Shanxi, West of the Mountains: Hills, history and Buddha

This is a blog of our visit to Shanxi province in China during June 2016. We visited the Wu Tai mountain, Yungang Grottoes, Suspended temple at Datong and the ancient city of Pingyao.

The trip to Shanxi was our first effort with a professional tour guide. Hari and I travelled to Shanxi during the long weekend dragon boat festival in April 2016. The deal was 4120 RMB for three nights including the speed train tickets.

At the Beijing west station, there was a person waiting for us with the tickets. We started at 10.10am and the journey was good. Around 12, we had lunch in the train. The train reached Taiyuan south station at 1.10pm. The station was very impressive. Our guide, Ms Minna Tan, was waiting for us. We were taken in a 7 seater car to WuTai Mountain (Wutai Shan). The drive was very beautiful and the roads were amazing. There were also many tunnels on the way. Our first stop was after about an hour, the Baiyun temple (Baiyun Si). The front arch was very impressive. This was not in the schedule, but looking at the arch, we asked Minna and she was considerate. She also explained the main features of a Buddhist temple. In the brochure that was given, it was mentioned hiking the Wutai mountain and I was enthusiastic. Minna clarified that it is a translation error and there is no hike.

The Mount Wutai scenic area of Shanxi province is one of the four most prominent Buddhist Mountains in China and a home of the Manjusri Bodhisattva. Baiyun Si (white cloud temple) has a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape and is rich in Buddhist traditions. It was built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) by a local government official and reached its height of architectural splendor in the Song Dynasty (960-1269). Throughout its history, the temple was destroyed in many ways but has now revived the splendor of yesteryear under the stewardship of the Master Changlong and the Buddhist rites and services on the square in front draw a wide range of followers. The Baiyun temple has great architecture and has many beautiful statues. The sequence of halls that we see here: entrance hall, courtyard, main hall, courtyard, secondary hall, is the standard layout for Chinese temple and palace compounds.

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Cross sword indicates a medium sized temple

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Rare Buddha with facial hair

We left the place at 5.00pm and arrived at the next destination, the Zhenhai Temple at 5.15pm. This is named after the nearby Zhenhai tower on the submarine spring, was built during the Ming dynasty. From Qing dynasty to the republic of China, Buddhas lived here. Now it is a school temple of Tibetan Buddhism. Minna explained few things like how size of the temple is indicated by the statue of Skanda (Wei Tuo), like if he is holding his sword upward, across or downwards. She also told about the accompanying bodhisattva, Guan Yin and the four colored kings of the four directions. Duō Wén Tiān (Vaiśravaṇa) is the guardian of the north, Zēng Zhǎng Tiānwáng (Virūḍhaka) is the king of the south, Chí Guó Tiānwáng (Dhṛtarāṣṭra) is the king of the east and Guăng Mù Tiānwáng (Virūpākṣa), king of the west. Zhenhai temple has a living Buddha stupa built in 1786 and a hall of Three Buddhas. We could see one statue of the Buddha sporting a beard here. That evening we went around and visited one more temple that was near the hotel. It was called the Puhua temple. It had a very nice screen wall in front.  It was 15.6 meters long, 8 meters high and 1.6 meters thick, supposed to be the longest wall in Mount Wutai. Even this temple had the standard format, laughing  Buddha in front, bodhisattva with sword on his back, the four direction kings, three sitting Buddhas with different mudras, and the fair and dark warriors next to them. We finished around 7.30pm, had dinner and rested in Youhao hotel, which was comfortable.

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People touching the character ‘fu’ or good fortune

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Cauldron in Cauldron temple
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Dabai Pagoda

Next morning we had breakfast the hotel by paying 10RMB each and visited a huge temple complex. It had the Cauldron temple, Pusading temple and the Tayuan Temple that has the Great White Pagoda (Dabai pagoda) or Sarira Stupa. There were other temple like Guanghua Temple and Shuxiang Temple, but we had to skip as we needed to reach the next destination, Datong, early. We had lunch on the way, passed Datong and reached Hengshan around 3.00pm. The sight of the hills on the way was beautiful.

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Suspended temples

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Jump with joy!
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Hotpot

There were enough holiday crowds at the place. The first sight of the hanging (‘suspended’ as the Chinese like to refer) temples was amazing. These were built in the late years of the Northern Wei Dynasty (around 471-523 AD), some 1,400 years ago. It was repeatedly renovated in later dynasties, but the original structure remained unchanged. The existing building is the result of the renovations carried out in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The temple is an example of co-existence of different cultures. Three Religions Hall enshrines the statues of Buddha, Laozi and Confucius, who represent Buddhism, Taosim and Confucianism respectively. It was about 4.45pm by the time we got our chance to step on to this wonderful monument. As the platforms are narrow and the structures are delicate, they let only the right number of people at a time. We returned to Datong and had the famous Hotpot dinner. The hotel where we stayed at Datong was nice. The complimentary breakfast was good.

We reached the entry gates of Yungang Grottoes (Yúngāng Shíkū) around 9am. This world heritage site with 252 caves and 51,000 statues, represent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Five Caves created by Tan Yao, with their strict unity of layout and design, constitute a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art.

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Large wooden sculptures

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The entrance and the route to the Grottoes have many Buddists figures made out of stone and wood which were made much later. The wooden figure are very large, yet extremely beautiful The place is very well maintained, in spite of the large crowd it receives. The caves are all numbered and have unique names. Some of the caves have figures that are painted. Since the end of the works, the sandstone of the grottoes has been exposed to heavy weathering. The ensuing centuries therefore saw several attempts to preserve the caves and to repair sustained damage. The wooden building extensions of caves 5 and 6 were constructed in 1621, during the early Qing Dynasty. Since the 1950s, cracks in the sandstone have been sealed by plastering, and forestation has been implemented in an effort to reduce the weathering due to sandstorms. The 53 grottoes include some 1,000 slots with about 51,000 statues, a treasure-trove of cave art that combines traditional Chinese art forms Greek and Indian influence. Sculptures here are noted for their details and rich variety that range from the smallest, only 2 centimeters high, to the tallest, Buddha 17-meters high. The tallest Buddha is surrounded by many small Buddhas in Grotto No. 5, also called the Big Buddha’s Cave.

