To begin with, if you haven’t read the first post in this China and Korea special, then please do so before reading this one.
Day 1 – Shanghai: We arrived in Shanghai at an odd hour, at something around 2 am local time, after a tiring journey from Sydney. We had booked accommodation with a local couple in a suburb called Tangzhen through AirBnB, and they, for an additional fare, agreed to pick us up from the airport. It was quite cold when we arrived, but the sight of our hosts waiting to ferry us to their apartment was a warm one. Our hosts were a young, unmarried couple, typical of millions of young Chinese who are pursuing their dreams of becoming successful in metropolises such as Shanghai. The girl was an accountant/analyst and the guy was a product manager with a startup.
After a relatively short night’s sleep, we were up in the morning to discuss our plan for the next two days in Shanghai with Rina (our hostess). Since it was a working day, we needed to get up early and seek information from her before she left for work. We had some grossly inadequate breakfast and left with Rina for the metro station, which was a 20 min walk from the apartment. We got our subway cards and managed to squeeze ourselves into one of Shanghai’s notoriously crowded trains during peak hour. Rina parted ways for the day a few stops later and we continued to the centre of Shanghai, People’s Square.
At the station, we managed to secure cell phone SIM cards for both of us. SIM cards in China are hard to buy, and only one company called Unicom makes SIMs that are compatible with all foreign phones. From there, we exited to the overhead People’s Square area, which was a huge junction in the heart of Shanghai. Owing to the extremely high cess that is levied on vehicles wanting to enter downtown Shanghai during peak ours, the traffic was lesser that I expected. We saw a Subway (restaurant) nearby, and heaved a sigh of relief. After feasting on subs (approx A$8-10 for a footlong), we walked to the nearby Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.
Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall was a majestic complex that showcased Shanghai’s past, as poor fishing town through to it’s colonial legacy and to the present financial hub that it is. The audio guide available was worth the cost and informative. This museum reminded me of one in Singapore that also showed Singapore journey in a similar manner. The detail in which Shanghai’s urban planning was described was of special interest to me, especially being from Bombay. The section about Shanghai’s future was also intriguing. It showed, again in great detail, how the govt. aims to take Shanghai forward and tackle its well-known problems. This effort in communicating future plans remained a highlight in all major city museums that we visited across China.
The day was overcast and dull, as are 364 days in China each year! On exiting the complex, we walked through one of the first street markets that we visited in China. Lots of stalls selling all sorts of things but dominated by mobile accessories and other cheap electronics. On exiting to the main square, we were greeted by a light drizzle, through we walked to the nearby Shanghai Museum. The walk itself passed some public garden areas that afforded good views of Shanghai in all it’s glory.
Shanghai Museum (Shanghai Bowuguan) is a magnificent, world class museum in the heart of Shanghai. The museum building complex itself was so grand that it almost eclipsed all the museums I had seen so far. Entry to the museum is, amazingly, free. Again, I’d highly recommend taking an audio guide when you start exploring and also making the most of the cloak room facility to drop all excess baggage, as exploring the museum will be a tiring experience. The 5-floored complex was packed with tourists, a number of whom were international. This was (along with a few in Beijing) one of the only places in China where we saw a large number of international tourists. Otherwise, everything else is packed with swarms of domestic tourists, as I shall recount later.
The museum houses a huge collection of artifacts and exhibits from ancient China (paleolithic period) through its glorious years of progress. Notable galleries included the Gallery of Buddhist Art (which featured a large Indian collection), Gallery of Chinese Calligraphy and Paintings, Gallery of Chinese Coins, Galleries of Sculpture, Ancient Jade, Ceramic, Bronze, and the Gallery of Chinese Minorities, which features artifacts belonging to people except for the Han Chinese. Information was very well presented throughout the museum in English. We spend about 4 hours in the museum and though we ‘touched’ almost every section, you require almost the whole day to do any kind of justice to this place. Even in hindsight, this ranks as one of the best museums I have seen in the world (along with Beijing’s National Museum and the Smithsonian in the USA).
