Beijing has many sighs and historic gems that attract millions of people every year. We visited most of them in the five+ years we have lived in this bustling city. At some point we stopped going there under the pretense that we will return with friends who visit town and show them around. With last year’s developments and the uncertainties of both inbound and outbound travel, not only have we redecorated our guest room into a study, we also vowed to return these icon places in 2021.
The Temple of Heaven
The temple of heaven, built in 1420, used to be the place where the Qing and Ming dynasties went to worship heaven, pray for bumper harvests and favorable rain. Most of the architecture we see today were reconstructed in the Qing dynasty and are based on the designs handed down from the Ming dynasty.
During the 2020 national holidays we decided to go see the Sichuan province and discover China’s Buddhist and Tibetan roots. With the pandemic still in full swing all over the world international travel was not an option anyways and instead of mourning all the places we could have gone we made the best of it and got to know the country we now call home for more than five year a little better.
As with a couple of trips before we flew to the capital of the province and rented a car for a road trip. In Chengdu we therefore went straight to the CAR rental and drove 130km south to Leshan, where we went to see the world’s biggest Buddha statue made from stone. This 1300 year old 70m high deity was carved into the Lingyun mountain during the Tang dynasty with the purpose to calm the turbulent river flowing before it.
The main entrance leads visitors to a viewing platform on shoulder height of the Buddha, which at its end leads to a passage all the way down to the the Buddhas enormous feet. Usually the queue to get down closer to the water to look up at the statue is hours long, but in pandemic times it only took us some 30 minutes. It rained a little while we were at Leshan but that didn’t spoil our mood, on the contrary, it made the whole experience even more fun.
Apart from the many well-known tourist attractions Beijing has on offer there is a surprisingly large number of remarkable sights that draw a lot less attention to themselves. Beijing Bai Yun Guan is honored as the chief temple of the Three Ancestral Temples of the Quan Zhen Taoist tradition. Originally called Temple of Eternal Heaven, it was built in 741 A.D. under Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty. In the Song dynasty it was renamed Tai Ji Gong. At the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, Master Qiu Chang Chun was appointed to this temple by Genghis Khan to preside over Taoism in China, upon which it was renamed Temple of Eternal Spring. After Qiu Chang Chun’s death, Chu Shun Tang was built to enshrine his physical remains, a hall located east of the Chang Chun Gong. In the early Ming Dynasty, the temple was ruined by war. Since only Chu Shun Tang remained it became the center of rebuilding and the temple was renamed White Cloud Temple. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the temple has undergone three extensive renovations with support from the Chinese government and so the traditional magnificence of this time-honored temple had been revitalized. At present the temple buildings cover an area of approximately 10.000 square meters, including nineteen deity halls carefully aligned along three north-south axes, with a rear garden, the overall area of the temple is about 60.000 square meters. Listed as a historic site under the protection of the Chinese government in 2001, it houses the offices of the Chinese Taoist Association, The Institute of Chinese Taoist Culture, the Chinese Taoist College and the Editorial Department of the Journal of Chinese Taoism.
In Ayuthaya one of the most famous sights is a single severed buddha head that looks out from under the tangled roots of an ancient bodhi tree. It’s hard to imagine how it got there since the body of the statue is long gone, but there might have been a shrine in front of the tree once that held an image of buddha. On the day we arrived in Ayuthaya light rainshowers kept coming down, convincing us to postphone the sightseeing to the next day. We did take a long walk around town though and found the Bang Ian night market around nightfall.
The next day, the first thing we went to see was the Mat Mahathat, the temple that holds the bodhi tree with the buddha head. It opens early in the morning at 8am and we were almost the first to buy a multi temple pass for the day. The temple ground was muddy and wet from the rain the day before and it didn’t take us long to ruin our shoes. But even with all the dirt and the bad weather it soon became quite clear that we were at a place that used to be of great importance once. Before Bangkok became the capital of Thailand, Ayuthaya was the center of Siamese power. And the city still is peppered with ancient Khmer ruins, making it an ideal gateway city to the history-ladden other cities in Central Thailand.
