Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海: Taking a Chinese organised tour

At the Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海 we took our first organized Chinese tour since 1989. At first skeptical, we ended up having a marvelous day being led on long walks, carried over the forest on a cable car, rafting on a lake and being wined and dined on 16 different courses of bamboo food products. All led by a wonderful and enthusiastic guide.

Yibin Sichuan

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

There is really only one reason to stop at Yibin and that is to use it as a base to visit the fabulous Bamboo Sea some 70 kms away.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

To take a tour or not to take a tour

The first thing you have to decide is: do I visit the Bamboo Sea independently or do I join a tour. We doubted, wrung our hands, fretted and then the heavens opened and a twenty four hour torrential downpour insued; the matter was decided for us. We took a Chinese organsed tour for the first time and It was the best decision we could have taken.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Yibin 宜宾

Yibin is a modern city on the confluence of the Jinsha River 金沙江 and Min Rivers 岷江 where they combine to officially start the beginning of the Yangzi River 长江. There really isn’t anything to see, apart from the intense river traffic perhaps. Tourists tend to use Yibin as a base for a visit to the spectacular Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海 (or Forest as it is also known), about 70 kilometres away and the nearby historic riverside town of Lizhuang Ancient Town 李庄古镇.

Lizhuang Ancient Town 李庄古镇 (not my photo)

Yibin also has the unenviable reputation of being the largest city in China with the least sunny days every year (we didn’t see the sun). Remember, this is where the Chinese idiom, 蜀犬吠日 (Shu quan fei ri) the Sichuan dog barks at the sun, originates; becuase it is something so unusual.

Wuliangye Baijiu Click here for webpage:https://www.wuliangye.be/history-of-wuliangye/

On the plus side it produces one of China’s best Baijiu 白酒 ( rice wine) Wuliangye 五粮液.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Shunan zhuhai 蜀南竹海, or the Bamboo Sea covers over 40 square kilometres of mountains and valleys. The landscape is absolutely incredible: narrow paths will take you deep into a dense sea of vegetation, dominated by many different species of bamboo, some of which reaching heights of over 10 metres.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

The dense fog that often descends upon the forest contributes to the magic and enchanted atmosphere. Besides the bamboo, there are many waterfalls, temples, sculptures and reliefs in the rock walls to entertain the visitors.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

The cable Car

A ride in the cable car is a must; it’s a 30 minute ride during which you follow the side of the mountain up and down, at times almost touching the tree tops, at times sailing high above the undulating sea of bamboo. When the cabin reaches a peak, a valley completely covered in bamboo stretches out in front of you, for as far as the eye can see.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

It’s the typical landscape immortalised in famous martial arts films such as ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or ‘The House of the Flying Daggers’, many scenes of which were shot around here. The famous fighting scene in the ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ where the protagonists fight on the tops of bamboo trees was filmed here.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Organising a Chinese tour

Normally, we are not really into guided tours, but in the case of the Bamboo Sea we had a great time. You can try and hire a taxi to get there, but the distances are quite large, both getting there and back and inside the park, plus it isn’t that easy to find your way around and visit the best places.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Our tour was organised by the travel agency inside our hotel, the Xufu Binguan. At first they were a bit reluctant to take us, but when they realised we could speak Chinese, our money was happily accepted. We were in good company, a group of young enthusiastic engineering students from Panzhihua 攀枝花 on the Sichuan – Yunnan border, led by a lively and dynamic female guide. She took us to different areas of the park, by bus, on foot, by cable car and finally rafting.

Sichuan Dialect Rap and Hip Hop

The bus driver, a young and jolly chap, played Sichuan dialect Hip Hop and Rap that had our fellow companions falling on the floor with laughter. The driver later helped us buy the DVD in on arrival back in Yibin.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

The Food

We also had the opportunity to taste 16 different dishes made of/with bamboo, including the famous and expensive bamboo eggs (which are really rounded wild mushrooms that grow underneath the bamboo trees). It was really delicious. The meal wasn’t included in the tour. We got together with members of the group, negociated a price for 16 dishes, and then split the bill.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Yibin 宜宾 practicalities:

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Where to Stay and Eat:

The Xufu Binguan 叙府宾馆 in the centre of town is a good option. Spotless modern doubles with a good breakfast are 200 Yuan. There is a wide variety of decent restaurants and supermarkets near the hotel.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Coming and Going:

Update:

New high speed trains from Chengdu take just one and a half hours to arrive in Yibin and pass through Leshan. The line opend on 2019 and also connects Yibin to Guiyang in Guizhou province.

