Beautiful Guilin, nature’s bounty

This blog is about my trip to Guilin, Yangshuo and Xingping in Guanxi provice of China.

“I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw.” – Fan Chengda (Chinese Song Dynasty scholar)

桂林山水甲天下 – “Guilin’s scenery is the best among all under heaven.” – popular Chinese saying

The bucket list of China is long and I am fortunate to have ticked some of them. The picturesque Guilin was certainly on top of the list and I was looking for an opportunity. CET had a trip planned for the Tomb sweeping (Qingming) festival long weekend, but it couldn’t take off due to poor response. I contacted Echo, one of the CET leaders, and she suggested a private trip and helped with the logistics. The cost was going to be 2200 RMB for three nights stay and local transport, excluding the travel to Guilin and back. This looked reasonable and I pulled Hari who was equally enthusiastic. Considering the time and money, Echo suggested going by train and return by flight.

For those who don’t know, Guilin (桂林, known as Kweilin earlier) is a city in Guangxi province in the south of China. Along with Yangshuo and Xingping, it is very well known for its beautiful scenery. Guilin city is as old as 314BC, established on the banks of Li river.

We took the train Z285 from Beijing west railway station at 21:10 on 4th April 2018. As Echo had managed to book tickets at the last moment, our coaches were different. The soft sleeper was comfortable and spacious. As usual, I had to let go my lower berth to a family and take the upper one. But they left the next morning and I could come down to enjoy the view through the window. The train went through very scenic places: large fields, rivers, bridges and long tunnels. We had lunch at the cafeteria. After 19 hours journey, we reached Guilin Railway station at 16:20. We met Paul, our guide. He looked for a taxi and we proceeded to the hotel. The hotel’s name was “Memory inn” and it was at a central convenient place.

In a short time, we went around Guilin and saw the elephant trunk hill from a distance, walked along the Li river. The famous scenic  area is called as “two rivers, four lakes” spot. We saw the two impressive Pagodas (Sun-Moon double towers, Riyue Shuangta) in the middle of Fir lake. Paul said they look better in the night. We walked around the Fulong lane, which was a commercial street and went to a restaurant that had more of western clients. The local beer, Liquan 1998, was impressive. Post dinner, we went around the city and came back to the Pagodas. Indeed, they looked magnificent with the lights. The whole atmosphere there was electrifying. We walked back to the hotel and rested.

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A bridge across Li river
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Twin pagodas during the day
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Twin pagodas at night

Next morning, we had breakfast of noodles in the nearby restaurant. At 8:00, the car picked us up and we proceeded to Ping’an rice terrace in Longji county. The first stop was at Xiao Zhai Yao village. The village was very unique with wooden houses, streams and waterfalls. We met the local long-haired Yao women who were getting ready for a performance. Paul, being a local and a regular visitor seemed to have great rapport with them. The car then continued to Ping’an village where we had lunch. The route was winding and beautiful. It reminded me of the Western Ghat roads. Lunch in a small place run by a family, was braised fresh country chicken and rice cooked in bamboo. We were at the Ping’an rice terraces around 13:20. The view was incredible.

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Xiao zhai yao village

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Yao woman

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With Yao woman

The Longsheng or Lonji (dragon’s backbone) rice terraces were built more than 600 years ago around the slopes of riverside mountains to facilitate growing rice. Two major highlights are: Seven Stars with the Moon (七星伴月) – seven small piles of rocks in the middle of a moon-like field, Nine Dragons and Five Tigers (九龙五虎) – nine ridges, branching off from the main ridge, which look like nine dragons bending over to drink from the Jinsha River, with five tiger-like rocks.

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Rice cooked in bamboo

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Ping’an rice terraces

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Ping’an village

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IMG_1183We left the rice terraces around 15:00 and climbed down the hill to reach Zhuang village from where we travelled to Yangshuo city by car. The dinner that evening was rice noodles with eggs and tomatoes. Paul offered to take us to the famous Impressions Sanjie Liu show which we readily agreed. The premise was about half an hour’s walk from the hotel and the show was at 20:50. Paul left after buying the tickets for us. The show is very popular and this was the second of the tree shows in the day with over three thousand tickets sold per show. Sanjie Liu is a legend of the Zhuang people. Her story became famous with a movie by the same name released in 1961. This is about a folk singer who takes on a tyrant named Mo Huairen and his hired singers. She loves a brave young man by name Li Xiaoniu. (for more details about Sanjie Liu, read: http://people.wku.edu/haiwang.yuan/China/tales/liusanjie_b.htm).

The show was like we had never seen before. Li river was the stage and the mountains were backdrops. Six hundred performers, mostly fishermen from the villages along the river, amazing use of props and lights and extremely well-coordinated dances made the show a rare spectacle. Zhang Yimou, the chief director, was also the chief director of the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympic 2008. He had creatively blended the classical Liu Sanjie’s folk songs and ethnic group culture together to present a large-scale realistic performance, well matched with the natural landscape. The show is for 70 minutes and had 7 episodes: The Prelude, Red Impression, Green Impression, Golden Impression, Blue Impression, Silvery Impression and the Epilogue. Each episode showed different images and sceneries with the ever-changing natural background and lighting.

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Prelude
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Red Impression

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Blue Impression

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We walked back to the hotel and rested. The hotel (WY, Wei yi zhu ti jiudian), was comfortable. Next morning, we had noodle soup breakfast and left around 8:15. It was going to be a cycling day on the countryside of Yangshuo. Paul said his daughter had holiday and his family would like to join us in the cycling trip. His wife Ruby was also a tour guide before. With one bicycle and a scooter, they took turns to ride the bicycle, while we were on our bicycles that Paul hired from the city. The trail was beautiful, going through the countryside of Jiuxian village, mostly alongside the Yulong river. The first to pass was the Jiuxian village. As it was the tomb sweeping day, we could see many people gathered at hundreds of different tombs, clearing the bushes around, cleaning the tombs, decorating, offering food and liquor to their ancestors. They burned look-alike currency notes (practice believed to be representing sending money to the ancestors), lighted candles, incense sticks and burst fire crackers. While I didn’t like such a large use of fire crackers in the serene nature, I appreciated the enthusiasm of the families to respect the ones who passed away. The trail in some places was muddy, but the advantage was that we could stop at will to enjoy the scenery.

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Tomb sweeping
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Jiuxian village
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Paul’s family at Xiangui bridge

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Animal affection
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Hari and Dodo
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Fuli bridge (富里桥)

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Wedding photography
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Rock climbing

We stopped at a small stone bridge called Xi’angui bridge and took pictures. The route had many fruit orchards, mainly with oranges. We also rested at the river side for some time and saw the bamboo rafters along the river. The next major stop was the Fuli (富里桥) bridge. This is a 500-year-old stone bridge. The spot is famous for photography, mainly among the newly-wed couples for wedding photos. The ancient bridge looks good with the hanging creepers. There are also flower gardens developed nearby, mainly to lure the wedding photo seekers. We had lunch at a river side place, once gain fresh braised chicken and vegetables with rice. We continued back cycling and came to Jinshui cave around 15:45. Paul bought the tickets and they waited outside while we went into the caves.

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Bamboo rafts

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Jinshui cave

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btyThis was like the karst caves I had seen before with lighting effects, but had a large mud bath and hot water springs in it. We didn’t try those. We witnessed a show in the hall where different kind of performances were held. Notable one was the local performer girls choosing guys from the crowd to act like marrying them. We came out at 16:30 and started cycling towards the city, when we noticed that paragliding was happening there. We asked Ruby and Paul to help us with tickets for paragliding. We had to cycle again for 30 minutes to reach the place. The tickets costed 355 RMB per head and we spent another 199 RMB for the video that they sold us later. Though the paragliding was only about 5 minutes, it was a thrilling experience allowing us to fly above the amazing mountains of Yangshuo. It was very nice of Paul and family to have helped us and also took pictures.

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Paragliding
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Awesome experience!

When we returned the bicycles at 18:30, I feel we must have cycled more than 50 kms that day. We had not cycled so much in a day for many years. Our backs were a bit sore, but we walked to the West street after that. The west street is a happening place with many different activities. With more than 1400 years history, it is a place where one finds many different cuisines and artifacts. “Beer fish” seems to be the most famous local delicacy, but we didn’t try it. We had mango milk shake and came back to the hotel. Later we found a place for dinner where we ate rice and vegetables.

