A Travellerspoint blog

Temples, Temples, Everywhere

Visiting Buddhas, big and small

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The Ming dynasty lasted 276 years (1368-1644), in that time five main altars were built in the north, south, east, west and center of Beijing. These were venues for the Emperor (as the Son of Heaven) to intercede with the gods for a good harvest. For the past two days we’ve visited the temple in the north (Di Tan) and the temple in the south (Tian Tan). The northern temple (for the Earth God) was simpler than the south but it still had a large terrace with an altar where animals were sacrificed and some temples for worshiping.

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Scenes from Di Tan park.

You’d think we might be “templed out” going back to back to see temples, but surprisingly we’re not even close. Each temple is so unique that it leaves us excited to see what the next one will hold. The Southern temple (for the Sky God) had an amazing 125 feet high temple made of wood that contained no nails. It had a circular design (representing heaven) that was supported by 28 huge pillars. The gods were represented by “spirit tablets” which were also on display. Two things that stood out about the design was that the ceramic tiles on the roof were blue instead of green, they explained that the color was to honor the heaven (sky). The second was that the eves of the temples looked like a deer, though I didn’t find any explanation for that. There was a small museum area that described the many steps the Emperor had to take to move around the temple complex in the correct order. There was a round altar terrace with very unique columns that matched the ones in the north temple. We didn’t see this type of column in the Forbidden City. There was also a sacred music area and some other temples in this complex.

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Scenes from Tian Tan park.

We’ve been pretty lucky with restaurants so far. We stopped in one small restaurant and were trying to ask for an English menu when we spotted one on the counter, but the young lady told us “bu something.” You can guess we didn’t know what the “something” was but “bu” means no or not. She pointed out the door and showed us a large three story restaurant which we spotted from across the street. It seems the menu belonged to that restaurant. So we went to eat at the “Golden tripod attic restaurant” (don’t you love that name!) which featured sea cucumbers. We didn’t try them, but the meal we did have was tasty.

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Sea Cucumbers advertised.

Close to the northern temple site was a totally different temple… the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple (built 1694). It was originally a palace which was changed into a lamasery (a monastery of lamas). It was interesting to note architectural elements of Han, Mongol, and Tibetan styles. We walked through the complex which included several halls with different Buddhas in each. The first had the plump, seated, laughing Buddha with two large guardians of each side of him. They looked a lot like the guardians in the Japanese temples we saw in Glen and Deborah’s blog. Other halls had different Buddha statutes including gilded ones, but the grand finale was an 18 meter (60 ft) tall Buddha in the final pavilion which was carved from a single piece of Tibetan white sandalwood tree. A gift for Emperor Qianlong from the seventh Dalai Lama, it took three years to ship it to Beijing. The building containing the Buddha was reportedly built around the statue after it was put in place.

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One of the first Buddah's we found at the Lama Temple was this jolly fellow.

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Scenes from the Lama Temple.

Finally we strolled through a hutong called “Nan luogu” which is a popular place for ex-pats to hang out. After the extensive walking we opted for a very expensive cappuccino in a cute café there and looked out on passers-by and trinket shops.

We really loved the "full monty pants" that the babies wear:

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Posted by Aeren 03:04 Archived in China Comments (3)

The Great Tomb

The wall built on the backs of the people.

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We booked a tour through the hotel to go to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs and specifically asked if the tour will take detours or not. We didn’t want to spend hours visiting pottery shops and souvenir outlets with only a few hours at the main attraction. But alas there were two detours on the trip. First off was a stop to a jade factory.

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This amazing sculpture is made from one piece of Jade.

I have to admit I rather liked the Jade museum part of the tour. You’d never get me to buy anything there, but I enjoyed the craftsmanship and artistry that it took to create the works of art we saw. I even learned a thing or two about higher or lower quality jade. Since it involves sound, you’ll just have to take my word for it. After this 25 minute detour we headed out to the Ming Tombs.

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Gate into the tomb.

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Artifacts found in the tomb.

So this is the part where I get a little upset. We only had time to see one of 13 tombs. Granted the tombs are very spread apart, and it would take a car to go see all of them, but I would have preferred to spend a little more time here than our stop at the Chinese Medicine Institute.

