Posts Tagged With: hanging monastery

China an overview

 

Well the time has finally come to leave China and move on to the next leg of our little adventure. I guess it is time to take stock of what we have done, where we have been and run through the highlights and lowlights of the time spent in China. We are actually not entirely finished as we will be back in Hong Kong in October and may pop into Macao for a day or two depending upon how the other plans go.

Overall our time in China has been fantastic and I would highly recommend this as a tourist destination for any of you. There are some myths about needing mandarin to travel in China which are quite frankly totally wrong. After a cumulative 7 months full time here we would be lucky to know 20-30 words and have been completely off the beaten path where no English is spoken. The Chinese people are really helpful and a couple of bits of technology gets you through most binds (see Jill’s travel tips section).

So in summary we spent –

205 – Days in China
50 – Cities slept in (more visited or day tripped)
25 – Provinces visited (of 32)
China Map

We have been discussing our best and worst bits and came up with very little on the negative side with the overall impression being ridiculously positive. The other thing we tried to do was to develop a must see itinerary for those seeking to travel here. China however is like Australia and the distances and travel times make seeing everything impossible unless you have unlimited time (there are still things that we missed out on and want to see).

The other thing that stumped us was that some of the must sees (Terracotta Warriors and 3 Gorges Cruise etc.) were some of the least impressive things that we have been to…but how can you really come here and not see them…so despite being so-so I guess they remain must sees. They were ok and it is nice to say that we have been but there is so much better to see in China and if time were limited (which it almost always will be) there are much better places to go.

The other thing was that Jill and I liked different things. She has turned into a mountain goat while here, relishing the stair climbs (that are everywhere)…while I have gone the other way cursing stairs at every opportunity. Obviously there are some things that were awesome for both of us. The Great Wall of China is an absolute must and the best spot is the Mutianyu section (about 60kms outside of Beijing). The other thing that must be done is getting into some of the provinces. Each minority of China is quite different and these differences should be experienced. So here it is…

Traditional Must Sees

The Great Wall of China
Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square
The summer palace
Gate of heavenly peace
Mao’s Tomb
Shanghai
Walled cities
Hanging Monastery
The terracotta Warriors
3 gorges dam
Tibet ?

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Most of these are easy to achieve from Beijing with limited travel times and this could be done in a two week stint if you push a little bit. The warriors is a quick pop across to Xian where the Muslim quarter is a must. Xian is a walled city but Jill’s suggestions are that Pingyao and Datong are better examples and from Datong you can also see the hanging monastery and Yúngāng Caves..head down and out through Shanghai and all of this within the two week journey.

Tibet is a whole other issue. There seems to be a global interest in Tibet given the Dalai Lama scenario but having been there we would never return. The Everest leg was nice and something we will no doubt brag about down the track but way too difficult to be worth the 2 hour photo shoot that we got. Especially given that a lot of the time it is clouded over and you don’t get a nice view (we were blessed with perfect weather). The food was terrible but the road between Lhasa and Shigatse was the highlight but it is a tough schlepp and should not be taken lightly.

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Lesser known gems

These are the things that do not immediately come to mind when you think of China but having been there and experienced them they are VERY high on both of our lists. We would do almost all of these before the last 3 on the earlier list…but they are less famous.

Guilin to Yangshou river rafting
Jiuzhaigou – Jiuzhai national park with blue lakes and waterfalls everywhere
Harbin – ice festival
Kunming – Stone forest
Kashgar – livestock market
Chengdu – panda breeding centre + giant Buddha at Leshan

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This list of places will probably not make an initial itinerary however were really nice spots to either kick back or enjoy a lesser paced time getting to know the real China or seeing sights in a less hectic manner. Nice if you have heaps of time but sadly will be missed by most.

