Beijing revisited – Temple of Heaven

Friday, 01.01.2021


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

Main plaza in front of 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.

The Big Buddha, Leshan

Thursday, 01.10.2020


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.

Visiting legendary UNESCO world heritage temple Angkor Wat

As the world’s largest religious monument Angkor Wat is an architectural masterpiece from the Khmer period.

Disputed Preah Vihear Ruins on the Thai-Cambodian Border

Cambodia, the 27th of January 2020

Inside the Preah Vihear temple ruins.

A three hour long road trip with our local guide Oeum Rida through the Cambodian „outback“ brought us all the way to the northernmost part of the country to the Preah Vihear temple. Located at the natural border of Thailand and Cambodia atop the Dangrek mountain range, these Khmer ruins are still highly disputed by both Thai and Cambodian government. While it is only accessible from the Cambodian side as of 2015, the original entry into the temple used to be in Thailand. Despite an official ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague that the temple is located on Cambodian territory both parties continue to lay claim to the temple. After many years of refusal to accept the ruling, the Thai soldiers finally retreated, but the national flag of Thailand that had been flying over the temple was never taken down. Instead, Thai solders rather dug up the whole pole with the Thai flag still raised and relocated it to the nearby Pha Mor E Daeng cliff where it can still be seen today. In the background of the picture above you can see the tiny Thai flag flying over the neighboring mountain. Furthermore, until today the province of Preah Vihear is among the most most heavily mined areas in all of Cambodia and still bears legacy to the Khmer Rouge regime which fell as late as 1998.


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There appeared to be unusually many soldiers stationed at and around the Preah Vihear site compared to the other temples we have seen. We never felt threatened by them personally but it was clear that this area was still under some kind of armed conflict. We had to book a jeep escort to drive us up the hill, for one because the road that was build after the original entrance from the Thai side was closed was VERY steep and only a heavy duty four-wheel drive type of car could climb up the road. For another it seemed that the military also had a hand in limiting and controlling the number of visitors coming to the temple and thus provided the vehicle to go up the mountain.

Since 2008 the temple of Preah Vihear is listed as a world heritage site by the UNESCO. Among all the Khmer temples we visited during our four day tour of the Siem Riep area, Preah Vihear in the far north is still the most spectacular one. While all the ancient temple ruins are quite unique and showcase their own piece of history, the location of the Preah Vihear temple alone is a stand alone feature that makes it an unforgettable place to have visited.

One of the gopura courtyards blocking the view through the temple complex. There is no one place in this temple that allows visitors to see through the whole building.

The architecture of the 800m long Preah Vihear temple is modeled after the home of the gods, the Mount Meru and is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. Construction started at around the 9th or 10th century and continued throughout the reign of various Khmer kings. Five pavilions, called gopuras, each of them reached by a flight of stairs to increase their impact lead up to the final sanctuary at the southern most end of the temple complex. Different from temples we visited in Thailand, where windows have been strategically arranged to allow the sun to shine through the whole temple, the courtyards of the five gopuras have been build to obstruct the view of the next part of the Preah Vihear.

Lichen covered many of the walls and floor of the ancient temple ruins and while some parts of the structure remained in a fairly good condition, other areas where reduced to little more than a pile of rubble. Slowly strolling through the different areas of the temple I felt quite humbled by these Ancient remnants of Khmer culture. When we reached the central sanctuary and got an unobstructed view of Cambodia‘s northern plains it was already late in the afternoon. The sun had not yet set but the clouds were already illuminated by the low light and glowed above the barren land. If you have the chance and the time to come and visit this place I can only highly recommend it! Except to pay around 150-180 US dollars for a round trip by car with a local driver, plus 10 US dollar each for entrance fees and an additional 25 US dollars for the shuttle Jeep up the mountain. It is definitely worth it.

 

Traveling through Yunnan – First Leg: Lijiang

May Day Holidays, 28th – 30th of April, 2018


The May Day holidays were spent traveling through Yunnan province! Its a beautiful place with very friendly people, delicious food, and incredible sights to visit. Just sitting in one of the rooftop cafes and enjoying the view of the city is a great start into our travels. The weather was cooler than expected, even though we knew that we were traveling in somewhat higher altitudes than usual.

Its not only available in Yunnan, but breakfast every morning consisted of Xiaolongbao, local bread, and a bowl of Doujiang, which is a sort of Tofu drink. In the background is the oldtown of Lijiang, a UNESCO protected part of the city famous for its cobble stone streets and traditional buildings.