Visiting the suspended temples and the Yungang’s grottoes was a really fulfilling experience. We moved on to the next spot, the famous house of Shanxi – Qiao’s Grand Courtyard, a bright pearl in the history of the residential building in the north china, known as folk-custom museum of Shanxi. The place became more famous due to the novel and TV series that came out about this. There are many figures representing the life during the 18th century life and trade.

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Locals curious to take pictures with Waiguo ren

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After seeing Qiao’s Grand court yard, we traveled by the car to Pingyao ancient city, which is also a world heritage site. The car stopped outside the boundary wall (the ancient town streets have no access to motored vehicles) and we walked to our hotel (Tian yuan kui guesthouse) which was also like a heritage building. After freshening up, we walked in the streets of the ancient city.

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Nine dragon wall

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Rainbow over the city gate tower
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Breakfast

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Pingyao Ancient Town started from Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty reconstructions. It is laid out in what is called a ba gua (“eight diagrams”) pattern. Each of these eight diagrams, consisting of three lines each (called trigrams), corresponds to a fundamental concept of Taoism (Daoism): earth, wind, fire, water, sky (or heaven), thunder, mountain, and lake. The ancient town, with its particular arrangement of 6 gates (2 on each side and 1 at each end, and each consisting of double doors) is meant to resemble a turtle: the single gates at either end represent the turtle’s head and tail, while the remaining gates represent the turtle’s four legs. In addition, there are 2 wells near the “head” gate, suggesting the eyes of the turtle.

It was a wonderful experience seeing the streets full of life selling memorabilia and traditional food. It was drizzling a bit and we witnessed a set of two beautiful rainbows in the sky behind the tower.

Next morning, again we walked on the streets of the ancient town and saw a nine dragon wall and an old Church. At 8.30am, Minna took us to sightseeing. We saw many shops selling vinegar. There were many handicraft shops, particular one was the Wentao Papercut Shop. We walked on the border wall and could see the plan of the city. After that we visited the Confucian temple. Around 10.15am, we went to the former residence of Lei Lutai, the founding father of the Ri Sheng Chang Bank, the first bank of China (it is now Bank of China). There was a display of many banking activities of those days and the currency used.

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Tower gate at the town wall

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Inside Ri Sheng Chang Bank
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Ri Sheng Chang Bank’s branches
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Vinegar is very popular in Shanxi

That ended out tour of Shanxi. Our hosts dropped us the railway station by 4pm. The train was at 6.50pm. We were back in Beijing by 9.50pm.

The tour of Shanxi was our first trial using English speaking Chinese tourist guides. They were really professional. Minna was fluent in English and helped us with the choice of food during our lunches. The driver was an aged gentleman who was very understanding. It was also a learning for me to see how well the monuments are preserved and showcased. We further got to witness the impressive infrastructure of Chinese highways, tunnels and bridges.

Qingdao: Beaches, beer, seafood and modern engineering

This a blog about our visit to the cities Qingdao and Huangdao in the Shandong province on the east coast of China.

The idea of visiting Qingdao emerged on a weekend while we were sipping Tsingtao beer. Ranganath said it is close to Beijing and we can visit by car in a weekend. However, he became busy after that and we realized that it is 910 Kms from Beijing and high speed train takes 5-6 hours. Hari and I decided that we will visit Qingdao on a long weekend of Tomb sweeping day. Next step was to book tickets. Two weeks were left and we realized that all trains were full. Vamsi was ready to join too and air tickets were booked with the help of Michael, a colleague. He also helped us to book hotels in Qingdao and Huangdao for the two nights.

For those who are new, Qingdao is a city on the east coast of China in Shandong province and is famous for the European influence, beaches, Tsingtao beer and seafood. It is also a naval base.  Tsingtao brewery is the second largest brewery in China after the Snow brewery. Qingdao is a place where the rich of China have chosen to live facing the beaches.

We flew from Beijing on April 2nd by early morning Air China flight. We reached by 8.30 and took a bus to Qingdao railway station which was close to the hotel Haiding where we were going to stay. It was a long journey on a foggy morning and we reached the hotel in about an hour’s time. The hotel was convenient and was opposite to the beach. It was already and we had a filling brunch at a buffet restaurant next to the hotel. We relaxed for some time and went for a stroll. Here we had people selling boating tickets and caught a ferry that goes around showing scenic places. It was nice, but the day was foggy. We could see a nice light house on the hills and many big ships. After returning, we went for a walk on the bridge that leads to a pier. There were many people visiting the place and the atmosphere was festive. People were feeding the sea gulls. The sight of so many sea gulls flying towards the bridge in order to catch the food was unique. Later we roamed around and saw that dry and fresh seafood was one of the main attractions in the place.

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At Beijing airport

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Dried seafood

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Downtown Qingdao

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Red torch sculpure
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Big houses facing the sea

IMG_0029IMG_0030IMG_0047IMG_0055IMG_0057IMG_0059Next day we went around looking for a local sight-seeing bus as we wanted to have a feel of the town. After some efforts, we were guided to a place where we could buy tickets and sat on the top floor of a double-decker bus that went around the city. Later we realized that this was a bus that ferried tourists to a spot from where they could go to another scenic spot, Lau Shan. Nevertheless, though fast, we could get glimpses of the city. This was beautiful with large mansions opposite to the beaches and great gardens all over. The bus halted at a place that looked like a large terminal and after going into the building we realized that there were people queuing up for visiting Lao Shan, a popular hill station, and it would take the whole day. As the return bus was quite late, we returned by a taxi. That afternoon, we went around looking for lunch and settled at a seafood restaurant. The chef cooked the live fish that was selected by us. Though prepared in a typical Chinese style, it tasted good. After lunch, we came back to the hotel and checked out. We caught a taxi for taking us to the next hotel at Huangdao. The road was excellent like anywhere else in China and had long tunnels. We reached the hotel around 3.15pm.

