Saturday, August 31, 2013

Zhujiajiao Ancient Water Town

When one visits Shanghai, several top tourist attractions are a must. A walk down the Bund, taking a river cruise down Huangpu River in the evening to enjoy the glittering Bund on one side and the Shanghai Financial district with a good view of the Pearl Tower on the other, not forgetting having a picture taken with the Pearl Tower and shopping at the famous Nanjing Street.

Not many itineraries would include a visit to this 1700 years old ancient water town located approximately an hour ride from Shanghai and reportedly one of the four best preserved ancient water town in Shanghai.
Zhujiajiao (朱家角) or simply known as the Zhu Family Settlement with a population of approximately 60,000 dates back all the way to the Yuan Dynasty. She is also known as the `Pearl Stream’ because this little town will glimmer at night among the landscapes of lakes, rivers and mountains.
When I did some research before my trip to Shanghai, I was not particularly impressed with all the common places that most tour agencies will take me and I was looking for something more Chinese. The pictures of Zhujiajiao caught my attention with her canals, rivers, sleepy willow trees and old ancient cottages. Hence, I gave specific instructions and made specific request that I wanted to visit Zhujiajiao and slot that into our itinerary somehow. Fortunately, our driver was accommodating enough and willingly slot in a full day visit to this place on the last day at Shanghai before we made our way to the airport.

On arrival, my first impression of this place was rather disappointing. It was a Sunday and just like any other tourist attractions in China, especially this particular one which are rather popular with local tourists, this place was absolutely packed to the brim. There were so many people pushing along the narrow streets and jostling to get their pictures taken. 
My first thoughts were to turn back and go home. But having travelled more than an hour from Shanghai, there is no turning back. Braving the crowd, we made our way carefully and rather `forcefully’ pushing back the crowd who constantly walk right into your face, which happens so often in China with the local tourist, to the nearest restaurant to have our lunch, to gather our composure, to take a breather, to get over the initial shock and to plan the next course of action.

The lunch break did help. We ordered some local dishes which turned up rather delicious though a little pricey (which is expected of a place this crowded and popular). With our stomach filled and I had my local beer, we were ready to do battle on the narrow streets and alleys, crowded with tourist and locals peddling their souvenirs.
Most of the cottages have been turned into either cafes, restaurants, tea houses, snack shops or souvenir shops, managed by the locals. I must say that this place is overly commercialised and very touristy. If we had not stay longer till the evening when most of the crowd left, I would not rank this place as a place that I would enjoy but enjoy I did as the day drew to a close.

One of the best way to avoid the crowd and to get an introduction of the place and some of orientation as to where to go for a walk would be to take a boat ride. They offered several routes with different prices. We took the cheapest which amounted to RMB30 per person covering 4 destinations, since there were 6 of us and the journey lasted approximately 20 minutes. It was short but was also the most enjoyable 20 minutes as our boat went into narrow canals, lined by sleepy willow trees with their leaves hanging over the water and ancient old cottages lining both side of the canal. I began to enjoy and appreciate the true beauty of this quaint ancient water town.

Towards the evening, as the sun sets and her rays dimmed, and as the lights of the many cottages came on and the crowd leaves, as the temperature cooled down, the smell of spring was refreshing.

This is the best moment to savour the true beauty and charm of this 1700 years old water town. Walking down the now almost deserted alleys, a sense of serenity and tranquillity descended upon place, which hours ago was bustling with hundreds if not thousands of people, squeezing among themselves through these same streets and alleys.

Soon, it was time for us to leave this place to catch our flight back to Beijing but I leave with a sense of satisfaction that Zhujiajiao has not disappointed me. Although this place, like some many other places in China, has been overly commercialised, I still had that opportunity, for a short moment in time, to experience and to see her in her natural serenity and charm.

Hence, a word of advice if you are planning a visit, it might make good sense to either stay longer and wait for the crowd to leave or simply visit her later in the day, to truly enjoy what Zhujiajiao has to offer.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Jingshanling The Section To See

Nine out of ten visitors to the Great Wall of China would have either visited the section at Badaling or Mutianyu. Why? Because, these are the two most promoted sections both by the tourism board as well as tour agencies in China.

I am not saying that these two sections are not Great Wall but I am a firm believer that these two sections do not portray the Great Wall as she truly was and is. Both Badaling and Mutianyu has gone through very thorough and massive reconstruction over the years and heavily promoted and hence commercialised. Given any time of the year, the walls are crowded with tourists, both local and foreigners besides souvenirs peddlers trying to make a quick sale and hefty profit.

Trying to take a picture here without people constantly getting into your frame requires you to walk a great distance along the wall to escape the crowd and even so, one still could not get that feel of an authentic wall with scars, so to speak of what she has gone through hundred of years, battled by the harsh summers, springs, autumns and bitter winters.