The huge crowds pose a management challenge for the staff manning the museum, and given that the Chinese aren’t known for their civic sense, I think the staff do a fantastic job of managing the museum while remaining courteous at all times. Some of them even managed a few words in English (the front desk of course had English speaking staff). We were one of the last to exit the museum and were dead tired. Now came the number one challenge: finding food! We walked to a nearby mall but found the food to be overpriced. Then we walked to an adjoining street which was packed with people. We stopped at 5-6 roadside restaurants but could not find anything worth consuming in any of them. Chinese food (in China that is, since Indians have a completely different understanding of Chinese food) is more or less nightmarish for anyone who isn’t Chinese. Finally, we found a lovely restaurant that served and chicken and rice based dish that was appealing to our taste buds. It was also very reasonably priced when compared to everything around (around A$4.5 per dish).
The rain started coming down a little heavier, but all we had to do was go back to the underground People’s Sq station. Then began our long journey home which involved one change of train. It took us nearly one hour twenty mins to reach home from there. One of the features about Shanghai, and China in general, is its size. You have to walk literally for kilometers inside the metro stations and transit hubs. No wonder they all weigh 50 kgs.
Anyway, we managed to reach home (the walk from Tangzhen was a killer and we took a wrong turn) and crash in bed for a good night’s sleep.
Day 2- Shanghai: After having another disappointingly light breakfast, we made up our mind to hunt for some breakfast cereal in Shanghai. You’d be surprised to know that finding breakfast cereal in China, even in Shanghai, isn’t an easy task. Anyhow, we took the train to reach a station that was the closest to one of Shanghai’s oldest and most important Buddhist temples, the Jade Buddha temple
The temple has somehow survived the ever present Chinese bulldozer that has more or less demolished all of Shanghai’s old structures to make way for newer projects. It is nestled between modern high rises, and the smallish entrance can be quite misleading. After entering the temple, you enter a very divine atmosphere with both tourists and Buddhists monks co-existing peacefully. The structures are very well maintained, and though not a huge surprise for an Indian who has visited several Buddhist temples, it was remarkably well presented. The actually statues of Buddha carved out of jade is a sight to behold, but unfortunately, photography isn’t permitted in that area.
The two precious jade Buddhist statues are not only rare cultural relics but also porcelain artworks. Both the sitting Buddha and the recumbent Buddha are carved with whole white jade. The sparkling and crystal-clear white jade gives the Buddhas the beauty of sanctity and make them more vivid. In the temple, there is also another recumbent Buddha which is four meters long and was brought from Singapore by the tenth abbot of the temple in 1989. Furthermore, there are many other ancient paintings and Buddhist scriptures distributed in the different halls.
Although the history of the Jade Buddha Temple is not very long, the old-time and classical architectural style makes it unique and inimitable in this modern city. Devajara Hall, Mahavira Hall and the Jade Buddha Tower make up the main structure of the temple and at sides are the Kwan-yin Dian Hall, the Amitabha Dian Hall, the Zen Tang Hall, the Dining-Room and the Recumbent Buddha Hall. The Sitting Buddha is in the Jade Buddha Tower and the Recumbent Buddhas are in the Recumbent Buddha Hall. More than 7,000 Dazang sutras are kept in the Jade Buddha Tower; these are all the inestimable culture relics.
From the temple, we changed several modes of transport to reach Yu Yuan or Yu gardens. Yu Yuan is a famous classical garden located in Anren Jie, Shanghai. It was finished in 1577 by a government officer of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) named Pan Yunduan. Yu in Chinese means pleasing and satisfying, and this garden was specially built for Pan’s parents as a place for them to enjoy a tranquil and happy time in their old age.
It occupies an area of 20,000 square meters (about five acres). There are six main scenic areas here: Sansui Hall, Wanhua Chamber, Dianchun Hall, Huijing Hall, Yuhua Hall and the Inner Garden. Each area features several scenic spots within its borders.
I had never seen something like this. A garden retreat, with streams, rocks, exquisite halls and buildings, ancient Chinese relics, it was almost like a fairyland and one can only imagine what it would be like at its heyday. There were lots and lots of guides tours, which were quite irritating as tour guides in China use a loudspeaker to talk to their groups. We also saw our first group of Indian tourists (Tamils) here as well as many overseas school student groups.
The true treasure of Yu yuan is the exquisite Jade Rock. The rock is 3.3 meters (about 10.8 feet) in height and has 72 holes. What is interesting about this rock is that if you burn a joss stick just below the rock, the smoke floats out from all of the holes. Similarly, when you pour water into the rock from top, the water will flow out from each hole creating a spectacular sight to see. Pan Yunduan was very fond of the exquisite Jade rock, and he built Yuhua Hall facing the rock so it was convenient to sit in the hall and admire it. The furnishings in the hall were made of top grade rosewood of the Ming Dynasty, appearing both natural and graceful.
