Chengyang Bridge and the surrounding Dong villages

Chengyang Bridge and the surrounding Dong villages (2003)

Chengyang Bridge and the surrounding Dong villages
Chengyang Bridge and the surrounding Dong villages

Nothing quite prepares you for your first sight of  the bridge. Chengyang Bridge is what is known locally as a Wind and Rain Bridge. These covered wooden bridges were built with the purpose of literally protecting the farmers from the wind and rain and allowing people to sell their wares, sheltered from the elements.

The Bridge

Chengyang Bridge and the surrounding Dong villages

Moreover, the bridge at Chengyang was built to help the locals cross the  swollen Linxi River during the rainy season.  The Chengyang (or Yongji) Wind and Rain Bridge is 64 meters long and 3.4 meters wide. Not one nail was used in its construction, which is said to have taken more than ten years and was completed in 1916.

On top of the bridge there are a number of beautiful eaved pavilions with one of them housing a small shrine. The whole structure rests on a number of sturdy stone columns that span the Linxi River.

Rural Charm and the Dong Minority

Dong Farmers
Dong farmers

However, Chengyang’s charm lies not only in its bridge. The whole area is beautiful and embodies much of what attracts so many people to Asia: the peaceful, rural scenery of rice paddies, swaying bamboo, slow moving waterwheels and traditional wooden villages.

Dong Muscians
Dong Muscians

Then, there are the colourful local Dong people with their unique culture and language, which is related to Thai. As they mostly live in isolated, forested areas, the Dong people have only recently come into contact with the outside world.

Dong Funeral
Dong Funeral

The Dong are best known for the elegance and the exotic features of their architectural designs. Apart from Wind and Rain Bridges, the second most important architectural characteristic of Dong villages are the Drum Towers.

The Drum Towers

Drum tower Chenyang Bridge
Drum tower Chenyang Bridge

These incredible pyramid structures on stilts can be quite stunning, with beautifully carved statues and images of gods and musicians. Once used to warn the villages of impending danger, they now serve as a kind of communal hall, where locals gather to chat, play cards and enjoy a drink. And from what we saw, they can get pretty drunk!

Under the Drum Tower
Under the Drum Tower

There are plenty of hiking opportunities around Chengyang, taking you past many Wind and Rain Bridges, big and small, and through numerous Dong villages, all with their respective Drum Towers.

Under the Drum Tower
Under the Drum Tower

Chengyang Bridge and the surrounding Dong villages: The Villages

The village right by Chengyang bridge is called Ma’an and from here you can embark on a round walk that passes through two other villages, called Pingzai and Yanzai.

Around the Bridge and in Ma’an you may get accosted by Dong ladies, trying to sell you the purple ethnic jackets and embroidered halter tops that are typical in this region, but in the other villages there is nothing touristy whatsoever.

Overall, the Dong people seem pretty impervious to foreigners, neither being overly friendly, nor shy. During our stroll through the villages we came across a funeral and a  jam session with long bamboo flutes, another Dong specialty, and on both  occasions our presence didn’t cause a stir.

Dong Funeral
Dong Funeral

We can only hope that mass tourism, Chinese style, won’t wreak havoc on their culture.

Chengyang Practicalities

Before crossing the bridge you have to buy an entrance ticket, which at that time cost a mere 8 Yuan, and which also gives you access to the eight surrounding Dong villages. Once you have got your ticket, you can stay as long as you like.

Accommodation and Food:

We stayed at the atmospheric Chengyang Bridge National Hostel, a weathered wooden structure with a large veranda, right next to the Chengyang Bridge. Rooms are nice, with large beds covered in mosquito netting and views over the river and the waterwheels. Bathrooms are shared, but clean. One word of warning: arachnophobes, such as Margie, may be unpleasantly surprised by the large, fast-moving spiders that tend to hang out in the bathrooms!

Food at the hostel is simple but good and the covered veranda is a great place to enjoy evening beers and meals. Simple snacks are available in some of  the villages as well.

The friendly and helpful owner of the hostel, who calls himself Lao Wu, is an excellent source of information on what to do in the area. Among other things, he can provide you with hand-drawn maps and instructions for walks. He also hires out his minivan for excursions, or to take people to the bus station.

Local Transport around Chenyang Bridge
Local Transport around Chenyang Bridge

Onward Travel:

Dong Dancers at Chenyang
Dong Dancers at Chenyang

If you are heading to Zhaoxing, there is a direct bus leaving from Songjiang at 6.30 am. The owner of the hostel may give you a lift to Songjiang to catch this bus for around 40 Yuan, especially if he is going into town to pick up supplies.

If you wish to stay longer and explore some of the other Dong villages in the area, then Songjiang is the best base from which to reach them.

Dong Dancers at Chenyang
Dong Dancers at Chenyang

Update

These days Roads are better and faster. Furthermore there is now a highspeed rail link joining these areas. Incredible when you think about it; 20 years ago this was an exotic off the beaten track experience.

Dong Dancers at Chenyang
Dong Dancers

We would love to know if the Chengyang Bridge National Hostel still exists?

TWO DAYS IN PINGYAO

FROM OUR DIARY Winter 2014 –2015,

29 December -1 January: Our Second Visit

Day One, Monday 29 December: Finding Our Feet
Pingyao From the City Walls at Dusk
Pingyao From the City Walls at Dusk

We get to Pingyao from Taiyuan by bus. And even though our luggage is heavy and the hotel a bit further than we expected, we immediately take to the city. We’d half expected a heavily commercialized tourist trap, but instead find ourselves in a quiet town where time, away from the main drag, seems to have stood still!

Pingyao at Sunset
Pingyao at Sunset

All the dark, weathered, grey-brick houses with their elegantly sloping tiled and eaved roofs, their carved wooden doors and sculpted pillars are still intact; just as we remember them from our first visit. The hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are mostly low-key and tastefully decorated in traditional style. The sky is blue, the air crisp and cold and the pervasive smell of burning coal takes us back to that first winter we spent in China, back in 1990.

TWO DAYS IN PINGYAO: The Yinde Hotel

The Yinde Hotel turns out to be a centuries old former merchants’ home, tucked away in a quiet alley; its simple but comfortable rooms with enormous kang beds (a kang = traditional stone platform for sleeping which used to be heated from underneath) and wooden furniture arranged around two peaceful courtyards.  The overall effect is both atmospheric and authentic. We love it!

Yinde Hotel Pingyao
Yinde Hotel Courtyard

Before starting our sightseeing tour, we have to get a tong piao, or through-ticket, valid for 19 sites and 3 days. As it is the low season, we get a considerable discount.

TWO DAYS IN PINGYAO: Start using the Tongpiao

As Pingyao is famous for its merchants’ mansions and financial businesses, we bravely tackle the Rishengchang Financial House Museum, China’s first draft bank dating from 1828; one of the main sights and just about the only one we remember from our previous visit. After this, we visit another one next door, the Wei Tai Hou Money Shop.

As a result, our memories of the two sites tend to blend together. Both are superb, though somewhat forbidding mansions with lots of court yards, elegant arches, carved, painted and gilded wood, massive blue and white ceramic vases and so on.

 Rishengchang Financial House Museum Courtyard
Rishengchang Financial House Museum Courtyard

While Adam loves the courtyards and the fading afternoon sunlight hitting the tiled roofs, I’m fascinated by the domestic details, such as the romantic paintings on glass of pretty turn-of-the-century ladies reclining on sofas, or the gorgeous, lavishly decorated cabinets with tiny drawers and secret compartments.

 Rishengchang Financial House Museum Courtyard
Rishengchang Financial House Museum Courtyard

Unfortunately, all the signs supposedly explaining the financial business must have been put through Google Translator. What else to make of … ‘the customer discussion is frequent’ … or  …’ supposes the dining room entertainment’…?

We just manage to visit a third, smaller mansion before closing time, which in winter tends to be 17.00 / 17.30 all over China.

