Monday, August 31, 2009

Last post on our Henan trip.

We sure packed a lot of touring into such a short 3-day weekend trip, so far we've only talked about Friday and Saturday. We still have another full day to post about...

After we finished touring the home that was carved down into the earth we had about an hour ride to the hotel in Louyang and our guide explained to us that the only item on the itinerary for Sunday was to head back to Zhengzhou and visit the museum. That didn't really sound like fun to us so we inquired as to what else there was to see - initially the tour had included visiting the town of Kaifeng but that was bumped when we decided that we wanted to climb Songshan.

We decided that we would wait until we got to the hotel where we could quickly go online and see what else there was nearby to see, however in the remainder of the time heading back to the hotel Tina decided on something else - or rather her body did. Apparently the time in the rain on Songshan the night before wasn't good and she suddenly came down with a fever and was burning up.

Once at the hotel we put Tina to bed, talked the guide into not leaving for Zhengzhou until 11:30 the next morning, and then I wandered over to the local store to pick up some drinks and snacks for us to enjoy in the hotel.

The next morning we got up late, Tina was pretty much all better, and we headed back to go see the museum and then back to the airport. It's about a 3 hour drive back to Zhengzhou where we passed through some nice hills and valleys - here we could see the housing that was carved directly into the hillsides that we had been expecting the day before, but we didn't manage to get any photos of them as we zoomed along the highway.

I think we spent a total of one hour in the museum, it was alright, well great if you're a pottery major, but the majority of it was closed for renovation. Now it's just about 16:00 and we don't need to be at the airport until 19:00 at the earliest as we have a 20:45 flight back to Xiamen. Poor tour planning, and when we asked our guide if there was anything else in Zhengzhou to see she couldn't think of anything that we would be interested in.

Had Tina been feeling better the night before we would have pushed her to get up early and drive us to Kaifeng, as it looked like it has a few nice sights to see. Even checking the internet once we returned home showed us that there were things right in Zhengzhou that we would have enjoyed, we just think that the guide was tired and perfectly happy to send up to the airport to sit around for just over 4 hours. But it worked out as we sat in the coffee shop and managed to sort through our photos and write the first post for the blog.

Overall this was an excellent long weekend, and it could probably be done in just two days if you really wanted. We were disappointed with our guide as she never seemed to offer up suggestions, even for where there was good dining nearby when we would stop at the local hotels. We've probably been spoiled with lots of great guides and had this been our first trip within China we wouldn't have known not to be impressed. Biggest complaint that we have comes from the Longmen Grottos where you can cross the river and there is a temple and some more Buddhist caves - our guide said "You could cross the river, but it's a long walk and the sights there aren't any different then over here. You saw Shaolin Temple yesterday, that one isn't as nice. I think we should just head back to lunch now."

So we missed chances to get photos like this one, this one, or even this one. For her not to have suggested the photo after she kept commenting on how many photos we had been taking all tour I can't even begin to comprehend...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bai Ma Si and Cave Dwelling

Having spent the morning in awe of the Longmen Grottos, next on the quick Henan itinerary was 白马寺, or Bai Ma Si. This temple is the first Buddhist temple built on Chinese soil back in 68A.D. and unlike Shaolin Temple it is much more impressive.

According to legend, an Emperor dreamed a spirit entered his palace so he sent some scholars to India to bring back the sutras. After a few years, a couple of monks safely returned to China on a white horse so a temple was built. I'm sure there's more to it than that, but you get the drift.

Entrance to the temple

Lotus candle

Apparently you rub parts of your body on this stone and it will cure whatever ails you. This women did her entire body, I think she's cured.

After touring Bai Ma Si, our guide took us to a cave dwelling. These dwellings are unique to the Henan and Shannxi provinces. You could understand our confusion, when the driver turned down a quiet road from the 4 lane highway and said that we are here. Of course we looked at each other as if to say, do you see a cave because I don't.

As we meandared down this road there was a small village, with an elderly gentlemen who was there to greet us. As we walked a little further, he told us to look down, and this is what we saw.

Yup, a cave dwelling, though not in a hill/mountain as we imagined but dug down from the road. Apparently there are two types, one that's built in the side of a cliff which is what we were expecting, and the other built downward from a road. The earth in this province allows for these types of structures. In fact at one point Mao lived in one of these types of structures, hiding from the Japanese.

The gentleman that we met, resides in this cave dwelling and has for his entire life, in fact his brother has one just down the road. At one point there were 30 members of his family who lived there, and now most have opted for the more modern lodgings.


