Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice: Pingliang has become a large prosperous town in the last decade and has expanded enormously. Along with that expansion there are more hotel and eating options than what we have listed here. Kongtong Shan has become a huge domestic tourist spot and has undergone a lot of renovations. Many of the old temples have been rebuilt and some of the authenic atmosphere of a taoist hideaway has disppeared forever. That said it is still a beautiful place. Transport to and from Pingliang has also improved. Especially the bus connections to other major cities such as Lanzhou, Tianshui and Xian. You also don’t need to purchase the Gansu Travel Insurance anymore (Click here.)
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice Part one: Lanzhou – Pingliang
Once you get there, Pingliang is a small town which makes an excellent base for a visit to the Taoist Mountain of Kongtong Shan, one of the most sacred in China, which is a mere 15 kms away.
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice: Getting there
The best approach is to take a taxi to the reservoir (around 20 Yuan); a steep flight of steps will take you up to a road, skirting the reservoir, and on to the first temple. This is a beautiful ancient Taoist structure, guarded by venerable old priests, some of them with the pointy goatee and bun, characteristic of many followers of Tao.
“Please speak Mandarin”. “I am speaking Mandarin”.
Zhangjiajie / Wulingyuan / Hunan Province
Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin. From Zhangjijie city 张家界市we boarded the bus for the half hour trip to Zhangjiajie Village 张家界村 and the Wulingyuan Scenic Area 武陵源风景区. We are in Hunan Province 湖南省, in central China, also the birthplace of China’s first communist leader, Mao Zedong毛泽东.
Joining us on the bus was a young Chinese backpacker from Guilin 桂林 (China’s other famous natural scenic area). We soon got talking in standard Mandarin. The ticket seller, a friendly- chubby- bumpkin type chap with a ruddy face, cottened on that the foreigners could speak Chinese and joined in our conversation. He seemed able to understand us, but we and the young backpacker from Guilin were, completely at a loss as to what the conductor was trying to say. His voice high pitched and squeaky, the tones all over the place, was just incomprehensible.
Eventually, out of desperation, I asked the conductor if he would switch to Mandarin (普通话), and not speak Kouyin (口音 local dialect). To which the conductor indignantly answered ” I am speaking mandarin”. The young Guilin backpacker added that he also didn’t understand Continue reading ““Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin””
Excursions from Xiahe; there are so many, here are just a few. Once you have seen all there is to see in Xiahe, you should go and explore the grasslands. Though some of the areas nearest to town have become quite commercial, there is still plenty of scope for exploring.
We went on a great day trip, for which we hire a car through our hotel. At first, the price of 400 Yuan for half a day’s sightseeing seems a bit steep. However, when our vehicle appears, a shiny, brand-new black Sedan, driven by a sleek young Tibetan guy with shoulder- length hair, a golden tooth and lots of big rings, we are quick to appreciate the difference between this car, and any old taxi.
We drive out of Xiahe, which takes so much longer now that there are traffic lights and lots more traffic, and head towards Tongren. Immediately, and almost imperceptible, we start climbing and before we know it, we Continue reading “Excursions from Xiahe”
Xiahe Revisted: 1990 / 2004 / 2011: When we emerge from our hotel at 6.00am to catch the 7.30 bus, it’s still pitch-black and still pouring with rain. Yet, we are lucky because for once there’s a taxi waiting by the gates, and we don’t even hit one of those infernal Lanzhou traffic jams! At the station, we find a handful of shivering passengers huddled in the spartan hall. The toilet is in a little shack to the right of the waiting room, with a gorgeous, but miserable-looking, soaking-wet Husky tied up out front.
The bus leaves on time, half-full and with only a couple of tourists on board, none of them Westerners. Our driver moves slowly and carefully down the brand-new, almost deserted, motorway. Adam starts reminiscing about how this ride once took 10 hours … back in 1990. For this is not our first visit to Xiahe, or even second, but our third!
We whizz through Linxia; now a large, bland, Chinese city, but then an exotic market town with a distinctly Muslim feel to it.
Suddenly there is Snow
Next, an amazing thing happens: we enter the third tunnel with rain drumming on the roof of our bus and streaming down the windows, and emerge onto a dry patch of road… There is snow on the mountains in the distance and, suddenly, our bus is driving through a flurry of snow as well. And this is only mid-September.
Xingyi & The Maling Gorge: Whether you are leaving Guizhou Province from the West, or entering it from Eastern Yunnan, you’ll probably end up passing through Xingyi (see Map), a small town undergoing rapid development. To be honest, Xingyi is not the prettiest of towns, though we didn’t find it quite as grim as it was depicted in our guidebook. It is true that the town is entirely lacking in sights and has lost all its old neighbourhoods to the rampant white-tile and concrete construction that continues to proliferate in China. However, it’s a pretty laid- back place and its major sight, the Maling Gorge, just a few kilometres out of town and easy to reach, is truly spectacular.
Locals also recommend visiting nearby Fenghuang Shan (Phoenix Mountain 凤凰山), which they claim is another natural wonder not to be missed. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to check this out.