It took us nearly 3 hours to explore the garden complex before exiting into the vibrant traditional market just outside the complex. It affords great photography opportunities with a great medley of old buildings and colourful tourists haggling the numerous shopkeepers for their wares.Next to the garden entrance is the Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse , once part of the gardens and now one of the most famous teahouses in China, but also very expensive. We just missed visiting the nearby Taoist temple of Town God (Town Deity) as we reached there just a few minutes after they stopped letting fresh visitors in.
We had our late lunch at an overpriced McDonald’s in the vicinity before spending some time exploring the area. From there, we headed to the chic East Nanjing road area, which is Shanghai’s most lively street. It is adjacent to the famous Bund area, which is Shanghai’s picturesque waterfront promenade. We walked along East Nanjing road to reach the Bund, and though it was quite windy and chilly, the sight was one to behold with brilliantly lit European styled buildings adoring our rear and the magnificent skyline of modern Shanghai right across the water. We spent nearly an hour and a half in the area, making the most of the excellent photography opportunities that it afforded before heading back to Tangzhen station.
We were very tired and at Tangzhen, and decided to hire scooter taxis (battery operated light scooters) that dropped us at our doorsteps for RM 5 each! This was a great experience because we couldn’t communicate even a word with the scooter riders, let alone tell them the address, but somehow managed to have them take us home by relying on sign language. These guys did ride like maniacs, showing little regard for the law, but in the end, it was a memorable experience for a very low cost. Important to point out that at least half the riders are women; I rode with a guy and Farnaz (my wife) rode with a woman!
Day 3 – Shanghai: Our host Rina kindly booked us tickets to travel by the high speed train to the nearby garden city of Suzhou, a UNESCO world heritage site. We made our way to the Shanghai-Hongqiao Railway Station and collected our tickets from the counter (they have to be collected from a counter different from the booking counter). As fate would have it, just a few minutes before we were to depart (we were already aboard the train), we realized that we had misplaced some important documents at the station, and had to get off the train some 30 seconds before it departed. After an hour of frantic searching, we managed to retrieve the papers from the station, but it was already too late to go to Suzhou by then (it takes a whole day to visit it and the next available train ticket was at around noon time).
We decided to take it easy for the rest of the day and spent some time exploring the by lanes of Shanghai. In the afternoon, I walked into a local dental clinic. I wanted to make the most of being in a relatively cheaper country. Given that Shanghai has a large expat population, there are many posh dental clinics that cater to them. These are equipped with English speaking staff, but charge rates comparable to an international city such as Sydney. So I decided to try and get a check up and cleaning at this local clinic.
It turned out to be a hilarious and memorable experience. No one in the clinic even spoke a word of English, and I had to explain to them that I want them to do a check up and cleaning + scaling. Google translate was useless in this scenario. The dentists (all the three in the clinic were attending to me not counting the support staff) kept asking me if I have pain. Eventually, after an hour of trying I was able to explain to them what I wanted, and they did an excellent job for a very reasonable price (around $50).
We had dinner at a nearby restaurant (nightmarish, but we were getting used to it). By now, our host Rina had written a small note for us which explained prospective waiters about our dietary preferences. It was hilarious; it said that we want vegetarian food. Eggs of hens were alright in addition to chicken (only legs and breasts, because they eat chicken feet etc.). In most cases, were had to only eat egg-based food. Sometimes, we found something with chicken that did the trick. But overall, it remained a pain. We headed back to our host’s home one last time and had a good sleep. I really needed the rest because my knees were already bearing the brunt of excessive walking. As I mentioned earlier, distances in Shanghai were humongous, and even a relatively relaxed day like today involved 10 km of walking.
Day 4 – Nanjing: We woke up at a leisurely 9 am and prepared ourselves to go to Shanghai’s Hongqiao high speed railway terminal to board our train for Nanjing. Funnily, it took as more time to reach the terminal by metro than it does to reach Nanjing once in the bullet train!
