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An amazing week in Tibet. A wonderful trip to the Everest Base Camp

This is a travel blog about our visit to Tibet during the Chinese National Holidays 2019. Highlight of the trip was a visit to the North Everest Base Camp.

It was the National holidays time again and I was restless to make the best use of it. The inquiries started couple of months earlier. I was keen in going to a newer place, preferably Tibet, Yunnan or Xinjiang. I kept checking with FCN, CET and few other travel groups, but nothing was coming through. We finished our India trip in September. Kavya, our daughter also came to Beijing with us for a short vacation. I started pursuing again and the FCN boss Liang Chen responded that though they don’t have a trip to any of these places, he can help us with another company. He asked Evelyn to help us and Evelyn created a WeChat group with another person Xiaotuo. It was decided that we will have a Tibet tour.

Before I start my travelogue, for those who may be unfamiliar, let us have at an introduction to Tibet.

Tibet (西藏, xī zàng) autonomous region (TAR) is one of the western provinces of the People’s Republic of China. Due to its high altitude, it is also called the ‘Roof of the World’ and the ‘Third Pole of the Earth’. It has the world’s highest peak, the splendid Mount Everest (Qomolangma, 8848m), and the Tibetan Plateau, where the Yangtze River and Yellow River both begin. Tibet also boasts of the mysterious Mount Kailash (Gangdise Mountains, Meru Parvat, 6718m), a famous pilgrimage of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains which is the birthplace of for major rivers: Yarlung Tsanpo (Brahmaputra), Mapcha Tsangpo (Karnali/Ganges/Ganga), Langchen Tsangpo (Sutlej) and Senge Tsangpo (Indus/Sindhu). Mount Kailash is considered as the holy abode of Lord Shiva and is currently thought to be unconquered. It advised not to climb the mountain, since that would be sacrilege and cause misfortune. Mount Kailash’s rare shape has led to the theories that perhaps the mountain is a manmade pyramid.

Though TAR is the second largest province in China, its population is not dense. In an estimated 6 million Tibetans, only around 3.18 million live in Tibet. The history of Tibet is about 4,000 years old, when Buddhism and Zhang cultures met. The major religion of Tibet is Tibetan Buddhism, and around 80 percent of the Tibetans within the TAR are Buddhists. About 12% of the population of Tibet follow the ancient Bon religion. In history, there have been conflicts between the two religions, but Buddhism has grown stronger. Tibetan Buddhists have unique practices like pilgrimage prostration and different burial practices. To learn more about the six major burial practices, please see my earlier blog: https://china-diary.com/2018/05/16/journey-to-qinghai-and-gansu-visiting-very-beautiful-qinghai-lake-and-colorful-danxia/

People use both Tibetan language and Mandarin.  Most Buddhist texts are in Tibetan Language, the script of which is more like Devanagari. The creation of the Tibetan alphabet is generally credited to Thonmi Sambhota, a minister of Songtsen Gampo. It is said that he went to India to study the art of writing Sanskrit.

Foreigners need special permit for entering Tibet and there are many checkpoints along the way to make sure that the travelers are legal.

Coming back to our preparations now. As it was late, train journey was ruled out. They also helped me to get the flight tickets at reasonable prices. The onward flight was on 1st and return was on 7th. After a few days, we learnt that the flight on 1st was cancelled and they rebooked for 30th September afternoon. I provided our passport details and address to Xiaotuo for applying the permit to Tibet. We got the permit by courier on 27th September. Xiaotuo shared a Tibet itinerary that looked great. The idea of visiting the Everest base camp made us excited. He gave the weather information and the name of the person who would receive us at Lhasa. His name was Ngawang.

We flew by Tibet airways 2:55 flight. The plane was an Airbus 330. They served reasonable food, tea and biscuits.  The flight landed at 6:50. When we came out after collecting our bags, Ngawang was waiting for us at the arrival gate. He welcomed us with traditional Tibetan silk shawl and took us to a van in which there were other people. He gave us a slip that had the guides name and the time of meeting him at the hotel lobby (9:00). The journey from airport to hotel took over 1 hour. We checked into the hotel. The Tibet Gang gyan hotel, Lhasa, a four-star hotel on the main street of Beijing road, appeared to be old, but luxurious. We saw later that the hotel had a major traffic signboard too! After freshening up, we came out and had dinner of dumplings and mixed vegetables in a nearby restaurant.

At Lhasa airport

Day 1, 1st October, Lhasa: Next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant and met our guide Phurbu Tsering at 9:00. He was a young Tibetan man. He said his name meant Thursday (Phurbu) and long life (Tsering) as he was born on a Thursday. Interestingly, Phurbu or Phurba is also Tibetan dagger. The tour operator for our trip was Tibet Vista, and there were 8 other people, some with different itineraries, in our group. People were from Japan, Germany, Italy, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and China, most of them working in China. We had a 15-seater vehicle for us.

Lhasa (拉萨, lā sà) is the beautiful capital city of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) situated in on the North bank of the Kyichu ( Lhasa happiness) River in a valley surrounded by mountains. In the Tibetan language, Lhasa means the “Holy Land” or the “Buddha Land”. It is the center of Tibet’s politics, economy and culture. Known as Sunlight City, at an altitude of 3,658 meters, it is the highest city in the world.

We left the hotel at 8:45. Full team of 13 people was there in the van. The first spot of the day was Drepung Monastery, the largest monastery in Tibet. We reached the place at 9:30. At the entrance was a big fire place. People bought juniper leaves and barley and burnt them in the fire creating smoke and an intense fragrance. It is supposed to please the spirits. Phurbu started explaining the highlights of the monastery. Drepung Monastery is the most important monastery of Gelugpa in Tibetan Buddhism. It is built at the foot of the Mountain Gambo Utse, in 1416 by Tsong Khapa’s disciple Jamyang Qoigy. It held ~10,000 monks in total in its peak time and has about 500 monks now. The name ‘Drepung’ means ‘Collecting Rice’ in the Tibetan language as the majestic white structure resembles a heap of rice from a distance.

Team at Drepung Monastery

The education in Tibetan Buddhism is divided into two forms – the Open School and the Secret School. The Secret School is the highest period of learning. Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelug Sect, preached a combination of the two.

If a lama wants to enter a monastery to study the scriptures, he must first study in the preparatory class of the Open School and then enter the formal class in different grades. If he finishes studying all the scriptures, he is qualified to participate in the examination for the title of Gebshes (Doctor of Divinity). One may obtain different Gebshes titles by passing different examinations. After obtaining a Gebshes title, one may enter the Secret School, where, after choosing a master, one passes through a ceremony named “vessel consecration.” Typically, the master pours water from a pot or vase onto the head of the disciple, and then offers him wine from a bowl made of a skull to warn him to clear his mind of all evil thoughts. After this ceremony, the master starts to teach the disciple the scriptures. The disciple will undergo the ceremony of “vessel consecration” every time he moves to a higher level of the Secret School. Students receive instruction four times a day, sitting on a seat paved with sharp pebbles until he obtains the title of Living Buddha.

Phurbu also explained the concept of Dalai and Panchen Lamas, who are treated as living Buddhas. The Dalai Lama is supposed to be the embodiment of Avalokitesvara (Bodhisattva of compassion), and the Panchen Lama is said to be the embodiment of ‘Amitabha’, the Buddha of Infinite Life. The title “Dalai Lama” was given by Mongol king Altan khan, to the third, and all his successors are called as Dalai Lama. ‘Dalai’, a Mongolian word, means ‘Sea.’ While ‘Lama’, a Tibetan word, means ‘Master’. The title Panchen Lama is given to all the heads of Tashilhunpo Monastery, starting from number first Dalai Lama because he is the founder of Tashilhunpo Monastery. ‘Pan’ is an abbreviation of the Sanskrit word ‘pandit,’ meaning ‘scholar,’ while ‘chen’, a Tibetan word, means ‘big’. The combination of the two words means ‘master’. Their selection process is unique, where the monks and abbots investigate the holy lake for signs and clues of where the next leader comes from. The present Dalai lama is the 14th, lives in India and the present Panchen Lama is the 11th, lives in Beijing.

During 17th century, Panchen Lobsang Choegyen, head of Tashilhunpo monastery became a teacher for both number fourth and fifth Dalai Lama. During number fifth Dalai Lama, Mongol king Gushi khan helped the Dalai Lama to gain political power. Being the teacher for Dalai lama, the Mongol king and Dalai lama gave Panchen Bogodi title to the Panchen Lama and recognized him as number fourth in rebirth. Panchen Lama is also known as Panchen Erdini by the Qing dynasty title.

More details about Dalai and Pancen Lamas can be read here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dalai-Lama, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Panchen-Lama

In 1546, the third Dalai Lama was welcomed as the first Living Buddha into Drepung monastery. At the invitation of Mongolia’s king, he went to Qinghai Province to preach. He was honored with the title ‘the third Dalai Lama’. Drepung Monastery is also the place where the second, third, and the fourth Dalai Lama held the Sitting-in-Bed (enthronement) Ceremony. It was the residence of the fifth Dalai Lama before his nomination by the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911).

There are two white pagodas in the center of the monastery and around them are the major buildings: Ganden Podrang, Coqen (Tsochin) Hall, the four Zhacangs (Dratsangs, Tantric colleges), and Kamcuns (dormitory). The Ganden Podrang was built under the supervision of the second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyaco ~ 1530. It was the residence of the second, third, fourth, and the fifth Dalai Lamas. After the fifth Dalai Lama moved to the Potala Palace, it served as the meeting place for the local administration for both politics and religion.

Phurbu explaining the map of Deprung Monastery

The Coqen Hall is a large Sutra Hall supported by 183 pillars. There are many colorful decorations and murals. There are Thangka paintings like eternal cycle of birth and death (dharmachakra) on the walls of the hall. There are beautiful Manjusri (Bodhisattva of wisdom) and Sitatapatra (female form of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion) statues in the middle of the hall. People offer butter to the butter lamps lit in front of the deities. There are also butter sculptures. Water is kept in seven bowls (yonchap) in front of each deity. The offering of water at Buddhist shrines symbolizes the objective to cultivate the virtues of calmness, clarity and purity with our body, speech and mind. It also makes the ‘have’s and “have not’s equal.

City view
Young pilgrim
One of the Pagodas

Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in these monasteries. This hall also has the stupas of Dalai Lama from second to forth. The second floor has the collection of sutras and the third floor has many precious relic collections.

The view of the city is beautiful from the monastery. Around 12:15, we moved to the next spot, the Sera monastery. Before visiting the monastery, we had lunch at a local restaurant. We chose to have the buffet costing 60RMB.  

The main entrance of Sera Monastery is beautiful with painted wooden doorframe and doors. The ceilings are beautifully painted with mandalas (A mandala is a representation of the universe, with different parts of the universe representing different aspects of the Buddhist teachings. A mandala can be a painting, a 3-D model with wood or metal, or a creation with colored sand).

Ornate door of Sera Monastery

Sera monastery was founded in 1419 by Tsong Khapa’s disciple Jamchen Choje Sakya Yeshe. It is at the base of Mount Phurbochok on which Tsong Khapa had built a hermitage called Sera Utse on the ridge above. Sera monastery is one of the three greatest Gelugpa monasteries throughout Tibet, and the other two are Drepung monastery and Ganden monastery. This year in mid of October, the monastery celebrated its 600th anniversary year.

Phurbu said the name Sera is due to wild roses. In Tibetan, Rose is called “Gya Sey” and Yard is called ‘Rawa’. So the name means yard of roses. Another theory is that the name is due to the hailstone found during laying of foundation of the monastery, as hail in Tibetan is called Sera.

Legend has it that Tsongkhapa while composing one of his great works saw a page flying, forming a golden letter ‘ah’ and got dissolved in a stone where the Sera monastery was built later.

Mandalas on the ceiling

During its peak, Sera monastery has over 7000 monks, now there a few hundreds. Like Drepung, Sera also has main hall, colleges and dormitories. The style is different and better preserved.

The ‘Tsochin’ (Coqen) hall’ is the center of religious affairs of the Sera Monastery. It was built by Mongol ruler Gushri Khan. It is a four-story structure where several religious rituals and rites are conducted. The hall is built with 125 pillars and the entrance has columns, painted with colored four heavenly kings. The four heavenly kings are a common sight in all Buddhist temples. The depict the four directions. Two have smiling faces and two of them look fearsome. They are: Vaiśravaṇa (Kubera, one who hears everything), Virūḍhaka (who helps growth), Dhṛtarāṣṭra (The King Who Upholds the Realm. He is known for being protective) and Virūpākṣa (who sees all). Phurbu said that the four guard kings are supposed to come alive at night on certain days of the month. Pictures of the four kings from Jokhang Temple can be seen later in the blog.

Sera Monastery

The main hall has five chapels in honor of Dipankara (past Buddha), Sakyamuni (present Buddha), Maitreya (future Buddha), Arhats (those who achieved Nirvana), Tsong Khapa, and Kwan-yin (Guanyin, Avalokitesvara with one thousand hands and eleven faces). Maitreya is the largest statue with the future Buddha in a “sitting in chair” position. This is a normal among all the monasteries.

Maitreya at Sera from Explore Tibet

The delicate Gangyur of Tripitaka in Tibetan is the proudest possession of the monastery which now holds 105 out of the original 108 volumes. These priceless volumes, the earliest sutras printed by engraving in China, were presented as a gift to Jamchen Chojey by Chengzhu, a Ming Dynasty Emperor.

There was queue of devotees who had brought their children to seek blessings of Tamdrin or Hayagriva, the horse headed deity, or the protector. Hayagriva is considered as Avalokiteśvara in an angry form. The kids had black mark on their nose, from the butter lamp lights in front of the deity, indicating the blessings of Hayagriva.

Kids with protector deity’s blessings on the noses
Wall paintings

Next, we entered a hall where there were three sand Mandalas. Phurbu said that they don’t normally keep them for long, but as a special case they have left them. These were like rangolis, very beautiful work of art. One of them was the 13 deity Yamantaka Mandala.

13 Deity Yamnataka Mandala. Pic from the net.

After this, we witnessed one of the most unique events at the Sera monastery, the debates among monks on the Buddhist doctrines are the discussion of Buddhism knowledge. This facilitates better understanding of the Buddhist philosophy to achieve higher levels of study. This debating tradition is characterized by interesting gestures by the participating monks.