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Newly weds posing
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Squid dish sold at the beach

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Wang Dao’s mansion

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Li JI Pu and Kelly
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Sugar coated fruits
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Qingdao eye
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Wyndham Grand Hotel

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Hari and Vamsi posing on the Bay bridge
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Qingdao Bay bridge

Haidu hotel was nice and close to the two main beaches of Huangdao. The room offered a great view of the sky scrapers around. We went around for some time and returned to the hotel in the evening. Hari checked with the receptionist about local sightseeing. To our pleasant surprise, Kelly, the receptionist said that she can accompany us to the sightseeing the next day. It was really nice of her. Next morning we were ready and Kelly and her boyfriend, Li Ji Fu were waiting for us. We walked to the Golden sand beach that had huge mansion belonging to Chinese actor Wang Dao. Nearby was the Qindao eye, a large Ferris wheel. After spending some time at the Golden sand beach, we went to the Silver sand beach by taxi. Silver sand beach is much bigger and there is the five Star Hotel, Wyndham Grand on the shore. It was getting close to lunch time. We asked Kelly if she could take us to an Indian restaurant. We took a taxi to the Indian restaurant. The restaurant seemed to be very popular and had five Indian chefs. The food was delicious. From there we went to the hotel and checked out. Kelly helped us to get a taxi to the airport, making a deal with the driver to show us the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, which is the longest sea bridge (26.7 km) in the world. It is an engineering marvel and was an amazing sight. We stopped on the way to take pictures.

We had to spend many hours in the airport as the flight got delayed for four hours. There was no communication and no one seemed to bother. We were wondering how we could have reacted back home in such a situation.

Qingdao is a beautiful place and is a great getaway. I feel that it would be even better in the springtime. Also going with a guide might have helped us to explore the first part better.

Great Wall trips/treks

This blog is about my visits to and treks at different sites of the Great Wall of China, a wonder of the world.

I came to Beijing on 14th December 2015 and started working from the next day.  One of the biggest attractions for moving, among the other things, was the proximity to Great Wall. Still, it took almost four months for my first great wall trip. The first one was Badaling in March 2016. Since then, I have been fortunate to see many sites of this marvel, some well preserved/restored, some very natural and rustic.

For an introduction, I am quoting history.com here (https://www.history.com/topics/great-wall-of-china):

Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of China and its long and vivid history, the Great Wall of China actually consists of numerous walls and fortifications, many running parallel to each other. Originally conceived by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (c. 259-210 B.C.) in the third century B.C. as a means of preventing incursions from barbarian nomads into the Chinese Empire, the wall is one of the most extensive construction projects ever completed. The best-known and best-preserved section of the Great Wall was built in the 14th through 17th centuries A.D., during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Though the Great Wall never effectively prevented invaders from entering China, it came to function more as a psychological barrier between Chinese civilization and the world, and remains a powerful symbol of the country’s enduring strength.

When Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered construction of the Great Wall around 221 B.C., the labor force that built the wall was made up largely of soldiers and convicts. It is said that as many as 400,000 people died during the wall’s construction; many of these workers were buried within the wall itself.

Today, the Great Wall is generally recognized as one of the most impressive architectural feats in history. In 1987, UNESCO designated the Great Wall a World Heritage site, and a popular claim that emerged in the 20th century holds that it is the only manmade structure that is visible from space. Over the years, roadways have been cut through the wall in various points, and many sections have deteriorated after centuries of neglect. The best-known section of the Great Wall of China–Badaling, located 43 miles (70 km) northwest of Beijing–was rebuilt in the late 1950s, and attracts thousands of national and foreign tourists every day.

The total length of the Great Wall of China built in different dynasties is 13,170.69 miles (21,196.18 kilometers), announced by China’s State Administration of Cultural Relics in 2012.

The description in this blog is in the order of the date my visits to different sites of the Great Wall, thus it is also written at different times. It doesn’t necessarily try to rank order them in terms if their “must visit” nature. Each site is unique, though has common features.

The reader can jump to description based on the Great Wall site in the following order:

  1. Badaling
  2. Mutianyu
  3. Simatai
  4. Juyongguan
  5. Huanghuacheng
  6. Huaibei
  7. Yaoziyu
  8. Jinshanling
  9. Xiangshuihu
  10. Laolongtou

1. Badaling

Our friend at Link Park, Ranganath has been in China for long time and Hari was bothering him to plan an outing. Unable to bear our torture, he planned for Badaling visit on Saturday, 12th March 2016. He booked a car through his contact for the whole day.

Badaling is a popular and the most visited Great wall site about 80kms north of Beijing. This was built during the Ming Dynasty (1505) to occupy a commanding and strategic position for protecting the Juyongguan Pass (Juyongguan section of the Great Wall) on its south and for protecting the city of Beijing. The wall has undergone restoration several times.

We left Link Park around 8am and reached Badaling at 11am. There was already a big crowd. Though I liked to climb, Ranganath was not going to hike. We got in to the queue for the cable car. We were on top by 11.30am.  The walk on the wall is about four kilometers, with many towers, passages and steps. The stems were mostly easy. We spent one hour on the wall and caught the downward cable car. On the way back, we visited Ming’s tombs.

