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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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 planning to go to Harbin for the ice festival that lasts for a month and the time was running out. Hari shared a quote in November that looked expensive. In December, I contacted a company and got a fresh quote. This also was expensive (2870 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 (1460 for two return tickets).

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.

IMG_6767.JPGIMG_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 10.35 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.

Huangshan, the enchanting Yellow Mountain

Huangshan is a beautiful mountain range in Anhui province of China. This blog is about our trip to Huangshan, Hongcun village and the 1000 island lake.

“Mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery.” –John Ruskin

“Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.” -Theodore Roethke

A long weekend was approaching in September 2016 with the Mid-autumn day on September 15th. We were wondering where to go and one of the options was Huangshan, the yellow mountain in Anhui province. Hari explored the tour agencies with the help of his colleagues and we decided. We checked with others and Bhaskar decided to join us. It was the same company that organized the Shanxi trip. The deal was 5300 RMB per person for three nights including high speed train tickets.

The high speed train was from Beijing south station on 15th September at 7.48am. The train journey was pleasant. We had lunch in the train around 11am. We reached Huanshan north station exactly at the scheduled time of 2.14pm.

Mr. Victor, the guide and a young driver Mr Rao were waiting for us. After checking in, we were taken to Tunxi Ancient Street, as per the day’s program. It was raining and there was not much activity there, but we could see the glimpses of Tunxi Street, a typical Ancient Street that has traditional food, handicrafts and restaurants. Huangshan is famous for ink and tea. There were many shops selling ink stones needed for Chinese calligraphy and art. We visited one tea shop. They make you sit around a traditional table and let you taste different teas. We also got to taste a kind of fried mushroom that we liked very much and bought.  We had early dinner and Victor helped us to choose predominantly vegetarian food. After dinner, we walked for some time and retired. The next morning we had early breakfast at 6am, and left for the dock. It was about an hour and a half’s drive to the Qiandao Lake dock (Shendu dock). There were many people selling fresh fruits at the dock.  The ferry was very comfortable and food was sold inside. The voyage was spectacular with picturesque mountains and unique white buildings on either side of the lake.

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Entrance to Tunxi Street
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An old doorway
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Ink stone

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Mr. Rao, the driver and Victor, the guide.
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Famous Huangshan tea
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Artifacts for sale
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Qiandao lake dock
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Fruit sellers
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View from the ferry
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Houses among the clouds

IMG_5138IMG_5140Qiandao Lake or Thousand Island Lake is a human-made lake located in the neighboring Zhejiang Province. It is a lake formed in 1959 as a result of the construction of Anjiang Hydroelectric Power Station. Two ancient counties Chun’an and Sui’an with cities He Cheng and Shi Cheng got submerged due to the dam. It is a beautiful lake with 1078 islets showing different views in different seasons. There are many small islands, but some major ones have been developed for tourism. Qiandao Lake is also the major source for popular Nongfu Spring brand of mineral water. With 81% of the area covered in forests, Thousand Islets Lake (Qiandao Lake) is a pure lake with clean, fresh air. They sell fresh fried fish in the ferry. There were many visitors, and we felt that the place was popular among Taiwanese tourists. The first stop was around noon to see the beautiful smaller islands. There are few peaks in the bigger island like Plum peak and Meifeng peak. There is cable car to the top and the view is spectacular from top.

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Hari in front of a giant lock
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Confucius

The next stop was Lock Island, a world of locks, including happiness lock, wisdom lock, health lock and carp lock. The first Lock Museum in China was built here housing Safety Lock, the biggest lock in Guinness World Records. People tie locks here and throw the key in the lake to secure their love for life! The next stop was Moonlight Island, famous for its moon worshiping platform and several gardens like the Love (Qing) garden. We returned to the dock by 6pm. The vehicle was waiting for us. From there we went for dinner. Vegetarian dinner with boiled groundnuts, beans, corn and sweet potato was delicious. The city lights, including that on the tower bridge, were amazing.

IMG_5394.JPGIMG_5400IMG_5537IMG_5550IMG_5567The next day was the visit to Hongcun village. We left after the breakfast around 8am and reached the village at 9.30am.

