China is full of massive cities that very few people have ever heard of. Here’s a city of four million which most Chinese probably don’t know about. Hanzhong, not Hangzhou, is in Shaanxi province, and is in dire need of development and recognition, according to its head of foreign affairs. It has two KFCs but no McDonald’s or Starbucks, not exactly a bad thing. It has a few noteworthy attributes, such as a temple dedicated to and the tomb of the man who refined the paper-making process and a drinking culture “that enourages drunkeness.” Living standards are increasing and real estate is doing well. Seems like Hanzhong’s future is bright.
In the exact center of Xian is a magnificent giant Chinese pavilion atop a stone base that forms a roundabout intersection around which traffic goes. At night, this tower is lit up and it forms a particular picturesque sight from every corner of the intersection. This is Xian’s old Bell Tower, a three-storey Chinese tower with multiple wooden roofs with each corner curving gently upwards. The Bell Tower was built over 600 years ago in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, and is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in China. There’s an interesting legend behind the tower’s construction, that it was built to repel the power of mythical dragons to protect the city from earthquakes, which were believed to be caused by dragons. After it was built, earthquakes never occurred again. The Bell Tower had a utilitarian use though. Its giant bell was sounded at dawn every day, while a giant drum in the Drum Tower was sounded to mark the sunset.
To visit it, you have to go underground and find the Bell Tower ticket office. The area underneath this specific intersection is a busy set of corridors that lead to street exits, department stores, and the subway station. After you buy the ticket underground, you ascent the stairs to the base of the Bell Tower where you are at street level and can see traffic speeding around you, with a steel fence preventing people from walking onto the road of course. Most of the building is wooden, and the ceilings feature nicely colored patterns and elaborate eaves. There’s a huge bell on the outer level and inside, there are scrolls and a stage where bell performances took place daily.
Not far from the Bell Tower is the Drum Tower. Just as ancient (built four years earlier in 1380) and esteemed as the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower is more rectangular and longer. It’s located a little further off on the NW corner of the intersection, roughly in front of the Muslim Quarter.
While the Bell Tower has the more impressive location, I found the Drum Tower to be more interesting since there’s more to see. It features giant drums all around its entrance while inside is a drum museum featuring all kinds of weird and fascinating drums. I was lucky enough to catch a free performance there, which happens several times every day. A troupe of young drummers played Chinese drums for about 20 minutes, with at least one solo.
This was the morning before my afternoon flight back to Taipei, but I managed to visit the Grand Mosque in the Muslim quarter after I left the Drum Tower. With this post, I’ve finally concluded writing about my Xian-Huashan-Luoyang trip last year and I’m quite relieved.
Straight ahead, at the end of the street is a guard tower of the City Wall which surrounds the entire Xian city center.
The Drum Tower has a collection of diverse drums inside.
View from ground level at the base of the Bell Tower. I raised the camera over the steel fence to take this pic.
One of Xian’s major attractions is its Muslim Quarter, a neighborhood and shopping district where most of Xian’s Muslim Hui live ((hence the place’s Chinese name 回民街 Hui MinJie, Hui people’s street), a vivid example of the city’s historical heritage and its prime location as the starting point of the Silk Road leading to Central Asia. The Hui are Han Chinese (possibly with Central Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry) who are Muslims, rather than a distinct ethnicity like the Uighurs. They’ve been living in Xian for over 1,500 years as their ancestors settled down here as traders.
The area is filled with restaurants, stores, and food stalls selling all kinds of delicacies like meat kebabs, roujiamos (Chinese type of hamburger), and Xinjiang naan bread. I visited this place twice, once at night and once on Saturday morning, and both times it was packed full with visitors, many of whom are Chinese. At night, the streets were nicely lit up, as many Chinese tourist sites are, and the main streets and lanes were full of people. I bought a cool Xian city map that was filled with attractions drawn onto it. I also bought a few mini-terracotta keychains from a vendor, who nicely explained each one, but wasn’t satisfied when I only bought several and desperately screamed, which was a little jarring.
Besides the food and shopping, one of the main sights is the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi), the largest mosque in the area and built in the year 742. What is unique about it is that it’s a mosque built in the shape and style of traditional Chinese architecture. There’re no tipped onion-shaped domes or minarets here, like what regular mosques have. The main prayer hall resembles a Chinese temple, albeit with Arabic writing. There are even stone steles with Arabic (and Chinese). Unlike what the name suggest, the mosque isn’t that big, but it and its surrounding buildings and gardens are well worth a look. Frankly I didn’t think it was possible to build a mosque in traditional Chinese architecture, just like you won’t see a church built in Chinese style. There’s a nice peaceful atmosphere inside that is completely at odds with the vast commercial activity outside.
