My family and I had just returned travelling in Japan. This time we traveled to another part of Japan – it was a a journey through the Northern Japanese Alps and Onsens. The weather was as expected rainy (late June through to mid-July). These are our photos.
These are photos of my recent excursion on the Kinabatangan River in Sandakan, Sabah, East Malaysia. There are several lodges and we decided to stay at Sukau Rainforest Lodge. It is a luxury lodge. Budget accommodations are available along the river. This 3D/2N package included the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center, Sun Bear Conservation Center, Rainforest Discovery Center and the Gomantong Caves. Sandakan town is a great place to hang around, enjoying the local fruits and local delicacies. After Sandakan we headed to Melangkap, a gravel river with Mt Kinabalu as its’ backdrop. A cool place to chill out.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda ( Dacien Temple) was built in 652AD during the Tang dynasty. Today it is 64 m tall. The pagoda shaped tower had been rebuilt several times due to damage caused by earthquakes. The original one collapsed and rebuilt in 704AD and again in 1556. One important role it played was to keep Buddhist sutras, paintings, relics and other structures brought from India into China. Burning incense wafted through the still cold air. There are several squares, courtyards and water features including water fountains around the complex. It is a pleasant place to wander. Sounds of kids playing in the gardens added some pleasant distraction. This pagoda temple is an icon from the early Xian and ancient China. Another iconic building is the Small Wild Goose pagoda, which I had missed. Nearby the temple is a great vegetarian restaurant. About half an hours walk brought us to upmarket coffee shops and bars. However, it was subdued and probably become active in the evenings. A local bus to and from the city centre is easily available. The Bell Tower Hotel is ideally located for transport connections and sightseeing.
Travelling in winter had it challenges but gave a different perspective of traveling. Unfortunately, smog pollution for burning coal is unavoidable in winter. It had been at hazardous level during our travels. Furthermore, the big Spring Festival was just 10 days away and traffic can become congested. Pre-purchasing onward travel like trains is advisable, as we did.
We passed a park on our way towards the City Wall South (Yongning – eternal peace) Gate, we were greeted with a Whitney Houston song I Will Always Love You…….a light and sound show was being set up. Against the wall, huge banners and a stage under construction. Large lanterns were randomly placed. A PA system, large speakers and electronic gadget were being tested for a show, perhaps later in the day. I was quite taken back by the earlier sights as we made our way up the ancient wall. This was a historic moment for us. However! There were more surprises, the set had also been established on the wall. Large brightly coloured lanterns – a mythical horse with a cockerels tail, a yellow chick and many more. We continued to walk on the wall, to our relief, there were no more. Only the ancient Ming Dynasty wall and smog to contend with.
I read somewhere that there is an opportunity to cycle on the fortress wall. This wall was built by previous dynasties but during the Ming era, a bigger and stronger wall was built. Hence the existing Ming Wall. Although the pollution level was very high, at 320ppm, I looked forward to this ride. Past the moat and strangely as we entered through the South Gate We hired bicycles (be prepared to have 200 yuan for cash deposit plus payment) and went on our way in anticlockwise direction. The old outer wall was built during the Sui and Tang periods (around 194 BC). Changan, was the capital of Tang Dynasty. The existing Ming Wall (built around 1370) is only one seventh of the original Tang dynasty wall, which stretched to include the Big Goose Pagoda. It had been restored and preserved over the years by successive rulers. Part of the old wall may be seen in places. This Ming Wall stretches for about 14 km. Cycling was fun, although, the surface is uneven. Unfortunately, due to a heavy smog, visibility was very poor. We could almost see the silhouettes of tall modern buildings outside the wall. There are several main and minor gates, towers, a golden roofed Tibetan Temple along the way. At some walls, there is a steep narrow passage, probably to enable horses and men to travel up the wall. Some gate had several layers of structures. Small museums are also dotted around the wall. The whole walled city was surrounded by a moat. 12 km of cycling in the heavy smog should be done at a leisure pace, to avoid heavy breathing. We exited from the East (Changle – meaning eternal joy) Gate. It was a wonderful experience. I can only imagine the soldiers, horses and noblemen rambling along the walls and the flags fluttering in the wind.
On the glittering side of modern Xian, cafes are dotted here and there. A cup of latte can cost uo to 30 yuan (NZ$6). These places are seen as yuppie or trendy places to be and to be seen. To me, these places offered respite from the hustle and bustle of commerce; the dirt from the thick traffic and temporary shelter from the hazardous polluted air. Some of the coffee was good too. Xian is noticeably clean. Workers cleaned throughout the day and night. Late at night I watched a group of women cleaning the under passes.