The Hongqiao train terminal is an integrated transport hub which is served by Shanghai’s fabulous metro system as well as numerous buses. It is one of the major high speed train hubs. The complex was massive, beautifully built, modern, and well planned. I don’t have numbers, but it was built to handle tens of millions of passengers daily, without feeling crowded or packed. We treated ourselves to a Subway sandwich before making out way to the terminal area.
Let me give you an example of the exquisite planning. The terminal area is a huge rectangular space on the first floor. Imagine the rectangle is placed in a tall manner (length is more than the width, and placed vertically). Along it’s length are numerous terminal gates, each having a corresponding one on the other side. The trains arrive exactly below and across the rectangle. Therefore, the gates, let’s say gate 2 (A and B, one on each side) serve a train. Depending on your compartment, you go to one of the two gates, ensuring that you are never more than 5 compartments away from yours.
We stood in the serpentine queues for around 20 mins before being allowed to descend to the platform. The crowds were crazy, but well managed. It was a public holiday weekend, and everything around Shanghai gets packed on such occasions. We boarded the train, which left precisely on time. When the train exited the platform, I could see the several high speed lines that converge into the station. If you think about it for a minute, the sheer scale of the investment dawns upon you. I am talking about some 20 high speed tracks converging into one of China’s many high speed terminals. Can’t even begin to describe the investment and effort involved to make even one.
Within a few minutes, we were at 300 km/ph! If you are in the habit of looking outside train windows like I am, it gets tiring very quickly because your eyes are not able to keep up with the pace at which you pass objects. The time when we crossed stations or close objects elicited the most fun because you tend to get an accurate idea of the speed when that happens.
We reached the south Nanjing station in some 1 hour and 15 mins. Nanjing station was again another huge integrated transport hub, not as crowded and fancy as Hongqiao, but about the size of an international airport complex. We took a taxi to reach out hotel, which turned out to be in a dull, uninspiring area. It was raining, which added to the sense of dampness to the room. After lunch, we used the metro to go to one of the busier, older areas of Nanjing, home to the famous Confucius temple of Nanjing.
The Confucius Temple in Nanjing is a place to worship and consecrate Confucius, a great philosopher and educator of ancient China. It is known as Fuzimiao in Chinese. Originally, the temple was constructed in the year of 1034 in the Song Dynasty. It suffered repeated damage and has been rebuilt on several occasions since that time. 1937 was the worst, when it was burnt to the ground by Japanese aggressors. In 1984, the temple was rebuilt under the support of the local government.
The market area was very lively and crowded though it was raining quite a bit. The crowds, as I mentioned earlier, were on account of the long weekend. It was starting to get dark and this temple is a place that is supposedly best visited during twilight. The ticket prices were quite high, and after minutes of vacillating, we were lucky to be told by someone that foreign tourists can pay lesser because they wouldn’t be able to join a guided tour (which is in Mandarin, and is paid for in the full ticket price).
The complex was sprawling, beautiful, and well lit. It afforded lovely photography opportunities, which I made the most of. It consisted of many halls, gardens, small pools and fountains, and other artistic work. There were two outstanding attractions in the inner hall. One was the largest figure of Confucius in China, while the other one was the beautiful collection of 38 vivid panels made of jade, gold and silver, detailing the life of Confucius.
We spent a good three hours inside the complex before wandering around the market. For the first time, we found a stall that was selling some form of barbecued meat, and after much discussion around which animal was it made of, I was able to secure a skewer of barbecued chicken! It tasted better than anything I’d had in China thus far. We were to visit the ruins of the Nanjing city wall tonight, but the rain played spoil sport and we decided to skip it and returned to our hotel after dinner.
Day 5 – Nanjing: We started the day with some oats and fruit, which we had learnt to carry with us by now. You’d be surprised to know, but it is really hard to even find oats or any sort of cereal in China.
We began our day with the Nanjing museum. Covering an area of 12.9 hectares, Nanjing Museum is situated inside the Zhongshan Gate of the city from which it takes its name. It was originally established in 1933, proposed by Mr. Cai Yuanpei (a modern democratic revolutionary and educationist), and now numbers among its extensive collections some 2,000 first class treasures of national and cultural interest. The sprawling complex was probably the best modern, or relatively modern structure that we had seen in China so far. You could feel a sense of grandeur in everything about Nanjing, and you just had to remind yourself that Nanjing was the capital of China for many years to realize why this was the case. In fact Nan means south and Jing means capital, therefore Nanjing means capital of the south (and yes, Bei means north).
