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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 rived flowed from west to east between them.
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.
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.
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/).
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.
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”.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Suzhou is a city in Jiangsu Province of China, to the south of the Yangtze River. It is famous for its canals and gardens and is considered as “Venice of the Orient”. The area of Suzhou is 42% water. The city is a classic combination of modern trade and ancient beauty. We walked to the first destination of the day, the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园; Zhuōzhèng yuan). This is the biggest and the most famous garden of Suzhou, spread over 12.85 acres. It is listed as a World Cultural Heritage site. The Humble Administrator’s Garden was originally built in 1509 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was initially a private garden of a former government officer and poet, Wang Xianchen. It is said that Wang was frustrated in his career and built a garden after retiring as a Magistrate in Zhejiang province. He settled in his home town, Suzhou, after his father’s death. Wang got inspired by a verse of the famous scholar official of the Jin Dynasty, Pan Yue, in his prose, An Idle Life, “I enjoy a carefree life by planting trees and building my own house…I irrigate my garden and grow vegetables for me to eat…such a life suits a retired official like me well”. Name of the garden is because of humility of Mr. Wang. The garden was formed upon the old relics of a residence and a Taoist (Dahong) temple. Wen Zhenming, a noted artist and Wang’s friend, wrote essays and poems on Humble Administrator’s Garden, and painted 31 Landscapes of the garden in 1533. Wang’s son lost the garden to pay gambling debts, and it has been owned by different people. It has also undergone many changes in the past five centuries.
Water is the mainstay of the garden with several bridges, pavilions, watch towers, small forests and rock formations. Joey said that as the south did not have many mountains like the north of China, people liked to have small hills and rock formations in their gardens. The hallways host furniture, crockery and furnishings from Ming dynasty. It is indeed an overwhelming experience to go around the garden witnessing one of the best examples of Chinese landscaping creativity. While we were wandering in the garden, we came to the exit very early, and Luca went out by mistake. It was not possible to come in as the security there couldn’t help as the place was under CCTV cameras. Luca said she will spend time outside exploring. We spent couple of hours in the garden. We tried some local food after coming out. I tried couple of different breads and a Zongzi (sticky rice dumplings). The food not only tasted good, but was very good looking. The street had many flower sellers who sold jasmine and magnolia flowers.
The next site to visit was Huqiu Park, or Tiger Hill. We took a bus from the Humble administrator’s garden to Huqiu Park and the journey was about half an hour. Su Shi (960-1279), s famous Song Dynasty poet, said, ‘It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill.’ This explains the kind of beauty the Tiger Hill is. This park also has many gardens, canals, watch towers, bridges and other historical monuments but the highlight is the Tiger Hill Pagoda of the Yunyan temple. The pagoda is octagonal and has seven floors with a total height of 47 meters. It began tilting over 400 years ago and, today, the highest point is more than 2 meters from its original position. It is also nicknamed the ‘Leaning Tower of China’, and was built earlier than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Obviously, visitors are not allowed to enter the pagoda. We spent couple of hours in the park and took many pictures.
From Huqiu park we went to the Han Shan (Cold mountain) temple at the Maple bridge. The temple was constructed during the Liang Dynasty (502-557) and was repaired several times in the following dynasties. It is said that in the Tang Dynasty, a famous monk and poet Han Shan Deqing, took charge of the temple, and the temple got his name. Our guide Joey said that Han Shan and his childhood friend Shide both loved the same girl, a Han Shan sacrificed for his friend and became a monk. Sometime later, the firend also became a monk and joined Han Shan at the temple. It is said that Han Shan later had a troubled life and moved across many monasteries.
Famous Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Ji wrote the poem “A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge” (楓橋夜泊) upon listening the temple bells at the night.
The moon is going down
And the crows make a ruckus
The sky is covered with frost
There are maples on the riverbank
And the lights of fishing boats
Drift with the current
I fall into a sad sleep
from the monastery on Cold Mountain
The sound of the bell
Reaches the guest boat at midnight
The temple complex has many halls, tablets with poems, beautiful gardens, water bodies with colorful fish, bell towers and pagodas, the most famous being the Puming Pagoda which was added in 1995. This is in in Tang Dynasty style. The grand prayer hall has four beautiful statues of Sakyamuni facing four directions.
In the evening, we had dinner at a local place and went for the river cruise. The cruise is through beautifully lit traditional buildings, but unfortunately the windows were closed and most of us were sitting away from the windows. A girl sang and played a viola for some time and they sold playing cards with Suzhou pictures and CDs of Suzhou. The cruise was for about half an hour. We came back to the hotel and rested.
Next morning, we left at 6:00 to catch train for Nanjing. We took subway from the front of the hotel to the railway station. The fast train was at 7:30. The speed was consistently 351km/h and we reached Nanjing at 8:10. We left out luggage at the cloak room at Nanjing station, had breakfast at Starbucks and left for Xuanwu lake garden by subway.
Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu Province and was the capital city of many dynasties in ancient Chinese history. Till 1403 when emperor Zu Di made Beijing the new capital, Nanjing used to be capital of greater part of China. It is on the south bank of the Yangtze River and is famous for its history, the longest city wall and gardens.
We were at the Xuanwu lake garden around 10:30. Xuanwu Lake is a beautiful scenic spot with a long history. The name of the lake has changed several times, and is called Xuanwu because a black dragon was said to be in the lake. Xuanwu is at the foot of Zhongshan hill. There are five isles in the lake connected by beautiful bridges. Then there are temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, teahouses, restaurants and other attractions. The main entrance is the Xuanwu Gate. We took a picture at the gate and spread out to see the attractions. Near the gate there was a large place where the parents of eligible brides and grooms were looking for match with some charts like horoscopes. They didn’t like to be photographed. We took pictures with the lake in background. Then we moved to a small temple built in memory of a third-century Taoist scholar and mystic named Guo Pu. He was fortune teller got killed when his predictions did not work for a Chinese warlord. The shrine is surrounded by trees and large stands for people to tie red ribbons with their wishes. This is a practice in many parts of China, but this place certainly was special, with a large area dedicated for the wish ribbons. People buy them, write their wish, and tie to the trees. The writings are mostly in Chinese, but some write in English too. We went around crossing stunning bridges and scenery to reach a Buddha temple with a green and white pagoda in its premises.
