Posts Tagged ‘China’


February 11, 2009

I spent my last full day in China in the city of Suzhou, 45 minutes west of Shanghai by express train.

Suzhou was founded some 2,500 years ago as the capital of the state of Wu, during China’s “Spring and Autumn Period” (when separate kingdoms formed as the Zhou Dynasty gradually lost control, leading in turn to the Warring States Period).  Suzhou remained the cultural center of the region until Shanghai overshadowed it in the last century or so.  Today, a visitor might be tempted to call Suzhou a town rather than a city, as it doesn’t have any high rises, but it has over two million residents.

The Grand Canal passes through Suzhou, and the city is crisscrossed with many smaller canals.  Marco Polo called Suzhou the Venice of the East, and although it isn’t nearly so magnificent today, it still has charming spots.

Suzhou Canal-W

The canals vary in size and character.  This one is cleaner, if perhaps less interesting.

Suzhou Canal-C

Another small canal.

Suzhou Canal-N

But as picturesque as its canals can be, they aren’t what brought me to Suzhou.  The city’s real draw is its collection of old gardens.

Like Yuyuan in Shanghai, Suzhou’s gardens were urban homes landscaped into private paradises and sanctuaries.  At one time, Suzhou had over 200 gardens.  Unfortunately, far fewer remain today, but nine of the best preserved gardens are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.  I managed to visit five of these.

The first garden I saw was the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence

This is not the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

On accident, I entered Suzhou Museum, which is right next door.  I had known that the museum was next to the garden, but I was tricked because the museum has two entrances – one for the museum proper and another for Prince Zhong’s Residence, an old mansion that’s now part of the museum.  I soon realized my mistake, but only after I’d bought a ticket and entered.  Still, two good things came out of screwing up.

One was that the residence is a fascinating historic site, although the English signage was limited. Prince Zhong was a rebel commander in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).  I’d never heard of the rebellion, but apparently its leader claimed to be the younger brother of Christ.

And so the residence has a chapel.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence Chapel

The Taiping Rebellion took place following the First Opium War, whose humiliating outcome left many Chinese people disaffected with the imperial government.  The rebellion gained many supporters and escalated into a brutal civil war that killed over 20 million people.  You’d think that would warrant mention in a history class, but then again, I don’t think I learned any Chinese history before college.

The second good thing about accidentally entering Suzhou Museum was that the main museum building was brand new and had really nice, clean, modern bathrooms.  That’s not something you can take for granted.

Anyhow, my time was limited, so after taking a very quick look at the most interesting parts of the museum and enjoying the beautifully sanitary restroom, I moved on to my intended destination.

At all the gardens I visited, the crowds were heavy – it was the Saturday following a national holiday after all – and the best views were constantly blocked by domestic tour groups.  There were occasional lulls in the flow of people, and I took pictures when I could, but the breaks didn’t necessarily happen when I was in a good place for a shot, and my digital camera still had the problem of randomly flipping its image (which began in Hong Kong and which I didn’t fix until I was back in Japan), so I don’t have many good pictures.  I’ll share what I can.

This is the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Humble Administrator's Garden

It presents a nice example of the borrowed scenery technique, using the pagoda.

I bought a book on the gardens of Suzhou while I was in the city, and it says that the Humble Administrator’s Garden was built in 1530.  The book then goes on to note that the garden was later divided into three sections with different owners for each part.  Before being reunited centuries later, the different sections experienced very different treatment.  The central part mostly kept the original Ming Dynasty aesthetic, the western section changed to reflect late Qing Dynasty style, and the eastern section was in ruins before getting a renovation in the 1950s that didn’t really adhere to any classical style.

Maddeningly, the book never explains any of these styles.  It just says that such and such a garden is an exemplar of such and such an era’s style and then leaves it at that.  And since I haven’t found much information elsewhere, I can’t offer any illumination. Bah.

The next garden I visited was the Lion Grove, built around 1340.

Suzhou Lion Garden Lion

Rock collecting was a popular pursuit among Chinese literati and the owner must have been thrilled to find this lion-like formation.  I don’t know if the rock inspired the garden or if it was added later, but apparently the garden’s builder was a Buddhist monk, and Lion Grove was the name of a mountain monastery.

The garden’s most famous feature is its sprawling artificial hill, which was meant to evoke the mountain home of the original Lion Grove.

Suzhou Lion Garden Rocks

This is just a part of the maze-like rockery, which has nine paths and 11 caves.  Those numbers have some sort of religious symbolism, but I don’t know what that is.

