Saturday, 24 August 2013

Xian April 2013

Getting from Xian airport into the city is easy, the shuttle bus is very accessible and it arrives outside the Melody Hotel which is central and it was fortunate as we were staying therel.
Across the road from the hotel is the Drum Tower as well as a small side street which takes you passed stalls that have a range of Chinese artifacts of varying quality. In and out these lanes you discover a food street with some very delicious offerings. This is the Muslim quarter which has its own special cuisine and was a change from the usual Chinese fare. This area was very crowded as it is a magnet for both Chinese and European tourists.
The Drum Tower
I really noticed the change in Xian from the time I was there in 2007. There has been a great deal of development. It now has a subway and shopping malls and even a number of coffee shops as well as a large Walmart.
As we didn’t have breakfast included at the hotel we decided to buy some teabags and fruit at the supermarket as well as some buns at a bakery. We had done this in Beijing and it works well and saves time trying to find a suitable place for breakfast.
The following day we booked our trip to the Terracotta Warriors and then explored the city. We went to the Drum Tower and were lucky to arrive just before a performance incorporating a variety of drums then we headed to the Bell Tower.
We walked to the wall and down the street that according to my memory was full of shops that sold chopsticks, but discovered that it was now artists’ street selling brushes, paper etc. I bought a few painting books, choosing judiciously as I didn’t want to end up with a too heavy bag. I planned to go to the museum called The Forest of Steles but it was closed for renovations, which was disappointing.  We found the place to climb up to the ramparts of the city wall. It’s possible ride a bike around the whole structure  we both refrained from this exercise as we both had injured knees. The best place to eat was the Muslim quarter so we went there for our dinner that night.
Up bright and early for our trip to the Terracotta Warriors. We opted for the whole day tour which included Huangqing Pool and Ban Po Village. We picked up the other members of the group and by the time we arrived it was lunchtime so as lunch was included we were ushered into a restaurant for the usual fare, nothing fancy but was satisfying and would keep us going for the rest of the day. After that we entered the gates through the souvenir shop to the hangar like building which displayed some of the finds. It is obvious that work is still in progress as the tools and tables of the archeologists could be seen and there were notices saying not to photograph them when they are working.
I have seen this display before but it is still breathtaking, especially when you realize that no two warriors look the same. It still is amazing that they still haven’t uncovered the whole army of warriors. It was interesting to learn that they were originally painted and that many have been left buried until they have worked out how to preserve the old paint on them. This is one of China’s top historical sights. The terracotta warriors were part of Qin Shi Huang (China’s first emperor) mausoleum. It was Qin Shi Huang who united the country standardizing the currency and writing. From historical accounts the tomb contained palaces, precious stones and special defenses to protect it against possible intruders. It was rumoured that the artisans who worked on the tomb were buried alive so as not to divulge any information about the construction. All that is visible of what must have been an enormous construction is a mound.
I was not surprised to see how much tourist development has occurred around this complex. It was a lot more low key on my previous visit and lunch was a ‘bun fight’ as our tour operator left us to it and eateries were very sparse indeed.
The Terracotta Warriors
After we left here we went to the Huaqing Pool. This complex was built by a Tang Emperor for his favourite concubine. Water from hot springs is channeled into public bath houses, which have 60 pools for about 400 people. During the Tang dynasty this was a private retreat for the emperor and his concubines. As we were here in autumn the water lilies and blossom weren’t in bloom as they were on my previous visit, but it is still a very attractive retreat, though it’s not hard to imagine it would be anything but tranquil during peak visiting times.

Huaqing Pool

We eventually were picked up from here and taken to the Banpo Neolithic Village. It was excavated in the 1950s and the village occupied this area from 4500 BC until around 3500 BC. Just under a quarter of the site has been excavated and there is only conjecture about the culture of the times. The ruins are divided into three parts, pottery manufacturing, residential and a cemetery. It was very interesting and well set out.

There was also an exhibition in another building of some Chinese painting which is always worth a look. After this we had to wait patiently for our ride back to town. We were the only two from the initial group who did the whole day tour, so they had to make some special provisions for us. The tour did deliver on all promised but it did seem a bit disorganized  but compared to the tour I did in 2007 which I dubbed ‘Dodgy Brothers’ this was a notch up more like ‘Arthur Daley.’
We explored the Muslim Quarter again to find the Great Mosque. We found a mosque but I’m not sure it was the major one. We went down a little lane and through a small gate into a tiny courtyard. We were the only ones there; the decorations were an interesting combination of the Arabic and Chinese.

