Wednesday, 25 August 2010

China, Part 1 - Beijing, Xian, Xining

We travelled to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian train from Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) - the trip takes about 30 hours.

The panel says Beijing - Ulaanbaatar in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian

At the Mongolian-Chinese border the train has to stop for passport checking and bogie changing (Mongolian and Chinese tracks are not the same width).

Bogie changing at the Chinese/Mongolian border

We arrived at the main Beijing railway station.

Chinese countryside visible from the train, north of Beijing

In Beijing we were staying for a week at a friend's flat, so we had plenty of time to recover from two weeks in Mongolian gers and the long train journey we'd just had.

Chinese countryside visible from the train, north of Beijing

Our first Beijing visit was to the Tibetan Buddhist Lama temple. Formerly a residence of Emperor Yongzheng, it was converted to a lamasery in 1744.

Lama temple

One of the features of Beijing are the numerous hutongs, or narrow alleys, that criss-cross the city. Many have been destroyed as new buildings are constructed, but hundreds still remain, and show a glimpse of typical Beijing life as it has existed for centuries.

a typical hutong

a sign for the Ladies in a restaurant

The next day we went to visit one of Beijing's most famous landmarks - the Forbidden City. The name comes from the fact that for 500 years it was the home of emperors and their households, and was 'off limits' to ordinary people.

 main entrance to the Forbidden City, known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace

Built 1406-1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 720,000 m2. The palace complex is an example of traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

soldiers marching, inside the Forbidden City

The Meridian Gate is the southern (and largest) gate of the Forbidden City. It has five arches: the central arch was reserved for the Emperor alone; the exceptions were the Empress, who could enter it once on the day of her wedding, and the top three scholars of the triennial civil service examinations, who left the exams through the central arch. All other officials and servants had to use the four side arches.

looking back towards the Meridian Gate

This Ming Dynasty statue of a male guardian lion resting his paw on an embroidered ball represents Chinese imperial supremacy over the world.

Imperial Guardian Lion (male)

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest and most important hall in the Forbidden City, and one of the largest wooden structures in China. Built in the 15th century and restored in the 17th century it rises 30 metres above the surrounding square on three levels of marble stone base. This is where Ming and Qing Dynasty Emperors hosted their enthronement, birthday and wedding ceremonies, or nominated military leaders.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum, whose collection was built on the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Part of the museum's former collection is now located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Both museums descend from the same institution, but were split after the Chinese Civil War.

turtles symbolise longevity (Forbidden City)

The next day we visited the Summer Palace, in northwest Beijing, which is where the imperial family came to escape the heat of the Forbidden City.  It was originally constructed during the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234).

South Lake Island, in Kunming Lake, Summer Palace

In the 18th century the existing Kunming Lake was deepened and expanded by 100 000 labourers to cover 2.2 km2, and the soil excavated was used to build nearby Longevity Hill, which is about 60 metres high. 

the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion, also known as the Tower of Buddhist Incense

The Tower of Buddhist Incense, on Longevity Hill's southern slope, is built on a 20 metre tall stone base, is 41 metres high with three stories, and is supported by eight ironwood pillars.

dragon statue, Summer Palace

Foreign troops damaged the buildings during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), and again in 1900, but it was restored both times by Empress Cixi.

Summer Palace buildings

Xiuyi bridge, south Kunming Lake

Beijing is not only home to old imperial palaces and hutongs - there's some interesting modern architecture too. The CCTV Headquarters building is a 234 metre 44-storey postmodern skyscraper in Beijing Central Business District. (Construction was completed in 2012).

the loop-shaped building to the right is the CCTV Tower

The IBM building in Chaoyang is referred to by some as the Dragon's Head.

IBM Tower, Chaoyang, Beijing

The Beijing National Stadium became a world famous landmark, of course, in 2008 during the Summer Olympics.

'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium

Our next outing was to the Great Wall, at Badaling, which is 70km northwest of Beijing. The original wall was begun over 2000 years ago during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC).

Great Wall

It was revived as a concept during the Ming Dynasty (14th century). An archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measures 21,196 km. 