IMG_5590Hongcun Village enjoys the reputation of ‘a village in the beautiful Chinese picture’ because of its location at high altitude and being shrouded by clouds and mist. It has about 140 Ming and Qing style residences. It is built in the shape of an ox, with Leigang Hill as the ‘head’, two huge trees on the hill as the ‘horns’, the residences in it as the ‘body’, a winding stream as the ‘intestines’, a crescent pond as the ‘stomach’ and the four bridges as the ‘four feet’. There were many art students painting the view from across the entrance of the village. While the scenery they witnessed is similar, we could see difference in each artist’s expression.

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Art students

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Moon lake
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With Bhaskar and Hari
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Wood carving on the door
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Local snacks

The residences are built with white walls and black tiles and are well arranged. All the residences have running water outside. There is the south lake school and many famous halls. Among them, the Chengzhi Hall is the most representative and is praised as the ‘Folk Imperial Palace’. Numerous varieties of figures and patterns are carved on the columns, beams and door frames and are gilded with gold. It is said that about five kilograms (11 pounds) gold had been used in gilding the wood carvings during the construction of the house. Hundreds of visitors from home and abroad are fascinated by its wood carvings. There are many small shops setting flower tea and fruits.  The moon lake is a great spectacle with the clear and symmetrical reflections of the buildings in the water.

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Vegetarian lunch

We had lunch in a local restaurant, and the place we chose was outside the building, letting us great views of the village. The vegetarian cuisine of beans, greens, mushrooms and sprouts was nice. After lunch, we proceeded towards Hunagshan Mountain. We reached the foothill ticket house in about 45 minutes and I was keen in climbing up. But as my companions were not keen and Victor also told that there is not much to see on the way, we decided to go by cable car. It was quite cold and I purchased a jacket for 150 RMB. Though we reached the top by 3 pm, it was very foggy and the visibility was very poor. We roamed around for some time and treated ourselves to Chivas that was sold in the hotel. The hotel was comfortable and had great views. Once again here, there were many locks, small and big.

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Waterfall

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Brush pine

We went to bed hoping for a better tomorrow when we could see the famous sunrise on Mount Huangshan. We got up early the next day. Though it was cloudy initially, we could see the golden hue increasing on the clouds and the sunrise around 6.20 am was enthralling. As the light increased, an amazing sight of mountain peaked all around unraveled providing a visual treat.

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Sunrise

Hunagshan (黄山), or the Yellow Mountains are not so called because they are yellow, but because the area was renamed after the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) in 747 AD from the earlier name Yishan. After that Huangshan began its ascent to fame. Many Buddhist temples have been built there and, more recently, it has become a major tourist attraction. It is said that the Yellow Mountains is the place where the Yellow Emperor, the mythical ancestor of the Chinese, lived, refined precious medicines and became a supernatural being. Xu Xiake, a noted Chinese geologist in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), who visited the Yellow Mountains twice, left his praise in this quote: “You don’t need to see any more mountains after seeing ‘the Five Mountains’, and you don’t need to see ‘the Five Mountains’ after seeing Huangshan.”

IMG_5986It was lot of walking, climbing from one scenic view point to the other, and the views were unbelievable. There are stone steps leading to the view points, believed to be carved ~ 1500 years ago. The peaks are all of unique shapes, and are known by different names. One legend tells of a man who did not believe the tales of Huangshan’s beauty and went to the mountains to see them; almost immediately, he was converted to the same view. One of the peaks he is said to have visited was named Shixin (始信), roughly meaning “start to believe.”

The pine trees are also very old and have unique shapes. They are imaginatively named like welcome pine, Crouching tiger, Dinosaur, paint brush and so on based on their shapes.

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Dinosaur pine

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Our hotel
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Sea of clouds

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Heavenly capital and lotus peaks
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Turtle peak

We spent a long time appreciating the beauty of nature and viewing the sea of clouds which are named by the direction they are in. There are mountain peaks in unique shapes and are named as Lianhua Peak (Lotus Peak), Tiandu Peak (Heavenly Capital Peak), Aoyu Peak (Big Turtle Peak) and so on.

