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

This blog is about a trip to Qinghai lake and Zhangye Danxia mountains in western provinces of China.

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign”. Robert Louis Stevenson

Spring is a great time to travel in China. There was a long weekend during the May Day and I saw the FCN update about the Qinghai trip. Difficult part appeared to be the long journey, but it was certainly an opportunity. Booking, as always, was easy with FCN. We met at Beijing west Railway station on Friday at 11:00. The leader was Ada Yang and photographer was Alee. The team size was 18. We caught the train number T175 to Xining at 13:05. We were mainly in two coaches, but a bit spread out. The people in our team were from different countries. China, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Mongolia, Pakistan, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland and Thailand.

For those who are unfamiliar, Qinghai is a province in the mid-west China, famous for the lake of the same name. It has Sichuan and Tibet to the south, Xinjiang to the west and Gansu province to the north and west. The train journey, though was long, was very scenic. Ada, the leader had brought lot of snacks for us. One thing that I liked was a kind of spicy rusks.  We played a Chinese card game “Dou di zhu” for some time. Xining is half way through the journey from Beijing to Lasha in Tibet. The distance of about 2000 kms to Xining is covered in 21h 38min. The train passes through Taiyuan in Shanxi and Lanzhou in Gansu province. The view outside was very scenic with mountains, meadows, farms and rivers including the famous Yellow River (Huang He, 黃河) which is the second longest river in Asia, after the Yangtze River. That evening, I had a set meal of rice, chicken and vegetables meals from the train catering. Sleeping was not easy on the upper berth. The slow trains in China are also as clean as the fast trains and the conditions of the coaches and toilets is excellently maintained. One difference is, the slow trains have a smoking area between coaches. We reached Xining at 10:40.

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Sunrise as seen  from the train
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Yellow river
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A copassenger curiously looking at Waiguoren (foreigner)
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Selfie time
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Train lunch
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Landing at Qinghai station

We walked out of the station and caught the bus that was waiting for us. While the bus took us to the hotel, the local guide explained about Xining and the specialties of Qinghai region. From the bus, we could see glimpses of the famous Tulou Temple on the cliffs of Beishan Mountain. Xining (西宁; Xīníng) is the capital of Qinghai Province and is the largest city in the Tibetan plateau. It was a part of Gansu province for long, and was added to Qinghai in 1928. The city was a commercial hub along the Northern Silk Road over 2000 years, and was home to the Han, Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties. Xining has places of religious importance to Muslims and Buddhists, like the Dongguan Mosque and Ta’er Monastery.

 

 

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Tulou Temple on the cliffs of Beishan Mountain

We were at the Lei di sen da hotel in an hour’s time. The hotel looked luxurious. I took a shower that was much needed after the long journey. In about 20 minutes, we walked to a restaurant in the next building. Ada said there was an introductory offer and the food was half priced. The first two dishes to arrive were of large beef bones, the only meat I don’t eat :-(. It was a bit disappointing considering the things I had read about Xining food where lamb kebabs seemed to be a delicacy. Some dry snacks and vegetables were good. A chicken dish ordered came almost when we finished and were ready to leave. After lunch, we left for Kumbum Monastery.

Kumbum monastery or Ta’er temple was about 30 minutes’ drive. It was built in 1577 to commemorate Tsong Khapa (1357-1419), founder of the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism. The temple complex is very impressive, with unique structures spread across the mountain slopes. The complex has many different halls like the Amitayus Hall, Great Sutra Hall, Gautama Buddha Hall, Manjushri Hall, Kalachakra Scripture Hall, The Butter Sculpture hall, Tara Hall etc. There is also Tantrik Buddhist School. Many halls have prayer places and huge, beautiful Buddhist figures. The lamps are lit with butter. The butter sculpture hall is the most impressive with very unique figures made of butter and colorful murals on the walls and doors.