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With Ranganath and Hari
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Ming tombs

Ming Tombs are at the foothill of Tianshou Mountain and house the Mausoleum of thirteen emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). The area has several tablets and a museum with several exhibits and the statue of Hai Rui (Hai Jui; 23 January 1514 – 13 November 1587), a very famous Chinese official of the Ming Dynasty. In China he is remembered as a model of honesty and integrity in office.

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Ming’s Tombs
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Hai Rui

2. Mutianyu

When Hema (my wife) and Bhargav (our son) were here, we planned for a day trip to the Great Wall at Mutianyu on Sunday, 15th May 2016. We hired a taxi for the day. We started around 6.15am and reached at 9.15am.

Located among the mountains to the north of Beijing, the Great Wall of China was constructed and reconstructed at Mutianyu to keep out the nomadic tribes to the north. A short 60 km trip outside of Beijing, The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu stands as a monument to both the strength and the weakness of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1627). The Mutianyu Great Wall is one of the best-preserved and best-known Great Wall sections. It is also a huge commercial hub with many shops selling food and memorabilia. There are shops on the wall in some parts.

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With Hema and Bhargav
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We took the cable car for going up and reached the top around 10:30 am. The walk on the wall was nice. We walked for about one and a half hour going through different towers and arrived at the point from where we took the Luge ( light toboggan or sled) to come down. It took some time as a lady in front got stuck halfway.

Once we were down, we went around the park. The landscaping was great and there were also some artificially created caves, bridges and water falls. There were people dressed like soldiers with whom we posed. Hema also enjoyed getting photographed with local children. We bought few embroidered wall hangings that were beautiful and were reasonably priced.

Bird’s nest Olympic stadium

By 2pm, we came out and caught our taxi back home. On the way, I requested Chao to take us via Bird’s nest, the Olympic stadium. It took a long time due to the traffic, and Chao was exploring the country side to avoid the traffic. We could stop for some time to take pictures of the Bird’s nest. We were home by 6pm.

3. Great Wall at Simatai and Gubei water town

Our next Great Wall visit was to the Simatai. This was my colleague Zhilong’s recommendation.  We wanted to go during the weekend of July 9-10, and explored the possibility of staying in the water town. We booked hotel rooms through booking.com and hired Chao’s car for two days at 1800RMB. It was four of us this time with Vamsi and Bhaskar joining us.

We started in the morning and reached the hotel by 1pm. The hotel’s name was Beijing Simatai Fuxingdezhao Farm stay. The place all around had similar hotels. We had lunch in the hotel.

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Many homestays
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Next morning, we bought tickets for the Great wall and a bus dropped us to the starting point of the great wall. It was steep climb in some places. Portion between towers one and 10 are rebuilt and most people walk there. There are some portions outside this are in bad shape and are not allowed to pass. Around 11.30am, we wanted to come down and our people were dehydrated. As we couldn’t see water being sold on the wall, we decided to come down by the cable car. We came down and waited for the bus to drop us to the water town. There we had lunch in a restaurant, contacted Chao and returned to Beijing.

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Great Wall lighting
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Fire show at the musical fountain

Gubei Water town is regarded as “Wuzen in Beijing”. It is a great combination of the hills, river and old style buildings. In the evening there was festive atmosphere in the streets of the town. We walked through the streets and visited a Church on the hilltop and a Pagoda. In the central ground, there was a display of acrobatics and show of strength. We had dinner of corns, groundnuts, and barbecue vegetables in an open air restaurant. It was already dark and we proceeded to see the musical fountain. It was an amazing show that had water, lights and fire all in one.

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Sunset behind a Church
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Gubei Water town is regarded as “Wuzen in Beijing”. It is a great combination of the hills, river and old style buildings. In the evening there was festive atmosphere in the streets of the town. We walked through the streets and visited a Church on the hilltop and a Pagoda. In the central ground, there was a display of acrobatics and show of strength. We had dinner of corns, groundnuts, and barbecue vegetables in an open air restaurant. It was already dark and we proceeded to see the musical fountain. It was an amazing show that had water, lights and fire all in one.

Next morning, we bought tickets for the Great wall and a bus dropped us to the starting point of the great wall. It was steep climb in some places. Portion between towers one and 10 are rebuilt and most people walk there. There are some portions outside this are in bad shape and are not allowed to pass. Around 11.30am, we wanted to come down and our people were dehydrated. As we couldn’t see water being sold on the wall, we decided to come down by the cable car. We came down and waited for the bus to drop us to the water town. There we had lunch in a restaurant, contacted Chao and returned to Beijing.

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Simatai Great Wall
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4. Juyongguan

I got an opportunity to visit Juyongguan as a part of an office meeting. About 150 of the middle and top management of the company were taken to a hotel near the great wall for the weekend of 27-28 August 2016. On Saturday afternoon, after the meeting was over, we were taken to Juyongguan by buses.

Juyongguan (Juyong pass) Great Wall is one of the three most famous passes along the Great Wall of China, together with Jiayuguan and Shanhaiguan. 37 miles (60 km) from downtown Beijing, Juyong Pass was the northern direct access to Beijing in ancient times. The pass had many different names during former Chinese dynasties. However, the name ‘Juyongguan’ was used by more than three dynasties. It was first used in the Qin Dynasty when Emperor Qinshihuang ordered the building of the Great Wall. Juyongguan pass was connected to the Great Wall in the Southern and Northern Dynasties era.

The present pass route was built in the Ming Dynasty and was renovated later. It was a very important strategic place connecting the inner land and the area near the northern border of China. It was also used to defend the ancient city of Beijing.