A short walk to the Xuanwu lake side led us a large beautiful Statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Guanyin-Goddess of mercy or compassion). While we started taking pictures, Christina realized that she left her mobile phone at the last place, near the pagoda. Joey and Christina went back to check while Fiona, Martina and I waited for them there. It was about 11:30 when they left, and as they didn’t come for the next half an hour, we moved to the entrance gate. We saw Joey and Christina moving in a police car. Joey said that in CCTV the police saw a woman in blue T shirt picked up the left phone, but the phone was switched off immediately. For next couple of hours, they looked for the elusive woman in blue T shirt. Christina’s phone had a US SIM and there was nothing that could be done.
I ate cold cut noodles sold near the entrance for lunch. As we were losing time, we decided to skip the Nanjing massacre site and go ahead to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen mausoleum park. Fiona booked a taxi, the went to some distance and dropped at a mid-point as the road leading to the park was made in to a one way. After that I booked another taxi and he was going around in circles, trying to find the way to the park. We finally reached the entrance of the park at 14:10. The crowd was huge as we always find in tourist places in China on a holiday. There was convention happening that day and people in pink clothes had gathered in thousands.Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925) was a great leader of the Chinese democratic revolution and the Chinese people to bring down the corrupt rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and ended 2,000 years of the feudal monarchy system. He is considered to be “Father of Modern China”. He was born in Guangdong province of China on 12 November 1866, and died in 1925 in Beijing, China. Upon his death, the mausoleum was built in an area of 20 acres in the foot hill of Mount Zijin (Purple Mountain) in Nanjing, by choosing the best design among 40 proposals. It was designed by Lu Yanzhi and completed by Poy Gum Lee between 1926–1929. The place is very impressive with beautiful gardens and majestic buildings. The marble gate has three arches, and has the inscription of four Chinese characters written by him, “Tian Xia Wei Gong” (天下为公) which means “What is under heaven is for all”.
We went up to the main building where Dr. Sen is buried. There is an impressive marble statue of Dr. Sen. We saw the places around and were resting, when Joey and Christina joined. Apparently, the mobile phone could not be traced. At 16:15, we came out from the park and caught a but to the next spot, Fuzi Miao, Confucius temple market.
Confucius temple market is a street bustling with activity on the bank of Qin Huai River. On the riverbank there are many old houses. Joey said in the ancient times this area was famous for very beautiful girls who wrote poetry and sang beautifully. Men used to come seeking them. When the girls didn’t like them, they would just sing a song and send the visitors back. They also inspired many poets to create great literature. The most notable lady from here was Chen Yuanyuan. She was born to a farmer family in Jiangsu province, and on the death of her father, she became a courtesan. Chen was an important figure in the Suzhou opera. In 1642, she became the lover of the scholar and poet Mao Xiang. Subsequently, she was the courtesan of Wu Sangui, a Chinese military general. There are stories that there were wars fought for her and led to establishment of Qing Dynasty. There is a saying: “冲冠一怒为红, Punch one in anger for the beauty”. As per some stories, Chen Yuanyuan survived the fall of Beijing and reunited with Wu Sangui. There is a belief that later she changed her name and became a nun in Kunming after Wu Sangui’s unsuccessful revolt against the Qing. Historians regard all these accounts as folklore.
There were many shops selling memorabilia, artwork and local food. We tried fresh fruits in a shop where any fruit you could eat was sold for 9 RMB for half a kilogram. I don’t know how it worked, but the combo I tried, costed 38 RMB with a free container. We met Pamela and Luca, who seemed to be having a field day shopping. We visited the Confucius temple that showcases the many important events of the great philosopher’s life, as colored stone embedded beautiful murals. We were at the Confucius temple market for about an hour and left for Nanjing railway station by the subway. The journey by fast train was comfortable. Once again, the train’s speed was above 350 kms/h. We reached Beijing south railway station at 23:18, a bit ahead of the time. There was a huge crowd of taxis outside trying to get more money from the people. Joey had to go to the same direction as mine, we tried looking for DD taxi and I saw that there was long wait for DD. We negotiated with a taxi driver for 200 RMB. He made us sit in the taxi and started looking for more passengers. Luckily, I could get a DD driver to respond. But it took real long for him to reach, and when he reached us, he sped past us a couple of times. Ultimately at 00:28 we could catch him, and I reached home at 01:05, after dropping Joey on the way.
The trip to Suzhou and Nanjing was wonderful, though short. I wish to go there again leisurely. Thanks to FCN for the opportunity, Joey for her guidance and the co travelers for a great company. Christina losing her mobile phone was a disappointing event in otherwise a great tour.
This blog is about a trip to Qinghai lake and Zhangye Danxia mountains in western provinces of China.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign”. Robert Louis Stevenson
Spring is a great time to travel in China. There was a long weekend during the May Day and I saw the FCN update about the Qinghai trip. Difficult part appeared to be the long journey, but it was certainly an opportunity. Booking, as always, was easy with FCN. We met at Beijing west Railway station on Friday at 11:00. The leader was Ada Yang and photographer was Alee. The team size was 18. We caught the train number T175 to Xining at 13:05. We were mainly in two coaches, but a bit spread out. The people in our team were from different countries. China, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Mongolia, Pakistan, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland and Thailand.