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Entrance of Ta’er temple
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Devotee saluting the Pagodas
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Silk shawls offered by devotees

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Golden roofed temple
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Yak Butter sculptures
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Ornate door at the Butter sculpture hall

Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, was born in nearby Tsongkha in 1357. According to a legend, Tsongkhapa’s father took the afterbirth and buried it where the monastery is now and soon a sandalwood tree grew on the spot. Another version has it that the tree grew up where drops of blood from Tsongkhapa’s umbilical cord had fallen on the ground. Thus, this tree is known as the “Tree of Great Merit.” The leaves and the bark of this tree were thought to bear impressions of the Buddha’s face and various mystic syllables and its blossoms were said to give off a peculiarly pleasing scent. The four-storied golden-roofed temple built around the tree is called “Golden Tree” (wish-fulfilling tree) and is considered the holiest place at Ta’er.

The whole place is very colorful and serene. The pillars are covered with brilliantly colored rugs and the praying mats are also made of silk. People offer silk shawls to the deities as a respect. Many pilgrims were seen performing hundred Sashtanga Namaskaras (a salutation in which all the body parts touch the ground) at different places.

There is an interesting figure of an elephant carrying a monkey, which carries a hare and the hare carries a bird. This is also shown in pictures in many places we visited. The figure is called “four harmonious brothers”. This is based on a Buddhist moral story. According to the legend, a bird, a hare, a monkey and an elephant lived by a large tree. They had a conflict as to who is better. Knowing this is not good, they decided to give priority to the elder ones, by comparing their age with the tree. The elephant said that the tree was already fully grown when he was young, the monkey that the tree was small when he was young, the hare that he saw the tree as a sapling when he was young and the bird claimed that he had excreted the seed from which the tree grew. So, the bird was recognized by the other animals as the oldest, and the four animals lived together in co-dependence and cooperation, helping each other to enjoy the fruits of the tree. After the story is finished, it is revealed the partridge was the Buddha in a previous life. The story is meant as an illustration of cooperation and respect for seniority.

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Young monk
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At the “four harmonious brothers”

After spending about two and a half hours at Ta’er temple, we were taken to a restaurant for dinner that was hosted by FCN along with some Australian wine.

Next morning, we checked out, had breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant and left for Qinghai lake. We had a new local guide this time, who explained some legends about the place. The travel was for three hours through very scenic route. The guide told some stories about the area. The Riyue (Sun-Moon) mountains are famous in Chinese mythology. As per the legend, in the 641 during Zhenguan Period (627-649), when Princess Wencheng left for Tubo to marry Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, she was very sad and painful. So, the Emperor of Tang Dynasty gifted her a sun-and-moon treasure mirror and said to her that if she looked in the mirror at the boundary of Tang Dynasty and Tubo (Tibet), she would see her hometown and her parents. When Princess Wencheng reached the boundary, she took out the mirror and looked in it immediately. However, what she could only see herself. She came to realize that she was deceived by the Emperor. She was so angry and sorrowful that she threw out the mirror. The mirror was broken and the fragments were just landed on the two hills. The east half piece of the mirror faced the west reflecting the rays of the setting sun and the west half piece of the mirror faced the east reflecting the rising moon. Hence the mountain got the name, sun and moon mountain.

One more legend is about the Daotang (backflowing) River. When Princess Wencheng passed by the mountain, due to homesickness her tears dropped and became the Daotang River. Its westward flow symbolizes the princess’s resolution not to return forever. In fact, it is the only river flowing from the east to the west in China. For more legends about Princess Wenchang, see my earlier blog: Sichuan, an unforgettable experience. https://wordpress.com/post/chinadiarysite.wordpress.com/421).

Qinghai Lake (青海湖), Koko Nor (Mongolian) or Tso Ngonpo (Tibetan) is the largest lake in China. It is a salt water lake having a circumference of 360 km and depth of 21m. The current Chinese name Qinghai means Green Sea. It is at 3,205 m above sea level in the Tibetan plateau. Many seasonal rivers and streams empty into Qinghai Lake. Prior to the 1960s, 108 freshwater rivers emptied into the lake. By 2003, 85% of the river mouths dried up, including the lake’s largest tributary, the Buha River. The increasing alkalinity of the lake is said to be the reason of some of the fish species getting close to extinction.

