Bixi 赑屃 Bì Xì; China’s Monster . If you have ever visited a Chinese temple, you will have come across this mythological beast, straining under the heavy weight of the stele it is carrying. Though often referred to as a turtle or tortoise, the Bixi is in fact a hybrid creature with the body of a dragon, topped by the shell of a turtle.
Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster: The Legend
According to legend, the Bixi was one of the nine sons of the Dragon King. Endowed with super-natural strength, he could move mountains and stir up the seas. However, King Yu the Great (c. 2123–2025 BC), famous for bringing the floods under control, managed to tame the great beast that subsequently helped him dig canals and throw up barriers to keep the waters at bay.
Once the risk of flooding had subsided, Yu was worried the Bixi might go back to wreaking havoc with the mountains and seas. In order to prevent this, he made him carry a mammoth stone with an inscription praising his deeds.
The tradition of stelae borne by turtles or tortoises originated in the late Han dynasty (early 3rd century) and continued to flourish during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties. Apparently, the early specimens still looked like real aquatic turtles, but the later ones started sprouting small ears and showing large, prominent teeth, eventually morphing into the characteristic dragon-headed creature we are most familiar with nowadays.
Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster: Not only in China
Apart from temples, sculptures of Bixi also appear at the entrance to mausoleums, bearing funerary tablets, as well as near bridges and archways, commemorating important events such as imperial visits. Besides China, Bixi can also be found in other East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and even as far as Mongolia and parts of Russia.
People traditionally like to rub the Bixi for good luck, which unfortunately can damage the sculptures and erase the patterns on their shell or the inscriptions.
Bìxì; 赑屃 China’s Monster: INTERESTING EARLY EXAMPLES:
Confucius Temple Qufu: The creatures looked quite realistic through the Song dynasty, when huge tortoise pedestals, such as the ones in Shou Qiu near Qufu.
In Xian, in 1625, an ancient Christian stele was unearthed and later mounted on the back of a turtle. This so-called Nestorian stele dates from the Tang dynasty (781) and bears witness to 150 years of early Christianity in China.
Its inscriptions in Chinese and Syriac Aramaic (Aramaic being the language Jesus would have spoken) describe the existence of Christian communities in several cities in northern China. According to the stele, missionaries belonging to the Church of the East came to China in the ninth year of emperor Tai Tsung (635) with sacred books and images. The stele was buried in 845, probably during a period of religious persecution.
In 1907, the stele was moved to Xian’s fascinating Stele Forest museum, where it can still be admired.
Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending
These days, long-lost Bixi continue to be unearthed during archaeological excavations and construction work. Among the most remarkable finds is the discovery of a huge 1200-year-old Bi Xi in Zhengding (Hebei Province) in June 2006.
The stone turtle is 8.4 m long, 3.2 m wide, and 2.6 m tall, and weighs 107 tons. It has since been moved to Zhengding’s Kaiyuan Temple.
Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen:If you love visiting Chinese Buddhist temples, as we do, you will probably be familiar with the term Arhat, as colourful paintings and sculptures of these monk-like beings, shown in groups of 16, 18, or even 500, are a common feature of temple halls.
Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen: who or what exactly are Arhats?
But, who or what exactly are Arhats? The word Arhat comes from Sanskrit and means ‘one who is worthy’; in Buddhism, that is a person who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved Nirvana (spiritual enlightenment). In this way, Arhats, who are usually monks or nuns, manage to free themselves from ignorance, excitability, ambition, and the desire for existence, so that they will not be reborn.
Although this definition seems fairly clear, we have to bear in mind that the concept of the Arhat has changed over the centuries, and varies between different schools of Buddhism.
Whereas in the Theravada tradition becoming an Arhat is considered to be the proper goal of a Buddhist, Mahayana Buddhism uses the term for people far advanced along the path of Enlightenment, but who may not have reached full Buddhahood.
Moreover, they believe that the Bodhisattva is a higher goal of perfection. Although the ultimate purpose of the Bodhisattva is to achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha, they are willing to postpone their entrance into Nirvana in order to remain in the world and save other beings from suffering.
This difference of interpretation seems to be one of the fundamental divergences between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. However, even in Mahayana Buddhism, the accomplishments of Arhats are recognized and celebrated, mainly because they have transcended the mundane world.
The Chinese Buddhist tradition and Arhats
In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, Arhats are usually depicted in groups of 16 and later 18; all with their own names and personalities: Deer Sitting, Happy, Raised Bowl, Raised Pagoda, Meditating, Oversea, Elephant Riding, Laughing Lion, Open Heart, Raised Hand, Thinking, Scratched Ear, Calico Bag, Plantain, Long Eyebrow, Doorman, Taming Dragon and Taming Tiger. Interestingly, the cult of the 18 Arhats only became popular in China, while other Buddhist countries such as Japan continue to revere just 16.
These 16 or 18 represent the closest disciples of the Buddha who were chosen by him to remain in this world and not to enter nirvana until the coming of the next Buddha, in order to give people something / someone to worship. We can think of them as the Buddhist equivalents of Christian saints, or apostles.
Leaving aside the tricky question of exactly how holy or perfect the Arhats are, what has always puzzled us is the way they are portrayed: Arhat paintings and sculptures are often sinister, ludicrous, grotesque, or just downright ugly. Of course, from a Western point of view this is extremely shocking, because we associate ugliness with evil and beauty with goodness: just think of the idealized images of Christian saints and angels. And it has taken us a long time to find information to shed some light on this mystery. So, here is what we have come up with.
Apparently, the first famous portraits of Arhats were painted by the Chinese monk, painter, poet, and calligrapher Guanxiu (貫休 / Guànxiū) in 891 CE. Guanxiu started his career during the Tang dynasty, in what has often been described as a golden age for literature and the arts.
However, the Tang dynasty had been in decline for some time and eventually collapsed in 907, which meant that many artists lost their patrons.
For this reason, Guanxiu fled to the city of Chengdu in 901, where something like a miniature Tang court still existed and where Wang Jian, the founding emperor of the Former Shu (one of the Ten Kingdoms formed during the chaotic period between the rules of the Tang and Song dynasties) took him in and gave him the honorific title Great Master of the Chan Moon.