For those who are unfamiliar, Qinghai is a province in the mid-west China, famous for the lake of the same name. It has Sichuan and Tibet to the south, Xinjiang to the west and Gansu province to the north and west. The train journey, though was long, was very scenic. Ada, the leader had brought lot of snacks for us. One thing that I liked was a kind of spicy rusks. We played a Chinese card game “Dou di zhu” for some time. Xining is half way through the journey from Beijing to Lasha in Tibet. The distance of about 2000 kms to Xining is covered in 21h 38min. The train passes through Taiyuan in Shanxi and Lanzhou in Gansu province. The view outside was very scenic with mountains, meadows, farms and rivers including the famous Yellow River (Huang He, 黃河) which is the second longest river in Asia, after the Yangtze River. That evening, I had a set meal of rice, chicken and vegetables meals from the train catering. Sleeping was not easy on the upper berth. The slow trains in China are also as clean as the fast trains and the conditions of the coaches and toilets is excellently maintained. One difference is, the slow trains have a smoking area between coaches. We reached Xining at 10:40.
We walked out of the station and caught the bus that was waiting for us. While the bus took us to the hotel, the local guide explained about Xining and the specialties of Qinghai region. From the bus, we could see glimpses of the famous Tulou Temple on the cliffs of Beishan Mountain. Xining (西宁; Xīníng) is the capital of Qinghai Province and is the largest city in the Tibetan plateau. It was a part of Gansu province for long, and was added to Qinghai in 1928. The city was a commercial hub along the Northern Silk Road over 2000 years, and was home to the Han, Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties. Xining has places of religious importance to Muslims and Buddhists, like the Dongguan Mosque and Ta’er Monastery.
We were at the Lei di sen da hotel in an hour’s time. The hotel looked luxurious. I took a shower that was much needed after the long journey. In about 20 minutes, we walked to a restaurant in the next building. Ada said there was an introductory offer and the food was half priced. The first two dishes to arrive were of large beef bones, the only meat I don’t eat :-(. It was a bit disappointing considering the things I had read about Xining food where lamb kebabs seemed to be a delicacy. Some dry snacks and vegetables were good. A chicken dish ordered came almost when we finished and were ready to leave. After lunch, we left for Kumbum Monastery.
Kumbum monastery or Ta’er temple was about 30 minutes’ drive. It was built in 1577 to commemorate Tsong Khapa (1357-1419), founder of the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism. The temple complex is very impressive, with unique structures spread across the mountain slopes. The complex has many different halls like the Amitayus Hall, Great Sutra Hall, Gautama Buddha Hall, Manjushri Hall, Kalachakra Scripture Hall, The Butter Sculpture hall, Tara Hall etc. There is also Tantrik Buddhist School. Many halls have prayer places and huge, beautiful Buddhist figures. The lamps are lit with butter. The butter sculpture hall is the most impressive with very unique figures made of butter and colorful murals on the walls and doors.
Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, was born in nearby Tsongkha in 1357. According to a legend, Tsongkhapa’s father took the afterbirth and buried it where the monastery is now and soon a sandalwood tree grew on the spot. Another version has it that the tree grew up where drops of blood from Tsongkhapa’s umbilical cord had fallen on the ground. Thus, this tree is known as the “Tree of Great Merit.” The leaves and the bark of this tree were thought to bear impressions of the Buddha’s face and various mystic syllables and its blossoms were said to give off a peculiarly pleasing scent. The four-storied golden-roofed temple built around the tree is called “Golden Tree” (wish-fulfilling tree) and is considered the holiest place at Ta’er.
The whole place is very colorful and serene. The pillars are covered with brilliantly colored rugs and the praying mats are also made of silk. People offer silk shawls to the deities as a respect. Many pilgrims were seen performing hundred Sashtanga Namaskaras (a salutation in which all the body parts touch the ground) at different places.
There is an interesting figure of an elephant carrying a monkey, which carries a hare and the hare carries a bird. This is also shown in pictures in many places we visited. The figure is called “four harmonious brothers”. This is based on a Buddhist moral story. According to the legend, a bird, a hare, a monkey and an elephant lived by a large tree. They had a conflict as to who is better. Knowing this is not good, they decided to give priority to the elder ones, by comparing their age with the tree. The elephant said that the tree was already fully grown when he was young, the monkey that the tree was small when he was young, the hare that he saw the tree as a sapling when he was young and the bird claimed that he had excreted the seed from which the tree grew. So, the bird was recognized by the other animals as the oldest, and the four animals lived together in co-dependence and cooperation, helping each other to enjoy the fruits of the tree. After the story is finished, it is revealed the partridge was the Buddha in a previous life. The story is meant as an illustration of cooperation and respect for seniority.
After spending about two and a half hours at Ta’er temple, we were taken to a restaurant for dinner that was hosted by FCN along with some Australian wine.
Next morning, we checked out, had breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant and left for Qinghai lake. We had a new local guide this time, who explained some legends about the place. The travel was for three hours through very scenic route. The guide told some stories about the area. The Riyue (Sun-Moon) mountains are famous in Chinese mythology. As per the legend, in the 641 during Zhenguan Period (627-649), when Princess Wencheng left for Tubo to marry Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, she was very sad and painful. So, the Emperor of Tang Dynasty gifted her a sun-and-moon treasure mirror and said to her that if she looked in the mirror at the boundary of Tang Dynasty and Tubo (Tibet), she would see her hometown and her parents. When Princess Wencheng reached the boundary, she took out the mirror and looked in it immediately. However, what she could only see herself. She came to realize that she was deceived by the Emperor. She was so angry and sorrowful that she threw out the mirror. The mirror was broken and the fragments were just landed on the two hills. The east half piece of the mirror faced the west reflecting the rays of the setting sun and the west half piece of the mirror faced the east reflecting the rising moon. Hence the mountain got the name, sun and moon mountain.
One more legend is about the Daotang (backflowing) River. When Princess Wencheng passed by the mountain, due to homesickness her tears dropped and became the Daotang River. Its westward flow symbolizes the princess’s resolution not to return forever. In fact, it is the only river flowing from the east to the west in China. For more legends about Princess Wenchang, see my earlier blog: Sichuan, an unforgettable experience. https://wordpress.com/post/chinadiarysite.wordpress.com/421).
