Shanxi Museum: 山西博物院; Shanxi Bówùyuàn: Taiyuan

The Shanxi Museum, a Taiyuan highlight!

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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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.

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The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi 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.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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 Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

Bronze Vessels

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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 Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

The Pottery section

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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 Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

The Relics of Buddhism

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

‘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.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

Even the fire hydrants are discreetly tucked behind fake rock panels depicting lines of miniature Buddhas; which makes us smile.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

Shadow Puppets

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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 Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

The popular Shanxi Opera is also well-represented with carved brick tiles and figurines representing scenes from popular operas, as well as interactive displays.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

Jade and Porcelain

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

Museum / Taiyuan Practicalities:

The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

The circular building next door which looks like a UFO actually houses a popular Geological Museum.

Shanxi 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:

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

Other Places to Visit:

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

Moreover, as an important transportation hub, Taiyuan also has excellent connections, either by train or bus, to Qikou, Pingyao or Wutai Shan.

Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyinShanxi Bówùyuàn)

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

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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.

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/other/flash-floods-submerge-feet-of-famed-giant-buddha-statue-after-heavy-rain/vi-BB188KDQ

Update

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)

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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. https://www.forbes.com/sites/evaamsen/2020/02/28/saving-the-historic-opera-dolls-of-pingyao/#1aa773032faa

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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. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s40494-020-0358-7

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.

Arrival:

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

Jianshui

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

Update

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

Update:

There are now daily trains to Jianshui from Kunming.

Tonghai 通海 Xiushan Park秀山公园: Yunnan China, Photo of the Week

One of China’s hidden gems – Xiushan park is a verdant paradice in an otherwise rather grey city.

Bonsais in Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

通海秀山历史文化公园

Bonsais in Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园
Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Tonghai 通海

This town to the south of Kunming makes for great stopover on the way to the stunning rice terraces of Yuanyang (Click here) and its rich minority culture, or Hekou, the border crossing for Vietnam.

秀山公园 Xiushan park

Tonghai 通海

The journey from Kunming to Tonghai  takes less than three hours, a straight bus-ride down the motorway with very little in the way of visual distractions. Tonghai itself is a small agricultural town, a few kilometres from the Qilu lake, on whose shores a village inhabited by descendants of soldiers from the Mongol armies survives to this day.

通海 古城 Tonghai Old town

The town, which is currently undergoing a beautification campaign, like so many others in China, is nothing to write home about. Unfortunately, many interesting old buildings, mostly dating from the Qing dynasty, have already fallen prey to the sledge hammer, while others are undergoing dubious reforms.

通海 古城 Tonghai Old town

However, Tonghai’s saving grace is its interesting population mix and, most of all, the wonderfully atmospheric Xiushan park.

Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Xiushan park is a large temple park in the style of China’s famous Holy Mountains, set on Xiushan mountain, overlooking Tonghai city and Qilu lake. Its total lack of cable cars, souvenir stalls and tourists make this park easily one of the most pleasant and laid- back in China.

Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Those relatively few monks and pilgrims there are, earnestly pray and leave offerings for the gods, simple yet beautiful gifts of flowers, rice, candles and incense. Meanwhile, the locals sip tea and play Mah-jong, Chinese chess and cards in the courtyards of the temples.

Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Minimalist Bonsai gardens and ancient, gnarled trees of a variety of species, such as camellias, cypresses or firs, many of them held up by metal bars, add beauty and a kind of timeless charm to the place.

Dragons in Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Besides trees, dragons are the protagonists of the park, either wrapping their bodies around pillars, cavorting above doorways, or splashing in fountains. All in all, it’s a lush and peaceful place.

Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Entrance to the park is 15 Yuan and foreigner visitors still attract the curiosity of the locals in these parts.

Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Practicalities:

Places to Stay and Eat:

Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

We stayed at the Tongyin hotel, supposedly the poshest and most expensive one in town, for 145 Yuan, including breakfast. You can’t miss it, it’s the tallest building in town, two minutes away from the bus station, on a main road. There is no shortage of  cheaper hotels, most of them new, near the bus station and on the road into town from Kunming.

Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Food options in Tonghai are not great. There are a number of small hole-in-the-wall type restaurants near the bus station with lots of meat and hanging carcesses, or the entrance to Xiushan Park, as well as at least one smart restaurant inside the Tongyin hotel. A couple of decent supermarkets provide for self caterers.

meat and hanging carcesses

Coming and Going:

Buses to Tonghai leave from Kunming’s main long-distance bus station regularly throughout the day. There are plenty of buses in the other direction as well. Regular buses leave for Jianshui,  every two and half hours.

Hell scene in a temple Xiushan Park Tonghai, Yunnan province 秀山公园

Sani Musicians at the Stone Forest: Photo of the week

The photos are from the Stone Forest in Yunnan 2007. Local Sani minority dancers from nearby Lunan and surrounding villages perform local folk dances. The Sani are a branch of the Yi nationality.

Sani musicans in action
Sani Musician tuning up
Admiring Sani ladies watching the performance
Sani minority singing and dancing at the Stone forest Yunnan 2007

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.

PINGYAO (RE) VISITED

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.   

Practicalities:

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 SPECIAL

WHY VISIT PINGYAO?

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.