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

This ended our sightseeing for the day. We returned to the hotel and rested for some time. In the evening, Phurbu took all of us for a welcome dinner at a nearby restaurant. The buffet had food close to Indian and the owner knew good Hindi. Hema had headache due to higher altitude and Kujtim, a German engineer in our group offered Acetazolamide tablets. Hema said it worked well.    

Day 2, 2nd October, Lhasa: We started early from the hotel as Phurbu said we had the time slot of 9:00 for the Potala Palace. It was a short journey from the hotel. From a distance the Potala Palace looked majestic. There was a queue and we had to wait for about 40 minutes to get in. Phurbu first gave a small proof of buying ticket and later a bid proper ticket.

Potala Palace is the highest palace in the world, supposed to be named after a holy hill in South India. ‘Potalaka’ is a Sanskrit word meaning “Buddhist holy land, or Abode of the Avalokitesvara”.  As per a legend, king Songtsen Gampo built a 9-storey palace with a thousand rooms on the Red Hill of Lhasa when he moved the political seat and capital city from Yarlung to Lhasa. As his father was killed when he was 12 years old, he didn’t feel safe in old capital city.

With the collapse of the Gampo Dynasty, the ancient palace was almost destroyed in lightning wars. It was later rebuilt by the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) using Tibetan, Qing and Nepali artists. Potala Palace were renovated and extended many times leading to its present form. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama left Tibet, and since then, Potala Palace is not the political seat but has remained as the highest cultural heritage of Tibet.

Potala Palace
The team at Potala Palace

There are two major portions, the Red Palace and the White Palace. The Red Palace is the highest part of the center. It was devoted to Buddhist study and prayer and possesses different halls, chapels, and libraries. It also has smaller galleries and passages. Great West Hall is the largest hall, with beautiful murals painted on its inner walls. There are three chapels around it with the stupa (tomb with relics) of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933) and the statues of Songtsen Gampo, Princess Wen Cheng, and Princess Bhrikuti (from Nepal) inside. The White Palace (Podrang Karpo) was the office building of Tibet local government. This was the residence of Dalai Lama. The Great East Hall was once the site of religious and political events. The fifth and sixth floors are served as the living quarters and offices. The seventh floor has Sunshine halls, the bed room of Dalai Lama.

Potala Palace has other parts with the School of Buddhist Logic, the printing House, gardens, courtyards and even a jail. As the place is at a good height, it also offered a spectacular the view of the city.

Thinkness of the wall is seen through the window
Side view
City view from Potala Palace
Street of Lhasa

To cater to the large crowds, the duration of time in Potala palace is restricted to one hour for the visitors.  We came down around 11:30 and walked through the streets to have lunch at the “Lhasa kitchen” restaurant. I chose a set meal while Hema and Kavya tried the kulchas. The taste was very close to Indian food. 

After a sumptuous lunch, we proceeded to the second spot of the day, the Jokhang Temple, another important monastery.

Jokhang temple is considered as the “spiritual heart of the city” and the most sacred in Tibet. The entry is through the Barkhor, the market square in central Lhasa. It has a walkway for pilgrims to circumambulate (pradakshina) the temple. Barkhor Square is marked by four stone sankang (incense burners), two of which are in front of the temple and two in the rear. At the open porch in front, many pilgrims offer prostrations.

Pilgrims prostrating at Jokhang Temple
Entrance of Jokhang Temple
Dharmachakra with deer at Jokhang Temple entrance
Photography sessions

Jokhang Temple was built in AD 647 by King Songtsen Gampo (AD 617-49), 33rd king and the first ruler of a unified Tibet, and his two foreign wives who are ascribed with bringing Buddhism to Tibet. The king’s first wife, Princess Bhrikuti (married in the 630s), was the sister of the Nepalese king, while his second wife, Princess Wencheng (married in 641), was Chinese princess. It is said that Jokhang was built to house the statue of Mikyöba (Akshobhya) brought by Bhrikuti and Ramoche Temple was constructed for Jowo Sakyamuni (originally from Bodh Gaya) brought by Wencheng. To house the Buddha brought by Princess Wencheng, Later, Jokhang was expanded in to a large complex and the Jowo Sakyamuni statue was also brought here due to safety reasons. Jokhang became the most sacred temple in Lhasa.

As per a legend, the temple is built on a lake bed which was selected after many failed attempts to build a temple in the region. Before this, every time a monastery was built, it would collapse. Confused by this, Princess Bhrikuti asked for Wencheng’s help. Being a learned woman, Wencheng told the Princess that the geography of Tibet was very much like a hag, with the lake at the heart. In order to build the monastery, Wencheng advised they must demolish the hag by filling and leveling the lake using 1,000 goats to carry soil from a mountain far away. When the construction work was done, the city around it was called Rasa and the temple, Rasa Thrulnag Tsuklakang (‘ra’ for goat and ‘sa’ for earth, and Thrulnag Tsuklakang  “House of Mysteries” or “House of Religious Science” in Tibetan,). Later the temple was named ‘Jokhang for’ or “Temple of the Lord” and the city ‘Lhasa”, “Holy land”.

According to another legend, the king threw his ring into the air, asking the spirits to show him where to build the temple. The ring fell into a lake, from where a stupa emerged. The lake was filled in to support Jokhang Temple, whose central shrine was built over the miraculous stupa.

The Jokhang Temple is a four-story wooden complex with a golden top. It has the architectural styles of the Tang Dynasty, Tibet and Nepal. There is a Dharma Wheel (chakra) flanked by two deer above the main entrance. These represent the Buddha’s first sermon, in which he “turned the wheel of the Dharma” in a deer park near Varanasi, India.

The entrance has impressive statues of the four heavenly kings. Paintings showing the building of Jokhang Temple and Buddhism related stories, Dakinis are on the walls of the passage. The statue of Sakyamuni at the age of 12 is in the middle of the hall. It has been gilded many times and decorated ornately with jewels typical of Tibet. When Sakyamuni was alive, he did not agree to be worshipped and did not allow his images to be created. Only three statues, designed by himself, were permitted to be sculpted during his lifetime. The first is an image of him at age eight, the second shows him at age twelve when he was still a prince in India and the third is of him as an adult.

Vaiśravaṇa (Kubera)
Virūḍhaka
Dhṛtarāṣṭra
Virūpākṣa
Paintings on the wall

The main hall has two huge statues. To the left is the master Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), the founder of Vajrayana of Tibet. To the right is Maitreya, the future Buddha. By the clockwise, the first chapel has Tsong Khapa and his 8 students, two of which were the first Dalai Lama and first Panchen Lama. A small white pagoda is at the corner. At the south, there are chapels for the Bhaiṣajyaguru (Medicine Buddha), and for the master of Kagyu sect – Milarepa. Milarepa is supposed to be the only person climbing mount Kailash in the 11th century. It is considered auspicious to take his name while doing the circumambulation (pradakshina).

Milarepa at Jokhang. Pic from the net

One small chapel has the statue of Guanyin Boddhisattva (Buddha of compassion). On the eastern hall houses the founder of Jokhang Temple – Songtsan Gampo and his two wives Bhrikuti (Tritsun) and Wencheng.

Jokhang temple has innumerable deities. There are also statues for Brahma ( Gyachen in Tibetan), Indra (Tsangba) and Garuda. There a many image of Tara, a feminine form of Bodhisattva. It is also believed that queen Bhrikuti is an incarnation of Tara. According to Buddhist tradition, Tara was born out of the tears of compassion of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. It is said that he wept as he looked upon the world of suffering beings, and his tears formed a lake in which a lotus sprung up. When the lotus opened, the goddess Tara was revealed. A similar tradition has White Tara born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara’s left eye and the Green Tara born from those of his right. In a third legend, Tara was born from a beam of blue light emanating from one of the eyes of Avalokitesvara. Tara is also the consort of Avalokitshvara. Green Tara, with her half-open lotus, represents the night, and White Tara, with her lotus in full bloom, symbolizes the day. Green Tara embodies virtuous activity while White Tara displays serenity and grace. Together, the Green and White Taras symbolize the unending compassion of the goddess who labors day and night to relieve suffering. [source: “Tara (Buddhist goddess).” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 12 Jul. 2010.]

There are also beautiful statues of Maitreya and four armed Avalokitesvara, Amitayus Vijaya (Buddha of longevity) with four faces. One chapel has large statues of nine longevity Buddhas with their consorts in yab-yum positions. Another chapel has the seven Buddhas Vipaśyī, Śikhī, Viśvabhū, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kāśyapa and Śākyamuni.

There are statues of Atisha and his disciples. Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna was a Bengali Buddhist religious leader. He was one of the major figures in the spread of 11th-century Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in Asia and inspired Buddhist thought from Tibet to Sumatra. There is also an image of Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who came from India during the 5th or 6th century and began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of Shaolin Kungfu. Another Indian sage Padampa sangye, of 11th century is attributed to moving a mountain next to Everest, is supposed to be the incarnation of the 8th century monk Kamalashīla.

The main atrraction of Jokhang temple: Sakyamuni Buddha-Pic from the net

Thus, the Jokhang temple is a treasure house of Buddhist images. Jokhang temple also has living rooms for the Dalai Lamas. Phurbu shared interesting stories of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso. He is known as Chakzampa, the “Iron Chain Maker”, Tsöndrü Zangpo “Excellent Persistence”, and the King of the Empty Plain. He was also known by a variation of this name, Madman of the Empty Valley. He was a yogi, philosopher, poet, exorcist, teacher, architect, engineer, painter, sculptor, doctor, treasure revealer and a universal genius with supernatural abilities. One day he crossed a river by boat but didn’t have money to be given to the boatman. The angry boatman hit him. So, the Dalai Lama decided to create bridges and built many iron chain bridges. He is considered a mind emanation of Padmasambhava and a reincarnation of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, an ancient Buddhist master. He founded the Iron Chain lineage of the Shangpa Kagyu (Not to be confused with Shangdong Gyalpo, one who built bridge on rivers and founded Tibetan Opera).

There are roumors that as a teenager, Tsangyang Gyatso met a girl named Dawa Zhuoma, the love of his life. He wrote a lot of affectionate love songs for her when they dated. But soon Dawa was taken back to her hometown by her parents and Tsangyang Gyatso never met her again, and he composed even more poems and songs lamenting the relationship. His love songs are popular even now. Phurbu says the love story is not true. He passed away while being taken to Beijing by Mongol king. His tomb is at Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai.

Some of the other chapels have Five Protectors with some fearsome statues of Hayagriva and other protector deities (whose faces are covered with cloth), the Three Kings, Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen and Tri Ralpachen. This room also has the statues of Songtsen Gampo’s two wives, ministers and symbols of royalty like elephant and horse.

The first floor also has the Chapel of Samvara. Samvara with four faces twelve arms is in Tantric pose with his consort.

The second floor a rectangular corridor that gives great views of the temple. People like getting photographed with the background of the golden roofs of the temple. We did a group photo here and exited the temple around 14:30. After roaming around the Barkhor street for some time, we returned to the hotel. That evening I walked close to the Potala palace again.

A display at the Barkhor street

Day 3, 3rd October, Lhasa to Shigatse: We left the hotel at 8:15. The journey started through National Highway G318 that runs between Shanghai and Nepal border at Tibet. There are two routes from Lhasa to Shigatse (Xigaze). While going, we took the longer route that has more scenic views. As the vehicle moved through winding mountain roads, we could see ladders drawn on the rocks, understandably with the intentions of connecting with the heaven. There are speed cameras on the highway, and one can not cross two speed cameras in less than certain amount of time.

Map of our journey
Ladders on the roadside rocks

First stop was in about half an hour to see the beautiful view of a place where rivers Yarlong Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and Lhasa meet. The scenery was beautiful. After spending few minutes here, we moved on and stopped an hour later at a place (Kamba La, or Gangbala Pass, on S307) from where we could see the Yamdrok lake and Mount Nojin Kangsang (7206m). The view of turquoise blue colored lake was breathtaking. We took many pictures. The local people kept lambs and Mastiff dogs for photography with visitors (10RMB for a photo). We got Kavya to pose with lambs. After some time, our bus moved along the lake and we reached the stunning Yamdrok lake. We spent good amount of time here. I also posed for photograph with two huge Mastiffs.

Brahmaputra

Yamdrok lake is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet the other two being Namtso and Manasarovar. It is in Nangartse County, Shannan Prefecture, at an altitude of 4,441 meters, over 72 km long, surrounded by many snow-capped mountains and is fed by numerous small streams. People believe that Yamdrok Lake is the transformation of a goddess. According to a legend, there were nine lakes. Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal was concerned that creatures in the lake would die if the lake dries. So, she threw 7 liang (~50 grams) of gold in the air, recited a mantra, and changed all the small lakes into a big one. It looked like the shape of iron scorpion held by Padmasambhava.

Different views of Yamdrok lake

Another tale of the lake is about a young girl who lived by the lakeshore. She loved to bathe in the lake early in the mornings. A rich man fell in love with her, and hid by the lake one morning, grabbing her as she approached the lake, in order to take her to his home to be his wife. As he stepped out of the water, a fairy appeared, beat the man to death with her beads. But he refused to release the girl, who was dragged to the bottom of the lake with him and drowned. When the villagers came looking for her, a beautiful white bird flew out from the lake, and they found only the body of the rich man. People believed that the fairy had turned the girl into the white bird when she drowned, and ever since, the lake has been home to a wide variety of birds.

Yamdrok Lake also has lot of fish. As Tibetans believe that fish are the incarnations of the god of water, and it is a sin to eat or attack them, it is believed that they should not be caught and eaten. It is widely believed that only demons and evil men will eat fish. On the contrary, with commercial interests taking over the traditional beliefs, there is also fishing happening.

In Tibet, mountains and lakes are considered sacred, and devotees go around the lake to wash away any sins. A ritual walk around the perimeter of the lake, is known as a “kora”. It may take three months on foot and up to six months with full body prostrations. This is also one of the holy lakes where the monks and religious leaders seek for the clues to pick the reincarnated new Dalai Lama. Yamdrok is considered as the lifeline of the region and it is said if the lake dries up, Tibet would become an uninhabitable place.

Around 12, we left Yamdrok and the van drove along the lake for some time. We could see lot of sheep as well as black-necked cranes from a distance along the lake shore. We stopped at Nagartse (Nagarzê) for lunch and went to Lhasa restaurant. Hema and Kavya had egg fried rice, while I had egg and vegetable fried rice. I went around after lunch. Nagartse is a small, but beautiful town that serves as a base for people visiting the nearby attractions. This route is famous for cycling and biking tours. It is not far away from Bhutan and Sikkim.