By 11, we came down by cable came and drove to the city to catch the fast train which was at 2.38pm. We reached Beijing South station by 9.10pm and could get a bus back home. Huangshan will remain fresh in my memory for the unique peaks, pines and the clouds. I would like to visit again as a trekker rather than a tourist. Once again, the guide and the driver were very professional and helpful. I would like to Thank Victor for also correcting the matter in this blog.

Sichuan, an unforgettable experience.

This blog is about our trip to Sichuan province in China. The highlights of the trip were seeing the Giant Pandas which have been brought back from extinction and the breathtakingly beautiful lakes and hills of Jiuzhaigou, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and World Biosphere Reserve.

With the 2017 May Day long weekend approaching, we were wondering where to go next. Hari’s family was visiting him for a short time and he wanted to make the best use of the weekends. We had not been introduced to FCN yet, and were still going with the private tour operators. The package was 6300 RMB per head including the round trip flight to Chengdu, which looked reasonable.

We had an early start on Friday and left for the airport at 4.30am. The taxi was too quick and we reached in 25 minutes. The flight was at 7.15am. We reached Chengdu ShuangLiu airport at 10.30 and were out of the airport in about 15 minutes. Nicole (Wang Jia), the guide was waiting for us. We were led to a parked 15 seater vehicle (that was a surprise to us). The driver Mr Zhou, was behind the wheels.

We were driven far away through the city to a restaurant. We saw some pilgrims doing a kind of shashtanga namasakara on the footpath for every few steps on the way to a temple. The restaurant would start serving only by 11.30, so we had to wait. The decor of the restaurant was great. With our limitations for food, we could order only certain things, but could see that most items were spicy. After lunch, we walked to the WuHou temple. This was the first time I was seeing a temple dedicated to Kings and their accomplices. Wuhou Temple (Memorial Temple of Marquis Wu) is dedicated to Zhuge Liang, the Marquis Wu (Wuhou) of Kingdom of Shu in the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280). It is a large complex of 37,000 square meters that also holds the temple of Liu Bei, the emperor of Shu (Zhaolie Temple of Han Dynasty). There are also statues of two of the ministers of Liu Bei and an example of their friendship. The temple also hosts Hui Mausoleum (of Liu Bei) and Triple-Success Stele. The three successes are: an article written by Pei Du, a famous minister of the Tang Dynasty who served four emperors in succession, calligraphy by Liu Gongquan, one of the most brilliant calligraphers in Chinese history, and a statement about the morality and achievements of Zhuge Liang.

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People offering salutations as they proceed to the temple
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Ornate door in the restaurant

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Fruit vendor

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Liu Bei, popular ruler between 221-223 AD
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Liu Chen, Liu Bei’s trusted successor, a tragic hero
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Zhuge Liang, a great visionary and Liu Bei’s Chancellor
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With Nicole, our guide

edfAfter that, we walked in the Jinli Street, which was one of the busiest commercial areas during the Shu Kingdom (221-263). Hence, it is known as ‘First Street of the Shu Kingdom’. It now brims with activity where variety food and handicrafts are sold. There are live demonstrations of many kinds of fine arts. The street has hundreds of unique spice and snack shops, pubs, fashion shops and those that sell Chengdu local brands. We left for the hotel around 3.30pm. The hotel’s name was Jindi, on the Deshing road. The hotel was decent. Nicole left saying that we can visit Chunxi Road, which is well known shopping street by taxi later.

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A potter at Jinli street

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Artist, calligrapher working

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A Bangladeshi artist displaying Arabic sand art
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Model at a jewelry store
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Brahma?

cofWe let around 6.30pm and found it hard to find an empty taxi. We kept walking till we reached the street. We were looking for a restaurant and Hari got impressed by a place called Home Kitchen. With some difficulty we ordered the food, which was spicy. They sold a beer called snow, which was served with ice. From the restaurant, we could see many tall buildings around. A unique twin tower was just next. We went around the busy Chunxi shopping street. There is a long elevated pedestrian path that allows great view of the surroundings. There were masked men dancing in front of some shops and people gathering to see. We came back to room around 9.30pm.