The Legend Of Guanxiu’s painting skills
Legend has it that the Arhats had heard about Guanxiu’s painting skills and appeared to him in a dream and asked him to paint their portraits. In the paintings, the Arhats are portrayed as foreigners with bushy eyebrows, large eyes, hanging cheeks and high noses. Moreover, they look unkempt, shabby and eccentric. By showing them like this, it seems that Guanxiu wanted to emphasize that they were like outsiders, vagabonds and beggars; beings who had left all worldly desires behind.
Following Guanxiu’s example, the Chan painters, as they became known, continued representing Arhats with exaggerated and almost perverse features, accentuating their decrepit, skeletal bodies and bony faces, as well as their advanced age.
Although Guanxiu’s portraits remained extremely important in Chinese Buddhist iconography, over time, the Arhats started to look less foreign, though no less eccentric.
Art historian Max Loehr on Guanxiu’s Arhats
According to art historian Max Loehr, Guanxiu’s Arhats represent the physical incarnation of the persecution Buddhists suffered in eighth-century China; a persecution that almost wiped out the Buddhist establishment. Their tormented faces make the Arhats look like survivors of death and destruction.
However, given that Chinese artists had been painting and sculpting expressive and powerful Arhats for centuries, it seems unlikely that either Guanxiu’s uncommon talent or religious persecution alone can account for the grotesque images that fascinate us so. Cultural differences between East and West must play a part too.
In a fascinating blog post dating from 2009, the Argentinian cartoonist and illustrator Enrique (Quique) Alcatena, who apparently finds much of his inspiration in mythology, explains that in Asian cultures the ferocious, wild looks of the Arhats are recognized as a symbol of the superhuman strength of these illuminated beings and their determination to crush darkness and evil.
In fact, the Arhats need to look fearsome if they want to inspire fear in devils and other forces of evil and keep them at bay.
The Destruction of the Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu donated his paintings to the Shengyin Temple in Qiantang (in present day Hangzhou) where they were preserved with great care and ceremonious respect. The Shengyin Temple was destroyed duing the Taiping Rebellion (1850 1864). However, the Qianlong Emperor (Qing Dynasty) , who visted the Shengyin Temple in 1757, was so impressed by the paintings that he managed to have copies made and what exist now are those copies and copies (rubbings) of those copies.
Another set of sixteen Arhats is preserved in the Japanese Imperial Household Collection. This collection bears an inscription dated to 894. It states Guanxiu began the set while living in Lanxi, Zhejiang province.
The Longsheng Rice Terraces are a real marvel. These stunning rice terraces also known as the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces offer travellers a great opportunity to do some hiking and visit some fascinating minority villages. The main ethnic group here are the Zhuang, but there are also a number of Yao villages in the area.
Many of the Yao ladies still wear traditional, colourful clothes and heavy jewellery and they pride themselves on their hair, which may well be some of the longest you’ll ever see.
The Zhuang Village of Ping’an is the main village of the area, as well as the most easily accessible.
It’s is a pretty collection of wooden houses, connected by stone paths and set right in the middle of the rice terraces. When we were there, a new road was being built and a couple of new hotels were under construction, fortunately in traditional style.The Longsheng Rice Terraces:
The Longsheng Rice Terraces: Hiking
Many small paths leave from the village, going off in all directions. One of the nicest is to head up above Ping’an and walk around the high ridge, passing smaller settlements which offer spectacular views over the terraces. The contrast between the green rice paddies and the ubiquitous red chillies adds to the beauty.
The Longsheng Rice Terraces: Minority Villages
The walk from Ping’an to Dazai village makes for a great day trip. According to locals, the rice terraces at Dazai are even more impressive than those around Ping’an but, unfortunately, we never got to see them.
We were heading in that direction when we were waylaid by a local Yao lady who insisted on taking us to her village, about two thirds of the way to Dazai, for lunch.
The Longsheng Rice Terraces: Kidnapped for lunch goodbye Dazai
Most of the meal she picked straight from the mountainside and the bushes along the path, as she escorted us to her house, a large, rambling wooden structure on stilts.
Here we squatted on low wooden benches, scrutinised by the curious members of her family and with chickens pecking at our feet, while the lady prepared our lunch, for which we had agreed to pay 30 Yuan.
The food was not bad at all, especially the wild mountain vegetables. After lunch, we went for a walk around the village, which was very poor indeed.
Though the houses were huge, they were virtually empty, with only the most rudimentary cooking and farming implements.
Moreover, the streets and the open spaces underneath the houses were filthy and covered in garbage. The wealth gap between the richer Zhuang villages, such as Ping’an, and the poorer Yao villages was quite evident.
Such was our delay over lunch that we decided not to push on to Dazai. This turned out to be a wise decision because, just as we were arriving at Ping’an, a huge summer storm engulfed the entire rice terraces and the torrential rain didn’t remit until late the following day.
However, for those who wish to do the whole walk, the stone path is quite easy to follow and extremely attractive, passing through deep forest, beautiful flowery meadows and, of course, plenty of rice terraces.
Accommodation and food:
We stayed and ate in a small family-run hotel in Ping’an, aptly called the Ping’an hotel. It had clean rooms, a nice dining room and veranda and shared bathrooms, all for 25 Yuan a night.
There were already several such hostels in Ping’an and more were going up all the time. Entrepreneurs from as far away as Yangshuo had started competing with the local family hotels.
At the time, Ping’an was the only village with accommodation, though nowadays Dazai 大寨, and other villages such as Tiantouzhai 田头寨, have guesthouses and hotels too; some with amazing views.
Small buses run regularly throughout the day from the bus station at Longsheng to the parking area, a 20 minute walk from Ping’an village.
In 2003 all vehicles had to be left here and an entry ticket to the whole rice terrace area had to be purchased. All this may now have changed, as the new road we saw being constructed, was meant to go right up to the village.
Guilin to Longji High Speed
Guilin is now firmly on the high speed network so getting to the Longsheng Rice Terraces is pretty easy.
