China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Datong and the Hanging Temple


As Datong used to be a capital of a regional dynasty in the 3rd to 5th centuries, it features several historical attractions in addition to the Yungang Grottoes. Foremost among these is the 1,500-year-old Hanging Temple. It doesn’t exactly hang, but it is an elegant wooden temple complex that is built onto a cliff wall. It already looks unbelievable in photos but it is more impressive in real. Sixty-five km from Datong, the Hanging Temple is located within Hengshan, which is also a major attraction in its own right as one of China’s most sacred mountains. As the temple, which was built during the 4th century AD, is precariously mounted on the cliff wall, it is narrow and visitors enter in a one-way direction from top to bottom.
Another historic sight is the Sakyamuni Pagoda, built in 1056, the oldest wooden pagoda in the country. The attractive, large, multi-layered tower stands 67m. While it is impressive that such a tall wooden pagoda could survive for so long, visitors cannot ascend it. I visited this pagoda as part of a day-trip arranged by my hostel to the Hanging Temple and while they are one hour apart, the pagoda is worth seeing as a secondary attraction. That said, the public toilet in the temple grounds was the nastiest I’ve ever seen, which forced me to almost run out without using it, and that is saying something (the only detail I’ll provide is no running water) given how many bad washrooms I’ve been to in China.

Aside from the Yungang Grottoes, Datong is a relatively nondescript and not-so-prosperous city. There are a couple of temples, Huayuan Monastery, a huge compound with several halls and a pagoda, and the Shanhua Temple, which features some attractive wooden buildings. The temples are more sleek than most traditional temples in China, with less animal and deity statues on the curved roofs. The Huayuan Monastery looked impressive, but there is a distinct lack of authenticity as only three of its buildings are original, as an employee told me. Meanwhile, another difference is that Huayuan Monastery’s entrance faces east unlike many Chinese temples, due to the Khitans being sun worshippers.

Datong had a mayor who had huge ambitions to build it up into a tourist mecca, which culminated in creating a new “ancient city centre” and putting up towering, brand-new city walls to replicate ancient walls that had been torn down decades earlier. However, this mayor got transferred to the provincial capital Taiyuan, so the city wall was not completed. In addition, the plan saw thousands of residents relocated and homes destroyed. While the wall looks impressive, it is completely fake so I didn’t bother to visit it.
     

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This might look impressive but the wall and towers are all fake.

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China travel- Yungang Grottoes, Datong

During my final months working in China, I took a couple of weekend trips including to Datong, in Shanxi Province. While Shanxi may be better known as the dusty, heavily polluted, coal-producing center of China, it is also one of the country’s oldest core areas of civilization. China’s coal city of Datong was a former capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, a Xianbei (Mongolian) regime which ruled much of northern China from 386-535 AD, from which was built the impressive Yungang Grottoes. Yungang is one of the three largest and most famous Buddhist grottoes in China. The others include the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan, which I’d visited a few years earlier, and Dunhuang in Gansu. Datong also has a few temples, and a large city wall that was newly built to recreate the city’s old wall. Further away from Datong is the Hanging Temple, a wooden Buddhist temple built on a cliff, and Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda. I also wrote about all this for a newspaper feature about Datong.

Yungang features dozens of caves and countless stone carvings of Buddhas cut onto the cliff walls of a mountain stretching from west to east. There are gigantic towering Buddhas, smaller human-sized ones and even tiny intricate carvings smaller than your hand. The most impressive are the number 7 and 8 caves, the entrances of which are enclosed by multi-story wooden structures. The caves feature giant Buddhas, walls filled with intricate stone Buddhist figures, and cave ceilings painted with colorful murals of scenes from Buddhist legends. It is an impressive sight, as are the giant Buddhas on the outside further down.