We were in the company of at least another hundred thousand visitors, most of whom were domestic tourists. It’s worth pointing out that the number of foreign tourists that we encountered in China remained extremely low. But the Chinese don’t care; they’ve got a huge domestic tourist base, eager to spend more of their freshly earned wealth in exploring new places.
Entry to the museum was free upon producing your passport. However, we had to queue for around 45 mins to get past the security check, which was under equipped to deal with the crowds. The main building, with its two storeys, mainly displays historical items, and is a built in the style similar to an ancient palace of Liao. There are three special exhibition sections:
- The Five Thousand-year Civilization Panorama of the Lower Reaches of Yangtze River
- The Fine Display of Chinese History, People and Culture
- Jiangsu Archaeological Achievements Exhibition
The other notable hall is the the Art Exhibition Hall, having three storeys, and lying to the west of the Basic Hall. It consists of 11 sections in all: 1. Bronze Ware hall, 2. Jade Article hall, 3. Painting hall, 4. Embroidery hall, 5. Pottery Ware hall, 6. Porcelain Ware hall, 7. Lacquer Ware hall, 8. Folklore hall, 9. Modern Arts hall, 10. Calligraphy and Painting hall, 11. Treasure hall.
The collections were all breathtaking if you enjoy history and museums in general. It was going to be hard to beat Shanghai’s museum, but this one was right up there with it too. Really impressive showcase of their history and traditions. Again, the complexes were so large that we spent 3 hours inside and barely glanced at the main attractions. The crowds made me uneasy, and given that we were in China, the crowds were quite noisy and relatively undisciplined.
From the museum, we walked to the remnants of the famous Nanjing city wall. You can see the wall in multiple places, but one of the best preserved gates is very close to the museum. We walked along it for a while before realizing that there was no way to enter/go to the top of the wall and walk on it from where we were. We jumped a few barriers and climbed onto the wall from a prohibited, but deserted area to save time. The wall was huge and left it to one’s imagination as to what it must have been like back in the days. It also afforded great views of the best areas of Nanjing, although the weather was hazy. Cognizant of the time, we took a taxi to make our way to Nanjing’s star attraction, the Xiaoling Mausoleum of Ming Dynasty and Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, which is all part of one mega complex.
We reached the very confusing entrance to the complex were there was all sorts of stalls trying to sell tickets. All of these are organized tours that include bus tickets to ferry you inside the complex, as it is HUGE. Xiaoling Mausoleum of Ming Dynasty (Mingxiaoling) is one of the biggest imperial tombs in China. It lies in the eastern suburbs of Nanjing City at the southern foot of Purple Mountain. Emperor Chengzu, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Queen Ma were buried there.
Construction of the mausoleum began in 1381 and was completed in 1431. In 1384, Queen Ma died and was buried there. Emperor Chengzu had bestowed upon her the title ‘Queen of Xiao Ci’ which means ‘Queen of Filial Piety and Kindness.’ Hence, the name Xiaoling derives from her title.
The mausoleum has two discreet sections: One is the Sacred Way area and the other is the main body of the mausoleum itself. At the entrance to the mausoleum, you will see the Dismounting Archway. As a gesture of deep respect, visitors would discount their horses and sedans at this point. Not far from the entrance is the Tablet Pavilion called Si Fang Cheng. Here a majestic tablet was erected by order of Emperor Zhu Di, the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang, to eulogize his father’s merits and virtues. The tablet is carried by Bixi, a legendary animal in the shape of a tortoise.
Walking northwesterly across the bridge, you will see the winding 1800-meter long Sacred Way. Its middle section runs east-west and is called Shi Xiang Road. It is lined with several pairs of stone sculptured animals guarding the tomb. Each animal is postured differently and each conveys an auspicious meaning. For example, the lions, king of the animals, show the stateliness of the emperors, the camels, symbol of desert and tropical areas, indicate the vast territory of the dynasty and the elephants imply that the policies of the dynasty are to meet the desire of the grass root and the stabilization of the dynasty.
We decided to explore the complex ourselves and walked and walked and walked till we explored around what we realized later to be 1/5th of the complex! I was virtually dead, but we still had to make our way to the Purple mountain which houses Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, which covers an area of 80,000 square meter.