Gao Family Mansion, about 400 years old, is the former residence of Gao Yuesong, an official of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) is one of the best-persevered traditional residences in Xi’an City. It is located on the busy Huimin Street (Beiyuanmen Street) in the Muslim Quarter. Stone lions guard the entrance. Once you enter the compound, the din of the street dissipates, and a sense of serenity prevails. There are several courtyards with ornately carved windows and decorated with traditional furniture. At one courtyard, a permanent opera style stage had been set up and today live music and singing. This experience is a small window to the past traditions. I waited to be surprised with food being offered. Perhaps, so tea to warm up in the cold air. Unfortunately, it was not forth coming. The show was good and entertaining.
The city god temple of Xian, Cheng Huang Miao was built in 1387 (Ming dynasty). It is also called the Capital City God and had looked after the welfare of the city since. Prayers to keep away bad deeds. However, during the cultural revolution, it was not spared. The entrance to this temple was crowded with people shopping either for worship at the Taoist temple or for presents for the coming Chinese New Year. There were candles, fragrant incense sticks, red packets as gifts for the new year celebrations, clothing, auspicious red lanterns and lattice wall hangings, and all the paraphernalia of welcoming the new year of the Dog. It felt more like festivities celebration than worship. Once you emerge from the flea market, tranquility returns and the smell of burning incense and joss stick over powers the smell of smog. The pious and worshipers move from one place of worship to another. There was another congregation huddled on one side of the temple entrance. I was curious. It was a serious game of Chinese chess. Families with kid in tow all visited this temple in droves. Red totems hung on wall with precious prayers and words written on them.
It is difficult to imagine that all roads from and to the East and West passed through the Bell Tower, which has four entrances. Today, in mega developed, and I must say clean metropolis, the Bell Tower I the centre of f huge roundabout. Hundreds of road vehicles are moving every second during the day buses, cars, pedal bicycles, motorised bikes and motorcycles. Then there are the pedestrians.
One of Xians iconic ancient structures is the impressive Bell Tower, built in 1384 by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. Its use was multi-functional as defence as well as used for regulating daily life. It marked the geographical centre or central axis of the ancient capital with roads departing North, South, East and West corresponding to the gates since the Tang Dynasties. The wooden tower, which is the largest in China, is 36 meters high. It stands on a brick base 35.5 meters high. Today, in modern Xian, the Bell Tower is contained within a round-about with vehicles spewing smoke and noise. However, viewing from my hotel room in the evening, with lights on, it certainly is an impressive structure. With its elevated brick platform, there was an air of invincibility.
On the streets near the Drum Tower, I met this family, two kids and an adult. They approached me and wanted to practice English with me. This is a familiar experience for me throughout my travels in China. I on the other hand belt out whatever Mandarin I know, and they are impressed. This is my great tool to mix and mingle with the locals. It establishes some rapport and has led me to several pleasant local experiences invitation to meals, into homes, offered transportation and so on. Having some working knowledge of Mandarin is certainly valuable (sometimes it gets me out of trouble).
Another prominent and iconic ancient architecture is the Drum Tower. It was initially built in 1380 during the reign of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The drums were used to signal time (in the evening) and alarm in an emergency. As its counterpart, the Bell Tower, it is also elevated on a brick base to 34m high. The tower itself is 111m high and is completely made from wood (no iron nail used anywhere in the Tower). The exterior is colourfully painted with a beautiful green glazed tiled roof. Drums are beaten at specific time as a musical performance. Perhaps a nostalgic journey to a past era. From my hotel room, in the evening, it is brightly lit and all the drums on the south side is clearly visible. It is quite spectacular. The Drum Tower is located adjacent to the Muslim Quarter and West Street.
Walking away from the city and touristy centers, you may get to experience a real and laid-back Xian. We wandered aimlessly and encountered some food stalls, markets and street vendors. The locals went about their business. At the butchery, whole pigs hung on hooks. On one street, five birds in cages hung on street wires as people passed by. Kids played on the side streets with no care in the world. Steam floated in the air from a road side bun shop. One of my favorite shop, women selling an assortment of pickled fruits and vegetables. I love walking in the market. They give an indication of the robustness of the local economies. Furthermore, the dynamics of family. Plus, I get to see local produce and sample a few along the way. Although a big metropolis, Xian feels a little laid back and the pace of life pleasant.