Great Wall

Back in central Beijing, the Drum Tower originally marked the old city centre. It takes its name from the fact that drums were beaten to mark the hours of the day - it originally housed 24 of them. It has two stories and is 47 metres high. Opposite stands the 33 metre high Bell Tower, which was also used for time-keeping.

Drum Tower, Beijing

Our final visit in Beijing was to the Temple of Heaven, a complex of religious buildings. The complex was visited by Ming and Qing dynasty Emperors for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest, and to seek atonement and divine clearance. The complex's most striking building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests which is a triple-gabled circular building, 36 metres in diameter and 38 metres high, built on three levels of marble stone base. The building is completely wooden, with no nails or cement. Built in 1420, the original building was burned down by a fire caused by a lightning bolt in 1889, and was re-built several years after.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Next we took an overnight train from Beijing West train station to the city of Xian, in Shaanxi province. Xian was once the terminus of the legendary Silk Road.

train from Beijing to Xian

Xian is world famous as the home of the fabled army of Terracotta Warriors - one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. The terracotta army is arranged into three 'pits'.

Pit 1 is the largest, containing 6000 warriors and horses, all ready for battle

Emperor Qin Shi Huang was China's first Emperor, and it is thought he had the army built because he believed his rule would continue in death as in life. 

The figures are life-sized

They were buried in 210-209 BC, and were discovered in 1974 by peasants drilling a well.

No two soldier's faces are alike

Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits.

Soldiers and horses are all in battle formation

After this impressive visit we headed back to central Xian where we walked on the city walls. They form a rectangle with a perimeter of 14 kilometres, and Xian is one of the few Chinese cities to still have its city walls standing.

Xian city walls - 12 metres high, they were built in 1370.

Like Beijing, Xian also has Drum and Bell Towers, built in 1384 of brick and timber. 

Bell Tower, Xian

The bell used to be rung at dawn, and the drum was beaten at nightfall.

Xian Drum Tower (left), our hotel was in the building to the right

Another famous landmark in Xian is Wild Goose Pagoda, completed in 652 to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the travelling monk Xuanzang. The original pagoda stood at a height of 54 m but eventually collapsed five decades later. The ruling Empress Wu Zetian had the pagoda rebuilt and added five new stories by the year 704; however a massive earthquake in 1556 badly damaged the pagoda and reduced it by three stories to its current height of seven stories (64 metres). The Pagoda was extensively repaired during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and renovated again in 1964.

Wild Goose Pagoda and statue of monk Xuanzang

a selection of different Chinese tea

Another night train journey brought us to Xining, capital of Qinghai province. Perched on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, Xining was once a major hub along the northern Silk Road.
Our first visit was to Kumbum monastery, 26km south of Xining, and one of the great monasteries of the Gelugpa ('Yellow Hat') sect of Tibetan Buddhism. "Kumbum" means "100,000 enlightening bodies of the Buddha".

stupas at Kumbum monastery

The monastery was built in 1560 at the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect (born in 1357), replacing an earlier temple and stupa placed there by Tsongkhapa's mother.

ethnic Tibetans

Before 1958, Kumbum had 3600 monks. At present, there are 400, as the monastery was affected by PRC policies from the late 1950s. 

temple doorway, ethnic Tibetans

However it still has enormous historical significance, and is very much a repository of Tibetan culture and art, including various sculptures, statues and religious artifacts.

temple offerings off to be offered

Once we'd visited Xining it was time for another train journey - to Lhassa, Tibet, via the the highest railway in the world. You can read about the train journey here, and our visit to Tibet here.

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Suggested reading:

  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel by Dai Sijie.  This moving, often wrenching short novel (by a writer who was himself re-educated in the '70s) tells how two young men weather years of banishment in a remote mountain village during Mao's Cultural Revolution.

See also:
  • Unearthing the Terracotta Army - BBC Radio 4 'Witness' Programme talks to the lead archaeologist responsible for one of the most important finds of the century, and what it tells us about the sophistication of the society at the time in China.

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