Exploring China – Guilin, Xian & Beijing (Part III)

To begin with, if you haven’t read the second post in this China and Korea special, then please do so before reading this one.

Day 8 – Guilin: We took a flight from Hangzou airport, where our hosts kindly dropped us at 6 am to board a domestic flight for Guilin in the south-east corner of China. Guilin was a late addition to our itinerary as it was a fair bit out of the way, but I didn’t want to miss it because it represents quite a significant cultural variation, as much as China permits! Capital of the Guangxi province, Guilin shares a lot of common with north eastern Vietnam, and is best know for the regions UNESCO world heritage designated Karst mountains.

We arrived at around 9 am and headed to the very highly rated Aroma tea house hotel/lodge by the backwaters of the Ronghu lake. The bus ride from the airport, while scenc till the outskirts of Guilin, because frustrating once we entered Guilin’s traffic. The haphazard construction and traffic reminded me of the many touristy cities of India. While China’s overall level of cleanliness impressed us, I must add that most water bodies in China are far from the picturesque ones you imagine in a tourist place. They tend to be muddy at best and outright dirty at worst. This was was the former, but looked more like a canal in Punjab than the back waters of a lake in a world heritage region. A reminder of the immense population pressures China too has had to grapple with. Since we arrived before our check-in time, the hotel offered to store our luggage for us a we set out to explore the nearby lanes and find some food (the hardest part of the day).

Relaxing at the guest house

Someone recommended a traditional noodle house close to our hotel, which we later realized was a little bit of a legend with the locals. It was like the National Dhaba of Bombay (near Bandra station) in Guilin! They start serving food at 6 am and are sold out by 10. They sell a basic type of noodle with a few customizations and toppings to it. Most of the toppings (barring egg, and even that one has to ascertain in China for it might not be a hen’s egg!) were out of bounds for us and so we had relatively plain noodles. We made quite a sight there, first by virtue of being foreign tourists in a very ‘local’ joint, and more importantly with our struggles with chopsticks! In fact, a lady sitting next to us gave us some unsolicited chopstick lessons, and while Farnaz’s technique improved, mine remained the same.

The best value noodles in China

With some food in our tummies, we headed out to explore some of the nearby areas. It was raining, as it does most days in Guilin, and we were therefore confined to the area around the hotel. We managed to get to the Jiefang bridge, one of Guilin’s modest architectural offerings. The rain was pretty heavy now and we went back to our hotel, which allowed us to check in this time around. The room was tastefully decorated and we rested for a while. In the afternoon, after the usual struggle to find food, we headed to the main market and then walked through some of the more touristy (and well maintained) streets till we reached the nearby Fubo hill, which is a large rock/karst formation inside Guilin with a small park around it. There are some natural caves at the basement, which we explored first, and then headed to the top via a precarious, but well maintained pathway + staircase.

It was still drizzling and while that took some of the fun away from the outing, it did add to the charm on top of the hill, which afforded excellent views of Guilin and its unique topography. Since it was raining and we were already wet, we decided to make the most of it and headed to the Guilin National Park, whose entrance wasn’t very far from our hotel.  It was a beautiful, hilly forest area with lots of streams, small water falls and  lookout points peppered around.  The plan was to do a river cruise on the Li river tomorrow to truly enjoy the Karst formations, and we were hoping that the weather would give us a respite by then. The evening was pretty uneventful past that and we just snuggled in our comfortable room hoping that tomorrow would be sunny.

Reliefs in the caves
Guilin from the top of Fubo

Day 9 – Guilin: The weather didn’t improve and the skies were darker than yesterday. This meant that our river cruise plan was jeopardized, and though we were disappointed, we put that aside (you want there to be good weather because the cruise is quite expensive and ordinary in terms of comfort at best) and went to that noodle place for breakfast. For those curious, the basic plate of noodles was 2 yuan, and with a drink (we found a nice Soya milk based drink there) etc., our breakfast costed 10 yuan for the two of us (less than 2 AUD).