Streets like these are a typical sight in Lijiang, with narrow stone paths winding through rows of old traditional Chinese houses. Many of them are used as hostels now, but it is easy to imagine how people used to live here in the old days.

A well-known feature of Lijiang are the small water ways running through the whole city. In former times these were used to channel water to every part of the city, and today especially the older generation still uses it to wash vegetables.

During the day there are still a lot of quite places to enjoy the architecture and serenity of this ancient town, but come nighttime many of the shops turn into booming tourist bars with loud blaring music and bright disco lights. A lot of local tourists seem to enjoy this as well, we preferred to the quite Lijiang, though.

Mangrove Kayak Tour through Langkawi’s Kilim Karst Geoforest Park

Malaysia, 24th of September 2017


Already a few month back we joined an adventure tour group to kayak through Langkawi’s UNESCO protected Geoforest park. The day before we had arrived on this incredible Malaysian island and even though the resort (and especially its infinity pool) was unbelievably alluring, we made it in time for the pick up at the lobby and were taken to the mangroves. It actually didn’t take that much convincing to excite us for the adventure since we had been looking forward to it for weeks – as a suggested activity in our LP it was very easy to find and book the desired trip online way in advance of our holiday. Early after breakfast the guides came by our resort and picked us up as the last passengers on their mini bus and drove us 45 minutes up to the other side of the island. Some of our fellow passengers split from the group to undertake the mangrove boat trip, whereas us and six others went on to paddle through the maritime forest ourselves. Or so we thought. Actually, the first stop on our agenda was the Gua Kelawar, a small cave inhabited by a few hundred bats. There used to be thousands of horseshoe and roundleaf bats living in the cave, but tourism and the subsequent spot-lightening of the dark interior forced them to abandon the place. When the bats were gone the tourists stayed away as well, so as a compromise the agencies removed the floodlights and returned the stone hall into complete darkness again, allowing only small groups of visitors to enter the cave with one flashlight (handled by the tour guide). After a while, this measure convinced a few bats to re-inhabit the cave, but the colony is still much smaller than it used to be before the human intrusion and the continuous disturbances by disobedient tourists with cell phone lights and camera flashes (a lot of them Chinese, unfortunately). When our group entered the bat cave through a small hole in the mountain wall, there were still a few bats hanging from the ceiling. You could guess from the dark pee stains on the stone walls that it used to house many more winged creatures, but even so we were warned not to look directly up to avoid getting bat droppings into our face/eyes. Another interesting feature of the bat cave were the stalactites and stalagmites that at some points went floor to ceiling in intricate shapes, some of them even connecting in the middle to form a delicate pillar.


A macaque monkey watching our tourist group exit the bat cave.


Occasionally, a macaque monkey would walk along the baluster of the wooden bridge that wound through the cave, prompting the two tour guides to remind us to keep a close eye on our belongings (they love to steal things/food). They also asked all of us not to feed the monkeys with anything we brought with us, since it obviously disturbs their natural hunting habits and makes them depended on tourists to bring food to them. Apart from a divers diet of fruits, leaves, and small birds, the monkey’s full name “crab-eating macaque” suggests that they also go for small crustaceans they find in the brackish water of the mangroves. Since these crabs live in somewhat salty and sandy water, the monkeys sometimes wash them in fresh water before devouring them. I would have loved to see this eating habit, but unfortunately a large group of Chinese tourists (all with their own flashlight) existed the cave after us, some of them handing out crackers to the monkeys, completely drawing the animals’ attention towards them.


On our way to the dock of the small water village to board our kayaks.


It was time to return to the petrol-powered boat that had brought us to the bat cave and begin the actual kayaking tour. Since the kayaks are kept on the docks of a small water village upstream, the boat followed the water way right through the towering lime stone mountains the geopark is famous for. The people living there depend on gas and oil from the “mainland”, so our boat picked up two men carrying a gas tank and some other tools. They didn’t want to keep us waiting too long, so once out boat was moored the men quickly grabbed their supplies and came on board. Or they tried. Right in the moment the first guy stepped onto our boat,  a bow wave from another passing boat rocketed our boat and made him sway dangerously close to the water. And just when we thought he had regained his balance he and his gas tank went overboard. Luckily he hurt nothing but his pride and since it was around noon and temperatures were close to 30 degree C at least he didn’t have to worry about his wet clothes.


Team kayak.


