Zhending 正定: China’s Unknown Temple Town

Zhengding正定

China’s Unknown Temple Town

Zhengding 正定 was known as the town of ´nine buildings, four pagodas, eight great temples and 24 archways’.
Pagoda in Zhending

Zhengding 正定 / Hebei Province 河北省

On our way to Beijing’s colossal West station, the taxi driver asked us where we were going. When I told him, “Shijiazhuang“, his reaction was one of bewilderment: “Why? You could go to Chengde.” “Been there”, I replied. “Beidaihe is also nice”, he continued. “Been there too”, I repeated. “Anywhere but Shijiazhuang“, the driver insisted, “meiyou kekan de dongxi 没有可看的东西” (there is nothing worth seeing), he sentenced. I extolled the virtues of the places we were going to see around Shijiazhuang, such as Zhengding or Cangyan Shan, hoping for a more favourable reaction. The driver just waved his hand dismissively, probably thinking stupid “laowai ” (foreigner), and just dropped the subject. It was too late anyway, since we had already bought the tickets.

Zhending  Temple studded Skyline
Zhending's Temple studded Skyline

Shijiazhuang  should come with a government health warning and when we alighted at the train station and inhaled the first whiff of some vile eggie sulphuric gas that seemed to be hanging over the city and then looked up at the yellowish sky, I did wonder whether I shouldn’t have taken the taxi driver’s advice.

The Amazing Arms of Dafo Si

So what can you do if you find yourself In Shijiazhuang? The first thought that might come to mind is, just catch the next train out. Or you might also like to carry out a scientific experiment and try and see how much pollution your body is able to absorb, before you turn Day-Glo. Alternatively and less drastic, you could get out of the city and explore the interesting sites that lie nearby. And that’s what we did.

Sleepy Zhengding

In fact, there are a couple of days of interesting sightseeing near Shijiazhuang and, following this brief introduction, it won’t come as a total surprise that you’ll have most of those sites almost to yourself.

Zhengding 正定

The first place to head for is Zhengding, a dusty town whose old quarter is littered with pagodas, temples, mansions and remnants of ancient city walls. Zhengding’s skyline of temples and pagodas is a reminder of what old China must have looked like.

Taoist Soothsayers waiting for Customers

Getting there, it’s an easy 45 minutes to one hour on bus 201 from outside Shijiazhuang’s Train Station, all the way to Zhengding’s chaotic bus station. From there, a bus number one will take you to the enormous Dafo Si, or Big Buddha Temple, which is a fitting starting point for four to five hours of rigorous sightseeing. Continue reading “Zhending 正定: China’s Unknown Temple Town”

Wulingyuan 武陵源/ Zhangjiajie 张家界: “Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin”

Wulingyuan 武陵源  /  Zhangjiajie张家界

“Please speak Mandarin”.  “I am speaking Mandarin”.

Wierd and Wonderful Wulingshan

Zhangjiajie / Wulingyuan / Hunan Province

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.

Mushroom mountains in Wulingyuan武陵源 & Zhangjiajie 张家界

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.

Wulingyuan / Zhangjiajie

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 “Wulingyuan 武陵源/ Zhangjiajie 张家界: “Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin””

Luzhi 甪直 An Authentic Canal Town (more or less): Photo of the Week

Luzhi 甪直

The best day trip from Suzhou 苏州

Luzhi Bridge 甪直镇

The Jiangnan 江南 Region

I have a nostalgic hankering for Jiangnan towns (Jiangnan 江南 means south of the Yangtse River).

Luzhi 甪直镇

I suppose this feeling comes from our first visit to Suzhou and Hangzhou in 1990, when we made an amazing trip along the Grand Canal on a local boat, on the now discontinued service between those two towns.

Luzhi 甪直镇

There was something dreamlike about the mishmash of canals, white buildings, eave roofs, arched bridges and winding cobbled lanes.

Luzhi Bridges (click on photo to enlarge)

In 1990, the Jiangnan towns provided a glimpse into old world China. Back then, local residents still occupied the ancient buildings that lined the canals, and it was possible to stroll the waterfronts and savor a community ambience that had probably existed for centuries.

Luzhi 甪直镇 Old adverts

The onslaught of mass domestic tourism in the 2000’s and the crass commercialism that comes with it has unfortunately put an abrupt end to that picturesque way of life (picturesque for the western traveler at least).

Luzhi 甪直镇 Amazing Jiangnan Architecture

Even until the late 199os, mega cities such as Suzhou, still pocessed a warren of ancient streets where time seemed to have stood still. From the kitchens of beautiful white-washed houses with their decorated doorways and stunning courtyards, smells of garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil wafted out. People lived and worked on the canals as had their ancestors. I can remember spending hours on the bridges watching the river traffic and river markets.

