My name is Adam. I have a degree in Chinese History from SOAS and a masters in International Politics focused on China from the same university. I have travelled around China 9 times and since 2000 I have travelled every year for two months.
I guess I kind of like the place!
Once ubiquitous and now no more: the red landline telephone in your local shop.
During my many visits to Beijing over the last 20 years, I was always struck by how convenient it was to make a landline phone call from just about anywhere in the city, and especially in the hutongs. Just about any small shop 小卖部, be it a liquor store, veg or meat shop, dumpling store or dry cleaners, they all had one or two red telephones on the store counter from which you could ring anywhere in China very cheaply. You just asked for permission, picked up the phone and paid the store owner a few Mao 毛 at the end of the call.
Over a period of just a few years, the Chinese started embracing smart phone technology to a degree that leaves many western countries lagging far behind, scenes like the one in the photo above have ceased to exist. The last time I visited I couldn’t find one single shop that had a landline phone outside, and with my mobile not working; I was quite desperate!
Tongren is a great off the beaten track destination in China’s Qinghai Province. There is great scenery, Tibetan culture, and the opportunity to watch the world’s best thangkas being painted in front of your eyes.
A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Thangkas are traditionally kept unframed and rolled up when not on display. (Wikipedia)
The early morning bus, packed to bursting point with predominantly Tibetan passengers whose clothes exude a penetrating smell of yak butter, climbs cumbersomely out of the monastic town of Xiaheand up onto the wide open grasslands that separate the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai.
Up there, everything is wetness, emptiness and desolation; the sodden yaks and horses look decidedly miserable, but resigned.
The only sign of human existence are the roaming Tibetan nomads wrapped tightly in their fur-lined greatcoats, their faces swaddled in scarves, their cheeks red and chapped by the biting wind, the rudimentary settlements and the odd small monastic town, which somehow manage to survive in this harsh but stunning landscape.
On approaching Qinghai province, huge snow-capped mountains loom in the distance, forming a daunting barrier between the two provinces, and this was only September. Suddenly, when it looks as if our poor old bus will have to scale those giants, the road drops into a dry and barren valley, where herds of goats and yaks often block the way.
At the bottom of the valley, along the river, the barrenness gives way to fertile farming land, dotted with neat and prosperous farms and white Stupas. The climate has undergone a dramatic change too and we can see people harvesting everywhere under a warm autumn sun. After about 30 minutes of this rural bliss, the bus rolls into Tongren, a neat and organised modern town.
Like most Tibetan towns in Sichuan and Gansu, Tongren is made up of two virtually separate towns; the modern one, housing most businesses, shops and hotels, and the monastic one, centred around the temples.
In most cases, this separation also marks the division between the Chinese and Tibetan populations. However, the authorities in Tongren seem to have avoided this kind of cultural apartheid and they have managed to incorporate a large part of its Tibetan population into the modern town
(the modern town has expanded dramatically in recent years).
Longwu Si 隆务寺
The Longwu Si, or monastery complex, of Tongren is only a short stroll away from the modern centre.
It’s surprisingly large, perhaps as big as Xiahe, but we have it all to ourselves. You can spend a good few hours wandering about this atmospheric place.
The temples are a mixed bunch of old and new as the complex, having suffered extensive damage during the Cultural Revolution, is currently undergoing some massive restoration.
And on a more spiritual note, the small footprints and soft round dents, worn into the wooden floor in front of a particularly venerated Buddha statue by an elderly lama prostrating himself thousands of times…
The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺
Although the Longwu Si on its own warrants a visit, the main reason for coming to Tongren is to see the Tangkha painters at work in the village of Sangkeshan, some 10 kilometres out of town, and particular in the Wutong and Gouma Monasteries.
Tangkha’s are Tibetan paintings, mostly of a religious nature, and usually mounted on embroidered and decorated pieces of brocade.
The Tangkha painters of Tongren are rated as the best in the Tibetan world and their art, known as Repkong Art (Repkong being the Tibetan name for Tongren), can be found in the monasteries of Lhasa, Xiahe and many other great Tibetan monastic towns.
Some of the painters are monks, others are laymen, but they work together in teams, completing orders from far and wide.
On the day of our visit, some painters at Wutong were working on a large piece for a monastery on Wutai Shan (one of the Holy Mountains of Buddhism), while others were completing an order for the Ta’er Si temple near Xining, the capital of Qinghai province.
Meanwhile, some of their colleagues at Gouma were finishing a Tangkha for the Yushu monastery, in the remote northern part of Qinghai province.
Apart from offering you a chance to see the painters and their apprentices at work, and to buy one of their smaller pieces, both monasteries are well worth having a look around.
The main hall of Wutun Si 五屯寺is a splendid affair which houses three large golden statues, dressed in colourful embroidered robes, as well as many valuable paintings.