The Muslims established here through trade on the silk route since the eight century. However, during the Ming dynasties that they became more pronounced and the Great Mosque was built. I can only imagine huge sacks and boxes of goods stacked on camels and horse backs plodding through on these narrow alleys and pathways. A narrow, pedestrian only alley, Huajie Lane, lined with an amazing array of nick knacks and goods lead the way to the Great Mosque of Xian. . It was built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). We passed several courtyards before arriving at the central tower (or perhaps a minaret – Xingxin Tower). It is interesting as it has both Chinese and Islamic influence. It is a Chinese pagoda style architecture with Islamic interiors. The roof is an intricate wood work. Here, there is serenity, as we walked around the landscaped gardens. This site was already in use during the Tang dynasty but eventually established as a place of worship during the Ming era. A series of add on continued to the present day architecture and structure. A fantastic mix of Arabic and Chinese influence. The minaret, to call for prayers, looked like a pagoda. Bearded men with white hats sat behind stall counters; little whispers as a few gathered at the mosques courtyard. Some even spoke Malay language. Another man had been studying in Malaysia. I met a man selling religious items. He was well travelled. When I asked him if I could take a photo of him agreed. Just I was about to click, he flicked his fan! To exit, I went through the gauntlet of souvenir stalls. A little persuasion but no harassment
On the Huimin Street (Muslin Street), we were handed a pamphlet on a shadow puppet show. This show is very popular in Malaysia, especially in the East Coast. It is called Pi Ying in Chinese. Shadow puppets were invented more than 2,000 years ago in the capital Changan (the historic name of Xian) during the ruling of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. The storied often depict Chinese legends and local village stories such as the one we witnessed. The puppets a skilfully made with intricate designs of characters, brightly coloured and sometimes looks mythical. The shadows of the different characters are cast on a white scree using back lit lights. Music accompanied the lively performances created by the puppet master. Although, I did not understand the dialog, the show was certainly entertaining. It did bring me back to my childhood days. Very nostalgic and it left lasting a memory. Bookmarks of some of the characters make fantastic memorabilia to take home.
Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province and is one of the four Ancient Capitals of China. Then, during its early metamorphosis, known as Changan, was the first capital of the Qin Shi Huang the man who united the rival feudal lords into one country. Located in North West China, it is through Xian that trade began with the west, the Middle Eastern states of the Arabic world. The starting point of the famed Silk Route to the West. Besides this, in my early school history lessons on China, I became acquainted with Qin Shi Huang Di, reputed to have unified China. The Emperor is also the character that created the iconic Terracotta Soldiers. I was quite excited to be in this renowned city of the by-gone era. The smog pollution continued from Pingyao to Xian. It was a long drive from the modern train station to the heart of Xian. The old city encircled by a Ming Qing 12m wall. However, unlike Pingyao, apart from the wall and exceptions of a small enclave of old Xian, everything was modern and towering buildings into the dark polluted air. The modern city roads had breached the wall and infiltrated into the old walled city. Today, metal, concrete and glass on show to rival any metropolis. In the evening, neon lights beamed from shopping malls. We stayed in the middle of it all, just across the softly lit Bell Tower and nearby Drum Towers. Both remnants of a colourful and historical past dynasties that ruled China. I wanted to get out and explore.
Near and around the elegant Drum Tower is a remnant of old Xian the Muslim Quarter, just below the Drum Tower onto Beiyuanmen Street. Generally referred to as Huimin Jie or Muslim Street. It is packed with street food vendors and behind them, restaurants. It is a hive of activities sales pitches; spicy aromas filled the cold air; raging flames from gas burners turned woks red hot and steam rising from bubbling soups. As the biggest festival in China is around the corner, Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, there is a sense of festivities on the streets. The narrow cobbled stone street is packed shoulder to shoulder with people.
Goat carcasses hung on rods, being stripped away little by little. Hygiene may take a new meaning here. Time for a late lunch of the Xians distinctive and favourite – Yangrou Paomo (Crumbled Unleavened Bread in Mutton Stew). It is quite a process to break down the bread into tiny pieces (takes a while as the bread is hard). However, Lee Cheng and Navindd testified that the taste is delicious. I settled for another popular north western food – the cold noodles (Liang Pi). Noodles are seasoned with a tangy, spicy savoury sauce and julienned cucumber. Long queues formed at the Mutton burger (Ronjimo) stall. Another popular snack is the steamed stuffed bun. The bun is stuffed beef or mutton mixed with the soup (from the bones of sheep or cattle). People queued in long line at this stall.
