The Thangka Painters of Tongren 同仁 Qinghai Province 青海省

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)

Tongren 同仁


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 Xiahe and up onto the wide open grasslands that separate the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai.

Xiahe to Tongren 同仁

Up there, everything is wetness, emptiness and desolation; the sodden yaks and horses look decidedly miserable, but resigned.

Xiahe to Tongren 同仁

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.

Xiahe to Tongren 同仁

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.

Goats blocking the road to Tongren 同仁

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.

Rolling into Tongren 同仁

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.

An Amazing door at Longwu Si Tongren

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

Longwu Si 隆务寺

The Longwu Si, or monastery complex, of Tongren is only a short stroll away from the modern centre.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

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.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

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.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

Highlights are the gruesome paintings and carvings of scenes from hell, vividly depicted skulls, heads with the eyes popping out, fearsome monsters, demons and such, which decorate some of the oldest temples. Click here for more gruesome photos of Longwu si.

Longwu Si 隆务寺

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…

Longwu Si 隆务寺

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

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.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

Tangkha’s are Tibetan paintings, mostly of a religious nature, and usually mounted on embroidered and decorated pieces of brocade.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

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.

Wutun Si 五屯寺

Some of the painters are monks, others are laymen, but they work together in teams, completing orders from far and wide.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

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.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

Meanwhile, some of their colleagues at Gouma were finishing a Tangkha for the Yushu monastery, in the remote northern part of Qinghai province.

The Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

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 Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

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 Tangkha Painters of Wutun Si 五屯寺

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.

Gomar Gompa

Gomar Gompa

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.

Gomar Gompa

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.

Gomar Gompa

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.

Sewn Wall Thangkas

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.

Tongren Scenery

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.


Gomar Gompa

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.

Sha Guo

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.

Getting Around:

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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!

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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

The sculptural themes focus on representations of the BuddhaBodhisattvas (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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

There is even a statue of the husband and wife who took care of the temple during the Cultural Revolution.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

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.

Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao
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Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao

Suzhou: as it was in 1990。苏州 1990年

Some old photos of Suzhou 苏州 taken in 1990 and found during the Coronavirus lockdown.

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Adam resting with locals in Suzhou 1990


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.

Floating Markets Suzhou 1990

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.

Floating Markets Suzhou 1990

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.

A Full ferry going under a bridge in Suzhou 1990

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.

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Small barges loaded with goods in Suzhou’s waterways 1990

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.

Local having a smoke on one of Suzhou’s bridges 1990

Suzhou has changed so much since then that any remnants of what we saw in 1990 are almost impossible to find.

A couple having a chat on one of Suzhou’s many bridges 1990

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.

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New boutique hotels, upmarket restaurants and discos were replacing canal side markets, corner shops and teahouses. A whole way of life was being obliterated.

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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.

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Busy waterways in downtown Suzhou

Ironically, it took a pandemic to give Madrid back to the locals, albeit in a much reduced and depressed form!

Margie by a canal in Suzhou 1990

We can only wonder what the effects of Covid 19 will be on mass tourism around the globe…

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Floods reach Giant Buddha at Leshan 乐山大佛

Even the great protector can’t be protected

Giant Buddha at Leshan 乐山大佛

Click here for a detailed Chinese Video:

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.

Giant Buddha at Leshan 乐山大佛

His purpose was look over and protect the fishermen from drowning in the turbulent waters and defend the population against flooding.

Giant Buddha at Leshan 乐山大佛

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.

Giant Buddha at Leshan 乐山大佛 Foot

Not since 1949 have the flood waters reached the magnificent statue’s enormous feet.

Giant Buddha at Leshan 乐山大佛

This is another a recent video from Leshan showing the dramatic scenes of the flood waters reaching the base of his feet.

Click below to see the video.


It appears that for now that the situation has stabilized with flood waters receding and passing their highest levels, but with more rain to come, we can only keep our fingers crossed.

Giant Buddha at Leshan 乐山大佛 Hand

The photos are from our 2001 trip to Leshan. We visited the Giant Buddha after climbing nearby Éméi shān 峨眉山.

Qingxu Guan, Pingyao 情绪观平遥, and its amazing collection of Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

Restoring the unrestorable.
Can the amazing Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人) or miniature opera dolls be restored and preserved, or will they just crumble away?