A legend about the Jiayuguan Pass tells of a workman named Yi Kaizhan in the Ming Dynasty (1368BC-1644BC) who was proficient in arithmetic. He calculated that it would need 99,999 bricks to build the Jiayuguan Pass. The supervisor did not believe him and said if they miscalculated by even one brick, then all the workmen would be punished to do hard work for three years. After the completion of the project, one brick was left behind the Xiwong city gate. The supervisor was happy at the sight of the brick and ready to punish them. However Yi Kaizhan said with deliberation that the brick was put there by a supernatural being to fix the wall. A tiny move would cause the collapse of the wall. Therefore the brick was kept there and never moved. It can still be found there today on the tower of the Jiayuguan Pass.

The major trek path is circular and has 14 towers. It is very steep in some places. For some time, we were not sure if we have to complete the route or not, as there were many who were tired looking at the scale of the trek. Few of us decided to complete the trek and four of us were the first ones to finish. The view from the wall and towers was amazing with beautiful cloud cover in the sky. It took about 1 and a half hours to complete the trek and we were down by 4.30pm.

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First four: With Lezhen, Michael and Xuehong
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Old man with grit

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5. Huanghuacheng, the waterside great wall

This was a trip I took with FCN (Foreigner’s China, or Laowai) on 15th April 2017. Huanghuacheng is the only lakeside Great Wall in Beijing. It is one of the top destinations for a Great Wall hiking tour. Visitors can also take a boat to appreciate the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng from a different angle. Some parts of the wall are supposed to be submerged in the lake. It is about 70 kilometers away from Beijing city. When summer arrives in full bloom, the village below gets filled with yellow wild flowers (‘yellow flower’ is ‘huanghua’ in Chinese). Hence the village name is Huanghuacheng. The construction commenced in 1404, two years before the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) moved its capital to Beijing, and continued for 188 years. Encircling the clear Haoming Lake, this section is 7.7 miles (12.4 kilometers) in length and partly submerged. A reservoir dam was built on the former site of Xishuiyuguan Pass, near the entrance to the scenic area. There is a chestnut garden at the mountain foot. It was planted by soldiers of the Ming Dynasty, who were assigned to stand guard in Huanghuacheng. The Temple of Meng Jiangnü is 5 km northeast of the Shanhai Pass Great Wall Fortress.

We were picked up at Huixinxijienankou subway station at 8.30 and taken to Huanghuacheng by a minibus. We were about 25 people from different countries and my colleague Aijun was with me. We met Kabeer, who was from India. There were some games like passing the parcel played on the bus. Some of them got to speak and sing. We reached around 11.40am and were given time till 4pm. It took us some time to get to the right path. Kabeer, Aijun and I were together and we did most parts of the great wall, skipping the boat ride.

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The FCN team
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With Aijun and Kabeer
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With Aijun and Kabeer
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The jump (PC: Kabeer)
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Meeting colleagues: Chen, Xilong, Yiming and Lin
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The hike was very scenic, the lake adding to the beauty. There were colorful flowers on the trees by the side of the wall. Between the two sections, we took a lunch break around 1.30pm. We were back to the bus by about 4.10pm.

Huanghuacheng was my fifth great wall site and is certainly the most memorable one.

6. Great wall and rafting at Huaibei ski resort

On the weekend of June 18th, I went for a day trip with FCN. The information said cool rafting after a brief visit to the great wall. Two of my colleagues Dave and Ashly were keen and I joined them. We were not clear, but we booked.

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As usual, we caught the bus at Huixinxijienankou subway station. The journey was about one and a half hour and we were at the place by 9.15am. Red, the leader had told that we will climb the Great wall before lunch and would do the rafting in the afternoon. We were all given the rafting cards. We had a customary group photo and dispersed. Autumn was the designated FCN photographer.

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The team
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Huaibai is a large ski resort that is undergoing major expansion and changes. A dinosaur park is also being developed there. We could see the cable car lines meant to take people up for t skiing. The Great Wall portions are inaccessible in many places and work is being done. I realized that the path we took for the great wall hike said “not for public”. The path, unlike the other well-known portions of the Great Wall, didn’t have the side walls. The access to most towers was not there and we had to go through risky sideways. But the whole place was very scenic and the wall and the towers looked great. We went to one portion and returned to the original point, and I took the opposite path to go to a higher tower. This path had wooden steps and side rails for holding. I could see the town on the other side from top. The entry to the tower was barred using steel barricades. Next to each tower, there is an artificial tree that I first mistook to be real!

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With Dave and Ashley
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With Red, Autumn and Mao
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Path to the towers is tricky
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Inside a tower
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Tough trail
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On the other side has a wooden path, but the towers are not yet open
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Town seen on the opposite side

We walked for about 2 and a half hours and came down around noon. We decided to go for lunch. Autumn and Mao ordered lunch for four of us. As I liked, they ordered Kung Pao Chicken, which was really yummy. Unfortunately, as we had just tasted it, Mao discovered a fly in the dish and we had to return it.

After the lunch, we proceeded to the rafting place. We hired the locker to keep our belongings as we were going to get wet. From a distance, I saw the rafting happening in narrow canal and was circumspect. I had done rafting before in forceful Kali River in India.

We had to wait in a queue to be taken to the start of the rafting spot by bus. Each raft carries two people. Dave and Ashley took one and I was in another raft. The caretakers pushed us into the canals and wow, the raft took off! It was really an amazing ride with the raft rushing through the water and water splashing on to the face. On the way, there were many lake-like places where one could relax. People also played with water splashing it on to others.

The rafting was really thrilling and lasted about 90 minutes. There were cameras installed on the way to take pictures. Unfortunately we couldn’t get ours. We took shower and changed. The change area was spacious and clean. It was close to 4pm and it seemed like it was going to rain. We boarded the bus and left for Beijing. The return journey took longer and we were at Huixinxijienankou around 6.30.  We caught the subway and reached home around 7.20pm.

The rafting at Huaibei was an awesome experience and so was the Great wall trek. Once all the work is completed, the ski resort will be a great getaway and will attract large crowds.