It still takes around 2.5 hours by bus from Guilin to the terraces and you still have to walk the last part if you come by local bus from Guilin.
Onward Travel: It takes about 2 hours from Longsheng to reach Songjiang and then another 20 or 30 minutes to get to Chengyang and its marvellous bridges.
Zhaoxing, the ultimate Dong village is must for anyone interested in Dong minority architecture and culture. And even if Zhaoxing has become somewhat tamer and more touristy since we visited, it is still a gem you cannot miss if you are travelling in these parts.
Zhaoxing: The Ultimate Dong Village: About the black and white photos
These are real black and white photos taken using a cheap black and white film i picked up in Beijing. The colour photos are from later in the day and the following day after changing rolls.
The ride from Songjiang to Zhaoxing takes around 5 hours: first the road hugs the shores of a broad river with quite a bit of river traffic, before becoming an unsealed road that winds its way up and down over the mountains (see update at the end of the article). There are ample vistas of shiny, undulating rice terraces, narrow valleys, distant drum towers and covered bridges.
Zhaoxing is one of the few towns in China whose beauty you will never forget. It’s a traditional Dong town, entirely built of wood, with 5 drum towers, an equal number of theatre stages and arcaded streets.
Zhaoxing: The Ultimate Dong Village
In 2003 the town remained completely intact and authentic; there wasn’t a white tile building in sight (apart from the local school on the edge of down), nor had they carried out any of those tacky reforms aimed at the tourist trade. There were just a couple of guesthouses, small restaurants and one or two tasteful shops, selling antiques, rustic farm implements and ethnic clothes.
The town is extremely compact with a clearly defined beginning and end. The main street is bustling with vegetable and meat stalls and there are chillies everywhere; fresh chillies, chillies being dried, pounded, ground or preserved.
Update 1: Thunder Mountain chillies
Since our vist to Zhaoxing I have become a great fan of chillies and cultivating them too. Looking again at these photos I am more and more convinced that the chillies they are selling are the famous Thunder Mountain (Leigong Shan) Chillies grown in Guizhou. They are said to be the longest chillies in the world and their seeds are sought after by chilli freaks like me. My only doubt is that they look a little thicker than Thunder Mountain Chillies,
There is a busy traffic of carts, pulled by shiny, well looked-after little horses, bringing in fresh produce. Villagers from the surrounding countryside are ferried into town in jam-packed minivans, or piled high on pick-up trucks.
Set back from the main street there are several squares, some centred around imposing and elaborately decorated Drum Towers, others set by small theatre stages where local opera performances still take place, especially in June.
Zhaoxing: The Ultimate Dong Village: Chilling Out
Locals, mostly elderly people and grannies looking after babies, occupy the benches underneath the Drum Towers, or lining the streets, and while away the hours.
One of the funniest sights we saw, was an old man un-harnessing his horse in front of his little house, unlocking the door and walking straight in … with the animal!
As for its surroundings, Zhaoxing is set in a deep valley, enclosed by rice terraces and forests on all sides.
As in many parts of Guizhou, especially in summer, the sky is often dull and grey, which lends a slightly gloomy atmosphere to the countryside. Yet, occasionally a ray of sunlight breaks through the clouds and ignites the rice paddies into a blaze of bright green, completely transforming the ambience.
Climbing up the rice terraces behind Zhaoxing, you will be rewarded with marvellous views over the whole town. This way, you’ll be able to fully appreciate its completeness and uniqueness.
For further exploration, there are many paths leading out of the village towards other, smaller, but equally beautiful Dong settlements such as Jitang and Tang’an. The local guesthouses can provide maps and recommendations for hikes to surrounding villages.
Accommodation and Food:
We stayed at Lulu’s Homestay, a small hostel run by a friend of the owner of the Chengyang Bridge National Hostel and located right behind one of the Drum Towers. He must have rung ahead, as the daughter of Mr Lu, who spoke a little English, was waiting for us at the bus stop when we arrived.
Rooms in the three-storey wooden house are clean and simple, with a shared bathroom, and internet access is available. The family also made very good food, with plenty of fresh vegetables and large portions. They were in the process of building a much larger wooden guesthouse, just a few doors away.
At the time there was another, more upmarket hostel, with a restaurant and a shop selling ethnic clothing and souvenirs, near the main street.
Onward Travel & Update:
In 2003 we continued from Zhaoxing to Kaili. To do this we took an early morning bus, at approximately 7 o’clock to Liping (one to one and a half hours) and then changed buses for Kaili, which took another eight hours.
However, we could have interrupted our journey in Rongjiang – a town we finally ended up visiting this summer – in 2007.
The high-speed train that runs between Guangzhou and Guiyang makes getting to Zhaoxing faster. The closest stops are Sanjiang or Congjiang. Congjiang station is much closer and is less than 10 kms way from Zhaoxing. Regular buses connect Conjiang Railway Staion to Zhaoxing and cost around 2 Yuan.
From Sanjiang there is a toll road motorway that reduces travelling time to around one and a half hours. Buses may take longer as the usually take the old road to stop at other towns along the way. I fondly remmeber the 5 hour ride in 2003 as it passed through some beautiful river and mountain scenery.
Yangmei: So near yet so far! Only 30 kilometres separate the modern, green and dynamic city of Nanning, capital of the Zhuang Autonomous Province of Guangxi, from the ancient village of Yangmei. However, the differences between the two places are so great that they might as well exist on other planets.
The smart motorway leaving Nanning runs out after about 10 kilometres, when the buses takes an abrupt turn into a country lane. The rest of the journey takes an incredible 2 hours, as the bus passes through local markets, gets stuck in a traffic jam of three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaws, makes a slow river crossing on a rusty ferry and stops at every village on the way, delivering passengers and parcels.
Yangmei: So near yet so far! It takes a long time to get there
The scenery is rural and pretty. Most of the people in this area belong to the ethnic group of the Zhuang, which is virtually indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese, both in physical appearance and dress. They earn their livelihood from the cultivation of sugar cane and bananas. You can see ample evidence of the latter as the bus makes its way through the endless plantations that stretch along both sides of the road for as far as the eye can see.