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)


Qingxu Guan /情绪观平遥

On our last stop of an exhausting day of sightseeing around Pingyao, we stopped at the Qingxu Temple, an ancient Taoist Temple, now doubling up as a museum with a fascinating collection of plaster and wooden statues.

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

The latter were apparently carved from willow trees, as far back as the Song dynasty.

Song Dynasty statues carved from Willow Trees

The faces of the seated figures are incredibly serene, and their beards and pleated robes seem to flow.

Serene Faces of the Song Dyansty wooden statues

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

However, no matter how stunning and remarkable the Song dynasty statues were, nothing had prepared us for the icing on the cake that the Qingxu Temple holds: the Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人), or miniature opera dolls.

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Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

This is a series of display cases with ‘Shage Xiren’ dolls, showing scenes from popular Jin operas 晋剧, created by the famous artist Xu Liting (许立廷) between 1905 and 1906.

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Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

The details in the faces, headdresses and costumes –made of delicate materials such as paper, clay, silk or wood pulp- are astonishing! You’ll fall in love with them like us! However … all is not well with the dolls!

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Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

Restoring the Unrestorable?

We were sad to see such authentic and valuable pieces of history and culture left rather forlorn and abandoned in their flimsy and rustic casings and somewhat exposed to the elements.

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Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

And here is the contradiction: for the visitor, it’s a pleasure to be able to get so close to such jewels, and in such a laid- back and hassle-free ambience as well, but it doesn’t bode all that well for the future conservation of the dolls.

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Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

And therein lays the conundrum. Many of the dolls are falling apart. Limbs and robes are falling off at an alarming rate, leaving researchers scrambling to figure out what to do about it. And they are trying!

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Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

A number of articles have highlighted the case of the Shage Xiren (Miniature Opera Dolls). Here are the links to two of them.

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The first article highlights the problem and emphasizes the importance of restoring the miniature opera dolls, as well as suggesting possible solutions.

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Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

The second one contains a detailed analysis of the various materials the dolls are made of and looks for scientific solutions to restoring them.

If you are a restoration buff you’ll love this article, which reads a bit like a forensics report. Even for a layman like me, it was a fascinating piece.

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

The biggest problem seems to be that the creator of the dolls, Xu Liting (许立廷), only made them for a short period of time during the tumultuous twilight years of the Qing Dynasty, 1905 – 1906.

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

Furthermore, Xu never left any written record of the materials he used to create the dolls, nor did he pass on his skill to any apprentice. Restorers are now scratching their heads about how best to save these incredible dolls.

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

Given the recent interest and new developents in restoration technologies, we can only hope that a solution will be found soon. Meanwhile, if you are visiting Pingyao anytime soon, try to see the dolls in the Qingxu temple.

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)

I know that the through ticket (tongpiao) has a rather daunting list of sights, not all of which are equally worthwhile, but the Qingxu Temple with its delightful miniature opera dolls is a must!

Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)
Check out the English title! Fork Art, indeed…

Jianshui建水 (from our Diary): last stop before the Hani Rice Terraces at Yuanyang.

The historic town of Jianshui is the last stop on a facinating route from Kunming to the Hani Rice Terraces at Yuanyang.

Yi Musician jianshui 建水

Jianshui 建水

Between Tonghai and Jianshui the road drops dramatically and with such an incline that numerous crash barriers and emergency escape routes have been constructed, in case of brake failure.

Confucian Temple 文庙 jianshui 建水

We actually passed a lorry that had just been forced to use one of these; its fortunate occupants were busy talking on their mobiles, while inspecting the damage to their clapped-out vehicle, its nose buried deep into a safety barrier of spare tires, which had probably saved their lives.

Yi Lady jianshui 建水

The land around here has been seriously eroded and there are numerous rock formations, shaped like fingers, poking up from the red earth. This is apparently how a ‘Stone Forest’ comes into being.


The bus station in Jianshui has been moved to the outskirts of town and a taxi for  4 to 5 Yuan is the best way to get to the centre.

Things to See:

Confucian Temple 文庙 jianshui 建水

China’s relentless modernization drive has hit Jianshui too, and the main thoroughfare Jianzhong Lu, connecting the East and West Gates, has been spruced up, though buildings have at least been kept in the traditional style. Fortunately, you can still find many historical buildings dotted all over the town, some of which serve as government offices or schools, while others have been opened to the public.

