Sunday, July 06, 2008

Day trip to Zhengding (正定)

China is BIG. Getting anywhere by car or train, if it's close, takes at the very least a couple of hours, yet soon you realise that most places of interest lie 4-7 hours away (well, the reasonably near ones!). Yet we longed for getting away from Beijing and exploring a bit (we were spoilt by Lebanon, within 3 hours you could get ANYWHERE in the country!). So one fine day in mid April we made up our minds, and decided to spend a weekend at Chengde. And we didn't: the train left 30minutes earlier than we thought, and we had to do some quick thinking (we WERE going away, no matter what! LOL). The winner: Zhengding (zhèngdìng, 正定), an "old walled town" (according to our guide-book) in Hebei Province (héběi shěng, 河北省); hopefully, we thought, we would be able to find some romantic or quaint lodging within the "old walled town". The weather was cool and fine and on April 12th we set on a trip where we definitely didn't get what we expected (and this is meant both in a positive and a negative way).

First, we got to what seemed yet another hideous, Chinese urban sprawl with no charm: Shijiazhuang (shíjiāzhuāng, 石家庄). I mean, it was a modern city, and the train station was alright, but the first impression was a rather soulless one. And so we got on the first taxi we could and headed to Zhengding, the "walled town", for our romantic weekend getaway.

I tried to explain to the taxi driver the best I could we wanted to go to the old town, assuming that we'd arrive at some historically preserved district with a surrounding wall, where charming traditional guest-houses would nestle amongst ancient structures. I should remind myself more often that my imagination sometimes runs ahead, way way ahead, of my fact finding... as we found no such preserved district, although there were plenty of old buildings, but somewhat chaotically dispersed in, well, another ugly town (I'm sorry, I'm biased, I've visited a number of historic small towns in very many countries, and this one does NOT qualify as a pretty one). The taxi dropped us off at the most important site: Longxing Temple (lōngxīng sì, 隆兴寺).

We were a bit disappointed we were not going to spend the night (because we knew by then we wouldn't spend the night there) wandering around old, car-free, preserved streets as in some sort of open air museum, so we figured we'd just visit the temple, and go back to Beijing. Sort of a waste of a trip... BUT then I noticed something: there was something strange about the temple... the style was... different? yes! that was it! it was from another dynasty! Let me explain: When an emperor renovated buildings or temples, it usually meant rebuilding or redecorating them in the current style, not in the style in which the structure was built. Which means, a vast majority of the buildings we, through our ignorant eyes, see in Beijing, conforms with the Qing (qīng, 清) dynasty style (even if they were built during other dynasties) and, sooner or later, you get "qinged out". But, amazingly, and unexpectedly, that prepared us to appreciate in quite an unsuspected way this wonderful 6th century SUI (suí, 隋) dynasty temple! It was an awakening: we were standing at the entrance, at the mere entrance, and I could tell this was a different style! and I was dying to enter and explore it all.

The first thing we saw, once we got in, was a rather big terrace-esplanade, with a small altar for burning incense sticks and hundreds of stone and clay tablets, all with inscriptions made by pilgrims as an offering. The place was quiet, very, very calm, the air was cool, you could hear nothing but the wind through the trees. It was a simple, placid place, and in that sense it served beautifully as the gateway into the world of the temple.

We crossed the terrace, and entered the Dajue Liushi Hall (dàjué liùshī diàn, 大觉六师殿), where we saw some remarkably beautiful frescoes, in a dimly lit hall. The faces, the details, they were very fine, and they conveyed... peace (the natural dim lighting and the quiet atmosphere surely played an important role, of course).

We exited through the back door of the temple, unto a long path that took us to another building, flanked by thick old trees lined with red cloth strips (more offerings to Buddha), and which housed a two faced Buddha from the Ming dynasty. The trees, the colours, the statue, everything seemed familiar, and yet was different; I felt I was entering deeper and deeper into another dimension (wow did that sound clichéd, but really, the whole place exuded... otherworldliness).