The Great Mosque’s prayer hall, where services are held.
The pavilion in the main garden in the Grand Mosque complex.
Covered shopping lane right outside the Grand Mosque, with a cute kid riding around.
Naan bread for sale, and one friendly and one oblivious clerk.
These items seems more Tibetan or Yunnannese than Hui or Xinjiang.
Bought a naan bread from these guys and girl. The guy in the middle seems like a bit of a smartass, but he actually spoke a little English to me, after I was confused by something he said.
Stone stele with Arabic writing.
Shopping lane right next to the Grand Mosque, whose outer wall is at left.
On my Xian trip, later that day after we’d gone to see the terracotta warriors, my Cantonese travel buddy and I went to the Tang Paradise park (Da Tang Furong Yuan 大唐芙蓉园). It’s a large, scenic, and exquisite theme park that recreates Xian’s glorious Tang times, replete with a palace, gardens, pavilions, surrounding an actual lake, with performances as well. Despite initially thinking it’d be kind of tacky, it was actually quite nice. The palace had colored murals filled with Tang Dynasty court scenes, and there was a music hall on the second floor, which actually hosted none other than German leader Angela Merkel and then-Premier Wen Jiaobao. Tang Paradise is near the Big Goose Pagoda, and outside the walled city center.
Around the grounds, there were various complexes and pavilions, and statues of ancient Chinese objects as well as a “self-cooled pavilion” cooled by water from an actual waterwheel. One of the more interesting exhibitions was statues depicting Chinese stories and sayings, like making a needle out of stick, a legend of Tang poet Li Bai that illustrates how if you work hard, you can achieve the impossible’ and why a foolish person would be called wooden cock (in ancient times, cockfighting was popular among the nobility, and commoners who couldn’t afford cocks, would imitate the wealthy by making wooden cocks). We also saw a short show with Chinese acrobats, who did the usual tricks like tumbling and balancing objects with their feet while lying down. A female acrobat took it to a new level, balancing a pole with her feet with two male acrobats hanging on each side.
At night, the lake, the palace, and the pavilions surrounding the lake made for a really lovely scene. The main reason we were coming here though was to see the world’s largest water movie, a short film projected and shown over the lake with lasers and fireworks.
Unfortunately the water movie turned out to be a cartoonish show with fighting gods, demons and even dogs borrowed from Chinese legends. We left before it was completed and by that time, it was past 8. It was impossible getting a taxi as every single one that drove by was full (which I was kind of miffed about), so we went to a restaurant by the guy’s hostel. Afterwards we said our final goodbye and I took the bus to the subway.
The water show. It got progressively ridiculous as it went on.
A mural inside the palace. It’s seems to be a Central Asian or Indian dancer entertaining Chinese officers at a foreign court.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Wen enjoyed themselves at a show here.
I woke up relatively early the next day on Huashan at about 6. I got up to just see the sun rise up through my dorm window but stupidly, was too lazy to take much photos. I went back to sleep a bit, but by 7.30 I was on my way out. I first climbed to the hilltop above the hotel, the real North Peak. There was a platform on the top where you could see a magnificent view of the rest of Huashan as well as the surrounding mountains and in the opposite direction, the city (Huayi) in the plains north of Huashan. I then set off towards Huashan, passing through the hotel courtyard which had a shrine. At the side futher down, the cable cars were already in motion, this being 8 am, a clear testament how industrious Chinese are and how seriously they take tourism, even at such a holy site as Huashan. The weather was brilliant on this new day. The sky was clear blue, a complete difference from the previous day which had been mostly gray and overcast. I was a little disappointed that there were to be no low cloud layers below the mountain, which I’d looked forward to from pictures of Huashan and Huangshan. There were hikers all around, despite it being morning, as well as porters carrying their heavy loads up the steep stairs. I headed to East Peak, the last major peak that I hadn’t gone to the previous day. Passing Gold Lock Pass, I turned left instead of right, and soon I reached a forested area. I climbed up to a long rocky ledge which somehow was East Peak. Unlike South, North, and West Peaks, there was no sign signifying this was East Peak. I soon came upon a hostel and temple, and further down I saw the distinct chess pavilion, which I recognized from photos I’d seen online, on a narrow ledge that was below. I’d wanted to go there, but I only realized at that point the only way to go there was through a risky climb down the cliff and across a narrow ledge. This