After seeing the Lion Grove, I stopped for lunch.

I ate at Deyuelou (得月楼), a 400-year-old restaurant.  My food was fine, but nothing impressive, and the restaurant’s huge, modern building wasn’t particularly atmospheric.  Still, I don’t dismiss Deyuelou, since it’s really meant for large groups sharing a variety of dishes.  And I did eat something that I’d never eaten before and may never encounter again:  I had a soup that included fried caterpillar fungus.  It wasn’t bad.

From lunch, I moved on to the Master of Nets Garden, built in the 18th century on the site of a 12th century garden.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Flowers

The name, my book tells me, is a tribute to another garden, the Fisherman’s Garden.

The love of unusual rocks was present here, as in all the gardens I saw.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Rock

This particular rock supposedly produces a ringing tone when struck.  I didn’t test it myself, but a Chinese kid whacked at it with a plastic bottle for a while with no results (while his parents watched, utterly unconcerned).

This is the Surging Wave Pavilion, one of the oldest gardens in the city.

Suzhou Wave Garden

Built in 1044, the Surging Wave Pavilion is rare in that is surrounded by water, rather than having a large pond in the middle.  Apparently, this was the usual layout for gardens in southern Chinese “water towns” like Suzhou, before the pond arrangement became the norm.

The last garden I visited was the Garden for Lingering (or “Lingering Garden” as the official translation goes).

Suzhou Lingering Garden Door

The site began as the East Garden in 1593 and changed names several times before becoming the Garden for Lingering in 1876.

It had my favorite rocks among the many in all the gardens.

Suzhou Lingering Garden Mountains

I think that these  evoke mountains in a much more graceful and attractive fashion than the Lion Grove’s huge mass of rocks.

So as I said, I had a hard time taking pictures.  I was mostly limited to shots of walls and corners in the gardens, which are fine in and of themselves, but only give a vague idea of what the gardens were like.  Oh well.

The next morning, I visited the Shanghai Museum.  It’s free, which was nice, but to prevent overcrowding, visitors are admitted at a slow, controlled pace, which made for a long line outside.  After the museum, it was time to make my way to the airport and catch my flight back to Japan.

For one last fun experience in China, I rode the maglev to Pudong Airport.  The German-built Shanghai Maglev was the first commercially implemented, high speed maglev train.  Each compartment has a speedometer, and the top speed displayed was 431 km/h (about 268 mph).  Whee!



January 22, 2009

With three days left in my trip through China, I left Beijing for Shanghai.

Shanghai, located near the mouth of the Yangtze River, is a metropolis of over 18 million people and has been the economic center of mainland China since the 19th century.

I had wanted to take an overnight train to Shanghai like I did from Xi’an to Beijing, but tickets were sold out.  The reason, as I discovered later, was that my date of arrival was Tomb Sweeping Day, an old holiday that just last year became a national holiday in the PRC.  On Tomb Sweeping Day, 15 days before the spring equinox, families gather and pay their respects at their ancestors’ graves.  Thus, millions of people were traveling to visit family, and the trains were full.  Fortunately, I was able to stay an extra night at my hotel in Beijing and buy a plane ticket to Shanghai for the next morning.  This change in plans shortened my time in Shanghai, but the city only has a few attractions other than the city itself, so losing the morning wasn’t terrible.

I spent my first and only afternoon in Shanghai at Yuyuan (“Yu Garden”).

Shanghai Yuyuan Gate

This an inner gate, not the main entrance, by the way.

The wealthy son of a high-ranking Ming official built Yuyuan in 1559 as a private garden to please his aging father.  Over the following centuries the garden changed hands many times, fell in and out of disrepair, was occupied by various armies, and even spent several years during the Boxer Rebellion as the headquarters of the Small Swords Society, a separate rebel group that seized control of Shanghai.  Yuyuan is now a national monument, owned by the Shanghai government.

Alas, since I had unwittingly chosen to visit Yuyuan on a national holiday, the place was packed.  Working around the crowds and trying to take pictures over people’s heads, I couldn’t manage any decent photos, but here’s some of what I ended up with.

Dragon walls.

Shanghai Yuyuan Dragons

I really wanted to take this from a better angle – it would have been a great shot with the tree to the left and the wall in full view –  but I eventually gave up on fighting the crowd and moved on.  It was driving me crazy though.  In general, I try to enjoy the places I visit and just take some pictures along the way, rather than putting photography first, but it’s frustrating when a great scene is right there and you can’t capture it.  Oh well.