Pingyao shop front at night
Pingyao shop front at night

Strolling along the main streets, looking for somewhere to eat, we notice lots of attractive souvenirs like clothes, bags, stuffed animals and cushions made of traditional flowery cloth in bright red, pink, green and yellow patterns. Other Pingyao specials include a range of beautiful red and black lacquered boxes, paper cuts and fold-out postcards.

After our meal we head home along the narrow, cobbled, lantern lit streets, under a clear, starry sky. All very romantic, if it weren’t for the freezing cold!

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Two Days in Pingyao: Day Two, Tuesday 30 December: Making the Most of Our Tong Piao

It’s another glorious winter’s day; perfect for sightseeing!

Winter Morning In Pingyao
Winter Morning In Pingyao

First stop: the Ancient Government Building. At first we are unpleasantly surprised by a string of electric buggies delivering a Chinese tour group but, as the site is huge, we soon manage to shake them off. There are vast halls, courtyards, offices, a temple, a stage and a prison … and everything’s in an amazing state of repair.

Prison Pingyao
Prison Pingyao

The gloomy prison cells, for light offenders only, the gruesome black and white photos of corporal punishments and, above all, the instruments of torture, such as a harmless-looking wooden donkey with sharp metal spikes on its back, are some of the grimmer highlights.

Please take a seat
Please take a seat!

On a more positive note, there are friendly stone phoenixes and other mythical beasts on the roofs, ancient gnarled trees in the court yards, as well as displays of beautifully embroidered gowns, hats, pendants and other objects that once belonged to the officials.

View from the Government Building
View from the Government Building

Moreover, there is a small tower that visitors can climb, to get good views over Pingyao’s sloping grey-tiled roofs!

The Cheng Huang, or City God Temple

Cheng Huang City God Temple Pingyao
Cheng Huang City God Temple Pingyao

On to the next sight: the Cheng Huang, or City God Temple. This is a sizeable temple with gorgeous turquoise and yellow glazed tile roofs, topped by a pavilion that offers brilliant city views. Curiosities include a cave dedicated to the God of Wealth, full of little golden figurines that have been donated to him, or stacks of fake gold ingots that look like little boats with candles inside. Adam, of course, loves the gory images of yet another Buddhist Hell.

Be Good Or Else! Pingyao
Be Good Or Else! Pingyao

As we find ourselves close to the City Wall, we decide to follow it for a little while. We’re amazed to see how authentic the city has remained, just off the main streets. There are narrow alleyways, full of rusty motorbikes and ancient handcarts, piles of coal in front of tiny hovels, old men sunning themselves outside crumbling doorways, but very few children.

Old Courtyard Pingyao
Old Courtyard Pingyao

The third hole punched in our through ticket: the Confucius Temple

Locals Near The Confucius Temple
Locals Near The Confucius Temple

The third hole punched in our through ticket: the Confucius Temple. Most Confucius Temples consist of a succession of vast, but largely empty halls and this one is so exception. So, though listed as an AAAA site, it doesn’t hold our interest for too long. There is lots of calligraphy and writing related to the examinations, which is probably of more interest to serious scholars.

Quiet Street Pingyao
Quiet Street Pingyao

Tian Ji Xiang Museum

Our post-lunch fourth visit is to the Tian Ji Xiang Museum, the seat of a Ming dynasty international trading company. We find this one quirkier than the ones we visited yesterday, perhaps due to the animated displays of colourful little dolls, illustrating the workings of the company.

First Armed Escort Agency in North China

Fifth on our itinerary is the nearby First Armed Escort Agency in North China. The building looks similar to many we’ve seen before, but I was curious about those ‘escorts’, whose name conjures up all kinds of sexual images. Turns out they were the predecessors of today’s security companies. The escorts, who were renowned boxers, accompanied and protected gold and silver transports.

The Qingxu Temple and the ‘Shage Xiren’

The Qingxu Temple and the ‘Shage Xiren’
The Qingxu Temple and the ‘Shage Xiren’

Sixth and last, but definitely not least, we pop into the Qingxu Temple, an ancient Taoist Temple, now doubling up as a museum with a fascinating collection of plaster and wooden statues. The latter were apparently carved from willow trees, as far back as the Song dynasty. The faces of the seated figures are incredibly serene, and their beards and pleated robes seem to flow.

The Qingxu Temple and the ‘Shage Xiren’
The Qingxu Temple and the ‘Shage Xiren’

The other highlight is a series of display cases with ‘Shage Xiren’ dolls showing scenes from popular Jin operas, created by the famous artist Xu Liting between 1905 and 1906. The details in the faces, headdresses and costumes –made of delicate materials such as paper, clay, silk or wood pulp- are astonishing! Make link to small article found on internet

Two days in Pingyao: The City Walls

Pingyao City wall 2001
Pingyao City wall 2001

All sighted out, we go for a little walk on the City Walls, before they close at 17.30 on the dot. Although the sheer size of the Walls is impressive, as well as the broad walkway and the towers, the views from this North Gate area aren’t exactly great: humble little houses, flat rooftops, messy backyards and lots of chimneys belching out coal smoke that makes our eyes sting.

Pingyao City Walls 2014
Pingyao City Walls 2014

Completely zonked, we have an early dinner at our hotel. The proud female manager points out several features of the handsome, spacious dining hall, such as the massive wooden pillars holding up the high ceiling, which are apparently centuries old.

PINGYAO PRACTICALITIES

The Tong Piao or through ticket:

Entry to the walled city is free. However, admission to any of the sights requires a common ticket that can be bought at any of the ticket booths in the old town. Tickets are ¥150 as of winter 2018/19, ¥65 for students with valid student ID, and free for senior citizens over 60  (bring your passport). The tickets are valid for 3 days. On our last visit in 2016, 19 sights were included in the ticket, but that number seems to have gone up to 30 now.

Yinde Hotel Pingyao
Yinde Hotel Pingyao

Many of the sights are Ming/Qing dynasty courtyard residences, converted into small museums dedicated to the buildings’ former owners or businesses. Though the contents of some of these museums are only mildly interesting and English captions are few and far between, popping in and out of these mansions gives you a great chance to admire traditional Chinese architecture and interior design.

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market

Sani Dancers at the Stone Forest
Sani Dancers at the Stone Forest

Every year millions of tourists (mostly Chinese) visit the Stone Forest (Shilin 石林) in China’s South western Yunnan Province 云南省. They are whizzed in on tour buses that cruise along the motorway from the Yunnan capital of Kunming 昆明 in two hours.

Sani Dancers at the Stone Forest
Sani Dancers at the Stone Forest

On arrival they are met by a troupe of singing and dancing Sani Minority 撒尼族performers all dressed in their finest costumes.

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: The real thing: Sani Lady at Lunan Market
The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: The real thing: Sani Lady at Lunan Market

Just 13 kilometers away and never seeing any of the tourists is the dusty Market town of Lunan 路南 (on Google Maps I can only find the Lunan toll Gate) where a large Wednesday and Saturday market brings in the Sani from surrounding villages to buy and sell their wares.

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: Buying rice
The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: Buying rice

The Lunan market is one of the best places to see the Sani away from the tourist circus at the Stone forest.

Who are the Sani Minority 撒尼族?

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market
The Sani Minority at Lunan Market

The Sani Minority are a branch of the Yi minority group 彝族. The Yi are one of China’s biggest minorities with a population of over two million and have an officially recognized language; Nuosu / or in Chinese Yi Yu 彝语.  

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market
The Sani Minority at Lunan Market

The Sani minority mostly reside in Yunnan province in the towns and villages in the vicinity of the Stone Forest / Shilin 石林 such as, Lunan and Luxi.

Sani Man Market near Stone Forest
Sani Man Market near Stone Forest

Sani villages tend to be stone villages with sturdy brick buildings. It seems the government, in its attempts to boost rural incomes and the rural economy, has earmarked some Sani villages for tourism development.

One such village is Danuohei Village – (大糯黑村) some 35 kilometes from Luxi. Click here for more information.