Yangmei might have been like many other rural villages in China, abandoned by its population, heading for the cities, and fallen into oblivion. Fortunately, Yangmei has been saved by its incredible collection of Ming and Qing courtyard houses in grey brick and its fantastic setting on the bend of a river, amidst sub-tropical countryside.
What is even more incredible is that so far it hasn’t been converted into some kind of Qing-Ming dynasty theme park, like so many other, once beautiful and charming villages in China.
Yangmei: So near yet so far! Authentic Character
For the moment, the village preserves its authentic character; local people still live in many of the buildings you can visit and the majority of the population is involved in agriculture, rather than the tourist trade.
A couple of grannies selling hand-sewn miniature shoes and stuffed, cloth butterflies and a couple of open-air restaurants by the river, seem to be Yangmei’s main concession to tourism.
The village has no great sights as such. It is just a nice place to wander around for a few hours and soak up a bit of the old China. Wooden signs show visitors where to find the old Ming and Qing dynasty mansions, tucked away down narrow alleys, or set around lotus ponds. Many of Yangmei’s early residents came from Shandong Province which is why a lot of the old Ming and Qing buildings were built in the sturdy northern style.
Local people, most of them advanced in years, congregate in the courtyards or the village’s small flagstone squares, where they smoke pipes and play Mah-jong. Some try their luck at fishing in the ponds.
Apart from the mansions, there are also a number of temples scattered around, most of them undergoing serious restoration, as they were badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution.
Being Imortalized in Yangmei
The Confucian temple, just outside the village, seems to have discovered a novel way of collecting funds for its renovation, by offering visitors the opportunity to be immortalized on its memorial plaques.
For ten Yuan you can have your name and country engraved in a slab of black marble by a venerable old grandfather in a blue peasant jacket, Mao style, and thick spectacles. These plaques are then used to cover the walls and doors of the temple, providing a kind of stone visitors’ book.
After a few hours of wandering around, one tends to get a bit peckish. Near the river there are a couple of family-run restaurants that specialize in local products.
Yangmei: So near yet so far! What to eat
River fish is the favourite and can be cooked in a number of ways. The tasty food, cold beer and shady riverside location all make for a pleasant way to while away the rest of the afternoon, until it’s time to catch the last bus back to Nanning at four o’clock sharp.
If you like bananas, you should do what all visitors from Nanning do and stock up on a couple of bunches! Another famous local product are the pots of homemade pickles that can turn the ride back to Nanning into a rather pungent experience.
Coming and Going:
Buses for Yangmei leave from an obscure small local bus station in Nanning, about ten minutes from the train station. Walk down Chaoyang Lu, go past the Yinhe Hotel, go down one block, take the first street on the right and then turn right again, into Huaqiang Lu: the bus station is next to house number 198. Buses seemed to leave every 1½ hours, with the first one at 8.50. The last bus back to Nanning is at 16.00. Count on about two hours for the 30km trip.
Places to stay:
We saw at least one basic local guesthouse that would probably be okay for a night. Moreover, a new small hotel, in keeping with the local style of architecture, looked as if it would be opening soon.
Places to eat:
The restaurants by the river offer the best eating possibilities. Good fresh fish, taken straight from the tanks, is the best choice. Meat eaters might like to try the local chickens, all of which looked pretty big and healthy.
Mysterious Mugecuo Lake is located around 25 kilometres to the north of Kanding, in China’s Sichuan Province. At a height of 3700 metres above sea level it is actually one of the highest lakes in this part of Sichuan. Mugecuo is a really a series of small lakes, that has become collectively known as Mugecuo.
The road up to the lake is beautiful, especially the final part that follows a gushing river. One spot on the way up marks the scenic place that inspired the writing of the famous Kangding Love Song.
Mysterious Mugecuo Lake: Enshrouded in Mist
Once you enter the lake area you find yourself in a mystic and magical landscape that is more often than not, enshrouded in a deep impenetrable mist. The lakes are encircled by pine forests, huge cedars and ancient gnarled trees, with ´hairy´ threads of vegetation hanging off them. Furthermore, there are forests of rhododendron trees everywhere.
The day we visited a swirling mist had surged up from the lake causing the water to take on a deep dark green menacing look. Occasionally the mist would break, and for a few seconds the lake became a placid and friendly blue green.
As you hike around the lake, you’ll bump in to nomads on horse back. Some of these nomads set up temporary settlements near the lakes with some refreshments tents during in the high season.
Coming and Going:
There is no public transport; you can hire a taxi from Kanding for about 200 Yuan. Make sure you are prepared for abrupt changes in temperature and weather; it can snow here even in summer.
Our driver was a rather drunk- jolly fellow and nearly killed us all when returning to Kangding. We forgave him a as nothing happened.
These days Mugecuo lake is more touristy than when we visited. However, most day tippers stick to the entrance area. There are plenty of hiking opportunities and if you take your own equippment and just keep going , you’ll end up on the Taggong Grasslands. Be aware, the mist and the thick forest make getting lost a real possibilitity!
Getting to the Saturday market at the Bai village of Wase wasn’t as easy as we had first thought. Most people in Xizhou , the town on the opposite side of Lake Erhai where we were staying, had told us that there was no ferry and that we should try to get to Wase by hopping on and off the numerous buses that go around the lake.
To make matters more complicated, none of the locals agreed as to whether it was better to go round the North, or the South way. Only the owner of the Golden FlowerRestaurant on the central square of Xizhou was convinced that there was a boat.
On Saturday we got up early and tried our luck on the road, waving our arms energetically at any north-bound bus, but to no avail. In desperation, we tried asking about the ferry again. The first man I approached categorically denied the existence of any boat.
A second man was equally adamant that there was indeed a boat, and he was backed up by a number of local Bai women, who happened to be passing by. According to them, there was a ferry leaving at 9.00 from the pier at the village we thought was called Huoyijia, about 2 kilometres away. I think now the village was called Jiangshan Cun.
“How do we get there?” I asked with a certain urgency, because it was by now 8.50! They called over a young man on a motorbike with a trailer behind. We quickly agreed on a price and hopped on.