The conditions of the reconstructed sections at Badaling and Mutianyu are so immaculate that it seemed unreal. I have been to Mutianyu twice but never to Badaling and I don’t think I will want to make a trip there after having been to one of the best section of the Wall at JINGSHANLING!

The Great Wall of which construction started over 2000 years ago stretches 6,700 km or 4,160 miles that starts from Shanhaiguan in the east to as far as Lop Nur in the west. As the wall snakes over the vastly different terrains on this big continent, along sharp ridges and deep valleys, lush green forest or dry deserts, the many sections of the wall presents very different views and perspectives. Today, some sections have completely crumbled while some have been overgrown with thick undergrowth. There are sections which have been submerged in lakes and flooded valleys while at Shanhaiguan, the wall juts and finally ends in the sea.

But if you look at the many beautiful and amazing pictures of the Great Wall, there is a great possibility that that section is the section near Jingshanling and Simatai, two sections of the wall with both restored walls as well as the `wild’ walls which have been left untouched since.

I accidentally stumbled upon the Jingshanling section during last year winter when I could not get to the Wuling Mountains as originally intended. My driver suggested that I visit Jingshanling instead since we are already near the vicinity. I have absolutely no regrets.

Jingshanling is located approximately 140 km northeast of Beijing and connects Simatai on the east and Gubeikou in the west, making it one of the most interesting and most popular hiking trails.

My first visit during winter was everything I had asked and hoped for to photograph the Great Wall. The Great Wall was virtually deserted and there were still snow covering the wall and the barren slopes. Jingshanling was also interesting because one could see the wall `snaking’ along the ridges as far as the eyes could see.

I was there again in April this year as winter passed by and spring arrived. I had the opportunity to venture further among the unreconstructed portion of the wall. Again, towards the evening, the wall was pretty deserted and I had the opportunity to look at her from different angles and experiencing her in her natural non restored state and that experience was simply amazing and priceless. As the evening set in, a deep sense of serenity descended upon the wall. Closing my eyes for a moment, I took a deep breath. When I reopened my eyes, I felt as if I have been transported back in time, several hundred of years back. I stood there, scanning the hills, watching the wall snakes on top of the sharp ridges and down deep valleys. There was this silence that was somewhat peaceful and comforting. As far as my eyes could see, I saw the great wall and the silhouette of her watch towers in the distance.

This is the Great Wall experience that I was yearning for and I found it at Jingshanling. I have a dream and that is to hike from Gubeikou, through Jingshanling to Simatai, reputed to be the best stretch to experience the wall in all her natural splendor and to sleep on one of her watch towers beneath the stars and that I hope to achieve soon before I leave Beijing.

So, if you are ever thinking of visiting the Great Wall, instead of just following the recommendation of your tour agency to drop by Badaling where you would be totally disappointed, jostling with hundreds if not thousands of tourists or even Mutianyu, which is slightly better, give the section of Jingshanling a serious consideration. I promised you that she will leave a lasting impression of a lifetime.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Grassland that is NOT

The vast grasslands of Mongolia has always been something intriguing to me and has remained one of the several places that I wanted to visit while I am here in China, the other being able to hike some parts of the `wild’ Great Wall of China and to spent a night, camping and enjoying the stars.

But the nearest grassland is at least 5 to 6 hours away from Beijing and the trip had to be carefully planned, especially when you are travelling with two little children. So, when someone told us that there is a vast grassland called the Kangxi Grassland only about an hour away from Beijing, we were hopeful that at least we could do something over the weekend, and the kids or me get to ride some horses, running wild on the vast rolling grassland and under some stunning clouds formation with blue skies.

My expectations were high. With my camera gear all cleaned up and filters ready, I was even expecting to stay till evening, hoping to get some stunning sunset shots. We engaged a driver and set off on a lazy Sunday. The journey was uneventful and the highway choked with traffic since the particular place is located relatively near to the Badaling Great Wall, the most crowded section of the Great Wall where most overseas and local tourists go on weekends.

The signboards were relatively clear pointing the direction of the Kangxi Grassland. After being on the road for approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes, we finally arrived. What greeted us was a small ticketing office with no car park in sight. I was told that the car park is inside the entrance and entrance fee is RMB30 each. Not exactly expensive, I thought considering that we have paid much higher entrance fees for other locations in China before.

Tickets were issued and we drove towards the entrance, where there was a booth to collect our tickets. To our surprise, the guys at the entrance took our tickets and did not even bother to give us back the stub. When our driver asked for it, he told us that that was it. (The auditor part of me tells me that I smell a rat somewhere but then again, I could not care less. All I wanted was the grassland).