Danuohei Village – (大糯黑村) Sani Village
Danuohei Village – (大糯黑村) Sani Village

Sani Costumes

Sani Hats

Sani costumes are colorful and the hats can be spectacular. The dresses are long with vibrant and flamboyant embroidery.

Sani Dresses
Sani Dresses

The hats are round, slightly turban like, with embroidery and what seems to resemble a folded napkin on top.

Sani Hat Lunan Market
Sani Hat Lunan Market

I particularly like the men’s blue and white sleeveless waistcoats and purchased one in Lunan market.

Sani Waistcoats
Sani Waistcoats

If you can’t make Lunan market you will see the Sani in their Costumes at the Stone Forest where you can pose with them for photos and buy trinkets from them in a theme park ambience.

Sanis in Full Costume
Sanis in Full Costume

Lunan Market on the other hand is where you will see and meet the Sani in a natural setting and they won’t be pursuing you with souvenirs: There aren’t any on sale in the market.

You can buy roasted ducks at Lunan Market
You can buy roasted ducks at Lunan Market

Lunan Market

Lunan Market is a small town farmers market. Arrival is a bit underwhelming. The market is not as bustling as some of the Guizhou markets such as Rongjiang, or as colourful as some of the southern Yunnan Markets such as Laomeng.

Busy Lunan Market
Busy Lunan Market

However, find a place to stand aside and obseve the comings and goings and you’ll be well rewarded with a feeling that you are in real rural China. Many of the Sani come dressed in their gorgeous ethnic costumes, it is possible that there are other Yi minority groups as well as some of the costumes differ quite widely.

Busy Lunan Market
Busy Lunan Market

If you enjoy seeing artisans at work the market is a real treat. Many of them making household wares in the same way their ancestors did.

Sani Hats
Sani Hats

The highlight of the market is the opportunity to watch the embroiderers making the Sani costumes. There is one section of the market dedicated to this craft. People are friendly and we were invited to take photos.

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: Making Sani Clothes
The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: Making Sani Clothes

I am afraid the eating options are quite limited. The food stalls are basic but the noodle soups are great.

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: Noodle Stalls
The Sani Minority at Lunan Market: Noodle Stalls

It is easy to visit Lunan and the Stone Forest on a day trip from Kunming. It takes two hours by bus.  While the Stone Forest is one of China’s number one tourist attractions, when you arrive back in Kunming you’ll probably have fonder memories of Lunan’s farmers market.

The Sani Minority at Lunan Market
The Sani Minority at Lunan Market

The Order

Sanis Watching T:V
Sanis Watching T:V

Go to Lunan first. The earlier you get there, the more market activity there is. The market tends to fizzle out by late morning and dead by midday. We took a taxi to the Stone forest afterwards. It is about 13 kilometers between Lunan and the Stone Forest.

Old Yi / Sani Couple near Stone Forest
Old Yi / Sani Couple near Stone Forest

Magical Peach Island: Nujiang River

Bingzhongluo Yunnan Province

桃花岛

Map: Magical Peach Island on the first bend of the Nujiang River near Bingzhongluo in Yunnan Province.

Magical Peach Island: Nujiang River
Magical Peach Island: Nujiang River

From the viewpoint over looking the Nujiang River 怒江 (Salween River in English) just before entering Bingzhongluo, the last administrative center before Tibet, there is an incredible view over what the Chinese call Peach Island 桃花岛.

Bridge to Peach Island
Bridge to Peach Island

Actually, it is not an island, but a flat tongue of emerald land that forms the first bend in the Nujiang River, it is only accessible via a swaying footbridge from Bingzhongluo.

Magical Peach Island: Nujiang River
Magical Peach Island: Nujiang River

Finding the path down to the bridge is no easy matter. It doesn’t start from the viewpoint, but from the center of Bingzhongluo (ask the locals to show you the way).

Bingzhongluo
Bingzhongluo

The step walk down can test your knees. Once on the island there is some lovely walking.

Nu Houses on Peach Island
Nu Houses on Peach Island

You can choose between exploring the one and only village, strolling through the orchards of peach trees, or the more adventurous can scramble up the ridge of the mountain the tumbles down to form Peach Island.

The residents are from the Nu minority 怒族 and seem pretty unperturbed by visitors coming to gawp at them and their houses.

The Next Yao Ming?
The Next Yao Ming?

The children fight with each other to pose for photos and are eager to show off their basketball skills; which I must say are incredibly good.

The Next Yao Ming?
The Next Yao Ming?

My advice for visiting Peach Island is to prepare a picnic with supplies bought from Bingzhongluo, find a secluded spot by the river and chill out and enjoy this magical spot.

Magical Peach Island: Nujiang River
Magical Peach Island: Nujiang River

Are there any draw backs? Those with arachnophopia don’t go in the houses. The spiders are spectacular and there’s lots of them.

Peach Island inhabitant
Peach Island inhabitant

Accommodation:

All accommodation / food and transport is in Bingzhongluo

Guide books recommend the Chama Guesthouse 茶马客站, but all locals will point you to the new Yu Dong Hotel directly opposite. It’s a very clean (for now), spacious hotel with great views and a friendly, pot-bellied, chain-smoking owner. Rooms go for around 60 to 80 Yuan and 140 for the suite. Some bargaining is possible for longer stays.

Peach Island House
Peach Island House

There are more options now as Chinese tourists have begun coming in increasing numbers.

Food:

Margie and our Chinese Friend by the bridge to Peach Island
Margie and our Chinese Friend by the bridge to Peach Island

The Niurou 牛肉饭店(beef) Restaurant

Again, all locals will point to the Niurou 牛肉饭店(beef) Restaurant, a simple affaire run by a friendly young Muslim and his wife. The restaurant is a bout 200 meters north along the road of the Yudong Bingguan.The food is pretty good and not limited to Niurou at all.

The owner of the  Niurou 牛肉饭店(beef) Restaurant
The owner of the Niurou 牛肉饭店(beef) Restaurant

They always had a good and varied selection of fresh vegetables. If you are staying for a few days you can ask them to pick up different veggies for you in the market. The local wild mushrooms are great as is his tangy and spicy cucumber salad.

Nu minority crossing from Peach Island
Nu minority crossing from Peach Island

Near the market is local restaurant run by a welcoming lady. We found this the best place for breakfast. Her fried egg and tomato dish and noodle soup were just what you needed before embarking on a long walk.

Again there are more options now.

Getting there and away

The Next Yao Ming?
The Next Yao Ming?

Getting to Bingzhongluo is pretty straight forward; weather and road conditions permitting. There is one direct bus in the morning from Liuku 六库, from the bus station on the left bank of the Nujiang River (See previous article) plus there are frequent options to Gongshan 贡山 from where onward transport to Bingzhongluo is frequent. Mini buses go until relatively late in the evening, but you would miss all the stunning scenery in the dark.

Local Nu Kid on Peach Island
Local Nu Kid on Peach Island

Leaving town, there is one direct bus at 8.00 in the morning to Liuku 六库. It is a good idea to get the owner of the Yu Dong Hotel to buy tickets for you in advance. The bus parks overnight in the hotel compound. However, should the bus be full, there is frequent transport to Gongshan 贡山 from where you can get buses throughout the day to Fugong 福贡 or Liuku六库.

The Bridge to Peach Island from the path down
The Bridge to Peach Island from the path down

To Tibet

Beyond Qiunatong 秋那通 the paved road converts into a dirt track above the Nujiang River (Recently, the authorites have paved this road, but it is still prone to landslides and Foreigners are restricted to the border with Tibet). It is difficult to tell where Yunnan ends and Tibet begins. We walked for several hours along the dirt road and only saw a few locals. After about 3 or 4 hours, you will come to a point where all the snow- covered peaks come into view if the weather is kind.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang

Fenghuang 凤凰 (finding hidden gems)

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang 2003
Fenghuang 2003

Discovering a hidden gem is one of the great motivations for travelling off-the-beaten-track in China. After hours of bouncing up and down on an uncomfortable overcrowded bus along bumpy pot holed roads you find yourself in small town China where little has changed for years and the old architecture is still intact.