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Emperor Yongle and J.

Finally we were on the road to the Badaling section of the Great Wall and arrived around 2:00 pm. The guide explained that while everyone calls this the Great Wall, Chinese called it “the longest graveyard.” She said that the workers pressed into the service of the emperor to build the wall, but were not taken care of. Often they didn’t even get water to drink. Thousands died do to exhaustion, malnutrition, and dehydration. They are said to be buried inside the wall. Since I hadn’t read anything about the workers being buried in the wall I check it out and found that some estimated that over 1 million workers died during construction, but experts generally agree that the dead were buried near the wall and not in it.

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Since it was obvious that we were not going to be able to spend a long time there, we opted to take a cable car ride up and walk back down. And after seeing how far up it was this was probably a good idea. The cable car exit still gives you some distance to walk up to get to the highest point of the wall in Badaling. There were quite a few people there, but not as many as we had heard. Once we got to the top we began our descent down to the visitor center. The view on the way down was spectacular and we stopped several times along the way to enjoy it and take some pictures.

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You can see a set of stairs to nowhere, a spot where the section collapsed that would have connected it to the top tower.

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We had a bit of a panic when we exited off the wall and realized we didn’t know which way to go to the bus. We began following other tourist who said the bus parking was further down the hill, but as we reached the bottom of the hill we didn’t recognize anything and there was a zoo there which we didn’t remember at all. I found someone who spoke enough English to say that the parking I wanted was back the other way! Oh joy, climbing back up the hill and up another hill to get to our bus. Even with the disappointment of not spending much time at the tombs or the wall it was a good trip overall.

Posted by Aeren 05:47 Archived in China Comments (3)

Tien An Men, Shien Na Men

An eight mile round trip to a big, but unimpressive plaza

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We wanted to go to Tien An Men Square and see what it was like. After all we’ve come this far and should at least see the place of so much history, albeit, some of it not so nice. Walking seemed like a good idea after all, it’s not that far. We took our time and figured things out the old fashioned way…maps. Unlike, Hong Kong where Wi-Fi was everywhere, China’s mainland is conspicuously absent of Wi-Fi. Also, if you’re all wondering why there are no postings on Facebook, it seems that site is non-grata here.

On our way down to the square we enjoyed strolling through the local neighborhood next to the Forbidden City and stopping into some of the local shops. As we neared the square we found the entrance to a lovely park next to the Imperial Art Museum. It’s wonderful to find these little gems. Flowers were everyone and it was perfectly designed with a small creek flowing through the center.

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At the garden next to the Imperial Art Museum the arched pedestrian bridge creates an illusion of a circle with it's reflection in the water.

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I took a second to pose next to the water. What you can't see are the fish swimming around.

Tien An Men Square was full of activity. Workers were putting up stands, security was tight. A few days ago in two separate incidences tourists were attacked there by locals. X-ray machines and security checkpoints were located at each entrance. It is a massive square, but it’s not beautiful like Piazza Navona in Rome. This is a place to gather people for massive demonstrations. We were trying to avoid things like Chinese New Year and ended up in Beijing for the biggest holiday of the decade, the 60th anniversary of their independence. Preparation for the celebration was well underway and we’ve been told that the best place to be is going to be hunkered down in a room with a TV set. The most impressive thing on the square was two massive screens playing a video China now. It showed scenes of everyday life, of beautiful mountains, plains, valleys, waterways, industry, school children, etc. The government is portraying a healthy positive self-image. They’re not the images that we imagine when we think of China. Western media and politicians insist on portraying a country with little or no liberties, but it looks like capitalism is alive and well here (even if they don’t like to call it that).

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This is the famous Tien An Men. We always thought the square began with this gate and was continuous, but it's actually split by a large street and they've designed an underground crossing so as not to interfere with the traffic.

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Tien An Men Square in preparation for the big celebration.

On our way out of the square we found a gateway that made me step back in awe. The Zhengyang Men, commonly known as the Quianmen (Front Gate), was constructed in 1419 and stands 149.7 feet high. It is quite beautiful. A plaque near the gate says, “It is the highest and most magnificent gate in Beijing.” I’d have to agree.