A handsome building next to a carp pond.

Shanghai Yuyuan Koi

Like most classical Chinese gardens, Yuyuan is actually an intricately landscaped residence (well, former residence now), as opposed to being strictly a garden.  Also in keeping with the traditional style, it has more rocks and water than plants.

The inside of another building.

Shanghai Yuyuan Room

An engraving.  (Or cast metal?)

Shanghai Yuyuan Relief

The stone around it was scraped up.  Signs of an attempt to pry it out, perhaps?  I’m sure the garden has been looted several times in its history, so it’s certainly possible.


Shanghai Yuyuan Flowers

There weren’t many in the garden, even considering that spring was just beginning.  Still, Yuyuan was beautiful.

Shanghai Yuyuan Skyscraper

After seeing the garden, I wandered around the city.

Not far from the garden is the Bund, Shanghai’s old financial center.

Shanghai Bund Night

The Bund has a lot of neat buildings dating from the early 20th century.

On the other side of the river is Pudong, the new financial district.

Shanghai Pudong Night

I had dinner on the Bund, at a British/American-style bar and grill in the basement of the old Nissin building (Nissin was a Japanese shipping company).  There was nothing historic or special about the restaurant, but it felt fitting.

Hong Kong Skyline

January 3, 2009

Speaking, again, of Hong Kong, I found this great nighttime view of the city in Wikipedia.

Hong Kong Night Skyline

Apparently, Hong Kong is the world’s most vertical city.  It has over 6,000 skyscrapers, and more people in Hong Kong live or work over 14 floors up than in any other city.

Spitting, Lines, and China

December 15, 2008

First, a few more pictures from the Forbidden City.

Dragons and the number nine were associated with the emperor, and this is one of three nine-dragon walls in China.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon Wall

Or half of the wall, anyway.

On the half that’s outside this shot, one of the tiles is wooden. It’s thought that a worker broke the original tile when the wall was being assembled and the wooden replacement was secretly made to avoid punishment.  The tile probably blended in perfectly when it was new, but as it aged, it faded more rapidly than the ceramic tiles and is now noticeably different.

This is a stage for Chinese opera.

Beijing Forbidden City Opera Stage

And for another lousy-but-possibly-interesting picture, this is one of several throne rooms in the Forbidden City.

Beijing Forbidden City Throne

The plaque above the throne says “just and honorable.”

Little figures like these are placed at the corners of palace roofs in both China and Korea.

Beijing Forbidden City Roof Figures

The more important the building, the more figures there are.

Some impressions of China.

When I wrote about my brief stay in Hong Kong, I said that among the Chinese cities I visited, Hong Kong was my favorite, because it didn’t suffer from some of the unpleasant aspects of mainland culture.

One of those unpleasant things is that people in China spit all over the place, including on the train and in buildings.  And it’s not just the rough, uneducated types; at the airport in Beijing, I saw a neatly-uniformed airport employee spit on the moving walkway.

Sometimes this casual disregard for cleanliness in public spaces was really bad.  In a modern shopping district in Guilin, a small child needed to pee, so his mother helped him with his pants and had him relieve himself on the sidewalk.  She could have at least had him do it by a tree or in the gutter, but nope, right on the sidewalk.

But as much as these things made me cringe, they’re not terrible, relatively speaking.  The worst problem on the mainland was that the vast majority of people had little concept of waiting one’s turn.  Most of the time it wasn’t noticeable, but it became infuriatingly apparent when I used the subway in Beijing and Shanghai.

I can say from experience that in Japan, Korea, and Thailand, people waiting for the metro form lines where markings on the platform say to, and when the train arrives, they let the disembarking passengers get off before they themselves board.  In China, I saw signs telling passengers to do this, but that’s not what happened.  Sometimes the people waiting on the platform did make lines (or were forced to by station attendants), but when the trains came, everyone would just crowd in front of the doors, and then they’d push their way on without letting anyone get off first.  There was no meanness in it, but the basic consideration for others embodied in waiting your turn was neither shown nor expected, and it made an utter mess of the already crowded subways.  The government had signs and posters everywhere laying out all sorts of etiquette, from “no spitting” and “wait in line,” to the practice of using one side of an escalator for standing and the other side walking, but while the escalator thing seemed to be catching on, the rest will probably be a long, uphill battle.