China’s high speed trains

Bus:

From the chaotic main bus station, Beimen北门, there are regular departures to almost all import destinations in the region, though most buses will go through Zigong first.

Update

Nowadays, a network of highways links all the major cities making travel much easier than when we were there in 2005.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Boat services to Leshan appeared to have been discontinued. Some services to Chongqing still seemed to run, though we were unable to confirm this.

Visiting the Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海 if not taking a tour:

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

Nan’an station, 15 minutes from the centre on the other side of the river, offers irregular services to Shunnan 蜀南竹海 / the Bamboo Sea, most of them with a changeover in Changning 长宁.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

The two main villages inside the park are called Wanling 万岭 and Wanli 万里. Both villages, as well as some other strategic locations inside the park, offer accommodation – with a typical double room costing around 100 Yuan – as well as food for those visitors who wish to stay the night.

Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海 Traditional Sicuan buildings near Yibin 宜宾

Guiyang贵阳 – Chishui 赤水-Zigong自贡 – Yibin 宜宾 –Leshan 乐山– Chengdu 成都: 2005 Route.

In 2005 our visit to the Bamboo Sea was part of a facinating trip from Guiyang to Chengdu via Chishui.

Giant Ferns Chishui 赤水

To get to Leshan 乐山 we first had to backtrack to Zigong; all in all quite a tiring ride of over 6 hours, due to the fact that the motorway has not reached this part of Sichuan yet. This has all changed now see above.

Guildhall Zigong 子宫

Photo of the week: The Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海: Yibin 宜宾 Sichuan Province

Coming next: The Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海
Welcome to the Bamboo Sea near Yibin in Sichuan Province. Our next article looks back on a magical day in this mysterious sea of bamboo

Click here for full article: https://holachina.com/?p=10838

Bambbo Sea as seen from the spectacular cable car ride
The mysterious Bamboo Sea in thick fog

Five minorities at One Market: Laomeng Sunday Market 老勐 市场

Enjoy these photos taken at Laomeng Market August 2oo6. If you have been recently, tells us how it has changed.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场 Jinping Yunnan.
Click here to see the photo video with music: https://youtu.be/H0NaaHfpLaA
Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

(Yunnan Province)

The hotel owner in Yuanyang had told us to get there early, as many of the hill tribe people have to walk all the way back and the market starts breaking up at around noon.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

So we got to Laomeng at about 8.30, where we were among the first to arrive. We walked once round the town and had a look at the few stalls already set up by a small number of colourfully dressed Miao ladies and some older Yi women.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Most of them seemed as curious about us, as we were about them. By the time we got back  to our starting point, dozens of vans, carts and other vehicles had already arrived, unloading hundreds of passengers and all kinds of goods.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

They brought with them a kaleidoscopic mix of colours, as ladies from the Hani, Yao, Yi, Miao and Black Thai ethnic groups spilled out from the back and descended upon the market for a few hours of frenzied buying and selling.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

For the next 3 hours we were treated to a visual feast that left us drained and out of film. Our driver had filled us in on some of the intricacies of the local costumes, so we were more or less able to distinguish between the women from the different ethnic groups. The men on the other hand were fairly indistinguishable, wearing pretty much the same peasant clothes and large wide-brimmed hats.

The Miao 苗族

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The most colourful group are the Miao. The women of this ethnic group wear short, pleated skirts in electrifying colours such as bright orange, turquoise, yellow, pink or neon green.

苗族Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The skirts are held in place by tight, embroidered belts and further embellished by lavishly decorated aprons, worn at the back (to protect their clothes when they are carrying loads, or sitting down on their haunches).