The monk showing us around explains how they managed to save these paintings during the Cultural Revolution by turning the wooden panes around, hiding the valuable paintings at the back and displaying some newer, relatively worthless ones for the Red Guards to destroy!
Other prominent features of the Hall are the fierce dragons coiling their bodies around the pillars and the heavy entrance doors, exquisitely restored and decorated in red and gold by a trembling octogenarian monk with his glasses tied to his head.
As we had already witnessed at Longwu, renovation, restoration and even expansion are at full swing at the Wutun Si monastery五屯寺: a new Stupa is being erected, as well as a new temple hall.
A group of workers is busy assembling the central clay sculpture, which has not been painted yet either.
This whole process of temple renovation and revival is evident all over China; on the one hand many people are returning to their former beliefs, while on the other hand the government once more tolerates Buddhism and even encourages the restorations, as another way of obtaining tourist revenue.
The likewise brand-new and shiny Stupa just outside Gomar Gompa, a few kilometres away on the other side of the valley, is a colourful multi-tiered structure that stands out against the barren hills.
Up close, you can appreciate the intricate decorations in bright red, blue, green and yellow colours.
The monastic buildings are right behind the Stupa and if you wander around its quiet streets for a bit, you are most likely to be invited into one of the intimate courtyards where the painters work.
Besides Thangkas, the monks, artists and artesans of Tongren also produce clay sculptures, as well as hand-sewn cloth wall-hangings and cloth frames for the paintings.
Some of these wall-hangings are made up of countless, brightly coloured cloth circles that are held together not only by sewing, but with the help of glue and staples as well.
One of the best places to witness the creation of these curious pieces is the Nian Tou monastery, a few kilometres outside Tongren.
In the Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, all around Tongren County, there are many other remote monasteries, some of them only accessible with a four-wheel drive vehicle. Locals even told us about a monastery, some 40kms away, supposedly inhabited by a sect of long-haired monks! Whether this story is true or not, the area most certainly has plenty of places left to explore.
Where to Stay and Eat:
We stayed at Huang Nan Binguan, an old but cosy hotel set in a shady courtyard, where we paid 100 Yuan for a slightly worn, but clean double. Incidentally, the new Huang Nan, a glass-fronted dark monstrosity on the main road, is infinitely worse than its older counterpart. There are several other, cheaper options in town too.
For food , try the “Sha Guo” restaurant a few doors down from the hotel. A “Sha Guo” is a delicious clay pot soup, which can have many different ingredients, such as meat, fish, vegetables and eggs. Washed down with a couple of cold beers, they make for a satisfying and filling meal after a long day sightseeing.
Hiring a taxi to take you out to Wutun Si五屯寺 monastery costs about 10 Yuan. Getting between the various monasteries, or back into town, there are plenty of mini-vans plying the route.
Coming and going:
In 2004 (was still the same in 2012), there was one bus a day leaving Xiahe at 7.30, plus another one with a similar timetable coming from the other direction. Leaving from Xiahe, it may be a good idea to book a day in advance, as our bus was absolutely packed. The journey takes about 5 hours and the scenery on the way is spectacular. Beware that the weather can be cold and treacherous; we even had snow in early September.
Moving on, there are numerous buses leaving for Xining throughout the day. The journey, which is fairly boring, takes between 5 and 6 hours.
We stumbled upon the Newspaper Museum (not sure of its official name), close to our favourite little restaurant. The rather shabby museum holds some fascinating clippings, articles, and photos from the last century and the beginning of this one.
The highlights are some great photos of Mao and other communist party leaders during the Cultural Revolution. Even in the 1960s one can appreciate the efforts of some sophisticated photoshopping (without photoshop to help) that make the central characters appear more powerful and larger than life.
It’s curious to see the old papers, printed in vertical columns and read from right to left. There are papers in Uygur, Tibetan and Mongolian script and a triumphant cover showing the hand-over of Hong Kong. There are articles about the Cultural Revolution, Mao, Ethnic Minorities, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, as well as foreign news and adverts.
The collection was apparently started by a Chinese farmer who is also an avid newspaper reader and collector who wanted to help his fellow farmers learn about the world.
The earliest newspaper in the collection was Shanghai-published Shenbao in 1872. The shortest lived newspaper featured is Xibao which was the first and final publication (info taken from China.org.cn)
Visit Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao. An amazing temple where in winter you can visit the place without another tourist in sight. That is if you can bear minus 10º.
Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺
At half past 9 in the morning, when we get out at the Shuanglin Temple (Shuānglín Sì or 双林寺), we’re in for a bit of a shock: though sunny, it’s bitterly cold! Our breath’s coming out in large white clouds and the thermometer has plummeted to minus 10º.
With one of those great Chinese understatements, our driver concedes that it’s yidian leng (a bit chilly)! On the positive side, this means we have the temple almost entirely to ourselves.