Mosque decorations in Xian

I decided that we would visit  the Big Goose Pagoda and the museum next to it. I had visited both previously and the museum is excellent. We decided to walk and eventually found it. It didn’t seem as straightforward as I remembered. We arrived and the correct location and could see the pagoda tantalizingly close but not the entrance. Eventually we walked around the whole block only to discover that the whole complex was completely closed, we couldn’t even walk in the gardens, and everything was fenced off the museum included. So it turned out to be a ‘big wild goose’ chase. We took the metro back to base.
The next day we were off to Yangshao.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Beijing April 2013 continued

We had an absolutely beautiful day the weather was perfect and the sky was surprisingly blue so we went to Beihai Park. It was first built in the 10th century as an Imperial garden and is one of the largest gardens in China.
We walked to the park from our hotel and were further away than I thought. We even stopped at a little hole in the wall café for coffee and steamed buns both of which turned out to be quite good. We eventually arrived and started to meander along the main path. 

The White Pagoda

The park covers 69 hectares of which the lake covers half that area. The park was very busy as it was a holiday but as it was so large it didn’t seem over crowded. The White Pagoda dominates the park as it is on the highest point on Qionghua Island. It was first constructed with white stone in Kublai Khan’s reign in 1271 and has been restored twice over the years due to earthquake damage. The climb up to the pagoda offers a spectacular view of the surrounds.
There are several Buddhist temples and small traditional gardens throughout the park which are worth a look. Another interesting construction is the Nine Dragon Wall which was built in 1402. It shows nine complete dragons playing in the clouds and is quite exquisite. This wall is situated north of the Five Dragon Pavilion.

Part of the Nine dragon Wall

It felt as though we walked around the whole park as we spent most of the day there, but I’m sure we only saw a small section.  We exited at a different spot than we entered but managed to find our way back to the main road which passes behind the Forbidden City.
We had booked a tour to the Great Wall for the next day. When I booked I grilled the travel agent about the tour. I had read about scams that supposedly take you to the wall and other places but all you end up seeing  jade and silk factories. After a long discussion I was told ALL tours take you to those places but it is important to book through a reputable agent rather than a tout on the street or small hole in the wall place to get what you pay for.
We decided on the tour to Mutianyu it is further away than Badaling but has fewer tourists, though it was still very busy when we were there. The tour also took in the Sacred Way which is part of the 7 km approach to the Ming tombs. It is very impressive as giant statues line the way; there are 18 pairs which included imperial court officials, warriors, and animals (e.g. horses, camels etc.) also mythical Chinese beasts. We passed under a carved portal with flanked by carved columns. The walk along the Sacred Way was fascinating.

The Sacred Way

Of course we stopped at the obligatory jade factory which is all very interesting and expensive. Not being a jade aficionado I am reluctant to pay hundreds let alone thousands of dollars for the gem. Actually the buying of any gem stone being it diamonds or emeralds etc. is all based on trust if we aren’t experts in the field. So let me say I’m not an expert on jade and I don’t have a lot of trust relating to this field in China.
After the group did the rounds of the shop (none of us bought anything) we had lunch, which was included in the tour price at the restaurant at the back of the shop. There was plenty to eat and a good variety of dishes.
After lunch we made our way to the wall. The weather had turned decidedly bad and by the time we arrived it was cold and wet. We made our way over muddy paths and slippery stones through the entrance passed souvenir shops to the wall itself. This section of the wall provides a dramatic hilly setting with the series of watchtowers along its length, most of which have been restored. The wall here dates from 1368. The picturesque village buildings close to the wall has been converted into restaurants and holiday homes.