Confucian Temple 文庙 jianshui 建水

The Confucian Academy and temple is Jianshui’s largest architectural monument; it consists of a whole collection of halls and courtyards, set inside a large park at the back of a Lilly-covered lake and accessed through some imposing arches and gateways.

Confucian Temple 文庙 jianshui 建水

If you are lucky, you might catch the Confucian orchestra, dressed in celestial blue robes and tall hats, playing traditional Chinese music in an old building, converted in a concert hall and teahouse.

Confucian Temple 文庙 jianshui 建水

Jianshui also boasts a number of grand family mansions that are worth visiting. The cream of the crop is the Zhujia Huayuan, the mansion of the Zhu clan, which doubles up as a hotel and offers visitors the chance, so rare in China, to stay in a historical building full of character. The Zhu were a successful merchants’ family who built their mansion over a number of years, during the Qing dynasty.

Zhu Family Garden

The resulting structure consists of a whole labyrinth of patios, one of them with its own floating stage, and corridors, all lavishly decked out with potted plants and Bonsai.

Zhu Family Garden

The patios are surrounded by Ancestral Halls and living quarters, lovingly decorated with period furniture. These days some of the old family rooms have been converted into en- suite hotel rooms, complete with Qing- style furniture and four- poster beds.

Margie outside our room at the Zhu Family Garden

To find out about other Mansions that are open to the public, which there are, you should ask the local people.

East Gate Teahouse jianshui 建水

The massive Eastern Gate – cum Drum Tower or (Chaoyang Lou 朝阳楼), part of the old Ming wall that once surrounded the city, stands testimony to the important role Jianshui once played as an  administrative centre in Imperial Times.

East Gate Teahouse jianshui 建水

Nowadays, the Gate has been converted into an atmospheric tea house and a great place from which to observe the comings and goings in the centre of town.

East Gate Teahouse jianshui 建水

You can look down upon people outside the gate selling fruit, playing musical instruments and cards, performing Tai Chi, or simply taking a nap under the bushes. You may also spot the odd Yi and Yao minority ladies, dressed in their finest, coming to the market.

The old hidden Pagoda

Moreover, from the Gate you can still discern many narrow old streets, full of traditional architecture and workshops dedicated to the ancient trades.

The old hidden Pagoda

We spied  an old Pagoda, which looked really close and easy to trace, so we set out to find it. Actually, the Pagoda is very well hidden, in the centre of a factory compound, accessed through a  maze of tiny alleys.

It took us nearly half an hour, and a lot of help from the puzzled neighbours, to find it. Nevertheless, finding such a great historical relic, just lying around as if it were an everyday thing, gave us a wonderful sense of continuity.

jianshui 建水


Places to Stay and Eat:

As we described before, the Zhujia Huayuan, an old merchants mansion, half museum and half hotel, is a fantastic place to stay. Rooms cost between 220 and 280 Yuan, which is a bit pricey, but saves you from having to fork out the entrance fee (Update; not sure if it is still a hotel). Early mornings and late afternoons, once the ticket office has closed, are a wonderful time to wander around and take photos, or just sit in one of the many secluded corners and relax!

Zhu Family Garden

Another period-style hotel, the Hua Qing, has just opened its doors, slightly further up the road. The owner, a nice, hospitable lady, who is keen to attract foreigners showed us around. Large comfortable doubles with balconies cost between 150 and 180 Yuan. The hotel has a restaurant and bar as well. Just ignore the kitsch lighting outside and the poor receptionists done up in Confucius-style robes!

East Gate Teahouse jianshui 建水

As opposed to Tonghai, Jianshui offers many places to eat, as well as some tasty food. In the streets around the Zhujia Huayuan and the Hua Qing many restaurants with English menus have sprung up recently, some of them in restored historical buildings.

East Gate Teahouse jianshui 建水

However, if it’s atmosphere you’re after, you can’t beat the ancient Lin An Fandian on Jianzhong Lu. During the day, the ground floor is packed with locals, snacking on spicy cold noodles with peanut sauce, or grilled tofu pieces, both of which go for 1 Yuan a piece. Then, in the evening, the upstairs dining hall and adjoining balcony rooms fill up with huge groups of heartily eating, heavily drinking and toasting Chinese. It can get quite boisterous and noisy, but it’s great fun! The food is excellent too.