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The red dots indicate our cycling trail

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West street

Next morning, we left for Fuli market around 9:00 by car. The market is very old, and is not only a farmer’s market, but has several things like hair cut places, traditional treatments etc. It was quite a fascinating experience to walk through the market streets. There were many places that were making and selling hand painted fans. The streets in Fuli town look ancient and the population is mostly elderly. There was a very old woman selling her own made craft balls (xiu qiu, 绣球) that are used by brides to garland their grooms. I bought one for 15RMB just out of respect for the grit of the old lady. We walked to the Li river side where I tried a steamed cake stuffed with bean paste (ci ba, 糍粑). We then walked alongside the river in the ancient village of Xingping and arrived at a point where the famous scene depicted on a 20RMB note is seen. We crossed the river on a ferry and continued walking towards the next destination. As it was already 12:30, we decided to take an electric vehicle to the place of lunch. It was an interesting journey, and we realized that the distance was long. Once again, the lunch was fresh chicken braised (third day in a row!). Eating at the riverside, while sipping Liquan 1998, was really refreshing.

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Paul at Fuli market
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Studio for painting fans
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Artistically painted fans
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Very old woman selling Xiu Qiu made by her
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Guilin Ci ba
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Ferries ready

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20 RMB note view

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Ready to cook..
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Scene from the lunch place

After a sumptuous lunch, we started walking through the country road towards the Xianggong mountain. I was completely lost in the beautiful nature when I saw a truck carrying people stopping by, in which Hari and Paul were there and called me. I preferred walking and let them go. After about 45 minutes’ walk, I reached a fork where it was difficult to decide which way to go. I called Paul and he came in a local’s scooter to pick me. Later I realized that I was close to the entrance of Xianggong shan.

Initially, Xianggong shan was just like any other hill on the west bank of Li River in Yangshuo County of Guilin. A few years ago, a local photographer took some pictures from the top of this mountain and won a prize in an international photography contest, making it famous overnight. Since then, Xianggong shan became a popular tourist destination beloved by enthusiastic photographers. There are steps to climb, it takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. There are view pints at different levels, but the best view is from the top. Even here there were wedding groups doing photography.

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View from top of Xianggongshan

The view from top of the moutain, of Li river winding around the hills and towns, is breathtaking. We spent some time there and came down. We walked to a nearby spot to take some pictures, from where the car picked us up. Paul got down at Yangshuo. It was about an hour’s drive to the airport and we reached at 18:00. The flight that was supposed to be at 21:40 got delayed due to air traffic congestion left an hour late. We reached home at 3:30 in the morning.

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Newly wed couple
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China Xianggongshan
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The last view point

Guilin trip left an everlasting image of nature’s beauty in my mind. It was nice not only to enjoy the stunning locations, but also to see from close the Chinese tradition of tomb sweeping festival. Thanks to Echo for arranging the trip, Hari for his company and for enduring me, and Paul for his excellent guidance and for correcting the content of the blog.

Dream start to the New Year with a trek to Dongbaishan

This blog is about a hike to Dongbaishan in Zhejiang province of China.

Welcoming the New Year from Dongbaishan

“You need mountains, long staircases don’t make good hikers.”

― Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words

Travelers society is a group tour organization just like FCN (Foreigners China) and CET (Culture exchange trip).  I have been following their trip announcements with keen interest as they looked very scenic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t partake in any activity for log time as they are Shanghai based, which means additional travel for me. But I couldn’t resist when I saw the hike to Dongbaishan (东白山) was announced for the long weekend of International New Year’s Eve. I pulled my friend Satish, who lives in Shanghai to join the trip with me.  Though I was a bit late, they oblige to give us the early bird price (989 RMB). I booked to-and-fro fast train tickets and reached Shanghai on Friday night. Satish was as hospitable as ever and had cooked delicious coastal cuisine.

Next afternoon we had early lunch, packed kanda phoa (rice flakes fried with onions) and sear fish fry and went to Hongkou stadium metro stop. We met the leader, Echo and the other participants there. There were two more guides, Andy and Key and the team size was 18. We left at 1:30pm. It was ~5 hours journey and we reached the hotel in Zhuji town of Zhejiang province by 6:15 pm. We went straight for dinner. Chinese dinner of rice, corns, vegetables and shrimps was delicious. The hotel’s name was Yueyue ge and the room was comfortable. After dinner we went for a walk around Zhuji town. Like most other towns I had seen, this also looked very well planned and clean. Decorative lighting on the buildings around the lake was impressive. Though some of the team members explored the KTV, we didn’t venture much, came back and rested.

Next morning, after a nice Chinese breakfast of mantou (steamed wheat bun), vegetables and boiled egg, we travelled by the bus for another hour and a half to village Liaozhai, which was the base camp of Dongbaishan. Donbaishan is 1194 meters above the sea level and is well known for windmills in Zhejiang province of China. It is also a natural reserve that’s spans more than 5000 square meters. Our trail started from the village in the foothills at 10:30 am. Our local trek guide, Mr. Jing, joined us here. This was by far the most scenic trails I had seen in China with river, several bridges and waterfalls on the way. After about two hours hiking, we took a lunch break and ate the packed lunch that we had carried from home. Though cold, it was delicious. We then carried on further and crossed more streams and waterfalls. We arrived at the top of Dongbaishan around 3 pm. Here we were given the tents, mat and sleeping bags that we had booked before. Our team chose a place next to the lake for tenting and we all got started to pitch our tents.

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With Satish at Hongkou subway station
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The team before the hike
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Noodles

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After the tents were ready, we went around. The mountain had many windmills installed to generate electricity. There was also a temple and a police outpost. The scene of the lake was breathtaking. Around 5pm, we witness an awesome sunset on the hills. Subsequently there was a barbeque party and everyone was in a merry making mood. Some of us, mainly the French tourists, stayed awake for the midnight celebration. There were many other people who had tented on the mountain top and were celebrating the New Year’s Eve.

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Mr Jing leading the trekkers

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Beautiful sky lake (天池)

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Echo, the leader
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Sunset

Next morning, few of us got up early to watch the sunrise. We had to climb further up to get a better view. The sunrise was around 6:20 am and indeed it was an awesome view. We had the breakfast of bread, egg and porridge at 8 am and dismantled our tents. At 9:20 am, we started descending the mountain. The route now was different and even more scenic. We arrived at Liaozhai around 1 pm and Echo led us to a small restaurant for lunch. The Chinese meal had many vegetable dishes and was delicious. The village had many different varieties of noodles kept outside the houses for air drying. We got back into our bus and returned home around 8:30 pm.

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First Sunrise of 2018 from Dongbaishan

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A stop on the way down. Jing’s friend
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Lunch at the village restaurant

I left for Beijing the next morning by high speed train and was back home in the afternoon.

Dongbaishan hike reminded me of the Western Ghat trails with beautiful sceneries without much human intervention. It was indeed a wonderful way to welcome the new calendar year. Thanks to Travelers society for the opportunity and my friend Satish for his company and hospitality.

Weekend visit to Shaolin temple and Longmen Grottoes

This blog is about the visit to Longmen Ghettos and Shaolin temple in Henan province of China.

Shaolin temple has been on my wish list for long. Couple of months back I saw the trip on FCN itinerary, but it had got cancelled. I kept looking again and there it was on the weekend of 9th and 10th December. We went in a very small group, 7 people and a leader.

On Friday, 8th December, at 10.15 pm was our train from Beijing west railway station to Luoyang, in the Henan province. We met at the station around 8.30pm. The FCN leader was Queena and we had 7 tourists, Christopher Scotland, Theresa and Vincenz from Germany, Marija, Mariana and her 12-year-old son Luka from Croatia and me. I had a hard bed (three tier) which was a middle berth, and hence a bit cramped.

We reached in the morning and took a bus to the Youth hostel, where we were staying that day. As it was quite late, we hurried up and had local breakfast of bread stuffed with vegetables and hot soup at a small place nearby. Crossing the wide roads in Luoyang was a challenge in absence of controlled crossings. Luoyang seemed to be a big city.

The first spot was Guanlin temple, about seven kilometers south of Luoyang City. We took a bus to this place. Guanlin temple was built in 1596, during the reign of Emperor Wanli in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was expanded in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It is called General Guan’s Tomb as well.

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Teammates

 

Guan Yu is a hero in Chinese history and is the only person respected by Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists. Guan Yu was a general of the Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms Period. After he was murdered by people of the Wu Kingdom, his head was sent to Cao Cao, to frame Cao Cao and start a fight between the Shu Kingdom and the Wei Kingdom. However, Cao Cao realized the plot. Due to his great respect for General Guan Yu, Cao Cao had Guan Yu’s body carved from eaglewood and buried the carving and the head with great honors outside the South Gate of Luoyang City. Emperors of succeeding dynasties valued Guan Yu built the temple for him and worshiped him as God of War.