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Their lower legs are covered by leggings, usually black, although the trendiest young ladies can wear coloured ones, adorned with dangling pieces of silver, or coins. Their outfits are completed by a final, embroidered strip of cloth, wound around the head as a kind of turban, peaking at the front.

Miao with different style hats Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Given the vibrant nature of their attire, it isn’t surprising that their Vietnamese relations are known as the Flower Hmong. 

The Yao 瑶族

In stark contrast with the Miao, the Yao are probably the most fascinating to look at. Their all-black outfits of loose, flowing tunics and trousers, topped by incredible black boxed hats (resembling a Fez) lend them at once a forbidding and mysterious aspect.

瑶族 Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The stern black of their costume is only livened up by tresses of fuchsia coloured wool, pinned to the front of the ladies’ tunics, and the heavy silver earrings and necklaces they wear. The proud Yao ladies stride through the crowds mostly unsmiling and they are reluctant to have their pictures taken.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The Hani 哈尼族

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Hani women also tend to wear a tunic or jacket over trousers, like the Yao, though their tunics are shorter and tighter. And like the Miao, they wear a  protective apron at the back.

Hani and Miao buying apples Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Their colours are subdued, blue and black are the favourites, but some green and petrol- blue can be seen too. If a Hani lady’s headdress is very colourful and decorated, this means that she is single. On the other hand, if her jacket is decorated with silver coins, she is married.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The Yi 彝族

The Yi ladies are almost as colourful as the Miao, but they wear trousers, not skirts. On top, they wear brightly coloured jackets, often with short sleeves.  The colours can vary, but light blue, pink, yellow and mauve appeared to be all the rage.

Yi and Hani Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The top part of the jacket is covered with a semi- circle  made of embroidered flowers. At the back, instead of an apron, they tend to wear two embroidered lozenge-shaped appendages.

Black Thai 壮族

Black Thai Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Finally, the Black Thai were the least in evidence and dressed very simply in black, as their name suggests. Their ladies wore straight black skirts and short-sleeved blouses.

Black Thai Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

As to location, the market spreads out all over the town, which is small enough to be explored thoroughly in a couple of hours. Like most markets in China, each area or street is dedicated to a different product.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The square given over to vegetables and fruit is one of the highlights, with colourful ethnic women squatting down behind their wares, mostly small piles of exotic-looking vegetables, herbs or spices, spread out on a piece of cloth.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Purchases in this section are usually wrapped up in banana leaves.

Lunch

Food Stalls Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Another, larger square combines meat and simple food stalls with stands selling clothes, cloth, wool and other items necessary for sewing, embroidering or knitting. The latter are particularly popular with the younger ladies.

Yao Lady having lunch Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Lunch is a simple affair, with stalls selling noodle dishes with plenty of meat, vegetables and spicies.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

On the outskirts of town, there are corners dedicated to selling chickens, piglets, or watch dogs. 

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

It’s a great place to watch and take photos as well, because once the market is in full swing, nobody will pay much attention to you, even though you may be the only foreigner in town, which is what happened to us.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Don’t come to this market looking for souvenirs; there are few things for sale that would interest tourists, which should hopefully keep tour groups away. We had a look at one of the colourful Miao skirts and were a bit taken aback by its price: although it was handmade and weighed a tonne, we thought that 300Yuan was a bit steep.

Going home Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

True to our landlord’s prediction, by midday the market began to wind down and the vehicles filled up again with their multi-coloured cargo.

Heading Home Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

As we were driving away, we could see lines of people heading off into the forest and up the mountain paths, back to their villages.

Packing up for the day Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Practicalities:

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Laomeng is situated in the south of Yunnan, not far from the Vietnamese border. As the town lies in a river valley, the climate is hot and humid and the surrounding countryside is extremely green and fertile, allowing for two rice harvests a year.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Regarding its ethnic composition, Laomeng straddles two prefectures, Yuanyang and Jinpin. Of these, Yuanyang is home to many Hani and Yi who tend and cultivate the stunning rice terraces the area is famous for, while Jingpin is home to the Miao, Black Thai and Yao.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

The first two live low down near the rivers, in the sub-tropical fertile lands, while the Yao dominate the high mountain areas and ridges and therefore the poorer lands.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

As for Laomeng town, there are a couple of basic hotels, small eateries and shops, but not much more, and the buildings are definitely on the drab side.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

However, the market converts the town into festival of colours and sounds and it would probably make a good base for exploring the area.

