "meditation through communication" makes the garden less intimidating: strangers are not afraid to greet one another. While many feel hushed by awe, none feel stifled by silence. The Garden emphasises its invitation to a single moment of peace.

"By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . ."

The stone waterfall at the centre of the garden is a spiritual experience.

"Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long."

The Garden Tea House is a perfect place for a sanguine afternoon tea. The Tea House serves green and jasmine tea and sweet Chinese cakes. It's a beautiful alternative to the bustling cafes of the inner city. In a sense, the Tea House epitomises the Chinese Garden itself: it is an emotional change of pace, a place to balance one's life before venturing out into the world.

The Chinese Garden of Friendship

Corner of Pier and Harbour Streets, Sydney
Phone: (+61 2) 9281 6863 -- Fax: (+61 2) 9281 6334

Admission price:
Adults $4.50; Child, Senior & Concession $2; Free entry for wheelchair users and children under 5.

Opening hours:
9:30am - 5pm daily (6:30pm during Daylight Saving Time)

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