Speaking of government-sponsored ads (and to avoid ending on a negative note), it was four or five months before the Beijing Olympics when I was in China, and I saw a lot of billboards and TV spots not only hyping the Olympics, but also explaining them.  Most educated Chinese were thrilled to be hosting the Games, but evidently a lot of people (the “Zhou Six-Packs” of China, perhaps?) didn’t know much about the Olympics – I even saw a cartoon explaining footraces (why there are lanes, why runners start from a crouch, etc.) – so the government was doing its best to get people informed and excited.

The Forbidden City

December 7, 2008

In my third and final day in Beijing, I visited the Forbidden City.  I had intended to see some other places too, but the palace isn’t called a city for nothing, and in the end I spent most of the day there.  This picture from Wikipedia, gives a feel for the size of the complex (nearly 180 acres).

Beijing Forbidden City Panorama

Some history.

The Forbidden City was built in the early 15th century and was the imperial palace for 14 emperors of the Ming dynasty and all 10 emperors of the Qing dynasty.  The last emperor abdicated in 1912, but continued living in the Inner Court until he was kicked out in 1924.  The Forbidden City was then renamed the Palace Museum (the website doesn’t display properly in Firefox, fyi).

The Forbidden City is directly north of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing Tiananmen

The symbolism of Mao’s portrait at the gate to the former seat of power in China doesn’t need any explanation.

Past Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) is a large courtyard for reviewing troops.  It still serves that purpose, and a couple hundred soldiers were being reviewed when I passed through.  I wasn’t sure if photos would be allowed, so I didn’t take any, deciding to play it safe and not risk losing my camera or memory card.

The gate at the west end of the courtyard leads to the former Imperial Shrine of State, now a park in honor of Sun Yat-sen.  The eastern gate leads to the former Imperial Ancestral Shrine, now the “Working People’s Cultural Hall.”

At the north end of the courtyard is the Meridian Gate, the main entrance to the Forbidden City.

Beijing Forbidden City Meridian Gate

A digression.

The English name, Meridian Gate, confused me for a while.  The name plate on the gate says 午門, in which the first character is the horse sign of the zodiac (just plain “horse” is written 馬) and the second character means gate.  A meridian, meanwhile, is a circle passing through the Earth’s poles, or a pathway of qi/chi in acupuncture, or, in some US dialects, a median strip in a road.

Then I remembered that the horse sign also means noon.  In Japanese, “noon” is usually written with another character entirely, but am and pm are “before 午” and “after 午.”  And in astronomy, a meridian is a circle that not only passes through the Earth’s poles, but also passes through the observer’s zenith, and noon of course is when the sun is at it’s zenith.  Indeed, if I were better read, I’d have known that meridian used to be commonly used to mean zenith, especially in the figurative sense.  Checking a dictionary later made things clear cut:  The word meridian originally meant noon.

So now “午門 = Meridian Gate” makes sense, but why is it called that in the first place?  Fortunately, that’s easily explained.  In addition to being associated with noon, the horse sign of the zodiac is also associated with the southern direction, and this is the southern gate.

Beyond the Meridian Gate is another vast courtyard.  An artificial stream runs through it, probably for reasons of feng shui.  At the north end of the courtyard is the Gate of Supreme Harmony.  The emperors sure liked grandiose names, eh?

This is the northwest corner of the courtyard, with bridges and one of the small gates that flank the big one.

Beijing Forbidden City Bridge

In the old days, most people had to use the side gates; the big gate was for the emperor.

I think this lion is in front of the central gate.

Beijing Forbidden City Lion

To the right of the lion you can see a carved ramp of sorts.  This is a close view.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon Path

Dragon paths like this climb the center of the stairs that lead to each of the major ceremonial halls and gates.  The emperor was carried over them in a litter.

Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony lies yet another vast courtyard.

Beijing Forbidden City Main Hall

The building at the end of the courtyard is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the symbolic center of the empire and the largest building in the Forbidden City.  It was used for grand ceremonies of state.  Unfortunately, it was being renovated when I was there, so visitors couldn’t enter or even peek inside.

Most of the other buildings were open, though, and I went in all that I could.

Some of the side halls were displaying palace artifacts.  This is a musical instrument.

Beijing Forbidden City Pipes

You’ll notice that it’s terribly dusty.  The other instruments on show were even worse.