Qinghai Lake (青海湖), Koko Nor (Mongolian) or Tso Ngonpo (Tibetan) is the largest lake in China. It is a salt water lake having a circumference of 360 km and depth of 21m. The current Chinese name Qinghai means Green Sea. It is at 3,205 m above sea level in the Tibetan plateau. Many seasonal rivers and streams empty into Qinghai Lake. Prior to the 1960s, 108 freshwater rivers emptied into the lake. By 2003, 85% of the river mouths dried up, including the lake’s largest tributary, the Buha River. The increasing alkalinity of the lake is said to be the reason of some of the fish species getting close to extinction.
We reached the lake by 11:00. The place all around is very well developed and there are bicycles available for rent. There is a large area developed fir the world poetry movement in 2011, and there are many mementoes installed. Then there are statues from different cultures around the world. There are also temples, and pagodas on the beach and a large statue of princess Wenchang. As you walk along the pier, you can see many sea gulls all around. There are also ferry rides, but we didn’t try. We spent about 3 hours near the beautiful Qinghai lake and had lunch in a restaurant there. We then moved to Ji hai tai, another part of the lake which is mostly a personal place of worship. Here, people offer liquor and food in small pots to the lake god to fulfil their wishes. We all were given small pots that were offered to the lake. On the way, the guide said we are going at higher altitude, Xining was at ~ 2000 m, and Qinghai is > 3000 m. They had oxygen cylinders on the bus and one person needed it for some time.
Another couple of hours journey, mostly along the Qinghai lake, led to Chaka Salt Lake. This is a large Salt Lake and for centuries has been a source of salt. It is a very beautiful area with may large salt figures. The lake is known as the “mirror of the sky”. There is very long salt bridge and a toy train that runs through the beach. We took many pictures. It was 19:30 when we left the Chaka Lake. The hotel that FCN had reserved for us for that night got offered to someone else and Ada and the local hosts had to look for a replacement. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant at Chaka town. The first four dishes that came to the table were all beef and I was almost losing my cool. We then moved to a nearby hotel which was nowhere comparable with the one we had stayed the last night. Saving grace was the electrically heated bed and the hot water jug that was provided.
Next morning, we got up early, but there was no luck with sunrise as the weather was cloudy. We were supposed to cover three places, the Qilian grasslands, Zhuoer mountain (oriental Switzerland) and Danxia. But as the journey was long, we had to drop visiting the Zhuoer mountain while we saw lot of grassland on the way. The route, which is a part of the silk road, G227 highway was very scenic. The guide told about Zhang Qian (200-114BC), a General of Han emperor Wu, was instrumental in bulding the Qingzhang road between Tibet and Qinghai when he was 70 years old. When he died, his ashes were made part of the new road as a mark of respect.
We could see the first glimpse of sun through the clouds around 7:15. The road on either side had large grasslands and distant mountains, temples and places of sky burial. The guide explained about different burial practices of the Tibetans. The Jhator, or sky burial is the noblest of all. Here a body of the deceased person is cut into small pieces and put on top of a mountain to feed the vultures and the natural elements. There are also the other practices as follows.
Traditional ground burial is rare, considered as an inferior custom. Happens mostly for deaths caused by disease or unnatural causes.
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 cavern and place it beside other remains. The elevation depends on the social status of the departed.
Cremation: For cremation, the body of the deceased is burned atop a bed of wood and straw. Depends on the availability of the wood in the region. While a commoner’s ashes are typically scattered on a mountaintop or into a river, noble ashes are preserved in clay holy objects known as tsa-tsas.
Stupa burial: Stupas are sacred Buddhist monuments built to contain holy relics or the remains of particularly holy individuals. Tibetan stupas are reserved for the likes of past Dalai Lamas and incarnations of the Buddha. The deceased is lavishly covered with rare spices and minerals before placement.
Tree burial: small wooden boxes containing the remains of a deceased child or an aborted fetus are hung around trees.
Water burial: disposal of corpses for consumption by fish follows the same reason as jhator.
The route had continuous scenes of the five colored Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. The meanings for these colors are as follows:
Blue: air, associated with purity and healing. White: Water, for learning and knowledge. Red: Fire, life force and preservation. Green: Nature, for balance and harmony. Yellow: earth, symbolizes belonging and sacrifice.
The route also had many lambs and yaks grazing. We stopped for breakfast around 8:00. Once again, the place was known as Niu rou mian (Beef noodles). I could get the noodles in a spicy soup without the beef. As we moved further, icy mountains became closer and the sight was breathtaking! For the next couple of hours, the bus moved through very picturesque winding routes with shining icy mountains on both sides. That was a sight to remember. Though we didn’t get out of the bus, most of us were busy getting pictures and videos of the scenery outside. At the highest point, there was a large plaque on the road reminding the altitude of 4120 m.
Around 12:30, we briefly stopped at Qiyuan county to pick up some food. Alee and I tried Bauzis (steamed buns stuffed with potatoes). We also bought some large breads (mianbao).
We reached Danxia at 17:15, fortunately before they closed the tickets for the day. A place like Danxia certainly needs at least half a day, but we had to be happy with the time we had.
The Zhangye Danxia geological park in Gansu province, is a mountain range of thickly packed layers of minerals and rocks that vividly form a rainbow of colors that is unbelievably beautiful. This is also called Rainbow mountain park (张掖丹霞国家地质公园). The tourist place is divided into six viewing areas, and 2, 3 and 4 are supposed to be the best, so we started our tour with 2. Based on the imaginations of the viewer, the scenes have been named interestingly, like: Monks worship Buddha, monkeys viewing see of fire, seven color screen, dragons playing with fire, etc. There are buses to transport people from one area to the other.
The first bus journey from the ticket counter to the viewing area itself was very scenic with the colored mountains on either side. Walking to the second spot took about ten minutes. There were many steps to climb to reach to the top. The view all around was spectacular. We spent good time at point 2 and visited the different places taking pictures. We took the bus to the third platform from here. The splendid scenery of seven-color fan is the major attraction here. The last one to visit was the fourth viewing area. This is very large, and offers the best views of many formations. We were here till 19:30 when the security started telling people to leave. Before leaving, we took many pictures, tried jumps, splits and had a great time. It was almost 20:00 when we left the place and it took an hour to reach Zhangye city. Ada led us to a restaurant for dinner. The local host joined the dinner. The spread had many vegetables. After dinner, we went to a hotel to rest for some time, as out train was at 2:30. I took shower and caught an hour’s sleep before leaving. We reached Zhangye railway station at 1:00 and waited for our train.