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Dinner
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Trouser shaped building
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A performing artist at the Chunxi street

Next morning 7am was the breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and we left for the Panda park at 7.30am.We reached the Panda park at Dujiangyan. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding has been created to imitate the natural habitat of giant pandas in order that they might have the best possible environment for rearing and breeding. It was a wonderful sight watching the Giant pandas move around in their large spaces and devour the arrow bamboos with style. There are also few red (Lesser) pandas there. It was nice to see the intimate bonding the pandas had with the keepers.

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Panda enjoying the bamboo

In China the giant panda is seen as a national treasure.  From close to extinction, the Chinese government has worked to get the numbers increased substantially over the years. One Tibetan legend of the Giant Panda is about how they got their beautiful, and unusual black markings.   A long time ago, when pandas lived in the mountains of Tibet, they were white as snow.  They were friends with four female shepherds that watched their flocks, in the mountains near their village.  One day as the shepherdesses where playing with a Panda cub, a leopard leapt out of the bush and tried to attack the cub.  The young shepherdesses threw themselves in front of the cub to save it and were killed by the leopard.  All the Pandas in the area were saddened by their deaths and held a memorial service to honor them and their bravery.  To remember their sacrifice for the cub, the Pandas all wore black ashes on their arms (as was the local custom).  As they wept for the shepherdesses, they wiped their eyes with their paws, they covered their ears to block out the sound of the crying and they hugged each other in grief.  As they did these things the ash spread and blackened their fur.  The pandas did not wash the black off their fur as a way to remember the girls.  To this day, pandas are covered with the black markings to always remember.

Around 10.30am, we left for Jiuzhaigou. This was going to be long journey through scenic hill roads and many long tunnels. There were many temples on the way and the colorful flags are remarkable. Traditionally, Tibetan prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors are arranged from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and yellow. They represent the five elements and the Five Pure Lights. Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. According to Tibetan medicine, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements.

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Zhou, our driver
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An artist who creates the animal faces, and his work below

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edfcofedfIt was quite late by the time we stopped for lunch. Next to the restaurant, there was a workshop where they made bison faces and used the bison horns. The road was winding and along with it, ran river Minjiang. Next stop was for the toilet around 4pm. Unlike the toilets in other places, they were not free, and charged 1 yuan (and surprisingly not clean!). We reached Songzhou, in Songpan (Songzhou and Panzhou) county around 5.30pm. As it was quite late, we did not go into the ancient city. Outside, there is a landmark statue of Princess Wencheng and the Tubo King Songtsen Gampo. It tells a more than a thousand years old story. There used to be a war between the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and the Tubo Dynasty there. At that time the Tubo King Songtsen Gampo sent an envoy in the mission of proposing a marriage to Chang’an (named Xi’an now) City, capital of the Tang Dynasty. But the envoy was detained by Xu Qi, the governor of Songzhou Prefecture (Songpan County), when passed by the prefecture. Songtsen Gampo was so furious that he led a troop of 200,000 soldiers to intrude Songzhou Prefecture. Area Commander of the prefecture Han Wei failed the war. Later Emperor Taizong (599–649) of Tang Dynasty dispatched the head of the Ministry of Official Personnel Affairs Hou Jun to Songzhou Prefecture with more soldiers. After the war in Chunzhu Temple, Songtsen Gampo was defeated and retreated to Tibet. Then Gampo resent an envoy to re-establish the relationship with Tang Dynasty by intermarriage, with some gold as a gift. Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty took the proposal and married his daughter Princess Wencheng to Gampo. Their marriage became a famous romance.