Luzhi Boats (click to enlarge)

In modern day Suzhou, any trace of the past community life along the canals has all but disappeared. In its place, plush restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up near the historic sites to cater for mass tourism. In the surrounding small historic towns, much of what was local, has been given over to tourism and converted the towns into theme parks and places to buy souvenirs.

Luzhi 甪直镇 No customers

In many Jiangnan towns, the local residents have been evicted from their houses and moved to housing complexes on the outskirts or even further afield. A new breed of entrepreneurs has filled their places setting up shops, restaurants, discos or hotels.

Luzhi 甪直镇 rowers looking for the tourists

You only have to visit pretty but touristy towns of Zhouzhuang and Wuzhen to understand what I am talking about. Improvements in transport and the proximity of the historic towns to huge population centers such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou make many of the Jiangnan towns weekend playgrounds for city dwellers.

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Xiahe夏河: 1990 From our Diary: Final Report of our 5 Part Review of Xiahe

Xiahe 夏河: November 1990 From our Diary

Gansu province, China

PREVIOUS ARTICLES: 1 Xiahe revisited 2 Xiahe & the Labrang Monastery 3 Excursions from Xiahe 4 Xiahe; a Reflection

Introduction

This is the final part of our travel report on Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery in China’s Gansu Province. The article is an unedited extract from the diary that Margie kept during our two year trip around Asia and the Middle East. The trip began in Lahore, Pakistan in early October 1990. By late November 1990 we had reached Xiahe.  Though we have now visited Xiahe 3 times (see previous articles), it was our first visit that really stood out, probably because  we hadn’t really experienced Tibetan culture before.

Xiahe Monks 1990

Wednesday 21/11/ 1990 (Lanzhou to Xiahe)

We have to get up early to catch the 7.30 bus to Xiahe; the only one of the day. The scenery gradually becomes more and more interesting. The whole morning we have been driving through a winter landscape of soft brown, reddish and yellowish shades. Every available scrap of land is being used: all the mountains have been terraced and divided into tiny vegetable plots, while the fields are used to grow potatoes, cereals and barley. There are haystacks everywhere and corns on the cob on every roof, drying. The villages, of a pinkish-brown hue, form an indistinguishable part of the landscape.

Looking out of the bus window, we can see many non-Chinese people, walking along the road. Most of them closely resemble Uyghur people, and they are wearing greatcoats, animal skins and furs, as well as heavy leather boots. The majority seem to be Muslims, judging by the white skull caps of the men and the black velvet and lace headscarves of the women. Many of the men also wear the large, round, horn-rimmed sunglasses that seem to be typical around here.

We stop for lunch just outside Linxia, a large Muslim market town, situated atop a reddish loess plateau. We can see lots of yaks milling about; as well as a whole pile of severed yak heads lying in a cart. Apart from yaks, there is a busy traffic of donkeys, pony’s and bicycles. Lunch, of course, consists of Continue reading “Xiahe夏河: 1990 From our Diary: Final Report of our 5 Part Review of Xiahe”

Songpan Festival 松潘 2: Photo of the Week

Songpan Festival 松潘2: What the crowds were watching

Photo of the week

Last week’s Photo of the Week showed enthralled spectators enjoying the entertainment at the 2004 summer festival in Songpan, Sichuan Province. What was captivating them?

A watching spectator in Songpan

They were spellbound by a riot of colour as Chinese dragons, Tibetan Qiang minority dancers, and Muslim Hui singers took over the town, paraded through the streets and usurped the public squares. The real fun began after the Communist Party leaders had made their speeches, sped off to lunch in their limousines and left everyone to an afternoon of spontaneous revelry. Here are some photos of what they were enjoying.

Tibetans with their dragons

Click on read more for some larger photos. Continue reading “Songpan Festival 松潘 2: Photo of the Week”

Xiahe 夏河: 3 visits; a reflection

夏河 Our three Xiahe’s; a reflection

Xiahe Monks

Xiahe Part 1

Xiahe Part 2

Xiahe Part 3

Xiahe in 2011

The Xiahe we found on our last visit had changed considerably since 2004. It was no longer the rather innocent, peaceful, Tibetan little backwater we had enjoyed so much before.