The return journey, once again though beautiful locations, was comfortable. On the train the next day, Lucy, a Chinese girl who was our teammate, played the movie “Bajrangi bhaijan” on her iPad and some of us saw it completely. It was touching to see her getting emotional and profusely crying during the tragic scenes of the movie.
We reached Beijing West Railway station at 20:30, and it took about an hour and a half to reach home. Qinghai and Chaka lakes, the most beautiful journey from Qinghai to Danxia through the grasslands and the Himalayas, the rainbow colored Zhangye Danxia will always be fresh in my memory. Thanks to FCN for the opportunity and the friendly co-travelers who made the trip wonderful.
This blog is about my trip to Guilin, Yangshuo and Xingping in Guanxi provice of China.
“I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw.” – Fan Chengda (Chinese Song Dynasty scholar)
桂林山水甲天下 – “Guilin’s scenery is the best among all under heaven.” – popular Chinese saying
The bucket list of China is long and I am fortunate to have ticked some of them. The picturesque Guilin was certainly on top of the list and I was looking for an opportunity. CET had a trip planned for the Tomb sweeping (Qingming) festival long weekend, but it couldn’t take off due to poor response. I contacted Echo, one of the CET leaders, and she suggested a private trip and helped with the logistics. The cost was going to be 2200 RMB for three nights stay and local transport, excluding the travel to Guilin and back. This looked reasonable and I pulled Hari who was equally enthusiastic. Considering the time and money, Echo suggested going by train and return by flight.
For those who don’t know, Guilin (桂林, known as Kweilin earlier) is a city in Guangxi province in the south of China. Along with Yangshuo and Xingping, it is very well known for its beautiful scenery. Guilin city is as old as 314BC, established on the banks of Li river.
We took the train Z285 from Beijing west railway station at 21:10 on 4th April 2018. As Echo had managed to book tickets at the last moment, our coaches were different. The soft sleeper was comfortable and spacious. As usual, I had to let go my lower berth to a family and take the upper one. But they left the next morning and I could come down to enjoy the view through the window. The train went through very scenic places: large fields, rivers, bridges and long tunnels. We had lunch at the cafeteria. After 19 hours journey, we reached Guilin Railway station at 16:20. We met Paul, our guide. He looked for a taxi and we proceeded to the hotel. The hotel’s name was “Memory inn” and it was at a central convenient place.
In a short time, we went around Guilin and saw the elephant trunk hill from a distance, walked along the Li river. The famous scenic area is called as “two rivers, four lakes” spot. We saw the two impressive Pagodas (Sun-Moon double towers, Riyue Shuangta) in the middle of Fir lake. Paul said they look better in the night. We walked around the Fulong lane, which was a commercial street and went to a restaurant that had more of western clients. The local beer, Liquan 1998, was impressive. Post dinner, we went around the city and came back to the Pagodas. Indeed, they looked magnificent with the lights. The whole atmosphere there was electrifying. We walked back to the hotel and rested.
Next morning, we had breakfast of noodles in the nearby restaurant. At 8:00, the car picked us up and we proceeded to Ping’an rice terrace in Longji county. The first stop was at Xiao Zhai Yao village. The village was very unique with wooden houses, streams and waterfalls. We met the local long-haired Yao women who were getting ready for a performance. Paul, being a local and a regular visitor seemed to have great rapport with them. The car then continued to Ping’an village where we had lunch. The route was winding and beautiful. It reminded me of the Western Ghat roads. Lunch in a small place run by a family, was braised fresh country chicken and rice cooked in bamboo. We were at the Ping’an rice terraces around 13:20. The view was incredible.
The Longsheng or Lonji (dragon’s backbone) rice terraces were built more than 600 years ago around the slopes of riverside mountains to facilitate growing rice. Two major highlights are: Seven Stars with the Moon (七星伴月) – seven small piles of rocks in the middle of a moon-like field, Nine Dragons and Five Tigers (九龙五虎) – nine ridges, branching off from the main ridge, which look like nine dragons bending over to drink from the Jinsha River, with five tiger-like rocks.
We left the rice terraces around 15:00 and climbed down the hill to reach Zhuang village from where we travelled to Yangshuo city by car. The dinner that evening was rice noodles with eggs and tomatoes. Paul offered to take us to the famous Impressions Sanjie Liu show which we readily agreed. The premise was about half an hour’s walk from the hotel and the show was at 20:50. Paul left after buying the tickets for us. The show is very popular and this was the second of the tree shows in the day with over three thousand tickets sold per show. Sanjie Liu is a legend of the Zhuang people. Her story became famous with a movie by the same name released in 1961. This is about a folk singer who takes on a tyrant named Mo Huairen and his hired singers. She loves a brave young man by name Li Xiaoniu. (for more details about Sanjie Liu, read: http://people.wku.edu/haiwang.yuan/China/tales/liusanjie_b.htm).
The show was like we had never seen before. Li river was the stage and the mountains were backdrops. Six hundred performers, mostly fishermen from the villages along the river, amazing use of props and lights and extremely well-coordinated dances made the show a rare spectacle. Zhang Yimou, the chief director, was also the chief director of the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympic 2008. He had creatively blended the classical Liu Sanjie’s folk songs and ethnic group culture together to present a large-scale realistic performance, well matched with the natural landscape. The show is for 70 minutes and had 7 episodes: The Prelude, Red Impression, Green Impression, Golden Impression, Blue Impression, Silvery Impression and the Epilogue. Each episode showed different images and sceneries with the ever-changing natural background and lighting.