Beijing Forbidden City Instruments

When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, thousands of crates filled with records and art from the Forbidden City were moved elsewhere for safekeeping.  Shortly after the end of World War II, much of the best of that treasure trove ended up in Taiwan and when the government of the Republic of China moved to Taiwan and mainland China became the People’s Republic, that artwork stayed on the island.  Now it forms the core collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

If the Palace Museum in Beijing (ie the Forbidden City) is treating its relics like this, maybe it’s for the best that Taiwan has the good stuff in a proper museum.  That said, other exhibits at the Forbidden City were treated with appropriate care – the clock collection is quite nice – but the state of this clutch of musical instruments was simply appalling.

At least the buildings themselves were being seen to.

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony and then the Hall of Preserving Harmony. These three halls share a stone platform that raises them to roof height compared to the rest of the City.

Beijing Forbidden City Roofs

All this “harmony” business in the names was the doing of the Qing dynasty, by the way.   The Qing emperors were Manchu, not Han Chinese, and they not only renamed many of the palace buildings, but also added Manchu translations to most of the name plates.

Beijing Forbidden City Sign

This plate is for the Palace of Heavenly Purity, which is the next building in line north of the Hall of Preserving Harmony, but which belongs to the Inner Court, not the Outer.

The Outer Court is the southern half of the Forbidden City.  It comprises the formal halls and large plazas where public ceremonies of state were held.  The Inner Court is the dense, northern half of the City, where the imperial family lived and where the emperor conducted most daily affairs.

The satellite view from Google Maps lays things out nicely.

You can zoom in quite a bit more.

Continuing north from the Palace of Heavenly Purity past two more halls leads to the small Imperial Garden.  This patch of greenery was very welcome after seeing nothing but stone through most of the Forbidden City, but even the garden is more stone than anything else.  I don’t have any good pictures of the inside of the garden, but this is the gate.

Beijing Forbidden City Garden Gate

The gate has a pair of guardian statues that are more charming than imposing.  A dragon is on the left.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon

And an elephant is on the right.

Beijing Forbidden City Elephant

Living quarters make up most of the rest of the Inner Court.  Several buildings in the northeast corner have been converted into museums (or sub-museums, I suppose) with exhibits of bronze, pottery, paintings and so on, plus the clocks I mentioned earlier.  Many of the northwest buildings retain their old furnishings and have information on the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi.  There was a certain amount of Communist slant in the presentations on the empress, but she did do a lot to earn her condemnation.  My favorite example of her extravagance is one of her more minor offenses:   She wore a new pair of silk socks every day, burning them after use.

Rounding out the rest of the Forbidden City, the southwest and southeast corners contain the Hall of Military Eminence and the Hall of Literary Glory, respectively.  Unfortunately, these sections were closed to the public.

That’s all for now.  A few more pictures from the Forbidden City and some final impressions of Beijing to come later.

The Great Wall

November 3, 2008

No trip to northern China would be complete without seeing the Great Wall, and there are several accessible sections near Beijing. The most visited of these is Badaling.  It is by all accounts the easiest part of the Wall to reach from Beijing, but also the most crowded and the most touristy.  Fortunately, there are other options.  Wanting a less crowded experience that isn’t too much farther away, I went with Mutianyu.

The Mutianyu (慕田峪) section of the Great Wall is 1.4 miles long and is about 40 miles north of Beijing.  It belongs to a part of the Wall built by the Ming dynasty in the late 14th century on the foundations of a 6th century Northern Qi dynasty wall.  It was restored around 1568 and again in the 1980s.

Jagged mountains lie to the north.

They continue for about 100 miles before giving way to the vast Mongolian steppe.

A few cannons still face the wilderness.

To the south, foothills stretch into the distance, flattening into the North China Plain just beyond the farthest visible ridge.

Unlike the north side, the south side of the Wall has an occasional door.

At the western end of the Mutianyu section, the Wall climbs steeply.

It continues in ruins, but visitors aren’t allowed to go any farther.

The eastern end is a little less steep, but only a little.

Here too, the Wall goes on in varying degrees of decay.

Between the two ruined ends at Mutianyu, there are 22 watchtowers.

They vary in size and design, but they were mostly pretty similar inside.

They’re bare and dark, but they’ve got some great views.

I had an unnecessarily difficult time getting to Mutianyu, due to bad advice on when to transfer from bus to taxi.  When I was in Beijing, getting to Mutianyu meant that you either had to join a tour group – which is usually overpriced and may involve side trips to “gem exhibitions” and the like – or you could take a direct bus on Sundays, or you had to do what I did (since it was Tuesday), which was take a bus to the town of Huairou and then find a taxi, haggle with the driver, and hire him for a round trip between Huairou and Mutianyu.