7. Wild Great Wall at Yaoziyu

While the portions of great wall closer to Beijing, like Badaling and Mutianyu are well preserved and restored, there are parts of Great Wall that are ‘wild’ meaning they have not been restored to look better. They provide a more natural rustic view, but are not easy to access. One such stretch is the Yaoziyu Great Wall. This was a trip with CET (Culture Exchange Trip) group on Saturday, 14th April 2018. The pictures shared in the CET link were very impressive and the title read “Hiking to Geziyu Wild Great Wall + Enjoy Spring Blossom”. Though they called it ‘Geziyu’ or Mule’s mouth, Vicky, a co hiker, told me later that it was Yaoziyu section. This is to the northeast of Beijing in Huairou district. Named after the 800-year old village there, the Yaoziyu Great Wall of China is an extremely beautiful but a bit risky part of the Great Wall that is rarely seen by visitors.

CET Team

Booking was simple, the reporting time at Huixinxijienankou subway station was 7:40, which means slightly later than normal. I prepared a chapati egg roll in the morning and carried for lunch. The group size was about 40 people, and as usual, the participants were from different parts of the world. There were two CET leaders, Melody and Kevin. People introduced themselves and some sand songs. I also sang a bit. We reached the base at 9:30 and took a group picture at a big rock with a writing (a standard of most tourist places in China). I also saw a signboard that said, “This section of the Great Wall was not open to public”.

Once we started the moving, within few minutes was a steep hike in a winding bushy path. The trail had become slippery due to previous day’s rain. We had to hold on to stronger plants and roots to climb. Volunteers from the team, at tricky spots gave helping hand to struggling climbers. After about one and a half hours of difficult uphill climb, was the first glimpse of the Great wall and the first tower. Some of us climbed the tower and took pictures, while most rested outside on the wall and ate the lunch they had brought.

Jumping a compound at start
Tricky hike

Next walk was the on the Great Wall itself. As said before, it is not a well-preserved part, and becomes very treacherous trail at times, with loose stones. Many climbed the first tower and took pictures. We took a lunch break here. I finished my roll and took some pictures. The scenery all around was fantastic. Melody said that two weeks before, the hills were full of flowers, mostly a kind of cherry blossoms. But now most had withered in the strong wind. After about 45 minutes, we started to walk on the wall again and crossed four or five more towers. Some towers in were in good shape, while some dilapidated. Some people were crossing the path crawling, due to the fear of slipping.

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First tower
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By about 15:00 we came down, walked through a natural trail and at 15:20, reached the entrance where we had stopped for a photo during the start. We had to wait for some time for everyone to come back and the vehicle started back for Beijing. We reached Huxinxijienankou subway station by 18:00 and I was home by 19:20.

This Great Wall hike was clearly different and had the flavor of a wild hike. Thanks to CET for the opportunity.

8. Jinshanling Great Wall

It was still cold during the last week in February, but I couldn’t sit at home. I saw this update in FCN about the visit to Jinshanling Great Wall on 23rd February 2019, and my love of the Great Wall got rekindled. I checked with Hari and booked the trip for three of us. As I was not sure of the terrain and how Hema will face it, I had decided to make use of the cable car. We took the subway to Huixinxijienankou at 6:30 am and reached in time. The group had about 20 people, with two leaders Celine and Ruo, both of whom I had known earlier. To their surprise, I wasn’t carrying my SLR camera to the trip. It took us 2.5 hours by bus to reach the scenic area.

Jinshanling (金山岭), is a section of the Great Wall of China located in the mountains of Luanping County, Hebei Province, 125 km northeast of Beijing. The name is due to the hills on which it rests. This section of the wall connects with the Simatai section to the east and Mutianyu to the west. Jinshanling section of the wall was constructed under the direction of general Xu Da in 1368 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and renovated under the supervision of the great general Qi Jiguang and the local governor Tan Lun in 1567. The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall is 10.5 km long with 5 passes, 67 towers and 3 beacon towers. The initial section of the wall has been restored to original condition. The entrance fee is 55 RMB. A cable car (40 RMB one way, 60 RMB round trip) has been constructed to take visitors to the highest point along the wall.

In the bus, the leaders handed over a leaflet with the map of the Great Wall and gave instructions. Entrance of the scenic area was impressive with resting places. They also had brochures with details about the place in English. The approach to ticket office was about half an hour’s walk through nicely designed wooden path. At the ticket office, Celine bought the tickets and handed over to us. As decided earlier, I and Hema took the cable car. The journey was scenic and took about 20 minutes to the top. We walked towards the Great Wall from the cable car station. There is a view point from where people take pictures.  We took a right at the Great Wall as more attractions seemed to be there as per the map.

A mural carved on the hill near the entrance
Wooden path

The first one where we join the wall was Xiaojinshan tower. The name is because of the peak on which this tower rests. It is of brick arch structure with two floors connected by a brick stairway. The brick door frames are made to look like wood. This tower was renovated to its original shape in 1985. At the tower, there is a small shop selling water, juices, walking sticks and memorabilia. The view from the tower is very scenic.

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View from the first view point
Xiaojinshan tower
Heigu tower
View from a window

From there we passed couple of open towers to reach the third open tower, The Heigu Tower.  This building was originally constructed in 1569 with bricks and wood, later replaced by bricks and stones. The Heigu Tower has two floors. In 1986, the bedroom at the top was renovated. The information placed in the tower says according to a legend, the building was struck by lightning and caught fire. A builder’s daughter Heigu, died while fighting the fire. In honor of her bravery and sacrifice, the tower was named as Heigu Tower after reconstruction.

Beacon tower
General tower

In about 100 meters further was Shalingkou pass, built in 1383 with General XuDa of Ming dynasty leading the efforts. We met Hari and Ruo here. They were coming from the opposite side. The hike has been easy.