It’s our first week back after the Christmas holidays and I have to say the weather treated us very nicely. Over newyears our friends who didn’t return home as well as the German media repeatedly reported the devastating smog situation in Beijing, and I already expected the worst. Fortunately, we brought the clean air back with us and the last few days have seen brighter and brighter skies. Exploiting the opportunity to be outside without wearing a mask, we paid a visit to the Temple of Heaven, one of the few sights that I haven’t been to in the 16 month that we have been living here. It’s quite an amazing monument and is conveniently located at it’s own subway station (Tiantan Dongmen, Exit A). As it so happens the Pearl Market is directly across the street, so you could also get some (souvenir) shopping done since you’re already in the far south of the city. Tiantan one of the less expensive tourist attractions of Beijing and a regular “through ticket”, which grants you access to the main temple and some other importants parts of the area, costs 28 RMB (student price is 14 Kuai less). I recommend to buy the through ticket immediately and pay the extra 18 Kuai on top of a regular ticket, otherwise you can only get access to the front plaza and won’t be let through to the main temple. You’d have to buy a seperate ticket for 20 RMB if you haven’t gotten the through ticket right at the entrance.
Walking towards the main temple, you will see groups of elderly people playing cards and mahjongg. I’m always inspired by this routine, prefering to spend the sunny hours of the afternoon with old friends outside, rather than sitting isolated in your living room and counting the hours.
Chinese elderly passing time in Tiantan Park.
Chinese elderly passing time in Tiantan Park.
Many parents also took advantage of the clear and sunny day and visited the temple grounds today. A mother with her two kids positioned themselves in front of the main structure and captured the trip with their cell phone camera. She tried to convince her daughter to let her sister give her a smooch on the cheek, but as you can imagine she wasn’t too fond of the idea.
One of the banes of living abroad (and especially in China) are visa runs – being forced to leave the country simply for the purpose of renewing your residence permit. So why not use the compulsory trip to catch up on some long due traveling, in our case bridging the 1000km distance from the Jing to the South Korea. More precisely to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a stone’s through away from their atomic neighbors. The pictures below were taken on our five day trip to the capital, which is about the time you need to get a rough idea of the friendliness of the people and the cleanliness of the food. But first, let me (take a selfie…) give you a small list of impressions that were the most remarkable about Seoul, either compared to Beijing or compared to the general public opinion about Seoul:
You don’t need a visa to enter the country (at least not as a German passport holder), which was a very good thing given that we talked about looking up the visa regulation for Korea but in the end totally forgot to check again (that would have been one nasty surprise at the border)
Flight time between Beijing and Seoul is something like two hours (again, I didn’t have the time to gather more concrete travel information about this trip, so I simply assumed that it would take more than a few hours to get there. Which is also why I devoured that aweful plane meal, being under the impression that I wouldn’t get any food for the next couple of hours…)
The traffic (and the general demeanor of pedestrians and car/bus/taxi/motorbike/bicycle drivers) generally adheres to the rules
People in the streets don’t spit/fart/burp on a crowded sidewalk
Contrary to common notion the people of Seoul don’t speak English (at least using English won’t get you much farther than it would in downtown Beijing and sign language is still the means of communication for any non-Chinese speaking visitor)
You can buy beer that doesn’t taste like stale water (which is especially nice for people used to German brews)
Juice is actually made from fruit (we bought the most amazing fresh apple juice in an ordinary convenient store)
Koreans have a high quality coffee culture, so even smaller cafés tend to have portafilter machines (plus the milk that’s used tastes much better than in China)
One can receive ashtonishingly decent public wifi connections (we didn’t manage to buy a mobile phone card, so we used the public wifi, and except for some smaller bumps we got along quite well)
Art & history museum are for free, because the government provides cultural education for everyone (you do have to pay to gain access to the shrine and temples)
Shockingly we weren’t able to use WeChat in every store (which is a major problem once you fully got used to the comfort of not having any cash in your pockets). AliPay would have worked though
People tend to have good oral hygiene, so you don’t keel over everytime someone yawns in a crowded subway next to you
The public education videos in the subway actually seem to have an effect on the behaviour of the metro users (i.e. the majority sits with their ankles crossed instead of shoving the soles of their shoes into your knees
Contrary to the general opinion, Seoul didn’t turn out to be a shopping metropolis for us. With a european size 42 and shoe size 39, I didn’t find a single piece of clothing that didn’t look ridiculously like something a manga character would wear.