We reached the lake by 11:00. The place all around is very well developed and there are bicycles available for rent. There is a large area developed fir the world poetry movement in 2011, and there are many mementoes installed. Then there are statues from different cultures around the world. There are also temples, and pagodas on the beach and a large statue of princess Wenchang. As you walk along the pier, you can see many sea gulls all around. There are also ferry rides, but we didn’t try. We spent about 3 hours near the beautiful Qinghai lake and had lunch in a restaurant there.  We then moved to Ji hai tai, another part of the lake which is mostly a personal place of worship. Here, people offer liquor and food in small pots to the lake god to fulfil their wishes. We all were given small pots that were offered to the lake. On the way, the guide said we are going at higher altitude, Xining was at ~ 2000 m, and Qinghai is > 3000 m. They had oxygen cylinders on the bus and one person needed it for some time.

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First view of Qinghai Hu
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Our team at the entrance

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One of the many sculpures at Qinghai Lake

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Amar offering white wine (Bai jiu) to the lake
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Devotees posing with the lake god
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Team offering food to the lake

Another couple of hours journey, mostly along the Qinghai lake, led to Chaka Salt Lake. This is a large Salt Lake and for centuries has been a source of salt. It is a very beautiful area with may large salt figures. The lake is known as the “mirror of the sky”.  There is very long salt bridge and a toy train that runs through the beach. We took many pictures. It was 19:30 when we left the Chaka Lake. The hotel that FCN had reserved for us for that night got offered to someone else and Ada and the local hosts had to look for a replacement. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant at Chaka town. The first four dishes that came to the table were all beef and I was almost losing my cool. We then moved to a nearby hotel which was nowhere comparable with the one we had stayed the last night. Saving grace was the electrically heated bed and the hot water jug that was provided.

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Salt statue of Genghis Khan
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Chaka Lake

Next morning, we got up early, but there was no luck with sunrise as the weather was cloudy. We were supposed to cover three places, the Qilian grasslands, Zhuoer mountain (oriental Switzerland) and Danxia. But as the journey was long, we had to drop visiting the Zhuoer mountain while we saw lot of grassland on the way. The route, which is a part of the silk road, G227 highway was very scenic. The guide told about Zhang Qian (200-114BC), a General of Han emperor Wu, was instrumental in bulding the Qingzhang road between Tibet and Qinghai when he was 70 years old. When he died, his ashes were made part of the new road as a mark of respect.

We could see the first glimpse of sun through the clouds around 7:15. The road on either side had large grasslands and distant mountains, temples and places of sky burial.  The guide explained about different burial practices of the Tibetans. The Jhator, or sky burial is the noblest of all. Here a body of the deceased person is cut into small pieces and put on top of a mountain to feed the vultures and the natural elements. There are also the other practices as follows.

  1. Traditional ground burial is rare, considered as an inferior custom. Happens mostly for deaths caused by disease or unnatural causes.
  2. Cliff burial: this funeral rite sees the corpse protected with ghee (a form of clarified butter), salt and perfume and placed in a wooden casket. Next, the monks attending the body transport the box to a natural or man-made cliffside cavern and place it beside other remains. The elevation depends on the social status of the departed.
  3. Cremation: For cremation, the body of the deceased is burned atop a bed of wood and straw. Depends on the availability of the wood in the region. While a commoner’s ashes are typically scattered on a mountaintop or into a river, noble ashes are preserved in clay holy objects known as tsa-tsas.
  4. Stupa burial: Stupas are sacred Buddhist monuments built to contain holy relics or the remains of particularly holy individuals. Tibetan stupas are reserved for the likes of past Dalai Lamas and incarnations of the Buddha. The deceased is lavishly covered with rare spices and minerals before placement.
  5. Tree burial: small wooden boxes containing the remains of a deceased child or an aborted fetus are hung around trees.
  6. Water burial: disposal of corpses for consumption by fish follows the same reason as jhator.
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Sunrise on Qinghai lake

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Buddhist prayer flags

The route had continuous scenes of the five colored Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. The meanings for these colors are as follows:

Blue: air, associated with purity and healing. White: Water, for learning and knowledge. Red: Fire, life force and preservation. Green: Nature, for balance and harmony. Yellow: earth, symbolizes belonging and sacrifice.