 
Continue reading “China travel- Yungang Grottoes, Datong”

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Beijing travel- Yonghegong Lama Temple and Imperial Academy


Beijing has so many famous sites that it’s not surprising that its largest temple is somewhat overlooked. But the Yonghegong Lama Temple is still a nice place to visit, being a rare instance of Tibetan Buddhist building that blends both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist architectural aspects. Built in the late 17th century during the Qing Dynasty, Yonghegong actually was a residence for an imperial prince, before being converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. I first visited it during my first week in Beijing when I came to work there in 2013, then brought a friend visiting from Trinidad there. The temple is always full of worshippers and tourists, and saffron and red-clad Buddhist monks can be seen walking around as well. Unlike some other Chinese temples, the commercial aspect is toned down so there isn’t a ton of vendors and stalls in the temple ground. While the worship halls and the largest building, the three-storey Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at the northern end, are all interesting, the most fascinating aspect of the temple is the exhibit of small Buddhist statues, specifically deities wrapped up in erotic Tantric coupling, as you will see in my photos below.

Across the street from Yonghegong temple in a nearby lane is the Imperial Academy or Guozijian, a former imperial college for officials. As the name implies, it was the highest place of learning in the country and used for training and testing officials throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1306, making it older than the Yonghegong temple by centuries, the Guozijian is also worth a visit and is a quieter place than the Yonghegong Temple. Inside the ground is also the Confucius Temple, the second largest in the country.

Outside the temple, there are a bunch of fortune-telling and Buddhist paraphernalia stores along Yonghegong street, as well as sadly, numerous beggars, some of whom are handicapped and missing limbs. It might be different now, but back then, there was always a lot of them on that street.


  

After you are done with the Yonghegong Temple, head to the Confucius Temple nearby.

The famous Chinese sage

Emperor’s seat 

Rows of massive stele inscribed with Confucian classics

  


Yonghegong Temple from outside

Nearby Hutong, which may or may not still be around, given Beijing’s recent destruction of hutongs

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Hongcun village

One of two old UNESCO World Heritage Site villages near Huangshan, Hongcun is the most attractive Chinese village I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to that many, but trust me, it is beautiful).
Situated next to a stream, with a small lake in front of it and a pond within it, Hongcun is also where scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. In real life, the village is just as scenic, and you’ll sometimes see Chinese art students sitting across from the lake painting the village.

I went to Hongcun on a cold, overcast morning on the last day (having gone to Xidi, the other World Heritage village in the area on the first day) of my Chinese New Year trip to Huangshan a few years ago. Unlike Huangshan, the village was not too crowded with tourists, which was a good thing because it is full of narrow alleys. To enter Hongcun, you cross a narrow stone bridge with an arch in the middle and no rails (so be careful! Or you can just walk around to the side of the lake) into the actual village and its lanes of traditional and well-preserved black-roofed white houses, examples of Huizhou architecture. Many of these were built by wealthy merchants and officials during the Ming and Qing dynasties which the size, design and workmanship, such as wooden frames and carvings, attest to. Several of the larger houses feature open courtyards with ancestral halls featuring portraits of illustrious ancestors and wooden frames.

When you get to the middle of the village, you’ll reach the Moon Pond, and the sight of old houses and their reflections on the pond is an incredibly photogenic sight. It is also exactly where one of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon scenes was shot, specifically the part where fighters are gliding across rooftops and leaping onto water while duelling with each other. There was a small meat market behind held that morning by the pond, which certainly didn’t seem like it was for tourists, while dried pork flanks, split-open fish and ducks hung right in the open on the walls of a few nearby houses.
Those were reminders that Hongcun, as with Xidi, is a living community despite being a tourist hotspot. That’s not to say there aren’t many villagers who’ve opened restaurants or sell souvenirs and local food specialties, but it isn’t as over-the-top as many other Chinese tourist areas. It’s been a few years since I was there so I hope it remains so.


