With the 2021 Harbin Ice and Snow festival underway. Here is a look back to our visit in 2015
Harbin Ice and Snow Festival 2015: Memories
Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is a must! At last we made it to Harbin. We had wanted to go to Harbin for its Ice Festival for years and at last everything fell into place.
Here is the rundown for this year’s Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Later we’ll be putting up a more personal account. In this post we’ll give you the info you need if you are planning to go this year 2015.
Strawberries and cream, a pint of beer and a packet of crisps, pescaito frito and a glass of cold dry sherry. And then there is Chengdu and it’s teahouses. There are just somethings that are marriages made in heaven.
Life is good: Drinking Tea
Tea drinking in the Wenshu Temple 文殊院 is a ‘Must‘ for any visitor to Chengdu 成都.
Not so long ago; depends what you mean by long;1989, when we first visited Chengdu, the city’s downtown streets were lined with rickety teahouses jam-packed with locals lounging on wicker chairs, chatting, playing mahjong and drinking tea. Above them hung their caged birds, brought along for extra company in the same way a dog is taken for a walk.
Unfortunatetly, as Chengdu rapidily modernised, most of roadside teahouses fell victims to the wrecking ball and disappeared, especially from downtown Chengdu. But scratch beneath the suface and many remnants of Chengdu’s teahouse culture can still be found alive and flourishing.
Chengdu’s Wenshu temple 文殊院
Welcome toChengdu’s Wenshu temple 文殊院 one of the best getaways from an ever more frenetic, burgeoning mega-city. It’s a place to forget the city noise and choking fumes, and instead catch up on local gossip or just chill for a few hours.
Having your ears cleaned or nails treated comes part and parcel with the whole experience; Covid 19 permitting!
Other recommended places in Chengdu to share a similar experience are the He Ming Teahouse 鹤鸣茶馆 in Renmin Park人民公园 and the peaceful Qingyang Taoist Temple 青羊宫。
These photos were taken on barmy August afternoon in the Wenshu Temple, Chengdu.
Are you looking for small traditional villages not far from Chengdu where Sichuan teahouse culture still survives: I would recommend the village below Luocheng. However, it is easier to reach Luocheng from Leshan rather than Chengdu.
The Old Photos of Mao during the Cultural Revolution from the Pingyao Newspaper Museum are part of a wider collection of Chinese newspapers in the museum.
Old Photos of Mao and TheNewspaper Museum Pingyao
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.
Old Photos of Mao and The Cultural Revolution
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)
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.
Taiwanese 60s music to survive the lockdown in Madrid
Weng Qianyu (翁倩玉) / Judy Ongg and & Yao Su Yong and the Telstars Combo: Taiwanese 60s Music for the Lockdown
Weng Qianyu 翁倩玉 / Judy Ongg gave me some uplifting moments during the lockdown. As I sit in front of my computer writing texts and sorting photos during the coronavirus lockdown in Madrid I find myself drifting off to another time and place listening to this gem by Taiwanese 1960s star Weng Qianyu (翁倩玉).
Weng Qianyu (翁倩玉) was a popular actress in the 60s and used the name Judy Ongg in her films.
Yao Su Yong (Rong) and the Telstars Combo
If after listening to the above album, you, like me, crave more: give this album by Yao Su Yong & The Telstars Combo a go. YaoSu Yong seems to have had many stage names. Her real name was Yao Su Rong 姚蘇蓉.
Many of Yao Su Yong’s songs, which are mostly about love and romance, were banned by the Taiwanese government in the latesixties and early seventies for being morally unhealthy for the country’s youth.
Remoche Temple Candle Making (酥油灯; SŪYÓU DĒNG) is an incredible spectacle to behold. I doubt if much has changed since the construction of the temple in 7th Century. Below is the account of our visit in August 2007 when travelling for foreigners in Tibet was at its most relaxed in decades.
YAK BUTTER CANDLE MAKING AT THE RAMOCHE TEMPLE 小昭寺XIǍOZHĀO SÌ LHASA Tibet
The three story Ramoche Temple (小昭寺XIǍOZHĀO SÌ), in the heart of Lhasa, just a short walking distance away from the Bakhor, is an alluring temple to visit when you are in Lhasa. So close to the hustle and bustle of modern life yet still bursting with old traditional Tibetan rites
Ramoche Temple Origins
Originally Built around the same time it’s more famous sister temple, the Jokhang temple (at some point during the Tang Dynasty), probably between 649 and 676 during the reign of Mangsong Mangsten, the Ramoche temple has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once during its turbulent history.