Apparently, things have recently become vastly easier.  There is now a direct bus between Beijing and Mutianyu that leaves hourly, every day.  From outside of Dongzhimen Long-Distance Bus Station (东直门长途汽车站), which is near the Dongzhimen subway stop, take bus 936支.  Check for a sign in the window saying Mutianyu in Chinese (慕田峪), as there is another 936支 that has a different destination.  Ride the bus to its last stop, below the Wall.  The price is 17 yuan each way.

I really wish it had been that cheap and straightforward when I was traveling, but the new route only began this October.  I suppose haggling with an unliscenced taxi driver is more memorable than just riding a bus, but for anyone making the trip, I’d recommend the new safer, cheaper, and simpler option.

Beijing: Day 1

October 4, 2008

After visiting Xi’an, the next stop on my 12-day trek through China was Beijing.

When I made the trip, Google Maps didn’t display any detail for China, with the exceptions of Hong Kong and Macao, but it seems that the Chinese government relaxed and cooperated in time for the Olympics, and now there are full street maps and the satellite images zoom in all the way.  That would have made traveling much easier, but oh well.

I arrived in Beijing by overnight train at around 7:15am, not well rested, but not a mess either.  I’d paid the $56 for a bunk in a “soft sleeper,” which is a good price considering that it combines lodging and transportation and is cheaper than a plane ticket.  A “hard sleeper” goes for $36, but those sell out quickly and are, of course, less comfortable.  They have triple bunks, no doors, and thin mattresses, whereas soft sleepers are in lockable 4-person compartments, with somewhat better beds.

My three bunk-mates, two men and a woman, were traveling together, and amazingly, were also English-speaking foreign residents of Japan.  They were university students, and like me, they were on a spring break vacation. One guy was from Kuwait and the woman and the other man seemed to be from Southeast Asia, maybe Malaysia.  We compared our experiences in Xi’an and I mentioned that I really liked the Great Mosque.  The Kuwaiti said that the three of them had also visited the mosque, and at the gate, he said hello in Arabic and was greeted with a “Welcome, brother!” and had his entrance fee waived.  But his two non-Muslim companions had to pay, which he viewed as discriminatory.  I thought that it spoke well of him that he felt that way, but I can understand the mosque’s policy.  If non-worshipers didn’t have to pay, then the mosque would have constant problems with vendors, beggars, and scammers, and it would be difficult to maintain the tranquility that I admired so much.

After arriving in Beijing’s South Station, the three students and I parted ways, and I headed out into the gray and drizzly morning in search of breakfast.  Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, was the only restaurant in the bleak area around the station (which, like much of the city, was under heavy construction), so that’s where I had my first meal in Beijing.  I would rather have eaten local food, but at least it was cheap and filling.

After breakfast, I found my hotel, dropped off my luggage, and then went back out into the city.


I spent the rest of the morning at the Temple of Heaven.

The playing field to the east gives an idea of how big the place is.

Built in the early 1400s, the Temple of Heaven was visited yearly by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, who performed rituals here to pray for good harvests.

Appropriately enough, the main building – the northernmost dark blue mark on the map – is known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

The blue roof tiles represent heaven, as do circles.  Earth, on the other hand, is represented by squares.

Following the long path south of the Hall of Prayer leads to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which holds imperial ancestral tablets.

The vault is surrounded by the Echo Wall.  Supposedly, two people standing at opposite ends of the courtyard can hold a conversation in normal speaking voices, thanks to the acoustics of the wall, but it was too noisy with visitors when I was there.

Just south of the Imperial Vault is the Circular Mound Altar.

The number nine is associated with the emperor, and the flagstones forming the top of the mound are arranged in nine rings around a center stone, with a multiple of nine stones in each ring, so that the inner ring has nine and the outer ring has 81.

This is the view back to the north.


Lunch was a bit of a disaster.

I wanted to eat Peking duck in its home city, but I picked a lousy restaurant.  After I ordered, restaurant employees sat down nearby and had their own lunch while I waited half an hour before getting any tea, and another 15 minutes for my food.  And when the food finally came, it was pretty mediocre.  I had better Peking duck in Yokohama.  So if you’re ever in the neighborhood just south of Tiananmen Square, don’t bother with Jinzhengyang Restaurant (金正阳酒楼), eat somewhere else.