We moved further and the route was getting more scenic due to the ice capped mountains. We made two stops to watch the Kharola glacier, the second one a bit longer.

Kharola glacier (5560m) originates at Mt. Noijin Kangsang which is one of the four holy mountains of Tibet. In Tibetan it is called Khareg La, which means Sky touching mountain pass.  There is a stupa, and and a wooden walkway leading to a higher view point. We took some pictures here.  We then proceeded further and reached Gyantse (Gyangze) at 17:00. The road had several check posts where Phurbu showed our passports and permits to the authorities. In some check posts, we had to personally see the officers.

Kharola glacier
Kharola glacier

A horse back statue of Songtsen Gampo is seen as we enter Gyantse. We stopped near Gyantse Dzong, a hill top castle and took its pictures from a distance. This fortress has a patriotic story. In 1904, British troops invaded Gyangtse and faced a fierce opposition from the strong and brave Gyangtse people. They defended their city from here, using primitive guns and cannons, swords, and even bows and arrows to fight against their aggressors. They could hold the attack for three days, before losing out due to shortage of ammunition. Many of the local people jumped from the mountain to their death. Thus, Gyantse is regarded the city of heroes.

Songtsen Gampo
Gyantse Dzong

Next, we visited the Pelkor (Palcho) Chode Monastery (“Auspicious Wheel Joy Monastery” in Tibetan language). Surrounded by mountains on 3 sides, the monastery has 4 major parts: Buddhist halls, Bodhi Dagoba (Kumbum Stupa), Zhacang (dormitory) and surrounding wall. Pelkor is unique as it was the place that had three major sects of Buddhism together.

Pelkor Chode Monastery

The Main Assembly Hall is a three-storied building, about five hundred years old. On the first floor are the three Chapels and a cloister. A chapel has four-headed Nampa Namse (Vairocana) and the other four Dhyani (or Wisdom) Buddhas. In the Main Chapel is an eight meters high bronze statue of Sakyamuni flanked by the Past and Future Buddhas. It is said that about 14,000 kilograms of copper was used to build the statue. The chapel has many Thangkas paintings. Manjusri Bodhisattva, White Tara and Arhats are enshrined in the chapels on the second floor. The eighteen-Arhat clay sculptures in the Arhat chapel are famous. Amitabha Buddha, Dakinis and murals are displayed in the chapels on the third floor.

The Bodhi Dagoba or Kumbum stupa is the most interesting part of Pelkor monastery. It is ~ 32 meters high. It is a nine-level building with 108 gates and 76 chapels. It is also known as ‘Ten Thousand Buddha Pagoda’ as about ten thousand figures of Buddha exist there. Fortunately, photography is allowed here with a fee of 10RMB. I and Yinteck, a Malaysian co traveler, visited most of the chapels in the stupa. It was like a wonderland displaying an endless series of different deities. Kumbum means 100,000 images in Tibetan. As many of the chapels were very small and dark, it took some effort to see and photograph the places. It was already beyond 18:00, and Phurbu was looking for us to come back and proceed further. We reluctantly came back.

Kumbum stupa
Buddha at Kumbum
Sakyamuni at Kumbum
Green Tara
The four heavenly kings
Protector deity
Chandamaharoshana
Pure land
Ornate door

It was 20:00 by the time we reached Tashichoeta, our hotel in Shigatse. As we wanted to see a doctor for Hema’s altitude sickness, Phurbu took us to the place he knew, but the doctor had already closed for the day. We came back and went to bed. Fortunately she had the tablets given by Kujtim.

Day 4, 4th October, Shigatse to Everest base camp: Obviously this was going to be the most exciting phase of our journey, approximately 354 km distance through winding mountain roads. We left the hotel at 8:30 and took G318, the Sino-Nepal friendship highway. Our first stop, at 10:30, was the landmark 5000 km distance from Shanghai to Zhangmu. There is a monument indicating this remarkable feat of Chinese engineering. A couple of hours later was the Gyatsola mountain stop. The altitude here is 5248m. We did some photography and moved on. Lunch was once again egg fried rice in a small but decent restaurant.

Gyatsola mountain
Phurbu Tsering, our guide

The route had snow covered mountains at a distance and vast grasslands where many Yaks grazed. Phurbu told an interesting story about the Yaks.

Centuries ago, Yak used to live in India.  At the time, it did not have the long and thick hair that it now has.

It was believed that Buffalo was Yak’s uncle.  Buffalo used to have long and thick hair.  Yak had heard stories about the beauty of the land of Tibet.  He had heard their stories from the Tibetan antelope when a herd of them had come to India.  So, he decided to go to Tibet to find out.  He started his journey but couldn’t succeed, as the road to Tibet was very hard to navigate.  It was also unbearably cold.  So, he came back to India. But he did still want to go to Tibet.  He knew he had to plan well before he tried again.  He went to his friends, who had thick fur, for help.  It was decided that they all would go to Tibet together.  Now he had to get some fur for himself.  He went to his uncle to ask for his fur, but his uncle refused.  Yak assured him that he would give him his fur back along with lots of salt, once he returned from Tibet.

The next day, at sunrise, they all began their journey.  They crossed the Brahmaputra with great difficulty and reached the border between Tibet and India.  As they were crossing the river, a pack of wild dogs attached them.  But after a long struggle, they fought off the dogs and journeyed on towards southern Tibet, now Lhasa.  While crossing some fields, they were caught by a bunch of farmers, who tied them up, making it hard for them to escape.  At midnight, managing to break free from their ropes, they ran for their lives.  After three days, they reached Lhasa.  It was more beautiful than what the antelope had told them.  The air, the water and the sky were much cleaner. So, they all decided to stay there forever.

Back in India, as time passed, Buffalo began to realize that his nephew had fooled him.  Buffalo then learnt that one must not be gullible.  (https://www.pestalozziworld.com/news/story-yaks-fur)

Over a period, there are many cross breeds of yaks. Yaks crossed with cattle leads to Dzo, which is further crossed with yak or cow leading to different breeds.

First view of Everest

The first view of the Everest peak was around 13:30 from the bus. A little later, we stopped at a view point (Tsola Pass, 4600M). The range of the peaks made a spectacular view, but Everest was mostly cloud covered. The next stop was after about three hours, at the Gyawula pass (5180m). This place had a better view of the Everest range, but Everest was till mostly under the cloud. Phurbu shared a picture of the mountain range with the peaks marked with their names. The range had five peaks taller than 8000 meters. Mount Everest (8844 m), Makalu (8463 m), Lhotse (8516m), Cho Oyu (8188 m) and Shishapangma (8027 m). Gyawula pass stop also had some guest houses and toilets (Tibetan toilets, just a hole in the earth). Locals were selling prayer flags. We moved further through very scenic, but very winding roads. The driver certainly was highly skilled.

Entrance of Qomolangma nature reserve
Unique rock formations
Serpentine road
At Gyawula pass (5180m)
View from Eco bus
Names of the peaks in Everest mountain range

At 18:20, we crossed the final military check post and We moved from our vehicle to the Eco-friendly buses. Phurbu handed over our Tickets both for base camp and the bus. It took another 25 minutes through the curvy mountain roads to reach the Rongpuk guest house. From the bus, it looked like the could had moved from the Everest peak. Once we reached the guest house, I didn’t even wait for a minute and rushed to the site from where people were watching the mighty Mount Everest (Sagarmāthā, Qomolangma” or “Mother Goddess of the Earth” in Tibetan), the tallest mountain in the world!

Picture taken at 6:54pm, 4th October

A few minutes later, when I felt cold, I came to my senses and came back to the guest house and returned to the spot with Hema and Kavya. We were given oxygen canisters and Hema used some. After an hour later, around 19:45, the sun started going down and the golden glow started increasing on the Mount Everest peak. This was clearly one the best sights of our lives, seeing the golden glow of the tallest mountain, in its best possible view! We were fortunate that clouds that had stayed on the peak earlier in the day had been on us and moved away! The atmosphere was surreal and divine. We stayed there till 20:15, soaking in the nature’s benevolence, and returned to the guest house. The rooms in the guest house had five beds, heated electrically and four of shared a room. Though there is a restaurant outside, we didn’t feel like trying it.

The guest house
Inside the room
Picture taken at 7:44pm, 4th October
Picture taken at 7:50pm, 4th October
Picture taken at 7:57pm, 4th October
Picture taken at 7:36am, 5th October
Picture taken at 8:13am, 5th October
Rong bu Monastery at the base camp
People waiting for a photograph with the altitude sign board

Day 5, 5th October, Everest base camp to Shigatse: Next morning, I went to site around 7:00, it was a bit dark, but the mountain was clear. In the next half and our, cloud started gathering and by 8:15 clouds had fully covered it. By the time we returned, Phurbu and the driver were looking for us. We didn’t have time to visit the Rongbu monastery that was in front of the guest house.

We caught the Eco buses and came to the entrance of the Nature reserve, got into our van and left for Shigatse. Once again, the travel through the serpentine road was exciting and we saw a great view of the Everest range for a long time from the bus. We had lunch around 11:30 on the way and tried Kung pao chicken and tomato with egg. We reached Shigatse around 18:00 and checked into the same hotel, Tashichoeta. I and Hema went around and tried eating dinner in a large Tibetan restaurant with very few people. For our disappointment, all kind of communications failed, and we ended up ordering rice with sweet yoghurt and some bun like thing (which we had ordered as Momo’s!) which had no taste.

View while coming down
The last view

Day 6, 6th October, Shigatse to Lhasa: Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and is famous for the Tashilhunpo monastery, the seat of Panchen Lamas. We visited the monastery in the morning as people were tired by long journey the previous evening.

Tashilhunpo Monastery was built in 1447 by Gedun Drupa, the first Dalai Lama. The monastery was sacked when the Gorkha Kingdom invaded Tibet and captured Shigatse in 1791 before a combined Tibetan and Chinese army drove them back to Kathmandu and forced them to agree to keep the peace in the future, pay tribute every five years, and return the loot.

Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo is one of the five most sacred monasteries in Tibet and is famous for the 26.2 meters high Maitreya (future buddha) statue. It is said that the 9th Panchen lama collected taxes for expanding the military but decided to use for religion and spent it on the Maitreya. The statue was handcrafted by 900 craftsmen in 9 years. The lotus seat is 3.8 meters. It is estimated that 279 kg of gold and 230000 kg of copper was used for making the statue, supposed to be largest of this kind. It is adorned with precious stones. The statues of Avalokitesvara and Manjusri Bodhisattva created by the First Dalai Lama are close by. The surrounding walls have 1000 more gold paintings of Sakyamuni in different postures and expressions. The ceiling of the chapel is painted with a Kalachakra (Dukhor in Tibetan) mandala. This building, the Kelsang temple, also has a 5 meters high statue of Sakyamuni. It is said that a part of Sakyamuni’s relics was placed in it. In an adjacent chapel a White Tara is flanked by two Green Taras.

Another feature is the Thangka wall, where large Thangka paintings are displayed during the festivals. Many places have the photos of the ninth, 10th and 11th Panchen Lamas. 11th is the latest, supposed to be residing in Beijing. Photography is allowed in the chapels, at the cost of 125 yuans!

The monastery is famous for stupa tombs and places of Panchen Lamas. They are known to hold the bones and remains of the sacred lamas. The tomb of the 10th Panchen Lama (Serdung Sisum Namgyel) is a dazzling gold-plated tomb inside the Victory Chapel (Namgyel Lhakhang). A statue of the 10th Panchen Lama Choekyi Gyaltsen, who died in 1989, is displayed atop the tomb. The gold-roofed chapel Kundun Lhakhang holds the tomb of the fourth Panchen Lama Lobsang Choekyi Gyeltsen (1567–1662), close associate and teacher of the fifth Dalai Lama. The 4th Panchen lama was an expert in other schools too. Thus, his statue has a lotus hat and not a regular yellow cone. The tombs of 5th to 9th Panchen Lamas are together. They were built by the 10th Panchen Lama to replace those destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Stupa of 10th Panchen Lama. Pic from the net

Legends state that there are many underground tunnels connecting the Tashilumpo Monastery with Shambhala (also referred to as Shangri-La, a mythical kingdom, said to be laid out in precisely the same form as an eight-petalled lotus blossom surrounded by a chain of snow mountains) and it is an accepted truth that certain incumbent Panchen Lamas have physically traveled there over the course of hundreds of years.

Dharmachakra
Cute pilgrim

The outer walls of the chapels have many interesting paintings and murals. The eight auspicious symbols (the parasol, two golden fish, the conch shell, lotus, the banner of victory, the vase, the dharma wheel, or dharmachakra and the eternal knot) and three mythical animals (the snow Lion, Naga or dragon and Zeeba or Zipak) and other paintings are beautifully displayed. Phurbu explained different parts of a dharmachakra with great details. We finished the monastery visit at 10:30 and proceeded further. We took the shorter route from Shigatse to Lasha. In some places the ride was bumpy due to the road works, as the road was badly damaged due to floods on Brahmaputra last year.

Around 12:30, we stopped at Dazhuka (3700 m) for lunch 12:33. Enhui helped us to select and we chose a vegetable, chicken dish that took quite long to arrive. Next. we stopped at 16:30 for a river view before reaching our hotel in Lhasa at 18:00. Some of the team members were going to continue for couple of days more. We thanked the driver and Phurbu and parted from the group. That evening, we three went around and visited a large market on Beijing street that sold jewelry, accessories, handicrafts, carpets, tapestries, thangka and other things. We also tried some lamb skewers at a Xinjiang restaurant that was good. On the way back we tried local ice cream. I bought a winter jacket in one of the shops.

Day 7, 7th October, Lhasa to Beijing: This was our last day. We were on our own. As the flight was in the evening, I thought we will visit the Norbulingka summer palace. We took a taxi from the hotel to Noubulingka.

Norbulingka means “Treasure Park” or “Jewel garden” in Tibetan. It was built in 1751 by the seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso. It is said that he was ill in his later years and physicians advised him to live in Norbulingka and have a bath there with running water to preserve his health. Following this advice, he stayed in Norbulingka every summer until he passed away. It underwent many expansions in the next 200 years and has been the summer palace of the successive Dalai Lamas. It is a large garden with chapels, gardens, fountains and pools.