Stinky Tofu

If you don’t speak Chinese, just go to the area by the refrigerators and point, nothing is too expensive and the portions are enormous. You  pay at a counter next to the stairs, where you can also get cold beer.

East Gate Teahouse jianshui 建水


Near Jianshui there are a number of interesting villages, bridges and caves. When we visited, Jianshui was well off- the -beaten track, and we didn’t have any information about what to see and do around the town so we never got round to visiting them.

Swallow Cave: On the 8th of August local Yi lads risk life and limb to collect the prized Swallow’s nests.

Tuanshan Village: An ancient Yi minority village with traditonal Ming and Qing dynasty architecture

Twin (Double) Dragon Bridge 双龙桥: a spectaular Qing dynasty bridge with towers and 17 arches. The bridge spans the confuluence of the Lu and Tachong Rivers.

Tuanshan Village and the Twin Dragon Bridge can be visited on a tourist train from Jianshui.

Coming and Going:

Outside the Chaoyang Gate

There are plenty of buses to and from Kunming throughout the day. There are also regular buses to Tonghai, which take 2½ hours, and to Nansha, which take 3½ hours and where you need to change buses for Yuanyang and the rice terraces.

Yi Lady jianshui 建水


There are now daily trains to Jianshui from Kunming.

Pingyao 平遥 2001

About the Photos: these pictures were taken on an old cheap instamatic camera using a very cheap Chinese black and white film. The rain in Pingyao was torrential. That is why everything looks so grainy.


We first visited Pingyao 平遥in the late summer of 2001, on our second attempt. On the 18th of August we found ourselves in Taiyuan太原, looking for a bus to Pingyao. However, it was raining so heavily that we had a drastic change of heart and caught an afternoon train to sunny and warm Chengdu 成都 instead (Same day hard sleeper tickets!).

Precisely one month later, on the 18th of September, we were back for a second try … unfortunately, it was raining just as much!

It’s a long time ago and it’s hard to remember all the details, but we do remember the rain, which was incessant.

Ticket to Visit the City Wall Pingyao 2001

We also remember the main street, which was more commercial and tacky than I’d expected, awash with the sound of blaring loudspeakers and crowded with Chinese tour groups, shopping, snacking and posing for photos, dressed- up in period costumes.

Old hole in the wall restaurant Pingyao: not many exist these days

As it happened, our visit coincided with the first edition of the Pingyao International Photography Festival!

During this increasingly popular annual event (19 -25 September), which brings together professional and amateur photographers from over 50 countries around the world, the whole of Pingyao is turned into one great, open-air photo gallery, with many exhibits and activities taking place all over town. No wonder we felt a bit crushed!

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A busy Pingyao street 2001

We trudged down the narrow streets, pushed our way through the crowds, popped into the Rishengchang Financial House Museum and had a little look around.

There were very few visitors inside the actual sights, but it was hard to take pictures because of the rain.

Pingyao main drag 2001

One thing we really enjoyed, but which unfortunately isn’t allowed any more, was climbing the City Tower, the tallest building in the old city, from where there were great views over the gracefully sloping, tiled roofs.

A rainy Pingyao 2001

Eventually, we donned our rain capes and set off on a long walk along the City Walls, leaving the crowds behind. The rain kept lashing at us and there was soot and dirt in the air; tangible reminders of Shanxi’s over 3,000 coal mines!

Old courtyard houses Pingyao 2001

From the height of the Walls we got a good view of the city’s backstreets and alleys, the humble, run-down little houses and messy backyards, the vegetable plots… all covered in coal dust.

We could see people carrying pails down the street, vendors peddling their wares, old men on wobbly bicycles; in short, ordinary people, going about their business.

On the other side of the Wall, we noticed a kind of farmers’ market, with farmers selling vegetables and other produce from the back of hand carts, and several stalls with clothes and household goods.

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Impromtu market outside Pingyao walls

You won’t find these impromtu markets outside Pingyao’s walls now.

The moat was still filled with water; there was no park, nothing remotely touristy on the other side yet.

We stayed in one of those atmospheric, romantic courtyard hotels; it was authentic alright, but also rather cold and damp!