We walked back to the hotel and rested. The hotel (WY, Wei yi zhu ti jiudian), was comfortable. Next morning, we had noodle soup breakfast and left around 8:15. It was going to be a cycling day on the countryside of Yangshuo. Paul said his daughter had holiday and his family would like to join us in the cycling trip. His wife Ruby was also a tour guide before. With one bicycle and a scooter, they took turns to ride the bicycle, while we were on our bicycles that Paul hired from the city. The trail was beautiful, going through the countryside of Jiuxian village, mostly alongside the Yulong river. The first to pass was the Jiuxian village. As it was the tomb sweeping day, we could see many people gathered at hundreds of different tombs, clearing the bushes around, cleaning the tombs, decorating, offering food and liquor to their ancestors. They burned look-alike currency notes (practice believed to be representing sending money to the ancestors), lighted candles, incense sticks and burst fire crackers. While I didn’t like such a large use of fire crackers in the serene nature, I appreciated the enthusiasm of the families to respect the ones who passed away. The trail in some places was muddy, but the advantage was that we could stop at will to enjoy the scenery.
We stopped at a small stone bridge called Xi’angui bridge and took pictures. The route had many fruit orchards, mainly with oranges. We also rested at the river side for some time and saw the bamboo rafters along the river. The next major stop was the Fuli (富里桥) bridge. This is a 500-year-old stone bridge. The spot is famous for photography, mainly among the newly-wed couples for wedding photos. The ancient bridge looks good with the hanging creepers. There are also flower gardens developed nearby, mainly to lure the wedding photo seekers. We had lunch at a river side place, once gain fresh braised chicken and vegetables with rice. We continued back cycling and came to Jinshui cave around 15:45. Paul bought the tickets and they waited outside while we went into the caves.
This was like the karst caves I had seen before with lighting effects, but had a large mud bath and hot water springs in it. We didn’t try those. We witnessed a show in the hall where different kind of performances were held. Notable one was the local performer girls choosing guys from the crowd to act like marrying them. We came out at 16:30 and started cycling towards the city, when we noticed that paragliding was happening there. We asked Ruby and Paul to help us with tickets for paragliding. We had to cycle again for 30 minutes to reach the place. The tickets costed 355 RMB per head and we spent another 199 RMB for the video that they sold us later. Though the paragliding was only about 5 minutes, it was a thrilling experience allowing us to fly above the amazing mountains of Yangshuo. It was very nice of Paul and family to have helped us and also took pictures.
When we returned the bicycles at 18:30, I feel we must have cycled more than 50 kms that day. We had not cycled so much in a day for many years. Our backs were a bit sore, but we walked to the West street after that. The west street is a happening place with many different activities. With more than 1400 years history, it is a place where one finds many different cuisines and artifacts. “Beer fish” seems to be the most famous local delicacy, but we didn’t try it. We had mango milk shake and came back to the hotel. Later we found a place for dinner where we ate rice and vegetables.
Next morning, we left for Fuli market around 9:00 by car. The market is very old, and is not only a farmer’s market, but has several things like hair cut places, traditional treatments etc. It was quite a fascinating experience to walk through the market streets. There were many places that were making and selling hand painted fans. The streets in Fuli town look ancient and the population is mostly elderly. There was a very old woman selling her own made craft balls (xiu qiu, 绣球) that are used by brides to garland their grooms. I bought one for 15RMB just out of respect for the grit of the old lady. We walked to the Li river side where I tried a steamed cake stuffed with bean paste (ci ba, 糍粑). We then walked alongside the river in the ancient village of Xingping and arrived at a point where the famous scene depicted on a 20RMB note is seen. We crossed the river on a ferry and continued walking towards the next destination. As it was already 12:30, we decided to take an electric vehicle to the place of lunch. It was an interesting journey, and we realized that the distance was long. Once again, the lunch was fresh chicken braised (third day in a row!). Eating at the riverside, while sipping Liquan 1998, was really refreshing.
After a sumptuous lunch, we started walking through the country road towards the Xianggong mountain. I was completely lost in the beautiful nature when I saw a truck carrying people stopping by, in which Hari and Paul were there and called me. I preferred walking and let them go. After about 45 minutes’ walk, I reached a fork where it was difficult to decide which way to go. I called Paul and he came in a local’s scooter to pick me. Later I realized that I was close to the entrance of Xianggong shan.
Initially, Xianggong shan was just like any other hill on the west bank of Li River in Yangshuo County of Guilin. A few years ago, a local photographer took some pictures from the top of this mountain and won a prize in an international photography contest, making it famous overnight. Since then, Xianggong shan became a popular tourist destination beloved by enthusiastic photographers. There are steps to climb, it takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. There are view pints at different levels, but the best view is from the top. Even here there were wedding groups doing photography.
The view from top of the moutain, of Li river winding around the hills and towns, is breathtaking. We spent some time there and came down. We walked to a nearby spot to take some pictures, from where the car picked us up. Paul got down at Yangshuo. It was about an hour’s drive to the airport and we reached at 18:00. The flight that was supposed to be at 21:40 got delayed due to air traffic congestion left an hour late. We reached home at 3:30 in the morning.
Guilin trip left an everlasting image of nature’s beauty in my mind. It was nice not only to enjoy the stunning locations, but also to see from close the Chinese tradition of tomb sweeping festival. Thanks to Echo for arranging the trip, Hari for his company and for enduring me, and Paul for his excellent guidance and for correcting the content of the blog.
This blog is about a hike to Dongbaishan in Zhejiang province of China.
Welcoming the New Year from Dongbaishan
“You need mountains, long staircases don’t make good hikers.”
― Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words
Travelers society is a group tour organization just like FCN (Foreigners China) and CET (Culture exchange trip). I have been following their trip announcements with keen interest as they looked very scenic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t partake in any activity for log time as they are Shanghai based, which means additional travel for me. But I couldn’t resist when I saw the hike to Dongbaishan (东白山) was announced for the long weekend of International New Year’s Eve. I pulled my friend Satish, who lives in Shanghai to join the trip with me. Though I was a bit late, they oblige to give us the early bird price (989 RMB). I booked to-and-fro fast train tickets and reached Shanghai on Friday night. Satish was as hospitable as ever and had cooked delicious coastal cuisine.