A trip to Wase Market: Missing the Boat
Unfortunately, the dirt road from Xizhou to Huoyijia/Jiangshan Cun is nothing but a series of bumps and craters; in short, more dirt than road. In order for the trailer not to overturn, the driver had to engage in endless manoeuvres, which reduced our speed to a snail’s pace.
Soon we found ourselves being overtaken by smiling children and cheerful old ladies on bicycles. If there was such a thing as a boat, only unpunctuality would help us catch it!
At 9.07 our trailer finally made it to the quay, where we could only stand and stare in disillusionment and disbelief at the ferry, fading away into the distance across the lake. It was a classical example of the implacable working of ‘Murphy’s Law’! It would eventually take a further two hours, two buses and a taxi, following the southern route this time, to get to Wase, and its lively and interesting Saturday Market.
A trip to Wase Market: Brushing Shoulders with the Bai
We were dropped off at the top of a narrow alley, leading into town. The alley was chock-a-block with fruit sellers and donkey parking lots, with piles of wooden yokes and saddles stacked up breast high.
When we managed to shoulder our way through the crowds, we emerged onto a large square, near the boat pier, with hundreds of stalls, mostly selling an amazing array of fruit and vegetables. The only souvenir stalls in town, selling batiks and ethnic embroidery, are located here as well.
The square is a buzzing, but friendly hive of activity, with hundreds of colourful Bai women pushing and shoving backwards and forwards, using the huge wicker baskets they carry on their backs as buffers.
A trip to Wase Market: A lot of Haggling
Cries of haggling fill the air as produce is picked up, inspected and either exchanged for money, or tossed contemptuously back onto the pile it came from.
As usual, men seem to be in short supply; they are mainly found peacefully smoking a pipe, or playing cards in one of the packed restaurants on either side of the square.
Moving on from the square, the market continues down the main street for at least another kilometre. Here you can stock up on household goods, such as plastic buckets, scoops and ladles, iron woks and other cooking pots and pans, wicker baskets, brooms, colourful balls of wool and lengths of cloth.
More exotic items include the embroidered parts of headdresses and belts, embroidered shoes, silver jewellery, or even wedding dresses.
For all the variety, there was one item we missed at Wase market: the large, odd shaped bamboo fish traps that abounded around Lake Erhai, fifteen years ago. Perhaps they have been replaced by the more modern nylon fishing nets that we often saw stretched out along the lake shore.
Apart from the stalls, there is the usual varied collection of street artisans and other ‘professionals’, such as dentists, hairdressers and ear cleaners. Eventually the market finishes at a small animal market where chickens and pigs come to meet their end.
What is curious about this market is that it not only provides for the living, but for the ghosts of the dead as well. There are several stalls selling paper clothes, shoes, houses and other luxury articles; all presumably meant to make ‘life’ in the after world more pleasant. One stall in particular was selling the most exquisite miniature paper shoes, and the Bai ladies were buying them by the bag-full.
At one point we were drawn away from the main street by a large group of middle-aged and ancient ladies, sitting on wooden benches, singing and tapping small wooden instruments.
To one side, there were several other grannies, busy folding and burning coloured pieces of paper. When we asked them what they were doing they explained that they were singing, or praying, to the dead and burning prayers. It was apparently the auspicious and appropriate time of the month for doing this.
Location: Wase is situated on the eastern side of Lake Erhai, about 350 kilometres north of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Apparently, the Wase market used to take place every 5 days, but it is now held on Saturday mornings, and runs well into the afternoon.
Besides the obvious attraction of the market, the town is full of wonderful traditional Bai homes and mansions, characterised by their sturdy adobe walls and painted doorways.
There are numerous other markets in the various Bai villages around Lake Erhai. The most famous and popular is the Monday market at Shaping, about 33 kilometres from Dali.
Even in January 1991, Shaping market was already pretty touristy, though interesting. These days, Wase’s Saturday market hasn’t been swamped by the tourist hordes from Dali yet.
Coming and Going
we can personally vouch for the existence of a boat that leaves from the pier at Huoyijia village / jiangshan Cun, on the western side of the lake near Xizhou, at 9.00 on Saturdays (at least in 2006 it existed). According to locals, it departs again sometime between 12.00 and 14.00.
People in Wase were far from unanimous in confirming that the last boat returns to Huoyijia / Jiangshan Cun at 17.00. We didn’t stay around to risk it, as the last bus back to Xiaguan is at 16.00. If you are staying in Dali, you might be able to organise a boat over (we saw one tour group getting to Wase that way), but expect to pay through the nose, unless you are in a large group.
if you are staying in Xizhou (far more recommendable than Dali), or anywhere else around the Lake, you can get to Wase by bus in both directions, though locals advised us to take the southern route via Xiaguan rather than the northern route via Jiangwei, because buses are more frequent.
The trick is to take any passing bus to Xiaguan, where you will be dropped off at the western bus station. From there, you can take a local bus or taxi (6 Yuan) to the eastern bus station, from where there are regular departures to towns and villages along the eastern part of the Lake, including Wase.
The Journey from Xiaguan to Wase takes about an hour and a half. The new road opened in 2006 means that from Haidong onwards, the bus skirts the lake shore all the way, thus avoiding the laborious inland route that climbed over and around the mountains.
As a result, the views of Lake Erhai and the Island of Putuo Dao from the bus are excellent. The last bus back to Xiaguan is at 16.00. From Xiaguan to Xizhou there are buses until at least 19.00.
Places to Eat:
After a couple of hours of wandering around, its worth stopping for lunch in one of the restaurants around the main square.
The local fish from the lake is particularly good, especially the deep-fried fish strips in batter. Some of the restaurants are quite used to dealing with foreigners, as they are frequented by tour groups, boated over in style from Dali.
Places to stay:
There is apparently a government guesthouse in Wase, though we are not sure whether we saw it. The courtyard restaurant on the left-hand side of the square (facing the water), which is where we ate, may have doubled up as a guesthouse, but we are not sure.
Bakong Tibetan Scripture Printing Lamasery Degeis not the only reason to come to this remote area of China’s Sichuan Province. There are plenty of other things to see and do. It is however, the end of the road for non- Chinese travellers. Tibet is so close but yet so far.