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Guan Yu

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The Guanlin temple is in a large complex with many buildings and gardens. The main building houses statues of Guan Yu in different actions and paintings and reliefs of his life stories. There is also an art gallery displaying ancient steles and stone inscriptions. In the large place outside, there were people playing tops and whips (wielding a large metal whip to make a loud sound).

After seeing the Guanlin temple, we took the bus to Longmen grottoes. We were there by noon. The Longmen Grottoes are between Mount Xiang and Mount Longmen and face Yi River. This is indeed a very beautiful place that hosts thousands of beautiful Buddhist figures and other inscriptions. Though more like ruins, some of the statues are in good shape and the whole atmosphere here is very serene.

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The grottoes were started around the year 493 when Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) moved his capital to Luoyang. They were continuously built the next 400 years until the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The scenery measures 1,000 metres (about 1,094 yards) from north to south where there are over 2,300 holes and niches, 2,800 steles, 40 dagobas, 1,300 caves and 100,000 statues.  Most of them are the works of the Northern Wei Dynasty and the flourishing age of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Lots of historical materials concerning art, music, religion, calligraphy, medicine, costume and architecture are kept here. The different caves are named Wanfo, Guyang, Binyang and Lotus caves. The most famous Buddha statue is in the Binyang cave with Sakyamuni surrounded by his disciples and bodhisattva.

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The complex has a large temple called the Fengxian Temple that was built during the Tang dynasty. This hosts many beautiful Buddha statues including that of Vairocana Buddha.

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Vairocana Buddha

We spent some time there, and then caught the bus to our next destination, Lijingmen. The bus journey took almost two hours. We could see some unique Pagodas from the bus on the way. There is a city wall and a gate that leads to the ancient city. The street had festive look and was filled with people shopping for food and memorabilia. We had dinner in a local restaurant and retired for the day.

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Next morning, we left for Shaolin temple, and Queena had arranged a large car for us. The first stop was Songyang Academy in Dengfeng. This was one of the four greatest academies for higher education in ancient China, together with Yingtian Academy in Shangqiu of Henan, Yuelu Academy in Changsha of Hunan, and Bailudong Academy in Jiujiang of Jiangxi. The Academy was an important and unique educational organization in ancient China. It played an important role in China’s educational and cultural history.

Songyang Academy, built in 484, used to be an arena of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. It was called Songyang Temple firstly, which was an arena of Buddhism with hundreds of Buddhists. From 605 to 618, it was renamed Songyang Taoist Temple. After renaming several times, it was called Songyang Academy in 1035. From then on, it became a classical education institution in ancient China. It was also one of the birthplaces of Neo-confucianism in Song Dynasty (906-1279). ( Ref: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/henan/zhengzhou/songyang-academy.htm).

The academy has beautiful architecture starting from the front gate. Then there is the previous saint’s hall with a statue of Confucius and portraits of other saints. There is a classroom with teaching equipment of ancient times. The complex has Daotong Temple with busts of ancient Chinese kings Yao, Yu the Great and a Duke of Zhou dynasty. The site also has some unique ancient trees, a book collecting tower and a large stele.

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We moved to Shaolin temple next and reached by noon. Shaolin temple, or Shaolin monastery, is one of the most famous sites of Zen Buddhism and martial arts in the world. It is a large complex that hosts many interesting places. In the entrance is a large inscribed rock with a monk’s statue in a prayer (namaste) pose.

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The major attractions include (source: Wikipedia) Mountain Gate (山门; shan men) (built 1735; The entrance tablet written with golden characters “Shaolin Temple” (少林寺; shao lin si) in black background by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1704).

Forest of Steles (碑林; bei lin), Ciyun Hall (慈雲堂; ci yun tang, built 1686; changed 1735; reconstructed 1984). It includes Corridor of Steles (碑廊; bei lang), which has 124 stone tablets of various dynasties since the Northern Qi dynasty (550-570).

West Arrival Hall (西来堂; xi lai tang) or the Kung fu Hall (锤谱堂; chui pu tang, built 1984).

Heavenly Kings (Devaraja) Palace Hall (天王殿; tian wang dian, built in Yuan dynasty; repaired in Ming, Qing dynasties).

Bell Tower (钟楼; zhong lou) (built 1345; reconstructed 1994; the bell was built in 1204), Drum Tower (鼓楼; gu lou) (built 1300; reconstructed 1996).

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Shaolin Temple

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Pagoda garden

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Kimnara Palace Hall (紧那罗殿; jin na luo dian) (reconstructed 1982), Six Patriarchs Hall (六祖堂; liu zu tang), Mahavira Palace Hall (大雄宝殿; da xiong bao dian) or Main Hall or Great Hall (built maybe 1169; reconstructed 1985), Dining Hall: (built in Tang dynasty; reconstructed 1995), Sutra Room, Dhyana Halls: (reconstructed 1981), Guest Reception Hall, Dharma (Sermon) Hall (法堂; fa tang) or Scripture Room (藏经阁; zang jing ge, reconstructed 1993), East & West Guests Rooms, Abbot’s Room (方丈室; fang zhang shi, built in early Ming dynasty), Standing in Snow Pavilion (立雪亭; li xue ting) or Bodhidharma Bower (达摩庭; da mo ting): (reconstructed 1983), Manjusri Palace Hall (wen shu dian) (reconstructed 1983), Samantabhadra Palace Hall, White Robe (Avalokitesvara) Palace Hall (白衣殿; bai yi (Guan yin) dian) or Kung fu Hall (quan pu dian) (built in Qing dynasty), Ksitigarbha Palace Hall (地臧殿; di zang dian): (built in early Qing dynasty; reconstructed 1979), 1000 Buddha Palace Hall (千佛殿; qian fo dian) or Vairocana Pavilion (毗庐阁; pi lu ge, built 1588; repaired 1639,1776), Ordination Platform (built 2006), Monks’ Rooms, Shaolin Pharmacy Bureau (built 1217; reconstructed 2004), Bodhidharma Pavilion (chu zu an, built first in Song dynasty), Bodhidharma Cave, Forest of Pagodas Yard (塔林院; ta lin yuan, built before 791). It has 240 tomb pagodas of various sizes from the Tang, Song, Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties (618–1911) and Shaolin Temple Wushu Guan (Martial arts hall).

There are so many kids and adult monks practicing Kung Fu seen everywhere. One of our teammates from UK, Christopher, was keen on finding out about joining the school and with Queena’s help, approached couple of monks who were practicing there. He is a biotechnology student who was on an exchange program, and wants to lean Kung Fu after his graduation.

After seeing all the places, we witnessed a Kung Fu show by the students of Shaolin at 3pm. It was an amazing display of Kung Fu and some of the stunts showcased were unbelievable.

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There are interesting theories as to why the peace-loving Buddhist monks learned martial arts. The most obvious reason should be for self-protection from bandits and war lords who attacked the monasteries looking for perceived wealth. The two different Shaolin temples, one in Henan and the other in Fujian, teach different styles of Kung Fu.

After the show that was for half an hour, we left the Shaolin temple. The car dropped somewhere mid-way from where again we had to take a bus to the railway station. That was a bit strange as we could have asked for drop to the station by paying some extra money. Nevertheless, we were in the railway station ahead of time, and had a good train journey back to Beijing.

Visit to Luoyang and Shaolin temple was a fulfilling experience, and the small team we had was very cooperative. I thank FCN for the opportunity.

Memorable trip to Changbaishan (The Tall White Mountain)

This is a blog about a six day trip from Beijing to Changbai Mountains, on the border of North Korea. Many other scenic places were also visited during this trip.

As the October holidays were approaching, I had to find a way of spending time usefully. Initial plan was to visit Himalayas, but it looked difficult looking at the cost of travel. I had two options with FCN (Foreigners China), the Silk Road and the Changbai Mountain. Silk Road was going to be longer journey, and hence I decided to go to Changabai Mountain. As always, booking with FCN was easy. In few days, my colleague Dave also decided to join and booked for the trip. This was going to be a stretched bus journey. I did some shopping at Decathlon for a couple of cargo pants and a pair of comfortable shoes.

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With Dave at Huixinxijienankou

The trip was for six days and five nights, and the journey by a big bus. We were 42 travellers altogether. 34 Were from FCN and 8 from a sister Chinese company, the Elephant Travels. We were to start on Sunday, 1st October, 2017 from the Huixinxijainankou Subway station at 6.30am. Dave and I left home at 4.30 am, went to Songjiazhuang by taxi and took subway from there. We were at the destination by 6 am. Looked like couple of people were delayed, and by the time all reached, it was 7am, and we left in a few minutes after that. The FCN team had Grace as the main leader with Stella and Goksu as the other leaders, and Elephant travels had Amy (Shu Ya) and the photographer Xiaoxuan.