The entry ticket costs 60RMB each and looked impressive with a 3D pattern. As the area looked large, and we didn’t have much time, we took a buggy by paying 20RMB. The buggy driver gave a slip with a telephone number to be called once we finished each place. First stop was at the Kalsang palace, named after the 7th Dalai Lama.  It is a three-story building with halls for worshipping Buddha, bedrooms, reading rooms and sanctuaries. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden.  After finishing seeing this, I called the buggy and the driver dropped us to Chensel Podrang (palace).

Kalsang palace

Chensel Podrang was built in 1922 for the 13th Dalai Lama. It has a throne and a silver statue of the 13th Dalai Lama and houses the statues of three Longevity Buddhas. The murals depict stories of Sakyamuni and Tsongkapa.

Chensel Palace

Next was Dadan Mingjur palace (Takten Migyur Podrang) meaning “Eternal Palace”, built by the 14th Dalai Lama in 1954. It is also called the New Palace and is the most luxurious. The assembly hall has magnificent gold throne and wall paintings depicting all Dalai Lamas. Along with the features of the palace, it has murals depicting the story of Sakyamuni as well as history of Tibet.

Takten Migyur Podrang

Norbulingka has a Thang ka museum, that was closed. The garden is very impressive. We spent some time in the garden and returned to our hotel by taxi, crossing the Potala palace again. We caught the shuttle to airport at 12:00 and reached Lhasa Gongga airport after an hour. Our flight to Yinchuan was at 17:00 and the one from Yinchuan was at 22:50. As the two flights belonged to different airlines, we had to take out our bags at Yinchuan and check in again. It took some time for me to understand this with the help of Xiaotuo.

We had lunch at the airport, rested for some time and boarded the Tibet airlines flight to Yinchuan. We reached Yinchuan at 19:40, collected our bags and moved to the second floor for the next flight. Yinchuan is the capital of the Ningxia Hui, and the airport was big with many flights operating. We flew with Xiamen Airlines and reached Beijing PEK terminal 2 at 00:45. It was 02:30 by the time we reached home.  

Though planned in a hurry, the Tibet trip was wonderful as we got to witness so many beautiful places in a week’s time. Visiting the Mount Everest northern base camp and watching the marvel from so close was indeed highlight of the trip. The blog is long due to the Buddhist legends, but I feel it is wonderful world of mythology. Thanks to Phurbu for being such a nice guide and the driver who drove the vehicle so well. Phurbu also went through the blog in detail and helped to correct some facts. Thanks to the teammates and FCN Evelyn and Xiaotuo for the help with planning and booking.

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China diary

This blog is my travelogue in China. The purpose is to catalog and share the experiences and let people know about the places if they don’t already know.

I started working in Beijing since December 2015. While I came with some anxiety and many misconceptions, the wonderland called China has highly impressed and charmed me. It has been a rewarding experience to visit various places of this vast country and understand the culture. This blog is an effort to capture my experiences and share them with friends. Please feel free to comment if you like/dislike any post. Feel free to let me know if you find any factual errors. I particularly like the legends associated with places.

edf

HongYaGu: Chinese culture and the longest glass bridge

This is a travel blog of our trip to the longest glass bridge at Hongyagu, Hebei, China. We also witnessed many interesting cultural aspects during the trip.

The craze for glass bridges in China is huge. Almost every month, a new bridge is opened to public. There are more than 40 glass bridges in China, built in spectacular scenic areas. I have been to about half a dozen glass bridges/walkways around Beijing and have witnessed couple of major ones away from Beijing. In an earlier blog, I had written about the tallest and second longest bridge, at Zhangjiajie (https://china-diary.com/2019/05/30/a-dream-trip-to-zhangjiajie-the-avatar-mountains/). In this blog, I will try to describe our experience of the visiting the new, longest bridge at Hongyagu (red cliff valley) in Hebei province of China. This trip was also special due to the opportunity to get to know many aspects of Chinese culture.

This was a CET (Culture exchange trip) activity during the weekend of 9-10 March 2019. Hari showed interest and my friend at CET said this is a confirmed trip. The price was very reasonable, 510 RMB with the group discount. I booked for three of us, and we realized that there were only two more people other than us. We were wondering if the trip would get cancelled. Normally in the bus trips, if people are less than 10, they cancel as it doesn’t workout for them. Luckily, CET said they will still go ahead with the trip. Instead of bus, we will be put on the train, which is even better.

The CET leader was Dan, and we were five people: I, Hema and Hari, Maite Morales, a Puerto Rican and Sheldon Cox, an American. We caught the train K21 from Beijing Xi to Shijiazhuang at 8:18. The journey was comfortable, and we reached at 11:55. At Shijiazhuang, there was a driver with a 7-seater car waiting for us. Drive to the resort where our hotel was, took about an hour. The hotel, Youth inn (青年客栈), was comfortable. We kept the bag at the room, freshened up and left for the village. After lunch in a local restaurant, we went to the culture school, Hongya Academy.

Woodpecker

Two ladies got to wear Chinese traditional clothes. The teacher showed us how the greeting gestures used to be in ancient China. The fist and palm salute are a classic Chinese etiquette. Even now, Chinese people make fist and palm salutes when they are paying visit to someone during the traditional Chinese New Year, wedding reception, birthday or funeral. They say this started during the West Zhou Dynasty (BC 1046-BC 771). In this, first is standing at attention. For males it is right-hand half-fist, and then left hand holding the right hand in front of one’s chest. Watch each other in the eyes, raise both hand to brow, bent down and shake hands toward each other gently for three times. One can also say some greetings like: “nǐ hǎo”(你好, hello), ” xìnɡ huì”(幸会, very pleased to meet you), ” xīn nián kuài lè”( 新年快乐, happy new year) etc. to each other based on the occasion. A thing to be noted is, this is different from the hold fist salute used in Kung Fu.

Team in front of Hongya Academy

Next was an illustration of musical instruments, mainly drums and chimes (bells). The teacher showed how these were used in ancient times. Chinese chimes also originated in the Western Zhou Dynasty and became more popular during the Warring States period (770BC-221BC). The school had many different types of bells. This was an important instrument in ancient China. Made of bronze in different sizes and arranged in an order, to produce different music when hit with a wooden bar. These were played during feast, worship and other occasions. It can be used for solo or group singing and as a dance accompaniment. Our group tried their skills at both drums and bells.

Bells
Trying the drums

After this was the demonstration of Chinese block printing technology. Much before the invention of the printing press in Europe, the Chinese developed a kind of printing using carved wooden blocks. This was also due to the earlier Chinese inventions, paper and ink. Movable type (活字印刷术) is an improved system. The world’s first movable type printing press technology for printing paper books was made of clay materials and was invented around AD1040 in China during the Northern Song Dynasty by Bi Sheng.

Teacher helping with printing

The school has a large collection of the blocks. We all tried to print the poetry on white sheets provided and brought back the sheets as souvenirs.

The school has a section about the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Teacher explained with examples, the basics of TCM. With over 3000 years of experience, TCM is a key area in ancient Chinese culture. First known during the Yellow Emperor, TCM is believed to have been practiced in as early as 475 to 221 B.C. The basic principle of Traditional Chinese medicine believes that body is made of five elements i.e. metal, water, wood, fire and earth. An imbalance in these five elements is the cause of any illness in the body. The eight principles of differentiating diseases are yin (阴) and yang (阳), exterior (biao, 标) and interior (li, 里), xu (deficiency, 虚) and shi (excess, 实 ), and cold and heat. The teacher also explained various methods for maintaining balance in the body like acupressure and massages.

Teacher explaining TCM
With a local

Around 17:00 we left the school and moved to the square in Hongya village. The street had shops that sold exotic food and mementoes. We roamed around for some time and then had dinner at a local restaurant.  The town looked great at night with all the lighting. Dan said we will see a light show. What we witnessed was one of the most wonderful spectacles ever.

Group of people arranged coal fire in three places in the square and were heating something. Later I realized that in an alloy pot they were heating iron to melting. This is the famous ‘Dashuhua’ ( 打树花, hitting tree flowers) called so due to the molten iron resembling flowers falling from a tree when hit. The molten iron is picked up in a bamboo spoon and is hit with a paddle to create a large shower of starry sparks.  It was an amazing spectacle for about two hours, with groups doing dragon dances and group daances along with it. Dashuhua is certainly a high risk, high skill ancient art form. The performers were asking people to keep away. In the enthusiasm to video shoot the event, I didn’t even realize how my two T-shirts both got a hole in the back due to the molten iron!

Preparing the molten iron
Molten metal fireworks

Historically, Dashuhua started 500 years ago in the farming town of NuanQuan in Hebei. The town was poor and only the wealthy could afford put on a big firework display at the end of the lantern festival to mark the end of the celebration and to scare of the demons that may be on the way to village, so no harm would come to the towns and locals that year. The blacksmiths figured out that by splashing molten metal onto the walls of the city gates, they could create bright flower shapes like the firework effect. Over the years, the molten iron fireworks or Dashuhua performances have grown more popular and have overtaken the original fireworks display themselves. Other metals are also added now to make it more colorful.

After this there was “fast mask-changing”(biàn liǎn, 变脸) performance by an artist on the stage, as well as on ground for about half an hour. Bian Lian is an old dramatic art emerged during Qing dynasty, around 300 years ago, popular with Chinese opera from the Sichuan Province. It is considered a part of China’s cultural heritage and is the only art form to be ranked as a level two national secret. The purpose of different masks is to show different feelings. The skill and speed with which the artist changes the beautifully-painted masks, has thrilled the audiences for centuries. Performers gracefully raise their hands, turn their heads and swing their arms, each time boasting a new mask. The secret of how they manage to change from three to twenty masks during a single performance without anyone realizing the trick is mind-blowing. It is said that this started with people painting their faces to scare the animals. According to a legend, there was a hero who stole from the rich and distributed to the poor, changed his face to avoid getting caught.

Bian lian performance, unbleievable!
Artist in the crowd ( you can see him shaking hand with me 🙂 )

The artist showed brilliant moves and changed masks several times even before werealized. He also spit fire many times. When he came down, he did a shake hand with me, possibly because I was a foreigner. The whole atmosphere was electrifying.

We roamed around for some more time enjoying beauty of the village and went back to the hotel.

Next morning, we had typical Chinese breakfast at a nearby restaurant where many people were there. The restaurant had ancient Chinese poetry on its walls. We kept our bags in a common place and moved towards the glass bridge. It was quite a scenic walk to the site. There were wooden steps leading to a temple. The temple is beautiful and is in an amazing location. We spent some time at the temple and started climbing again. The steps were steep and Hema felt that it was tough. We reached the glass bridge at 10:20 and Dan distributed the tickets.

Taiwan Blue Magpie “Long Tailed Mountain Lady”
Temple on the way

Hongyagu Glass Suspension Bridge is at Hongyashan Scenic Area in Hebei Province, and links two peaks with the 488-meter long and 4-meter-wide glass suspension bridge. It officially opened to the public on Dec 24th, 2017. The bridge is constructed using suspended-cable structure and is made of 1,077 glass panels of four-centimeter thickness. It accommodates up to 600 people at the same time. It has a height of 218 meters and sways due to the suspension cables.

Sheldon Cox, Dan, Hema and Hari
Hema with Dan
A jump

There were many people on the bridge as expected. Some were enjoying, while some were scared. The scene all around from the middle of the bridge was spectacular. We took many pictures there and did some jumps before a security man came and asked not to do it.

We came down and proceeded to Shijiazhuang railway station. We had some food at the station . We caught the train Z54 at 15:02 and reached Beijing at 17:32. Though just a weekend trip, the Hongyagu experience was amazing. The culture training, the Dashuhua fireworks, the fast mask changing and of course the longest glass bridge were all wonderful experiences. Being in a small group was nice and Dan, the leader managed everything very well. Thanks to her also for correcting some of the content in this blog. Thanks to CET for this nice opportunity.

Soaking in the nature at Enshi

This is a travel blog of our visit to naturally beautiful Enshi in Hubei province of China. Wujiatai tea gardens, Shiziguan, Pingshan canyon, Daughter city, Suobuya stone forest and Tusi town were on the itinerary.

The Dragon boat festival of 2019 was on Friday, the 7th of June, and we were wondering where to go. Most trips looked repeat, while the advertisement from CET about a trip with the title “Enjoy blue river and green mountains” looked enticing. The picturse in the advertisement were unbelievably beautiful. The advertisement also said that they didn’t go to the more common places but went to some unique places. I shared this with Hari, and he showed interest. The CET bookings are not simple. I took help of Luffy to book. The price with Group discount was 1755RMB per person for round trip hard sleeper train (for those who are unfamiliar with normal trains of China, “hard sleeper” has nothing to do with the hardness of the bed. It is essentially three tier bed with the bed size lesser in width compared to that of the soft sleeper, which is two tier), two night’s stay, breakfasts, couple of meals and the local transport. Obviously very reasonable. The problem was there was no action for couple of days after paying the advance, and we were wondering if the trip would be there. I had also requested Luffy for soft sleepers as Hari wanted it, but there was no response. A day before, we were added to the group, with few people in it. On the day of leaving, Luffy shared the ticket pictures and we realized that they were all hard sleepers, also in different coaches. A bit of dampener, but we were happy that the trip was happening.

Photo by CET Monica shared in the advertisement

Enshi (恩施) is an autonomous prefecture city of Tujia and Miao people, in the southwest of the central Chinese province Hubei. The whole region is known for a mountainous landscape with immense natural beauty of soaring mountains, deep canyons, rivers and great waterfalls. Most of the scenic spots are within a couple of hours driving distance from the city. The history of Enshi can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) as the domain of Bazi Kingdom. Through thousand years of changes, the present territory of the city was decided in 1925. It was called Exi (Western Hubei) Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture and changed to Enshi ten years later.

We reached the Beijing west railway station on Thursday evening and met the leader, Ellen and her friend Dora. The team size was small, with three Albanians Arjan, Meggy and Joni, a German, Peter and three of us. After checking in and settling in our seats, Ellen made Peter to exchange his seat making Hema and me to be in the same area.  The journey was comfortable and enjoyable. In the morning after crossing rivers and bridges, at 7:10, I could see the train stopping at Yichang Dong station. We reached Enshi at 9:10. In about 10 minutes, we were picked up by a 15-seater van. There were two people in the van, the driver and a young boy, Xianglong (向龙) who was the local guide. The vehicle moved out of the busy, but well decorated city streets to the lush green outskirts, reaching the first scenic spot of the day, the Wujiatai ( 吴家台) tea gardens round 11:30.