Crossing the bridge to get to the village



An ancestral hall in one of the larger houses

Moon Pond





Meat market


   


Traditional pastries on sale. I think I bought some of this.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Xidi and Tunxi

Huangshan may be the most famous attraction of Anhui, but it is not the only interesting one in the area. The surrounding villages, whether it be the traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, or even Tunxi, known mainly as the area’s tourist hub but with a great ancient street, are also very much worth a visit. The reason why there are so many preserved historic villages around Huangshan is because this area used to be home to prosperous merchants who thrived during the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th-20th centuries). With over 600 years of history, both Xidi and Hongcun boast lanes filled with traditional homes, including large houses with massive halls and two-storey high ceilings, which no doubt belonged to the wealthier merchants. In these villages, the majority of old homes have been preserved with little or none modern houses. But far from being deserted relics or over-touristy theme parks, Xidi and Hongcun are both thriving communities with people living their daily lives while tourists come and go.
Both are attractive places but Hongcun really stood out for me with its small lake and arched bridges fronting the village and a pond within, the combination of old homes and water resulting in some very gorgeous scenes. So magnificent that a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed there as well. Hongcun is so beautiful that I’ll devote another post to it, so let’s go on to Xidi and Tunxi.

Xidi was less spectacular, but it also features a famous landmark – a high 3-layered stone paifang (traditional Chinese gate) at the entrance next to the pond bordering the village. Walking through the paifang takes you into a series of narrow lanes among which are several impressive compounds with giant open courtyards, wooden halls and ancestral tablets and paintings of illustrious ancestors. But even the “regular” buildings are attractive to look at, especially as they all feature curved upswept eaves and black tiled roofs, both distinctive architectural features in the region.
Getting there from Tunxi takes an hour by public minibus, which I took, but as it was during the holidays, I couldn’t get one back so I got a “black cab” minivan with a few other people, including a Cantonese family (one weird thing is I always run into Cantonese people when I travel in China).
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Tunxi is where I got off after coming from Nanjing by sleeper train as that is where Huangshan train station is location. Back then (2014), you could only get there by the regular slow train but they have since built a high-speed station, also in Tunxi. While the town is for the most part a hub for getting to Huangshan and not too special, it boasts an attractive old street with a lot of traditional wooden buildings. Many have been converted into stores and restaurants, but a number of them are still homes, as indicated by the dried fish or laundry hanging by the windows. Most of the stores sold souvenirs, while there was one that sold ethnic minority goods and another that sold faux Maoist stationery. Some of it was a bit too gaudy as Chinese tourist areas can be, but it was still a nice walk at night.

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Xidi
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Tunxi again
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China · China travel · Travel

Huangshan photo round-up

As we get set to move into the Year of the Rooster with Chinese New Year coming up on the weekend, enjoy this photo round-up from a CNY trip to Huangshan a few years ago. While it certainly wasn’t the best time to visit the mountain, it was still enjoyable enough.

The subject of countless paintings, photos and literary references, Huangshan is one of China’s most beautiful mountains, and it is not hard to see why. Despite not being able to hike around the paths at the top in full and having to share it with thousands of Chinese tourists, I was still able to experience some of the mountain’s beauty and magnificence.
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China · China travel · Travel

China travel- A Chinese New Year’s trip to Huangshan

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With Chinese New Year coming up in just a few weeks, it’s fitting I should finally write about my first Chinese New Year in China in 2014.

Back then in Beijing, I made a spontaneous decision one week in advance to travel to somewhere in the country, specifically Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. In hindsight, it was a foolish decision and I learned my lesson not to travel to places at the exact same time as multitudes of Chinese. But, the trip was still kind of good. I didn’t go all the way to Anhui from Beijing just to visit Huangshan, but also Xidi and Hongcun, two grand old villages in the area that are also UNESCO World Heritage sites. Hongcun is especially beautiful, and scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were shot there.

I had long wanted to visit Huangshan, one of China’s most beautiful and famous mountains, its mist-covered slopes and pine trees a familiar image in countless photos and paintings. Its beauty has been paid tribute to in poems and ….. So when the New Year holiday came up and as I wasn’t going overseas, I decided to go to somewhere in China, thinking that the crowds would not be as bad as during the National Week in October (I was told this by at least one acquaintance as well). I deliberated between Shanxi (Pingyao and Datong) and Huangshan and the latter won out. However, I was going to spend several days in the area, which meant staying in Tunxi, a small town an hour away from Huangshan. Getting to Tunxi meant taking a high-speed train from Beijing to Nanjing, then taking a sleeper from there to Tunxi.