The moment we entered the entrance, there was an empty piece of land, supposedly the car park and a building with stadium like seats.

We were immediately approached by a man who quickly ushered us to this building, telling us that that is the place to get horses to go into the grassland. Since, my mother in law and two children came along, we were advised that we need to get a horse cart which will cost us RMB200 for one hour without the HORSES! Two horses for one hour would cost us a further RMB200 and we were still expected to tip the driver after the trip. All I could smell then was horse shit and horse pee. Well, since cars can’t go in (or so we were told initially) and there is no way we could walk into a 5,200 acres of grasslands, we agreed with the horse cart but were told that we have to wait at least 30 minutes for the next cart to come back.

Just as we were waiting, a bald man that I have noticed sitting at one corner since we walked in, drinking his Yanjing beer, stood up and came over and told me that he could let us drive our car in for RMB200. That was indeed a tempting offer considering that we would have to pay RMB400 an hour besides tips to the driver for the horse cart. We agreed and he led us to a dirt road blocked by some man made metal barrier. We paid him the RMB200 and he lifted the barrier to allow us to drive through. Well, I thought that I am on my way to see the vast rolling grasslands! Yipppeeee!

What I saw was disappointing to say the least. What greeted me was a huge and vast piece of flat land, overgrown with weeds and shrubs. I got down to take some pictures and every which way I turned, I could see horse shit. It was far from what I have expected. The day was hot with temperature touching 34 degrees. On the internet, I saw pictures of herds of sheep and rolling hills. Where have they gone to?

Since we have paid the RMB200, we drove on and finally the road ended after 15 minutes drive by a pond or a lake so they claimed. There is a patch of land planted with sun flowers and some old row boats where one could hire to row out (chargeable of course). By this time, I was too hot and too disappointed to bother.

We got down to grab some pictures and headed back.

Is the type of grasslands that I would encounter in Mongolia? I don’t know but I still intend to find out. But for now, I would strongly advise anyone thinking of spending a day here, riding horses especially with kids to give this place a miss.

Kangxi grasslands were reported to be as vast as 5,260 acres and are supposed to be teaming with sheep and cattle with mild temperatures even in summer. What I have experienced was totally the opposite. Maybe I have not ventured deep enough from the main road to see the wild side of her but whatever I saw from the outside including the experience from the people manning this facility does not impress me.

This is definitely a grassland that is NOT! And oh yes…I also found out later that you could drive your car in for as little as RMB100!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Government Appointed CarPark

It was gloomy day when we arrived at town of Pingyao, on our way to see the Pingyao ancient walled city, reportedly the best preserved ancient wall city in China, dating back 1200 years old. Everyone was telling us that this IS one of the attractions that we must see if we ever visited Shanxi.

After visiting the mind boggling architecture of the Hanging Temple and experiencing the awesome Yungang Grottoes, both dating back 1,500 years old, my expectations were high, looking forward to see some ancient authentic Chinese houses and their alleys and hopefully, for a moment, relive the lives of those living there so many years ago.

But that was definitely NOT THE CASE. In fact, it is here that we have our worst and probably most frightening experience as a foreign tourist in China so far.

Our driver who is also our good friend and someone who came from the tourism industry previously was equally appalled with what he saw and experienced.

About a kilometre away from the ancient city, we saw a huge new car park by the road side but there were only two cars parked there. Since, we were not quite sure where the ancient city was, he stopped to ask the parking attendant who immediately without hesitation told us that we have arrived, gave us a parking ticket and ushered us into the car park. We were apprehensive. Although it is off season and we arrived relatively early, but knowing China, there is no way that there would be no crowd here. We drove around in the car park looking for the exit only to notice a car following us closely behind. The moment we stopped, so did him. A burly Chinese man came out and immediately advised us to take one of the open trams (fit for 6 to 8 people) waiting in the car park to the entrance.

Smelling a rat, we repeatedly asked him where the entrance was and how far was it but to no avail because he kept on avoiding the question and insisted that we should follow him to take one of those trams. We asked again, whether is there another car park for us to park our car because it looked rather empty to us. Again, he kept on insisting that we are at the right place. In fact, he pointed us to a signboard which wrote “Government appointed Car Park!”

Failing to be convinced, we insisted to go out of the car park, paid our parking ticket and drove away, only to our horror, realizing that the burly man was closely following us in his car. Our driver tried every turn he could to shake him off but to no avail even to the point of running a red light.

As we drove on towards the direction of the site, we began to noticed more “Government appointed Car Park” signage put up at almost every single empty land we could see, some even as small as just enough to park 3 cars! 