Day 1, Oct. 1: The journey was like we had never seen before. There were lot of cars and other vehicles on the road and we encountered frequent traffic jams due to accidents and other reasons. There were also long queues at service areas and gas stations. As per the schedule, we were supposed to visit the Bijia Mountain on the way to Panjin. But the slow traffic made the plans to be changed and Grace said we can do Bijia Mountain on our way back and go straight to the hotel. We played some games on the bus.

It was 9.45pm by the time we reached Garden hotel at Linghai. The city of Linghai looked big, but it was quite late. We were on road for almost 15 hours! Dave and I packed some food from the KFC that was next to the hotel. Garden hotel was luxurious and the rooms were quite large and comfortable. Only issue was not getting hot water for shower.

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Garden Hotel Langhai and a large fountain
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Inside the hotel

Day 2, Oct. 2: Next morning we were to have breakfast at 7am and start to the red beach at 7.30. The Chinese breakfast spread was nice.  Few people were late for breakfast and we left the hotel around 8.30am (instead of 7.30am). The journey to the red beach was through very beautiful places with many streams and large corn fields. Grace told the mythological story of the red beach, which goes like this:

In ancient times, there was a Dragon king at the Bohai Sea. He had a beautiful daughter. Once he goes to meet the Jade emperor at heaven, leaving behind his daughter at the sea. She gets attracted to a boy who plays flute every night and meets him regularly. One day, she wears red dress and goes to meet the boy and they get married. When the Dragon King comes back, he becomes furious to see that his daughter has married a fisher boy. He gets the boy killed. The daughter cries so much that her tear makes the sea red.

Grace also told the stories about the Dragon King and Mazu, who is the goddess of the sea:

There are two gods in Chinese culture. One is dragon king, and the other is  Mazu. Unlike other gods, Mazu was human. When she was 13years old, she found she was different from others, as she had the magic power. One day, her dad and brother went out to fish. After they left, she cried ‘daddy dead, and elder brother alive’. And finally only her brother came back.

So there are over 1,500 active temples and 100 million devotees for Mazu. People who live by fishing always pray for luck. The Chinese goddess Mazu has many names and titles. Known in different regions as Matsu, Ma-Tsu, A-ma, Tianhou, and other names, with numerous titles that include “Motherly Matriarch”, “Kuan Yin of the Southern Sea”, “Daughter of the Dragon”, and “Empress of Heaven”.  Although some experts feel she may be a version of the older goddess Kuan Yin (who is better known in most western countries), Mazu is deeply rooted in the hearts of her people, especially coastal areas  in the East, and is best known as the “Goddess of the Sea”.

In folk tradition it is believed that, when you are facing great difficulty, you can call her by the name “Mazu” and she will immediately come to your rescue. If, however, you address her as the “Empress of Heaven”, she will have to take time to put on her fine clothing and will be delayed in coming to your aid! (Taken from http://www.goddessgift.com).

However this is the story from Daoism. In history, Mazu’s real name is Lin Mo, who was really smart, but just a normal girl. When she died, people built a temple for her. With time, Mazu becomes a Chinese culture.

The Chinese goddess Mazu originated with the elevation of a young woman named Lin Mo Niang who had performed numerous miracles during her short life. A kind-hearted girl with a vast knowledge of Chinese medicine, she was known as a healer, curing the sick while teaching the people how to prevent illness and injury. Many of the miracles she performed involved quelling storms at sea, so it is hardly surprising that she is known as the protector of all seagoing people.

Mazu was born on a small island in the straits of Taiwan off the coast of southeastern China in 960 A.D. Her middle-aged parents, the Lins, already had six other children, only one of them a girl.  Her mother prayed to the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, for another daughter.  Hearing her fervent prayers, Kuan Yin came in her dream, giving her a flower to eat that caused her to conceive the next day.

The baby was named Lin Niang (in China the family name, or surname, comes first). At her birth the room was filled with a brilliant light and the fragrance of fresh flowers. As a newborn, she was strangely silent. Alert and healthy, she did not cry at all during the first month of her life, leading her parents to nickname her Mo (which means “silent”).

As she grew it quickly became apparent that Lin Mo was gifted with remarkable intelligence and a photographic memory. Supernatural powers were soon to become apparent as well.

One legend attributes her mystical powers to an event that took place when she was fifteen. Going with her friends to check out their new dresses in the reflections of a pool, a sea creature erupted out of the water and was holding a bronze disk out, offering it to the girls. Terrified, the others ran away, but the brave Lin Mo calmly accepted the bronze.  From that moment on, she began to display unusual powers that grew daily and made her a legendary figure at a young age.

Already held in high esteem by the villagers for her healing, Lin Mo could now predict changes in the weather and could announce when it was a safe time for sailors and fishermen to set out to sea.  To this day sailors from places as far-flung as China, Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even San Francisco pray to Mazu before setting out and give thanks to her upon their safe return.

Marine folklore is filled with tales of catastrophes averted when the goddess Mazu, dressed in red, appeared to sailors as a warning that unseen storms were rising and that their voyages should be postponed.

Many sea goers have narrated times when the goddess Mazu appeared as a bright light on their troubled ships, arriving just in time to calm a storm and save their lives. Some said that Lin Mo could actually ride clouds across the ocean, and appear in the flesh to rescue them.

Lin Mo’s death, at the age of 28, was as significant as her birth. One day she simply told her family it was time for her to leave and that she must go alone. Her neighbors and family watched as she walked to the top of a mountain near her home.

Reaching the top, Lin Mo was encircled by clouds of dense fog, and to the accompaniment of enchanting celestial music, was carried into the heavens in a golden glow of light.  Where she had been last seen, a great rainbow appeared.

In Chinese mythology the rainbow signifies the presence of a dragon, a symbol of great blessing and good fortune.  The dragon is a serpent that quenches its thirst in the sea and, as a sky dragon, unites heaven and earth.

The rainbow also has special significance in Taoism – the colors representing the five Buddha families, with the color orange associated with the Bodhisattva, those who have achieved enlightenment but choose to remain on earth to be of service to their fellow humans (Taken from http://www.goddessgift.com).

That was some Chinese folklore. Let us come back to the trip. We reached the gate of the red beach by 10.40am and Grace got the tickets.

The Red Beach: The Red Beach (红海滩), located in Dawa County, Panjin, Liaoning, China, is famous for its landscape featuring the red plant of Suaeda salsa (碱蓬草). It is based in the biggest wetland and reed marsh in the world. There are three main sightseeing areas and visited all the three. The place is so large that we had to travel by bus between each scenic area. The places are well designed so that people can get the best view. Normally a long winding wooden bridge that runs through the stretch allowing people to have a good all-round view of the beautiful red beach. There are beautiful scarecrows made with coir all along the paths. The place also had many birds which is not a common sight in other places of China that I have visited. As it was a holiday, crowds were large and people were enjoying taking pictures with the scenic backgrounds and the interesting figures.

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Scene from the bus ( Happy with P9+, picture from a moving bus through the glass 🙂 )
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Welcome!
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Cheryl and Margarita with a friendly security woman
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One of the wooden walk paths (PC: Dave)
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Long Billed Curlew (PC: Roze)
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The vivid color captured by Huawei P9+

We left the scenic area around 2.20pm and proceeded towards Jilin. The distance is 555 kms and was estimated to take about seven hours. Once again, though the long journey was tiresome, the scenery around was awesome. There were large paddy fields all along the course. We could also see the beautiful Dalian river flowing along.  My lunch that day was boiled corn. It was 10.20pm by the time we reached the Jilin international hotel at Jilin. Grace shared the Wi-Fi password, but we realized that the net was weak in most of the hotels. Grace also shared the next day’s program and the temperatures to be expected for every city.

It was quite late for dinner, but Grace found a place where we had dinner with dumplings and vegetables.

Day 3, Oct. 3: The breakfast time on the third day was 8 to 8.30am, which people liked. Here the breakfast had some western bread and jam too. We left Jilin at 9am to proceed towards the Red Leaf Valley at Jiaohe. We reached the place around 12.30pm. There were lot of people there ant the atmosphere was festive. We roamed around for some time clicking pictures of the autumn colors. There were supposed to be two places of interest: Qingling Waterfalls (the second biggest waterfalls in Jilin) and a lake, after some confusion and consultations, it was decided to drop the waterfalls and proceed to the lake. There were many street vendors selling interesting things from fruits, dry fish to honey and ginseng. I bought some Guniang and small apples, and also enjoyed some soup noodles. We walked again the same way to get to the bus and left for the lake. It took about half an hour to reach and we were at the lake by 2.45pm. The lake was very beautiful and fortunately there were not many people here. We spent about half an hour taking pictures and looking around, and got back to bus to start for Erdaobaihe Town, our next stop.