Finally it was time to gear up and prepare to get onto the water. After donning a life vest everyone received a paddle and a short but concise introduction to kayaking. We all booked the trip in pairs so each team of two was assigned one kayak and we set out to take a few careful rounds close to the dock. It was unexpectedly hard to coordinate the movements of the two paddles, not to mention more complicated moves like making a turn or navigating through the narrow mangroves. Even though Jelte & I both thought that we already had some good practice from rowing during our time in Duisburg we discovered that kayaking is an altogether different discipline (not that we were experts at rowing). It was beautiful to be on the water and have the prospect of a few hours of kayaking exercise ahead of us. We didn’t dress for the occasion though: late summer days on Langkawi see a lot of clouds in the sky, sometimes even rain, but still the temperature is very high and when the sun does come out, it is very hot on the skin. It didn’t take us long to understand why our two tour experienced guides were wearing long pants and sleeves, plus a scarf around the neck and a broad hat, despite the heat. Within the first few minutes in the kayak we felt a sunburn develop on our shins and shoulders and we were very grateful when the tour began and we entered the shade of the mangroves.


The sun peaking through the clouds and reminding us that we forgot to wear long sleeves in the kayak.


To get to the entrance of the mangroves we had to cross the lake and paddled a few hundred meters downstream. I would have missed the small gap between the roots if the guide hadn’t shown us the way in. It was so narrow that we could only enter one boat after the other and were greeted by a small group of macaques that roamed the roots in search of a meal. They make use of the low tide to climb in between the otherwise submerged root system of the mangroves looking for clams and crabs. I wouldn’t have though that the tide could have such a strong influence on the water levels of the mangrove’s brackish water, but even the river that flowed right past the visitor center dries up when the water levels fall. With the water gone from the lake many iguanas wade through the mud and mud-skippers show off their jumping skills. There are even some parts of the mangroves that can’t be accessed by kayak, let alone boat when the water sinks, and depending on the time of the day the guides pick a different route for the guests to explore the mangroves.


A gap in the the lush green of the mangroves opens onto a large lake, and ultimately, the Andaman sea.


Within the forest all sounds seemed subdued and a pleasant calm unfolded. We slowly made our way through the tangles of the roots looking for animal life, and the first mangrove inhabitant we saw (after the macaques, who strictly wouldn’t count) was a small black snake coiled up underneath a knot of roots. We had found a poisonous viper that was on the hunt for small fish. All sorts of ocean as well as freshwater fish use the protection of the mangroves to lay eggs and raise their offspring, since the narrow root system makes for a far better nursery than the open ocean/water. Unfortunate for the fish that is no obstacle for the small viper waiting well-hidden and camouflaged close to the surface. After about an hour we exited the first mangrove forest and went out onto a large lake enclosed by karst mountains and water forest on all sides. Through an opening at the far end we could see the open sea but we simply crossed the lake and entered another batch of mangroves through a narrow gap in the trees like before. In the middle of the lake we noticed a few eagles circling above us, their wings spread wide in flight, observing the surface of the water below.

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It didn’t take long to understand why the majestic birds were flying above us. Soon after we encountered a tourist boat stirring up a fountain of water behind it and it seemed as though the eagles associate the revving sound of the gasoline motor with being fed. Unfortunately tourist (and tourist agencies) keep feeding them to attract greater numbers, a practice that ruins the natural hunting instincts of the birds and makes them lazy. In many ways, this is quite dangerous for the eagle population, especially because the fatty diet weakens the shells of theirs eggs to the point that they break before the baby eagle can hatch.

The agency we chose for the mangrove tour had decided long ago that they would not take part in the manipulation of wildlife just so that visitors could get a closer look at the animals. It is always a fine line between ethical tourism and the mere exploitation of nature in pursuit of the biggest profits, and so we are grateful that more and more preservation programs are called into life to protect the scarce and often fragile ecosystems and still make it possible for people to experience them up close.


 

The Blue Mansion, Penang

Tuesday, the 26th of September 2017

The Blue Mansion was the first place we went to see after arriving in Penang. Since this historical house opens to visitors only three times a day, we joined the guided tour at 3:30pm. Our ferry from Langkawi had just arrived and after checking into our hotel, we conventiently walked to the Blue Mansion and spend the remaining time until the start of the tour drinking iced bubble tea from a mobile vendor in front. Tourists cannot enter the estate without a tour guide and only some rooms are open to the public, while half of the property is used as a hotel with fine dining restaurant.


