My name is Adam. I have a degree in Chinese History from SOAS and a masters in International Politics focused on China from the same university. I have travelled around China 9 times and since 2000 I have travelled every year for two months.
I guess I kind of like the place!
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.
His purpose was look over and protect the fishermen from drowning in the turbulent waters and defend the population against flooding.
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.
Not since 1949 have the flood waters reached the magnificent statue’s enormous feet.
This is another a recent video from Leshan showing the dramatic scenes of the flood waters reaching the base of his feet.
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.
The latter were apparently carved from willow trees, as far back as the Song dynasty.
The faces of the seated figures are incredibly serene, and their beards and pleated robes seem to flow.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
A number of articles have highlighted the case of the Shage Xiren (Miniature Opera Dolls). Here are the links to two of them.
If you are a restoration buff you’ll love this article, which reads a bit like a forensics report. Even for a layman like me, it was a fascinating piece.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The historic town of Jianshui is the last stop on a facinating route from Kunming to the Hani Rice Terraces at Yuanyang.
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.
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.
The land around here has been seriously eroded and there are numerous rock formations, shaped like fingers, poking up from the red earth. This is apparently how a ‘Stone Forest’ comes into being.
The bus station in Jianshui has been moved to the outskirts of town and a taxi for 4 to 5 Yuan is the best way to get to the centre.
Things to See:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To find out about other Mansions that are open to the public, which there are, you should ask the local people.
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.
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.
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.
Moreover, from the Gate you can still discern many narrow old streets, full of traditional architecture and workshops dedicated to the ancient trades.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
There are now daily trains to Jianshui from Kunming.
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.
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.
However, Tonghai’s saving grace is its interesting population mix and, most of all, the wonderfully atmospheric Xiushan park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Entrance to the park is 15 Yuan and foreigner visitors still attract the curiosity of the locals in these parts.
Places to Stay and Eat:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
The Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)
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.
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.
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.
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).
This is the introduction to a series of articles about our 3 visits to Pingyao, the historic city in China’s Shanxi Province.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New and re-done photos of the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall near Yushu, Qinghai Province, China; before the 2010 earthquake that destroyed it.
On the 14th of April 2010 in a remote area of China’s remote province of Qinghai, a huge aerthquake struck the town of Yushu and the surrounding areas.
The earthquake resulted in a terrible loss of human life and a vast amount of cultural damage was done to Tibetan monasteries and temples. The greatest cultural loss was the destruction of the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, the longest in the world and one of the most sacred for the Tibetans.
A mani wall is a wall that has been built up over time using rocks, stones and pebbles that have prayers written on them. The most common mantra is Om Mane Padme Hum, but ather mantras are also written or engraved on the rocks.
Tibetan pilgrims often pay to have the rocks placed on the ever expanding walls. The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani wall, just a few kilometers outside Yushu was, and still is, the longest Mani wall in the world. The wall was re-built after the earthquake.
We were fortunate enough to have visted Yushu in the summer of 2009; eight months before the eathquake.Here are some of our photos that I have re-done and some new ones that I didn’t post the first time. The photos still don’t do justice to mind-blowing exerience of visiting the wall.
Click here to read the original travel article and the subsequent article that we posted after the earthquake.
As previously mentioned above:Mani Walls are rows of piled-up stones, engraved or painted with orations. The size of such Mani Wallscan vary from the humblest pile to a circuit of several hundred meters. Pilgrims walk round these walls of holy stones in a clockwise direction, uttering prayers and twirling prayer wheels.
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall was truly enormous; a sign by its side proudly proclaimed that it is 283 metres long, 74 metres wide, 2,5 metres high and consists of 2 billion stones!
What’s more, the Wall, before the earthquake, was still growing, as we witnessed with our own eyes: devout pilgrims contributed new stones everyday, which were hoisted up on to the pile carefully.
The billions of beautifully carved stones carry the Buddhist prayers “Om Mani Padme Hum” or, “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”, and other orations.
Building the Mani wall
I never really sussed out how the system worked. But it seemed that wealthier pilgrims paid more money for bigger stones or rocks to be placed on top of the Mani wall in order to get more merit (I could be wrong here).
As you can see from this series of photos; a pilgrim, a monk and rock carriers were all involved in the process of heaving the rocks to the top of the wall.
Hoisting the rocks and stones up onto the top of the Mani-wall was done by muscle power alone and not only was the toil unceasing, but it was also back-breaking. You could read the expressions of pain and agony on the faces of the carriers as they struggled with the larger rocks.
The muscle and stamina of these guys puts anyone doing exercise in a gym to shame.
I can’t imagine how they must of felt having to put the wall back together again after its collapse in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.
The other fascinating part of a visit to the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall is to observe the thousands of Tibetan pilgrims who come every day to place rocks and circumambulate the wall.
Tibetan pilgrims from all over the Kham region and further afield descend on this huge Mani Wall from dusk to dawn.
Dressed in their finest, they circumambulate the sacred stones in a constantly rising and ebbing flow. The early morning sees a high tide, while the crowds ebb during the afternoon, only to return again in the early evening.
The Awesome Hats
The Hats! We had never seen anything like them before. Huge, pancake-flat, wide-brimmed, and elaborately-embroidered; these stunning hats seemed to be all the rage in and around the Yushu and Serxu areas of Qinghai and Sichuan Tibetan areas.
These photos we taken at the Sang-ze Gyanak Mani-wall.
Elsewhere, we had never laid eyes on them, not even in Lhasa or around Ganzi, Litang or Dege.
The Chapals and Prayer Wheels
The best way to take in the ambience was, and probably still is, to join in with the pilgrims and accompany them on their walk around the Wall.
The more times you circle the Wall, the more fascinating it becomes.
Numerous dark chapels and prayer-wheel halls, lit up by thousands of flickering yak-butter lamps, provided a diversion from the routine.
If anybody reading this has been to Yushu recently, please lets us know what it is like now.