These buildings are connected to other cave dwellings, in case of invasion, one could easily use the underground passegeway to safety or visit his brother if he's too lazy to climb the steps and walk down the street. These homes are cool in the summer and hot in the winter. This proud owner showed us his sleeping quarters, kitchen,(which by the way was four times larger than ours), the area where livestock was kept, storage space and the well, which would hold their food. The well had these holes so that you could climb down, but usually they put a child in the basket, lowered the basket, and then the kid would gather the food needed, and they would hull the child and the basket back up. The beauty of these homes allows the families to live there for approximately 2 months before going out to the local market. It was quite nicely self contained.
Public restrooms, we took a pass

Not what we had expected, but Mark and I were quite impressed.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Longmen Grottos

Another long post about last weekend, but I think this one may be worth it. Last weekend we realized that this was definitely in our top 3 or 4 trips...

Last year our friend, that doesn't know how to eat fruit, sent us a link to a Conde Nast article about these Buddhist caves carved into the mountains. Neat we thought and just put it into the depths of our memory banks, too much to see and not enough time...

Well, sure enough we finally managed to find time to get up to the grotto since it was listed on the quick tours that went to Shaolin temple. It wasn't until much later that we realized the link Heather had sent us was for a totally separate set of Buddhist statues carved into the cliffs. We were up early on Saturday and on the road to Luoyang, the city that the caves are just outside of, and after about a hour drive we were ready for some sightseeing.
This is just walking up to the site, it's along a river and fairly picturesque. It was still cloudy out but there wasn't any rain. Climbing up the first set of step leads you to this statue...There's a story behind it but I don't remember. Wikipedia doesn't really provide a lot of information on this site other then "It's nice, and there are over 100,000 Buddhist images". From that first impressive sight it opened into a courtyard that had three dug in caves with statues carved into them.
It was at about this time that we realized we would never be able to capture all of this on film (I don't know the digital equivalent of that, but you know what we mean). We had 4 cameras and they all took varying quality photos (you can see the difference in the photos) - be glad you're only getting what we deemed as acceptable.
Yeah, we were amazed at it all only to find out that there were even more small little caves carved into the cliffs as you walked further.

It's unbelievable the amount of detail carved into each statue, and there was still a lot of the color that at one time must have just been brilliant. Surprise to us and a little further down and there are some bigger statues then the ones we first saw.
And then another reprieve form the big statues with hundreds of smaller ones...
This is the staircase leading up to the lotus flower cave (we think?) which was also called the cave of 10,000 Buddhas.
If you notice on the side wall those are all little carvings, all about 2-3" high, the ones in the back behind the main statue had to be about 9" tall.

Just when you are about to be totally overwhelmed by it all you get a quaint reminder that you're still in China.
A guard relaxing and listening to pop music on his cellular phone.

And then it kept going...Climbing up that next staircase we were just floored - we hadn't really even expected to see half of what we had seen - and it was all just so mind-bogglingly beautiful. In a way we were glad that on this one we never looked up photos for this trip on the internet as we would have been looking forward to the grand finale....

Hopefully this creates a break in the post - click continue to see the rest of our photos or just move on. This is to help the few people that might show up looking for information on the Longmen caves. (Okay - the break didn't work and all my attempts to correct it didn't work. Sorry about that - I'll just throw in a "stop reading now" statement and call it done. It seems like it should be easy to do but for some reason we can't get it to work and we arent' going to spend a lot of time working on it...)

Yeah, the final stop was spectacular. The size and detail is just beyond anything that you can imagine.
Tina reached the first platform where you can see all of this and started shouting down to me to hurry up. I was straggling taking photos of little caves that seem unimportant once you reach the first platform of the staircase and this all comes into view.
Crazy good stuffs, it was an incredible way to spend a Saturday morning. Enough that I would recommend it for just one day, skip the Shaolin temple and just come straight down to see the grottoes....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Goodbye Chicago, Hello Taiwan

One of our first guests that came to visit us here in China, was my friend Emily. She loved it so much she came three times so far, always enjoying herself here in the middle kingdom. Her first visit, we took her to the usual places including the Xiamen university where I was studying Chinese. Emily had the opportunity to sit with me in some classes and I think that may have put her on the journey she is about to embark.

Emily wanted to get her MBA and originally planned on doing this in her home town of Chicago, over the next couple of years, when she realized that she wanted something unique and different from her life, so she applied to a couple of universities in Taiwan.

Well, all the long and hard work of researching where she wanted to get her degree paid off. Miss Emily will be leaving her job, friends, family to begin what will be the adventure of her lifetime so far, we're expecting there will be more. Friday she leaves the U.S to begin her journey in Taiwan,learning mandarin, and then buckling down to her degree.