Fenghuang 2003
Fenghuang 2003

What’s the catch? Sometimes you find that half of China has got there before you!  Way back in 2003 and the year of SARS, we thought we had found a hidden Gem only to discover the Chinese were keeping it a secret from foreigners. Welcome to the stunning riverside town of Fenghuang 凤凰 in Hunan Province 湖南.

Click here for the Southern Great Wall near Fenghuang

Finding Fenghuang 凤凰(Phoenix City)

Old houses in Fenghuang 2003
Old houses in Fenghuang 2003

It was one of those early evenings in small-town China in 2001; we’d already eaten and the after dinner entertainment options were conspicuous by their absence. The only fall-back was to retire to our room with a few beers and watch CCTV9, the mildly interesting English Language Channel. We tuned in to ‘Around China’, a cultural and travel programme dedicated to the promotion of traditional and/or exotic aspects of Chinese culture. On the programme, they were discussing a type of opera that was only found in a remote town in Hunan Province whose name I couldn’t catch.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: FenghuangBoatman Punting Fenghuang 2003
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang boatman punting Fenghuang 2003

We were immediately drawn to the screen, wondering, ‘where is this stunning place with covered bridges, ancient houses on stilts and pagodas?’ At the end of the clip, I managed to catch its name, ‘Fenghuang’. Grabbing the guidebook, I tried to find it, but there was no such town. We decided to look for more information about this elusive Fenghuang so that,if one day the opportunity arose, we could visit it.

Boatman looking for tourists Fenghuang 2003
Boatman looking for tourists Fenghuang 2003

This opportunity eventually came in 2003

This opportunity eventually came in 2003. We were travelling from Anshun in Guizhou province (famous for the Huangguoshu Falls as well as its Sunday Market) to the natural wonders of Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, when we realised that our train was actually stopping very close to Fenghuang. So we decided to break up our journey and satisfy our curiosity.

Under the Bridge Fenghuang 2003

Under the bridge Fenghuang 2003

Arriving at the bus station in the dark, after a beautiful three-hour ride from the rail junction of Huaihua, we were at a loss as to where we might sleep. Fortunately, there was Mrs Li with some flattering photos of a room in her house. Without too much fuss, we agreed on 60 yuan for a double with shower. We followed Mrs Li into the warren of narrow streets that make up Fenghuang’s old city, our bulky backpacks attracting some curious stares from the passers-by.

Back streets of Fenghuang
Back streets of Fenghuang

Eventually, we arrived at Mrs Li’s house and even though the room, and especially the bathroom, didn’t quite match what we had seen in the photos, tiredness and lack of orientation resigned us to staying.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. A Hidden Gem No More

Entrance Ticket Fenghuang 2003
Entrance Ticket Fenghuang 2003

When we ventured out of our room the next morning, we were expecting to find an undiscovered gem. Fenghuang’s remote location in the far west of Hunan, bordering on Guizhou, as well as its absence from all guidebooks, had led us to imagine we would have the whole city to ourselves.

Stilt Houses Fenghuang 2003
Stilt Houses Fenghuang 2003

Imagine our surprise then, when we found that Chinese domestic tourism had already arrived in the so-called Phoenix City (Fenghuang means Phoenix and according to legend two of these sacred birds flew over the city in ancient times) in a big way, complete with tourist guides armed with flags and megaphones, leading their charges from one scenic spot to another…  Though Fenghuang might be a gem, undiscovered it certainly was not! Perhaps, the Chinese had just been keeping it a secret from foreigners. Nevertheless, the town is still far from overrun and the majority of Chinese tourists are students, many of them art students, who spend their time painting the famous sights and river scenes.

Fenghuang 2003
Fenghuang 2003

A number of shops catering for the growing tourist industry have sprung up along the cobbled main street, set in attractive wooden houses. While many of these sell the usual knick-knacks that can be found at tourists sights all over China, others sell high quality batiks and attractive ethnic clothing. Another speciality are the sweets that are made in the streets and sold in very attractive packages. The spicy ginger sweets are the best we’ve ever tried.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. History and Background

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang

Fenghuang has a long history. It was an imperial garrison town serving the dual purpose of keeping a watchful eye on the restless Miao and protecting the salt route. Fenghuang owed its prosperity to the salt trade in which it played a pivotal role. Many of the grand merchant mansions were built from the profits derived from this trade. 

Fenghuang Watch Tower 2003
Fenghuang Watch Tower 2003

The population of Fenghuang is a mixture of Han Chinese and Miao and Tujia ethnic groups.  Contrary to the official view point, the relationship between the majority Han Chinese and the Miao has not always been harmonious. During the 1850’s, a huge rebellion by the Miao in this area saw them pitted against the imperial soldiers in a fight that cost millions of lives.  Clashes between Han Chinese and the Miao continued right up to the founding of the Peoples Republic of China. The Southern Great Wall passed close to Fenghuang and its remains are a testament to the fierce struggle between Imperial China and China’s ethnic groups.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. Fenghuang’s Attractions

Once we’d recovered from our initial shock at finding the town full of tourists, we set out to discover what had brought them all here.

Fenghuang Scenery 2003
Fenghuang Scenery 2003

First of all, there is Fenghuang’s setting and scenery. Lying in a scenic valley, surrounded by lush green hills, with a placid clear river running through its centre, Fenghuang is the archetypal image of a classical ancient Chinese town. The architecture in the historical part of town is an interesting mixture of Ming and Qing dynasty wooden and stone houses, with some local Miao minority influences adding to its uniqueness.

Street Fenghuang 2003
Street Fenghuang 2003

There are narrow lanes, old gates and ramparts. A large section of the old city wall has been restored and provides great views over the rooftops, the town and the river. The most striking buildings, many of which have been converted into atmospheric restaurants and bars, overhang the river and are propped up on wooden stilts. During the day, you can appreciate the outlines of the houses reflected in the green-blue waters of the river, at sunset the river takes on an orange hue, while at night hundreds of little lights shine on its black surface.

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. The Sights

Then there are the sights, although it has to be said that the first of these, the ‘Hongqiao’ covered bridge, is a bit of a let-down. The bridge, which is said to be about 300 years old, looks spectacular from a distance. However, a closer inspection reveals that the top part is a new construction and serves as a shopping centre with tacky souvenir stalls and an entertainment arcade.

More interestingly, you can visit a number of old mansions around the town, built by ancient aristocratic and merchant families. Some of these buildings are very atmospheric and contain detailed carvings, antique furniture, shady courtyards, as well as theatre stages where Fenghuang opera, known as Yangxi opera, used to be performed. Yangxi opera has its roots in Shamanism and local Miao customs and operas were often staged to ward off plagues and famines.

Old Theatre Fenghuang 2003
Old Theatre Fenghuang 2003

Discovering a Hidden Gem:Shen Congwen

One of the mansions open to the public once belonged to the famous writer Shen Congwen, known for combining the vernacular style of writing with classical Chinese writing techniques. Shen Congwen based many of his stories on the local traditions and customs from around this western area of Hunan and portrayed the violent clashes between the Chinese and the local Miao ethnic group. You can visit his tomb by taking a pleasant walk away from the town, along the river and past some pagodas and temples.

Old Still lived in Courtyard Fenghuang 2003
Old Still lived in Courtyard Fenghuang 2003

If you get tired of walking around, there is an alternative way of viewing Fenghuang, which is to hire a small boat, punted by a man with a huge bamboo pole. Many Chinese spend hours going up and down the river, knocking back ‘baijiu’ (Chinese rice wine) and generally making merry. At night, these boats have lanterns hanging from their roofs, making it all look very romantic.