It was however ok with regards to their assortment of cosmetics. Especially in the main shopping street in close vicinity to the M Korea Tower, stores specializing in body lotion, facial creams, lip sticks, fake eye lashes, contact lenses, neon eye shadow, skin masks, hand lotions, and whatever else you can think of to smoothen out those wrinkles or lighten up your tone of skin was offered in one street.
So without furher ado find some of our travel pictures below…Enjoy.
Gwanghwamun Square, a 555m long, 34 m wide plaza in front of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung palace. Statues of Admial Yi Sunshin and King Sejong, two of the most respected historical figures in Korea are watching over visitors.
Gyeongbokgung Palace – the first royal palace built in the Joseon Dynasty, where hte Joseon Dynasty’s 500 year history began. The largest of the five grand palaces remaining in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung Palace provides a glimpse into Joseon’s royal culture, palace life, and architecture.
Sumunjang changing of the guards ceremony (twice a day, 10 am and 2pm)
Sumunjang changing of the guards ceremony
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden
Signs that attract little attention.
View from the Jamdoobong photo island, half way up the walk up to the M Korea Tower
Another visitor caught in a net.
Trees made of promise locks on the platform of the M Korea Tower
Thousands of locks line the handrails of the Korea Tower viweing platform.
A piece of China in Korea.
The M Korea Tower.
The M Korea Tower.
Myeong-dong Cathedral – located in the heart of downtown Seoul, Myeong-dong Cathedral is not only the first parish church in Korea, but also an important symbol of the Korean Catholic church. Father Eugene Coste of the Paris Foreign Missions Society began planning the construction in 1892. The cathedral was consecrated on May 29, 1898, to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as its patron saint.
The Cheonggyecheon is an almost 11k long waterway flowing from the south of Gwanghwamun Square to Dongdaemun, passing under historic structures and through present-day Seoul. Originally a popular laundry spot and playground, it has now become a popular area for Seoul citizens to relax at.
Created by world-renowned artists Coosje Van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg. “Spring” is the monument of the nature regenerated in Seoul and the symbol of the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project. The idea for the exterior spiral was inspired by a shell rising upwards like a pagoda. The vetical shape creates a dynamic atmosphere, representing the restored vitality of the stream and the cultural aspect of Seoul’s urban development.Looking inside, two colouful ribbons, inspired from Korean traditional dress of women, stream loosely down, one a luminous blue, the other a peony red, representing the unity of opposites in nature and human spirit.
