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China Trip – Day 6 & 7 Wudang Mountain

Another exciting day and another side of China – the side which the 16 Kung Fu students in our group were beginning to get very excited about. We were in Wudang for the group to learn some patterns in a new Tai Chi style, after a couple of days of us touring the mountain. Once the training started I would be heading home alone, so I was very much looking forward to the last couple days of touring and eating.

We packed an overnight bag and headed on a little bus upwards into the mountains. We got sick bags as we got on the bus which wasn’t an encouraging sign! Hairpin bends galore. We drove up as far as the road would carry us to pick up a cable car service to the top of the mountain – the Golden Peak, a pilgrimage site and Daoist temple. There were a lot of very steep stairs on the way up, but the views at the top were well worth it, particularly since we were so lucky with the bright blue skies. There were many opportunities to look for good luck in the temples on the way up to the peak. This included a pitch black Good Fortune temple from the 1300s and a lovely temple hall with big, rather scary statues of the Wudang Mountain God and one of Zheng San Feng, the founder of Tai Chi, who lived to be over 130 years old. The Golden Peak temple itself is in honour to Lao Ze, the author of the famous Dao De Jing.IMG_2076

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From the top of the mountain, we gradually made our way down via a smaller Daoist temple – Fu Zhen Temple, a lovely very peaceful place, with the temple built into the side of the cliff.  Chilly though!

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Before heading to our hotel on the mountain we stopped via a scenic valley, which came to fame in the UK for being used for the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We also came across the unusual Black Swan (apparently swan translates into Chinese as sky duck – how wonderful!). Clearly having too many people in our group who read finance and economics books, the black swan got rather a lot of attention…

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Following day was more of the same, looking at some of the other highlights in the area, and a few more beautiful temples. We stopped at the Purple Heaven temple, populated entirely by Lady Monks – and I was utterly captivated by one Lady Monk drying and combing her hair, the wonder of the ritual, so surprisingly beautiful, ending with a perfectly symmetrical bun on her head. What else would I expect in the home of Daoism.

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We left the Wudang Mountain feeling peaceful, if a little cold and slightly travel sick from all of the hairpin bends. Back to our hotel via a bustling local supermarket to stock up on snacks for the Kung Fu students ready for training in the morning, and me ready for my flight back to the UK.

China Trip – Day 5 Xi’an

More tasty breakfast (mostly pork buns) and a swift check out by 8am. Most of the group went off to see the Xi’an city wall (apparently the biggest city wall in the world). A few of us, HB and I along with HB’s brother and his wife, went off on a special family expedition with a lady from the Xi’an cultural heritage centre. The expedition was to see an exhibition put together with help from HB’s cousin David Brough – about the work of a group of quakers who went to offer aid in China and Burma in the 1940s. It was lovely to see HB and his brother posing next to an old photograph of their great uncle Bill in the exhibition – the quaker group went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. A great article and more information is here.

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We rejoined the group at the Large Wild Goose Pagoda in town, a lovely temple which had all of the beauty and sincerity that the Famen temple didn’t. We got a very quick tour from a very keen tour guide who got very annoyed if we weren’t paying full attention. We had a small lecture on chinese calligraphy and painting, which was very interesting – and we were shown how to make ink and how to do the basic 8 strokes, as drawn in the character for eternity.

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After lunch we jumped on our bus, and stayed on it for a very long time. Epic bus ride through endless mountain tunnels to our next location – the legendary Wudang mountain. Our hotel was in town at the foot of the Wudang mountains scenic area.  We arrived late and hungry to an insanely cold hotel, where all the staff, even the waitresses at dinner were wearing outside coats and hats!

China Trip – Day 4 Xi’an

Woke up to a pollution count of 200; very glad we brought breathing masks with us. On a better note we woke to an unbelievable hotel breakfast with everything from hash browns and baked beans to the now compulsory congee and fried devils, pork buns, pickles, fried rice, veg, Danish pastries, croissants, peanut chilli noodles, infinite egg varieties and banana bread!

After eating as much as possible, we travelled a little out of the city to to tomb of the Tang Dynasty 3rd Emperor and Empress (Wu Ze Tian, China’s only female in the big seat). Wu Ze Tian rose from being a concubine to the 2nd Tang Emperor before seducing his son – who then returned her to the palace as his own concubine, and later wife, on his father’s death. The tour guide hinted at lots of other exciting tales, including murdering her own daughter and deposing other wives in order to take power. We were able to visit their mausoleum running alongside their tomb – other which was discovered in recent decades but not opened – waiting for a time when what is inside can be preserved. More evidence of a foresight and pan-generational perspective within China which I bet is unrivalled in the world.