Again, we just set out to explore town on foot, as much as we could, including a visit to the Daxu old town area. The Daxu ancient town is situated at the east bank of the Li River, which is 23 km southeast of Guilin City. Daxu is one of the four most famous ancient towns in Guangxi. With a history of more than a thousand years the town features well-preserved architecture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties along with stone-paved streets. Some of the buildings are so old that you might think they are too delicate, but they’re not.

The 2-kilometer street along the riverbank is lined with old residences and stalls. The wooden architectures have decorated eaves, doors, and window frames, which are still homes for the residents.

In the evening, went to another beautiful place in Guilin, the Sun and Moon Pagodas. Named after their golden and silver colors, these pagodas stand erect in the water of central Fir Lake (Shanhu). The Sun Pagoda is the world’s highest bronze pagoda, while the Moon Pagoda is made of colored glaze. From the Moon Pagoda to the Sun Pagoda, there is a 10-meter glass tunnel that links the two under water. When walking through the tunnel, one can see the fish above the head and on both sides.

Sun & Moon pagodas

The night was comfortable and cosy and we pre-arranged a taxi to take us to the airport from where we were to fly to China’s cultural capital, Xian.

Day 10 – Xian: The reference of Xian (pronounced shi an) conjures images of a mystical place ruled by kings, where princes and princesses roam around the royal gardens. But these are literally left to one’s imagination because as soon as we arrived at the airport, we realized that Xian was another metropolis, another symbol of Chinese growth. We had some food at the airport and it was remarkably better than anything we had eaten so far in China. Xian is a huge city, with around 9 million people, and four metro lines. We took a taxi from the airport to our service apartment which was in the hear of the city.

Xian city

We had booked a place through AirBnB and our hosts, two Chinese girls, received us and showed us the space etc. We could stare straight at the burgeoning metropolis from our living room while also being enviably close to the old town area of Xian, which is what we were more interested in. After resting for a bit, we walked around in downtown Xian, finding our way through the maze of branded showrooms and cheap Chinese shops. We walked to reach the iconic drum tower, which is a reminder of Xian’s past glory, when it was the capital of China of 13 imperial dynasties. The city was heavily fortified by a wall and a moat and the drum tower, which along with the nearby bell tower, were used to signify different events. Built by the Ming dynasty, the drum tower, was used to communicate during times of war with people inside the city. In more peaceful times, it is used at sunrise and sunset. We purchased an entrance ticket which allowed us to visit both the drum and the bell towers.

The tower complex sits imperially, perched on a pedestal, still dominating much of the area (even though modern buildings are much taller). The inside had many paintings depicting royal life and the omnipresent Chinese calligraphy. From there we headed to the bell tower, which is similar in someways, but a tad more impressive as a structure. Located at the mouth of the ‘Muslim-quarter’, the bell tower was also constructed during the Ming dynasty, but as a supposed protection against earthquakes (I never quite understood how). There are other mythologies associated with the bell tower’s apparent use and genesis. The inside was similar to the drum tower and you could go a few level high to get a better view of the hustle & bustle of the nearby bazaar.

As mentioned, the bell tower was at where the ‘Muslim-quarter’ began, which is an energetic bazaar area mostly run by Uighur Muslims who, for centuries have called Xian home. They have ended up in Xian (2000+ km from their homeland in the west of China) along with the trading caravans of the past, which trotted through Xian as part of the silk route. Distinctly Central Asian in their culture, these Uighurs of Xian add a different dimension to the city. The bazaar reminded me of the bazaars I had seen in Iran. Traders sold everything from dry fruits to roasted meat and from traditional handicrafts to cell phone covers. We wanted to visit it in the evening, so we decided not to explore it fully just yet, and returned to our apartment after having some lunch. The food, though not quite the same, had a familiar central Asian/Turkic touch to it, and was much more enjoyable than what we had been subject to in our journey so far.