Situated in Central China, Anhui is probably best known, besides Huangshan, for being the setting of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Set in 1930s China, this novel follows the hard struggle of a peasant amid poverty, war and instability as he tries to move up in life. While China, and the province,  has long moved on from those terrible times, largely agricultural Anhui is still one of the country’s poorer provinces despite having rich neighbors like Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Many migrant workers in the country, especially in Shanghai and Beijing (I also had a couple of colleagues and friends from there, though they weren’t migrant workers) hail from Anhui. However, Anhui is also the ancestral home of former Chinese President Hu Jintao and current Premier Li Keqiang.

But Anhui’s earthy reputation belies an interesting cultural heritage (Huizhou) that culminated in a distinct regional architectural style with black roofs and impressive wooden designs, which Xidi and Hongcun both feature some good examples of.

My trip was eventful even before it actually got underway because when I got into Nanjing, my favorite Chinese city actually, in the afternoon, I tried to find a bus to Tunxi but there wasn’t one since it was Chinese New Year. I then booked a ticket on a sleeper train but I had several hours to kill. As I wasn’t feeling to sightsee, I went to book a room at a nearby hotel. But what was supposedly a straightforward task turned out to be a jarring shock because I was turned away from several hotels because their system didn’t allow Hong Kongers (I’m one by virtue of birth and ID card) to book hourly rooms. I’d heard of similar experiences happening to Westerners when trying to book a regular room but I didn’t think this could happen to Hong Kongers as you know, being part of China. But finally I found one where the boss told his receptionist to let me stay, saying “it’s New Year, let him in,” displaying a fitting holiday generosity that was glaringly lacking from all the other hotels’ staff.

The train trip was straightforward and I got into the town in the morning, taking a taxi to my hotel, with the driver refusing to use the meter because “it’s New Year.” I went to the village of Xidi that first day, then went to Huangshan the next by a one-hour bus to Tangkou, a tourist village at the foot of the mountain. It seemed I arrived too late despite it being early afternoon, I learned that crowds would mean going up by cable car would take hours. My plan was to take the cable car up and hike around the paths on top because that was where the views were.

I had a decision to make – return to Tunxi and come back the next day bright and early, or stay in Tangkou for the night, thus paying extra for another hotel. I chose the latter because I wanted an early start. After I found a hotel, I took a walk through the village which provided some fantastic views of Huangshan from the ground. I did get that early start but apparently 6 am wasn’t early enough, because when I left my hotel at that time the next morning, I found the street filled with other tourists making their way to the car park to take the bus to Huangshan visitor center (from there, you then hike or take the cable car up the mountain). The car park itself was filled with people and the lines were crazy. Eventually I got into one and after what felt like an hour, got into a bus.
That felt like a relief, but it was temporary because when I arrived at the visitor center, I saw even more people than there were at the car park! When I approached the cable car station, the line was so long it started from the second floor or the station and extended downstairs and outside.

As before, my plan was to take the cable car up so I could hike around the top. With no choice now, I would have to hike to the top and hope I had enough time and energy to walk around the trails on the peak. As Huangshan is not that high, it took me about two and a half hours (fitter people can surely do it in less time), and while I was traveling solo, I was accompanied by dozens of Chinese. Some were in tour groups while others were with friends or family, and noone seemed to be hiking solo like me. Being in China, some of those folks just couldn’t keep quiet so there was a constant chorus of shouting, yelling, and throat-clearing, as well as music playing on little portable radios that some older hikers in China and Taiwan like using.

The nearer I reached the top, the better the views got and I was able to get a glimpse of the much vaunted peaks with clouds that Huangshan is famous for. It is a beautiful mountain up close, not just from afar, with its forested slopes and rocky granite peaks. Along the way, you’ll pass well-known rock formations and trees, such as the first photo on top, and these are even named, for example, “God Points Road” and “An Immortal Pointing the Way” (probably sounds better in Chinese).
But when I got to the top, I realized there was a lot of people there as well. I continued walking and got onto a trail, figuring the crowds would thin out along the mountaintop. But no, everywhere I went there were people, and the trails were so clogged, it was impossible to pass people. After continuing for over an hour, the sheer congestion meant I couldn’t make a circuit of the trail, and also I’d have to hurry back to the cable car station if I wanted to make it down by mid-afternoon. I hadn’t planned to stay another night in Tangkou as I wanted to get back to Tunxi.
I wish I had been able to hike around the paths on top and I feel I will return to do just that in future. Huangshan hasn’t seen the last of me yet!