We kept walking, enthralled, and came across an imposing square like space: Two halls on each side, and a huge, towering temple in front. This one was in the style of the Song (sòng, 宋) dynasty. I have to say, I like this dynasty's style (I have seen a number of artifacts from that dynasty, and I definitely like those a lot); maybe it was just because it was different, but no, the use of colour was more to my liking, more subdued maybe? and the way the roofs ended to the sides, it looked graceful, yet solid, rather clean and unburdened by excessive decoration (please pardon this layman's poor description). We visited the lateral halls first, where we found a huge and odd octagonal revolving structure (I know, a what? but I can't describe it otherwise). Then, we went up the steps to the central building: the Pavillion of Great Mercy (dà bēi gé, 大悲阁).

Once inside, we found ourselves at the feet of a 21.3m high bronze statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, cast in AD 971. 21.3 metres translate as BIG, by the way. The base of this huge statue had a number of beautiful carvings and, once more, they didn't look like anything else we'd seen in China. There were dancers, musicians, demons? We couldn't but get close, and look, and find ourselves surprised again and again. But of course we were not going to forget the star: Guanyin. We went up, and up, and up, getting a different glimpse of the statue at every level, getting ever closer to meeting her, literally, face to face. But, unfortunately, what she had in size she lacked in grace, the many arms looking too spidery, the face somewhat plain. It lacked magic. Still, it was the biggest we had seen so far, and the temple itself, plus everything surrounding it, was indeed special.

This has become quite a long post, so I'll try to be brief about the rest: we still explored the other parts of the complex, through some gardens with beautiful flowers and some delicious labyrinthine secluded alleys leading back to the main temple (I LOVE exploring places, and the weather was so fine, and there was nary another visitor in sight!). And so we finalised our visit to the temple, gratefully surprised by everything we saw, and in such an elated mood! It was a really rewarding visit, I really can't put into words how beautiful the whole experience was.

Since we were in such a good mood, we still visited a couple of other buildings, including an intriguing square pagoda (the only square pagoda I've ever seen), an old garden with an enormous stone dragon-turtle, and finally went back to the train station, to discover the only available seats to Beijing were on an 11pm train! (it was, what, about 4 or 5pm?). We wasted as much time as we could, visited a number of malls (one of them with a rather peculiarly hip crowd!), and finally had a looong dinner at a nice hotel: the buffet was quite extensive, of quite passable quality, and ridiculously cheap! 45RMB! (6.50 USD!) And finally, oh FINALLY, we took the train back home.

That visit will definitely remain in my memory as one of my nicest experiences in China.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

a cold and wicked fun day at Beihai Park

Now that I'm done with the Japan Series, I can focus on all the other things we saw and did since! And since I'm just a bit of an order freak, I'll blog about them in chronological order. So, for those of you suffering like us from the heat of the Summer, here's a small and refreshing account of a cold day at Beihai Park (北海公园) on February 3rd.

The "Northern Lake Park" (as its name translates) is no small park. It used to be a playground for the emperors, covers some 70 hectares, has an island in the middle, and on the island sits a White Dagoba from 1651. The place is usually quite crowded in more decent weather but, it being February and freezing cold, the place provided for a nice, quiet stroll. But, more importantly, the place provided for a nice, big, frozen surface on which to play! Beijing's many lakes become natural ice-rinks in Winter, and Beihai is no exception.

So, first, you test the ice... (you want to stay dry, you know? and above water-level too!)

... and then you ride a mix between a bike and a sled, and do all the things a person 20 years younger than you would: you race against your friends, you crash your "bike" into your friends', and (but of course) you lose control of your bike and fall strepitously!

Finally, all sore, happy and with endorphins giving you a nice high thanks to the exercise and the fun, you enjoy the Winter afternoon view...

And just to remind you that there's always a surprise around the corner, as you leave the park, you spot the remnants of some forgotten old tower, right within the grounds of some sort of police station. What was that tower? Hey, the guards I asked barely knew there was a tower right there...