Adam on his kang 2001

We remember being given two stamp-sized towels and a tiny bar of soap, by way of toiletries. Fortunately, accommodation options have come a long way since then!

Old unrestored Pingyao courtyards

The Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)

Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991) With a new colour film

The next day, on the way back to Taiyuan, we stopped at the Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan), the 18th century home of a wealthy merchants’ family, but perhaps most famous for being the chief location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991), directed by Zhang Yimou and starring the gorgeous Gongli. 

Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991)

As this was the first really large mansion we’d visited and as we’d loved the film, we were very taken by the place. Of course, the over 300- room compound is bedecked with romantic red lanterns, but it also houses many interesting exhibits of Ming and Qing furniture, as well as Shanxi opera costumes.

About the photos. These pictures were taken on a cheap instamatic camera with a very cheap Chinese black and white film. The rain in Pingyao was torrential and that is why they look a little grainy or older than they should.
Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)location of  the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991) My last black and white photo.

Unfortunately,in recent years, the site has become massively popular with Chinese tour groups, which is probably why it has been dropped from many guide books such as Lonely Planet, or the Rough Guide.   


Pingyao Ally 2001

If you have your own transport, the Qiao Family Compound makes a good stopover between Pingyao and Taiyuan. Otherwise, you can get there by bus; you can catch any bus going to Qíxiàn (祁县; ¥25, 1½ hours) from Taiyuan’s Jiànnán bus station and ask to be dropped off at the site.

You can also take a bus from Pingyao (¥15, 45 minutes, every 30 minutes to 6.40pm).

Extra Photos Below and more info below

Pingyao Introduction 平遥

This is the introduction to a series of articles about our 3 visits to Pingyao, the historic city in China’s Shanxi Province.



Pingyao, a World Heritage Site since 1997, is renowned for being one of the best- preserved ancient walled cities in China, as well as its earliest banking centre.

The wonderful City Wall spans the entire old city: it’s a 6- kilometre long, 10- metre high, crenellated structure with 72 watch towers, set at fifty- metre intervals. The construction has a brick and stone exterior, with many of the bricks still showing the distinctive stamps of their makers, with rammed earth inside.

Already a thriving merchant city in the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), Pingyao reached its hey-day during the Qing dynasty (1644 y 1912), when merchants created the first banks in the country.

Old Banks In Pingyao

These so-called piaohao (票号), ‘draft banks’ or ‘remittance shops’, provided remittance services and bank drafts to move money from one city to another, in order to finance trade. In 1823, the Rishengchang, or ‘Sunrise Prosperity’, became the first such draft bank to open its doors in Pingyao.

Old Banks in Pingya0

Later on, it established 43 branches in key cities around China and abroad, in countries like Japan, Singapore, and Russia. As a result, Pingyao became the center of China’s banking industry, with over half of the country’s piaohao -about 22 banking firms in charge of a further network of 404 branches – headquartered inside Pingyao’s City Walls.

The original Rishengchang survived for 108 years, before finally collapsing in 1932.

Since then, the Rishengchang, as well as a number of other piaohao and merchants’ residences have been restored and opened to the public, alongside a whole string of other sights, such as temples, halls and museums.

Moreover, Pingyao makes a great base for excursions to some out-of-the-way places, such as the village of  Zhangbi Cun.

Zhangbi Cun

Even today, as you stroll the cobblestoned streets of the perfectly preserved old city, you won’t find any high-rises, or ugly white-tiled buildings. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself: Pingyao is firmly on the – mainly Chinese – tourist track and connected to Beijing by high speed trains! But don’t despair; the tour groups mostly stick to the ‘big sites’ and, as there are so many places to visit, you can easily get away from the crowds.

Quiet street in Pingyao

The best way to enjoy Pingyao is to dive into the back alleys and explore. And make sure to book yourself into one of those atmospheric courtyard hotels that Pingyao does so well.