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Forest (PC: Roze)
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Amur grape with a spider (PC: Roze)
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Group picture at Red Maple Valley (PC: Xiaoxuan)

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Group at the lake (PC: Xiaoxuan)
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Enjoyed the photography. Unfortunate to lose the photos. (PC:Xiaoxuan)

Once again a journey of about 5 and a half hours, and we reached our hotel “Changbai Mountain Forest Guesthouse” at Erdaobaihe Town at 8.45pm. It was early compared to the two previous days, but nowhere close to what was mentioned in the initial schedule. Grace gave the next day’s schedule, warning people that the Mountain was closed to visitors the previous day at 11am due to excess crowd. That evening we had a hotpot dinner at a place suggested by Grace. Dave and I usually went with Grace and Goksu for dinners as we enjoyed their company and it helped to communicate with the restaurants. The hotpot dinner was good. We came back to the hotel by 10.20pm and rested.

Day 4, Oct. 4: Next morning Dave and I went out for a walk. The hotel was surrounded by lot of activity and had supermarkets nearby. We came back for an early breakfast. Here, few tables were dedicated for our team with a good spread of food already kept. We left the hotel at 8am (which I felt was an improvement). We were at the gate of Changbaishan by 9.15, and there was long queue ahead of us. An hour later, we could get the bus that would take us to the point from where we had to climb the steps. We took a group picture before getting in the bus queue. After that, the group got spread out depending on the bus they caught, and there were unbelievably large crowds of people everywhere. The place we were climbing was the western slope of Changbaishan. It is said that the northern and western entrances are separated by a distance of 100kms.The mountain also extends into North Korea and the border seems to be not well marked.  Changbaishan was long considered to be a source of both the Manchurian and Korean cultures. Climbing the mountain was considered taboo for most of China’s history, with violators often being beaten to death. It is a dormant volcano with a lake in the crater named Tianchi Lake and this lake is the source of the Songhua River. Last volcanic eruption was in 1702 A.D. Changbaishan is also where two other major rivers: Tumen and Yalu and many minor rivers are born.

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The bus journey started at 10.25am and was for about 40 minutes. It was uphill and winding. The scenery on either side was breathtaking with some patches of snow and small frozen waterfalls on the way. There are 1450 steps to climb on the western slope and there are two tracks for going and coming. The steps were packed with people and we could hardly pace. Most of us were on top by 11.30am. To catch a glimpse of the Tianchi Lake was difficult due to the large crowds, but we managed to move to the front and stay there for some time.

The Tianchi (heavenly) lake was indeed the most beautiful part of the Changabai Mountain. At 2192 meters above sea level, it is 13 km in circumference but cannot be walked around owing to the border with North Korea (Mount Paektu). It is about 10 square kilometers in area. The Tianchi Lake is thought to be house for mythical monsters, as described in old fables.  The lake provides different views during different seasons, being a snow pool during winter and a charming blue reservoir during summer.  I bought a set of post cards with beautiful pictures of the mountain in different seasons. There were many photo sessions once we finished viewing the lake. We started walking down at 1pm and caught the bus to Jinjiang Grand Canyon.

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Hiking the Changbaishan, buses in the background (PC: Roze)
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Two lines, one going up, one coming down (PC: Roze)
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View at the top of the mountain

There was some confusion as people were spread out, but we all managed to get on to the right bus and reach the entrance of the Grand Canyon at 2.15pm. Lunch that day was fruits eaten on the bus. Jinjiang Grand Canyon is believed to have been formed due to erosion caused by an earthquake that occurred in combination with a particularly violent volcanic eruption below Lake Tianchi. The subsequent massive overflows from Tianchi Lake over a long time, has caused the gorge, or Grand Canyon, as it is today. It was a couple of hours walk through a very beautiful landscape that consisted of deep valleys with tall rocks (lava stones) of different shapes. It seems that the rocks are named based on the respective images that they project, such as elephants, camels, seals, peacocks, etc.  The wooden walk path had colorful trees also on either sides and had squirrels and different birds. After walking through the path for about two hours, we all assembled to catch the bus that took us to the place from where we had left in the morning. Though over a period of time, we all were there near the FCN bus and proceed towards out next destination, Baishan city.

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Tianchi Lake (PC: Roze)
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Sun rays entering the Jinjiang Grand Canyon

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  Spotted Nutcracker at the canyon (PC: Roze)
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Larch tree (PC: Roze)

The journey was about 3 hours. It was a moon festival day and the FCN leaders distributed moon cakes. Grace told the story of moon festival significance, while Jerrie gave a slight different version of the same story. She also beautiful sang a song about the moon festival. The two versions of the story were similar to the following from Lihui Yang’s Handbook of Chinese Mythology.

In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery (You can read about Hou Yi in my blog of the Long Island trip). His wife was Chang’e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved very much her husband and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.

Another common version of the myth: After the hero Hou Yi shot down nine of the ten suns, he was pronounced king by the thankful people. However, he soon became a conceited and tyrannical ruler. In order to live long without death, he asked for the elixir from Xiwangmu. But his wife, Chang’e, stole it on the fifteenth of August because she did not want the cruel king to live long and hurt more people. She took the magic potion to prevent her husband from becoming immortal. Hou Yi was so angry when discovered that Chang’e took the elixir, he shot at his wife as she flew toward the moon, though he missed. Chang’e fled to the moon and became the spirit of the moon. Hou Yi died soon because he was overcome with great anger. Thereafter, people offer a sacrifice to Chang’e on every fifteenth of the eighth lunar month to commemorate Chang’e’s action.

The journey was pleasant, and we reached our hotel, Huixing at Baishan at 7.45pm. Grace was particular that we all should have at least one dinner together and tried to find some place. As it was moon festival, many restaurants were closed and there was no place that could hold a group of our size. We explored the restaurant in our hotel, but they were also closed. After many efforts, they found a barbecue place that had the capacity. Most of us except few were there and the party went on till 11.45pm. The beer in the restaurant was just 1RMB per bottle J. Some of the people wanted to look for a KTV after that and we walked in the deserted streets for some time. Dave and I decided to comeback after walking for about half an hour and the others said that they came back after some more time as they couldn’t find the place.

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We arrived at the sky watching caves at 11am and took the customary group picture. The Wangtian caves at Benxi in Liaoning province are longest caves in the north. They are called “sky Watching caves” as there are opening through which the light enters to the cave. The main cave is 5.6 kms long. It also has three underground rivers 4 kms long. The main cave shapes like verandah, hall and labyrinth. The stalactite here forms many interesting shapes and are named after the shapes. It was indeed an amazing experience to go through the caves. The lights in the caves are in the shapes of different insects, and in many places color lights are added to create different effects. We spent almost one and a half hour walking through the caves and came out. Some of us came down via Ziplining, which was thrilling.

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Designs on the rocks by the creepers
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At the entrance of the caves
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Entry to the cave (PC:Roze)

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Snow lotus of Mount Everest (PC: Roze)
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Eight immortals
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Opening to the sky
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Ziplining
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Goose eggs
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Varieties of wines

After coming down, we went around for some time and tried the local food. I had a corn and two boiled Goose eggs. I was eating Goose eggs for the first time. I can’t say it was tasty, but it was indeed filling.

I feel we spent long time down there. We left for the next destination only by 2.30pm and reached the hotel at Dandong at 5.40pm. The hotel Changyuan Shang wu bin guan was comfortable. It was already dark and chance of seeing across the border in day light was not possible. We met at the reception at 6pm and proceeded to walk along the Yalu River. Boating on the river was not possible as it was late.

Dandong is the largest Chinese border city, facing Sinuiju in North Korea across the Yalu River, which defines the Sino-North Korean border. It was quite a long walk from the hotel and the view of the bridge was awesome. Dandong’s Sino–Korean Friendship Bridge was bombed by the United States during the 1950-51 Korean War, as was an older iron bridge leading to North Korea. Even though the Sino–Korean Friendship Bridge was rebuilt, the remains of the Japanese-built iron bridge were left and now serve as a war monument. The other bridge is now used only for trade. We had police checking for people’s IDs during this trip.

