My favourite temple in Beijing

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I love this temple. It’s one of the most attractive temples I’ve come across in China, and whilst it was quite a close tie between this one and the Temple of Heaven – which I also love but for different reasons – for favourite in Beijing, the Yonghe Temple (also known as Yonghegong or simply the Lama Temple) won out because it is just so lovely. This temple is very well proportioned given the smaller size of the site, cozy (if I’m allowed to use that word for a temple) yet still very impressive with it’s brightly decorated red, gold and blue facades. And did I mention that it’s beautiful?

When you arrive at the main entrance there’s the usual ticket booth and hawkers trying to sell you stuff, but once you are inside the complex there’s an immediate sense of calm as you leave the outside noise behind and walk along the tree-lined path to get to the main gate. As you approach the Hall of the Heavenly Kings with it’s vivd colours vying for your attention, incense smoke drifts towards you, preparing you for the onslaught to the senses that awaits at the first altar.

What I really like about this temple is the entirely different world you step into once you pass it’s gates. Because it is so compact it literally surrounds you. Yes sure, it’s a popular tourist attraction, but visit during the week early in the morning or towards the evening and there’s hardly anyone around, giving you a sense of privacy and serenity which is hard to come by in Beijing. It’s also very touching and humbling to see people praying to the Buddhas, offering incense and other small gifts.

The architecture is an amalgamation of Tibetan and Han Chinese styles. It is one of the most important best preserved Lama monasteries in the country, partly thanks to Premier Zhou Enlai who placed it under protection during the Cultural Revolution.

Yonghe Temple started life as the quarters for the imperial eunuchs in 1694 and was later converted into the court for the price Yong (Yin Zhen) who became Yongzheng Emperor. During the emperor’s reign half of the buildings were turned into a lamasery with the other half remaining part of the imperial palace. After Yongzheng’s death in 1735 the new emperor (Qianlong) in 1744 granted the temple imperial status and had it’s blue tiles (used to signify temples) replaced with the same yellow ones that adorn the royal buildings in the Forbidden City. Since then the monastery has become a residence for Tibetan Buddhist monks as well as the national centre for Lama administration.

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Autumn in the mountains

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I was going through my pictures this evening, wrapped up in 5 layers of clothing and wishing I were somewhere warmer, when I came across a trip I did with 9 other friends on a lovely autumn weekend not so long ago – although it does feel like the days of being able to go outside without a coat and not freeze to death are a rather distant memory…(sigh).

I’d found this place randomly through listening to a Sinica podcast by Popup Chinese in which one of the presenters mentioned that his website Danwei advertises for these guys. They are called the Chen family, and they live out in Chenjia Pucun, a small village about 20 minutes drive from the Badaling section of the Great Wall. If you visit their website called Great Wall Fresh, you can see that the village is conveniently located right at the foothill of a section of mountain which carries an unrestored section of the Great Wall.

Other than being able to visit an absolutely deserted section of the Wall and enjoy the fresh air and great views, what was special about this trip was that I had a friend – Stevie – visiting from the UK, and it was really great to be able to show her a different type of China experience, completely off the beaten path.

I highly recommend this place, probably best in spring or autumn, for a weekend getaway. The prices are very decent, obviously accommodation is also quite basic but some of the rooms do have kang beds which worked surprisingly well (traditional Chinese beds with can be heated from below). The food is local and delicious, and there are several options for getting there. Because there were so many of us, we opted for a private van to drop us off Saturday morning and pick us up Sunday lunchtime. If you feel more adventurous you can take public transport and then ask the Chen family for a ride (for a fee) the rest of the way to the village. All the details are clearly outlined on the website, including phone numbers.

Once we arrived we had just enough time for a stroll to check out the area before a huge lunch was served up out in the courtyard. The food was all fresh and included dishes like chicken and potato, tomato and eggplant, quails eggs, pumpkin and greens. After lunch we decided to break out the water guns for a round of murder, or assassin, as it’s also known (a nerve-racking game that’s been know to last several days when we play it) and go for a hike up to the Wall. It took us about 30 minutes to get to the top and then we spent another half hour or so exploring. There are guided tours by Mr Chen along various sections of the Wall, which we later found out from other people also staying there are well worth the short drive.

After an afternoon of dodging assailants and clambering around we came back to an evening of eating, drinking and card games. There’s a small shop right next door that curiously seems to only stock Baijiu and other forms of Chinese alcohol… (Well, it would have been rude not to support the local economy.)

The next day we had the standard Chinese breakfast consisting of zhou (rice porridge), eggs and mantou (white fluffy chinese ‘bread’) and decided to leave a little earlier than planned as it had started to rain. It was a shame to not be able to do another hike, but on the upside this place is so close to Beijing and everyone had such fun the day before there’s already talk of us all coming back in spring!

