Sunday, April 27, 2008

bungee jumping!

An unexpected effect of the coming Beijing Olympics? I was asked to appear on a TV show. Because this program was showcasing various countries and sports they had a special relationship to. And they figured I could talk about diving. In Chinese. On TV. That was one tough, fun and challenging episode in my Chinese-speaking life, eh? But the best part came later, when I was informed - why hadn't anybody mentioned this to me before? - of the date and time we were leaving for Shidu (十渡) for me to do a bungee jump! Because, well, the theme was diving, right? So bungee jumping! 

I had never ever done this. I was excited. And, I mean, I didn't have to do anything (well, besides jump!), as I was being taken there, everything was being arranged for me... Cool, right?

I got up there with the team, cameras and all. I got my number written on my hand. Ready to film the second part of the show!

And then I proceeded to feel the terror of standing at the edge of a platform, with nothing but emptiness ahead and underneath and a lake far, far, far below. With the added pressure of someone coaching me to say something witty and related to the show, in Chinese, while someone else urged me to jump off already because other people were waiting in line. My super witty and insightful line? I can't quite remember (adrenaline!), I think I simply forgot whatever I had prepared and just managed to blurt "see you!" (再见!) while being practically pushed off. 

Oh well, histrionically - I was a failure. But experience-wise? That was so exhilarating! I'd do it again, for sure! I just hope next time I don't have that many people around putting on pressure!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chengde, part V - the Temple of Universal Peace

By now I don't need to tell you anymore that this temple, the Temple of Universal Peace (Puning Temple, 普宁寺) was built by Qianlong Emperor. Nor that it reflected a deep interest in Tibetan Buddhism. And by now you should be guessing it was built in imitation of another temple in Tibet. In this case - Samye Monastery, the very first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, from around the 8th century. And this was the cherry on top of our Buddhist-Tibet-in-the-middle-of-China trip.

Ah, before I forget. The name "Temple of Universal Peace" has a reason behind it. Namely, Qianlong Emperor's wish that all the diverse ethnicities under his rule (and again, some under it more out of force than conviction, obviously) would live in peace, under Manchu rule, aided by Qing dynasty knowledge.

I can't emphasize enough how much religious activity this place had. Yes, it wasn't quiet as the other temples we had seen. But it wasn't unpeaceful either. Though clearly many of us were just tourists, plenty were there to pray. And there were monks enough engaging in religious activity to draw in even those atheists among us... My habib, being the more spiritual of us two, and somewhat familiar with Buddhist practises, did take advantage of the atmosphere, meditating right there among the incense, the drums and the chanting. This place was something else altogether. 

But Puning Temple is known for something very specific - the largest wooden statue of the Boddhisattva (an enlightened being) Avalokiteśvara (the embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas). It's massive. It's impressive. It's over 22 metres tall. And I read it has one thousand arms and one thousand eyes. Whoa!

We truly enjoyed this temple. Like I said before, even if you think it's just a colonial gesture to have a Tibetan Buddhist temple here, it is also a nice encroachment of Tibetan culture outside Tibet. Hopefully this video can transmit a bit of the feeling of the place.

Finally, and just before leaving the temple, we had the chance of seeing some traditional Chinese buskers. You had the traditional unicycle and equilibrium performances, but there was also a very special one - a Magic Lantern, or La Yang Pian (拉洋片), an image projector where there is an artist both telling a story and taking care of special effects. Traditional street artists keeping all these old traditions alive! Loved it!

All in all, three intense, beautiful, fascinating days in Chengde. Incredible this place.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Chengde, part IV - Mountain Villa for Avoiding the Heat, and a show

By now you must have realized Chengde had lot to offer, and that it takes a lot of time to see it all! Which is why we didn't get to see much of the Mountain Villa for Avoiding the Heat (避暑山庄). I mean, we were already pretty tired from all the exploring, the villa extends over 5.6 square kilometres, and has countless areas and buildings, in an attempt to imitate different styles and regions from all over the empire. So I'm afraid all I have to show about this also very important place is this photo of Little Golden Mountain, with a pagoda that apparently imitates one in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu. I wish we had had more time to explore, but we were exhausted, and pretty happy with the previous two sites anyhow.

And what did we choose to relax and sit down a while? A show at our hotel! We had no expectations. And that was good. It was... interesting. And, obviously, it had to tell the story of Qianlong Emperor and his bringing of Mongolians and Tibetans into the empire to form one "big happy family". So of course we had to take this for what it was, a cultural experience telling a story from the point of view of the conquerors and, in that sense, it's even enriching. Plus, we ended up with some white Tibetan silk scarves! 

I don't think I can even advice watching the whole video below. But I couldn't help putting it there too, as it was part of this trip. It's up to you, although I think it is an interesting window to a part of Chinese culture.