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Beautiful Qinghai lake

 

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IMG_3739The route also had many lambs and yaks grazing. We stopped for breakfast around 8:00. Once again, the place was known as Niu rou mian (Beef noodles). I could get the noodles in a spicy soup without the beef.  As we moved further, icy mountains became closer and the sight was breathtaking! For the next couple of hours, the bus moved through very picturesque winding routes with shining icy mountains on both sides. That was a sight to remember. Though we didn’t get out of the bus, most of us were busy getting pictures and videos of the scenery outside. At the highest point, there was a large plaque on the road reminding the altitude of 4120 m.

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Scene at highest altitude

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Breathtaking Himalayas

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Around 12:30, we briefly stopped at Qiyuan county to pick up some food. Alee and I tried Bauzis (steamed buns stuffed with potatoes). We also bought some large breads (mianbao).

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Bauzi

We reached Danxia at 17:15, fortunately before they closed the tickets for the day. A place like Danxia certainly needs at least half a day, but we had to be happy with the time we had.

 

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A stop before Danxia (PC: Alee)

The Zhangye Danxia geological park in Gansu province, is a mountain range of thickly packed layers of minerals and rocks that vividly form a rainbow of colors that is unbelievably beautiful. This is also called Rainbow mountain park (张掖丹霞国家地质公园). The tourist place is divided into six viewing areas, and 2, 3 and 4 are supposed to be the best, so we started our tour with 2. Based on the imaginations of the viewer, the scenes have been named interestingly, like: Monks worship Buddha, monkeys viewing see of fire, seven color screen, dragons playing with fire, etc. There are buses to transport people from one area to the other.

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Dragons playing with fire

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Monks worship Buddha

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Jumping with joy!

The first bus journey from the ticket counter to the viewing area itself was very scenic with the colored mountains on either side. Walking to the second spot took about ten minutes. There were many steps to climb to reach to the top. The view all around was spectacular. We spent good time at point 2 and visited the different places taking pictures.  We took the bus to the third platform from here. The splendid scenery of seven-color fan is the major attraction here. The last one to visit was the fourth viewing area. This is very large, and offers the best views of many formations. We were here till 19:30 when the security started telling people to leave. Before leaving, we took many pictures, tried jumps, splits and had a great time. It was almost 20:00 when we left the place and it took an hour to reach Zhangye city. Ada led us to a restaurant for dinner. The local host joined the dinner. The spread had many vegetables. After dinner, we went to a hotel to rest for some time, as out train was at 2:30. I took shower and caught an hour’s sleep before leaving. We reached Zhangye railway station at 1:00 and waited for our train.

The return journey, once again though beautiful locations, was comfortable. On the train the next day, Lucy, a Chinese girl who was our teammate, played the movie “Bajrangi bhaijan” on her iPad and some of us saw it completely. It was touching to see her getting emotional and profusely crying during the tragic scenes of the movie.

We reached Beijing West Railway station at 20:30, and it took about an hour and a half to reach home. Qinghai and Chaka lakes, the most beautiful journey from Qinghai to Danxia through the grasslands and the Himalayas, the rainbow colored Zhangye Danxia will always be fresh in my memory. Thanks to FCN for the opportunity and the friendly co-travelers who made the trip wonderful.

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.

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.

FCN Team
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.

CET Team
The Moshikou Pass
First hike
A broken tower
Hari

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.

FCN Team
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!