As the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China, it is considered the Holy land of Chinese people both home and abroad. With deep historical significance, magnificent architecture and beautiful scenery, it is a must see when visiting Nanjing.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) was a great forerunner of the Chinese democratic revolution, and led by Dr. Sun, the Chinese people brought down the corrupt rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and ended 2000 years of the feudal monarchy system, leading the people into a new age.
The majestic mausoleum’s construction was started in 1926 and completed in 1929. The whole scenic area represents an alarm bell as seen from the air, symbolizing the noble spirit and heroic efforts of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s devotion to the Chinese people, fight of oppression and wining the independence of the country. Facing south, the structures, along with the mountain ascends gradually along with the central axis line running from south to the north and is regarded as the most outstanding mausoleum in the country’s modern architectural history.
You got to climb a lot to reach a gate with three archways, which you go past to realize that there are another 1000 steps to be climbed to reach the actual mausoleum. The crowds were ridiculous and though we are talking about a huge area, you couldn’t really turn around without running into someone’s selfie stick or disturbing some Chinese tourist during their selfie poses. In the actual complex, there are many chambers that house historical artifacts. The whole tomb is a hemispherical in shape, with the marble coffin of Dr. Sun Yat-sen set in the center of the chamber. His white marble statue rests atop the rectangle coffin, under which this historical giant forever sleeps.
After we finished exploring the mausoleum, we realized that we also had to walk all the way back to find any sort of transport to take us home. The last leg was brutal on my knees and I skipped certain places along the way, often resting outside as Farnaz browsed through them quickly, most notably a palatial home whose name I can’t remember. Farnaz visited it while I feasted on chestnuts, entertaining Chinese tourists with my presence in their land.
We somehow reached the hotel and I had serious doubts about how my knee would react the following morning, when we were to leave for Hangzhou. I checked my pedometer to see that we had walked ~25 km that day.
Day 6 – Hangzhou: Though my legs were still sore, we had a train to catch for Hangzhou, which we did from the same terminal where we first arrived in Nanjing. This time, we took a taxi to the station as I badly wanted to preserve energy. The boarding process was free of any drama, and were were onboard another bullet train headed to Hangzhou. Our co-passenger turned out to be a very interesting, curious Chinese girl, with whom we enjoyed a nice conversation. Again, it barely took as an hour and twenty minutes to reach Hangzhou, another large city to the south of Shanghai.
Known as a picturesque town, we were looking forward to Hangzhou after the hustle bustle of two metropolises, namely Shanghai and Nanjing. Turns out that Hangzhou is also a metropolis, if not a megapolis! We stayed with an AirBnB host in an upcoming suburb of Hangzhou, in a very posh studio apartment. The place afford great views of the neighborhoods, with bullet trains racing along the horizon. Our host owned four apartments in the same complex and rented them out. Each of them was worth at least a million Australian dollars! He knew very little English but was very helpful.
We took the train to go to the center of the city, where we started our morning with a visit to Hefang street, a lively area famous with locals and tourists for food and shopping. It was very crowded, and also extremely malodorous (at that time, we didn’t realize that the almost foul smell emanated from a soy-based food that was being prepared there). We bought some phone covers and a selfie-stick, and continued along the charming, cobbled path to the Hangzhou bell tower. The tower was, again very crowded, but afforded good views of the area. It also had a huge drum (at least 30 feet in diameter) at its middle level. This drum was sounded on important occasions or during festivities conducted at the tower. I suspect it might also have been used to sound an alert to the towns people back in the day.
From the tower, we went to the former residence of Xueyan Hu, a famous merchant and nobleman from the Qing dynasty. It was similar to, but smaller than the Yu gardens in Shanghai. This one was also built around a small pool, with various intricately designed buildings and gardens adoring the periphery of the water body. A notable attraction inside the house was the Huijn Hall, which is a place built for Hu to see opera-like performances.
It was around lunch time when we finished exploring the area, and after the routine struggle to find edible food, we decided to head to Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. Getting there turned out to be a nightmare with no taxis accepting our proposition, and no one able to guide us in terms other public transport options (metro doesn’t go there). It took us an hour and thirty minutes to get there and we were quite tired by the time we did. The lake however, was mesmerizing, and nestled between green, inviting hills. There must have been at least a million people in the region if not more. We also noticed a significant amount of construction work that was in progress in preparation of the G20 summit that Hangzhou was to host later in the year (in fact, it is underway as I write this).