Most curves on the moutain roads had these tyres
Wujiatai Tea Gardens
The team: Dora, Ellen, Hari, Arjan, Peter, Meggy, Hema, Joni

It was beautiful site with the tea gardens all around us and attractions like a pavilion and a large tea pot shaped building. Unlike at the tea gardens I had seen before in India, here people used motorized cutters with a large bag attached to it to pluck the tea leaves. We also saw families working together at the gardens. We spent an hour at the tea gardens and moved on, stopping at a small restaurant for lunch. The restaurant was homely with a very amicable owner lady. As it was the Dragon boat festival day, we had on the menu Zongzi (粽子, a traditional Chinese steamed rice cake of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves). The Hubei variety wasn’t sweet and didn’t have a filling.

Pavilion
Tea pot
With locals
Husband and wife team
Daughter with collected flowers
Light vented Bulbul, or Chinese Bulbul
Collared Finchbill
Zongzi at lunch
Amicable restaurant owner

After lunch, we were taken to the next sight, Shiziguan scenic spot. It took about 90 minutes’ drive through scenic, mountainous roads.

Shiziguan (狮子关, lion pass) scenic area, in Xuan’en County has a classical entrance arch that leads to an amazing path through the wilderness that runs parallel to a blue stream. A little ahead was the long floating bridge, or the board walk. The half a kilometer-long floating bridge built along Shiziguan river is an engineering marvel. This was opened to public in May 2016, providing easy access to people to this rather inaccessible place. So many cars cruised on it effortlessly, each time creating big waves in the in the water.  This wooden bridge is considered one among the most amazing walkways in the world and provided beautiful views of the valley. We crossed the bridge and went on top of a hill from where we could see the bridge nicely. From there, we continued walking along the river. There was an elevated path next to the normal road. The view of the blue river with a cloud of mist running on was breathtaking. This led to a place where there were several people boating through the clear water. There is also a small power station here.

Great Tit
Floating Bridge
Shiziguan
Floating Bridge as seen from top
Power station
Geysers
A picture to remember
Mesmerising mist
A young onlooker
Natue’s splendour
Lion Cave
Cliff Coffin
Head of the Lion with Nine Sons
Rain walking

Walking through the misty woods was certainly surreal. There were many small waterfalls and rock formations along the way. It was around 16:00 when we crossed the lion cave and moved on to a road covered with water, with myriad rock formations on either side, named based on their appearance and some Chinese legends. We also saw a cliff coffin on one side (Cliff burial: this funeral rite sees the corpse protected with ghee (a form of clarified butter), salt and perfume and placed in a wooden casket. Next, the monks attending the body transport the box to a natural or man-made cliffside cave and place it beside other remains. The elevation depends on the social status of the departed. More details of ancient Chinese funeral practices can be found in my blog : https://china-diary.com/2018/05/16/journey-to-qinghai-and-gansu-visiting-very-beautiful-qinghai-lake-and-colorful-danxia/).

Lion Roars

In most places, we were walking through flooding roads, with our shoes fully wet. It started raining. Hema and Dora got a drop by a passing car. While the others enjoyed drenching in the rain, I had to have my umbrella open because of my camera. It was 17:15 by the time we reached the end of the scenic area. We were picked up by the driver and were taken to the hotel in Hefeng ( town. We had dinner in a local restaurant and rested. 鹤峰 In most places, we were walking through flooding roads, with our shoes fully wet. It started raining. Hema and Dora got a drop by a passing car. While the others enjoyed drenching in the rain, I had to have my umbrella open because of my camera. It was 17:15 by the time we reached the end of the scenic area. We were picked up by the driver and were taken to the hotel in Hefeng (鹤峰 )town. We had dinner in a local restaurant and rested.

Next morning, we left the hotel by 7:30, stopped on the way for breakfast and continued to reach Pingshan at 8:30.

The Pingshan (屏山) Scenic Area is 11 kilometers away from Hefeng County. This place is rustic and difficult to access. The scenery is filled with high cliffs, green mountains, and clear, running water. A stone bridge connects the two sides of Pingshan Village.

Pingshan Canyon
The bridge

The canyon (Duobi Ravine, named after the shelter constructed by Rongmei Tusi, a former administrator) has a depth of 1,000 meters and a length of 18 kilometers. Mountain cliffs stand tall on both sides. The entrance had colored flags leading to the stone bridge, and then to an observation deck and the Ex voto (a religious offering given in order to fulfill a vow) cave. A folk style gate (Tusi village gate) leads to the cave which has 730 downward steps.

Downward cave
Plumbeous Water Redstart
Scene from the boat
A clip from the boat
The sky and the bridge, as seen from the boat

The exit of the cave lead to the valley where a barrage made a beautiful waterfall. We reached a dock where people were waiting in the queue for the boat ride through the incredibly beautiful clear waters. The air was fresh and cool. The sight of boats leaving and the empty boats returning through the canyon was amazing. As the crowd was large, it took about 50 minutes to get our turn, and we got on to the boat at 9:40. What followed was a first of its kind sailing through breathtaking scenery for about 30 minutes.

Team with local guide Xianglong (向龙)
Hanging bridge
Indian greeting
Albanian greeting

After getting down from the boat, we crossed a beautiful wooden hanging bridge, on which we took many photos. A little ahead, people had queued up for taking pictures on the boat. These are the famous pictures where because the water is very clear, it looks like the boat is in the air. It was time to hike now. First was through the Gangbu (罡步) high ladder, steep steps on the cliff and then through the sky street (天街)to the Moga (墨嘎) village. It was about an hour’s steep climbing and Hema was tired. We caught the van, continued our journey and stopped for lunch around 12:45. The journey continued after lunch and we took a break at 15:45 at a restaurant where they were selling Zongzi and fried fish.

Around 17:10, the driver stopped at the road side, said by bye to us and started walking. A lady came and took his seat. Later we came to know that they were a husband-wife team and shared the responsibility equally. We later found that the lady (Ke jie 柯姐) was a faster driver and cruised the hilly, winding roads with equal ease! She also sang folk songs well. The next destination was Daughter city. Like the ancient streets seen earlier, the Daughters’ City is a traditional street with restaurants, shops and entertainment like music and dance. The street also has unique Tujia sculptures. We went around for some time and settled in a place where they were cleaning ears at the price of 30 RMB per person. Many in our group tried this. After this we proceeded to Longxi town of Enshi city, where our hotel was located. We reached the hotel “Thank you” at 19:45. The hotel is quite large and has a traditional décor.

Daughters city
Sugar artist
Beggar’s Chicken: a dish of chicken that is stuffed, wrapped in clay and lotus leaves, and baked in low heat
Ear cleaning
Noodle artist
Hotel Thank you
One of the good luck charms at the hotel

That evening Peter wanted to see the ladies football world cup match and called us in a restaurant behind the hotel. I and Hari joined him for some time. As I didn’t see the match coming up, I returned to the hotel.

Next morning, we had breakfast in a restaurant near the hotel, and left at 8:00. We reached the Suobuya Stone Forest around 9:30.

Suobuya Stone Forest ( 梭布垭石林) is the second biggest of its kind in China, the largest being the one in Kunming, Yunnan.  It is ranked highest nationwide in the vegetation.  Due to the thick vegetation like a cap on the rock formations, it is called “the capped stone forest”. Its limestone deposits formed more than 460 million years ago, sculpted by water, gradually developed into different layers with horizontal textures. There are more than 100 classic natural scenes here. The Orsun Co. which is the operator and developer of Suobuya has invested 15 billion Yuan to upgrade the scenic area. At present, there are four main scenic spots open to the public. They are Qinglong temple, Lianhua village, Mozi Gully and Jiulonghui.

According to a legend, in ancient time, the King of Xiang united five different tribes of Ba people and became their captain. One day he came across a place with three strategically significant mountain passes in a row. So, he named this place “Suobuya”, because in Ba language, “sobu” means ‘three’ and ‘ya’ means “mountain pass”.

entrance of Suobuya stone forest

The entrance was impressive, and first view was unbelievable. A couple was renting the local tribal dress for photography. Joni, Hema and I tried the dress. After the photo session, we continued into the path watching the wonderful rocks. They have been named based on how they appear. The whole place is surreal. After watching the different rock forms, we moved to wards the caves. The sealing of the caves at a place is open to sky in such a way that it looks like a bird spreading its wings so that it can fly high, and thus called as “Eagle stretching wings”. Walking further led to some more rock formations. Some of the caves had colored glowing lights like a normal practice in China. There was folk song singing completion between couple of men on one side and many women on the opposite side, all dressed in traditional Tujia robes. We too joined the singing.

We roamed around the place for some more time. Ellen had brought a drone which she used to record some videos.

Bollywood steps in Tujia costume
A web on the way
Lotus Hall
Resuscitation: A legend has it that the abbot of green Dragon temple used to practice in this place. He became immortal after he understood the true meaning of Zen since he was blessed by Buddha
Buddha’s Hand
Croaking Frogs
Thumb Hill
Standing upright
Capped peaks
Eagle stretching wings
Bonfire Stone
Beauty snake looking back
Book on Turtle
Folk singers
Singing competition
Making Zongzi
White browed Laughing Thrush
Kejie singing

We left the place at 12:15 and took a 15 minutes ride on a local bus to a stop near a road side restaurant. The lunch was delicious. After lunch, we were picked up by Ke jie and we moved to our last destination of the trip, the Tusi town. It took about 90 minutes to reach the gate, which is a classic Pagoda style wooden building. The Tangya Tusi ancient city is a world heritage site of about 2 square kilometers area. The entrance leads through a path along the Tangya (唐崖) river and to another large entrance.  to an ancient township. Inside, there are several places that display and sell typical Tujia artefacts and food. In the central stage, a group of dancers was performing. After several minutes, the dance troupe moved from the stage to outdoors and continued there. People also joined them here. We watched the show for some time, and moved to the main attraction of Tusi, the ‘Palace’ or the royal mansion, which is the largest and most complex building in the area.

Wooden formations on which the soldeirs practiced
One of the many wooden dragons
Gong
One of the dancers
Dancing
Tusi Palace
Generations of Tusi leaders pictures displayed in the palace
Fu: Fortune, blessing, happiness

Tusi (土司) means chieftain, normally appointed by the king. The hereditary tribal leaders were recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. They ruled the respective ethnic minorities on behalf of the central government. This arrangement is generally known as the Tusi System. The imperial palace was originally built on 1346 during the reign of Emperor Shundi in the Yuan Dynasty, was destroyed and restored several times later. Tusi town is impressive with Tujia architectural features. Mainly the Jiujin (nine courtyards) hall at the center of the area, consists of hanging house, waving hands hall, official hall, study hall, terrace and a stage. With pavilions of several levels, engraved pillars and carved windows and doors, it is a remarkable building. The palace also had exhibition and sale of some artefacts and silver jewelry.

The time was close to 16:30 and we decided to leave for the Railway station. It took about half an hour to reach the railway station. The train Z50, was at 17:37. One we were in the train, Ellen managed to bring the whole group together by exchanging seats with others. It was a remarkable managing ability! By now we were also familiar with each other and being together allowed us to play some games. Interesting one was a kind of dumb charade where we put a sticker on the forehead of the player with a word written on it, and the person must guess the word by asking yes/no questions to the crowd. It was funny and relaxing. After a good night’s sleep, we reached Beijing West railway station in the morning.

With Kejie, the dynamic driver
On the train

The three-day trip to Enshi was enjoyable due to: wonderful natural scenery, good organization by CET, particularly by Ellen and the nice company of participants. It was well spent three days. The beautiful nature will remain etched in my memory forever. One of the drone videos recorded by Ellen is here.

A dream trip to Zhangjiajie, the “Avatar mountains”

This blog is about the four day trip to Zhangjiajie, the Avatar moutains in Hunan province of China during the labor holidays of May 2019.

A dream trip to Zhangjiajie, the “Avatar mountains”

Zhangjiajie was on my bucket list ever since I landed in China on December 14, 2015. It took three and a half years to get the opportunity.  We had a four consecutive days labor holiday from 1st to 4th May 2019. I booked the trip that looked quite reasonable (1750 RMB excluding food and entry tickets). Our good friend Amy at FCN was helpful in booking.

For those who are unfamiliar, Zhangjiajie (张家界, Zhāngjiājiè) is a small city in Hunan Province, China. It is very popular due to the richness of stunning nature, mainly, Tianmen Mountain and Wulingyuan. The city’s name was Dayong until 1994, when it was renamed to link it to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (after a tiny village by name Zhangjiajie Cun). It was the first national park of China, created in 1982. Zhangjiajie is famous for its 3,000 vertical pillars formed by erosion, each hundreds of feet tall and covered in thick greenery. The 2009 James Cameron movie, Avatar used these amazing mountains as the backdrop and since then Zhangjiajie became famous as “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain”. Now it draws more than 30 million tourists every year. To attract more tourists to the area, a new attraction, the longest glass bridge in the world, was built in the national park in 2015. Now it is the second longest, as the one in Hongyagu is longer. Ancient history of Zhangjiajie says that the first human existence in this area has been long ago. According to a legend, Zhang Liang, a well-known strategist of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD), lived here after leaving the imperial court. As he feared Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han dynasty, who had ordered some of his subjects to bed executed thinking that they might revolt against him. Zhang found Qingyan (now Zhangjiajie) mountain as an ideal refuge due to inaccessibility. He became a hermit inspired by its haunting beauty and serenity. It is said that he planted seven ginkgo trees here and was buried below the mountain after his death. Zhang’s descendants also are believed to have lived here. Thus, the name Zhangjiajie originated. Zhang for Zhang Liang’s surname, Jia is family and Jie represents the border.

I was aware that due to the holidays, the place will be crowded, but didn’t want to let go the opportunity. Our group size was small, only 11 people, and a leader, Ada Yang, whom I had known from earlier Qinghai trip. The team had people from Belarus, China, Germany, Italy, Spain and Ukraine.