Boatman Punting Fenghuang 2003
Boatman Punting Fenghuang 2003

Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. Practicalities

Transport:

Fenghuang used to be accessible only by bus. There are three approches from to the town. If you are heading to or from the nature reserve at Zhangjiajie, then you need to use the town of Jishou. There are regular buses between Fenghuang and Jishou. If you are going to Zhangjiajie, you need to catch the first bus at 6.30 from Fenghuang to Jishou (2hrs), in order to catch the first train from Jishou to Zhangjiajie at 9.08. A hard seat ticket costs 22 Yuan. The bus from Fenghuang drops you at the opposite end of Jishou from the train station and a taxi to the station is probably the best option, if you want to get a train ticket.

Huaihua to  Fenghuang Bus ticket
Huaihua to Fenghuang Bus ticket

There are also regular buses from the railhead town of Huaihua on the Changsha – Guiyang rail line. It is a beautiful two and half hour ride.

Finally, there are buses from Fenghuang to Tongren in Guizhou, for those wishing to climb Fanjing Shan.

Update

Times have changed. Fenghuang is soon to be on the high speed rail network, so getting there will be a whole lot easier; for better or for worse!


Fenghuang should be added to China’s high speed network this year (2021) making it very easy to get to Fenghuang from most places in China.

It will be part of the Zhangjiajie / Huaihua high speed line.

Places to Stay:

Traditioanl Inn Kezhan Fenghuang 2003
Traditioanl Inn Kezhan Fenghuang 2003

We stayed in a family guest house on the edge of the old city, where we paid only 60 Yuan for a clean room with  (primitive) bathroom. After we had checked in, we discovered several modern hotel options in the new town, as well as a whole string of atmospheric wooden Inns (Kezhan) by the river. These cheap hotels are basic but clean and many rooms have balconies overlooking the river.

Places to eat:

You wont see this now Reatuarant staff washing your veggies in the river Fenghuang 2003
You won’t see this now: restaurant staff washing your veggies in the river Fenghuang 2003

The riverside restaurants serve excellent food. Lots of them are point and choose joints, where the chef will cook up something wonderful, from your choice of ingredients. The tiny fried shrimps and small fried fish with chilli are particularly good.

My Favourite Miao Restaurant fenghuang 2003
My Favourite Miao Restaurant Fenghuang 2003

If you haven’t been to Guizhou, Fenghuang is a good place to try Miao dishes, especially the hot and sour chicken, or hot and sour fish. We particularly liked one excellent restaurant just off the old main street, run by a friendly young couple. It is recognizable by the huge selection of fresh vegetables outside and the cured meats hanging in the front window (See photo).

Margie having a beer in a riverside tavern Fenghuang 2003
Margie having a beer in a riverside tavern Fenghuang 2003

They do a great sweet and sour cat fish as well as  good vegetarian dishes. Lastly, in the  modern town there is a night market that has a good selection of snacks and local specialities.

The Southern Great Wall

The Southern Great Wall 南长城 or the Miaojiang Great Wall苗疆长城: The Miao Frontier Wall

THE SOUTHERN GREAT WALL 南长城 OR THE MIAOJIANG GREAT WALL苗疆长城: THE MIAO FRONTIER WALL
THE SOUTHERN GREAT WALL 南长城 OR THE MIAOJIANG GREAT WALL苗疆长城: THE MIAO FRONTIER WALL

Rebuilding the past: The new old or the old new

The Southern Great Wall (sometimes known as the THE MIAOJIANG GREAT WALL 苗疆长城: THE MIAO FRONTIER WALL) lies a few kilometers outside the beautiful historic town of Fenghuang in Western Hunan Province.

Set in lush green coutryside, the wall snakes its way through farm land and climbs up and over steep and verdant hills. But what is the Southern Great Wall? Most people have never heard of it!

Fenghuang Town 2003
Fenghuang Town 2003

THE SOUTHERN GREAT WALL and restoring China’s past

I have never figured out how to adequately describe the way the Chinese authorities attempt to preserve China’s past.

The Southern Great Wall An older stretch of the Southern Wall
An older stretch of the Southern Great Wall

Techniques range from the painstaking and meticulous restoration of ancient artefacts and burial sites (think the Terracotta Warriors), to the naffest styles you can imagine.

Waiting for the wrecking ball; the old city of Datong
Waiting for the wrecking ball; the old city of Datong

Sometimes entire ancient villages or ancient city centers are bulldozed down and then rebuilt in the same style using shoddy materials and guady add ons.

The new old city of Datong
The new old city of Datong

The old city of Datong 大同 in Shanxi山西 is a good example of this type of so-called restoration. If you look carefully at the above picture, you can see two yellow Chinese characters next the gate. The characters say ‘Gucheng 古城, which means ancient city. They are ready to be placed above the newly built old gate built over looking what used to be old Datong.

Then there are the cities that build a new historic centre when they never had one in the first place (Bayon Hot).

The New Gate surrounding the new old city of Bayonhot Inner Mongolia
The New Gate surrounding the new old city of Bayonhot Inner Mongoli啊

Another restorative approach is to rebuild almost from scratch, a monument or building that disappeared or crumbled away a long time ago, and try to retore it back to its former splendor. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and some modern restoring materials do not make the grade. The latter is definetly true for the Southern Great Wall or the Miaojiang Frontier Great Wall near Fenghuang.

The Southern  Great Wall

The Southern Great Wall: A brief History

The Southern Great Wall was originally built in the 16th century during the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620). Its purpose? To keep the rebellious Miao 苗族, Tujia 土家族 and Dong 侗族 minorities from causing trouble. And at the same time preventing them from disrupting the lucrative trading routes such as the salt trade, that made Fenghuang such a prosperous city.

The Miao and Chilis
The Miao and Chilis

The Miao minority was particularly notorious for robbing merchants and raiding military outposts. Some say that the wall’s raison d’etre was to separate two types of Miao. The Raw Miao生苗; those Miao who refused to recognise the rule of the emperor. And the Mature Miao熟苗; those who did recognise and submit to the emperor’s rule.

Miao Traders Guizhou
Miao Traders Guizhou

Recreating the Southern Great Wall

Stretching for 190 kilometers, the Southern Great Wall basically separated what is now Guizhou Province from Hunan Province. The word Jiang 疆 in the wall’s other name, Miaojiang Changcheng (The Great Miao Frontier Wall), means frontier, and shows that this area was on the very fringes of the Chinese Empire at the time.

Miao and Bullfighting Guizhou
Miao and Bullfighting Guizhou

When the Ming Dynasty collapsed, the Miao destoyed the wall, the original parts you can see these days are remnants of the Qing Dynasty’s efforts to rebuild it. I say original parts, because most of what you see now was rebuilt between 2001 and 2003; exactly when we visited.

Recreating the Southern Great Wall Hunan China
Recreating the Southern Great Wall

We can testify that, while the wall is quite spectacular, what you are walking on is an almost completely new creation, covered with a grey spray to give it that ancient look.

Recreating the Southern Great Wall Hunan China
Recreating the Southern Great Wall Hunan China

While we were there, we witnessed hundreds of labourers beavering away and recreating the wall practically from scratch. However, there was one major problem: the quality of the materials. It is a pity that even after a few months, some of the shoddily built new parts were already falling apart. They definitely employed superior materials in bygone times. And The Chinese emperors maintained more vigorous quality control checks than today’s authorities.

Not in good shape. Shoddy building the Southern Great Wall
Not in good shape. Shoddy building the Southern Great Wall

Walking the Wall

The 45 Yuan entrance ticket (2003) allows you to roam freely along the wall. If you are lucky, you’ll have a steep undulating 2 to 3 kilometre stretch of wall pretty much to yourself (2003). However, in recent years, Fenghuang has become a major Chinese domestic tourist hotspot. I think you may now share this section with the hordes of day trippers from Fenghuang.

A sweaty Adam with the only other tourists
A sweaty Adam with the only other tourists

An authentic old village at the end of the wall

At the end of the wall you will come to an attractive black-stone village, with low medieval-looking houses, which is worth a wander around.  Don’t be surprised, however, if someone jumps out with a ticket demanding 10 Yuan for the privilege of visiting. 