A Strong Smell
Your nostrils detect the oily, buttery, smell of boiling yak butter long before you actually you arrive at Ramoche. The air in and around the temple is filled with the unmistakable smell of Yak butter; it permeates everything from the walls of the temple to the clothes of the pilgrims.
During much of the day Ramoche is a hive of activity, with throngs of visiting pilgrims, the odd tourist group, resident monks, caretakers, , sand using mandala makers (The mandala represents an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation), and finally, the unmissable yak butter candle makers.
Devoured by the Soaring Flames
As you watch the yak butter makers go about their trade, there are moments when you think they are going to be entirely devoured by the soaring flames. At other times, their faces are forced to wince and scrunch up at the scorching heat and the spitting fat that leaps out of the cauldrons.
Ramoche Temple Candle Making. The process is non-stop
The process is non-stop; with someone always on hand to take over when a worker is flagging. Sometimes its a monk, other times it’s a care taker, and at other times pilgrims join in.
With the yak butter candles inside the temple burning almost 24/7, it’s no wonder that the butter making process is relentless and continuous.
The heat generated from the cauldrons can be felt around the main square in front of the temple. Monks and workers use enormous wooden handled ladles to stir the molten liquid and then scoop it out and pour it in to buckets for the gooey fluid to cool.
Ramoche Temple Candle Making. The pilgrims lend a hand
At the same time other pilgrims are adding more butter to the cauldrons. The pilgrims believe that by bring their own yak butter they will gain merit.
When the butter has cooled, it is taken inside the temple, where an army of helpers fill the empty candle holders. Like the melting process outside, cleaning and preparing the candles seems to be an around the clock activity.
As soon as a new candle is prepared, there is always a newly-arrived pilgrim ready to burn it. And so the cycle goes on.
Making Sand Mandalas 沙坛城; Shā Tánchéng
If you are lucky, you might also catch the monks making sand mandalas 沙坛城; Shā Tánchéng .
One of Tibetan Buddhism’s most bizarre activities; the monks can spend hours, days or weeks preparing these incredibly beautiful and ornately coloured sand mandalas; only then to destroy them after a ceremony.
Why? To demonstrate the Buddhist belief that nothing is permanent.
The pictures you see here are the prints I bought from the temple when I visited as photography is not allowed.
Visiting Arhat Halls
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: I love visiting the Arhat Halls in Chinese temples; halls filled with amazing figures and painted with scenes from the supernatural. Arhats, or 羅漢 Luóhàn in Chinese, are often defined as beings who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana.
Qióngzhú Sì 筇竹寺 Bamboo Temple Kunming: Are these the world’s best Arhats?
The Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple is home to what is probably the most amazing collection of Arhats in the world. And if you are visiting Kunming, looking up the Arhats is a ‘must’!
Although Arhats line the walls of many Chinese temples, you’ll fine some of the most stunning examples in the 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì, on the outskirts of Kunming, Yunnan Province.
The temple’s famous Arhat Hall was built between 1883 and 1890 and includes 500 individual, painted clay Arhat sculptures 五百罗汉Wǔbǎi Luōhàn by Li Guangxiu, a folk artist from Sichuan province.
Arhats are usually depicted in groups of 16, or 18 and less frequently in such a large number as 500.
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: The Arhats
Among the one-metre tall sculptures, there are Arhats reaching for the Heavens with exaggeratedly long arms and others crossing the seas on stick-like legs; there are pensative, serious Arhats and jolly ones; there are bare-bellied chubby Arhats and others that are sceleton-thin.
When you are in front of the Arhats, staring at their true to life faces, it is inevitable to speculate about who their creator was basing them on, and whether they were real characters who existed in the artist’s lifetime, or just a figment of his imagination. And some imagination that must have been!
The Arhats are remarkable for the riot of colours enveloping them; memorable for the individual expressions on their faces and mind-blowing for the bizarre mystical scenes in which they are placed.
In the light of China’s long history, these Arhats arerelatively recent creations, yettheir lifelike facial expressions, their clothes, the backgrounds and the colours, all take you back to China’s mythical past and conjure up the West’s romantic ideas of all things exotic and Chinese.