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Lineup for the cable car at the foot of Huangshan, at 8 am. No way was I going to endure that, so I chose to hike up instead.
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The hike up was pleasant in some parts.

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The higher I got, the better the view as the mountaintop started appearing.
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There was a bit of the sea of clouds for which Huangshan is famous for.
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Lineup for the cable car at the top of Huangshan
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Perfect view of Huangshan from Tangkou
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China · China travel

Beijing travel- Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills)

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A lot of people probably don’t realize Beijing has mountains. This is because much of the city center is flat (and smog often obscures the views), but Beijing is actually ringed by mountains that extend from Haidian district all the way to the Great Wall and towards Hebei.
When I lived in Beijing, I only did two hikes near the city. Both were in Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills). Located in the northwestern part of the city in Haidian district, a little further beyond the old and new Summer Palaces, the 557-meter-tall Xiangshan is a decent, scenic choice for an outdoor outing. The whole place is a park, created all the way back in 1186, and was visited by emperors. At the foot of the hill are a garden, a Buddhist pagoda and Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds), which features a large white stone pagoda called Vajrasana Pagoda. While Xiangshan isn’t too high, there is also a chair lift which I never took but I wish I did. The hill is nicely forested, though the path is a concrete stairway with little pavilions along the way. Interestingly, Biyun Si also has an exhibition dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese political icon. This is because after Sun died in Beijing in 1925, his body was placed at the temple until being taken to Nanjing to be buried.

The first time I went there was in the afternoon and I only went halfway up the hill because I didn’t think I had enough time, but the second time I went up all the way. The summit was crowded with people, noisy and shouting and creating quite a commotion, as Chinese tend to do. On top, you can look onto urban Beijing but still feel that you are in a completely separate place, with forest and mountains all around you. You can even see the Summer Palace’s lake. I always intended to go back again, but given I lived all the way on the other side of the city, I never did.

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China travel – Jinan’s Baotu Spring, the country’s most beautiful garden

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Back in April, I took a weekend trip to the capital of Shandong Province. Jinan’s nickname is the Spring City because of its abundance of artesian springs that come from an underground aquifer. These natural springs bring up water from the aquifer under natural pressure. The water is clean and is at a constant warm temperature, different from the hot springs type found in Taiwan and Japan that are like natural saunas. The city’s most famous historic site is Baotu Spring, which Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty visited and declared was the “number one spring under heaven ( 天下第一泉- Tianxia Diyi Quan)” Baotu Spring is enclosed in a garden with numerous traditional pavilions and is presumably not used as a source of water. There are also other springs nearby which can also be visited but Baotu is the most well-known.

Ironically, I hadn’t wanted to visit Baotu Spring because it seemed like a big garden and not very interesting. But a terribly smoggy day meant I had to give up on going to Qianfo Shan (Thousand Buddha Hill) and instead go to Baotu Spring. It turned out I was dead wrong about the place. Baotu Spring was the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen in China and well worth going to.

First, Baotu Spring is much more than just a spring. It is an extensive collection of old pavilions, courtyards, and a picturesque gardens, rock structures, clumps of bamboo and ponds. There is also a hall dedicated to a famous Song Dynasty female poet Li Qingzhao (1084-1151). The main attraction is the actual spring, which is surrounded by halls and covered hallways. The place took me over two hours to walk around, and I only encountered the main spring when I saw a crowd of people gathered by a pool of water. That was the spring, in the center of which was foaming bubbles that was the water coming up from the underground aquifer. Every time the bubbles shifted position and reappeared, the crowd got excited. It may sound ludicrous but I got a little caught up by the spring too – I walked around and took photos from all four sides. Baotu Spring was so much fun that I even saw a little girl throw a tantrum by lying on the ground and refusing to leave as her parents stood by and tried to persuade her to get up.
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The main spring (above and below)
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Li Qingzhao, a famous Song Dynasty poet and the only well-known historic female Chinese poet I’ve heard of.
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Chinese comics from the 1960s-70s, part of an exhibition of 1960s stuff in a building in the complex.
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This is not Baotu Spring, but Jinan’s Quancheng Square, the blue object represents a spring, the city’s symbol
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The couple on the right are looking at their daughter having a tantrum on the ground.