A bit of a Shock on arrival
The town, we must admit, came as a bit of a shock at first. Having travelled so far, to such a remote place, only to find ourselves in yet another dusty white-tile frontier town, full of hooting traffic, smoking exhausts and blaring radios was not quite what we were expecting.
The only hotel in town had even incorporated a karaoke cum disco in its rapidly deteriorating “new wing”: even though this part of the hotel was only one or two years old, there were cigarette burns in the carpets, peanut shells and pips littering the floor, and stains everywhere.
It wasn’t until the next day that we discovered the delights of the small old town, which houses a number of interesting and beautiful temples, converting Dege in a vibrant place, dominated by the wine-red robes of the monks and the exotic attire of the numerous pilgrims, circumambulating the temples and shrines.
Bakong Tibetan Scripture Printing Lamasery Dege
The jewel in Dege’s crown is undoubtedly the Bakong Scripture Printing Lamasery.
This monastery, whose printing press was built in 1729 and is still operative, holds an important part of Tibet’s history and heritage. The building itself is quite imposing; its walls are painted brick-red, with a decorative rim of dark-brown twigs pressed into one solid layer, while the flat roofs are topped by golden birds, bells and turrets.
Groups of wild-looking pilgrims with unkempt long braids and wrapped in Tibetan greatcoats move clockwise around the outside.
Nearby, groups of monastery workers, most of them women, their index fingers protected by leather thimbles, are busy making wood pulp from thin strips of shredded wood, while others are wetting finished sheets of paper to soften them and prepare them for use.
Inside the print, nothing much has changed for centuries: there are still over a 100 workers, more than 210,000 stored wood-block printing plates, and no mechanization to speak of; so far the monastery has even avoided electricity for fear of fire.
The wood-block texts
The wood-block texts in the library cum storeroom include works on astronomy, Tibetan traditional medicine, geography and music, as well as important treatises on Buddhism. The most valuable item in the collection consists of 555 blocks, detailing the history of Buddhism in India, in Hindu, Urdu and Tibetan.
The oldest blocks are carved into precious woods that are no longer available. In the past, carvers were only allowed to produce one line of text a day, for reasons of clarity.
At the end of the day, their work would be remunerated by putting gold dust on the blocks and then wiping it off. All the gold that remained in the openings, lines and spaces was for the carvers. Obviously, the deeper and clearer they carved, the more they would earn.
The printers, who are mostly young men, work in groups of three, moving like well-oiled cogs in a machine: one of them places the paper in the wooden contraption used for printing and holds it in place, the other one inks the wood-block and presses it down on the paper.
The third one is in charge of fetching the correct blocks, collecting and sorting the finished prints, as well as plying the printers with tea. The printed text appears quickly, at a speed of about one page every four seconds.
However, given that many of the sacred texts, such as the Tengzur, a 46,521 page collection of 14th-century scholastic commentaries on Buddhism, are extremely long, it can take one team of workers roughly a month to produce just one copy.
Bakong Tibetan Scripture Printing Lamasery Dege
In the open-air courtyards, which are surrounded by beautifully painted columns and galleries, older men are busy washing the ink off used printing blocks, mixing paint, or proofreading and checking finished texts and storing them away.
Just by being there and observing the process, you can appreciate how fragile Tibet’s heritage is. That the monastery survived the ravages of the cultural revolution is a miracle in itself!
Moreover, the fact that the whole interior of the building, the library and its irreplaceable collection of printing blocks are made of wood, make it extremely vulnerable to fire. One careless mistake or loose spark and it could all go up in smoke.
The vulnerability of the monastery is one of the reasons you can only visit by guided tour. Unfortunately, most of the guides are elderly men with only the most rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin, who will herd you through far too quickly.
An Amazing Guide
However, there are exceptions. We were extremely lucky to be guided by a lovely young Tibetan girl who had actually studied Tibetan culture at a Minorities University and who was completely dedicated to her work.
She explained that most of the print workers are locals who spend their whole life there, starting with the physically taxing work of printing itself, and gradually moving on to lighter tasks as they get older.
They all need to be literate, up to an extent, in order to carry out their tasks well. In winter, when work at the print comes to a standstill, due to the bitter cold which freezes the ink, and makes the printers’ hands clumsy, many of them spend time at their family farms.
We spent over two hours with her, eventually going up to the top floor where a few ancient monks were making coloured picture prints on cloth and valuable parchment, of which we purchased several, and finally climbing onto the roof, from where there are splendid views over the town. Printing blocks that have been washed are covered in yak butter and laid out to dry here.
Other Monasteries in Dege
Just beyond the Bakong monastery, there are several other lamaseries that are well worth exploring: there are temples, residential blocks set in flower gardens, communal kitchens and primitive outdoor latrines. Groups of monks in flowing robes and child novices in yellow tunics and trousers move between the buildings.
At mealtimes you can see them with their bowls and utensils in hand, lining up at the kitchens or dining halls. Overall, they are extremely friendly and welcoming and don’t seem to mind posing for the odd photo, as long as you don’t overdo it.
Dege Ganchen Baden Lundru Ding Temple
One of the monasteries, the Dege Ganchen Baden Lundru Ding Temple (though this seems to be just one of many names given to it), has a particularly imposing main hall with tall pillars, colourful wall hangings and thankas, big painted drums and large but serene statues of the Buddha.
Where the monastic town ends, an idyllic rustic village takes over, with Tibetan farmsteads, haystacks and vegetable patches. Beyond that, fertile fields, small streams and an endless expanse of countryside.
At the time of writing, the best hotel in town was the “Que Er Shan”, opposite the “Dege Binguan” and run by the same management. In the “Dege Binguan”, double rooms are only Yuan 50, with pay-showers outside, while the “Que Er Shan” charges Yuan 180, no haggling admitted. Despite the slightly run-down feel of the hotel, rooms are quite large and bright, beds are comfy and the showers are piping hot at night. Just make sure your room isn’t too close to the Karaoke.