We arrived in Xingyi on a bus from Anshun 安顺. The journey took around six hours and passes through some of the most dramatic limestone scenery you are likely to see.
As in the rest of China, rapid changes are underway even in this remote corner of the country. The future cross-China East to West Highway, currently in the initial phases of construction, will eventually pass close to Xingyi. For the moment, it’s giving China’s civil engineers and architects a field day in designing immense and seemingly impossible construction projects to dominate this wild and spectacular landscape.
About 20 kilometres to the south of Yushu (玉树) lies the incredibly scenic Leba Gorge. The Leba Gorge is a magnificent valley full of rushing rivers, wild flowers and painted, sacred rocks. Its vast, open grasslands are inhabited by yaks and wild marmots and its changing, threatening skies are crossed by soaring eagles.
The Leba Gorge Yushu: Dodgy Entrance Ticket
Visitors can access the gorge from a clearly marked entry point near the Yangtze River, drive all the way through and end up at the Princess Wencheng Temple(文成公主庙); which is precisely what we did: A couple of kilometres down a bumpy track that precariously hugs the mountainside, with the rushing river beside and below us, our car is stopped at what seems to be a makeshift roadblock. Here, a dodgy ticket system is run by some rather shady- looking characters. We are charged Continue reading “The Leba Gorge Yushu”
Hengshan & Nanyue 南岳衡山旅游区.We hadn’t seen anything like these people before in China: dressed in loose black clothes covered by red aprons, and carrying little wooden blocks decorated with dragon heads, these old men and women circumambulated and filed into every temple they passed. They were followed all the time by three young boys bearing colourful banners and carrying boxes full of religious regalia. When I asked them: “您们是什么民族?” (What minority are you?), they cheerfully replied: “汉族” (Hanzu), in other words, ordinary Chinese, from Hunan, the province where we found ourselves in. “您们为什么穿这秧的衣服” (And the clothes, why are you dressed like this?), I asked. “我们是道教人”(We are Taoists), an elderly man answered. I smiled, slightly embarrassed at my ignorance.
Hengshan is one of China’s most sacred mountains and receives hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. The scenery, however, doesn’t match that of other famous scenic or holy mountains we’ve visited. The paved road continually cuts across the stone path and the drone of traffic is never too far away, reducing the feeling of spiritual isolation that the pilgrim trails of other holy mountains such as Emei Shan, Kongdong Shan or Jiuhuashan can still provide.
Nevertheless, a day hike up and down is still a great way to experience the mountain. Foreign tourists are conspicuous by there absence, and the spiritual atmosphere at the temples along the way is extremely reverent and more serious than at some other religious sights. Experiencing the pilgrims devotedly burning incense and kowtowing to the beat of a gong and the chants of the monks more than compensates for the strenuous climb. One of the most striking aspects of Hengshan are these large groups of pilgrims and devotees following a master monk in and out of every temple, like the Taoists described above. We trailed this particular group of friendly Taoists on their decent of Hengshan, and for a while almost became part of the group.
The stone temple on the summit is a striking construction. Its simplicity and austerity is in stark contrast to the other, more elaborate temples on the mountain. However, it oozes ambience and the scene of hundreds of pilgrims tossing massive joss sticks into the fire is a sight difficult to forget.
The assault on Hengshan begins and ends on a golf buggy; the only transport to the ticket office (5 Yuan a person). The 80 Yuan ticket price doesn’t include the bus that whisks pilgrims half-way up the mountain, stopping on the way at a few important temples and sights.
We decide to fork out the extra 13 Yuan and take that bus, for even at 7.00 am in August the weather on Hengshan is already scorching. The bus stops just short of the Xuandu Temple, from where a nearby cable car can spirit you up to the summit or, as we did, you can begin walking the pilgrims’ path. The path is steep in parts, but the sweeping views over the Hunan plains below are superb. A few slightly overpriced stalls along the way sell drinks and offer shade from the heat.
We were all excited as we piled into the back of the mini-van. David had got the embassy driver to take us on an excursion to the old village of Chuandixia some 60 Kilometers from Beijing. I suppose Chuandixia is the Beijinger’s equivalent of Chinchon for Madrileños. An historic village with restaurants and small hotels catering mostly for daytrippers from the capital.
Chuandixia is an extraordinaryly well-preserved small stone village . It is extremely photogenic and the surrounding countryside offers ample trekking possibilities.
Villagers have cottoned on quickly to Chuandixia’s tourist potential and have started opening simple hostels and restaurants. As a result, there is now a 20 Yuan entrance ticket and a small coach park at the entrance.
There are still many buildings with left over Cultural Revolution graffiti painted on the walls which makes the village an intereting open-air museum for those who can read Chinese.
Chuandixia: How to put a damper on the visit
However, it’s touch and go as to whether all of Beijing residents will take to this place. Ths driver, who had brought long his mother for the ride, something that has happenend more than once when we’ve hired a driver, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: “Everything is old and like it was 20 years ago”, they both complained. The two of them spent the whole afternoon locked in the van moping about how old everything was. I almost felt guilty, even though we were paying them to be there.