Decorartion at the railway station

On Tuesday, April 30, we gathered at Beijing west Railway station at 11:30, and Ada gave us the tickets. The train K 267 left sharp at 13:22. Our team was in different coaches, and I and Hema had middle and upper berths in the same place. The journey was enjoyable as the train, as always, was clean and tidy, except for the fact that the slow trains ( speeds between 150-200kmph) in China allow smoking in the designated areas. The scene outside was breathtaking. After about 23.5 hours Zhangjiajie station at 12:40 the next day. We were picked up in two 7-seater cars and were taken to the first attraction, Tianmenshan. It took about 40 minutes by car to reach the parking lot. During the travel, we could see that the city of Zhangjiajie was very clean and looked beautiful with flower arrangements everywhere.   

Smoking area in the train
View from the train
View from the train

Tianmenshan (天 門 山 , Tiānmén Shān) means gate of heaven mountain. There is a cave slit on top of the mountain that indeed looks like a gate. This is a place where as per legends, the gods meet humans.

Entrance of Tianmenshan
The card ticket

Ada gave us all card tickets that could be used for all four days. We entered the tourist area of Tianmenshan and waited for the bus to take us to the base of Tianmen cave. We got into the bus at 14:20. What followed was the most thrilling bus ride I ever had!

Tianmenshan Big Gate Road (Tianmen Winding Mountain Road) is 11 Km long from the bottom to the top. The start point is Tongtian Avenue (Avenue toward Heaven). The highest point of the road is at 1.300m above sea level, and the lowest point is 200m. The construction of the road took eight years, finishing in 2006. This road has 99 turns, symbolizing that Heaven has nine palaces. This road has been considered as one of the most spectacular roads in the world by the dangerousroads.org. It was amazing to see so many buses cruising both ways (no divider in between) effortlessly. They have speed monitors in the curves along with the speed limit. The view on the way was unbelievably beautiful. The 11 km journey too 20 minutes, and we were at the place where the 999 steps (as Tianti, or the Celestial/Heaven Reaching Ladder) start. We decided to the take the escalator that runs through a tunnel in the mountains. This is one more architectural marvel. The tunnel is 897 meters long and goes to a height of 340 meters. It is equipped with 16 sets of 30-meter heavy-duty escalators and three sets of 20-meter ones. These escalators can carry 3,600 tourists for one-way trip per hour, running directly from Tianmen Hole to the top of Tianmen Mountain. After the first section of the escalator, we reached the famous Tianmen hole, spent some time there and proceeded further.

Tianmenshan Big Gate Road as seen from the top
View from the bus
View from the bus
Tianmen cave
In front of the Heaven reaching Ladder and the Tianmen cave
Escalator through a tunnel in the mountains
Team on top of Yunmeng fairy peak
Jump! Ada, Julie, Anna and Hema
Forest sightseeing cable car
View from the forest sightseeing cable car
Path leading to the cave of goddess of mercy
Stille with many wishing ribbons
Wishing well
Pied wagtail, a visitor to the temple
Tianmenshan temple
One of the Buddhas
Outside the temple

The view on top of Yunmeng fairy peak was spectacular. We could see the winding Tianmen Shan Big Gate Road and the town. The place was very beautiful with greenery all over, wild flowers and birds. We also had long photo sessions there. We could see the Tianmen temple on a nearby hill to which there was an open type cable car. I asked Ada if we could go there. Though that was not in the itinerary, she obliged, and we took cable car to the Tianmen temple. As it was an open car that offered all round view (forest sightseeing cable car), it was very enjoyable. We first went a bit ahead, through a very scenic wooden path and visited a stille and a wishing pond. The route was further leading to the cave of goddess of mercy, but we came back to the main temple as it was already getting late. The Temple was first built in the Tang Dynasty as a center of Buddhism in western Hunan. The present Temple is rebuilt in the same place in the Qing Dynasty style. The temple has an imposing, beautiful structure. The Buddha figures were beautiful. We spent some time there and took the cable car back to the Yunmeng fairy peak and walked to the cable car station. There were many people waiting and we were given a time slot ‘N’. The wait was for an hour and we got our turn a 19:55. took the cable car back to the entrance of the park, which was close to our hotel. This cable car was an amazing experience too. The cableway in Tianmen Mountain is the world’s longest at a length of 7,455 meters. It runs between the city downtown and the peak. The cableway throughput is 1,000 passengers per hour, and it averages 28 minutes per trip. It was quite dark, and we couldn’t see the scenery around, but the city lights were looking beautiful. At times the car went through very dark places. After the exciting ride, we reached the lower station at 20:23, exactly after 28 minutes.

City lights seen from the cable car

Ada had already ordered dinner in a nearby restaurant and it was 22:00 by the time we finished our dinner and walked to the hotel (1982 First Hotel). The room was comfortable, and the décor had the typical local design.

Decor at the hotel
Line of restaurants

The breakfast the next day was in a nearby restaurant, the coupons for which were available at our hotel for 15 RMB. While the breakfast of mantou, egg, vegetables, porridge was good, it was surprising to see all the cutlery being single use plastic.

A sculpture in the town

After the breakfast, we walked through the market to the entrance of Zhangjiajie national park at Wulingyuan. We were at the gate by 7:45 and took a customary group pic in front of the impressive Pagoda. The entry needed the card and scanning one’s finger. As expected, there were lot of people in the queue, the crowd much bigger than the previous day. It took about 30 minutes to get our turn into the ferrying bus. The bus took about 25 minutes through very scenic locations, crossing hills and lakes, to a place, where we could see emerging tall mountains. We reached the Yuanjiajie area where there was a queue for the Bailong elevator.

At the entrance of the park: Ada, Luca, Liza, Paulina, Marika, Julia, Anna, Chiara, Hema, Jose and Wang Shi
Young tourist
Disposal of lighters before the security check
Queue for the buses

The Bailong (Hundred Dragons) Elevator is a 335 m tall glass elevator built onto the side of a huge cliff in the Yuanjiajie scenic area. The construction started in October 1999, and it was opened to the public in 2002. There are three lift rooms that can take 48 passengers at a time to the top, with a speed of 3.0 minutes per second. It is the world’s tallest outdoor sightseeing elevator and the fastest passenger elevator with the biggest capacity.

Bailong Elevator
Posing for the video
View from the enchanting terrace

The journey took about 2 minutes. It was an amazing feeling seeing the light and the scene outside after the dark beginning. We had few minutes at a view point here, and I and Hema did a video shooting where they super impose our video into that of Zhangjiajie’s 3D scenery with wonderful effects. The cost was 240 RMB for a flash drive with the 3 minutes movie. Ada was already waiting for us and we had to rush back quickly to proceed for the further spots. The sigh seeing was along a wooden path overlooking the major sights of Yuanjiajie, also known as “Natural oxygen bar”. This is also the place that was used as the backdrop in the movie “Avatar”. Huge rocks with unique shapes rising from deep valleys and surrounded by higher mountains. Offers a breathtaking sight and looks like a painting. We saw the key attractions “Qian Kun Column” (The Pillar between Heaven and Earth) or Southern Sky Column, enchanting terrace (when you stand in this observation platform, the soul will be fascinated by the landscape), an iron bridge that leads to the No.1 Bridge under Heaven. This natural stone bridge, connecting two mountain peaks, is 3 meters wide, 40 meters long, and 5 meters thick. People believe that walking on this bridge will bring good health and longevity. This bridge leads to a place where people have tied lot of wishing ribbons to the railings. Ada had stayed back and few of us had proceeded to the next bus stop.  We messaged Ada to join us and has a lunch break at the KFC there.

A panaromic view from the Enchanting terrace
South heaven pillar
Metal bridge
No.1 Bridge under Heaven
Flora

We took the bus for the next stop, the Yanjiajie area. The journey was scenic. We reached the place that led to Wulong village and Tianbo mansion. This was through very narrow openings between the rocks. Hema decided to stay back as the trail was getting tricky. Wulong Village is supposed to be one of the most dangerous attractions of Yangjiajie. It was a refuge of thieves in ancient times. The area is ~300 meters high and is surrounded by steep cliffs. In most places, the climb was through stairs made of rods. The next was Tianbo Mansion, a set of rocks named after Yang Family’s Mansion in Tianbo. The actual gallery, Tianbo mansion is through a hanging bridge between two peaks. Some of us crossed the bridge but returned as the gallery was too crowded. We found a much calmer place to see the Tianbo Mansion. We could see the 10 parallel stone wall peaks like city walls.

Trail
Wulong village thread valley
Hanging bridge at Tianbo Mansion
Hills like city walls at Tianbo Mansion
Ladders made of rods

We came back, joined Hema and move to the next spot, the Tianzi mountain. The first stop was at the bronze statue of Marshal Helong, created by Pan He, a professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. Next to it was a beautiful Pagoda in which silver artefacts and souvenirs sold.

Marshal Helong, created by Pan He
Pagoda where artefacts are displayed and sold
Wild flowers
Yubi Feng (Emperor’s Writing Brush Peak )

According to a legend, Tianzi Mountain gets its name from an ethnic Tujia man named Xiang Dakun. The Tuija are an ethnic minority, and in the 1300s, Xiang Dakun led his people in a peasant uprising. He and his men fought against the Emperor’s soldiers for 40 days before they were finally defeated, fought until he was forced back to the edge of the mountain’s cliff and then fell to his death. After his death, his lover covered the cliff with flowers, which supposedly explains the flowers that cover the place today. Another legend states that the Tianzi peaks are Xiang Dakun’s writing brushes, which turned to stone after his death. Yubi Feng or “Emperor’s Writing Brush Peak” is the most famous peak here.

It is the legend that gives Tianzi Mountain its name. “Tianzi” means “Son of Heaven” and is a title usually reserved for the emperor. But, in revolt, Xiang Dakun chose to own the name by calling himself “Tianzi.” The mountain sometimes is also called as Emperor Mountain.

A young girl displaying acrobatic skills

Around 18:00, we took a bus back to the entrance of the park. The journey was for about 30 minutes, though lakes and mountains while the sun was setting. After returning, Hema and I had dinner at a local restaurant.

Next morning, once gain we had breakfast at the same restaurant, and a bus picked us up at 7:45 at the hotel. The journey to the gate of the Grand Canyon took about an hour. The cameras were not allowed at the glass bridge, so we left it on the bus. Once again, there was long line for entry to the glass bridge.

Zhangjiajie glass bridge

The Glass Bridge across the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon was the longest (430 meters) in the world when built. It is 6 meters wide and has a height of about 300 meters (tallest in the world). Designed by Israeli Haim Dotan Architects in 2012, the bridge can hold 800 tourists at a time and a maximum of 8000 persons per day. It provides amazing views of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. We entered the bridge at 9:45 and spent around half an hour clicking pictures with the mobile phone.

With Hema, Luca and Ada
View from the glass bridge
Difficult not to get other people!
Glass bridge as seen fron the Grand Canyon

We walked down through a kind of cave to reach an elevator within the hills, that took us down to the Grand Canyon. From there, we started walking along the golden whip stream. It is about 5.7 kms long wooden walking path with mountains on the right and the river on the left. On the way, there are scenic spots like “Flying Fox Rushing Downhill”, “Pearl Wall & Waterfall of Butterfly Spring”, “Swallow Cliff”, “Bandit’s cave” etc. After walking for about two hours in pristine nature, at 12:30 we reached a spot where we took a houseboat and sailed in tranquility for the next 45 minutes. 

Grand canyon
Paths designed beautifully to enjoy the scenery
Sunrays on a cave
Bandit’s cave
The dock

It was close to 15:00, and we were at the “oxygen square”, entrance of the park now, and had to walk through the park for couple of hours to the next bus stop. Some of them had forgotten their access cards and Ada was dealing with it. She asked four of us, who had our card, to walk through the park next to the river. She showed it in the map and it looked OK. We (I, Hema and Anna, Julie-the two Ukrainian girls) started on a natural trail, next to the river. The route was beautiful, but surprisingly there was no one. The route was getting more scenic, but slippery trail at some places due to the green moss grown. We didn’t see the landmarks that we were supposed to see based on the map. In many places, we also saw the buses moving on the road at a distance. We knew could see based on some of the landmarks and the map that we were not in the right route. The two girls seemed to enjoy the adventure, while Hema was tired and was upset with our judgement and situation.

We saw some monkeys on the way and after about one and a half hours walk through wild trails, saw people and realized that it was a bus stop. I checked with a staff there and realized that we need to go to Oxygen square again by bus, so that we can walk in the right path! I messaged Ada, and she was still at the Oxygen square. We caught the next bus and reached the oxygen square bus stop at 17:00 and started walking with Ada, this time through the right path, i.e., along the golden whip stream.  Obviously, we saw many people walking both ways on this road.  Also, we could witness the landmarks mentioned in the map. The key one is the “Golden whip rock” due to which the stream gets its name. This rock looks like a Chinese ancient weapon Bian (鞭,or Whip). It is said that Qinshihuang (Emperor Qin, the first emperor of Qin Dynasty) passed by the stream on thinking to fill the sea with mountains. He was drunk and left his weapon Bian. The weapon turned into a stone peak, the Golden Whip Rock. To the left is a hawk-shaped stone peak. This is called the “holy hawk guarding the whip”. All along there are boards explaining the scenic spots like “Water Winding Four Gates”, “The Welcoming Guests Rock” etc. The whole place is maintained with immaculate cleanliness. We reached the bus stop around 18:45 and reached the Wulingyuan entrance by 19:10. Most people wanted to eat Pizza. Ada, Hema and I went to a restaurant that was crowded and looked popular.  They said the waiting time would be an hour. So, we moved to the next restaurant, which didn’t have many people. Here they didn’t say the waiting period, but the delivery was after an hour (😊). Ada, knowing our food restrictions, had ordered for a chicken and a vegetable dish, and asked for spicy as we liked it spicy. After about half an hour the chef came and explained Ada that the dish can’t be made spicy! (The city and the province are known for spicy food). We had walked ~34,000 steps (~25 kms) by the time we reached the hotel room.

The river
Wild trail where we got lost
Wife expecting husband peak
A fairy land place in the highest of heavens
Slippery trail
Mother and child
Entrance of the “Oxygen Bar”
Pipit
The Welcoming Guests Rock
Chopped off peak
Red billed magpie
Golden whip stream
Golden whip rock and the hawk
Spring of longevity
Reunion

Next day was our last day at Zhangjiajie. We checked out in the morning and packed few dumplings and milk for breakfast from a street vendor in front of the hotel and proceeded to the Park.  We were at the intersection of the Ten mile gallery around 8:00. The “Ten mile gallery” (十里画廊, Shi Li Hua Lang) is a 5.8 kilometers long wooden path that allows visitors to view the beautiful dense forest and over 200 rock peaks that are named based on their unique shapes. This looks like a natural art gallery. There is also a mini train along this path that allows people to view the scenery with out having to walk.