We finally arrived after driving for another 5 minutes and saw the entrance to the ancient city of Pingyao. By this time, we have noticed that the car was no longer following us. There is another relatively sizable car park outside where we could park our car. We got down and went for our tickets as everywhere in China nowadays is chargeable!

RMB120 (RM60) per person! This is another issue that the tourism industry in China is currently facing, rising cost of entrance fees. We do not have much choices since we have come so far.

We thought the worst was over only to find that another new nightmare has just begun. As we walked through the gates into the Pingyao, a lady kept on following us, pestering us to take a tourist open van instead of walking, with the driver following close behind. The streets in Pingyao are narrow and crowded. I was really agitated and stressed with her, while we carefully negotiated ourselves along the narrow street, avoiding being knocked down by one of these tourist vans coming from either direction.

They finally gave up after following us for over 20 minutes and not until, our driver and guide told them off firmly.

With that, we finally have some space of our own to look at this ancient city.

Was it worth our while. Personally, I do not find it any more interesting than going through the hutongs back in Beijing. Yes, we still have many old buildings dating back hundreds if not thousands of years ago, but all of these have been refurbished into cafes, restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops, making the entire place rather commercialized  It was also dusty and crowded. We made our way quickly through several streets and walked along some lest crowded ones, all too eager to get out.

Overall, I would say that Pingyao has been over commercialized with little or no control by the local government. The place itself has been oversold. Although it could be true that it IS the best preserved ancient walled city, the over commercialization has left it with little authenticity.

This is one place that I would definitely NOT COME BACK and would not recommend as a place to visit.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

52K Buddhas 1500 Years old

Yungang Grottoes (冈石) also known as Yungang Shiku is located 16 km near Datong in the Shanxi province. It is by no means near from Beijing and the journey by car took almost 5 hours. Datong is a town famous for her coal mines and is an industrial district first and foremost. Hence, do not expect clear skies and clean air. However, we were lucky as it has been raining the entire journey from Beijing to Datong and when we finally arrived at the Yungang Grottoes in the late afternoon, the air has been cleared somewhat and towards the evening, there were clear blue skies and a relatively nice sunset.

Not until recently, the site of Yungang which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was not exactly impressive. Located among vast coal mines with polluted air, this site was hardly attractive as commented by many who visited this amazing place a couple of years ago. But the Chinese government recognizing the significance and the importance of this structure has poured in vast amount of funds, not only to preserve the eroding grottoes but also the build better infra-structure such as roads and an impressive tourist complex to welcome her visitors.

The Yungang Grottoes were built against the mountain that stretches 1 km (0.62 miles) from east to west, started by the a monk called Tan Yao in 453 AD under the Northern Wei Dynasty and took approximately 50 years to complete, involving over 40,000 people. This made this entire construction approximately 1,500 years OLD!

My first impression or the first thing that greeted me was a rock formation with small windows and openings that closely resembles a honeycomb. It is not until I ventured into these honeycombed rock that I began to discover her secrets …. Huge grottoes and statutes, carved out within the rock, some reaching to the ceiling above, towering 15 to 17 meters high, and many with very delicate carvings and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings of the caves.

Apparently most of these grottoes in the caves were once covered by wooden temples but many have been damaged either due to natural wear and tear, natural disasters or wars.

There are apparently 253 grottoes with over 51,000 statutes of various sizes here, ranging from several centimeters to over 17 meters tall.

The first cave that greeted me was Grotto (cave) 3 towering over 25 meters in front. There is a Buddha statute over 10 meters tall, flanked by two Bodhisattva on either side of 6.2 meters tall. The shadows and the little natural light into the caves coupled with the reflections on the wall made this grotto a very interesting yet challenging photography opportunity.

As I walked from east to west, the amazing sight of many of these towering statutes were simply breathtaking and mind blowing.

Cave 17, one of the earliest grottoes, also known as the Five Caves of Tan Yao for example is a 15.6 meters Buddha sitting cross-ankled on the lion seat build between 460 to 470 AD. I had to literally lay on my back facing up with my super wide angle Sigma 10-20 mm lens to capture her in totality.

Cave 20 is of course probably the most photographed and is also the representation of the work of Yungang, with a statute of Sakyamuni towering 13.7 meters tall, with a full and round face, majestic smile, slim lips and a high nose, ears that extend almost to the shoulders, radiant eyes, and broad shoulders.

This is definitely a place, just like so many other places in China, to be enjoyed in leisure to fully comprehend and appreciate her true and delicate beauty and value.

As the sun sets and blue skies returned a beautiful array of orange, amber and red, and as I slowly made my way back to the car, the feeling of awe and admiration lingers on, knowing that I have again visited another marvelous human endeavor that could only be made possible with sheer determination and commitment.