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Princes Wenchang and Gampo at Songzhou

On the way, Nicole was telling tales from legends. According to one, the Chang and Zhang minorities in western Sichuan did not eat fish or birds due to the funeral practices. One of them is letting the body into rived for fish to eat and the other (among six different ways) was celestial or sky burial. This is done for noble people who have not sinned, not lied and do not have scars on the body. According to the custom, the body is cut into 108 pieces and is fed to the birds, mainly vultures. A rich Zhang person was identified by the number of copper plates he received in return of his donations to temples, the number of Yaks he owns and the kind of decoration he wears. People made flutes made of animal bones, sometime from that of dead children’s leg bones.

We reached out hotel ‘Paradise’ at Jiuzhaigo at 8pm. It was almost 12 hours since we left Chengdu. We freshened up and had dinner at a nearby place. Next morning we started at 7am and were taken to the entrance of the national park where Nicole bought the tickets by standing in a long queue. It was a rainy day. The national park is also called as fairyland due to its beauty.

edfJiuzhaigou (Nine village valley) park is located in the Aba Tibetan region, north of Sichuan Province in China. This land features perennially snow-capped mountain peaks, lush green forest, stretches of serene lakes, and various birds and animals, all contributing to the unique view of Jiuzhaigou Valley. The lakes are very unique in color and water is crystal clear. A beautiful local tale has it that a very long time ago, there lived a beautiful and kindhearted goddess in the mountain east of the Jiuzhaigou and an industrious and chivalrous god in the mountain west of it. They fell in love with each other and one day the god presented a big and shiny divine mirror to the goddess as a token a love. The goddess reached out to take it, but was too excited and nervous to hold it. Hence, the mirror slipped from her trembling fingers and dropped to the valleys, breaking into 108 pieces. These pieces turned out to be 108 winkling and glittering crystal lakes of different sizes, covering the land of Jiuzhaigou Valley. The route in the valley is in Y shape and there are frequent shuttles taking people to different destinations. On the right is Rize Valley, on the left is Zechawa Valley and at the south is Shuzheng Valley. We took a bus to the right of the Y and reached the arrow bamboo lake. Arrow bamboos are one of the favorite foods of Giant Pandas. There are large stretches of Arrow Bamboo growing around the lake, so it got its name as Arrow Bamboo Lake. Arrow Bamboo Lake is at 2629 meters above the sea level and covers an area of 170,000 m2, and is a shallow lake with a depth of ~10 meters. The sight was breathtaking. Froom there, we moved to the Panda Lake. Panda Lake has color patterns of blue and green. Giant Pandas were said to have come to this lake to drink. The lake enters into the Panda Waterfalls, which was dry during this season. There were many people lending the traditional dresses, which the ladies and kids wore and took pictures.

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Jiuzhaigou map
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Arrow bamboo lake

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The Panda lake
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Posing with a very cute little girl

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Five flower lake

digedfWe moved next to the five flower lake. This is also known as Five Flower Sea. It is an amazing view. Adjacent to it is the Peacock river way that resembles a peacock. Five Flowers Sea is the most spectacular scenery in Jiuzhaigou. There are many viewpoints created to enjoy the beauty. We went around in circles around this lake and spent a lot of time. It was lunch time. Nicole and I went for the self-heating food packets with rich and green peas. It was the first time I was using it. It has calcium oxide (quick lime) to which water is added and the food packet is kept above it. In ten minutes, due to the reaction, heat is generated and the food gets piping hot.

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Self heating food packet

Next was the spectacular Pearl Shoal Waterfall. Spread over a long range, the view of the falls was amazing. There were many birds, the prominent being white capped Water Redstart, and I was missing my SLR camera. The name of the falls comes from the water droplets that sparkle like pearls in the sunshine.

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Pearl shoal waterfalls

cofedfThe next one was Mirror Lake, in the junction of the Y.  It is so named because of its ability to reflect the images of the surrounding mountains and forests. In the rain, it looked beautiful. Next we proceeded to the left, towards the Zechawa Valley. The first one was the tranquil long lake and there was the Five Color Pool. Also called Jade Pool, is fed by underground streams from Long Lake. Just as its name implies, the colorful water in this lake makes it as a charming part, though the pool is small.