There are plenty of small, hole-in-the-wall type eateries in town, some of the best run by Han-Chinese and specialising in Sichuan food. Up on a sloping street, just above the hotel, is the “Rhong Zhong Bros Restaurant”, run by a nice young couple from Chengdu; its specialty are potato pancakes and they have a basic menu in English. Other options include Tibetan and Muslim food.
Dege even boasts an upstairs Internet café, on the main street leading to the Bakong monastery, on the left-hand side as you are heading towards the monastery, which is popular with the younger generation. Keep your eyes open for pickpockets though.
The manager of the “Que Er Shan” can help you to rent vehicles for excursions further afield. We paid Yuan 450 for an old jeep, plus driver for the day. A much more comfortable brand-new Mitsubishi would have cost us Yuan 1,000. In retrospect, given the state of the roads, plus the state of our backsides after the ride, the Mitsubishi would have been worth it.
The Dege bus station is nothing like its Ganzi counterpart. Every time we tried to buy tickets, we had found it closed. Eventually, we asked the hotel manager of the “Que Er Shan” to book the tickets for us. Daily buses for Ganzi leave around 7 o’clock in the morning, and they are mostly old beasts. Make sure you have a reserved seat as the bus does fill up.
There is a daily bus to Chamdo in Tibet 7.00 but as the Tibetan border is still closed to individual travellers, your options for continuing your journey are the following:
To Baiyu 白玉
If you want to avoid risking the Chola Pass for a second time,you can hire a vehicle or share a mini bus from Dege to the Monastery town of Baiyu. The road follows the Jinsha Rvier with Tibet proper on the other side. The must see sight here is the Pelyul Gompa 白玉寺 (Baiyu Si) which is also a Tibetan printing monastery.
In Baiyu there is accommodation, food, and onward travel to Ganzi. If you set out early enough with your own transport (jeep), you can take in the spectacular and remote Palpung Monastery (click here).
You can backtrack to Ganzi and eventually make your way back to Chengdu from there. There is even a direct bus linking Ganzi to Chengdu, though we wouldn’t recommend it.
This bus leaves Ganzi at 6.15 in the morning and takes 11 hours to get to Kanding, driving steadily and without any delays. However, once you get past Kanding, night falls and road conditions worsen. We found ourselves driving down pitch-black windy mountain roads, overtaking vehicles on blind corners and going faster than even modern passenger cars. Terrified, we repeatedly shouted at the driver to slow down, to the amusement of the Chinese passengers, who didn’t seem to share our sense of doom.
Eventually, after 19 hours on the bus, the last 7 of which were extremely stressful, we pulled in at Chengdu bus station. If we ever had to do it again, we would definitely stop for the night in Kanding.
The road between Kangding and Chengdu is now is much improved and the journey a breeze.
To Yushu / Serxu
Secondly, you can backtrack from Dege to Manigango and change buses, or go all the way to Ganzi if you want to be sure of a seat, or don’t fancy spending a night in Manigango.
Next you can head for Serxu, and then Yushu in Qinghai province. From there, you can make your way slowly to Xining, the capital of the province. There are some important monasteries close to Xining, such as Tongren and Ta Er Si, and the city is linked by rail to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The journey only takes 4 hours on a fast train.
Finally, you might want to continue your journey by moving into Yunnan province. In order to do this, you need to get back to Kanding first. From there, you make your way to Litang, then Xiangcheng – where you most likely will have to spend the night – and eventually Zhongdian in Yunnan.
Ganzi 甘孜 to Manigango (Manigange 马尼干戈) and onto Dege 德格 Over the Chola Pass 雀儿山
Ganzi to Manigango and onto Degeis a journey you will never forget. As the crow flies, it’s not that far from Ganzi to Dege, the last town before the Tibetan border and home to the famous Bakong Scripture Printing Lamasery. However, separating the two towns is the forbidding 5,400 meter Chola Pass 雀儿山, one of the highest roads in the world.
As we approached Manigango, after about two-and-a-half hours, the scenery became more dramatic and we could see Khampas on horse-back herding yaks, and nomad settlements dotting the pastures.
Although horses are still the predominant means of transport for the Khampas, motorbikes are gaining in popularity, even out on these remote grasslands, judging by the number of bikes whizzing past the bus with two, three and even four people on them.
Welcome to Manigango
On entering Manigango for our lunch break, the sky suddenly turned black and the heavens unleashed a tremendous downpour, which left the muddy streets even muddier.
If any town ever looked like a Wild West one-street film set, then Manigango was it. For many Sichuanese, the name Manigango is associated with wild bandits robbing and even killing Chinese and Western tourists alike.
It does appear that until recently a problem of security did exist around these parts. However, on arriving there, the town seemed quiet enough.
In August 2004, Manigango had only one mucky street, and one vile public toilet, located in a crumbling wooden shack, just off the building site for a new hotel.
There was quite a decent restaurant at the bus stop, with lots of boiling cauldrons, dishing out some rather tasty food. To get to the restaurant however, was another matter: passengers had to jump over puddles, avoid roaming yaks and run the gauntlet of an army of beggars that attached themselves to every incoming bus.
Next to the restaurant, another large hotel was under construction, most likely a sign of the times: Manigango seemed to be gearing up to becoming something of a tourist town.
What’s more, it’s quite likely that it will succeed; the town may not be much, but the surrounding scenery is fantastic and a mere 20 kilometres away on the road to Dege is the Xinluhai lake, one of the most beautiful and pristine in China.
For the time being, we were merely content to find something to eat, a place to pee – of sorts – and leave muddy Manigango and its beggars behind. The bus started to climb steadily over the grasslands, huge snow-capped mountains came into view and suddenly the Xinluhai lake appeared before us.
The lake is set in alpine meadows, dotted with pine trees, that slope steeply towards the turquoise waters. On one side, there is a dramatic backdrop of threatening grey, jagged peaks and a glacier that comes all the way down.
After the lake, the bus started the huge ascent up to the Chola Pass. Going up from Manigango is not so bad, as your bus is on the inside and you cannot see the precipice down below you. This is especially important when having to pass an oncoming truck, or overtake one that has broken down. Eventually, our packed bus crawled to the top, and all the Tibetans on board cheered and celebrated by throwing hundreds of paper prayers out of the window. We were ready to join them, having bought some in Ganzi for the occasion.