I spent the afternoon at Yonghe Temple, commonly known as the Lama Temple.  As the name suggests, the Lama Temple belongs to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism.

The temple’s name plate is written in four languages.

From left to right:  Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Manchu.

The Lama Temple was originally built as a residence for court eunuchs in 1694.  In 1711 it became a prince’s palace, and when the prince became emperor in 1723, he converted half of his former palace into a lamasery.  The other half was converted following the emperor’s death in 1735.  It became the city’s largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist temple and was given imperial status, marked by yellow roof tiles.  The temple was spared during the Cultural Revolution – which saw many other temples destroyed or made into factories – purportedly due to the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai.

The buildings in the temple are packed closely together, making them hard to photograph.

I tried (too) hard to fit this one in the frame, but it wasn’t happening.

Inside, by the way, is the world’s largest statue carved from a single piece of wood, an 18-meter-tall figure of Maitreya, the Future Buddha.  Alas, no pictures were allowed in any of the buildings.  But here’s a neat guardian lion.


Dinner was much, much more successful than lunch.  I ate at Luogu Dongtian (锣鼓洞天), whose English name is Drum and Gong Fusion Restaurant, although the characters literally mean “gong-drum-cave-heavens.”

The restaurant says it serves fusion food, but I’d describe most of the menu as Chinese home cooking with a Sichuan bent.  In any case, the food was inexpensive and very good.

I returned to my hotel with a happy stomach and collapsed into bed.  The next day I visited the Great Wall.

Certification and City Gods

October 2, 2008

Alright, back in the saddle.

I spent the last few weeks studying for the CompTIA A+ certification, and now that I’ve passed the two tests (Woo hoo!), it’s high time I attended to this blog.  I’m writing a post on my visit to Beijing, but while I’m working on that, here’s a random picture.  This is at the Temple of the City Gods, in Xi’an.

There wasn’t that much to see, especially with several buildings under renovation, but this and Hong Kong’s Man Mo Temple are the only Taoist temples I’ve been to.

Xi’an: Day 3

June 15, 2008

On the morning of my third and final day in Xi’an, I visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, about a ten-minute bus ride south of the old city walls.

The pagoda was originally built in 652 to hold Buddhist sutras brought from India by the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, whose travels were the basis for the enduringly popular novel, Journey to the West.

Xuanzang set out for India at age 28, heading west from Chang’an (Xi’an) along the Silk Road through the deserts of central Asia, and then south into India via present-day Afghanistan.  He then spent about 15 years traveling and studying in India before returning to Chang’an with 657 sutras.  Xuanzang had to sneak out of Chang’an when he began his trek, since China was at war with the Eastern Turks and travel was restricted, but after his return, he was made the abbot of a temple and received imperial support to create a translation bureau to convert his mountain of Sanskrit sutras into Chinese.  The translations he produced spread throughout East Asia and had a significant effect on Buddhism in the region.

So Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a very important historical site.  Unfortunately, the temple’s current state is somewhat depressing.  The buildings are kept in good condition, but at least four have been turned into souvenir shops, and there was even a shop on the first floor of the pagoda itself, selling tacky toys with flashing lights and noisy sound effects.  Meanwhile, signs prohibit any “superstitious activity” – i.e. actual religion – at the former religious institution, which is now a tourist attraction first and a temple not at all.

Luckily, my day didn’t stay depressing.  When I moved on to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the situation was very different.

With its position at the northwest edge of central China, Xi’an has a community of perhaps 60,000 Muslims, mostly belonging to the Hui ethnic minority, and mostly living together in the city’s “Muslim Quarter.” This is a halal restaurant in the Muslim Quarter.

If you look closely, you can see Arabic on the shop sign and the glass case.

The Great Mosque has been the center of worship for this community since its foundation in 742, and it was clearly clearly receiving the love and respect sadly absent from the pagoda.  For example, shortly after I arrived an afternoon prayer service began, and when it was finished, I saw the worshipers clearing fallen twigs and seed pods from the walkways as they departed.  And certainly, no one was selling anything.

Here’s the worship hall.

The name board is in Arabic, but you’ll notice that the building is completely Chinese in style.  In fact, the whole mosque looks like a temple.  The current buildings mostly date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

This is the mosque’s minaret.

Least traditional minaret ever.

Leaving the Great Mosque with my mood repaired, I wandered around Xi’an for the rest of the afternoon and then took an overnight train to Beijing.