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Mirror lake

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Five color pool

davWe returned by the bus to the last past, that is the Shuzheng Valley, or the bottom part of the Y. The first sight was Rhinoceros Lake. This is the largest lake in the Shuzheng valley, and also the deepest with an average depth of 12 meters. The lake derives its name from a legend that tells of a monk from Tibet riding a rhinoceros. When the monk came to this lake he was so fascinated with the local scenery that he accidentally rode his rhinoceros directly into the lake. After this was the Tiger Lake. The Tiger Lake gets its name from the colorful trees that reflect in the clear water during autumn making it look like tiger skin.  Next there were two waterfalls, Nuorilang and Shuzheng. The former is small and the latter is large. There were also few temples that we could not visit. We could see many large turning bells that are made to turn by the flowing water by directing the water into a turbine.

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Raindrops on Rhinoceros lake

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Rhinoceros falls

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Tiger lake
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A turbine that rotates the bell

It was already 4.30pm, and we caught the bus to the entrance of the park. On the way, we saw few lakes, Sleeping Dragon Lake, Reed Lake (with dry grass grown) and the Bonsai Shoal with small plants. After this, we went to the Jiuzhai Songcheng Romance Park, a very famous theater, where Nicole had helped us to get tickets. We reached at 5.30pm and the show was to start at 6. We had burgers packed from a nearby restaurant. We also went around for some time seeing the Buddha and some other statues in the park. The show started at 6pm sharp. It was a rare spectacle that combined history and art with modern technology and the effects were magnificent. The first part of the play was the story of the romance and wedding of princess Wenchang to the Tibetan prince Songtsen. The show was a great combination of great visual effects, light, water, fire and a very artistic dancing and acrobatic display. The second part had a story of the 2008 earthquake of Sichuan. The show was indeed of top quality and magnitude. There was a moment when our seats shake during the earthquake scene.

digedfedfcofThe show got over at 7pm and we came out. There was another half an hour’s show in the open space outside. This had few Tibetan dances with differently masked characters. After return to the hotel, we went around for some time and tried some food in a nearby place. Next morning we had early breakfast started at 6.40 for Chengdu. There was a Tibetan village called Qiang Cheng in the schedule, but Nicole felt that we may get stuck in traffic in Chengdu and miss our flight, which was at 9.30pm. We had to agree. Nicole stopped the vehicle for us to visit the 2008 Sichuan earthquake memorial. On May 12, 2008, an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Beichuan County, soon becoming the country’s worst natural disaster in three decades. The quake, which was felt thousands of miles away in Hong Kong, caused immense structural damage and officially claimed nearly 70,000 lives (though the real figure is probably much higher). The place we visited had a clock tower, with the time stopped at 2.28pm, the time of the quake. A garden is developed there and some of the buildings are left as is to remember the natural calamity. In most places around, people display the national flag on their houses as a mark of respect to the government who helped rebuild their houses.

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2008 Earthquake memorial clock tower

We reached Chengdu airport by 5.15 pm, and our flight was at 9.30. I thought it would be good to explore possibility of changing to an earlier flight. To our luck, the Sichuan airline staff was very cooperative and accommodated four of us on a 6.30pm flight to Beijing.

Trip to Sichuan will remain green in my memory forever for the enchanting beauty of Jiuzhaigou. Thanks to Nicole, for being a wonderful guide, and to Hari and his family for the excellent company.

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

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

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

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

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

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Cross sword indicates a medium sized temple

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

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Cauldron in Cauldron temple
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Dabai Pagoda

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

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Suspended temples

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Jump with joy!
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Hotpot

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

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

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Large wooden sculptures

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

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

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

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Nine dragon wall

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Rainbow over the city gate tower
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Breakfast

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

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

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

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Tower gate at the town wall

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

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

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

Qingdao: Beaches, beer, seafood and modern engineering

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

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

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

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

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At Beijing airport

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Dried seafood

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Downtown Qingdao

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Red torch sculpure
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Big houses facing the sea

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

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Newly weds posing
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Squid dish sold at the beach

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Wang Dao’s mansion

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

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Hari and Vamsi posing on the Bay bridge
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Qingdao Bay bridge

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

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

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