Coming and Going:

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

From Yuanyang there are plenty of mini buses to Laomeng. The journey can take more than 2 hours, depending on how many passengers the bus stops to pick up and drop off.

Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

You can hire a minivan for about 150 Yuan to take you to the market and back, including several hours waiting time. Buses from Laomeng also go to Jingpin and surrounding villages.

Rural Scene Outside Laomeng Laomeng Market 老勐 市场

Coming next: Laomeng Market, Jinping, Yunnan

Next week we’ll be publishing an updated article on Laomeng Market.
The incredible market near the Yuanyang Rice terraces.

Click here for new post: https://holachina.com/?p=10719

Various ethnic minorites buying and selling at Laomeng Market

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu 甘谷; Daxiang Shan 大像山

The Sakyamuni statue, sculpted at the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, is approached by climbing a temple lined trail on Daxiangshan 大像山

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

Situated in eastern Gansu 甘肃省 province, Gangu 甘谷 is not one of China’s most attractive towns, in truth it is quite ugly.

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

However, if you are in Tianshui 天水 visiting Maiji Shan and have a day to spare, the large 23 meter moustached statue of Sakyamuni a few kilometers outside Gangu is well worth visiting and can be easily combined with a trip to the beautiful Water Curtain Caves near Luomen.

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

The Sakyamuni statue, sculpted at the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, is approached by climbing a temple lined trail on Daxiangshan 大像山.

The Sakyamuni statue, sculpted at the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, is approached by climbing a temple lined trail on Daxiangshan 大像山
The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

While none of the temples are spectacular, they are quiet and peaceful. You and a handful of pilgrims will be the only people on the trail even in the middle of August. The statue itself is quite special.

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

The colours are vibrant and the decorations surrounding it unique. But what stands out is the blue moustache, something almost unseen in the rest of China. There are some good views towards the rising Loess Plateau as you climb the trail.

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

Getting there:
You can get to Gangu from Tianshui 天水 by train in just over an hour. The convenient K377 leaves Tianshui station in Beidao 北道 at 8.32 and costs 13 hard seat (buy your ticket the night before, there were plenty of seats available).

Pilgrims and monks at The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

Alternatively you can take one of the frequent buses from Tianshui’s twin town Qincheng 秦城.

miniture staue at The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

I’d recommend combining a visit to Gangu with the Water Curtain Caves (Shuiliandong 水帘洞) near Luomen 洛门 some 60 km away.

miniture statue at The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

Hiring a taxi for the best part of a day from  in front of Gangu  train station costs 200 Yuan after a little bargaining. However, I don’t recommend visiting The Water Curtain Caves until restoration work has finished sometime next year (read the next posting).

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

One curious feature of the statue is that when you see it close up, the face of the giant Buddha has a contented expression. However, Seen from a distance, he looks quite miserable.

The Giant Moustached Buddha at Ganggu; Daxiang Shan 大像山

The Great Mosque in Lhasa: Photo of the Week.

Photo five of the Muslim Hui community in Lhasa taken in the Muslim quarter outside the Great Mosque: Qing Zhen Da Si 清真大寺

清真大司寺 The Great Mosque in Lhasa
清真大司寺 The Great Mosque in Lhasa

For the other pictures in the series click here:  1 & 2 & 3 & 4

清真大司寺 The Great Mosque in Lhasa

Exploring Gyantse:

One of Tibet`s most traditional towns. You’ll find fantastic architecture, amazing back streets and lots of cows.

Gyantse

We visited Gyantse on a three-day trip by mini-van that also included Shalu monastery and the town of Shigatse. We reached Gyantse after a long eight-hour ride, made even longer by our detour to see Yamdrok-Tso Lake.