The Great Wall

We trudged along a reasonable section of the wall, I think the most impressive part is the view of the wall snaking its way over the mountains and disappearing into the distance. By the time we decided we had had enough of the wall, we were chilled to the bone. As we returning to the pick- up point we discovered a café that sold coffee. A hot drink, would just the thing to warm us up.
We were all rather weary on the return journey but we still had the silk factory to contend with. It was late afternoon when we arrived to a classic Chinese building. It certainly was better than the one we experienced in Hangzhou. It was quiet and it had a superior quality of merchandise at the fraction of the cost. My friend bought a queen sized silk doona for approximately $A150. I would’ve done so too if I hadn’t recently bought a new doona a home.
On the way back to the drop off point near our hotel the traffic was absolutely terrible, which really isn’t that surprising in Beijing.
After such a wet day and with prospects of another similar day to follow, we decided not to go to the Summer Palace. Also being a holiday it would be extremely crowded.
We went to the Lama and Confucius Temples instead. The weather turned out to be more pleasant than we thought it would be. Getting to the Lama Temple was easy on the Metro, the stop Xidan is very close by and it was easy to see which direction one needed to go. It was once one of the most notable centres of Buddhism outside of Tibet. It was shut down during the Cultural Revolution and Zhou Enlai was reputedly responsible for saving it from destruction. Buddhism has had resurgence in China but there are only 70 monks here now when once there were 1500. It is the same sect as the Dalai Lama but the monks here have to reject the notion of Tibetan independence. The Lama Temple (Yonghegong) is a magnificent complex which consists of five main halls and stunning statuary.
Lama Temple
Over the road not far from the Lama Temple is the Confucius Temple. During the Cultural Revolution Confucianism was a dirty word and many of the temples were closed or used for other purposes. At least they weren’t destroyed. This temple was originally built in 1302 and then expanded in 1906. Around 200 ancient steles stand in the courtyard inscribed with the names of those who had successfully passed the imperial civil service exams. It was wonderfully peaceful walking around the gardens as there were only a few people here. We enjoyed looking in the various pavilions and marveling at the ancient trees some over 700 years old. Trees that have a numbered plaque on them are registered world heritage trees, and there were definitely a few here.
Confucius Temple
 After the temples we walked down some narrow streets close by, one in particular had small little modern craft shops and cafes all very quiet, quite unusual for Beijing. We found a place to refresh ourselves with a coffee and sandwich.

We went back to Tiananmen Square to look around but it was closed, blocked off by barriers. There were soldiers everywhere, and a lot of marching across the square, flag raising etc. I don’t know what the occasion was but it was still in progress when we decided to leave to have a bite to eat.
The next day we were off to Xian. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Beijing continued

Art Show Beijing April 2013

I have been learning Chinese painting for a number of years and the first time I exhibited in China was 2010 but at the last minute I was unable to attend as I was extremely sick for most of that year. So when the opportunity to contribute to the Australian Colour and Ink Painting Exhibition being held in Beijing this year I was determined to go. However, only a small cohort of Patrick Lam’s students went for the opening. I was the only one from my class plus the only European.
Opening of Art Show
The opening was on 2nd April in the afternoon and were told to meet at the Grand Hyatt as we would be driven to the where the exhibition was to be held. It was a long way out passed the 3rd Ring Road. We were eventually driven down a narrow street with interesting old houses on each side. We stopped outside one of these and as we entered the through the large gates it opened up into a courtyard which was surrounded by various rooms. We were quickly ushered into a little reception room and offered tea, Chinese of course.
We sat around for quite a long time waiting for the important officials to arrive and not surprisingly, the opening ceremony was late in starting. There were the usual introductions and speeches, then the cutting of the ribbons, which in China is always very formal. The exhibition was now formally open.
Everyone there wandered around hopefully admiring the paintings. One of my jobs was to photograph the paintings of my fellow class mates which proved a little more challenging than I thought it would be, as they weren't grouped according to artist nor had anything in pinyin or English. I had to carefully examine the chops on each painting hoping I accurately recognized everyone’s.
One of my paintings

. A full size sheet of paper was produced and I was dreading being put to the test of painting something in front of everyone as happened at exhibitions in the past. Patrick started the painting and the other prominent Chinese artists added to it and eventually an absolute wonderful collaborative painting was the result. We students were totally off the hook and those from the other class added a few little details, I was hoping to be ignored but being the only European I stood out so Patrick beckoned me over to add some stamens to some of the blossom. It was an easy exercise but my hand shook and I know that even the stamens weren’t that great, but at least they were lost amid the greater picture.
June Deakin's Tiger
One of the artist’s was a bit of a showman and painted wonderful peonies and horses with a few bold deft stokes of the brush. That is definitely talent. Unfortunately I work very hard to produce something very meagre by the side of that.
The weather was gradually getting colder, but we had to have the wrap for the opening with more standing around and photos, with us all holding the collaborative work.
The Collaborative Painting
We were then invited to a dinner, which is always very good, but I think this was exceptional. We went to a Moslem (Uighur) restaurant. The courses were many, one being a whole lamb which was rolled in propped up on a large tray. A bit confronting but the lamb was the most tender I have ever tasted. We also had very expensive Chinese wine, which is really as strong as whiskey. I commented to my friend that our meals would be definitely going downhill after this.
The whole event was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.