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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.

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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

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.

Ten mile gallery
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 rived 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.

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View from the hotel

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Bao’en temple

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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.

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Artificial ‘hills’

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Father and daughter admiring a picture taken

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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.

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Food that tastes great and looks cute!

 

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Old lady selling jasmine and magnolia

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Team in front of Humble administrator’s garden. With Luka, Joey, Fiona, Pamela, Martina and Christina

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.

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Yunyan temple Pagoda

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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.

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Puming Pagoda of Han Shan temple

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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.

月落烏啼霜滿天,
江楓漁火對愁眠。
姑蘇城外寒山寺,
夜半鐘聲到客船。

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

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Journey to the West

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.

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Picture from the cruise

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.

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Wishing ribbons

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Guanyin – Goddess of mercy

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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.IMG_5373Dr. 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”.

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Dr. Sun Yat-Sen

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IMG_5436We 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.

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Qin Huai River

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Sunset

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Confucius

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One of teh many colorful stone murals

 

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Hand pulled rickshaws

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One final pic!

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.

Journey to Qinghai and Gansu, visiting very beautiful Qinghai lake and colorful Danxia

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.

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Sunrise as seen  from the train

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Yellow river

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A copassenger curiously looking at Waiguoren (foreigner)

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Selfie time

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Train lunch

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Landing at Qinghai station

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.

 

 

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Tulou Temple on the cliffs of Beishan Mountain

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.

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Entrance of Ta’er temple

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Devotee saluting the Pagodas

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Silk shawls offered by devotees

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Golden roofed temple

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Yak Butter sculptures

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Ornate door at the Butter sculpture hall

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.

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Young monk

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At the “four harmonious brothers”

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.

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First view of Qinghai Hu

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Our team at the entrance

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One of the many sculpures at Qinghai Lake

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Amar offering white wine (Bai jiu) to the lake

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Devotees posing with the lake god

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Team offering food to the lake

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.

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Salt statue of Genghis Khan

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Chaka Lake

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.

  1. Traditional ground burial is rare, considered as an inferior custom. Happens mostly for deaths caused by disease or unnatural causes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Tree burial: small wooden boxes containing the remains of a deceased child or an aborted fetus are hung around trees.
  6. Water burial: disposal of corpses for consumption by fish follows the same reason as jhator.

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Sunrise on Qinghai lake

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Buddhist prayer flags

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.

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Beautiful Qinghai lake

 

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IMG_3739The 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.

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Scene at highest altitude

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Breathtaking Himalayas

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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).

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Bauzi

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.

 

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A stop before Danxia (PC: Alee)

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.

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Dragons playing with fire

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Monks worship Buddha

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Jumping with joy!

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.