Drying Chilis the Southern Great Wall
Drying Chilis the Southern Great Wall

Most of the villagers earn a living by cultivating chillies and corn. There are piles of extremely long chilies (maybe Thunder Mountain Chillies: the longest in the world) drying in every available space.

Drying Corn the Southern Great Wall
Drying Corn the Southern Great Wall

A more recent occupation for some of the younger villages was labouring on the reconstruction of the wall.

Villagers rebuilding the Sothern Great Wall
Villagers rebuilding the Sothern Great Wall

Tang dynasty fort, Huangsi Qiao

HuangSi  Qiao Fenghuang
HuangSi Qiao Fenghuang

A little further afield is the Tang dynasty fort, Huangsi Qiao, on the border with Guizhou province. The fort is a bit of a let-down, a couple of crumbling watch towers and a sturdy wall encircling a small surviving hamlet. The only reason to traipse out there is to enjoy the views of the enchanting countryside and admire the isolated beacon towers on the hilltops, stretching away into Guizhou province.

Scenery near Huangsi Qiao
Scenery near Huangsi Qiao

Practicalities (with updates)

Transport:

The Southern Great Wall

We jumped off a bus running between Fenghuang and HuangSi Qiao. Then flagged down a local bus to return to Fenghuang.

Fenghuang

Fenghuang used to be only accessible by bus (see update for new info). It could be approached from three directions. If you are heading to or from the nature reserve at Zhangjiajie, then you need to use the town of Jishou. There are regular buses between Fenghuang and Jishou (see update for new info).

In the past If you were going to Zhangjiajie, you needed to catch the first bus at 6.30 from Fenghuang to Jishou (2hrs), in order to catch the first train from Jishou to Zhangjiajie at 9.08. The bus from Fenghuang dropped you at the opposite end of Jishou from the train station and a taxi to the station was probably the best option, if you wanted to get a train ticket.

There are also regular buses from the railhead town of Huaihua on the Changsha – Guiyang rail line. It is a beautiful two and half hour ride.

Finally, there are buses from Fenghuang to Tongren in Guizhou, for those wishing to climb Fanjing Shan.

Updates

Fenghuang should be added to China’s high speed network this year (2021) making it very easy to get to Fenghuang from most places in China.

It will be part of the Zhangjiajie / Huaihua high speed line.

Places to Stay:

Riverside Inns (Kezhen) Fenghuang
Riverside Inns (Kezhen) Fenghuang

We stayed in a family guest house on the edge of the old city, where we paid only 60 Yuan for a clean room with  (primitive) bathroom. After we had checked in, we discovered several modern hotel options in the new town, as well as a whole string of atmospheric wooden Inns (Kezhan) by the river. These cheap hotels are basic but clean and many rooms have balconies overlooking the river.

Update: There are now loads of very nice places to stay in Fenghuang.

Adam's favourite Fenghuang Restaurant
Adam’s favourite Fenghuang Restaurant

Places to eat:

The riverside restaurants serve excellent food. Lots of them are point and choose joints, where the chef will cook up something wonderful, from your choice of ingredients. The tiny fried shrimps and small fried fish with chilli are particularly good. If you haven’t been to Guizhou, Fenghuang is a good place to try Miao dishes, especially the hot and sour chicken, or hot and sour fish.

Moreover, there is (was???) one excellent restaurant just off the old main street run by a friendly young couple. It is recognizable by the huge selection of fresh vegetables outside and the cured meats hanging in the front window (See Photo). They do a great sweet and sour cat fish as well as  good vegetarian dishes. Lastly, in the  modern town there is a night market that has a good selection of snacks and local specialities.

Cupping: China’s Massage

Cupping (拔罐, báguànr)

Cupping: China's Massage Chong'an Market Guizhou

Cupping: China’s Massage: A few years ago, when we were travelling through remote –and not so remote – parts of China, it was still quite common to see masseurs, practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine and even dentists plying their trade by the roadside, often surrounding by a crowd of curious onlookers.

Cupping: China's Massage Chong'an Market Guizhou

One of the sights that most caught our eye was that of people with their backs and shoulders bristling with bloody-looking little cups, like some strange kind of porcupines. The treatment looked scary and painful and we couldn’t really see the point of it.

Cupping: China’s Massage: What is Cupping?

Cupping: China's MassageTool Kit
Cupping Equipment https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Cupping_set%2C_London%2C_England_Wellcome_L0057395.jpg

We later learnt that these people were being treated with cupping, an ancient practice common in Chinese traditional medicine. It consists in putting special cups on the skin for a few minutes to generate suction and draw the blood to the surface of the skin. Apparently, the first cups were made of bullhorns that had been smoothed and perforated with tiny holes. Nowadays most cups are made of glass, though they can also be made of other materials, such as bamboo, pottery or silicone.

Cupping: China's Massage Cups
Cupping Cups: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9b/Cupping_glasses._Wellcome_L0007482.jpg

Basically, it seems that there are two main types of cupping: dry and wet.

Cupping: China’s Massage: Dry Cupping

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cuppin in Guiyang Central Market 2003

In dry cupping, the air inside the cup is first heated to burn up the oxygen. The cup is then quickly placed upside down on the skin. Once the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum, so that the ‘patient’s’ skin is sucked up into the cup. This pulling and stretching of the soft tissues draws blood to the area, makes the blood vessels expand and is supposed to stimulate a healing process. The cups are usually left in place for about 3 minutes. Cups can be used individually, or in large quantities to cover an extended area of skin.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

Cupping: China’s Massage: Wet Cupping

The second type, wet cupping, takes the treatment a step further. Once the cup has been in place for 3-5 minutes, small cuts are made to the raised skin in order to allow the release of toxic blood and / or fluids. Pressure may be applied to speed up the process, and another cup is placed on the same area to draw out the liquids.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

Alternatively, the cups can be moved slowly across lubricated skin, or they can be placed over an acupuncture needle; if fact, cupping is often combined with acupuncture in one treatment.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

Cupping: China’s Massage: What are the benefits?

The main benefit of cupping is increased blood circulation, which is said to speed up the healing process in people suffering from muscle fatigue and injuries. This is why many athletes have started using cupping, for example to loosen muscle knots and to help their bodies recover more quickly after competitions. Perhaps one of the most famous athletes to sport the telltale cupping marks was the swimmer Michael Phelps, who was seen with them at the Rio Olympics.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

In Chinese traditional medicine, cupping is commonly used to alleviate pain in the back, hips, shoulders and neck, for rheumatism and certain respiratory problems, such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, chest congestion and even the common cold. This list is by no means exhaustive; some practitioners even apply cupping to patients with fertility issues.

Are there any drawbacks?

However, according to Western medicine, there is no scientific evidence to support claims that cupping has health benefits and many critics of alternative medicine have spoken out against the practice, calling it a pseudoscience and even potentially dangerous, e.g. for people with high blood pressure or heart problems.

Cupping treatments are usually not painful, but they do tend to leave unsightly, reddish circular marks, or even deeper bruises on the body. In extreme cases, persistent skin discoloration, scars, burns, or infections may occur.  Incidentally, the presence of cupping marks on children has sometimes been mistaken for a sign of ill-treatment.

Bìxì 赑屃; China’s Monster

Bixi 赑屃 Bì Xì; China’s Monster

B for Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Shou qiu Bixi Shandong near Qufu
B for Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster Shouqiu Bixi near Qufu

Bixi 赑屃 Bì Xì; China’s Monster . If you have ever visited a Chinese temple, you will have come across this mythological beast, straining under the heavy weight of the stele it is carrying. Though often referred to as a turtle or tortoise, the Bixi is in fact a hybrid creature with the body of a dragon, topped by the shell of a turtle.

Bixi and cat at the Dongyue Temple Beijing
Bixi and cat at the Dongyue Temple Beijing

Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster: The Legend

According to legend, the Bixi was one of the nine sons of the Dragon King. Endowed with super-natural strength, he could move mountains and stir up the seas. However, King Yu the Great (c. 2123–2025 BC), famous for bringing the floods under control, managed to tame the great beast that subsequently helped him dig canals and throw up barriers to keep the waters at bay.