Labrang Kora

The Chinese new town is much larger now, with charmless, concrete buildings, traffic lights and plenty of motorized vehicles. There was building work going on everywhere: in the new town, where more and more buildings were being put up at the usual breakneck speed; opposite the monastery, where a large coach park was beginning to take shape; and even in the monastery town itself, where Continue reading “Xiahe 夏河: 3 visits; a reflection”

Songpan 松潘 Festival: Photo of the Week

Location: Songpan / Sichuan Province / China

Photo of the Week

People watching in Songpan松潘

Hui and Tibetans watching the Songpan Festival

The walled town of Songpan, the gateway to the scenic heaven of Jiuzhaigou 九寨沟 and wild horse treks to Ice Mountain雪玉顶, is also a destination in itself.  It`s a pleasant town with plenty of old architecture, local life and some fantastic tea houses.

What are they Watching? See next weeks photos

When we passed through in 2004 we were lucky enough to stumble upon a huge festival where the local Muslim Hui and Tibetan Qiang minorities were celebrating their local culture and dressed in their finest clothes. Joining them were a host of Chinese Communist Party Bigwigs, including the then vice-president, Zeng Qinghong.

Muslim Hui enjoying the Songpan Festival

The residents of the entire town and surrounding villages turned out to see the festival. This small group of photos captures them enjoying the moment. Next week’s Photo of the Week will show what they were watching.

Having a rest in the Songpan Festival

For large people photos and Songpan Practicalities see below. Continue reading “Songpan 松潘 Festival: Photo of the Week”

Bajiao Walled Village 八角 / Ganjia Grasslands 甘加草原 / Trakhar Gompa / Tsyway Bon Temple/ Excursions from Xiahe

 Xiahe Part 1
Xiahe Part 2

Part 3: Excursions From Xiahe

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.

Stupa over the Ganjia Grasslands

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.

Monasteries and stunning scenery await the traveller on the Ganjia Grasslands

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 “Bajiao Walled Village 八角 / Ganjia Grasslands 甘加草原 / Trakhar Gompa / Tsyway Bon Temple/ Excursions from Xiahe”

Anping Bridge 安平桥 Photo of the Week

Anping Bridge 安平桥

Near Quanzhou Fujian Province

Anping Bridge 安平桥

The road south of Quanzhou, towards the town of Anhai, passes through what must be some of the most depressing and ugly scenery in China. For about 30 kilometres, the road runs through a series of towns the outskirts of which all merge into one dirty and chaotic urban sprawl, leaving the despondent traveler to wonder what on earth has brought him there. Most of the buildings look as if they were put up in half a day, many are unfinished, bits of cables and wires sticking out, but in full use. This is not a poor area of China; it’s just an example of the complete absence of urban planning.

安平桥 Anping Bridge near Quanzhou

It is difficult to know when or where to get off the bus in Anhai, as there seems to be no apparent centre. In spite of the huge billboards advertising the bridge as a Number One Heritage Site, the driver of our clapped-out motor-cycle rickshaw was not quite sure where we wanted to go and initially tried to take us to a hotel. However, we soon put him right and after a five-minute ride arrived at our destination.

Crossing Anping Bridge

Built more than 800 years ago (1138-1151), Anping bridge stands out from the urban mess that surrounds it, a haven of peace, far from the thunder of lorries and the honking of horns. The bridge crosses a two-kilometre stretch of sea and is made entirely of stone. A few pavilions and a small temple built along the bridge add to its feeling of timelessness and tranquility. Walking the full length of the bridge and admiring its immaculate ancient stones, is a strangely moving experience that takes about an hour. On the way you will meet many local people who use the bridge and its temples to have a rest and a chat.

See below for more text, large photos and Practicalities. Continue reading “Anping Bridge 安平桥 Photo of the Week”

Xiahe & The Labrang (or Labuleng) Monastery (part 2)

Labrang (or Labuleng) Monastery

Labrang Monastery

Part 2

Click here for part one

Despite many of the changes taking place in Xiahe,  mentioned in the previous article, don’t be put you off from visiting. Xiahe, and in particular its monastery, is still a fascinating place; though you might want to get there quick!

Labrang Monastery
Labrang Monastery

The Labrang Monastery

Temple in the Labrang Monastery

Start your first visit with the obligatory guided tour around some of the main temples and halls. These days, there are English-speaking guides and our 2011 guide was truly excellent; a great improvement on the 2004 one. He tells us, among other things, that he learnt all his English in Xining and that he is a second-year philosophy student. Apparently, the monks studying philosophy have to pass 13 levels of knowledge, the equivalent of 13 years’ of study.

Xiahe Monks

He says that many of the younger monks find it quite difficult to be Continue reading “Xiahe & The Labrang (or Labuleng) Monastery (part 2)”