The view of the river and the town across in moonlight was spectacular. Close to the bridge, there is a wharf with lot of activity around. We spent some time clicking photos around the bridge, and then followed the location shared by Grace to a Korean restaurant. The food was interesting and delicious. We had to squat on mats and eat. I particularly liked Bibimbap, rice with vegetables and meat with a sunny side up egg on top. We came back to the hotel by 10.30pm and rested.

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Night view across the river (PC; Roze)
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The two bridges at night ( PC: Dave)

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Korean food for dinner

Day 6, Oct. 6: It was the last day of our trip. As we couldn’t see the bridge and across in the daylight, Grace thought we should go through the place and spend a few minutes near the bridge. Once again, after lot of persuasion, we left at 8am and the bus dropped us near the wharf. We took pictures there. Though we thought we will be there for 15 minutes, we left only after an hour.  The journey took longer than expected, and we arrived at the beach at 3.30pm. It was high tide, the natural bridge between the mainland and the mountain island was under water. Shu Ya led us to the place where we caught the boat. Five of us were in the boat and each trip was 100RMB together.

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The broken bridge (PC: Roze)

Bijia Mountain is located on the coast of the Pohai adjacent to Jinzhou Port (锦州港). The total area of the spot is 8 square kilometers, among which the land area of the scenic spot is 4.72 square kilometers. The mountain has three peaks, one is higher and the others are lower, it gets the name for it shapes like a pen rack (bijia in Chinese). Tian Qiao, the sky bridge, is the path that cooects the bijia mountain to the mainland. So the mountain is also called Tianqiao Mountain (天桥山).

The legend of Tian Qiao: Long ago, three fairies went to human’s world from heaven to take people’s sacrifices every Ghost Festival. One year, when flew to Pohai Bijia Mountain, they found the place wonderful and people here are kind and lovable. The fairies saw that the island and the mainland are separated so they decided to build a bridge to link them in order to pay back. They used magic power to blow the sand and pebbles together to form a dyke. When doing so, they woke up an evil dragon who liked to swim around the island, the dyke they were making blocked his way. So they started a fight. Finally the dragon lost, but they spent too much time on it and they had to go back and left the unfinished dyke behind. Therefore, when tide came the bridge disappeared and when it went out the bridge turned up. (Taken from http://www.foreignercn.com/)

Bijia mountain is a place of Taoism. From down to top builds Zhenren Temple (真人观), Luzu Pavilion (吕祖亭), Taiyang Palace (太阳宫, the Sun Palace), Leigong Temple (雷公祠, the Thunder chief Temple), Dianmu Temple (电母祠, Temple of Lightning Goddess), Wumu Palace (五母宫), and Sanqing Pavilion (三清阁). Among them, Sanqing Pavilion is the most famous one and is a ‘must go’ spot. It is a completely stone-made but wooden-like six stories building without a single nail standing at the top of the mountain, from which visitors can have an overlook of the beautiful, vast sea. There are many statues of the Buddha and Taoist and Confucian saints in the pavilion. On the top floor there is a shrine to the God of the Creation, Pangu (盘古).

Our boat ride was thrilling; with the boatman seeming to be in a great hurry. One we reached in, we went upwards seeing the different spots and appreciating the scenery. Around 4.45pm, some of us were at the highest point, on the Sanqing Pavilion. It was very windy there and I had the FCN flag with me, which I had to secure with great effort. Around 5pm we were back at the dock, it was getting dark and the number of returning boats was less. We returned to the mainland and left for Beijing at 5.45pm.

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At the dock (PC: Roze)
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Immortal Taoist Temple
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Sanqing Pavilion
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God of the Creation, Pangu

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The yacht dock
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With Goksu and Grace


The distance to Beijing was ~ 500kms and the traffic was very bad. We kept chatting in the group, shared puzzles to kill time. We reached Huixinxijienankou at 1.35am, after almost eight hours. I took a taxi with Dave, Hannah and Megan and reached home 2.25am.

I realized later that the SD card of my camera using which I had taken more than 1000 photos, got damaged when I shifted it back to the bag while replacing with a new one. Thus I lost all my cherished camera pictures. Fortunately I had the mobile phone as a backup and most pictures in this blog are from the phone.

The trip to Changbaishan gave me an opportunity to see many beautiful places and to make new friends. Though long bus journeys were tiring sometime, it was a very rewarding experience. The FCN organizers led by Grace were very kind and took great care of every one. Spending six days with people from many different countries and cultures was also an enriching experience. A non-holiday time would be certainly great to revisit the places in solemnity.

Xi’an, walking into Chinese history

This blog is about the visit to Xi’an in the Shaanxi province of China. Xi’an is famous for the terracotta warriors from 210 BC.

Xi’an (pronounced as Shian) has been on my bucket list for long and the opportunity came when I saw that FCN (Foreigners China, Laowai) had a weekend trip on 13-14 May 2017.

Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China and is the capital of Shaanxi province. It has a very rich history. The Lantian Man was discovered in 1963, 50 km southeast of Xi’an, and dates back to at least 500,000 years before the present time. A 6,500-year-old Banpo Neolithic village was discovered in 1953 on the eastern outskirts of the city proper, which contains the remains of several well organized Neolithic settlements carbon dated to 5600–6700 years ago. The most significant finding was in 1974 when the Terracotta army was discovered.

Fifteen of us traveled by the regular train from Beijing to Xi’an on the evening of Friday, 12th May 2017. It was a coupe while going and I had Andre in the same room. We reached Xi’an railway station at 8.00 am and walked to the hotel called youth hostel. The youth hostel itself is like a museum with so many antiques displayed. The rooms were old, but comfortable.

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With Andre, Julia, Sady, Asma nd Fatiha

We freshened up and left for our first site, Shaanxi history museum. We had breakfast (vegetables and meat in a soup and fried bread) on the way in a small eatery. We were at the museum by 10.30am. Grace, our leader, got the tickets. The queue had fogging system for cooling. There were many hawkers selling ice candies and other things.

The Shaanxi history museum is regarded as “the pearl of ancient dynasties and house of Chinese treasures”. It gives an indication of the thousands of years of Chinese history and the grand ancient cultures. The building itself is very impressive and the different halls have the relics from prehistoric to the different dynasties that ruled China. The main artefacts are from the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties. The items are well preserved and well presented. The museum shop also has a great collection to offer. After the museum, we walked to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayan Pagoda). The street had interesting bronze sculptures including that of Statue of Lady Gongsun, a sword-dance master of the Tang Dynasty.

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Gongsun
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FCN Team at the Shaanxi history museum

 

 

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Shaanxi history museum

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img_20170513_115702.jpgmdecofimg_20170513_121445.jpgIMG_20170513_131853.jpgmdeAs the symbol of the ancient Xian, Big Wild Goose Pagoda (also called Giant Wild Goose Pagoda) is a well-preserved heritage building and is a holy place for Buddhists. Originally built in 652 during the reign of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it functioned to collect Buddhist materials that were taken from India by Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang).

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Artifact inside the Pagoda
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Buddha at Da ci’en Temple

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City view from the Pagoda
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A guide explaining the journey of Xuanzang to India

Xuanzang started off from Chang’an (the ancient Xian), along the Silk Road and through deserts, finally arriving in India, the cradle of Buddhism.  Enduring 17 years and traversing 100 countries, he obtained Buddha figures, 657 kinds of sutras, and several Buddha relics. With the permission of Emperor Gaozong (628-683), Xuanzang, as the first abbot (monk superior) of Da ci’en Temple, supervised the building of a pagoda inside it. With the support of the emperor, he asked 50 disciples into the temple to translate Sanskrit in sutras into Chinese, totaling 1,335 volumes, which heralded a new era in the history of translation. Based on the journey to India, he also wrote a book entitled ‘Journey to the West (西遊記)’ in the Tang Dynasty, to which scholars have given great importance.

While the team went around the site, I bought entry ticket to the pagoda and climbed the seven stories. Each level has different artefacts and windows to view of all four sides. The view from the top is amazing and showcases the beautiful town planning of the surrounding areas. On the walls are engraved fine statues of Buddha by the renowned artist Yan Liben of the Tang Dynasty. Steles by noted calligraphers also grace the pagoda.

There is a legend for why it is called Big Wild Goose Pagoda. According to ancient stories of Buddhists, there were two branches, for one of which eating meat was not a taboo. One day, they couldn’t find meat to buy. Upon seeing a group of big wild geese flying by, a monk said to himself: ‘Today we have no meat. I hope the merciful Bodhisattva will give us some.’ At that very moment, the leading wild goose broke its wings and fell to the ground. All the monks were startled and believed that Bodhisattva showed his spirit to order them to be more pious. They established a pagoda where the wild goose fell and stopped eating meat. Thus the pagoda was known as Wild Goose Pagoda. In the complex is the big Da ci’en temple built in 648 to remember the dead queen. The Buddha statues are very beautiful and so are the other carvings. The temple complex has a huge bell tower and a Gong. The complex also has beautiful garden. There is a large shop that sells Buddhist artefacts.