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In the foreground is the Quian Men and in the background is Jian Lou or Arrow Tower.

Past the Quian Men gate there’s a newly gentrified area with shopping with everything from Starbucks, a high end Chopstick store (no kidding chopsticks from $3 to $600), Citizen’s watch, high end fashion like Zara from Spain and H&M, and plenty of tea and food establishments. It’s here we found our next culinary gem. The Li Tiao Long Restaurant was originally named Nan Heng Shun Mutton House has been in continuous operation since 1785. We thought it was a tea house until we entered and saw a Mongolian-style hot pot on the table. We decided to give it a try. We ordered some veggies and mushrooms and the server tossed them into the hot pot to cook. Then we pulled them out, added some special sauce and ate it up.

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View of the Quianmen Hutong from just inside the gate.

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The server brings out the vegetables and noodles we ordered to cook in the hot pot.

Next we walked through the hutong which had a street full of traditional shops surrounded by a newly renovated street full of European and American shops. Quite a contrast. We thought it was silly to see a KFC in a traditional Chinese neighborhood. At least they moved the Starbucks out of the Forbidden City.

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The street at the end of Quianmen Hutong, Zhushikou Daije, sports a rougher exterior, but the shops are typical Chinese businesses, not courtier outlets.

Posted by Aeren 05:49 Archived in China Comments (0)

Beijing: The Un-forbidden City

Exploring the Emperor's Palace

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We arrived in Beijing yesterday afternoon and Dong (our friend who lives in Beijing) met us at the airport with her son. Even though this is early in our trip, it can get a little lonely arriving at a strange city and seeing all the people waiting for their families and knowing you don’t have someone there. It’s great to have someone welcome you.

Leaving the airport we were on a super highway that rivals any major metropolis. Signs were clearly marked in English and Chinese. Exiting the highway and entering the city we could see large modern buildings, but the architecture looks more Chinese and as we neared the hotel (near The Forbidden City) we drove through hutong (traditional alleyways) that were very tight and a bit scruffy. After she found our hotel she took us to eat at a wonderful Buddhist restaurant. Sorry, no pictures of the food, we were having too good of a time eating it and catching up. But, I will note that one of our guidebooks mentioned that it’s difficult for Chinese people to understand someone willingly giving up meat, so vegetarians often just say they are Buddhist and the restaurant understands they are vegetarians. So I found it humorous that our friend selected a Buddhist restaurant because we were vegetarians.

Jingshan Park

The next morning we set out around 10:00 am to get a bite to eat and go to Jingshan Park across from the Forbidden City. This was a private park that the Emperors used for retreat and religious worship. On our way there we noticed that unlike Hong Kong, it now feels like we really are in a foreign country. We stopped for breakfast at a the Alley Cafe which is a cozy little restaurant with kitties laying around.

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Jingshan Park is over 1000 years old. It is one of the oldest best preserved imperial parks in China. We paid 2 CNY or “yuan” each to enter ($.29 USD) a bargain compared to the $8.78 USD each we’d pay later to enter the Forbidden City. We saw a temple at the top of a hill and we went for it. When we reached the top we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the Forbidden City. In the temple was a large Buddha cast in bronze.

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The Forbidden City

After leaving the park we went right for The Forbidden City. People kept approaching us to offer their services as guides inside, but we declined all of them. We’d read that often these are not really licensed guides and though the prices may be cheap, the information may not be credible. We paid the 120 yuan fee ($17.57) and opted to get a guide inside the complex for a hefty fee of 300 yuan ($43.93) but it was well worth it to us. We had personalized attention and she answered all our questions.

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We began our tour at the north end of the city. She explained that only 30 percent of the complex is open to the public. If the emperor had wanted to sleep in all the rooms in the city it would take him 24 years; we were planning 5 or 6 hours for touring! 24 emperors ruled for 500 years from this city. We entered the complex from the north known as the Gate of Heavenly Purity and entered the first courtyard. The emperors were very superstitious and had an affinity to the number nine. Numbers are at the center of everything built in the complex and odd numbers were better than even numbers. Doors have rows of nine brass nails across and down (the emperors favorite number was nine), 72 wells represent the 72 provinces, and on and on.