Next afternoon we had early lunch, packed kanda phoa (rice flakes fried with onions) and sear fish fry and went to Hongkou stadium metro stop. We met the leader, Echo and the other participants there. There were two more guides, Andy and Key and the team size was 18. We left at 1:30pm. It was ~5 hours journey and we reached the hotel in Zhuji town of Zhejiang province by 6:15 pm. We went straight for dinner. Chinese dinner of rice, corns, vegetables and shrimps was delicious. The hotel’s name was Yueyue ge and the room was comfortable. After dinner we went for a walk around Zhuji town. Like most other towns I had seen, this also looked very well planned and clean. Decorative lighting on the buildings around the lake was impressive. Though some of the team members explored the KTV, we didn’t venture much, came back and rested.
Next morning, after a nice Chinese breakfast of mantou (steamed wheat bun), vegetables and boiled egg, we travelled by the bus for another hour and a half to village Liaozhai, which was the base camp of Dongbaishan. Donbaishan is 1194 meters above the sea level and is well known for windmills in Zhejiang province of China. It is also a natural reserve that’s spans more than 5000 square meters. Our trail started from the village in the foothills at 10:30 am. Our local trek guide, Mr. Jing, joined us here. This was by far the most scenic trails I had seen in China with river, several bridges and waterfalls on the way. After about two hours hiking, we took a lunch break and ate the packed lunch that we had carried from home. Though cold, it was delicious. We then carried on further and crossed more streams and waterfalls. We arrived at the top of Dongbaishan around 3 pm. Here we were given the tents, mat and sleeping bags that we had booked before. Our team chose a place next to the lake for tenting and we all got started to pitch our tents.
After the tents were ready, we went around. The mountain had many windmills installed to generate electricity. There was also a temple and a police outpost. The scene of the lake was breathtaking. Around 5pm, we witness an awesome sunset on the hills. Subsequently there was a barbeque party and everyone was in a merry making mood. Some of us, mainly the French tourists, stayed awake for the midnight celebration. There were many other people who had tented on the mountain top and were celebrating the New Year’s Eve.
Next morning, few of us got up early to watch the sunrise. We had to climb further up to get a better view. The sunrise was around 6:20 am and indeed it was an awesome view. We had the breakfast of bread, egg and porridge at 8 am and dismantled our tents. At 9:20 am, we started descending the mountain. The route now was different and even more scenic. We arrived at Liaozhai around 1 pm and Echo led us to a small restaurant for lunch. The Chinese meal had many vegetable dishes and was delicious. The village had many different varieties of noodles kept outside the houses for air drying. We got back into our bus and returned home around 8:30 pm.
I left for Beijing the next morning by high speed train and was back home in the afternoon.
Dongbaishan hike reminded me of the Western Ghat trails with beautiful sceneries without much human intervention. It was indeed a wonderful way to welcome the new calendar year. Thanks to Travelers society for the opportunity and my friend Satish for his company and hospitality.
This blog is about the visit to Longmen Ghettos and Shaolin temple in Henan province of China.
Shaolin temple has been on my wish list for long. Couple of months back I saw the trip on FCN itinerary, but it had got cancelled. I kept looking again and there it was on the weekend of 9th and 10th December. We went in a very small group, 7 people and a leader.
On Friday, 8th December, at 10.15 pm was our train from Beijing west railway station to Luoyang, in the Henan province. We met at the station around 8.30pm. The FCN leader was Queena and we had 7 tourists, Christopher Scotland, Theresa and Vincenz from Germany, Marija, Mariana and her 12-year-old son Luka from Croatia and me. I had a hard bed (three tier) which was a middle berth, and hence a bit cramped.
We reached in the morning and took a bus to the Youth hostel, where we were staying that day. As it was quite late, we hurried up and had local breakfast of bread stuffed with vegetables and hot soup at a small place nearby. Crossing the wide roads in Luoyang was a challenge in absence of controlled crossings. Luoyang seemed to be a big city.
The first spot was Guanlin temple, about seven kilometers south of Luoyang City. We took a bus to this place. Guanlin temple was built in 1596, during the reign of Emperor Wanli in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was expanded in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It is called General Guan’s Tomb as well.
Guan Yu is a hero in Chinese history and is the only person respected by Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists. Guan Yu was a general of the Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms Period. After he was murdered by people of the Wu Kingdom, his head was sent to Cao Cao, to frame Cao Cao and start a fight between the Shu Kingdom and the Wei Kingdom. However, Cao Cao realized the plot. Due to his great respect for General Guan Yu, Cao Cao had Guan Yu’s body carved from eaglewood and buried the carving and the head with great honors outside the South Gate of Luoyang City. Emperors of succeeding dynasties valued Guan Yu built the temple for him and worshiped him as God of War.
The Guanlin temple is in a large complex with many buildings and gardens. The main building houses statues of Guan Yu in different actions and paintings and reliefs of his life stories. There is also an art gallery displaying ancient steles and stone inscriptions. In the large place outside, there were people playing tops and whips (wielding a large metal whip to make a loud sound).
After seeing the Guanlin temple, we took the bus to Longmen grottoes. We were there by noon. The Longmen Grottoes are between Mount Xiang and Mount Longmen and face Yi River. This is indeed a very beautiful place that hosts thousands of beautiful Buddhist figures and other inscriptions. Though more like ruins, some of the statues are in good shape and the whole atmosphere here is very serene.
The grottoes were started around the year 493 when Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) moved his capital to Luoyang. They were continuously built the next 400 years until the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The scenery measures 1,000 metres (about 1,094 yards) from north to south where there are over 2,300 holes and niches, 2,800 steles, 40 dagobas, 1,300 caves and 100,000 statues. Most of them are the works of the Northern Wei Dynasty and the flourishing age of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Lots of historical materials concerning art, music, religion, calligraphy, medicine, costume and architecture are kept here. The different caves are named Wanfo, Guyang, Binyang and Lotus caves. The most famous Buddha statue is in the Binyang cave with Sakyamuni surrounded by his disciples and bodhisattva.
