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Of Lamas and Birds

Lama Temple's Front Courtyard

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On Sunday, I went to go visit Yonghegong (or the Lama Temple). It is an active Buddhist temple (of the Tibetan variety), so mixed in with all the tourists was a fairly sizable group of people praying at and in each of the “shrines”, which made for an interesting experience. I felt a little awkward running around taking pictures while they were all burning their incense, but there were a bunch of other dopey foreigners there doing the same thing. So, I didn’t feel too guilty. The temple itself was quite impressive. There were several small buildings within the compound that contained little shrines, with statues and altars and whatnot set up. There were also a couple larger buildings that housed enormous statues. The largest statue was about 3 stories tall. I don’t really know enough about Buddhism to be able to say what the significance of all the different statues is, but it was fairly impressive none the less. There were also a couple small exhibit halls, which contained all kinds of miniature Buddhas and sutras, etc.

I had some time to kill after visiting the Lama Temple, so I next went up to the Olympic Park to visit the Bird’s Nest stadium. It’s a very large stadium (currently seating about 80,000  or so). There’s no cost to wander around the outside of it, but I figured it would be more fun to wander around inside. So, I bought a (fairly expensive) ticket and wandered around the inside of the stadium for a bit. You can go just about anywhere within the stadium. They’ll even let you ride a Segway around outside of the main field for the right price. However, the views from the 5th and 6th levels were quite impressive (especially since the weather was cooperating). You can get a nice view of the city from some of the look-out points they’ve made available. They also have an exhibit on the 5th floor that displays some of the instruments and whatnot they used during the opening and closing ceremonies (which I have actually yet to see- though I understand they were quite impressive). And of course, they have the torch. One advantage of the rather steep admission cost was a significant lack of other people in the stadium, so you could get up nice and close with the exhibits (which I did). I didn’t make into the Water Cube (though I did see it). There’s also supposed to be some sort of Olympic Forest that supposed to be pretty interesting. But I was feeling pretty wiped out at that point, so I may return later if I have some free time.

Imperial Vaults and More!

The Long Corridor. When the Emperor made a sacrifice, this hallway would be lined with lanterns.

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Yesterday, I took a quick-ish little trip back to Tiananmen Square to go visit the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. It was fairly impressive. They don’t allow you to bring any bags, cameras, etc. into the Hall, which I think is largely related to the security concerns of running thousands of people through the place everyday. The wait was about an hour, as I worked my way through a rather long and meander line that wound itself around the Square. Just outside the main entrance you could buy flowers to place at the foot of a statue of the former Chairman (I decided to take a pass on this part of the trip). Then you got to enjoy the AC for a few minutes as the line wound through to the back of the building where Mao’s body was on display. It was extremely quiet in this part of the building, especially compared to the general chaos that seems to characterize most public venues here. I personally thought it was kind of creepy to see him just lying there. But then I also realized why many people claim that the body in the casket there isn’t actually Mao (many claim it’s made of wax, etc.). The only thing you could see was his head (the rest of the body was covered in a blanket), and his face had a very orange color to it. The experience was quite fleeting though, as the friendly communist stooges quickly waved me through the line. Once outside the building, there were a few gift shops set up. They mostly sold ornate pictures of Mao and Maoist jewelry. However, I was feeling fairly nauseated by this point, so I just took a quick peek and left.

I also went to visit the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing’s more iconic sites. However, the pollution wasn’t exactly cooperating, so the quality of some of my pictures leaves something to be desired. I actually ended up walking through the park backwards. Typically, the emperor would enter through the south gate and proceed to the Circular Mound, then to the Imperial Vault, then to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. However, I came in the east gate (which also happens to be where the Metro stop is), and so went to the Hall, then the Vault, then the Mound. It was a nice little park. There were also two Cyprus forests on the grounds. Though, I think they may have been man-made, as most of the trees seemed to situated along straight lines.

