Yak butter candle making 酥油灯; sūyóu dēng at the Ramoche Temple Lhasa 小昭寺; Xiǎozhāo Sì
The three story Ramoche Temple, in the heart of Lhasa, just a little walking distance away from the Bakhor, is an interesting place to visit when you are in Lhasa.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love visiting the arhats halls in Chinese temples. These are halls filled with amazing figures and transcendent scenes. Arhats or 羅漢 luóhàn in Chinese, are often defined as those who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana.
Arhats line the walls of many Chinese temples, but 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 arhat hall was built between 1883 and 1890 and includes 500 individual arhats 五百罗汉Wǔbǎi Luōhàn. 500 is the usual number.
Despite being a relatively recent creation, given china’s long history,the lifelike facial expressions of arhats in the Bamboo Temple, their clothes and the colours, all take one back to a time that evokes China’s mythical past and conjure up the west’s romantic fantasy with all things exotic and Chinese.
An arhat hall is the China we imagine when we read such stories as Journey to the West 西遊記 Xī Yóu Jì, Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义Sānguó Yǎnyì or the Water Margins or Outlaws of the West 水滸傳 Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn.
For me personally, an arhat hall is the China I imagined as a kid having just visited the Chinese gallery in the British Museum.
When I visit an arhat hall, I’ll spend hours staring at their virtually true to life faces, pondering on who their creator was, and who he was basing them on, and speculating whether or not they were real characters who existed in the artist’s lifetime, or if they were just a figment of his imagination. Or as previously mentioned: was he on something?
In temples such as the Bamboo Temple, 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì, 15 kilometers outside Kunming, the arhats are truly spectacular.
They are remarkable for the riot of colours; memorable for the individual expressions on the faces of the arhats; mind-blowing for the bizarre mystical scenes in which the arhats are placed.
The Bamboo Temple’s arhat hall is a creation of an artist whose powers of invention have run wild making it one of my all time favourite arhat halls. If you are in Kunming it is a must see. 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
Despite all of China’s modernization, it still takes just as long to get from downtown Kunming to the Bamboo temple 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì as it did way back in 1991.
Getting there in 1991
In 1991, you picked up a clapped out over-crowded bus in downdown kunming that within a few minutes 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 up through the lush forest to the temple.
Getting there today 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì
Today, there are no green fields, just kilometers upon kilometers of monotonous suburbs and snarling traffic that hold up the comfortable modern bus. Only the last two kilometers on the ascent through the forest brought back any memories of the previous trip.
Chinese domestic tourists now come to the temple in large groups 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 moved on to their next destination.
Domestic Tourists Can’t Enter The Arhat Hall
Due to their recent unruly behaviour, especially, the throwing coins at the arhats and patting them on the head for good luck, the monks do not let Chinese tourists enter into the arhat hall. Instead, they must be observed from a safe distance from which no damage can be done. It maybe one reason why the Bamboo temple is actually far more sedate than it was 30 years ago.
Individual foreigners, on the other hand, will be invited into the hall by the monks to stand in front of the arhats if no tour groups are around ( no photography).
Mayhem in 1991
I remember the mayhem from our visit back in 1991. Then, the Chinese visitors came with their Danwei (work group), and would fight their way to the front of the hall in order to touch or throw coins at the arhats.
All the visitors, men and women alike, were dressed uniformly in their blue Mao suits; I can tell you 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.
In 1991 there 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 a serene given that this is one of Kunming’s highlights..
What you do have now is a decent indoor and outdoor vegetarian restaurant set in lovely surroundings from where you can sip a cold beer, eat a delicious veggie meal and watch the huge resident tortoises roam around the grass. What more could you ask for?
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.
We are picked up at 7.30 sharp by Sue Lin in his shiny black car and leave Beijing via a four-lane road, lined with old trees. The road looks innocent and pleasant enough, but apparently people get killed here everyday. Although Sue Lin is a good driver, we ourselves experience a couple of near misses, due to the crazy manoeuvres of other vehicles.
It’s supposed to be only 60 kilometres to the village, but it takes us more than two hours. We have to stop and ask for directions a couple of times and once we even have to backtrack a bit. We don’t mind at all, because the scenery is absolutely gorgeous; we are surrounded by those dark, rolling mountains that I remember from my first visit to the Wall, so many years ago.
In fact, our route takes us quite close to Mutianyu. From time to time we can actually see crumbly bits of the Wall, running along the tops of the hills. At the foot of the mountains there are fields of corn, wheat and beans, and small villages. There is a busy traffic of donkeys and carts because this is September and the harvest is in full swing. We are in the middle of the real, rural China, we have seen so little of on this trip, and so close to Beijing as well!
Our journey ends at the refreshment stall of an incredible old lady who whips out a copy of ‘Lonely Planet’ and explains all the pros and cons of the two possible routes. She proudly shows us her collection of photos, taken by and with foreign visitors.
Apart from selling drinks, snacks and film, she also keeps the most amazing toilet: it’s a concrete box, open to the air and entirely without doors, so that you have to climb over the wall to get in, or out. Most importantly, it’s clean, airy and quite pleasant.
During the One Child Policy (一胎政策) which finished in 2015, the Chinese government tried to persuade the population not to discriminate against having female children. Unfortunately, the campaign was not successful and has resulted in there being far more males than females in China. Traditional families, especially in the countryside chose to have a male child over a female child.
This is a government propaganda sign in Rural China (Bakai, Rongjiang, Guizhou Province) reminding the local population that males and females are equal.
There is nothing quite like Maijishan 麦积山 in China. The bizarre, haystack shaped mountain rises majestically up over a subtropical zone of greenery and rivers. Other Buddhist sites might have enormous statues or high ceiling-ed painted caves, but the views they offer are often more restrictive and it may be difficult to get up close, due to barriers or hordes of visitors.
At Maijishan 麦积山, the cave art and statues are right in your face and you can almost touch them, though you mustn’t, of course! And, in addition, there is the mountain itself: a honeycomb of caves and statues reached by climbing up a snakes and ladder board of incredible staircases that cling precariously to the side of the mountain.
Lijiashan 李家山 is probably one of the best examples of Northern China’s cave dwelling architecture窑洞风格. Situated in a steep valley above the Yellow river 黄河, it exudes bucolic charm. However, if you are not going to stay the night or go off hiking, an hour or two is enough to see everything and have a cold beer.
Lijiashan (from Margie’s diary 26/8/2016)
Qikou 碛口Guesthouse 13.00
The driver, who had taken us to Qikou 碛口 from Lüliang Lishi 吕梁离石, has convinced us that Lijiashan village is much too far too walk. For another 30 Yuan he’ll drive us, wait and take us back. But first we can have a beer and something to eat. As we fancy the home-made noodles which have to be ordered for three, our driver joins us for lunch. We have cucumber salad, aubergine with beans, plus the delicious noodles with a simple fresh tomato, coriander and chive sauce.
The ride to Lijiashan is not far (5kms), but the road is windy and at times exceedingly steep. It’s also a scorching day and there’s little or no shade from the merciless sun, so we are pleased we took the lazy option. The village is really tiny, much smaller than I’d expected. Our guidebook had written a whole column about it. The setting is nonetheless lovely: the village is surrounded by green hills, some of them terraced, and there are lots of fruit trees and plants.
There are cave-dwellings, mostly abandoned, as well as more elaborate complexes, set around courtyards with cave-rooms at the back. Most buildings are dilapidated, though some Continue reading “Lijiashan 李家山窑洞村”