The complex has a large temple called the Fengxian Temple that was built during the Tang dynasty. This hosts many beautiful Buddha statues including that of Vairocana Buddha.
We spent some time there, and then caught the bus to our next destination, Lijingmen. The bus journey took almost two hours. We could see some unique Pagodas from the bus on the way. There is a city wall and a gate that leads to the ancient city. The street had festive look and was filled with people shopping for food and memorabilia. We had dinner in a local restaurant and retired for the day.
Next morning, we left for Shaolin temple, and Queena had arranged a large car for us. The first stop was Songyang Academy in Dengfeng. This was one of the four greatest academies for higher education in ancient China, together with Yingtian Academy in Shangqiu of Henan, Yuelu Academy in Changsha of Hunan, and Bailudong Academy in Jiujiang of Jiangxi. The Academy was an important and unique educational organization in ancient China. It played an important role in China’s educational and cultural history.
Songyang Academy, built in 484, used to be an arena of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. It was called Songyang Temple firstly, which was an arena of Buddhism with hundreds of Buddhists. From 605 to 618, it was renamed Songyang Taoist Temple. After renaming several times, it was called Songyang Academy in 1035. From then on, it became a classical education institution in ancient China. It was also one of the birthplaces of Neo-confucianism in Song Dynasty (906-1279). ( Ref: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/henan/zhengzhou/songyang-academy.htm).
The academy has beautiful architecture starting from the front gate. Then there is the previous saint’s hall with a statue of Confucius and portraits of other saints. There is a classroom with teaching equipment of ancient times. The complex has Daotong Temple with busts of ancient Chinese kings Yao, Yu the Great and a Duke of Zhou dynasty. The site also has some unique ancient trees, a book collecting tower and a large stele.
We moved to Shaolin temple next and reached by noon. Shaolin temple, or Shaolin monastery, is one of the most famous sites of Zen Buddhism and martial arts in the world. It is a large complex that hosts many interesting places. In the entrance is a large inscribed rock with a monk’s statue in a prayer (namaste) pose.
The major attractions include (source: Wikipedia) Mountain Gate (山门; shan men) (built 1735; The entrance tablet written with golden characters “Shaolin Temple” (少林寺; shao lin si) in black background by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1704).
Forest of Steles (碑林; bei lin), Ciyun Hall (慈雲堂; ci yun tang, built 1686; changed 1735; reconstructed 1984). It includes Corridor of Steles (碑廊; bei lang), which has 124 stone tablets of various dynasties since the Northern Qi dynasty (550-570).
West Arrival Hall (西来堂; xi lai tang) or the Kung fu Hall (锤谱堂; chui pu tang, built 1984).
Heavenly Kings (Devaraja) Palace Hall (天王殿; tian wang dian, built in Yuan dynasty; repaired in Ming, Qing dynasties).
Bell Tower (钟楼; zhong lou) (built 1345; reconstructed 1994; the bell was built in 1204), Drum Tower (鼓楼; gu lou) (built 1300; reconstructed 1996).
Kimnara Palace Hall (紧那罗殿; jin na luo dian) (reconstructed 1982), Six Patriarchs Hall (六祖堂; liu zu tang), Mahavira Palace Hall (大雄宝殿; da xiong bao dian) or Main Hall or Great Hall (built maybe 1169; reconstructed 1985), Dining Hall: (built in Tang dynasty; reconstructed 1995), Sutra Room, Dhyana Halls: (reconstructed 1981), Guest Reception Hall, Dharma (Sermon) Hall (法堂; fa tang) or Scripture Room (藏经阁; zang jing ge, reconstructed 1993), East & West Guests Rooms, Abbot’s Room (方丈室; fang zhang shi, built in early Ming dynasty), Standing in Snow Pavilion (立雪亭; li xue ting) or Bodhidharma Bower (达摩庭; da mo ting): (reconstructed 1983), Manjusri Palace Hall (wen shu dian) (reconstructed 1983), Samantabhadra Palace Hall, White Robe (Avalokitesvara) Palace Hall (白衣殿; bai yi (Guan yin) dian) or Kung fu Hall (quan pu dian) (built in Qing dynasty), Ksitigarbha Palace Hall (地臧殿; di zang dian): (built in early Qing dynasty; reconstructed 1979), 1000 Buddha Palace Hall (千佛殿; qian fo dian) or Vairocana Pavilion (毗庐阁; pi lu ge, built 1588; repaired 1639,1776), Ordination Platform (built 2006), Monks’ Rooms, Shaolin Pharmacy Bureau (built 1217; reconstructed 2004), Bodhidharma Pavilion (chu zu an, built first in Song dynasty), Bodhidharma Cave, Forest of Pagodas Yard (塔林院; ta lin yuan, built before 791). It has 240 tomb pagodas of various sizes from the Tang, Song, Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties (618–1911) and Shaolin Temple Wushu Guan (Martial arts hall).
There are so many kids and adult monks practicing Kung Fu seen everywhere. One of our teammates from UK, Christopher, was keen on finding out about joining the school and with Queena’s help, approached couple of monks who were practicing there. He is a biotechnology student who was on an exchange program, and wants to lean Kung Fu after his graduation.
After seeing all the places, we witnessed a Kung Fu show by the students of Shaolin at 3pm. It was an amazing display of Kung Fu and some of the stunts showcased were unbelievable.
There are interesting theories as to why the peace-loving Buddhist monks learned martial arts. The most obvious reason should be for self-protection from bandits and war lords who attacked the monasteries looking for perceived wealth. The two different Shaolin temples, one in Henan and the other in Fujian, teach different styles of Kung Fu.
After the show that was for half an hour, we left the Shaolin temple. The car dropped somewhere mid-way from where again we had to take a bus to the railway station. That was a bit strange as we could have asked for drop to the station by paying some extra money. Nevertheless, we were in the railway station ahead of time, and had a good train journey back to Beijing.
Visit to Luoyang and Shaolin temple was a fulfilling experience, and the small team we had was very cooperative. I thank FCN for the opportunity.