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The Wild Wild West – Yungang Grottoes, Hanging Monastery & the Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda in Datong

Dragon Boat Festival 2017 – May 26th to May 29th

In May, an extended weekend during Chinese Dragon Boat Festival provided the opportunity for another roadtrip. Since we already been to Pingyao, we decided to discover the rest of Shanxi province and visit the city of Datong. Usually, an extra holiday has to be made up for with a working saturday, but luckily we had enough overtime (and understanding bosses) that we got four consecutive days to spend on the road. Friday evening Jelte went to Dongzhimen to pick up the car so that we could be on our way later that night in high hopes to dodge the majority of the holiday traffic. Although the streets of Beijing are always overcrowded with people, bikes, motorcycles, and cars, it actually payed off to make the extra effort and get started right after work, because we managed to arrive in Datong at around 1 am early the next morning and get some sleep in the Holiday Inn. Our sightseeing itinerary consisted of three major sights: first, the UNESCO World Heritage Sight of the Yungang Grottoes, the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China. Then the Hanging Monastery which was built into a cliff and is supported by long wooden stilts, and lastly the Yingxian Padoga, the world’s oldest and tallest wooden pagoda.


Big buddhas, carved caves &  ancient artists – The Yungang Grottoes 云岗石窟

During the Northern Wei dynasty Datong was declared their capital and buddhism was developed from a minority religion to a major following. In the course of this expansion, the construction of these buddhist caves commenced in 460 A.D. and continued for more than 65 years. It can be seperated in three building phases: while the first phase was led by the monch Tan Yao who led the contruction of the five biggest caves, the second wave is remarkable for its twin and triplet caves. The third phase focussed on smaller caves and niches in which statues of buddha and other religious entities reside.


Climbing a (formely) firebreathing mountain – The Datong Volcanic cluster 大同火山群景区简介

A lesson we learned well then was that a detour isn’t always a bad thing. If we had followed the navigational system’s advice and hadn’t missed our exit on the way to the Hanging Monastery we would probably never visited the Datong volcanoes. It seems to become kind of a theme of our travels that we visit (or in this case accidentily stumble upon) a national geopark of some sort (see for example our trip to Inner Mongolia and the Hexingten Stone Forest). Here, over an area of around 77 km2  a group of 17 cinder cones are the main geological marker. We are pretty sure we climbed to the top of Hei Shan (Black Hill), the largest of the volcano group at an altitude of 1430m. It was sourrounded with deep trenches, which fractured the landscape into several pieces and could best be seen from the top of the Black Hill. It’s foot was covered with ancient frozen lava debries, of which even the larger pieces weighted less than one would expect, because they are riddled with air veins.


The Hanging Monastery 悬空寺

With the Yungang caves we got lucky because we visited them on the working saturday before the Dragon Boat Festival. Unfortunately, the following sunday we went to the Hanging Monastery was already a holiday, so naturally the place was swarming with tourists. Still the buidlings clinging to the face of the mountain were an impressive sight and were worth the 1 hour wait to get in.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival 2017!!

One of the things I love most about traveling in China is that at most sights, supplies are still fairly cheap to buy. Since we lost some time on our detour to the volcanoes, we decided to get something to eat for lunch before entering the Hanging Monasteries. As I already mentioned we went there during Dragon Boat Festival, so the traditional thing to eat are Zongzi, which is sticky rice usually filled with dried dates wrapped in banana leaves and pressed into a triangular shape. They are then steamed and served warm or cold right out of the their leafy packages.


For the time of our trip, we made Datong our basecamp and returned there after each sightseeing trip. A surprising sitenote about the city is the fact that – much like Pingyao – Datong also has a massive and intact city wall that is beautifully lit up after sundown. Built in 1372, it has a total length of 6.5 km and although we didn’t find the entrance, we’ve seen people walk on top of it.


Sakyamuni Pagoda 佛宫寺释迦塔 – The world’s largest wooden pagoda

As part of the Fogong Temple, the Sakyamuni (or Muta) pagoda was built in 1056 in Yingxian County. It is the oldest and tallest existent fully wooden multi-storey building still standing in China, and the world. From the exterior, the pagoda seems to have only five stories and two sets of rooftop eaves for the first story, yet the pagoda’s interior reveals that it has nine stories in all. Unfortunately visitors are no longer allowed to climb the octagonal structure, so we had to make due with a look from the outside. However, the ground floor was opened to the public and contains a very tall sitting Buddha statue. Not yet under UNESCO World heritage protection, the pagoda is almost a thousand years old and reaches a hight of close to 70m.


After visiting the Sakyamuni pagoda, we decided to head back home to Beijing again. As we had to check the mobile app for directions, we stopped on a small parking lot next to the road. An ironic reminder of the current brick up of Beijing’s Hutong just happened to be parked there – a broken down bus turned into a restaurant.