B for Bixi  赑屃 /Bì Xì; China's Monster: Bixi at the Jietai Si temple near Beijing
Bixi 赑屃 /Bì Xì; China’s Monster: Bixi at the Jietai Si temple near Beijing

Once the risk of flooding had subsided, Yu was worried the Bixi might go back to wreaking havoc with the mountains and seas. In order to prevent this, he made him carry a mammoth stone with an inscription praising his deeds.

Bixis in Jietai si near Beijing
Bixi 赑屃 /Bì Xì; China’s Monster:Bixis in Jietai si near Beijing

The tradition of stelae borne by turtles or tortoises originated in the late Han dynasty (early 3rd century) and continued to flourish during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties.  Apparently, the early specimens still looked like real aquatic turtles, but the later ones started sprouting small ears and showing large, prominent teeth, eventually morphing into the characteristic dragon-headed creature we are most familiar with nowadays.

Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Giant Bixi Qufu Shandong
Giant Bixi Qufu Shandong

Bixi / 赑屃 / Bì Xì; China’s Monster: Not only in China

Apart from temples, sculptures of Bixi also appear at the entrance to mausoleums, bearing funerary tablets, as well as near bridges and archways, commemorating important events such as imperial visits. Besides China, Bixi can also be found in other East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and even as far as Mongolia and parts of Russia.

Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending
Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

People traditionally like to rub the Bixi for good luck, which unfortunately can damage the sculptures and erase the patterns on their shell or the inscriptions.

Adam and a Bixi Mencius temple Zuocheng Shandong
Adam and a Bixi Mencius temple Zuocheng Shandong near Qufu

Bìxì; 赑屃 China’s Monster: INTERESTING EARLY EXAMPLES:

Bixi  赑屃 Bì Xì; China's Monster. Shouqiu Bixi near Qufu
Shouqiu Bixi near Qufu

Confucius Temple Qufu: The creatures looked quite realistic through the Song dynasty, when huge tortoise pedestals, such as the ones in Shou Qiu near Qufu.

The Nestorian stele in the Beilin Museum in Xi'an, China.
The Nestorian stele in the Beilin Museum in Xi’an, China. David Castor (user:dcastor). 

In Xian, in 1625, an ancient Christian stele was unearthed and later mounted on the back of a turtle. This so-called Nestorian stele dates from the Tang dynasty (781) and bears witness to 150 years of early Christianity in China.

Nestorian stele dates from the Tang dynasty (781)
Nestorian stele dates from the Tang dynasty (781) Photo taken by Frits V. Holm in Xi’an in 1907

Its inscriptions in Chinese and Syriac Aramaic (Aramaic being the language Jesus would have spoken) describe the existence of Christian communities in several cities in northern China. According to the stele, missionaries belonging to the Church of the East came to China in the ninth year of emperor Tai Tsung (635) with sacred books and images. The stele was buried in 845, probably during a period of religious persecution.

Top of Bixi Stele Mencious Temple Zuocheng Shandong
Top of Bixi Stele Mencius Temple Zuocheng Shandong near Qufu

In 1907, the stele was moved to Xian’s fascinating Stele Forest museum, where it can still be admired.

Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

Colossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

These days, long-lost Bixi continue to be unearthed during archaeological excavations and construction work. Among the most remarkable finds is the discovery of a huge 1200-year-old Bi Xi in Zhengding (Hebei Province) in June 2006.

Margie and theColossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending
Margie and theColossal Bixi Kaiyuan Temple Zhending

The stone turtle is 8.4 m long, 3.2 m wide, and 2.6 m tall, and weighs 107 tons. It has since been moved to Zhengding’s Kaiyuan Temple.[20]


Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen

Arhats (or Luohan,十八羅漢, in Chinese)

Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province

Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen:If you love visiting Chinese Buddhist temples, as we do, you will probably be familiar with the term Arhat, as colourful paintings and sculptures of these monk-like beings, shown in groups of 16, 18, or even 500, are a common feature of temple halls.

Ancient Long-Eyebrowed Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province
Ancient Long-Eyebrowed Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province

Arhats: China’s Enlightened Gentlemen: who or what exactly are Arhats?

But, who or what exactly are Arhats?  The word Arhat comes from Sanskrit and means ‘one who is worthy’; in Buddhism, that is a person who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved Nirvana (spiritual enlightenment).  In this way, Arhats, who are usually monks or nuns, manage to free themselves from ignorance, excitability, ambition, and the desire for existence, so that they will not be reborn.

Frightening Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
Frightening Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

Although this definition seems fairly clear, we have to bear in mind that the concept of the Arhat has changed over the centuries, and varies between different schools of Buddhism.

Two Wise and Benign Arhats Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
Two Wise and Benign Arhats Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

Whereas in the Theravada tradition becoming an Arhat is considered to be the proper goal of a Buddhist, Mahayana Buddhism uses the term for people far advanced along the path of Enlightenment, but who may not have reached full Buddhahood.

Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan
Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan

Moreover, they believe that the Bodhisattva is a higher goal of perfection. Although the ultimate purpose of the Bodhisattva is to achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha, they are willing to postpone their entrance into Nirvana in order to remain in the world and save other beings from suffering.

A Smiling Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
A Smiling Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

This difference of interpretation seems to be one of the fundamental divergences between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. However, even in Mahayana Buddhism, the accomplishments of Arhats are recognized and celebrated, mainly because they have transcended the mundane world.

Ancient Emaciated Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province
Ancient Emaciated Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province

The Chinese Buddhist tradition and Arhats

In the Chinese Buddhist tradition,  Arhats are usually depicted in groups of 16 and later 18; all with their own names and personalities: Deer Sitting, Happy, Raised Bowl, Raised Pagoda, Meditating, Oversea, Elephant Riding, Laughing Lion, Open Heart, Raised Hand, Thinking, Scratched Ear, Calico Bag, Plantain, Long Eyebrow, Doorman, Taming Dragon and Taming Tiger. Interestingly, the cult of the 18 Arhats only became popular in China, while other Buddhist countries such as Japan continue to revere just 16.

'Surfing' Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province
‘Surfing’ Arhat Wutai Shan Shanxi Province

These 16 or 18 represent the closest disciples of the Buddha who were chosen by him to remain in this world and not to enter nirvana until the coming of the next Buddha, in order to give people something / someone to worship. We can think of them as the Buddhist equivalents of Christian saints, or apostles.

A Smiling Two-Headed Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing
A Smiling Two-Headed Arhat Azure Cloud Temple Fragrant Hills Beijing

Leaving aside the tricky question of exactly how holy or perfect the Arhats are, what has always puzzled us is the way they are portrayed: Arhat paintings and sculptures are often sinister, ludicrous, grotesque, or just downright ugly. Of course, from a Western point of view this is extremely shocking, because we associate ugliness with evil and beauty with goodness: just think of the idealized images of Christian saints and angels. And it has taken us a long time to find information to shed some light on this mystery. So, here is what we have come up with.

Vain Arhat  Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan
Vain Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan

The Influence of Guanxiu (貫休 / Guànxiū)

Apparently, the first famous portraits of Arhats were painted by the Chinese monk, painter, poet, and calligrapher Guanxiu (貫休 / Guànxiū) in 891 CE. Guanxiu started his career during the Tang dynasty, in what has often been described as a golden age for literature and the arts.

Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

However, the Tang dynasty had been in decline for some time and eventually collapsed in 907, which meant that many artists lost their patrons.

Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan
Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan

For this reason, Guanxiu fled to the city of Chengdu in 901, where something like a miniature Tang court still existed and where Wang Jian, the founding emperor of the Former Shu (one of the Ten Kingdoms formed during the chaotic period between the rules of the Tang and Song dynasties) took him in and gave him the honorific title Great Master of the Chan Moon.