We continued further and reached the General Tower. This is known as the “Most Representative Enemy Tower”. It is 10 meters long, and 11 meters wide. There is a stone staircase leading to the top of the tower. On the upstairs is a sleeping place, while a storehouse can be found on the lower story. There are complex constructions outside the tower. To its north are beacon towers, branch walls, support walls, and horse blocking walls. To its east and west are barrier walls. Beacon towers were used to detect and transfer military information.

Eastern Five-window tower

We ate our packed lunch of Chapatis and continued further. After visiting the brick line and few more towers, we stopped at a dilapidated tower, and decided to come back. We came back to the entry point of Xiaojingshan tower, we continued further towards the flower tower. The approach towards the next tower that is supposed to have the Kylin screen wall, was tricky. Here we decided to return. We proceeded to the cable car station and quickly came down by 13:30. We went around for some time before getting into the bus and were back in Beijing by evening.

Though Jinshanling was my eighth different Great Wall site trip, this was also unique. I feel it is a blend of wild as well as renovated Great wall. The place is being developed very well for tourism. As I had mentioned in my several write up, China knows how to preserve, restore and showcase its heritage sites and use tourism as a powerful tool for economic growth. More details about Jinshanling can be found in their exclusive website: https://www.jinshanlinggreatwall.com/

9. Xiangshuihu Great Wall

After about a month of visiting Jinshanling part of the Great Wall, there was a new trip to Xiangshuihu, with CET. The CET advertisement said, “Great Wall and plum blossom, Feel the spring of the Great Wall”. Hari and Vamsi (my colleagues) also showed interest and I booked for four people. The price was reasonable, with group discount it came down to 128 RMB from 148 RMB.

As usual, we caught a small bus at Huixinxijienankou at 7:20, and the bus left in about 10 minutes. The group size was small, 15 including the leader, Brady. After a couple of hours journey towards north east of Beijing, we reached the Great wall scenic area entrance at 9:30 and Brady bought the tickets.

First view of Xiangshuihu Great Wall

There was a special indoor exhibition of the spring blossom (plum blossom, or Meihua). Different kinds of flowers (peach, plum and cherry varieties), and bonsai plants were beautifully displayed. After this, we took a group picture and proceeded to hike the Great Wall. The hike was quite steep, but the weather was cool. The view all around was breathtaking, with the mountains covered by spring blossoms.  

Display at the exhibition
A face

The Xiangshuihu (响水湖, Sounding water lake) part of the Great Wall is in Huairou district of Beijing. It was constructed in 1404 during the Ming Dynasty. The name comes from the flowing Xiangshui Spring, the source of drinking water for locals. Nowadays, the Xiangshuihu Great Wall has been partly renovated and developed into a scenic area. With the spring water in the middle, it is considered to be like a swimming Dragon.

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The Moshikou Pass
First hike
A broken tower
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There are two parts of the great wall, and a reservoir between them, known as the Moshikou Pass. On either side, the hike to the top of the Great Wall is very steep. We crossed the barrage and climbed the steep steps to reach the top in about an hour. In between there were watch towers. The route was not clear further, and we decided to come down. At 11:30, we had lunch at a local restaurant hosted by CET. The food was delicious and there were many vegetarian dishes.

After lunch, we decided to go to the other side, to the health preserving valley. This was a circular route. Hema and couple of others decided to stay back expecting similar steep route. But, the trail was quite comfortable. The health preserving valley is about 2.5 kilometers, has many medicinal plants on either side of the trail, accompanied by information about the herbs and quotes by famous doctors written on the stones. The trail also was very scenic with water falls and bridges on the way. After about 30 minutes we reached the Dragon King Temple. It is small temple with the Dragon King statue and a couple of paintings depicting his life. In its front is a fresh water spring emerging from a dragon’s mouth. The water is very refreshing. The path further leads to some very wild part of the Great Wall, for some of which there are bypass routes. On the way down is the Luanling part of the Great wall where there were Lianyuan Cave and Tuteng Pavilion. One cave had a large golden dragon, and another had 9 smaller dragons. There were many people climbing the wall from this side. The climbers were both very old and very young.

Beautiful path
Dragon King Temple
Dragon King
Fresh water spring
Daurian Redstart
Really wild part
A young hiker
I admire the zeal of Chinese old people
Nine dragons

It was 14:00 by the time we down. As some people were still behind, we waited for them to join and the bus left for Beijing around 15:30.

Xiangshuihu was my 9th different Great Wall site visit. As I had said earlier, each one is unique. This one was special due to the spring, the flowers and the mystique of the temples in the hills.

10. Laolongtou sea side Great Wall

This was our latest Great Wall trip during the weekend of 22nd June 2019. Hema was keen on a beach visit. When I saw the information about the Trip to Laolongtou on FCN notification, I decided to go ahead with this. Booking was easy as always with FCN. The price was reasonable, 280RMB for the travel, one night’s stay and breakfasts excluding the entry tickets. The two-day trip had one day for the Great Wall and the second day for the sand sculptures at International ocean park.

Laolongtou (老龙头) means Old Dragon’s Head. This is because the Great Wall here resembles a dragon drinking water from the sea. This is about 305 km away from Beijing. The Laolongtou Great Wall was built in 1381 under the supervision of Qi Jiguang, a general of the Ming Dynasty, to protect against northern invaders. During the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) it turned into a great tourist destination, attracting travelers, including emperors to enjoy the scenery and constructions.