We then headed to the 1400 year old Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (Dàyàn tǎ). Built in the Tang dynasty, this old yet magnificent structure was repaired several times, most recently during the Ming dynasty, and continues to command a certain respect in the eyes of the ordinary Xianese people. A pagoda is a Buddhist place of worship which is slightly different from a Buddhist temple in that a Pagoda is usually also a school of learning and home to scriptures, whereas a temple is more ‘secular’ by nature and is often frequented by non-Buddhists or nominal Buddhists. Inside the pagoda were several important relics. Among them were the figurines (of Buddha) and Sutras bought from India the the Chinese monk-scholar Xuanzang.

The Pagoda

From there, visited the magnificent Xian museum that housed timeless relics from the various periods of imperial China, most of which were centered in Xian.

Xian museum

We returned to the city area in the evening. The bell tower was lit up in all its glory as was the bazaar area. We spent several hours exploring the bazaar and trying different, yet more familiar, eatables. Headed back to the hotel at around 11 pm, as we wanted to rest enough as the next day was to be a long day.

Day 11 – Xian: We had our staple oats + apples for breakfast and headed to the bus terminal to catch a bus to see the world heritage listed museum of Qin, home of the terracotta army. On the way to the bus terminal, we stopped by at a couple of spots that afforded good views of the city wall, including some impressive gates. Public buses get full very quickly as there are scores of people wanting to get on them, all headed for the same place. Most western tourists however (and there were several in Xian), preferred using organized coaches and tours, so our fellow riders were mostly local tourists.

After around an hour’s journey, we reached the museum complex. Alright, so what we had come to see was essentially the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor from around 2000 years ago, and the insanely crafted army of warriors that was meant to protect him in his afterlife. The construction of the tomb was described by historian Sima Qian (145–90 BCE) in his most noted work Shiji, written a century after the mausoleum’s completion. Work on the mausoleum began in 246 BCE soon after Emperor Qin (then aged 13) ascended the throne, and the project eventually involved 700,000 workers. The first artifacts were discovered by farmers in the 1970s and subsequent archaeological work revealed a huge necropolis buried under the ground.

The actual tomb was located in Mount Li, which was a favoured location due to its auspicious geology, “famed for its jade mines, its northern side was rich in gold, and its southern side rich in beautiful jade; the First Emperor, covetous of his fine reputation, therefore chose to be buried there”. Sima Qian wrote that the first emperor was buried with palaces, towers, officials, valuable artifacts and wondrous objects. The tomb itself has not yet been excavated. Archaeological explorations currently concentrate on various sites of the extensive necropolis surrounding the tomb, including the Terracotta Army to the east of the tomb mound. 

The museum complex that showcases the excavations has several sections to it. The ones of the right (west) is where some live excavation work was going on when we visited, but the crown jewel was the one in the center, which had the extensive and familiar terracotta army on display. In addition to the actual site with the extensive terracotta army, the museum also housed some invaluable relics, most notably a couple of amazingly preserved chariots (scaled to the size of the terracotta warriors). The crowd in the museum, and the complex, was maddening and the whole thing was quite an energy draining experience. In hindsight, I’d recommend a guide. In fact, I tried to team up with another couple (so that we could hire a guide for the 4 of us and save money) but that didn’t work out.

Hordes of tourists

It was late afternoon by the time we were done and headed back to Xian. I was quite tired and my knees were still recovering from what they went through in Nanjing. In Xian, we spent most of the evening/night doing street photography, including some of the main gate (in Xian’s wall) which is delightfully lit up. Crashed into our beds after having some dinner.

Xian city wall

Day 12 – Xian-Beijing: Before heading to Xian railway station to board our bullet train to Beijing, we visited the Great Mosque of Xian, located in the Muslim quarter neighborhood that I mentioned earlier. We had to pass through many by lanes to reach it, and once again, the whole affair reminded me of Iran, for even in Tehran or Esfahan, traditional bazaars are built around the main mosque. The mosque was constructed during the Hongwu reign of the Ming dynasty, with further additions during the Qing dynasty.