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: the China of my Imagination
For me personally, an Arhat Hall represents the China I imagined as a kid, after visiting the Chinese Galleries at in the British Museum, ore reading one of the stories in my book of Chinese Tales.
The universe of the Arhats is the China I imagine when I read such epic stories as Journey to the West 西遊記 Xī Yóu Jì, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义 Sānguó Yǎnyì.
Of course, this romantic vision of ancient China is a far cry from the reality of the country’s historical past; a tumultuous history of 5000 years full of brutality and oppression, wars and conquests, famine, drought and floods.
This other, much harsher China, is vividly described in much more contemporary novels such as Su Tong‘sBinu and the Great Wall (a love story set against the background of all the hapless labourers conscripted into building the Wall), or Mo Yan‘s Big Breasts and Wide Hips (a sweeping family saga that spans over 30 years of wars, occupation, revolution and political upheaval).
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: a Moment of Peace
Nevertheless, for a few moments when I gaze at the Arhats in front of me, I am transported back to that dreamworld of China’s fantastical past; the China of its great mythical novels.
It is clear that the Bamboo Temple’s Arhat Hall is the creation of an artist at the height of his artistic powers; an artist whose unbridled imagination has run wild. And that is why this is our all time favourite Arhat Hall. Don’t miss it if you are in Kunming! Below are the accounts of our two visits to the temple.
February 1991 and August 2010: Two Visits to the Bamboo Temple, 筇竹寺, Qióngzhú Sì
Getting There in 1991
In 1991, you picked up a clapped out overcrowded bus in downdown Kunming and within a few minutes you had already reached the outer limits of the city. After that, the bus slowly trundled past verdant green rice paddies and along pot- holed roads, before eventually ascending through the lush forest to the temple.
Getting There in 2010
Despite China’s modernization, it still takes almost as long to get from downtown Kunming to the Bamboo temple as it did way back in 1991.
Today, there are no green fields, just kilometer upon kilometer of monotonous suburbs and snarling traffic that holds up the comfortable modern bus. Only the last two kilometers of the ascent through the forest brought back any memories of our previous trip.
Mayhem in 1991
I remember the mayhem from our visit back in 1991. In those days, Chinese visitors used to come on organised outings with their Danwei (work group). Men and women alike, were dressed uniformly in blue Mao suits.
As soon as they arrived, they would try and fight their way to the front of the hall in order to touch, or throw coins at the Arhats. It was quite a sight watching the hordes clamber over each other to get to the Arhats!
The incredulous, and at the same time resigned expressions, on the faces of the caretaker monks said it all.
There also used to be snack stalls and tacky souvenir vendors around the temple. Most of them (if not all) have gone now. The area is actually quite serene, given that this is one of Kunming’s highlights.
2010: (Domestic) Tourists Can No Longer Enter the Arhat Hall
As I mentioned before, the situation around the temple ix much more relaxed and organised now. Chinese domestic tourists still come in large groups, but on air-conditioned tourist buses. They are then disgorged from the buses and unleased upon the temple; a few selfies later they return to their waiting vehicles and move on to their next destination.
The Difference Now
However, there is one more important difference: due to their past unruly behaviour, especially throwing coins at the Arhats and patting them on the head for good luck, the monks do not let (Chinese) visitors enter the Arhat Hall anymore. Instead, the sculptures must be contemplated from a safe distance. This may explain why the Bamboo temple is actually far more sedate than it was 30 years ago.
If you are a foreigner travelling on your own or in a small group, chances are that the caretaker monks will turn a blind eye, or even directly invite you into the hall (which is what happened to us), as long as there are no tour groups nearby. Just be discrete about it and remember, no photography allowed! Enjoy!
The Vegetarian Restaurant
When you have gazed at the Arhats enough, you can have a delicious meal at the vegetarian restaurant, or sip a cold beer in its lovely garden and watch the huge resident tortoises roam around the grass.
What more could you want?
How does the Qióngzhú Sì compare to other Arhat Halls?
Not all Arhat Halls are the Same!
In some temples, the Arhats can be simple, almost monotonously similar, and painted in one colour; often gold.
Was the Artist Hallucinating?
However, other Arhat Halls are such an exuberance of colour and fanciful scenes that it makes you wonder what the artists might have been taking when they created them.