As always, we caught the bus at Huixinxijienankou subway station. We were there by 7:05 and the bus left in about 10 minutes. It was a four-hour journey. The group had about 40 people, with Grace, one of our favorites, as the FCN leader. There were two other assistant leaders, Sara and Congcong. We took couple of breaks during the journey and reached the scenic area entrance at 13:30. Grace bought the tickets. We took a group picture and dispersed into the scenic area. The place had shops that sold food and memorabilia. We spent some time in a place where a lady artist created paper cutting as well as painted articles. We also tried to pose for a photo on a horseback, with the horse raising its front legs (30RMB per person). From there we proceeded to the Military maze, a formation that leads to dead ends before you find the right way to the central platform. Next was the visit to the Great Wall. We went through the Chenghai tower, Nanhaikou pass tower and Jinglu Beacon tower to the entering sea stone wall. There were many people visiting the place. After this we visited the Sea God temple complex.

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Yanhua Jiang, or Haoyue, 65 year old paper cutting and traditional painting artist
Haoyue’s work
Haoyue’s work

The Sea God Temple (海神庙 Hǎi Shén Miào) was built in the early Ming Dynasty to pray for safe sea travels. During the Wanli rule (1584), Chief Executor Wang Bangjun restored the temple. The temple was destroyed during the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900. It was restored later in 1989 by Sun Dazhang along with the other monuments. The temple has an arch, a stone bridge, a drum tower and bell tower, the sea God palace, the queen of heaven (Tianhou) Palace, and the sea-viewing pavilion at the end. The queen of heaven is also the goddess of sea, Mazu. The sea god here is Xuanming (King Guanze, God of North Sea) surrounded by Ganhai Yaksa, Sunfeng Er, Grandpa wind and the rain God on the left, and Xunhai Yaksa, Qian Li Yan, Mother lightning and thunder on the right.

Military Maze
Sea god temple complex extending into the sea
Xuanming, the Sea God
Mazu, the Sea Goddess
The sea-viewing pavilion
Art competition
Chenghai Pavilion
Magpie

We spent some time near the sea-viewing pavilion eating the snacks that we had carried and clicked some pictures. Then we came back to the Chenghai pavilion and looked around. There was an international art competition being held, and the students were sketching/painting the Pavilion of emperor Qianlong’s inscribed tablet. Around 16:00 we caught the bus to go to another beach. We arrived there in an hour and a half. About 15 people were willing to go sailing on the sea. The sailing was for about half an hour and was very serene. The sun shining on the sea was a very scenic sight. Unfortunately, no birds were seen on the sea. Some people were parasailing on the sea, some were riding motor boats. We also saw the unending sky scrapers of the city. Qinhuangdao is a large city in Hebei province named after Qin Shi Huang (221BC-206BC) the first emperor of Qin dynasty.  By the time we came back, it was already sunset and there was no time for getting into the water. An interesting story about Emperor Qin Shi Huang is, in 215 BC, he made a grand homage to the sea, sending two groups of people into the sea to look for the “Immortals” and beg for elixirs. At the site of his praying, he built a large viewing area with a sculpture of himself, standing at the beach. To know more about the “Eight Immortals”, read my earlier blog about the Long island.

Qinhuangdao
Sunset

We returned to the hotel and freshened up. Later Hema and I went out for dinner at a restaurant next to the hotel. While I expected lot of sea food variety, the menu didn’t have many. We ordered Kungpao chicken and large prawns on sticks. They looked good in the picture, but we found the them to be too sweet.

Kung Pao Chicken, a delicacy with vegetables and peanuts
Prawns on sticks

The Donghaitan huayuan (East sea beach flower garden) hotel at Qinhuangdao must have been very old. It was large, with the entrance leading to far away blocks, crossing an internal road and a large garden. The room was comfortable.

Donghaitan huayuan Hotel

Next morning, I wanted to see the sunrise, but it was too early, and I came out a bit late. I went around the street and near the beach. There were quite a few people at the beach. After coming back, as the hotel didn’t provide breakfast, we bought some fresh fruits from the shop next to the hotel and ate them for the breakfast. We checked out at 8:00 and left for the day’s sightseeing around 8:40. The bus took about an hour to reach the Sand sculpture international ocean park. The park is beautifully designed with lakes and walking paths allowing people to see the sand sculptures covering different aspects of Chinese culture.

Hema at a large sand sculpture

Each sculpture has a detailed description. It took about an hour to finish seeing the sand sculptures. There were some other attractions like dirt bikes and go karting, but we had to buy separate tickets for them and the queues seemed to be long. Our ticket covered the water park, but here also there were long queues. The rides looked good, but we decided to get into the sea instead of trying the water slides. We took a locker to keep our belongings and got into water. I played in the sea for about half an hour and came back, but Hema stayed for longer. We changed our wet clothes and ate a burger at the local restaurant.

Congcong, Grace and Sara
Han Yu (Tuizhi),  a Chinese writerpoetandgovernment official of the Tang dynasty
100 Children playing, based on the legend of King Wen of Zhou who had 99 sons and adopted one more son to have a total of 100. Those days, having more children was considered as sign of prosperity
Eight immortals crossing the sea
League of Heroes
One of the four great Chinese classic novels
The River journey by Li Bai
Du Fu, a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty
Tang Sanzang, or Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller, and translator who travelled to India in the seventh century. He is also known as “Hiuen Tsang” in India.
Shaolin Kung Fu
The welcoming pines of Huangshan
Confucius
The Dragon is the totem symbol of the Chinese Nation. It symbolizes harmony between man and nature, the intersection of Yin and Yang (how opposite or contrary forces are complementary, interconnected).
Dry seafood

After lunch, we returned to the bus. Just like at most tourist places, the exit had many shops. It was close to 13:00 and Grace was looking for all to arrive. It was about 13:30 when we left the place. As always, the journey back to Beijing took longer. With a break in between, we reached Huixinxijienankou by 19:00. It was another hour by the time we reached home by the subway.

The trip to Laolongtou was interesting. Though not so much of a Great Wall trip, it was fascinating due to the sea, the beach and the sand sculpture park. This was also my 10th different Great Wall site visit, and the love story with Great Wall continues!

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.

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