Overall, the mosque’s architecture combines a traditional Chinese architectural form with Islamic functionality. For example, whereas traditional Chinese buildings align along a north-south axis in accordance with feng shui, the mosque is directed west towards Mecca, while still conforming to the axes of the imperial city. Furthermore, calligraphy in both Chinese and Arabic writing appears throughout the complex, sometimes exhibiting a fusion of styles called Sini, referring to Arabic written in a Chinese-influenced script.

From there, we picked up our bags and headed to the railway station. I was very excited to once again undertake a high-speed train journey, and this one was much longer (approx 1000 km). There are multiple trains that ply this route and I had booked the fastest of them. The boarding process was smooth and impressive and the train left on the mark. The train was almost fully occupied as this is a major route, and enters China’s major industrial zones. In about three minutes after departure, the train was clocking 320 kmp/h!

Next to us was a friendly Chinese girl was who keen to have a conversation and we didn’t disappoint. The whole journey took around 4 hrs 40 mins! In Beijing, we were to stay with my wife Farnaz’s friend, who lives and works in Beijing with her husband. We had an idea where to go, but it took us around 1 1/2 hour to reach a spot where she picked us up from! It was a great and unique feeling to be received by someone in Beijing, and that too my wife’s classmate!

Their apartment was in one of Beijing’s numerous high rise buildings, on the outskirts of the city. It was a posh locality with plenty of expats and knowledge workers. Right outside the complex was a Walmart store. It is funny to look at one in China; an American giant selling Chinese stuff to Chinese people. We spent the evening relaxing with our friends and having some wonderful dinner with their friends.

Our friend’s locality

Day 12 – Beijing: If you think you have seen a large city, think again, unless you’ve seen Beijing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city as large as Beijing, a true megapolis. Delhi, for example, is a huge city, and has one ring road that circumscribes it. Beijing has 4 ring roads around it. Add to it a maze of 8-laned highways and 22 metro lines spread across 370 stations. It can easily take one 4 hours to go from one side of Beijing to another, and not because traffic moves at a snail’s pace, but because of its sheer size.

There was lots to do in Beijing and so we had planned out four days quite meticulously. We headed to the heart of Beijing, Tiananmen Square, famous for the 1989 protests and the police action that followed.  Tiananmen Square sits to the north of Bejing’s most famous landmark, Forbidden city, which is where we were headed. The whole area reeks power, money, and politics. It is the home of the Chinese government and the Politburo of the Communist Party of China. Dotted by a number of imperious buildings on three sides and Forbidden city on the fourth, there are few places on earth that have such a peculiar, even hostile, feel to it. The square contains the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in the square on October 1, 1949; the anniversary of this event is still observed there.

The center of the square was closed for visitors (I think it is permanently closed), so after walking around a bit, we headed to the UNESCO world heritage listed Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is a palace complex in central Beijing;  the former seat of Imperial Chinese Dragon Throne from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912, it now houses the palace museum. The Forbidden City served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years.

When Hongwu Emperor’s son Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, he moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, and construction began in 1406 on what would become the Forbidden City. Construction lasted 14 years and required more than a million workers.[ Material used include whole logs of precious Phoebe zhennan wood found in the jungles of south-western China, and large blocks of marble from quarries near Beijing. The floors of major halls were paved with “golden bricks”(jīnzhuān), specially baked paving bricks from Suzhou.

To enter it, you must pass through a security check and then buy tickets, which require 30-40 mins given the number of people who visit. We entered through the impress Gate of Divide Might. The Forbidden City is rectangular, 961 meters  from north to south and 753 meters  from east to west. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,886 bays of rooms. It was designed to be the center of the ancient, walled city of Beijing. It is enclosed in a larger, walled area called the Imperial City. The Imperial City is, in turn, enclosed by the Inner City; to its south lies the Outer City. The Forbidden City remains important in the civic scheme of Beijing.