was the Sparrow Hawk Steps, one of the two most dangerous points on Huashan, and you could only access it by paying 30RMB and using a harness and rope. I thought about it, but decided I’d rather just enjoy the mountain without risking my life. The other most dangerous point was the notorious Cliffside Plank Walk, which you can see on videos on Youtube, located near South Peak. Apparently the “walk” used to, literally, be walking along the cliff on a narrow wooden path while clinging on to iron chains against the cliff wall. Only one person could walk along this path, which had a cliff wall on one side and an open air and a 2,000m+ drop on the other. You can see why this is considered the most dangerous hike in the world by some people. Now, the authorities have ensured people can only do this walk with harnesses and pay a 30RMB fee, as with the previous precarious path. If people are going to risk their lives, better to make it safer and make a little money at the same time. A smart concept. Getting to the cliff walk was a little adventure too. You first pass through a small cavern before emerging onto a narrow path where only a metal chain attached to posts preventing you from falling off the cliff. If you want to actually do the cliff walk, you’d have to pass a gate, put on your harness and then climb down the cliff until you reached the cliff walk path. In betwen South Peak and East Peak, I went onto Central Peak, which was a shorter summit that was completed surrounded and in between the two other peaks. There were two abandoned buildings on it, otherwise there wasn’t much to see. I’d bumped into the Cantonese couple from my dorm while I was admiring the Chess pavilion on East Peak, and then again when I was heading down from South Peak. This second time, we were pretty happy to see each other again as we all knew it was the last time we’d meet. I reached my hostel on time to check out and take the cable car down by 3.00. I squeezed into the cable car with a family from Sichuan, which included a young lady in a nice short black dress which was absolutely the right kind of attire for visiting a holy mountain. I know they’re from Sichuan because of their language, which I’d asked them to be certain. I then took the shuttle bus to the visitor center, where I tried to locate the taxis outside. After about 5 minutes, screw it, I said, and called my driver from the previous day, Mr. Bao, who sped up the driveway because I was short on time. While taking me to Huashan high-speed rail station, I mentioned I worked in Taiwan. Mr. Bao reacted pleasantly to this, and told me he often read Taiwan news on the Internet. It’s censored in China so he’d have to “jump” the gov’t firewall (which is used in China to restrict Internet access to sensitive websites and content). We spoke a bit about democracy and the lack of it in China. We parted amiably and I got onto my train to Luoyang on time, where I was to get a pleasant shock onboard. Sign about the Cliff Walk. Apparently you can get your photo taken but by what I’m not sure since I didn’t go on it. The people are all wearing harnesses, which is basically the only thing keeping them from plunging thousands of feet into the valley below. Fir forest on the way to East Peak. A laborer carries a heavy load up this near-vertical staircase using just one hand to hold on, while a cleaner (guy in red) sweeps below. The cleaner then went up the staircase as well to sweep every step, whilst holding the dustpan at the same time! In other words, he walked up this staircase without holding on to anything.
Shrine that was above the North Peak hotel where I stayed in.
Here’re more photos from my first day and night on Huashan ( 华山), one of China’s five great sacred mountains. It holds a special place in Chinese history as a place of worship for Taoists and Buddhists, so much so that even emperors came to pay their respects though presumably they did not actually climb to the top. There are temples and shrines scattered on the top, and on the way up.
The popular East Peak, where hikers often overnight at or hike in the night to watch the sunrise. This view is from the Immortal Palm Cliff.
The West Peak, where I watched the sunset from.
South Peak, the highest point on Huashan at 2,154 meters.
Sunset from West Peak.
At West Peak.
The path to West Peak. It’s a precarious walk since those rails are the only thing between you and a quick fall over the edge, but the trail is not as slippery as it seems.
Small temple near West Peak.
Pine forest atop Huashan.
The sky turns dark as I descend.
This is West Peak as seen from Immortal Palm Cliff in the evening. It’s the exact same view in the first photo.
This is at the edge of the path to West Peak.
West Peak is right at the top; I cut my hand on that treacherous steel chain as I was climbing down the steps. It was a small cut but it kept bleeding for a long time. I was even a little fearful I might have gotten tetanus.
Even on a holy mountaintop late in the afternoon, you’ll see construction going on. I encountered this as I went up South Peak.