The ancient and venerable temple complex – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 – is renowned for its over 2,000 painted clay sculptures, made by skillful craftsmen from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (12th to 19th century). Though once painted in vivid colours, many of the sculptures have since faded to red, earthy hues.
From the outside, the temple complex appears rather like a fortress, as it is surrounded by a high compound wall with a gate. Once inside, there are ten halls to explore, set around three courtyards.
The first Hall is guarded by fierce warriors. The sunlight, slanting through the protective bars that surround them, hits their orange clay faces and distorts them into frightening grimaces.
In fact, all the sculptures are arranged behind bars, against backdrops of swirling water or clouds, mountains, gnarled trees, towers, buildings and other decorative elements.
Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult to fully appreciate them in the dusty half-light of the halls. We wish we’d brought a torch!
The sculptural themes focus on representations of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas (divine persons who have attainedEnlightenment, but postpone Nirvana in order to help others reach salvation), Arhats (Buddhists, especially monks or nuns who have achieved enlightenment and at death pass to Nirvana), Warrior Guards, Heavenly Generals, but also some common people.
There is even a statue of the husband and wife who took care of the temple during the Cultural Revolution.
One of the halls to look out for is the Arhat Hall (Luohan Ting or 罗汉厅), with its 18 life-like and somewhat sinister Arhats, whose black- glass eyes seem to follow you around the room.
Don’t miss the Bodhisattva Hall (Pusa Ting or 菩萨厅),with the sculpture of a young, attractive, female Bodhisattva, with twenty arms and many more hands, dressed in richly decorated clothing.
Last but not least, the many inhabitants of the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, one of whom is seated on a coiled dragon, are considered masterpieces of Ming dynasty Buddhist sculpture.
At the back of the last Hall, we climb up onto the compound wall in an attempt to find out where the music we’ve been hearing is coming from.
Turns out, there is a primary school right behind the temple and all the little kids are made to run around the schoolyard before class. Frozen as we are, we could do with a bit of running ourselves! And then there were the poor pigs; off to the slaughter house, just outside this spiritual and peaceful place.
These days, Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province once dubiously famous for being China’s ‘coal capital’, is a largely modern city, home to one of the most outstanding museums in the country.
The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyin: Shanxi Bówùyuàn),is housed in a handsome modern building, shaped like an inverted pyramid, or a ‘Ding’; an ancient cooking vessel, symbol of harvests and auspiciousness. Inside, the four-storey museum is spacious and light.
The marvelous exhibits are creatively presented in themed galleries that run around a big, open, central space, enabling you to look all the way up to the glass cupola that tops the building.
Each gallery is entered through a hall, beautifully decorated with artwork evocative of its contents, such as a relief of bronze warriors or a giant bull.
The museum houses some 200,000 cultural relics, dedicated to Chinese History and Arts, with a special emphasis on the Jin Dynasty, famous for its high quality green celadon porcelain wares, such as jars whose designs incorporated animal, as well as Buddhist figures.
Among its most important artefacts are those related to Sima Jinlong’s tomb (CE 484), such as a large number of figurines, or a famous tomb plaque. Other artefacts related to Sima Jinlong can be found in the Datong Museum.
During our visit, we marvel at the sophistication of the bronzes in the gallery called ‘The Splendour of Bronze Vessels’, dating from way before Christ.
There are cute, greenish slugs with inquisitive faces, sturdy, homely pigs and elegant geese; many with a lid in their back for storing things, while others were used as oil lamps or lanterns.
The Pottery section
The Pottery section with its chubby, humorous warriors, its grumpy Silk Road camels and temperamental, high-stepping horses, its nimble acrobats and elegant courtiers is always one of our favourites, and the Shanxi one is no exception.
The Relics of Buddhism
‘The Relics of Buddhism’ gallery is an absolute delight: the collection of serene Buddha statues and engraved and carved stelae is displayed inside (mock) rock caves, illuminated by a soft, yellowish light, pretty much as they must once have looked inside the Yungang or Longmen caves.
Even the fire hydrants are discreetly tucked behind fake rock panels depicting lines of miniature Buddhas; which makes us smile.
The interesting section devoted to the powerful, wealthy ‘Shanxi Merchants’ also contains a gorgeous display of colourful Shadow Puppets on sticks, representing undulating dragons, musicians on horseback or oxcarts, as well as twirling acrobats.
The popular Shanxi Opera is also well-represented with carved brick tiles and figurines representing scenes from popular operas, as well as interactive displays.
Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy
Going around ‘Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy’, we are particularly taken by a mysterious scroll painting of gold on black in which groups of monks gather at a night time meeting, some flying in on mythical beasts, others creeping closer among the rocks.
Even the water colours, which we thought we might skip, turn out to be enchanting, with delicate, fan-shaped paintings of birds, fruit, water lilies and other flowers.