The Forbidden City is surrounded by a 7.9 metres high city wall and a 6 metres deep by 52 metres  wide moat.  These walls served as both defensive walls and retaining walls for the palace. At the four corners of the wall sit towers with intricate roofs boasting 72 ridges, reproducing the Pavilion of Prince Teng and the Yellow Crane Pavilion as they appeared in Song dynasty paintings. These towers are the most visible parts of the palace to commoners outside the walls, and much folklore is attached to them. According to one legend, artisans could not put a corner tower back together after it was dismantled for renovations in the early Qing dynasty, and it was only rebuilt after the intervention of carpenter-immortal Lu Ban.

The City is very crowded, and it was a warm day, so we were drained at the end of it. We exited through the other side and continued to a small hillock behind the City called Jingshan Park. It is an imperial park covering 23 hectares  immediately north of the Forbidden City. The focal point is the artificial hill Jingshan, literally Prospect Hill. Formerly a private imperial garden attached to the grounds of the Forbidden City, the grounds were opened to the public in 1928. There were some stone tablets and pavillions inside the park, and the one at the top of the hillock offered tremendous views of the Forbidden City.

Forbidden City from Jinghan Hill

After an hour there, we headed back to find something to eat (our daily struggle in China) and settled on some form of fried rice and egg. Even when ordering egg, conservative eaters like me have to be careful for one doesn’t know which bird the egg belongs to. We returned to our hosts and went out in the evening to explore Bejing’s famous Hutongs or cultural alleys. These small streets give a glimpse of the days gone by and are some sort of a throwback in this modern megapolis. Each street has its own charm, architecturally and historically, and most have them have lots of food stalls on them.

They come to life in the evening and at nights when the locals throng them for food and barbecues. We met with some of our hosts’ expat friends and spend many hours in the hutongs eating and drinking. Though there were barbecues, the only edible food as far as I was concerned were mushrooms! Reached home late as it was a weekend eve and our hosts were relaxed as well. After reaching home, I escaped to the bedroom and slept but the others must have chatted till about 3 am, which showed the next morning.

Day 13 – Beijing: We woke up at a leisurely 9 am and after having some breakfast, headed towards one of Beijing’s star attractions, The Summer Palace. Situated in the Haidian District northwest of Beijing, Summer Palace is 15 kilometers  from the downtown area. Being the largest and most well-preserved royal park in China, it greatly influences Chinese horticulture and landscape with its famous natural views and cultural interests, which also has long been recognized as ‘The Museum of Royal Gardens’.

The construction of Summer Palace started in 1750 as a luxurious royal garden for royal families to rest and entertain. It later became the main residence of royal members in the end of the Qing Dynasty. However, like most of the gardens of Beijing, Summer Palace could not elude the rampages of the Anglo-French Allied Force and was destroyed by fire. It restored in 1888 and the story goes that the Empress Dowager Cixi embezzled navy funds to reconstruct it as a resort in which to spend the rest of her life. The whole complex radiates the natural beauty and the grandeur of royal gardens. Composed mainly of Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan) and Kunming Lake, Summer Palace occupies an area of 300.59 hectares. There are over 3,000 man-made ancient structures which count building space of more than 70,000 square meters, including pavilions, towers, bridges, corridors, etc. It can be divided into four parts: the Court Area, Front and Rear Area of Longevity Hill, and Kunming Lake Area.

17 arches bridge

Farnaz’s love for palaces and gardens is well known and as a result, we spend nearly 6 hours inside this complex, and even then it is hard to say that we did justice to it. The ‘long gallery’, which is a long, intricately decorated passage, and the seventeen arches bridge in the Kumming lake are among the star attractions besides the palace itself. Locals sit along the passage and play checkers, another atavism from the past. From the palace, we headed to another architectural wonder called the Temple of Heaven or Tiāntán.