Once the bus has made it over the pass, the rest of the journey is a piece of cake. We just rolled downhill for two hours, through deep pine valleys and following gushing mountain rivers until we pulled up at the crummy bus station in downtown Dege.
Returning back over the Chola Pass in sleet and snow was far worse!
Five years later we came through Manigango again on our way from Yushu (just before the earthquake) to Ganzi. Somethings had improved. We overnighted at the Manigange Pani Hotel, then still the only option. Unfornutately, this was one of the worst nights of my life as I was suffering from servere Altitude Sickness that I had come down with in Yushu. These days there are other accommodation options in Manigango that might be better than Pani Hotel.
Litang; China’s Wild West maybe a little tamer these days as transport connections improve and the authorities build more tourists facilities. However, it is still a place for great adventures in Western Sichuan’s wild Tibetan lands.
The journey to Litang from Kangding takes about 7 or 8 hours ( a little less these days weather permitting) and takes you through some pretty rural scenery.
For the first two hours or so, the bus goes through farming land and past some gorgeous two-or three-storey Tibetan farmhouses; these are sturdy stone and wood dwellings with a courtyard and flat roofs for drying chillies, grains and vegetables, quite often surrounded by a wall.
Incongruously, many of the farmsteads sport satellite dishes these days and some have been converted into guesthouses.
Later on, the bus moves through higher and hillier scenery, where meadows and small woodlands alternate and you start seeing herds of yaks. Eventually, you hit the high plateau, where Litang is situated.
Litang, sitting in a wide valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains at an incredible altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level, is literally China’s Wild West.
Litang China’s Wild West: The Town in two Parts
It is a frontier town, on the fringes of government control and full of wild people. As soon as you step off the bus, you will feel the altitude: what with the weight of our backpacks and the lack of oxygen, it seemed that our lungs and head would explode.
Like all the towns in the Tibetan areas of Western Sichuan, Litang is divided between a new Chinese town and the old Tibetan quarter. Recently, huge numbers of Chinese have been encouraged to migrate from the low-lying areas of the Sichuan basin to the Tibetan highlands, with the promise of jobs and business opportunities.
The Chinese part offers the traveller food and accommodation facilities that only a few years ago didn’t exist.
However, it is the Tibetan town that holds all the interest: it is a fascinating maze of Medieval-looking mud-alleys lined by sturdy, traditional Tibetan homes, and dominated by the sprawling monastery complex on a hill overlooking the town .
Open gutters run through the middle of the streets, and a central well provides water for most of the households. Tibetan ladies gather there to fill their buckets, or wash their hair or clothes.
Litang China’s Wild West: The Chöde Gompa
The Chöde Gompa is a huge rambling place, complete with courtyards, halls, temples, surrounded and overlooked by dark wooden galleries decorated with paintings you can barely make out in the semi-darkness, kitchens and sleeping quarters for the monks.
On our visit, we found everything open, but not a soul in sight; not even to sell us a ticket.
Back in the new town, there are several markets, shops and food stalls to keep you entertained.
Trendy Khampa youngsters on decorated motorbikes race up and down the main street, sporting huge sunglasses and leather jackets and flashing golden teeth; while their more conservative counterparts still prefer to ride into town on horseback.
Litang: Sky Burials
What is a Sky Burial
Litang China’s Wild West, has in recent years become an increasingly popular destination to observe Sky Burials, Tibetan funeral rites. Sky burials are the way Tibetans have been disposing of their deceased for centuries.
The burial involves cutting open the deceased’s corpse and removing the body’s organs. This is followed by dismemberment; all limbs are then smashed into pieces and mixed with tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter, or milk).
monks known as rogyapas (“body-breakers”) carry out the burial rites. Finally, the rogyapas spread the remains out around the burial site so that vultures and other scavenging birds can come and eat the body parts and clean out the flesh from the carcass.
Litang; China’s Wild West: The Grasslands
The grasslands and high country around Litang offer great opportunities for trekking and hiking and exploring remote monasteries.
You only have to walk a few kilometers out town to stumble upon the nomadic life of the Khampas. Herders graze their horses and yaks, and Khampa farmers and traders, many with large knives holstered in their belts, ride in and out of Litang on their horses giving the whole area a real Wild West feel.
The Khampa women, often dressed in their most elaborate costumes, provide the colour and allure of the grasslands.
If you leave town via the eastern part, you can visit the Qudenggabu, a fairly new stupa, on your way. In spite of its recentness, this place attracts a large number of pilgrims, circumambulating the structure, spinning prayer wheels and reciting mantras.
Moreover, a couple of kilometres out of town, you will come across a simple hot-springs resort, where you might be tempted to have a soak, depending on the level of luxury you are enjoying in town.
ACCOMMODATION: A very Dodgy Hotel
Speaking of which, we stayed in a Tibetan-style hostel, just to the right of the bus station. The place was nice enough, we had traditionally furnished rooms with carved and brightly painted wooden furniture, colourful rugs and blankets. There was a common sitting area and a toilet in the corridor.
However, as we discovered on our first night, the place also doubled as an annex to the seedy bar, cum brothel, across the road. All night long, there were shouts, drunken brawls, slamming doors and thudding footsteps on the landing. We reached our limit on the second night, when a fearsome Khampa warrior with a knife in his belt just strode into our room, stood there grinning and pointing at us, and just refused to move.
On awaking the next morning, our last one, we found a wild-haired nomad squatting on our, the hostel’s, toilet with the door wide open and a vacuous expression on his face… time to go.
As we discovered later, there is no need to stay at the hostel/brothel we stayed at; if you swing a left from the bus station and walk about 10 minutes into the centre of town, there is a proper hotel on a corner, on the right hand side of the street, with a glass-fronted reception. They have en-suite rooms with hot water.
The best time to visit Litang is in the first half of August, when the horse festival takes place. Nomads come from all over to participate in wild, breath-taking races.
If you want to travel on to Yunnan, Litang is where you should go. From here, you can catch a bus to Xiangcheng, where you will have to spend the night, and then Zhongdian in Yunnan.