China · China travel

China travel- intro to Jinan, capital of Shandong

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One thing I didn’t do enough of when I was in Beijing was to travel on short trips on weekends and holidays. I only did my first weekend trip in China this April when I went to Jinan for a 3-day weekend. The city is the capital of Shandong Province and well-known in China for its natural springs but a modest tourist destination*, even in its own province which boasts the coastal city of Qingdao and Taishan, one of China’s most famous mountains.

Even still, Jinan has some good points – it is close to Beijing, just 2 hours by high-speed train; the capital of one of China’s most ancient provinces and cradles of civilization; and has a good provincial museum. I was glad just to be able to visit Jinan since I’d never gone to Shandong before. I hadn’t visited a different province in China since going to Anhui in 2014 (which I went during Spring Festival and still haven’t written about here). The city’s main attractions are Baotu Spring, the provincial museum, and Daming Lake, a small lake smack in the center of the city.

The lake is surrounded by shrines and pavilions and a lofty 52-meter-tall pagoda, which is a rebuilt version of an old one. It’s a pleasant walk though I had the silly experience of buying a ticket to enter the northern part of the lake, then realizing it wasn’t very big and that the rest of the lake was free. I left that part and strolled along the southern shore, then exited the lake and crossed the street to walk through Qu Shui Ting, a small street with cafes and shops alongside a small canal. Near the front of this street was a large pool, one of Jinan’s springs, with newly built old-style buildings on the far side and construction cranes looming behind. At a stream on the other side of the street, somebody was even washing clothes in it, a testament to how clean the water was.

There was also a church on a side street – a dignified, gray building clearly identifiable by a narrow triangular spire topped by a cross. Standalone churches are a rare sight in East Asia (in Taiwan there are virtually no standalone church buildings as churches are generally in regular buildings).
Taking a side street led me through a hutong, which was just like the ones in Beijing, but with small streams at the side. Several lanes had names that indicated their past like West Night Watches Street and Horse Market Street. Walking along the hutong took me to a food street that was filled with vendors selling buns, candy and other snacks. Perhaps because it was a Friday, but the street was very crowded and much busier than I’d expected.
After reaching the end of the foot street, there was a large, new mall and beyond the mall was Quancheng Square, the city’s main center.

The museum was relatively new, as are many of China’s major museums, having been built within the last 10 years. It was a gigantic grey building and free, which is one good thing about China’s museums, though it meant there was a modest lineup. There were a lot of exhibits, given Shandong’s place in Chinese history as one of the original parts of ancient China. There were bronzes, weapons, calligraphy and pottery, but what stood out for were the intricate and detailed stone sculptures of people and lively scenes. These sculptures were mostly found engraved on tombs.
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Canal leading to Quancheng Square; this canal also goes to Daming lake
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Shandong Provincial Museum. Unfortunately it was a very smoggy day which meant it was just like Beijing.
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Engravings of animals and battle scenes engraved on walls of tombs (above and below).
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Funeral procession figures found in mausoleum of a local dignitary
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Museum main hall, the giant green circular object is an ancient Chinese coin

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Hutong map and street name explanation
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Jinan’s fancy large mall between the hutongs and Quancheng Square

* I actually had an sort-of unpleasant exchange with a colleague over my choice of Jinan because to her, a longtime expat from the UK, going to Jinan was worthless as it was just a plain Chinese city and the only good option for a weekend trip was Chengde. While her point was understandable, what made it obnoxious was that she made a big fuss both before and after I came back and I didn’t really appreciate that. We get along well generally so that was unexpected and unpleasant. Anyways, I’d like to say that travel is different for everyone and we all have different preferences and I think it’d be cool if more people could understand that.