Jade and Porcelain
Due to lack of time and exhaustion, we move fairly quickly through the Jade and Porcelain sections, though we make an exception for the characteristic Shanxi yellow and green glazed roof tiles and ornaments, which decorate so many Chinese temples and halls.
Museum / Taiyuan Practicalities:
Since March 2008, admission to the museum is free with a valid ID. You will definitely need 4 to 5 hours to do the place justice.
It’s a great way to get an overview of Shanxi culture and history, either before embarking on a tour of the many, surrounding sights, or afterwards, as a way of making sense of everything you’ve seen.
The museum is located on the west bank of the Fenhe River, some distance away from the centre of town, in a green area that has been developed for rest and relaxation.
The circular building next door which looks like a UFO actually houses a popular Geological Museum.
Places to Eat:
Taiyuan’s food street, Shipin Jie, is a great place to try out all kinds of popular street snacks, such as squid or sausage kebabs, noodles, toffee apples or ice creams. There are plenty of sit down restaurants too, housed in fake Ming buildings, as well as terraces where you can enjoy a cold draft beer.
Places to Stay:
Taiyuan is not that big on the tourist circuit, which is why it’s usually quite easy to find a decent, reasonably priced, mid-range hotel on one of the booking sites. We stayed at the Jinli Dalou on Wuyi Jie near the railway station. Nice staff, comfortable rooms, 138 yuan.
Other Places to Visit:
Close to Taiyuan city, the Jinci Temple or Yuci Ancient City – famous for being the backdrop to many Chinese films and series – make for easy and enjoyable day trips.
Moreover, as an important transportation hub, Taiyuan also has excellent connections, either by train or bus, to Qikou, Pingyao or Wutai Shan.
Lockdown has at least given me time to dig out my old photos from the store room and start to play around with them. It’s also given me plenty of time to reflect on the many ways in which life has changed.
It’s well known that Madrid was particularly badly hit by Covid 19 and while the first lockdown was brutally hard on everyone, a second one seems just around the corner.
It was against this depressing background that I turned to the photos we had taken during our 1990/91 trip to China. Nearly 6 months of hard and fascinating travel, which turned me into a China freak and changed my life too.
The trip started by crossing over the Karakorum Pass into China on a clapped out traders’ bus from Pakistan and eventually leaving China from Guangzhou on the gambling ferry to Macao, which has long since ceased to exist.
Sometime in late December we found ourselves in Suzhou. I recently came across our photos from that time in and around Suzhou and on the Grand Canal. Some of these had never been posted. So here they are.
I don’t want to make too many excuses about the quality of the photos; however, the camera we used was a rusty piece of crap and we also made the mistake of having them developed in China (1991). I have tried to restore them the best I can.
The somewhat deteriorated photos show that Suzhou was once a real, working water town. The barges came right into the town’s central waterways. Many of Suzhou’s trading markets actually took place on sampans on the canals.
When we returned to Suzhou in 2005, all the river traffic had been moved away from the city center to the main artery of Grand Canal, several kilometers outside of town.
In 1990, the city’s canals were also a transport hub providing local transport to people from outlying villages. Part of the fun of being in Suzhou at that time was siting on one of the many bridges watching the over-crowded ferries shuttling people to and fro.
You could also still take passenger boats from Suzhou to loads of destinations along the Grand Canal, including the day long journey to Hangzhou, which we took. These have all now been discontinued.
In 2005, the only boats working on the inner-city canals were used for clearing weeds and rubbish thrown into them by the hordes of tourists.
Suzhou has changed so much since then that any remnants of what we saw in 1990 are almost impossible to find.
In 2005, there were still a few canals that retained some of their old world ambience and charm, but speculators were moving in fast and locals were being evicted apace.
New boutique hotels, upmarket restaurants and discos were replacing canal side markets, corner shops and teahouses. A whole way of life was being obliterated.
Of course, Suzhou’s fate is by no means unique! The transformation that started happening there in the early 2000s, began here in Madrid around 2016, with the advent of Airbnb and the ‘Disneyfication’ of Madrid’s historical center.
Ironically, it took a pandemic to give Madrid back to the locals, albeit in a much reduced and depressed form!
We can only wonder what the effects of Covid 19 will be on mass tourism around the globe…
Even the great protector can’t be protected. The Great Buddha statue (Leshan Dafo 乐山大佛), just outside Leshan in China’s south western province of Sichuan, was carved out of the cliffs in the 8th century at the confluence of three rivers.
His purpose was look over and protect the fishermen from drowning in the turbulent waters and defend the population against flooding.
Now, it is the local population flooding to the aid of the Giant Buddha by using sand bags to protect him from rising flood waters.
Not since 1949 have the flood waters reached the magnificent statue’s enormous feet.
This is another a recent video from Leshan showing the dramatic scenes of the flood waters reaching the base of his feet.