On May Day 2016, the world’s largest glass floor viewing platform opened in Beijing. Of course we went, and here is how we got there:
A few Saturday’s back we took the early morning bus 635 (or 117, whichever you prefer), riding to Dongzhimen. From there, we interchanged at Dongzhimen chuniuzhan (the hub station) to bus 852 and went 60km north east into Pinggu county, where we got off the bus at the local bus station. Finally, after fighting off some black cab drivers (you really don’t need them to get to the viewing platform), we boarded bus No. 25 (or 26), which drove us through beautiful fruit and nut tree farms right up to the mountain on which the platform opended only weeks before. You will also pass a ‘small’ hydro dam and a gigantic golden buddha perched on top of a neighboring mountain, which unfortunatley we didn’t get the chance to visit yesterday (it looked like a fun hike up and down though, with a veeery long summer slide going down that was constructed dangerously close to the mountain side). The bus drops you off close to the entrance, and the trip up the mountain can either we climbed by food, or taken with a cable car. Walking up to the platform, the first kilometer(s) lead you through something like an outdoor adventure park for kids: arrow shooting, hurdle racing and crossing small rivers by hanging bridges. Soon you come to a very steep flight of stairs (I think they called it ‘Stairway to Heaven’), that brings you a good distance closer to the top of the mountain, where the glassviewing plattform was contrsucted. We were fooled into thinking that this was the hardest part, but what followed was an continuous steep climb up very narrow flights of stairways, which are definiftly not recommendable to someone who’s afraid to hights. It very exciting though and even though there was a constant stream of people going up and climbing down these stairs, its quite spectacular to watch people of all ages using their own “techniques” to make it up to the top. I wouldn’t recommend going there in the mid of summer, though, since it was already a tedious climb at the beginning of may. If you like to go, wait until fall, and then start your trip as early in the mroning as possible in order to escape the thickest masses of people.
Photo documentary from our road trip to Inner Mongolia. The second stop took us to a UNESCO geopark.
Dark clouds, but not one drop of rain.
Contruction workers during lunch break.
The UNESCO geopark covers an area of more then 1700 km2. We had the road to ourselves quite often.
A cow and her calf blocking the road.
Herd of grazing cows.
I can almost pretend that behind that hill the world ends.
A mongol sheperd leads his cow herd.
Trees growing in a quite peculiar way.
A little stream flowing through the valley.
The landscape cut in half by a big puffy white cloud.
Big white puffy clouds camouflaging the grasslands in sun and shadow.
Occasional mongol yurts scattered along the hill side.
Initially we expected to change into electrical vehicles when entering the UNESCO geopark. Turned out the road block was unmanned and so we had to take our car into the geopark area. On the mountain ridge looking back down over the park.
And because its so incredibly beautiful, here another picture in landscape format.
A big drunk lady bug.
Entrance to Arshatu Sub-Park of Hexigten Global Geopark China
Another pretty insect.
When a large granite mass is exposed on the ground surface, the impact of thermal expansion and contraction or compression leads to the development of vertical fissures. In a cold environment, water ingresses fissures in the rock and expands when it turns into ice. This tremendous expansion force can cleave open hard rock.
The mountain ridge in Hexigten Geopark in completely covered with granite pillars that resemble a stone forest.
The Mongolian word “Arshihaty” means a rocky pillar that is straight and steep.
The magnificient grante pillars have various shapes and the well-developed horizontal joints caused the rocks to break into fine layers, making them look like piled books.
And after thousands of years in the making, today a lazy crow picked this ancient spot to rest.
To prevent the ancient rocks from tumbling they have to be stabilized by wooden branches.
Facing the devastating power of ice and snow again and again as the seasons change, the rock is eventually shattered into blocks. The rock fissures expand progressively until the whole fomration becomes flat, broad space.
On a gentle slope it massive pieces of granite.
From afar, this densely layered rocks look like sedimentary rock, but a closer look reveals that it is actually granite. In the Ice Age, more than 100,000 years ago, this granite was covered by extensive glaciers, which caused compression from above. When the glaciers melted, this pressure was released, and the rock expanded slightly. The expansion process damaged the rock structure, leaving small horizontal fissures. Weathering completed the job and finally formations like this one, shaped like the wall of a fort appeared.
View from the top.
Ever changing clouds over the grasslands.
Flower with a view.
Flower on granite.
The Balancing Rock – a rhombic granite fomration cut out from two groups of vertical joints, measuring 3.2m long and 2.5m high. Weathering is more severe in the lower section and when rocks collapse under gravity a top-heavy shape appeared.
This colossal work of art is the result of natural processes over millions of years. In addition to the horizontal fissures, compression caused the development of another set of vertical fissures in the granite.
Ages of relentless weathering along the fissures reduced the rock to blocks. The weaker parts were eroded, and some collapsed.