Jiaozi or Chinese Dumplings (empanadillas in Spanish) have been popular in Madrid for a number of years, but finding the real McCoy, as you would in the old days in Beijing’s Hutongs, has been more of a struggle.
The opening of the Three Little Pigs Dumpling Restaurant 三只小猪饺子店 (Tres Cerditos in Spanish) has remedied the situation sensationally and especially for vegetarians.
The tiny restaurant does three types of dumplings: meat, prawn and vegetable. The dumpling dough, using wheat flour, is color coded; bluish for seafood, green for vegetarian and orangey for meat. You can have them grilled ( a la plancha) or steamed / boiled (hervido).
The prawn dumplings are simply delicious, while meat eaters rave about the veal or pork dumplings. My only gripe is that the homemade chili sauce is not spicy enough for my spoilt taste buds. However, there is Thai Seracha sauce on hand.
The vegetarian dumplings have an original filling of carrots, onions, leeks and herbs (fresh coriander). Not only is the combination wonderfully eye pleasing, but it is also unbelievably tasty.
Next on the menu are Jian Bing 煎饼 or Chinese Pancakes. These Tianjin style filled pancakes with vegetables only, or with chicken / beef and vegetables are enormous, delicious, cheap and filling. They are also one of my favourite beakfasts when I am in Beijing.
The pancakes are made on a hot metal grill and you can watch the staff preparing them right in front of you. First the dough is spread onto the hot plate and then an egg is added.
The process of making the pancakes looks simple but the number of different ingredients and various stages is quite mind-boggling. I imagine it is a case of practice makes perfect if you want to learn how to do it. However, I’d recommend leaving the task to the experts at the restaurant.
Other dishes: Also on the menu are hand-made noodles. The noodles are cold and come with a scrumptious hoisin style Cantonese sauce and are accompanied with an assortment of vegetables.
Rice flour is used to make the delicate and mouth-watering wantons (meat only). All the wanton wrappers are hand-made in the restaurant.
The kitchen is open for all to see and kept incredible clean. The owner is from Zhejiang 浙江省, but the dumpling makers are from the home of dumplings, Shandong 山东省 province and further north in Dandong 丹东 Liaoning province 辽宁省.
The menu below is in Spanish only. If you are visiting the Museo de Ferrocarril ( the Railway Museum in Madrid), then a visit to the Three Little Pigs Dumpling Restaurant is a must! Just walk long the attractive street Tomás Bretón to get there. There is another Tres Cerditos restaurant in the neighbourhood of Manuel Becerra.
The Barrio (Neighbourhood)
Just off the Atocha station and the magnificent Reina Sofia musem, home to Dali’s Guernica, is the attractive, but little visited neighborhood of Delicias.
Delicias was the first neighborhood where we lived when we came to Madrid. Back then, 1993, it was a traditional working class neighborhood (or barrio castizo) and slightly seedy due to its closeness to Atocha station. Over the years, it has become a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world, but particularly from Latin America.
Madrid is a fabulous city for eating out. For the adventurous, boundless opportunities for exciting dining exist all over the city. However, those who crave spicy food, and I mean really spicy food, are often disappointed by the dearth of options.
Some Peruvian restaurants make brave attempts to keep up their spicy tradition, but most succumb to the whims of their autochthonous diners by watering down the kick. Kitchen 154, a mecca for spicy food in the market of Vallehermoso, does a pretty good job. Cruel, there own chili brand, is pretty fiery .
Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼 the Chongqing dish that is hot in Madrid’s Chinatown
A local specialty from Chongqing, China called Wanzhou Grilled Fish (Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼 ) is now all the rage in many restaurants in Madrid’s Chinatown neighbourhood of Usera.
What is Wanzhou Grilled Fish / Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼
It is a grilled /roasted whole fish covered in a dry dressing of Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies and and served in a big pan filled with a soup like sauce that is not to dissimilar to the stock used in Sichuan hot pots 火锅 (huoguo).
The dish originates from Wanzhou (formerly WanXiang) in Chongqing municipality: It’s now popular all over Mainland China.
The original way of making this dish is to first grill a freshwater fish (Carp 鲤鱼 is popular) over charcoal and then cover it with various condiments that you order from the menu.
Some of these condiments might include lotus roots, potatoes, bamboo shoots, glass noodles, edible fungus, and beansprouts.
In Madrid the fish is usually Sea Bass (Lubina in Spanish)鲈鱼.