Dali – walled city
Dandong – North Korean border
Shanhaiguan – wall meets ocean + first mountain pass
Mountains – Wutaishan, Mianshan, Taishan,
Xiahe – monastery (more Tibetan than Tibet)
Anshun – biggest waterfall in China
Hohhot – Inner Mongolia
Hangzhou – west lake
Shangri-la – mini Tibet

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After this there were a bunch of cities that we stayed in that we found to be totally charming and full of the local Chinese culture and lifestyle but not necessarily likely to get a tourist visit. We would go back to them as we had a really good time eating, drinking and mingling with the locals. Places like Xining where we relaxed after the Tibet ordeal, or Yinchuan where they had 20 quai massages and free street theatre, or Guangzhou where we lazed eating super cheap food in a street that turned into restaurantville after dark.

Myths

You need to speak Chinese – rubbish…almost every Chinese person you meet will try and help you as much as they can. If you have a smile and a nice attitude you will never go wrong. A translator app on your phone and a dictionary style app like Pleco will get you through every drama.
Don’t eat the street food – rubbish…this is the tastiest, cheapest and best food to eat in China. It is clean, and turned over so frequently that most of the time it will be made in front of you. There is tourist food with snakes, bugs and scorpions etc but these are mostly for show and photographs. The every day stuff is fine.
China is dangerous – rubbish…be aware of your surroundings, as you always should be in any country, and you will feel and be safer than you would on any Australian street.

The bad bits

The absolute epitome of all things that are wrong with China exist and are openly displayed by one group especially…The Dama. This is not to say that these traits are not widely available but the Chinese Aunties (or Dama) are the group that has embraced or inherited all that is wrong with China. They are by no means the cause of it…but when looking at the offensive behaviour that exists in China…7 out of 10 times you will see it displayed by one of these aunties.

By night they are happy middle aged women dancing in the parks and public spaces (pissing off the locals with the loud music but amusing the tourists). But during the day they are the phlegm spelunking, bodily fluid hacking, phone yelling, street blocking, child pissing, line ignoring, elbow throwing, crowd pushing group that is oblivious to and ignorant of all those around them.

In a newspaper rant the Chinese papers tried to explain the attitude claiming that … Growing up during the Chinese revolution these Dama worked hard and didn’t enjoy good life when they were young; they only tried their best to save money. Now their children have grown up. With retirement pensions, they have more free time and money to spend on their own life. This explains some of it but not all.

The older generation has some of the worst Chinese traits, the younger generation has reasonably few of them…but the Dama…the Chinese baby boomer equivalents are shockers. And they are mostly women…probably because the men had chain smoked themselves into an early grave. The middle group that is the Dama is atrocious and the worst China has to see and offer.

But the future is bright. The current generation is influenced by the poor examples set and is revolting against this. They are more polite, more aware that other people exist, and less likely to hock bodily fluids around the streets. There is still a long way to go…yelling still takes place and the ignorance of those around them remains high. Smoking will be the next hurdle to be fought as it is impossible to go anywhere without being swamped by cigarette smoke (despite no smoking signs everywhere). No meal can be eaten without half the restaurant firing up after their food.

A Snapshot

Once again we will finish on a selection of thumbnails of our favourite moments…needless to say after 7 months there are too many to try and put on our little post. If anybody is thinking of a trip here we would be happy to provide any advice or share any insights we may have that may help your planning.

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Last minute thoughts

China has recently introduced 72 hour Visa free cities…20 of them in total. This presents the perfect opportunity for stopover tasters as you head to other destinations. Guilin is one of these and was my favourite spot…72 hrs would be enough time to fly in, poke around, crash, take the raft to Yangshou, poke around, crash then return to Guilin for the flight out. This was debatably our best day and certainly one of our best days in China.

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And the adventure continues…

 

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Datong – Part Two

Now we get to the real reason that we came to Datong…many years ago we saw a documentary which showed Xuánkōng Sì (the Hanging Temple/Monastery) which is built into the side of a cliff face near Mount Heng which is about 60 km outside Datong. My darling bride… immediately upon seeing this…and long before we thought of such a trip..decided this was a bucket list item for her… and therefore a must do for us. The guide told us that the temple dates back to about the 4th century which quite frankly is astounding when you see this rickety building dangling off a sheer rock face.