This morning, we headed to the one of the most iconic man-made structures in the world the Xian Terracotta Warriors Museum. A local bus took us directly to the museum. I was quite excited as this has been one of the sights to see. We engaged a guide to get a better understanding. The are several pits, all under covers, to explore. As we entered Pit 1, the stage opened an amazing gallery of clay soldiers and horses, all line up in formation. It was quite spectacular. Imagine, over 2000 years old! Pictures are great but being here is simply spell-binding. The sight is just overwhelming, let alone looking at each individual piece. There are over 6000 pieces (only 2000 excavated). They are life-sized, and each individual had their own unique looks. The soldiers complete with body armor consisted of infantry, calvary, officers, archers and chariot warriors. All arranged in a battle formation. Emperor Qin Shi Huang (210209 BCE) ordered its construction, depicting his existing armies, to accompany him in the afterlife.
The size and the workmanship alone are enormous. To achieve this feat must have taken years (about 40 years) of dedication (perhaps forced labour) to complete. All were handmade, thus resulting in the uniqueness of each individual soldier. The body parts were made separately and assembled later. We know why, but how? – the skills of the artesian, the processes in making the terracotta structures, the pigments used that lasted the test of time, the management, perhaps ruthless, required to complete the project. All these questions can be contemplated while walking alongside these silent wonders. However, Qin Shi Huang died before its completion.
This site was accidentally discovered by a farmer in 1974. On discovery, some of the statues were colored. However, due to exposure, the colors had faded. Many statues are still buried to conserve the colors and hopefully displayed in its original glory (with future preserving technology). The other pits are smaller but contain similar artifacts. In places, broken pieces can be seen to give an idea the conditions there were in when found. It must be a giant jigsaw puzzle to put them all together.
At the back of the pit, many statues were painstakingly being labeled, reworked, cling-wrapped and restored to its original condition. The display of 2000 figurines is already huge. Just imagine if all 6000 were exposed!
In the nearby exhibition hall, we can get personal with the warriors. All encased in glass and brightly lit. The delicate details of the face and expression, the full regalia of the body armor and its dimensions. All the terracotta soldiers found had collapsed except one, the kneeling archer. The original pigment can be seen. Now, it is on display at this hall. Another highlight here is two beautifully crafted bronze chariots. There is a sense of achievement and contentment having seen one of the greatest archaeological find. A testament to mankind’s ingenuity, desire, determination and ambitions.
From Beijing, we headed to Pingyao Ancient City, a UNESCO listed town, in Shanxi Province by train. The comfortable ride was only marred by the sight of heavily polluted air. As we entered Shanxi Province, the darkened polluted air was clearly visible. Pingyao train station is about 8 km from the old city.
The well preserved Ancient City is enclosed within a Ming and Qing Wall, built in the 12th century. However, Pingyao has been in existence since 600 – 700 BC. Today, most of the buildings had been restored to its former grandeur. The whole walled city is paved with cobbled streets. It is a fascinating place. Unfortunately, the air is laden with thick smog resulting from burning of coal for warmth in winter. Visibility was poor.
We stayed a one of the traditional 400 hundred year old courtyard mansions decorated with ornate carvings and elaborate courtyard. The best mode of travel is by walking. The main street is the busy Ming-Qing Street. There are hundreds of shops selling from food, souvenirs to accommodations. The iconic City Tower is also on this street. Street vendors fins pockets of this street to earn a living.
I met with workers covered in coal dust as they shovelled coal. Their hands callused from the hard work. At another site, an old dilapidated building was being refurbished and remodelled into a hotel. Work here is slow as all was done with manual labour.
There are several entrances to climb up the onto the fortified wall. Beyond it lies the modern city. Atop this wall, the view of the ancient city is revels it terracotta tiles, cobbled streets and panoramic views from the South Gate. It also provides an opportunity to pry into the daily lives of the residents. After descending from the West Gate, a narrow lane lead to a row of unrestored homes. Grasses and other plants, withered from winter, covered the roof tops.
Temples, old merchant’s homes and business premises such as Rishengchang Remittance Bank or Exchange, the City God Temple and several more significant Courtyard homes dot within this walled city. The old city is a great place to wander on foot as most sights a compacted within the walls. On one back streets, I found myself tasting and wandering a vinegar factory. In the evenings, the Ming-Qing Street become lively with dinners. Red lanterns add beauty to this ancient city. Today, a full moon shone a soft glow onto the stone streets. Finally, the locals do put up some of the best Shanxi cuisines.