It takes a lot of courage to quit your job, (and one you truly enjoy) and to leave your family/friends behind to move across the world in a country where English isn't the first language. Emily will see how strong she really is navigating her way over the next few years, the sense of accomplishment she will have when she can speak Chinese, the adventures of exploring her island that will become her home over the next three years, new friends to share a beer or two with, share their stories about their homeland, helping her with her studies, and be there when she has that moment of loneliness. These friends, will more than likely be with her throughout her life.

Sometimes it's tough leaving the world as you know it, but this will be a time in Emily's life that she will always cherish.

We wish you the best of luck in Taiwan my friend.



Yeah, we are still telling stories from the first day of our 3-day trip to the Henan Province - I warned you that it was a full day. After seeing the kungfu show, Shaolin Temple, and then wandering through the pagoda forest it was time to head up Songshan - one of the 5 sacred mountains that exist within China.

We wander over to the cable car that take you up to, what we thought was, the top of the mountain. This was a long ride that went up over one peak, dropped into a valley, and then up to the top of another peak. Once we started to cross the valley we were engulfed in fog.
But these clouds were fast moving, as we climbed up the mountain we could watch them wisp around, clear up, and then fully surround you in white again. We managed to see some of the mountain from time to time and we were hoping the it would clear up once we got to the top.
When we got off the cable car we looked around at a lot of white nothing, it's had to say that we were impressed. From there we could see that there was still a lot higher to go and our guide started down the path leading away from the landing.
We walked for maybe 45 minutes or so, up and down more steps then you could count with only a few chances to see anything. Our guide told us we were just walking to a bridge, but it was just too much and when we rested Tina decided that since we couldn't actually see anything that it was time to head back instead of struggling up more steps. I felt that the skies were going to clear any minute and when she asked some other people walking back they said that the bridge was only another 10-15 minutes ahead. I opted to kind of run ahead while Tina started to head back, the guide followed along with me since it had been years since she had actually climbed Songshan.

Ten minutes later and we ware at the suspension bridge, but with no such luck of the fog clearing out.
To get an idea of how it looks on a clear day take a look at photos of people who were lucky enough to be there with nice weather here and here. As soon as we turned around to head back the skies opened up, only with rain instead of nice blue skies. As we wandered back, completely drenched from the rain, the clouds would clear up slightly from time to time and allow us to see some of the scenery.
Tina was now about 15-20 minutes ahead of us on heading back to the cable car, so when the skies cleared up for her she was able to get some good photos...
I was never able to see the side of the mountain as clear as Tina captured in those photos, but I got to walk halfway across a suspension bridge where you could barely see 2 meters in front of you, so we're even. Again, other people managed to go on clearer days and I'll link another photo so you can see a better view of where we were hiking.

Finally back down of the mountain at dusk and we head back to the hotel. We were located kind of in the middle of nowhere, and there was still the torrential downpour going on, so it was just an easy night with a quick meal down in the hotel restaurant while all of our wet items were spread throughout the hotel room with the hopes that they would dry before we had to pack everything up in the morning. Yeah, they didn't dry.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Happy Valentine’s Day or Qixi Festival

Today is the Chinese version of Valentine’s day. The day changes each year due to the lunar calendar, so it's held on the 7th month, 7th day. So, for all you guys who missed it back in February, now is your chance to make it up to your sweeties.

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled post….

Shaolin Temple

After the disorganized performance and lunch, we went to see the actual temple. The temple itself isn’t really anything to brag about and perhaps it's because we have seen way too many of them at this point, but the location of the temple is something to behold. It is set in a valley surrounded by mountains, thus giving it a very peaceful, albeit without tourists, atmosphere.

This temple apparently had been forgotten until Jet Li made a movie about it back in the 80's, and now tourists come by the bus loads, mostly Chinese, though we did see some foreigners.

The Shaolin temple was originally built back in 495 AD, but only one lion statue is original, the rest has been rebuilt. Legend has it that monks here defended one of the emperors from the Tang dynasty by using their kungfu ability and to this date they are the only monks allowed to practice kungfu in China. That being said, many students have come far and wide, including the U.S, to learn the teachings of Kung Fu.

Main entrance

The only original piece of the temple is this lion

Inside of Shaolin Temple

After the temple, we wandered down to see Ta Lin (Forest of Pagodas). Again with the backdrop of Songshan it is quite impressive. There are approximately 240 of these pagodas which stand up to 7 stories high and were built between 620A.D to 1911. They were built for high ranking monks and abbott's.

Just in case the walk is too much for you, a camel has been provided for your convenience.

Ta Lin (Forest of Pagodas)

Every once in awhile a monk is in need of a hand

Songshan in the background
At one point a young lad who is learning Kung Fu at this temple, wanted to take a picture of this laowai, and in return was able to snap a couple of photos of him posing in Kung Fu stance.

Though the temple was a little disappointing, the Forest of Pagodas was not.