Yamdrok-Tso Lake

From the Kamba-La Pass at 4794 metres, there are spectacular views over the turquoise waters of the lake. However, due to road works (expected to be finished next year), it wasn’t possible to continue along the old road to Gyantse, so we had to turn back and rejoin the new road.

Yamdrok-Tso Lake

The final part of the journey took us through fertile and idyllic fields, full of grazing animals and harvesting farmers.

Rural scenery near Gyantse
Rural scenery near Gyantse

The approach to Gyantse is truly spectacular: the ruins of the fortress, the Dzong, destroyed by Younghusband and his British troops, set on a steep, rocky hill, stand out against the azure sky and the golden roofs of the monastery gleam in the sun.

Gyantse Fort in the late afternoon

Gyantse itself is rather more prosaic; it is basically a scruffy one-street town (2007: has expanded now) with an interesting, traditional Tibetan quarter.

Gyantse Fort in the morning

We had just enough time to visit the Pelkhor Chöde Monastery complex, situated dramatically at the foot of the barren mountains and surrounded by a brown wall.

Traditional buildings in Gyantse

The highlight of this place is the Kumbum, an 8 storey chorten, topped by a golden roof and umbrella, apparently the best- preserved structure of this kind in Tibet.

The Kumbum

The 8 floors contain 108 chapels, all covered in frescoes and many holding statues. The outside is painted a dazzling white and decorated with colourful stucco, as well as four huge pairs of eyes, which survey the surrounding countryside.

The Kumbum

Though most of the frescoes are hidden in darkness and many are damaged, we managed to make out some frightening demons, adorned with necklaces of skulls, fine many-armed Buddhas and delicate maidens.

The Kumbum

The chapels which are set at the corners are the best, as they are two storeys’ high and contain a variety of large statues.

The Kumbum

On the sixth floor we emerged onto an open platform, level with the painted eyes, from which we could observe the other monastic buildings, the walls, the mountains, as well as the Tibetan old town.

Gyantse Old town seen from the Kumbum

The next day we visited the old fortress, or Dzong, and explored the Tibetan quarter.

Gyantse Old town seen from the fort

As we mentioned before, most of the Dzong is in ruins; thanks to Younghusband and his men who came riding in from Sikkim to ‘open’ Tibet to trade… They are, however, quite atmospheric ruins. One of the highlights is a grey memorial stone with the curious inscription ‘Jump off the cliff’

Directions or an order?

However, this isn’t an exhortation to visitors, but rather a commemoration of an act of bravery committed by the outnumbered defenders.

Gyanste Fort seen from the old town

The old Tibetan quarter, lying at the foot of the fortress, is another gem that takes you right back in time.

Gyantse Old Town

Along the main street, there are placid cows chewing the cud in front of every household, while pigs and sheep rummage around in the gutters.

Cows in Gyantse Old Town

People gather at the communal pumps to draw water, wash their clothes, hair or rinse dyed strings of sheep’s wool.

Gyantse Old Town

Inside the traditional stone houses, Tibetan ladies work the heavy wooden looms to weave cloth or colourful Tibetan carpets.

Gyantse Old Town

A peaceful, mellow village ambience reigns and life continues, unhurriedly, as it always has done.

Gyantse Old Town

Gyantse Practicalities:

Accommodation:

We stayed at the Jianzang hotel which lies on the main street of the modern part of town (Yingxiong Nanlu) and is certainly one of the nicest places we stayed at in the whole of Tibet, or even China. The hotel is embellished with bright, colourful murals and lovely potted plants and flowers, while rooms are large, clean and comfy. We paid 180 Yuan for a double with bathroom, though there were cheaper rooms and dorms as well. The hotel also has its own rooftop restaurant and staff are very friendly.

The Kumbum

Food:

You will have no trouble finding several places to eat along the same main street. The Yak bar and restaurant, for which you have to go upstairs, is a pleasant, laid-back place with Tibetan sofas and low tables, specialising in western-style food such as chips, pizzas and burgers. There is a large Chinese restaurant, a few doors away and identified by a green sign, where we had an excellent meal.

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

Map

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.

Practicalities:

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

Map

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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