In the entrance of the pagoda is a large statue of Xuanzang, commemorating his immense contribution to understanding India and Buddhism. On the way back, I bought a large painting of Buddha done on felt like cloth from the street.

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Xuanzang

We took the subway to out next destination, the Xi’an city wall. We were there in about half an hour. Xian City Wall is the most complete city wall that has survived in China, as well being one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world. When Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), captured Huizhou, a monk named Zhu Sheng advised him that he should ‘build high walls, store enough food supplies and take time to be an Emperor,’ so that he could fortify the city and unify the other states. After the establishment of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang followed his advice and began to enlarge the wall built initially during the old Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), forming today’s Xian City Wall. The wall now is 12 meters tall, 12-14 meters wide at the top and 15-18 meters thick at the bottom. It is 13.7 kilometers long with a deep moat surrounding it.

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Ming emblem

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We went up the wall and took many pictures. I tried the bicycle ride. The wall also holds plays and operas and that day they were going to have one. After spending about 2 hours there, we took two taxis and went to the Beiyuanmen Muslim street.

The Beiyuanmen Muslim street is a wonderful area full of food and life. It is said that in the past, foreign diplomatic envoys and merchants lived here. Then they married and had children, so gradually the population increased. Today, most of the residents here are the descendants of those immigrants. All the Muslims here are the devout followers of Islam and form a tight knit community, which maintains its own culture and traditions. They all know each other as they were childhood friends.

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With Grace and Andre at the Muslim street

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The variety of food and snacks on the street was amazing. Grace, Andre and I stayed together and went around trying different things. The whole atmosphere was festive and electrifying with so many people trying out variety of snacks and handicrafts. Andre enjoyed eating the barbecue crabs and I devoured some barbecue lamb. This street also had a Bangaldeshi artist showcasing the Arabic sand art and he happened to be the brother of one I met at Chengdu. We roamed around the Muslim street till 10pm and caught taxis back to the hotel. I joined the hotel owner and few others for beer that night. It was interesting to note that the young owner was an avid art collector who was very knowledgeable about antiques.

Next morning, we left around 7.30am, had breakfast on the way and took a public transport bus to reach the place where the terracotta army museum is located. It was a good two hours journey and we got down at the last stop. It was a rainy day. Grace got the tickets. Andre and I wanted to have a guide to get the best out of the place and hired an English speaking guide for 200 RMB. She was very good. She explained the exhibits well and clarified our doubts.  It was a rainy day and she said it was manufactured rain to cool down the place.

The terracotta army museum is at the foothill of Li Mountain (Lishan). For authenticity, I am quoting the National Geographic here:

Workers digging a well outside the city of Xi’an, China, in 1974 struck upon one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in the world: a life-size clay soldier poised for battle.

The diggers notified Chinese authorities, who dispatched government archaeologists to the site.

They found not one, but thousands of clay soldiers, each with unique facial expressions and positioned according to rank. And though largely gray today, patches of paint hint at once brightly colored clothes. Further excavations have revealed swords, arrow tips, and other weapons, many in pristine condition.

The soldiers are in trenchlike, underground corridors. In some of the corridors, clay horses are aligned four abreast; behind them are wooden chariots.

The terra-cotta army, as it is known, is part of an elaborate mausoleum created to accompany the first emperor of China into the afterlife, according to archaeologists.

YOUNG EMPEROR

Ying Zheng took the throne in 246 B.C. at the age of 13. By 221 B.C. he had unified a collection of warring kingdoms and took the name of Qin Shi Huang Di—the First Emperor of Qin. During his rule, Qin standardized coins, weights, and measures; interlinked the states with canals and roads; and is credited for building the first version of the Great Wall.

According to writings of court historian Siam Qian during the following Han dynasty, Qin ordered the mausoleum’s construction shortly after taking the throne. More than 700,000 laborers worked on the project, which was halted in 209 B.C. amid uprisings a year after Qin’s death.

To date, four pits have been partially excavated. Three are filled with the terra-cotta soldiers, horse-drawn chariots, and weapons. The fourth pit is empty, a testament to the original unfinished construction.

Archaeologists estimate the pits may contain as many as 8,000 figures, but the total may never be known.

UNEXCAVATED TOMB

Qin’s tomb itself remains unexcavated, though Siam Qian’s writings suggest even greater treasures.

“The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities,” reads a translation of the text.

The account indicates the tomb contains replicas of the area’s rivers and streams made with mercury flowing to the sea through hills and mountains of bronze. Precious stones such as pearls are said to represent the sun, moon, and other stars.

Modern tests on the tomb mound have revealed unusually high concentrations of mercury, lending credence to at least some of the historical account.

Chinese archaeologists are also using remote-sensing technology to probe the tomb mound. The technique recently revealed an underground chamber with four stairlike walls. An archaeologist working on the site told the Chinese press that the chamber may have been built for the soul of the emperor.

Experimental pits dug around the tomb have revealed dancers, musicians, and acrobats full of life and caught in mid-performance, a sharp contrast to the military poses of the famous terra-cotta soldiers.

But further excavations of the tomb itself are on hold, at least for now.

Further details about the history can be read here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/china-first-emperor-terra-cotta-warriors-tomb/

It was an overwhelming experience to witness a unique part of the world history. One might wonder why these were made. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The warriors were supposed to be copied from real soldiers and the height is based on the rank. Other features also indicate their rank. The figures were colored when they were made.

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The largest Pit 1

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Kneeling Archer
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Cavalryman with his horse
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High ranked officer

A translation from the Chinese, Sima Qian Shiji volume 6 reads:

When the First Emperor ascended the throne, the digging and preparation at Mount Li began. After he unified his empire, 700,000 men were sent there from all over his empire. They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin. Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artifacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land. Candles were made of “mermaid”‘s fat which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time. The Second Emperor said: “It is inappropriate for the wives of the late emperor who have no sons to be free”, ordered that they should accompany the dead, and a great many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the tomb and knew of its treasure were to divulge those secrets. Therefore, after the funeral ceremonies had completed, the inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exit sealed, immediately trapping the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Trees and vegetation were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembled a hill.

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There is also lot of reconstruction work going on. The warriors and the horses are rebuilt with many broken pieces. The museum also showcases the technology that was used in daily life and machines that were used 2000 years ago. The street behind the museum sold skins of many wild animals.

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We left the place in the afternoon and returned to the hotel to pick our bags and go to the railway station. Unlike the onward journey, the return had a hard bed sleeper. As one of my teammates wanted to be with her friend, I changed the coach. Sady, one of my teammate, was there and introduced me to some new friends. I had an instant connect with Gogo. Thanks to FCN for the opportunity to visit Xi’an. Once again, Grace was excellent in organizing and leading the trip.

I reached Beijing the next morning with fond memories of the Xi’an tour.

Trip to the ‘Romantic’ Long island

A three day trip to the long island in the east coast of China, the Changdao will be remembered for the scenic beaches and the unique rock formations.

We had by now done few FCN (Foreigners China, Laowai) trips and the one in the long weekend of April 1st, the Tomb sweeping day, looked great. The title said “romantic island trip” which meant that it was for couples, but we didn’t mind. The biggest advantages with trips like these are: the low expense, no hassle of planning and ease of communication. It also gives an opportunity to make new friends across different nationalities.

The Changshan Islands, also known as the Temple Island or Miaodao are 32 islands located between the Bay of Bohai and the Yellow Sea. In Chinese, they are also known as the “Long Islands” (Chángdǎo) and, anciently, as the “Islands of the Sandy Gate” (Shāmén dǎo).

Changdao area is well known for the eight immortals. These find a celebrated place in art and culture, mythology and legends of China. According to a legend told by Grace, our amicable tour leader, this happened about 1000 years ago. Shamen Island was the place where prisoners were kept during the Song dynasty. There was a time when the number of prisoners increased, thus leading to scarcity of food. This led the emperor to order that food would be given to only 300 prisoners, and that the remaining ones would be executed.

On one of those days, a group of 50 prisoners was selected to be executed. Once the prisoners came to know about this, they planned a great escape out of Shamen Island by crossing the Bohai Sea to Penglai Island. Out of the 50 prisoners, only 8 survived. Their story was passed on to locals, who called them the Eight Immortals Who Crossed the Sea. It is said that they swam across the sea, but pictures depict them in a boat. It is also said that each of the eight immortals used a unique power to cross the sea. Subsequently, these characters became household names, considered as genies, fairies, celestials and figured on innumerable artefacts.