Foreigners love it though! We bumped into several groups of expats who were spending the night there with their trekking guides.
We on the other hand limited ourselves to pigging out, exploring the alleys and eventually climbing high above the village to sit and watch the sunset while polishing off two bottles of Great Wall red wine we had brought from Beijing.
Wuzhen 乌镇: A Classic Jiangnan Grand Canal Town: Arrival
Wuzhen 乌镇: A Classic Jiangnan Grand Canal Town: The rusty old bus from Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province rumbled along the tree shaded road, swerving past frequent potholes and dodging wayward livestock.
Rural scenes that hadn’t changed in a millennium flashed by the grime- incrusted windows. We secretly thought that we might be arriving in an undiscovered corner of Zhejiang and were about to enjoy a tourist- free canal town. How naive could we be?
And our wishful thinking of exploring a hidden gem was promptly shattered, when our bus hit a huge, 4 lane highway that cut in front of our little country road, just as we were arriving in Wuzhen.
The highway, built to facilitate the convoys of coaches that shunt tourists up and down from Hangzhou, ends in an enormous car park, from where microphone toting, flag waving tour guides harangue their cattle- like hordes through the main entrance.
Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, Wuzhen is a perfect example of a traditional Chinese canal town. Moreover, its location on waterways that feed into the Grand Canal takes visitors back to times gone by.
Unfortunately, in some ways, Wuzhen may be too perfect for its own good. The preservation of its architecture, a mixture of Qing and Ming dynasty houses and mansions, is stunning.
The time-worn narrow cobbled streets, huge ancient doorways and delicately arched bridges entice exploration. However, the problem with Wuzhen is that it can get swamped; not by water, but by humans. No self-respecting Chinese tour group visiting Hangzhou, of which there are thousands, can leave Wuzhen off its list. What’s more, many Western travel agencies have added the town to their itinerary. Even in mid-week, in the middle of September 2005, it was pretty crowded.
Things to See and Do
Dongzha Scenic Zone 东栅区: The touristy part
Despite being well established on the tourist route, Wuzhen offers a great insight into canal town life. Firstly, because local residents still inhabit the immaculately- preserved houses in the old town, cultivating their little gardens and hanging their washing out to dry.
Secondly, because the frequently held performances of the local opera Huagu Xi, or Flower Drum opera, the shadow puppets, or Piyingxi, Wushu martial arts, long pole acrobats and many other popular art forms from China’s past are highly entertaining, as well as enlightening.
With so much stage-managed entertainment for tourists, you might think that it’s all going to be rather vulgar, but actually it isn’t. The performances are rather fascinating and, obviously, the setting couldn’t be any better.
For instance, you can go behind the screen of the puppeteers and watch how the puppet masters manoeuvre their leather charges. They’ll even let you have a go in the break.
There are also many local industries you can visit. One of the most popular places to head for is the alcohol distillery, Sanbaijiu Fang, where the traditional brewing of rice wine is carried out. The rowdy and permanently besieged bar sells the lethal concoction by the glass, bottle or cask.
Other houses demonstrate dying and weaving techniques, especially the blue batik cloth that is famous throughout the Jiangnan region, fabricating bed clothes, bolts of cloth and traditional garments.
As for food, there are many stalls specialising in snacks, biscuits and sweets dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as some traditional tea shops. Lastly, there is also an old pawn shop, turned museum, which you can visit to get an impression of what ancient business life used to be like.
To get the most out of a visit to Wuzhen, try and dodge the tour groups when entering the sights. By fine-tuning your timing, you may still enjoy a few moments of having a particular sight to yourself. In contrast, the brewery is best visited when there are groups, as the mayhem and drinking are intoxicating, literally!
Xizha Scenic Zone 西栅区: It now has a ticket too
Like other canal towns, Wuzhen has its own river taxi collective, who will row you around the canals and under the bridges for an hour. However, if it’s the unfettered, authentic canal life you are looking for, just step outside the old town and there it is: rusty canal barges still ply up and down the polluted canals, while grey- brick factories belch out black smoke and pump vile- coloured water into the canals. This area is now called the Xizha Scenic Zone
It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, if you like river scenery that is.
The hotel owner in Yuanyang had told us to get there early, as many of the hill tribe people have to walk all the way back and the market starts breaking up at around noon.
So we got to Laomeng at about 8:30, where we were among the first to arrive. We walked once round the town and had a look at the few stalls already set up by a small number of colourfully dressed Miao ladies and some older Yi women. Most of them seemed as curious about us, as we were about them. By the time we got back to our starting point, dozens of vans, carts and other vehicles had already arrived, unloading hundreds of passengers and all kinds of goods. They brought with them a kaleidoscopic mix of colours, as ladies from the Hani, Yao, Yi, Miao and Black Thai ethnic groups spilled out from the back and descended upon the market for a few hours of frenzied buying and selling.
For the next 3 hours we were treated to a visual feast that left us drained and out of film. Our driver had filled us in on some of the intricacies of the local costumes, so we were more or less able to distinguish between the women from the different ethnic groups…
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