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We were quickly overwhelmed by all the information, so after a while we just photographed the things we found most appealing and enjoyed the beauty of the enormous flying eaves, the splendor of the throne rooms of each emperor, the beautiful statues of animals and the stories of palace intrigue . One emperor was so afraid of someone tunneling in from the outside to the Outer Courtyard (which is at the center of the complex) that he ordered an excavation and had bricks layered crisscross for 15 rows deep! Another had a chamber with 27 beds in it so no one knew which bed he slept in.

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It’s impossible to describe all the buildings and their uses but you get the idea with the pictures we’ve uploaded.

Posted by Aeren 20:20 Archived in China Comments (3)

Sometimes You Dim Sum, Sometimes You Lose Some

Eating our way through Hong Kong

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The plan for today was to get up, take care of a few housekeeping items, walk to the old Tin Hao temple, take the metro to Central and to eat dim sum, walk to the Hong Kong Garden and the zoo finishing off the evening with the tickets we bought yesterday.

The reality was housekeeping took longer than expected and we had to rush straight to the restaurant because other travelers recommended getting there before 11:30 am. We had to skip the temple and the Zoo. The restaurant, called Maxim’s Palace, is located on the second floor of City Hall. We arrived just at 11:20 am and the restaurant was already full. We received #3 and had to wait about 30 minutes for a table. I didn’t know much about dim sum. Jeannine found out that it originated in Hong Kong and then it made sense that we’d have to try it here.
When we entered I was stunned by beauty, size, and smooth operation.

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The room had old world elegance with four giant chandeliers going down the center of the room flanked by six smaller ones on each side. The entire wait staff was impeccably dressed from the hostesses in vibrantly embroidered color jackets over black dresses to the dim sum servers with starched black dresses and white collars. It is one of the few restaurants left in Hong Kong that bring the dim sum to the table for you to make your choice rather than looking over a menu. Dim sum are much more than appetizers, if you’ve never had it is could be called “Chinese tapas”. Servers pushed carts overflowing with bamboo containers filled with steamed dumplings of every kind, barbecued pork puffs, cooked greens, and chefs walked around with other specialty dishes. It was like watching a well choreographed dance up and down the aisles as they called out the names of the food they were conveying.

We fell right into the routine of stopping servers and selecting dishes.

Our menu ended up as being: veggie Buns, deep-fried taro puffs, corn and shrimp wrapped in cellophane and cooked in sesame oil, shrimp balls, rice flower cake with fish, and deserts of honey sesame dough and a sesame coconut pudding. Ok, I’ll admit it we over did it, but it was soooo good. As we left the restaurant, there must have been 100 people still waiting in line to get in and I was glad Jeannine pushed for us to arrive before 11:30 am.

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We headed out to the Hong Kong Gardens and on our way there we found a gem we hadn't read anything about, the pedestrian bridge system connecting buildings and keeping people above the traffic. It was amazing, without it we would have missed a detour to see the Chunking Center Gardens which incorporate trees, paths and water features offer a peaceful respite to office workers in adjacent towers. Hong Kong Park has memorials and an aviary, lots of walking paths, ponds and streams. The temperature was soaring to 94 degrees (with high humidity) and by the time we got to the gardens the heat and the dim sum took its toll, but I insisted on going up a 105 step tower in the garden that offers a vantage point to the city while Jeannine rested in the shade. But, after this we decided to head back to the room for a break.

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Pedestrian Bridge

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Chungking Public Gardens

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Tower at Hong Kong Gardens

An Evening of Chinese Culture

Well rested, we arrived at the Hong Kong Cultural Center to see a spectacular show. It was well worth the $120 HKD ticket ($15.48 USD). While the highlight of the show for us was the Red Poppy Ladies, the entire show was unbelievable. We were blown away by children from three schools playing drums together in a kind of challenge mode, followed by percussions from the Peking Opera, and then the Red Poppy Ladies and then the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Photography was not allowed but you can see a performance of the Red Poppy here.

We have now arrived in Beijing and our friend Dong met us at the airport. Our hotel is near Tiananmen Square so we'll be there soon.

Posted by Aeren 18:11 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (3)

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