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One of the many representations of the “Eight immortals”

Hari, Vamsi and I boarded the bus at Huixinxijienankou subway station at 7.20pm. It was going to be long journey. There were three leaders and a photographer from FCN. The organizers circulated a cute handwritten information sheet. The group size was 32. We reached Penglai around 6 am and caught a ferry to Changdao. It took about 50 minutes to reach the dock and then a bus journey to the hotel (Fishing Inn). After freshening up, was the trip to Temple Island by the sea. We started around 8.30am. The ferry ride was very scenic, with so many Sea Gulls flying close to us. Some people offered them food and they pick it up. The sight of different rock formations was amazing. We got down around 11.30 and visited a pagoda and a temple. We roamed around the Park and saw the place where the Bohai and yellow seas meet. The beach had pebbles instead of sand. The team spent lot of time on the beach taking photographs. We came back to the hotel and had dinner which was more of seafood as expected. We could witness the sunset on the hills opposite to the hotel. That evening a barbecue party was organized, but I skipped as I was sleepy.

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With Vamsi and Hari

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With Vamsi, Grace and Hari
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Sea Gulls

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A good jump and a great click (PC: Vamsi)

digNext morning we had breakfast and took a group photo in front of the hotel. After that, we took the bus to Jiuzhang cliff. This is formed by the accumulation of sedimentary rocks while the Himalayas were made 100 million years back. The cliff body is 400 meters long and 100 meters tall, mainly made of quartzite with slate. The rock formations are named differently based on their shapes. There is a statue of the Goddess of Mercy in one of the clefts.

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The team
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Crescent moon beach

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Taking out sea weed
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Goddess of Mercy

We moved to the Qilu coast which is one of the most spectacular beaches in China. It has a long curvy beach also known as crescent moon. There are many statues nearby, the remarkable one is of Hou Yi, with a bow indicating that he has shot a star. Hou Yi, was a mythological Chinese archer. He was also known as Shen Yi and simply as Yi. He is the god of archery descended from heaven to aid mankind. A legend told by Grace is that when 10 suns rose from the Earth and scorched the fields turning the world into a wasteland, Hou Yi shot down 9 of the 10 suns, leaving the last one alive. The holy mother was pleased with Hou Yi’s act and gave him and his wife Chang’e two pots of medicine that would make that would make them immortal and forever young. But Chang’e, was selfish, and ran to the moon with both the pots as she was a lunar deity. She then felt ashamed of her act and stayed in moon, making moon cakes every time she felt lonely and missed her family. Moon cakes are eaten now during the Mid-Autumn festival to commemorate this event.

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Buddha
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Hou Yi

One of the attractions on the beach is the seal show. There are many seals playing in this area and people feed them with fish. There are also private seal performances at extra cost. It was close to noon and people from our group also danced on the beach. We roamed around further around the Wang Fu reef/rock. The Wang Fu rock was earlier called “the reef of waiting for husband” and now “the reef of expecting luck” following similar Chinese spelling. The rock looks like a fisherwoman staring far away calling her husband home. It is also supposed to be the sea goddess Ma Zhu standing there to protect the fishing people of the area. There is a very beautiful watch tower and a bridge that is supposed to make one immortal! We roamed around the place till 5pm and returned to the hotel. The dinner was around 5.45pm. We participated in the barbecue party that evening that went from 8 to 11 pm. Many people danced. It was a good occasion to know others.

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David feeding a Seal

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With David, Andre, Andy and Hari

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Hari on the immortal stone
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Party time! Amy, Grace, Hari, Maga, Richard and David.

Next morning the breakfast was at 7am and we left for Beijing. There was a stopover at Penglai for half an hour around 9 am to see the place. The town is well planned and neat, like any other Chinese town. There is a statue of the eight immortals close to the beach. There is also a World Peace Gong (created by the UN in different countries to mark world peace after the 2002 Bali bombing) a musical drum that has flags of 202 countries.

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Eight immortals statue at Penglai

edfIt was along return journey after that, and unlike while going, this was a day journey. We were dropped near Shilihe subway station that was not far from home.

The trip to the long islands is memorable for the scenic beauty as well as the lovely company we had during the FCN trip. We made many new friends during the trip. The organizers led by Grace were awesome.

Harbin, the magic of ice and snow art

This blog is about our visit to Harbin in Heilongjiang province of China to see the ice and snow carvings in January 2017.

We were thinking of going to Harbin for the ice festival that lasts for a month and the time was running out. In November, Hari shared a quote that looked expensive. In December, I contacted a company and got a fresh quote. This also was expensive (2870RMB per head, excluding the to and fro travel), but we decided to go ahead. As the days were close, we couldn’t get the sleeper train tickets and we did not want to travel by sitting. I booked air tickets for two (1460RMB for two return tickets, a good deal!).

Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn) is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang province in the northeastern region of China. Harbin, which was originally a Manchu word meaning “a place for drying fishing nets”, grew from a small rural settlement on the Songhua River to become one of the largest cities in China. With the railway coming in 1898, the city received many immigrants from the Russia.

It was a morning flight, but due to the weather in Harbin, the Air China flight took of late from Beijing and we reached Harbin at 12.15pm instead of scheduled 8.40am. The guide, a handsome young man was waiting for us. His name was Weihong Qiang, but he had an English name ‘Sky’. He took us to the car and we went into the city. There were many ice sculptures in the city in key places.

Our first stop was the St. Sophia Church. It is in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) style. It is also called the cathedral of holy wisdom of God.  It was first built in 1907 and rebuilt into brick and wood structure in 1912. The original shape and Latin cross footprint was preserved during reconstruction. It is the largest Orthodox Church in the Far East. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China in 1949 by the victorious Communists, who ended all Christian missionary work, the Russian Church was handed over to Chinese government. The cathedral was thus closed from the period of the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and Cultural Revolution (1966–76). It was declared as a national heritage site in 1996 and was converted to a museum. The exhibition showcases the multi-cultural architectural developments of Harbin through times.

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St. Sophia Church

IMG_6401.JPGAfter the Church, we visited the Central Street, known the Zhongyang Street. This was built in 1898 when there were many Russian businessmen in Harbin. It is as good as an art gallery. It has decorative lining both sides, including Russian bakeries, French fashion houses and Japanese restaurants and so on. The street itself had so many ice carvings, mainly used as advertisements by popular brands. At the end of the street is the Monument to Soviet soldiers built by Soviet Red Army in 1945. Next to it is a frozen lake where many people were playing.

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Monument of Soviet soldiers

img_64241.jpgIn the evening we visited the Ice and Snow World. Located on the north bank of the Songhua River, this is a major attraction of Harbin dunging the winter due to the ice and snow festival. There were so many beautiful ice and snow sculptures created by artists from all around world. It was very much like a large city with castles and houses made of ice. There were multicolored lights in the ice walls. Some of the snow sculptures were breathtakingly beautiful. Evening came back, roamed around the central street and finished the day with dinner in KFC.

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IMG_6517IMG_6521IMG_6552IMG_6573IMG_6599The hotel we stayed was Xiang Jiang, comfortable and strategically located. We got up early the next day. It was a long drive and Sky took us to a typical Chinese meal where we had vegetable dumplings. We visited the Siberian Tiger Park. It is the largest park for Siberian tigers of China, even in the world. There must have been more than 1000 Siberian tigers this park. It was surprising for us to see such a large number of the giant Siberian tigers so close. But it doesn’t have the same excitement of watching the big cats in the jungles of India in their natural habitat. The caretakers come in a vehicle and through chicken at the tigers and the tigers flock like sheep. Sometimes they throw a firecracker grenade and the tigers scatter. The place also had few white tigers, lions, ligers and black panthers.

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Majestic Siberian tiger

IMG_6684IMG_6815IMG_6668After this, we were driven to another part of the Sun Island Scenic Area (Tai Yang Dao) to see the world-famous snow sculpture show. This had enormous and unbelievably beautiful snow sculptures. The fineness of the carving was exceptional. The place also had restaurants made with snow. We visited one, where we met a British couple. The lady was also a pharmaceutical scientist like us. We tasted Harbin beer in the restaurant. There was a visitor who acted like a character in dramas and provided entertainment. We returned as Sky was looking for us. We had dinner and departed for airport. The flight was at 10.35pm and we reached Beijing at midnight.

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The snow sculptures of Harbin are a must see for any art and travel enthusiast. Once again, we could witness the professionalism of Chinese tour operators. In this case, it was the Holidays International Travel Service Guilin Co. Ltd.