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The Hanging monastery is shaped to resemble a dragon with an open mouth and has about 40 rooms linked by mid-air walkways. The monastery has been adopted now by 3 religions (Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism). It appears to be perched on skinny stilts but they assured us that the beams buried deep into the cliff were bearing the load. So much so that the tour guide suggested that we shake the (seemingly) supporting pillars…we did not try this.

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Having seen some of the modern building techniques in China…I would not get into a modern Chinese building that is attached to a cliff face. Needless to say I was reasonably reticent to trust one that had been stuck up there 1600 years ago. The hand rails were at a bit over knee height and the paths were about one and a half persons wide. So if you wanted to try an overtaking manoeuvre one of you was hanging over the side looking at the sheer drop. Not sure exactly how high up you are when you do the climb to the temple, but you are certainly high enough to die if you fell off and those with vertigo should not even think of trying this. I am not particularly afraid of heights but there were times up the mountain when I was a little concerned for my future longevity.

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After the hanging monastery we headed to the Yungang Grottoes which are a series of over 250 caves 16 km west of Datong. Wiki tells me that there “are over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas within these grottoes, ranging from 4 centimeters to 7 meters tall”. The guide was telling us that the biggest Buddha was about 17 metres and that there were a few others around the 13-15 metre mark…so I think wiki has some typos. The entrance to the caves has been China-fied and the kilometre walk to the first cave is filled with brand new buildings, statues, pagodas and a bronze tree.

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The region is rich in coal and until recently had a town at the base of the caves and a coal mine about 500 metres away on the other side of a small lake/pond thing. Interestingly the government thought that the town folk were causing too much dirt and were destroying the caves…so they moved the whole town away and built temples and the new China exhibitions that you see everywhere else. A year after displacing an entire town…they found that the dirt continued so they shut down the coal mine…go figure.

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The Yúngāng Grottoes are a UNESCO World heritage listed site and date back around 1500 years. Unlike the Dunhuang grottoes (apart from the tourist entrance route) the place has not undergone a trashy renovation attempt and are quite original. This is of course with the exception of caves five and six. The entrances to which have had wooden temple structures built. The caves 9-14 were blocked off as they too had such structures being built in front of them. From here high atop the mountain you could see sections of the great wall. Once again as you head west the wall is really more of a mud pile than a major defensive platform…but each section was built using the local materials available.

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Cave 20 is the iconic image which is seen everywhere…it had the front of the cave knocked away by either the weight of the rock or an earthquake and the Buddha is clearly visible from all around. The caves are not as awesome as the Ellora and Ajunta caves in India but they are far better than the ones in Dunhuang. Either way they are an excellent attraction and well worth a visit.

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The final thing that needs to be mentioned in Datong is the finest restaurant that we have hit since landing in China. This is a VERY big call as we have had some absolutely spectacular meals along the way but this place was a cut above. It is written up on Tripadvisor as Feeling Restaurant but we are not really sure what this is in Chinese. It was a five star restaurant with five star food, service, ambience and décor but at a 2 star price. We went for dinner after the caves and hanging temple and basically went back for every other meal until we left…it was that good.

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It was essentially a dumpling house…and the dumplings were good…very good. But it had a wider menu and over the period we had sampled about 10 different dishes and they were all superb. The place is made of wood and stone and has intricate carvings in every nook and cranny in every room. The rooms are themed and the first night we ate in the Dragon Room and the next day it was the Phoenix Room. This theming relates to the carvings and sculptures that adorn the room…fantastic.

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As for the food…the dumplings pictured above were rolled to the thickness of tissue paper on the top and were filled with all the normal dumpling things like pork and prawns etc. But the thinness of the outer layer without any loss of structural integrity was impressive. The standout dish for us was the abalone mushrooms (right hand side)…these were sliced thin and marinated…wow..so simple but amazing. As I mentioned we sampled about 10 different dishes and they were all of highest quality as was the service. We ate 3 meals here having between 3-4 dishes plus 3 beers and not one of the bills reached $20.

 

Categories: China | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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