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Immortals Worshipping Guanyin
Forefinger peak
Old man gathering the herbs
Mouse looking at the sky
Three sisters

Some of the rock names are: Longevity Man Greeting Visitors, Herb Collecting Old Man, Immortals Worshipping Guanyin (a Bodhisattva), Conch Peak, Monkey Slope, Ferocious Tiger Roaring, three sisters (the left is the eldest sister who has great hair carrying a child ready to return to her family. The middle is the younger sister who takes her baby in her arms to look forward to the safe return of her husband. The right peak humps just like a pregnant woman, this is the little sister who is just married) and Mouse Watching the Sky. The walk to the other end took about 20 minutes. There is a place that sells snacks, fruits and souvenirs. We spent some time clicking pictures and walked back.

Journey to the railway station took about one and a half hour. Our train scheduled for 12:38 as late by few minutes. We ate the instant noodles and self-heating rice before we got into the train. The journey back to Beijing was comfortable and we reached at 12:00 on Sunday, 5th May. The subway station had long queues for the security check as expected. We reached home in about an hour and half.

The visit to Zhangjiajie will remain green in my memory forever. The haunting beauty of the rock pillars/peaks is unforgettable. It was really a dream come true to have witnessed this natural spectacle. Thanks to FCN and Ada for the opportunity and guidance, and to the teammates for the nice company.

Trip to the grasslands and desert of Inner Mongolia

This is a travel blog of our trip to Xilamuren grasslands and Kubuqi desert of Inner Mongolia, China, during the Qingming festival in April 2019.

I had been to the grasslands of Fengning Bashang and Gannan before but had not seen a proper desert. So, we decided to go to Inner Mongolia during the Qing Ming (Tomb sweeping) holiday of three days between April 5th to 7th, 2019. While the trip was available both with FCN (Foreigners China) and CET (Culture Exchange Trip), I decided to go with FCN due to better familiarity with the former.

Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region bordering to the north with both the Republic of Mongolia and Russia. It is the widest province in China by latitude. It is the third largest Chinese province but is not very populated. Hohhot is the capital of Inner Mongolia.

Booking the trip was easy as it is always with FCN. The bus journey was going to be long. They decided to start early in the morning at 4:30 to beat the holiday traffic, which meant we had to take the taxi too early. Not to take a chance, we came down from home at 3:15 in the morning and looked for a DD taxi. It was quick to get and quick to reach Huixinxijienankou as the road was empty. People started coming slowly. There were more than 50 people with two leaders, the main leader being Evelyn and the assistant Kardelen.  The tourists were from many different countries, as always with FCN. Though we left Beijing early, the traffic was still high with so many vehicles moving out of the city due to the long weekend. With few breaks in between, we reached the first stop, the Xilamuren grasslands (希拉穆仁草原) around 13:45, after 9 hours journey. Xilamuren means “yellow river” in Mongolian, which indicates the nearest river. This grassland has been developed as a sightseeing destination and have many yurts for tourist’s stay. The grassland was dry as it was almost end of winter.

As soon as we got down from the bus, we were offered a bowl of wine (possibly horse milk wine, as its offering is a gesture of hospitality of the Mongolian people). Soon we had lunch at the central restaurant. Lunch consisted of mantou, rice, fried vegetables and meat in typical Mongol style. The resort was beautifully designed as a typical Mongolian township with symmetrically built cottages like yurts. After lunch we were led to horse riding. There were other groups too, making the total number of people riding horses very high and when it attained good speed, it looked like an army. Normally, the horses were well trained and all of them followed a set path. There were few guides on the horse back to help people having difficulty. The horse riding that went for more than an hour, was more enjoyable than the one’s I had done before, though the rising dust was a drawback.

Main building of the resort
Yurts, bit messy due to the ongoing work
Lunch
With Hema on the horseback

Evening there was dinner with some people performing (music, singing and dance) in Mongolian traditional dress. The FCN advertisement had said “dining ceremony of the roasted whole lamb”, so I was expecting to see roasting of a whole lamb as I had seen before at Fengning Bashang. But it was a bit disappointing to see just some roasted lamb, that I didn’t even recognize, served at the dinner table. After dinner, we were given the keys to our yurts. The yurts looked comfortable, but for the scarcity of water. There was some construction going on to build more yurts, and there was no flowing water. We were given a bucket of water to use, and I requested Evelyn to provide one more as we couldn’t manage.  Also, it was cold, and the air conditioners had only few remote controllers, thus each one had to switch on and return the key to Evelyn. She must have had a tough time catering to the needs of so many people. Later at 21:00 in the night we watched a performance by the local artists on an outdoor stage, while having a bonfire.

Sunrise on the Yurts
With Joey

Next morning, we got up to a stunning sunrise. There was no chance of shower due to water shortage. Breakfast was of mantou and vegetables was at 6:00. We met Joey, a very amicable FCN guide from Suzhou and Harbin trips in the morning. She had brought a team from Tianjin. We left at 7:35 by our bus for the Kubuqi desert. The bus went through long highways and tunnels. The view was a bit dry all around We stopped for lunch around 12:30, The lunch place was a large hall with hundreds of people, but the service was quick.

We travelled for about 20 minutes again and reached the Kubuqi desert (库布齐沙漠) around 13:45. This is the seventh biggest desert in China with an area about 18,600 sq km. Kubuqi is a Mongolian word meaning the bowstring. This desert is like a string tying to the Yellow River bow, thus the name. It is known that the desert was much bigger and has shrunk due to the measures taken for reforestation (http://time.com/4851013/china-greening-kubuqi-desert-land-restoration/, http://www.ecns.cn/hd/2018-08-08/detail-ifywwxaw2290256.shtml). Some part of the desert is now being used for tourism.

Sand sculptures of Genghis Khan and other Mongol warriors

There were huge sand sculptures of Genghis Khan and other Mongol warriors in front of which I asked the group to take a picture. Evelyn distributed our tickets that had all the activities listed. We were taken through the desert by a special all terrain vehicle. The twenty minutes ride through the desert going up and down, was very thrilling. Once we reached the activity area, the team got dispersed based on the activity of interest. Most of the things had long queues. We started with ziplining, followed by a camel ride. Normally eight camels, tied to each other, travel together like a caravan. There will be one guide per group. After some waiting, we got our turn and enjoyed a long ride on the camel back. These camels are double humped, making it more convenient to sit. Still, at times, you feel like you might slip and fall.  We tried all the activities, sometime waiting for long time to get our turn. The whole area is kept clean and tidy, and the quality of the equipment is good. We had a wonderful afternoon and finally came down sliding on a wooden plank. At 17:30 we caught the toy train back to the parking area.

Vehicle used for ferrying tourists
One of the entrances
Camel ride
Hema enjoying sliding down
A bulldozer carrying the slide boards up
Genghis Khan
Just one spelling error 🙂
A cute kid and her mother on the toy train

The bus left at 18:30 for Hohhot city. We decided to have dinner before going to the hotel and had a hotpot dinner. It was 22:00 by the time we reached our hotel. The city, capital of Inner Mongolia looked big and had great infrastructure, like all other cities in China. Hohhot is supposed to have a history of more than 2000 years, but major rebuild has been about 400 years back during the Ming period. There is a story of San Niang Zi, a local brave and beautiful girl loved and married a tribal leader, Altan Khan, who was descendent of Genghis Khan and they built the city. San Niang Zi is supposed to have personally designed the city.

Hotpot dinner

The hotel, Jiahaoyujing (嘉豪御景) seemed grand. It was hot in the room and we didn’t know how to switch on the air conditioner. I was in a greater shock when I realized that there was no water in the bathroom! We badly needed a shower, and I messaged Evelyn to help us. After some time, an old helper (in full suite, very well dressed) came and showed how to switch on the AC. I explained to him with my little Chinese about the water and he said he will check. After about 20 minutes, I saw him inserting the card in one of the machines and alas! Water started!  It was quite late, and we were also tired. We hit the bed rejuvenated from the refreshing shower.

Sunrise seen from the hotel room

Next morning once again, we could see beautiful sunrise from the hotel. It was a bit relaxed and we were supposed to leave the hotel at 8:30. There were two destinations on the itinerary, Mengliang National Handicraft’s factory and Inner Mongolia museum. Evelyn felt it would be difficult to cover both and reach Beijing in time, thus after some discussion, it was decided to drop the factory visit. Given my love for arts, I was disappointed (Some of the content can been in a fellow blogger’s site: http://eurikasbeijinglife.org/2018/10/09/mengliang-national-handicraft-factory/).

Evelyn in front of Inner Mongolia Museum
Exhibit at the museum
Display in a shop

We were at the Inner Mongolia museum at 9:15. The museum was not yet open, but there were very long queues, as we were not sure what to do. We exchanged some chat messages to clarify our doubts and Evelyn asked us to be back on the bus by 10:50. The museum is a large, impressive building. It opened around 9:5 and people rushed in. The entrance was free. Obviously, the time was too short to see such a vast museum. Established in 1957, it hosts great displays of biological, historical, national customs and cultural relics of Inner Mongolia region. There is a large section dedicated to the Mongol warriors. We quickly browsed through some unique exhibits, tried softee ice cream that was sold in a shop, and rushed to the bus by 10:45.

In front of the museum (PC:Joey)

On the way back, after lunch, the FCN leaders organized passing the parcel game with music. It gave an opportunity for people to introduce themselves and show their talents. Though late in the trip, it was nice to get to know more people and listen to them singing. The prizes were toffees, big lollypops and a couple of T-shirts. This also made the journey more enjoyable. We reached Huixinxijienankou subway station by 21:00. It was one more hour to reach home.

The Inner Mongolia trip was enjoyable, though I feel we could have planned better. It gave me an opportunity to experience a desert. Thanks to FCN and to Evelyn for all the hard work in organizing the trip.

An awesome week at Gannan

This blog is about our trip to Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province of China during the National holidays in October 2018.

It was the time for National Holidays again, and I was wondering where to go. This time I had my wife Hema with me. After few considerations, I decided to go with FCN to Gannan. The pictures shown in the advertisement looked alluring. Difficulty was once again the long bus travels. Efforts to get train tickets turned futile. The trip was for seven days, and the first journey from Beijing to Lanzhou was supposed to be the longest, ~1500 kms stretch.

For those who are unfamiliar, Gannan is a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture situated in the southwest of Gansu Province of China famous for the Yellow river, lakes, mountains, grassland, monasteries and Tibetan culture. Before the Qin State in the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) partly governed this area, Gannan was the area of the ancient Qiang (later Tibetan) people. It was in the year of 111AD that the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) brought Gannan into the regime of Central China. The south of the Silk Road and the Tang-Tibet Ancient Road all passed through this region. In 1954, the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was established with Hezuo City as its capital.

Coming back to the trip now. Booking with FCN was easy as always and knowing Amy, who was handling the booking, made it easier. The price for each was 3480 RMB and we got a 200 RMB early bird discount.

There was only one pickup point, Huixinxijienankou subway station. The time of reporting was 7:30pm on 30th September 2018. People came on time and we left at 7:35pm. The bus had around 55 people, 32 belonging to FCN and the rest to the Chinese sister company Elephant travels. Our group had a good mix of people for different countries. There were three leaders, Amy and Ruo from FCN and Xiaoqiu of the Elephant company. There were two photographers. An inflatable neck pillow, a buff and a blanket were given. Having Amy, a friend, as the leader made us more comfortable. The group also had Rendi Steven, whom I had met in earlier FCN trip.

The night journey was fine.  In China, vehicles can’t move between 02:00am and 05:00am, so the driver stopped at a service area during that time. The bus stopped at regular intervals so that people could freshen up, and most gas stations and service areas were crowded as expected. Around 11:00am the next day Hema and I tried some nice buffet lunch with rice, vegetables and chicken legs at one of the stops (all for 35 RMB). The bus travelled through large farm lands with rich crops, meadows and crossed wide rivers before we reached our hotel, Lanzhou Rita Boutique Hotel at 35 Tianshui South Road, Lanzhou at 9:50pm. We were on the bus for more than 26 hours!

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Buffet lunch on the way
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Sunset across the Yellow River

After a few minutes of settling down, we joined Amy at the lobby to go to the snack street (Muta lane).  Lanzhou is a big city and is the capital of Gansu Province. Yellow River, the Chinese Mother River, runs through the city. The snack street was colorful, and variety of dishes were sold there. Most of us sat in one place and tried whatever we liked. Hema and I tried a rice, milk, raisins, nuts and egg-based warm drink (牛奶鸡蛋醪糟, niu nai ji dan lao zao) that was nice. It was almost 12.30am by the time we reached the hotel and rested. We had to get up early the next morning.

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Making niu nai ji dan lao zao

Day 2 – Labrang monastery at Xiahe: We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant at 7am and got on to the bus around 7:30am. The journey to Labrang lamasery took 5 hours. The guides explained do’s and don’ts to be followed at the Lamasery, like: do take off hats when you enter the main halls, don’t touch or point at the Buddhist statues, don’t take pictures in the main halls and Gongtang Pagoda, no taking pictures of Lamas without permission, etc.  Ruo Yang got the tickets for the temple while some people had lunch before going in. The temple complex is in a very scenic place at the foothill of the Dragon Mountain by the side of Daxia river. There is an interesting legend about the two mountains in the region, the Dragon mountain and the Phoenix mountain.

Long time ago, this place was a large sea. Gradually, land and hills appeared. One day, a golden winged Phoenix arrived here, rested on one of the hills and drank all the water, drying up the sea. A dragon from the sea got shocked at this and jumped out of the dried sea leading to formation of a spring where the Phoenix drank water. The spring became Daxia river and the Dragon became Dragon mountain and Phoenix became Phoenix mountain. The Daxia river flowed from west to east between them.