We climbed the natural hill in which the tomb was found (but sealed with molten steel to be opened on pain of death – literally). Not bad considering I was in a skirt and casual shoes. Kind comparisons to gentlewomen lady Victorian explorers as I held up my skirt while scaling the near vertical and very slippery rocks near the summit. Interesting conversation from the tour guide on the way to lunch – who answers our questions about the Chinese views on the afterlife. As with the Saxons, Egyptians (and no doubt others), people would leave precious objects – food, money, weapons, pots and pans even animals in the grave to help the departed in the next life. In current times, most monotheistic religions and all but removed these types of traditions. In China, paper effigies of objects are now burnt as funeral offerings – paper money, paper cars, paper iphones even (to the bus’s amusement) paper wifi routers.

After this we went on to the Famen Temple, an enormous national complex of Buddism with everything you could possibly seek from an Avenue lined with giant Buddha statutes and meditative gardens with delicate music coming out of fake rocks on the ground. Sadly to us most of the complex felt cold and corporate with no feelings of tranquility or peace. The site is home to a sacred relic belonging to Sakyamuni – lost for centuries then found beneath an old pagoda on the site in the 1980s. We were lucky to get a sight of it in the new building recently constructed for it – and looking disturbingly like an pagoda housed within an alien death ray machine. We left unsatisfied (particularly the practicing buddhists among the group) feeling like we had just been through some sort of tourist propaganda.

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A better end to the night in the Xi’an Muslim quarter, with a bucketful of Bau – special dumplings with vegetable soup on the inside.

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China Trip – Day 3 Xi’an

4.30am wake up call. Ouch and very unhelpful while dealing with jet lag. Breakfast in a box on the bus to Beijing airport. HB joked that it would be ham sandwiches, and lo and behold it was: ham and cheese sandwich and a boiled egg – a Chinese view of what westerners eat. Quick bus journey and we were soon headed on a plane for Xi’an a couple of hours west of Beijing in Shaanxi province. The flight to Xi’an took us out over the mountains; another endless great expanse. You really start to feel the vastness of the country and understand how it affects the whole psychology of the people of China. The final descent into Xi’an was very impressive – views over paddy fields and open countryside. We were picked up by a new tour guide for the airport, who was funny and very knowledgable about the city. He was happy to discuss ancient history and switch to modern economics as we passed one of the seven power stations in the city. 9m people and Pollution count of 170; the smog was obvious and unpleasant.

First stop straight from the airport was the Terracotta Army, one of the things I’ve always wanted to see. Our guide told us of the history of the very first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who was the first man to unify China and end a long period of war. He was crowned (?) at 13, and already fearful of the afterlife, ordered work to begin on his tomb. The museum was amazing and very well done, showing the archeological work which has been done on preserving and restoring the parts of the huge site which have been excavated so far. Words cannot describe it and pictures do no justice to the endless rows and rows of ceramic warriors and horses which stand guard of the body of Emperor Qin.

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The tomb of Emperor Qin itself has not been opened, officials waiting for a time when China has the technology to preserve the grave goods know to be inside – apparently worth some significant % of China’s GDP. More evidence of the incredible Chinese long term view – this would be unheard of in the UK. The army was found by a farmer a few km from the hill where the tomb is thought to be. They are buried in long rows and were original,y positioned in long corridors with a wooden roof structure over them. Unfortunately, two years after the death of Emperor Qin at 50 years old, a peasant revolt saw the whole lot burned down, collapsing the roof onto the heads of the standing soldiers. This crushed many of the Warriors, and over the last 40 years, each man and horse has been reconstructed piece by piece. Only a few thousand left to do…

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Each of the soldiers faces are different, and very realistic, based upon the different ethnic groups present in Qin’s army at the time. I had heard that the potters of the time are likely have been influenced by Greek portraiture as this type of realism in ceramics hadn’t been seen before in Chinese art. So incredible, and somewhat creepy. This army would scare anyone, even from the afterlife.

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In the midst of all of this was a very tasty lunch, with more pork buns, and five varieties of hand pulled noodles. And soup. And deep fried aubergines, rice and oddly tasty warm stir-fried celery.