The Original Yushu Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall before the 2009 Earthquake: New photos

New and re-done photos of the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall near Yushu, Qinghai Province, China; before the 2010 earthquake that destroyed it.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

The Earthquake

On the 14th of April 2010 in a remote area of China’s remote province of Qinghai, a huge aerthquake struck the town of Yushu and the surrounding areas.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

The earthquake resulted in a terrible loss of human life and a vast amount of cultural damage was done to Tibetan monasteries and temples. The greatest cultural loss was the destruction of the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, the longest in the world and one of the most sacred for the Tibetans.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

A mani wall is a wall that has been built up over time using rocks, stones and pebbles that have prayers written on them. The most common mantra is Om Mane Padme Hum, but ather mantras are also written or engraved on the rocks.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

Tibetan pilgrims often pay to have the rocks placed on the ever expanding walls. The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani wall, just a few kilometers outside Yushu was, and still is, the longest Mani wall in the world. The wall was re-built after the earthquake.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

We were fortunate enough to have visted Yushu in the summer of 2009; eight months before the eathquake.Here are some of our photos that I have re-done and some new ones that I didn’t post the first time. The photos still don’t do justice to mind-blowing exerience of visiting the wall.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

Click here to read the original travel article and the subsequent article that we posted after the earthquake.

Original travel article:
After the earthquake:
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

Mani Walls

As previously mentioned above: Mani Walls are rows of piled-up stones, engraved or painted with orations. The size of such Mani Wallscan vary from the humblest pile to a circuit of several hundred meters. Pilgrims walk round these walls of holy stones in a clockwise direction, uttering prayers and twirling prayer wheels.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall was truly enormous; a sign by its side proudly proclaimed that it is 283 metres long, 74 metres wide, 2,5 metres high and consists of 2 billion stones!

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

What’s more, the Wall, before the earthquake, was still growing, as we witnessed with our own eyes: devout pilgrims contributed new stones everyday, which were hoisted up on to the pile carefully.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China

The billions of beautifully carved stones carry the Buddhist prayers “Om Mani Padme Hum” or, “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”, and other orations.

Building the Mani wall

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China The whole team

I never really sussed out how the system worked. But it seemed that wealthier pilgrims paid more money for bigger stones or rocks to be placed on top of the Mani wall in order to get more merit (I could be wrong here).

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China The whole team

As you can see from this series of photos; a pilgrim, a monk and rock carriers were all involved in the process of heaving the rocks to the top of the wall.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China The rock carrier

Hoisting the rocks and stones up onto the top of the Mani-wall was done by muscle power alone and not only was the toil unceasing, but it was also back-breaking. You could read the expressions of pain and agony on the faces of the carriers as they struggled with the larger rocks.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. the rock carriers

The muscle and stamina of these guys puts anyone doing exercise in a gym to shame.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The rock carriers

I can’t imagine how they must of felt having to put the wall back together again after its collapse in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The rock bearer
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The pilgrim watches his rocks being place on top of the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall

The pilgrims

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims

The other fascinating part of a visit to the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall is to observe the thousands of Tibetan pilgrims who come every day to place rocks and circumambulate the wall.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims

Tibetan pilgrims from all over the Kham region and further afield descend on this huge Mani Wall from dusk to dawn.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China.Pilgrims circumambulating the wall with great determination and devotion.
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims

Dressed in their finest, they circumambulate the sacred stones in a constantly rising and ebbing flow. The early morning sees a high tide, while the crowds ebb during the afternoon, only to return again in the early evening.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims and Margie
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Pilgrims

The Awesome Hats

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Awesome hats

The Hats! We had never seen anything like them before. Huge, pancake-flat, wide-brimmed, and elaborately-embroidered; these stunning hats seemed to be all the rage in and around the Yushu and Serxu areas of Qinghai and Sichuan Tibetan areas.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Awesome hats.

These photos we taken at the Sang-ze Gyanak Mani-wall.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Awesome hats.

Elsewhere, we had never laid eyes on them, not even in Lhasa or around Ganzi, Litang or Dege.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. Awesome hats.

The Chapals and Prayer Wheels

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The Chapals and Prayer Wheels

The best way to take in the ambience was, and probably still is, to join in with the pilgrims and accompany them on their walk around the Wall.

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The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The Chapals and Prayer Wheels

The more times you circle the Wall, the more fascinating it becomes.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The Chapals and Prayer Wheels

Numerous dark chapels and prayer-wheel halls, lit up by thousands of flickering yak-butter lamps, provided a diversion from the routine.

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The Chapals and Prayer Wheels
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The Chapals and Prayer Wheels
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, Yushu , Qinghai, China. The Chapals and Prayer Wheels

If anybody reading this has been to Yushu recently, please lets us know what it is like now.

Buy some fungas at the wall.