Gossiping Arhats Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province
Gossiping Arhats Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province

The Legend Of Guanxiu’s painting skills

Legend has it that the Arhats had heard about Guanxiu’s painting skills and appeared to him in a dream and asked him to paint their portraits. In the paintings, the Arhats are portrayed as foreigners with bushy eyebrows, large eyes, hanging cheeks and high noses. Moreover, they look unkempt, shabby and eccentric. By showing them like this, it seems that Guanxiu wanted to emphasize that they were like outsiders, vagabonds and beggars; beings who had left all worldly desires behind.

Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple Kunming Yunnan Province

Following Guanxiu’s example, the Chan painters, as they became known, continued representing Arhats with exaggerated and almost perverse features, accentuating their decrepit, skeletal bodies and bony faces, as well as their advanced age.

Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province
Arhat Cangyan Shan Hebei Province

Although Guanxiu’s portraits remained extremely important in Chinese Buddhist iconography, over time, the Arhats started to look less foreign, though no less eccentric.

Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan
Arhats painted during the Ming Dynasty Shanxi Museum Taiyuan

Art historian Max Loehr on Guanxiu’s Arhats

According to art historian Max Loehr, Guanxiu’s Arhats represent the physical incarnation of the persecution Buddhists suffered in eighth-century China; a persecution that almost wiped out the Buddhist establishment. Their tormented faces make the Arhats look like survivors of death and destruction.

Screaming Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan
Screaming Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan

However, given that Chinese artists had been painting and sculpting expressive and powerful Arhats for centuries, it seems unlikely that either Guanxiu’s uncommon talent or religious persecution alone can account for the grotesque images that fascinate us so. Cultural differences between East and West must play a part too.

Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

In a fascinating blog post dating from 2009, the Argentinian cartoonist and illustrator Enrique (Quique) Alcatena, who apparently finds much of his inspiration in mythology, explains that in Asian cultures the ferocious, wild looks of the Arhats are recognized as a symbol of the superhuman strength of these illuminated beings and their determination to crush darkness and evil.

Warrior Arhat with slightly Mongolian appearance Fragrant Hills Beijing
Warrior Arhat with slightly Mongolian appearance Fragrant Hills Beijing

In fact, the Arhats need to look fearsome if they want to inspire fear in devils and other forces of evil and keep them at bay.

Angry Looking Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan
Angry Looking Arhat Giuyuan Chan Si Wuhan

The Destruction of the Shengyin Temple

Guanxiu donated his paintings to the Shengyin Temple in Qiantang (in present day Hangzhou) where they were preserved with great care and ceremonious respect. The Shengyin Temple was destroyed duing the Taiping Rebellion (1850 1864). However, the Qianlong Emperor (Qing Dynasty) , who visted the Shengyin Temple in 1757, was so impressed by the paintings that he managed to have copies made and what exist now are those copies and copies (rubbings) of those copies.

Guanxiu Arhat Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

Another set of sixteen Arhats is preserved in the Japanese Imperial Household Collection. This collection bears an inscription dated to 894. It states Guanxiu began the set while living in Lanxi, Zhejiang province.

Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple
Guanxiu Arhats Shengyin Temple

Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: Read about our visit to the amzaing Bamboo temple near Kunming

The Longsheng Rice Terraces

Longji Titian or Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces 龙脊梯田

Amazing Electric Green Rice Terraces
Amazing Electric Green Rice Terraces

The Longsheng Rice Terraces are a real marvel. These stunning rice terraces also known as the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces offer travellers a great opportunity to do some hiking and visit some fascinating minority villages. The main ethnic group here are the Zhuang, but there are also a number of Yao villages in the area.

Many of the Yao ladies still wear traditional, colourful clothes and heavy jewellery and they pride themselves on their hair, which may well be some of the longest you’ll ever see.

Long haired Yao Lady
Long haired Yao Lady

The Zhuang Village of Ping’an is the main village of the area, as well as the most easily accessible.

Ping'an before development
Ping’an before development

It’s is a pretty collection of wooden houses, connected by stone paths and set right in the middle of the rice terraces. When we were there, a new road was being built  and a couple of new hotels were under construction, fortunately in traditional style.The Longsheng Rice Terraces:

Yao Lady with amazing ears
Yao Lady with amazing ears

The Longsheng Rice Terraces: Hiking

Hiking in the Rice Terraces
Hiking in the Rice Terraces

Many small paths leave from the village, going off in all directions. One of the nicest is to head up above  Ping’an and walk around the high ridge, passing smaller settlements which offer spectacular views over the terraces. The contrast between the green rice paddies and the ubiquitous red chillies adds to the beauty.

The Longsheng Rice Terraces: Minority Villages

The walk from Ping’an to Dazai village makes for a great day trip. According to locals, the rice terraces at Dazai are even more impressive than those around Ping’an but, unfortunately, we never got to see them.

We were heading in that direction when we were waylaid by a local Yao lady who insisted on taking us to her village, about two thirds of the way to Dazai, for lunch.

Yao lady who kidnapped us on the way tp Dazai
Yao lady who kidnapped us on the way tp Dazai

The Longsheng Rice Terraces: Kidnapped for lunch goodbye Dazai

Most of the meal she picked straight from the mountainside and the bushes along the path, as she escorted us to her house, a large, rambling wooden structure on stilts.

Here we squatted on low wooden benches, scrutinised by the curious members of her family and with chickens pecking at our feet, while the lady prepared our lunch, for which we had agreed to pay 30 Yuan.

The Yao Village where we stopped for Lunch
The Yao Village where we stopped for Lunch

The food was not bad at all, especially the wild mountain vegetables. After lunch, we went for a walk around the village, which was very poor indeed.

Though the houses were huge, they were virtually empty, with only the most rudimentary cooking and farming implements.

Moreover, the streets and the open spaces underneath the houses were filthy and covered in garbage.  The wealth gap between the richer Zhuang villages, such as Ping’an, and the poorer Yao villages was quite evident.

Such was our delay over lunch that we decided not to push on to Dazai. This turned out to be a wise decision because, just as we were arriving at Ping’an, a huge summer storm engulfed the entire rice terraces and the torrential rain didn’t remit until late the following day.

However, for those who wish to do the whole walk, the stone path is quite easy to follow and extremely attractive, passing through deep forest,  beautiful flowery meadows and, of course, plenty of rice terraces.

 Practicalities:

Accommodation and food:

We stayed and ate in a small family-run hotel in Ping’an, aptly called the Ping’an hotel. It had clean rooms, a nice dining room and veranda and shared bathrooms, all for 25 Yuan a night.

Electric Green Rice Terraces
Electric Green Rice Terraces

There were already several such hostels in Ping’an and more were going up all the time. Entrepreneurs from as far away as Yangshuo had started competing with the local family hotels.

Local house Ping'an
Local House Ping’an

We found that at weekends, the place was very popular with Chinese tourists from Guilin who enjoyed large, rowdy dinner parties and played cards until deep into the night. (see the article on the degradation of the Longji rice terraces).

Ping'an Village
Ping’an Village

At the time, Ping’an was the only village with accommodation, though nowadays Dazai 大寨, and other villages such as Tiantouzhai 田头寨, have guesthouses and hotels too; some with amazing views.

Yao Lady arranging her hair
Yao Lady arranging her hair

Transport:

Small buses run regularly throughout the day from the bus station at Longsheng to the parking area, a 20 minute walk from Ping’an village.

In 2003 all vehicles had to be left here and an entry ticket to the whole rice terrace area had to be purchased. All this may now have changed, as the new road we saw being constructed, was meant  to go right up to the village.

Spiders in the Rice
Spiders in the Rice

Guilin to Longji High Speed

Guilin is now firmly on the high speed network so getting to the Longsheng Rice Terraces is pretty easy.

It still takes around 2.5 hours by bus from Guilin to the terraces and you still have to walk the last part if you come by local bus from Guilin.

Onward Travel: It takes about 2 hours from Longsheng to reach Songjiang and then another 20 or 30 minutes to get to Chengyang and its marvellous bridges.

Read this article about the problems the Longsheng Rice Terraces face: Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs

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