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Some of the team members at Labrang Monastery
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With Hema in front of the turning bells (PC: A.Sir)
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Couple of beautiful Buddha images

The monastery is renowned for its rich Tibetan culture, impressive Buddhist structures, exclusive Tibetan food, and the 3.5km long corridor of prayer wheels that surrounds the complex. Since the famous Chinese movie “World Without Thieves” was screened in 2004, the Labrang Monastery has become known to visitors as the film’s shooting place. After going through all the main halls and towers for couple of hours, we had noodles in soup with fried egg in a small local restaurant. I had heard that we get meals in the temple, but I didn’t know where. The halls and the Buddha figures are very beautiful and colorful.

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Impressive long bell corridor
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Yak heads hanging from the bridge (possibly as offerings)
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Daxia river

We left the Labrang monastery around 4pm after all of them joined. It was 5:30pm by the time we reached the next destination, the 9 layered Mila Riba Buddha pavilion. Unfortunately, that was closed for the day and we had to be happy taking pictures from outside and roaming around the place seeing the beautiful architecture of the temple around. We decided to return the next morning.

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At Mila Riba Buddha pavilion
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Young pilgrim

That evening we checked into the Gu Luo Si Hotel in Falls county. As we had good time, Amy suggested that we try Hotpot dinner and most of us agreed. The meal was delicious and there was lot of singing and dancing. The hotel room had many lights, but I was not sure how to switch them on as the existing switches didn’t seem to turn them on!

Day 3 – Ando Hezuo Milariba Buddha Pavilion and Zhagana: We had breakfast at the hotel and left at 8 am for Milariba 9 layered Buddha pavilion. It took about half an hour to reach. It is said that there are only two temples of this kind in the whole Tibetan area, and the one in Hezuo is only one has nine floors and dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism founder. The temple is about 40-meter-high, it was originally built in Qing dynasty, and has a history of more than 200 years. There are resident monks and lamas studying here, forming a unique cultural atmosphere. Shoes are to be left out when you enter the temple building. The temple has 9 levels and each level has many Buddha forms and colorful decorations. The first layer is dedicated to the mainly Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism such as Qiangba Buddha (the Maitreya Buddha of Han Buddhism), Sakyamuni, Guanyin, Kong Kim and so on. The second layer is dedicated to the founder of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Yellow religion and his disciples. The third layer is dedicated to the founder of Ningma sect (red religion, the most ancient religion of Tibetan Buddhism). Each layer represents an era or a sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It also includes some Tibetan cultural celebrities, such as Songtsen Gampo (Songzan Ganbu) and princess Wencheng. The romance and wedding of Songtsen Gampo and princess Wencheng has been possibly one of the major causes of integration of Tibet with rest of China.  (Some of their tales are covered in an earlier blog, https://china-diary.com/2017/06/16/sichuan-an-unforgettable-experience/).

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Mila Riba nine layered Buddha pavilion
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Ornate entrance
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Colorful wall panels
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Carpeted corridors and wooden stairways

The walls and windows have exquisite designs, all the floors are carpeted, and the staircases are made of wood. That explained why shoes were not allowed in the temple, as we had to go with our socks on. (Ruo had said that we better not wear colorful socks 😊). After spending about an hour at the Milariba temple complex, we left for our next destination, the Zhagana village known for stony mountains.

It was once again a long journey through picturesque roads that were winding through hills, grasslands, lakes and rivers. There were camps and temples on the way and sheep and yaks grazing. We took couple of breaks around 11 am and 1pm. The toilets in this region are normally dirty, mostly a pit in the ground and no water to wash hands. Normally they charge 1 RMB per person. There were local boys playing basketball. Our leaders shared some food with them. The basketball skill of those boys was really of very high standard.

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Basketball skill of a local boy
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On the way to Zhagana
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We reached the base of the Zhagana tourist area around 3:45pm, almost after 6 hours journey. Zhagana (扎尕那)means “Rock Box” in Tibetan language, which is appropriate as it is surrounded by large rocky spires on all sides. The average altitude of this place is 3200m. In the north is a grand stone mountain named “guang gai shan” or “stone mirror mountain”, as the white-grey stones on the mountain can reflect sunshine. In the east are many high mountains stand toward to the sky. In the south are two mountains stand side by side, which is like a stone gate. the whole view is like a giant stone palace, and before hundreds of years ago, this place was also known as “the birthplace of Adam and Eve”.

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Entrance of Zhagana scenic area
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The Fairy Lake
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Golden hues
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Hema and Amy with a local family
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Night view of one of the villages

There was lot of activity and there were many people around. The place has many hiking trails. We took a path with wooden steps to the Fairy lake. This took a couple of hours. On the way we stopped for refreshment and tried láozāo (醪糟) a kind of warm rice pudding with milk and egg. The Fairy Lake was not large, but was more of a pond, but the location was beautiful and the reflection of the mountains in the water made the view spectacular.  The return to the base had some great views of the sunshine reflecting on the mountains making them look golden. It was seven by the time we reached down, and I explored for next half an hour a village nearby. Most villages in the vicinity had temples and restaurants. The hotel was not far from here and we reached our hotel in Ga town of Falls county by 8:45 pm.  Ben ri qin mu hotel was comfortable. Once again, Amy led us to dinner outside. Many restaurants were closed, and we found one that served the dishes that our diverse crowd liked. I tried local beer. We came back to the hotel around 11pm and rested.

Day 4 – Zoige prairie (若尔盖草原): Next morning, as usual, was the breakfast at the hotel restaurant. We left around 8:30 am to travel through Zoige prairie on the silk road. Zoige prairie is the second largest prairie in China. It is also called “Songpan Plateau” and “Oasis in Northwest Sichuan Plateau”. The altitude is between 3300km and 3600km. Zoige Prairie is also one of the three major wetlands in China. Because of the cold wet weather, it is a habitat for have different kinds of wild life like coyote, black-necked cranes, white swans, sika deer etc. it is believed to be the place where the Red Army passed through in The Long March. It seems about 10000 soldiers were sleeping in Zoige area during the march [The Long March (October 1934 – October 1935) was a military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China, the forerunner of the People’s Liberation Army, to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) army].

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Ruo demonstrating Yoga skills

The journey was very beautiful with the grassland extending to miles on both sides of the road. There were many places developed for tourists on the way. We took the first break in one such place called Huahu and did some photography. Ruo, an accomplished Yoga practitioner, displayed her Yoga skills. Hema and I tried horse riding. As I had done horse riding a few times before, I wanted my horse to run, but it was reluctant and was more interested in grazing the grass below! We also had lunch in the local place. We tried the ready noodles that comes in a pack, and you need to add hot water to it. Around 12:30 we left the place and moved on.

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PC: A Sir

We took the next break around 2:45 pm by the side of the Yellow River. The scenery all around was breathtaking. There was lot of photography done on the riverside, on the hills and on the road. We left the place around 4pm and reached the hotel in couple of hours. Our hotel was Songpan jiarong xingong hotel in Chuanzhusi Town of Songpan county in Sichuan province. Hema and I came out and roamed around in the streets of the town and shopped for some food for the next day. The locals were amicable. They seemed to be amused by Hema’s Bindi (forehead dot) and my moustache 😊. Later we joined Ruo and Amy for dinner where we had soup noodles with vegetables.

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A Sir in action!
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Rendi Steven
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At Chuanzhusi Town

That night, Amy and Ruo arranged for birthday celebration of couple of teammates, Tammy (a kindergarten teacher from the US) and Archie (Archana, a medico from Srilanka). There was cake cutting, party, song and dance. It was indeed a nice gesture from FCN to celebrate the birthday. Many people’s dancing skills were showcased that night. Ruo’s slap dance was the highlight of the evening.

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Birthday celebration

Day 5 – Hunaglong (黄龙): Huanglong National Scenic Reserve is in Songpan County in the northwest part of Sichuan Province at altitudes between 1,700 – 5,588m. It is considered ‘World Wonder’ and ‘Fairy Land on Earth’. Known for its colorful Huanglong pools, lakes, snow clad mountains, valleys and virgin forest, it was included in the UNESCO world heritage list in 1992. The major scenery is concentrated in the 3.6-kilometers. Due to its layered calcium carbonated deposit patterns, the valley resembles a golden dragon winding its way through the virgin forest, stone mountains and glaciers. Along the valley are many colorful ponds of different sizes and shapes, which are sprinkled with gold colored limestone deposit giving a shimmering golden hue to water, so in sunlight, a golden dragon seems to surge forth from the forest. Hence the name ‘Huanglong Valley’ (Yellow Dragon Valley). The highest peak in this area is the Xuebao peak of Minshan mountain. There seem to wild animals such as giant pandas, Sichuan snub nosed monkeys, leopards, lynx, red bellied pheasants, but we could see many different bird species.

The normal way to see the place is shortest time is to go up by cable car and come down on foot. Surprisingly, there was no long queue for the cable car to go up. The cable car was quick and there was a long walk to the view point at the top. The path was wooden. We took group phots at the first view point overlooking the icy mountain Xuebao feng. We then started descending seeing amazing sights on the way. There is a temple at the entrance of the landscape, called the Huanglong Ancient Temple (黄龙古寺). Two more temples ahead are called the Middle temple (黄龙中寺) and the Back temple. The temples are ancient, built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Few remarkable spots seen at Hunaglog were “Guests Welcome Pond” (迎宾池), multicolored pond (五彩池) and several other ponds, flying waterfall (飞瀑流辉), flying waterfall on lotus platform (莲台飞瀑), Erdao Lake and Zhaga waterfall.  The leaders had asked us to be down by 10:30 am, but it was going to be impossible looking at the magnitude of things we had to see. We reluctantly came down at 12noon.

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Xuebao feng
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Huanglong Ancient Temple

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Multi-colored Pond

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Huanglong Middle Temple

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Mirror Pond
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Golden Sand Pavement
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Vivid colors (PC: Edo Tondas)

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Flying Waterfall on Lotus Platform (PC: A Sir)

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Bonsai Pond
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Washing Cave

 

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Marvelous Flying Waterfall

Huanglong is like Jiuzhaigou but is also unique in terms of the high number of colored ponds with clear water as against the large lakes of the latter. This, for me, was certainly the high point of the Gannan trip.

After coming down, most people had lunch at a Chinese restaurant near the parking, while I and Hema tried some chicken legs and sandwich. It happened that the highway leading to Xian had a congestion, and as it was late, the leaders decided not to go to Xi’an but go to Tianshui City and stay there for that night. On the way there was singing on the bus and we realized that Edo, a doctor from Indonesia was a great singer. It was very late in the night when we reached our hotel “The Best Quality Hotel of Flying Tian Mei Ju” (飞天美居精选酒店) at Tianshui.

Day 6 – Xi’an: Next morning we had breakfast and the restaurant of the hotel and left for Xi’an at 7:30am. We reached the hotel (Long March – Changzheng/长征 – Mirazo Hotel) at 1:30pm and immediately left for the Terracotta army museum. Some people decided to skip this and went into the city. This was my second time in Xi’an. As I have covered in detail about the terracotta army in my earlier blog (https://china-diary.com/2017/06/29/xian-walking-into-chinese-history/), I will not discuss again here. The leaders appointed an English-speaking guide and we were given earphones to clearly hear the guide from a distance. The guide, Samantha, was a History teacher and explained better than the one we had hired last time. though second time for me, visiting the Terracotta Army museum was an amazing experience.  The bus dropped us back to the hotel around 7pm, from where we took different taxis (having the DD app was very useful) to Huimin Jie, or the Muslim quarter of Xi’an.

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At Terracotta Army museum

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The kneeling archer
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The standing solider
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Crowd at Huimin Jie

We reached Huimin Jie around 8pm. As usual it was full of people and was bustling with activity. We tried some deep fried soft crabs and I left Hema and went looking for the spicy barbecue lamb ribs that I had tried last time when I was there. It looked like it was seasonal, and everywhere I could find only the lamb skewers on sticks (Yang Rou Chuan). By the time I came to where I left Hema, she wasn’t there. Next hour was tense with both of us looking for each other in the large crowd. Amy helped to find her and there were some pensive moments. We tried the lamb skewers and mango shake. We left for the hotel around 11pm. This was essentially end of the trip.

Next day was the last day of our journey.  We started early in the morning, at 6 am to leave for Beijing. The journey was long, with few breaks for toilet and food, and we reached Huxinxijienankou at 9:15pm. Fortunately it was still OK to get the subway and we made it to home by 11:20 pm.

While the long bus journeys seem tiresome, the opportunity to meet wonderful people and see some enormously beautiful places made the holiday week really special. Thanks to Amy for her kindness and to Ruo Yang for useful inputs to this blog. The Gannan outing also served as a great welcome trip for Hema. It will remain green in our memories forever.

A short and sweet trip to Suzhou and Nanjing

This is an account of a two day trip to two beautiful towns Suzhou and Nanjing in Jiangsu Province of China.

It was known to me that just a day each for these two places was never going to be enough, but I couldn’t resist when the trip was announced in FCN. Something was better than nothing. I had booked a Taishan trip for the weekend before this and that got cancelled due to poor response. I was worried that this too may get cancelled. This was the first time FCN was doing this and it required booking three train tickets, Beijing to Suzhou, Suzhou to Nanjing and Nanjing to Beijing. Sabrina, the FCN contact, said she would go ahead once she had the three people who were interested in the trip, paid. Fortunately, there was no cancellation.

We gathered at Beijing Railway station around 18:00. The group size was 7 including the FCN leader, Joey. I was the only man and all others were women. The team was very diverse. Fiona – a Malaysian Chinese from Australia, Luca from Hungary, Pamela from Mexico, Martina from Italy and Christina from USA. Joey, the leader is a yoga teacher. Some of them had food at Dicos, a fast food restaurant and I packed a sandwich for my dinner while Joey got our tickets. Our train was T-109 and I was the only one from the group in my coach. I could sleep well in the middle berth for a change. Once again, the trains are excellently maintained in China and there is a large team of the Railway force on different duties. Next morning, I was up early. I had breakfast of bread, boiled egg, vegetables and Zhou (rice porridge) on the train around 08:00. We reached Suzhou at 09:40. The railway station was very large and impressive. From the railway station we took subway line 4 to Beisita, just the next station. The hotel was just across the subway station, next to the Bao’en temple. The hotel was small, but looked good. Being the only guy, I had the advantage of getting a single room while the others shared as two each per room. Though the hotel was small, it looked well maintained. The check in process took very long with the guy at the desk going through our passports very thoroughly looking for immigration stamps. We had 15 minutes to get ready and I managed to have a shower. The Bao’en temple looked impressive with a nice Pagoda, but we didn’t visit it.