The Temple of Heaven Park is located in the Chongwen District, Beijing. Originally, this was the place where emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) held the Heaven Worship Ceremony. It is the largest and most representative existing masterpiece among China’s ancient sacrificial buildings. First built in 1420, the 18th year of the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), Temple of Heaven was enlarged and rebuilt during the reigns of the Ming emperor Jiajing and the Qing emperor Qianlong. In 1988, it was opened to the public as a park, showing ancient philosophy, history and religion. Its grand architectural style and profound cultural connotation give an insight into the practices of the ancient Eastern civilization.

Among its many halls, the Palace of Abstinence and the Hall for Prayer of Good Harvest are the most charming and interesting. The weather was perfect for photography, which is a rarity in China given its almost perennially dull and morose sky and I made full use of it. The temple is surrounded by a park, through which we wandered before ending up at a street with some food.

In the evening, we went out to explore the nightlife of Beijing once again, before returning home for some well deserved rest.

Day 14 – Beijing: Today was going to be the icing on the cake, for today we were going to visit the Great Wall of China. There were two options: Badaling and Mutianyu are the two most visited Great Wall sections. Both are well-preserved, and well equipped for visitors’ convenience, but Badaling has the edge, so we decided to go there. Our hosts were kind enough to join us and drive us there. It took us a little over two hours to get there; the roads were surprisingly not that great, considering they led to such a major tourist attraction.

Anyhow, the entrance area was well kept and staff were helpful. There were plenty of other foreign tourists, probably the most we had seen so far.  The entrance area is an anti-climax of sorts because it is a few kilometers from the actual wall; we needed to take a bus from there to the actual wall, which is what we did. So another 30 minutes or so and we were at the foothills of plateau on which stands this extraordinary structure known as the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall, one of the greatest wonders of the world, was listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO in 1987. Just like a gigantic dragon, it winds up and down across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, stretching approximately 21,196 kilometers from east to west of China. With a history of about 2,700 years, some of the Great Wall sections are now in ruins or have disappeared. However, the Great Wall of China is still one of the most appealing attractions all around the world owing to its architectural grandeur and historical significance and the Badaling section is one of the best preserved ones.

The mystery of the construction of the wall is amazing. The construction, which drew heavily on the local resources for construction materials, was carried out in-line with the local conditions under the management of contract and responsibility system. A great army of manpower, composed of soldiers, prisoners and local people, built the wall. The construction result demonstrates the wisdom and tenacity of the Chinese people. Consisting of the wall, beacon towers, and passes, etc, the long-extending Great Wall worked as a complete and solid military defense line in ancient China, protecting the Central Plain from invasions of northern nomadic tribes, often referred to collectively as the Mongols.

The Great Wall is a sight to behold. There are few places on earth that are so awe-inspiring when you stand atop them. Once you ascend to the top and find a good vantage point, you can see the serpentine wall cutting across the rugged terrain. It is hard to believe that humans made this, that too over 2000 yeas ago. The wall was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the last two millennia, with the most significant reinforcements happening during  the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) to defend Beijing against the intrusion of northern Mongolians.

We spent several hours there and explored all the way till we could (in about 1.5 km each way, the passage is blocked and the wall starts to crumble). Don’t let the relatively short distance mislead you. The wall is full of ups and downs and and it is quite tiring to negotiate the slopes, especially the ones that have huge steps (your knees really start to squeal). I did manage to slip on the wall, and though the fall wasn’t too bad, my pocket banged on the edge of a rock when I fell and smashed my cell phone. Our friends decided to take the cable car down to the base, but we walked down and met them near the entrance. We were quite tired. In the evening, I headed to a local electronics market to get my DSLR services and my cell phone fixed. I managed to do the former but LG phones are very uncommon in China so couldn’t fix my phone. I did, however, buy a new Galaxy S6 for a very good price!

We slept late even though we had to leave for the airport in the morning to board our flight across the yellow sea to Seoul, in South Korea. The next morning, we parted ways with our friends and took a flight to Seoul, which I will write about in the final part of this travelogue.


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