My next and final post about this trip will be Puning Temple, the highlight of our trip.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chengde, part III - the Temple of Happiness and Longevity of the Sumeru Mountain

After gorgeous Putuo Zongcheng we then walked to another one of Chengde's jewels: the Xumi Fushou Temple (须弥福寿之庙), or Temple of Happiness and Longevity of the Sumeru Mountain. Like Putuo Zongcheng, this temple is also intimately related to emperor Qianlong (it was designed for his 70th birthday) and to Tibetan Buddhism (it was built for the 6th Panchen Lama). And like Putuo Zongcheng, it's also a mix of Tibetan and Chinese styles. Though, in this case, this temple was not modelled after the Potala in Lhasa, but after the Tashilhumpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet, where the Panchen Lama resided.

Of course, signs of Buddhism were not only evident from the outside, but also inside the temple, where we saw images of the Five Dhyani Buddhas (or Five Wisdom Tathāgatas or Five Jinas), which represent the five qualities of Buddha.

Now, if there was some part of this temple that reminded me of Tashilhumpo (which I visited in 1998 I think...), it was this section. Weird feelings looking at it, so within Chinese territory, so Tibetan in atmosphere, built by a Manchu emperor... Tashilhumpo is a good 300 years older than this one, of course. And some might take slight at the fact that it was a non-Tibetan ruler building all these structures, a sort of cultural colonialism. But you could also see it the other way around, as some of Tibetan culture entering the rest of China, mainly via its version of Buddhism... 

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Chengde, part II - Avalokiteśvara's Shrine

I'm not sure how to go ahead with this and the following posts. Chengde's temples are truly wonderful, and I'm afraid what I can describe will barely scratch the surface of what we felt... But gotta write something, right?

So, I'll start with Putuo Zongcheng (普陀宗乘之庙, which roughly translates to Avalokiteśvara's Shrine), which is the first temple we visited. And here's where I can give some context. It was built by emperor Qianlong, during whose reign many different peoples were joined (some more forcibly than others) into the empire. Among those peoples were Mongols and Tibetans. Additionally, emperor Qianlong, who was part of a Manchu dynasty, spoke Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, among other languages, and took a special interest in Tibetan Buddhism. And these facts explain a bit why Putuo Zongcheng looks like what it does.

But first of all, let me tell you that his polyglottery and his multi-ethnic empire, plus his obsession with preserving the Manchu language as a vehicle for maintaining Manchu values, meant that this and many other of his buildings contain elements in multiple languages. And that's something I absolutely loved! Like these columns here, which show either Manchu or Mongolian (the left one) and Tibetan and Manchu or Mongolian (the right one).   

Also, Chengde (the city where the temple lies) being a mountain retreat, nature - especially at this time of year - was simply gorgeous, with flowers in bloom everywhere!

And now we can get to this temple's peculiarity - its architecture. It was thought of as a place to receive different ethnic groups in a quieter setting than bustling Beijing. At least two of those groups were Buddhist and, specifically, followers of Tibetan Buddhism - Mongols and Tibetans. And emperor Qianlong was not only a supporter of Tibetan Buddhism, but also a politician that knew that favouring Tibetan Buddhism would be wise idea. And so, he built Putuo Zongcheng in imitation of Lhasa's Potala Palace. 

Of course, "in imitation of" does not mean "an identical copy of", and it doesn't take much searching to arrive at the more Chinese elements of the temple. Which makes it a very interesting - and beautiful - place.

The place was peaceful. The weather stunning. The history rich and intriguing. Please do watch this short video I made, which I hope manages to somehow convey the atmosphere that surrounded us at this fantastic temple.

Next post: the Temple of Happiness and Longevity of the Sumeru Mountain.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chengde, part I - the arrival

So, we decided to pay a quick visit to Chengde (承德), in Hebei Province (河北). It's a somewhat short trip (around 5 hours?), there are a number of Tibetan-inspired structures, and the temple area is a UNESCO World heritage Site, so why not?

I have tons of photos, and the temples were quite something, so I'm afraid I'll have to split this trip into many smaller posts. Which means this is just the intro. And here's where I mention the one unpalatable thing in our trip. At our arrival to the city. What did we find happening on the street? Something that, clichéd as it may sound, broke my heart. 

I felt sad, I felt angry, and I felt useless, because there was nothing I could do for those poor monkeys being abused as mere toys for fun. People were clearly enjoying it. The monkeys were clearly so not enjoying it. So yeah, that was our welcome to Chengde. Bugger.

But, like I said, there was nothing I could do, and we were not going to keep looking on, so all we could do was leave. Bastards. 

So, we got to our hotel and, thankfully, it was close to one of the places we wanted to visit, Puning Temple (普宁寺). So close, in fact, we could see it from the hotel. From this sneak peek at one of the many temples you could only suspect things were going to get very, very interesting...  

So get ready, 'cause there are temple pics a'coming like crazy! (still mad at not being able to do anything for those monkeys, though)

Sunday, April 06, 2008


The best thing about spring in Beijing, for me, are the magnolias. I love these flowers, I love how they grace Chang'an Avenue near the Forbidden City, and I love that they also grow in the gardens of our compound! Yay for spring magnolias! Useless comment: magnolia in Chinese is mùlán (木兰 or 木蘭).