And that’s where I’ll pick up next time.

Xi’an: Day 2

May 31, 2008

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province has killed more than 68,000 people by the current count and left millions homeless. I was fortunate enough to be well out of the country when the disaster occurred, although in any case the closest I got to the future epicenter was Xi’an, more than 400 miles distant.

View Map

But earthquakes certainly are scary things. The quality of a building’s construction is probably the biggest factor determining safety, but even if your building is earthquake-proof, that won’t matter if a mountain falls on you, and even if you don’t have that danger, things like gas leaks and soil liquefaction can still do you in.

And aside from loss of life, there’s destruction to homes, businesses, and infrastructure. The 1995 Kobe Earthquake “only” killed about 6,400 people, but it still holds the record for the costliest natural disaster to befall a single country, with $200 billion in damage. Kobe was Japan’s busiest port before the quake, but although the city has recovered, it’s now the number four port and isn’t likely to regain its former prominence.

But back to my travels.

On my second day in Xi’an, I visited the famous Terracotta Army, which lies a fair distance outside the city. Statues were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well and are still being slowly excavated and restored. The life-sized figures number in the thousands and the enclosures protecting the several excavation sites are as big as aircraft hangers.

The army was built to accompany the First Emperor into the afterlife. The Qin dynasty also soon followed him into death, but the emperor definitely left his mark on history. As he forged the empire, he standardized measures, currency, laws, and writing. He undertook immense canal and road building projects, and he connected several walls left over from the Warring States period into the predecessor of the Great Wall. He also ruthlessly repressed Confucianism, which stresses that rulers should be virtuous and benevolent, burning books and burying hundreds of Confucian scholars alive (Confucianism was revived in the next dynasty, though). He did everything on a grand scale and his burial arrangements were no exception.

The Terracotta Army includes not only infantry, but also archers, charioteers, horses, officers, generals, and even some jugglers. Their uniforms differ by rank, but even among soldiers of the same type, you can see variation in faces and clothing.

I think this is a so-called “heavenly horse,” a Ferghana.

The horses were imported from Bactria, and although they’re much smaller than Arabians, they’re larger and faster than the little Mongolian horses that had previously been used in China and they were highly prized.


After returning to the city, I spent the end of the day at the “Stele Forest.”

The Stele Forest is a collection of more than 2,000 stelae, kept within a Confucian temple. The stone blocks are inscribed with all manner of things, including books, poetry, memorials, and the occasional map or diagram.

There’s some pretty major stuff in the collection. For example, this stele is the first record of Christianity in China.

It was carved in 781 and it documents the spread of Nestorian Christianity since it entered the empire in 635. Christianity was later outlawed and the stele was buried and forgotten until being unearthed in the 17th century.

Content aside, on many stelae, the writing itself is a treasure. The work of a number of famous calligraphers is in the collection and a variety of styles are represented. Alas, due to glare, I don’t have any decent pictures of the best calligraphy, but I can at least show some different types of writing.

This is seal script, so called because today it’s mostly only used in official seals.

The newly codified characters mandated by the Qin emperor were written in seal script. Although it is thoroughly abstract and stylized, it’s closer to the writing system’s pictographic origins than later forms. I think this stele is a guide to writing seal script made after it had passed out of daily use, because it’s subtitled in the “regular script” seen here.

Regular script, which evolved out of clerical hand, is what people use today. It’s the easiest style to read and write.

And for an even bigger contrast, this is cursive, known as grass script.

I find it amazing that anyone can actually read grass script. When I see Japanese written in the style I can never make out more than a couple words.


Well this entry took forever. I’ll try to speed up my pace as far as time allows, because at this rate, I’ll be back in the States before I finish writing about China. Just two months to go. Yikes.



Here’s a neat chart from Wikipedia showing how the character for “tiger” evolved from a pictograph to its modern, abstract form.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that only a small fraction of Chinese characters have direct pictographic origins. Most are composed of one part indicating the general meaning and another part supplying the pronunciation (at the time the character was invented, that is). For example, “language,” 語, is made of a part indicating speech-related words, 言, plus a part giving the pronunciation, 吾, whose own meaning (“my”) is unrelated to that of final character. Alas, things are complicated by how pronunciation has changed over the centuries. Although 語 and 吾 were both pronounced something like “go” during the Han dynasty, modern Mandarin says “yǔ” and “wú” respectively. So while there is logic in how characters were made, the task of learning them today is mostly rote memorization.