Before heading back, I took a quick stop at the Pearl Market, located across the street from the Temple of Heaven. It was one of those large market deals, where you can buy nearly anything. The Pearl Market also sells pearls and tends to target foreigners for its customer base. I didn’t buy much (mostly just some panda-themed chopsticks in a rather snazzy box), but it was quite interesting. You bargain for everything, which is kind of neat as long as you know what you’re doing. The general rule of thumb is to not pay more than half of what the original asking price is. So, for my chopsticks: the starting price was 460 yuan, which she immediately cut to 260, which I negotiated down to 80. I also had someone try to sell me a belt. She wanted something like 300 for the belt, but I had zero interest in buying a belt (which she didn’t seem to understand). But it was kind of fun, because without me even doing much, she dropped the price down to 100 before I just took off. I found the trick was to sort of play dumb with the bargaining and then pretend to have no interest in whatever it is you wanted to buy. I also found that the best way to avoid being harassed by the shopkeepers was to simply keep walking (though this strategy was less successful when they tried to grab my arms). All in all, it was an interesting experience. There are several other markets like that in the area (the most famous be the Silk Street Market), but from what I understand, those can be considerably more intense.

 

Of Temples and (Nice) Trains

Shang Dynasty drinking vessels

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Update: In light of yesterday’s train wreck, I am currently re-evaluating my position on the D-Trains.

Our second day in Anyang, we spent some time touring some of the local cultural sites. We first went to the site of Yin Ruins, which are the site of one of the capitals of the Shang Dynasty. The Shang Dynasty is reputed to be the second dynasty (following the Xia Dynasty) in Chinese history, and the oldest dynasty known to exist (the existence of the Xia Dynasty cannot be historically confirmed). In addition to touring the grounds, we also visited the on-site museum which some of the Shell and Bone “manuscripts” (in addition to other artifacts). The Shell and Bone script was frequently carved on the “belly shells” of turtles, and if you look closely in the pictures above, you can see some of the carvings on the shells. The writing is quite small and doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemble to modern character styles, but it’s pretty neat to look at. You can see the evolution of a few characters in this chart.

Next we went to lunch. But on the way, our bus broke down (in the middle of traffic). It was slightly disconcerting being stranded on the side of busy thoroughfare, but after about 30 minutes or so one of our group’s other buses (we had three) came and took us to lunch. I was quite surprised when, after lunch, the formerly broken-down/stranded bus was parked in the restaurant’s parking lot. Apparently, it doesn’t take Chinese mechanics two or three days to fix an engine problem.

After lunch, we went to the Chenghuang Temple to watch a Yang Ge performance. It was something between drum performance and a dance, with the performers all decked out in red, beating on drums and, moving about in a fairly complex fashion. The temple also had some different types of artwork on display (and a few Buddhist shrines), so wandered around those for a bit. The temples had rather graphic visual depictions of hell, which were both intriguing and disturbing. It was a little graphic for my taste, with demons ripping people to pieces and spewing blood everywhere. It wasn’t exactly family friendly.

Finally, we went to go see the Wenfeng Pagoda, which was some sort of ancient Buddhist temple, or something along those lines. There were also two (apparently active) shrines next to the Pagoda. I snapped a few pictures of the statues, but there were people praying and whatnot in the temples, so I tried to tone-down my touristy side.

After wandering about the city for a bit (and a rather tasty dinner- we had, among other things, a blue soup made with laver?), we took the train back to Beijing. Except this time, we took a D-train, which is one of the slower bullet-trains that people are always salivating over. It was much nicer than the T-train. It still took about 4 hours to get to Beijing, but there were no people in the aisles, I had plenty of leg-room, the AC worked, it was clean, and I had a nice soft seat. It was a bit more expensive than the T-train (a ticket was 155 yuan, or about $24), but in my opinion, it was well worth the extra $10. I could comfortably ride a D-train again, while nothing short of a gun to my head would get me on a T-train.