After the museum we went on to the Winter Palace, built for the Lady Yang during the Tang Dynasty. She was a concubine of one of the Tang Dynasty emperors, apparently famous for being very beautiful and a bit plump. The palace was destroyed many centuries ago, and rebuilt completely in 1980. It gave us a rather odd feeling wandering around a reconstruction, which was only casually dropped into conversation by the tour guide. The Lady Yang Wei Fei had some fascinating stories associated with her, including a meteoric rise up the ranks of the concubines from 7th level to 1st level in two years. Complicated business all these concubines and wives.

After the palace we went to dinner and then out for a walk near our hotel. We accidentally happened upon an amazing night Market – feeling like a glimpse into real China at last. Amazing Street food – meat or chilli tofu skewers, twirly bread sticks, flower pepper peanuts, pomegranates, watermelons, fried noodles as well as stalls of random stuff from beads to socks to iPhones.

China Trip – Day 1 & 2 Beijing

Well, what a week it has been!! Just arrived back into the UK after an epic 36 hour journey back from central China. Now getting round to writing up the amazingness of the trip away, due to hazy wifi while travelling.

Day 1

We arrived in the colossal Beijing airport around 9am local time (body clock time completely confused) and welcomed by the below freezing air on arrival. Being intrepid adventurers we went straight onto our tourist bus and on to visit the Summer Palace. Built for the Dowager Empress Ci Xi (the dragon lady) we walked around the massive site, getting our first glimpses of palace, temple, frozen lake and tales of imprisoned emperors, poisonings and sacred rocks.

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I found it very interesting to see how well the mix of vast modern city, with a rather ridiculous volume of neon everywhere, sits so neatly among such a range of old relics and sites. The mix of ancient heritage and modern seemed to me not to feel contradictory. Is this how the locals feel? After the summer palace we went out to lunch. Out tour guide was clearly used to some very unworldly people as she amusingly started trying to explain what Chinese food was (and how to use chopsticks) to us – a group of Kung fu students plus me who all eat rather a lot of Chinese food!

After lunch we made it to the hotel after a 2 hour drive from the other side of town (only just a few km away) to get a shower before heading back out. We went to visit Tiananmen Square on the way to dinner which we saw as the sun was setting. Very formal place, with a feeling of no real life – and strange to see the square so often portrayed on international TV as the heart of China’s capital city. Also quit strange to see the famous red gate with the haunting image of Chairman Mao ringing around the vast expanse of the a Forbidden City. From here we went to a tea house for food and to experience an amazing array of Chinese Cabaret acts – from Sichuan face changing, to opera singing, shadow play, traditional ladies dancing and a long spout teapot performance. Alongside an endless pot of tea and snacks. Great to see all locals in the audience too, it was nice to be the only westerners in the room.

Day 2

Breakfast in our hotel, which had Jingle Bells on repeat in the foyer (alongside the giant neon christmas tree, mini grotto and giant gingerbread house). Huge range of stuff from fried noodles, eggs steamed veggies, pickles, fruit, banana bread, a few nods to “western tastes” (bread, ham, cheese, Danish pastries and muffins). I was recommended the congee and fried Devils – which are my new favourite breakfast dish. As well as the pork buns. Hmmm, so tasty.

After stocking up on food, we ventured out into the -7C morning. Our tour bus took us a couple of hours north of Beijing into the mountains and Great Wall country. We went to a touristy but lovely spot – Badalin – where the wind was wickedly cold in the valley where we stopped. Even with 5 layers, bobble hat and bunny fur mittens I was still really cold until we started climbing. And climb we did! Up and down insanely steep slopes and steps for about an hour. At the top, the highest point in the reachable area, the girl guide in me came out and HB and I were the envy of the group as we whipped out a flask of hot tea and snacks. The view is amazing and is an amazing feat of engineering, you can clearly see while the raiding hordes would be terrified of it. It puts my local Roman Wall to shame! We were incredible lucky with the clear blue skies all day.

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Tasty lunch on the way back into the city, and a fight to see whether me or RW could eat more of the Gong Bao chicken. Can’t get enough of the flower pepper and peanut combo. Afternoon naps all round on the bus back after so much fresh air, stairs, food and a warm bus. We stopped in a temple grounds near to our hotel for a quick walk to wake up. There were so many locals hanging out playing cards, games and singing – such a nice contrast to the formal coldness of Tiananmen Square the night before. After a rest dinner and a new exciting dish of inside-out fish. Another one to try at home perhaps?

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