We headed to the famous, and rightfully so, Jingci temple. Originally built in the 10th century, the temple has been demolished and restored several times in the last millennium. It had a great, soothing air to it, which was furthered by the pilgrims and worshipers who were lighting incense sticks and reciting chants in the main temple area. The highlight was the Lotus Sutra, a huge, Buddhist scripture made of silk, holds some 68000 characters in it. From the temple, we headed across the street to the famous Leifeng Pagoda.
It is the oldest colorful bronze Pagoda in China and was constructed during the Taiping Xingguo period in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) by king of the Wuyue kingdom to celebrate the pregnancy of his favorite concubine, Huangfei. Standing on the top of the Pagoda, we could appreciate the nearby Jingci Temple, enjoy the beautiful landscapes of West Lake, and even see the city of Hangzhou from a distance. The basement of the Pagoda housed the remains of the old Pagoda, on top of which the new one was built.
This was the only Pagoda that had lifts to take the tourists right to the top, where one could marvel at the views outside, and marvel at the beautiful paintings on the inside, several at each level. We walked down the Pagoda’s spiraling staircase, appreciating the paintings that adorned each floor. After we reached the base again, we waited for it to be dusk, so that we could see it lit up. At dusk, the colorful evening glow and green mountains are mirrored in the rippling lake, forming a picturesque scene renowned as one of the top ten scenes of West Lake area.
I was almost dead and my knee was extremely painful. We still had to make our way back to our extremely comfortable, but far out hotel room. Thankfully, one English speaking staff member guided us to a bus stop, from where a bus took us to a metro station, from which we knew our way back. We reached our room well past 9 pm, and crashed straight into our beds. A peep at my pedometer suggested that we had walked some 13 kms that day, and my knee was swollen despite me having worn a brace at all times (for those who are wondering what’s wrong with my knee, I’ve had a knee surgery in the past as I suffered serious cartilage damage while playing football in 2009).
Day 7 – Hangzhou: We had oats for breakfast (something of a luxury for us) and planned a better way to get to West Lake. We found a bus which took us there directly, where we begun our day with a visit to another Confucian temple. I had contracted to a slight cold and therefore rested outside while Farnaz explored the interiors. We decided to follow this approach, that is where one of the two of us would explore some of these less important sites to save on entry tickets.
Our agenda for the day was to hike along the hills that surround the West lake. We started with the rainbow crossing bridge area, and then proceeded to the temple of General Yue Fei. From there, we trekked up hill to reach some ancient caves and a tea shop, from where the paths split again. We stayed to our right and explored the magnificent sunrise hill, where many other locals had already reached for meditation and exercise. From there we reached the beautiful Baochu Taoist temple. The temple was built inside several rock faces and entering the various halls required quite a bit of physical effort as there were several stair cases that one had to negotiate.
After lighting some incense sticks, we headed towards the precious stone hill area, which was another scenic region that afforded great views of the lake. It derives its name from the various gigantic rocks and stone boulders perched on it. There were, again, lots of people who were already there, including some over smart teenagers trying to climb the boulders without any gear. One of them got stuck in no mans land, and it took 4 others nearly 30 mins to get him to safety. A mere fall of 15 feet from one of those boulders could be fatal.
We had our lunch, which we had packed in the morning before reaching the lake, at the hill. From there, we could also see the Baochu Pagoda, which was another old Pagoda and our next destination. The Baochu Pagoda was first constructed during the Kaibao Period (968-976) in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The octagonal Baochu Pagodais made of bricks and consists of seven storeys. It is 45.3 meters high, and each side of the lowest storey measures 3.3 meters. The side length of every storey decreases progressively. At the top of it stands an iron finial that is supported by a wooden pedestal. Thus, the tower resembles an octagonal pyramid and a long sword piercing the sky. There were some newly married couples who were getting photographed with the backdrop of this magnificent structure. I wondered how the bride managed to hike her way up wearing 5 inch heels. Being an old Pagoda, we couldn’t enter or scale it, and continued our descent to the lake, passing some old stone reliefs and an old village on the way.
We reached the lake at about 4 pm, and spent another hour exploring previous unexplored ares, before finding an private taxi operator who dropped us to the nearby metro station from where we headed back to our room for an early night, as we had to take a flight to the southern city of Guilin very early the following morning. That will be covered in part 3 of my travelogue.