Day 4 JingJiang to Shanghai

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Account of my final day on the road from Beijing to Shanghai. In these last few posts I’ve summarized my main observations and occurrence of the day in bullet point form, an idea I shamelessly copied from a friend and fellow blogger Dan Zinn (who, by the way, happens to have just finished an amazing round trip of the US on his Harley Sportster!) So without further ado, after a very standard Chinese breakfast at our hotel in the harbour town of JingJiang, it was time to push on for our last day of riding:

  • Yes! Gonna take the ferry across the Yangtze and our last 200km. Woohoo!
  • So apparently the port at JingJiang is still building ships. Impressive, huge, ships.
  • The first boat that arrived wouldn’t take any on-foot or bike passengers, so we’ll have to wait for the next one. No one seems that surprised, I guess this is normal.
  • After much scuffling and with each man, woman and child for themselves we finally made it onto the ferry for the river crossing. Another first in China!
  • Ah, KFC. That great cornerstone of civilization that marks your proximity to any city that knows its worth; we salute you, Colonel Sanders. (Don’t judge us for having lunch there.)
  • Haha, REALLY cute baby staring at me from the table next to us, probably wondering why I look so funny.
  • Nice wide roads with greenery on either side, now if only we could have less intersections and lights, please.
  • Ok, Shanghai taxi drivers are crazy! Stop swerving into our lane, crazies!!
  • “So, I don’t think we were supposed to take that exit off the highway after all, sorry, my bad.”
  • Yep, we’re definitely lost somewhere in the maze that is Shanghai’s Spaghetti Junction… so close and yet so far.
  • 40 minutes later, still lost. 😦
  • Ok, finally made it out (tempers barely in tact) and almost unexpectedly arrive at our destination; Shimao Hubin in Pudong, where my dad and little bro Tristan live.
  • Cup of coffee and a walk with the dog before it’s time to go out to dinner.
  • My dad’s friend is hosting and he said the first time he met me I was about 6 and too busy to say hello as I was hitting my little brother… sounds about right.
  • Nice evening stroll through Shanghai – I love that it’s so much warmer here right now compared to Beijing.
  • I also love that Chinese people actually use the public spaces that are provided, especially in the early hours and at night. Here people stroll along sidwalks, take pictures with their family and friends and set up impromptu dance sessions. The same space in the UK would be filled with skulking 14 year old emos, drinking White Lightning and smoking fags. (Or maybe not, I actually don’t know what kids get up to these days… maybe I’ll ask Tristan.)

Day 3 LianYunGang to JingJiang

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Continuing the account of our Golden Week road trip from Beijing to Shanghai – day 3 got us off to a bumpin’ start and soon we were entering the Yangze delta, heading for the small harbour town of JingJiang.

  • Good morning! Some soulful music to help soak up the atmosphere in LianYunGang and start our day with. (Check out the video below.)
  • Weddings, weddings everywhere! We’ve had at least six wedding convoys pass us in the last two hours – all black and red shiny cars and red and pink ribbons and flowers – no expenses spared. Golden Week is a popular time for weddings, as all the family can gather together in their home town to attend.
  • Just saw a really extravagant wedding convoy turn off the main road and into a garbage lined dirt road alley way, very odd scene.
  • Please don’t let off fire crackers right on the side of the road, I know it’s a tradition and all, but every time you do I almost fall off the bike.
  • Entering Yangze delta country, very nice, lots of water and bridges and lush green crops.
  • Did we take a wrong turn again? Nope, just a very empty new road alongside a fish farm.
  • Seems to me most of these concrete housing blocks surrounding fields of various crops are left unoccupied after completion… is this a sign of governmental overdevelopment? I thinks so. “Must. Meet. Quotas.”
  • Lunch and bike maintenance in another dusty town. Had some good noodle soup and some very well researched milk tea.
  • The mechanic that tightened the chain for the bike was very nice and didn’t charge us for his time.
  • Entering JingJiang now, right on the Yangze. This place is quite small and it’s clear everything is simply here because of it’s harbour and proximity to Shanghai.
  • Stopping at the first hotel we see by town’s major intersection. Oh look, there’s another wedding going on here!
  • I have to say, these hotel rooms on the whole aren’t bad. In general we try to stick to a budget of around 180 – 250 RMB per night, and once you get out of the major cities you get a decent amount for your money. If you don’t inspect the underside of the toilet seat too closely the rooms generally speaking are quite clean and come with tv and other basic facilities.
  • It’s been a long day and Buck isn’t feeling so well. Noodle soup, Chinese tv and bed for both of us.

Day 2 – Zibo to LianYunGang

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  • Slower going on the back roads, but also much prettier.
  • The back roads around LinYi are gorgeous! Instagram!
  • Stopping for lunch at a dusty roadside “restaurant”, on offer: steamed buns, some veggies and frozen meat from questionable origins – I think we’ll go veggie. Nice people though!
  • Made it to the seaside town of LianYunGang, looking for dinner on the restaurant strip.
  • Walking down the strip and being hailed from both sides is fun for a while… it always baffles me how people can think we managed to get this far without speaking or understanding a lick of chinese.
  • There’s only so many “hullo! lookie lookie” you can take in one day. I’ve now reached my quota.
  • No such thing as a menu here, everything is in large fridges, freezers and tanks, and you’re supposed to point at things you think you would like to eat and also tell them how to make it.
  • Yum, yum, dry hot-pot for dinner – one of the only restaurants that had a menu, which made it a no-brainer and clear winner for us!

Golden Week – road trip from Beijing to Shaghai

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I’ve done several road trips in China on the back of Buck’s bike in these last two years. Many were simply weekend or day trips around the outskirts of Beijing, but I’ve also done two weeklong trips, one to Qingdao and one to Beidaihe. This October holiday Buck and I decided to ride all the way to Shanghai, around 1200km, and then Buck would ride back at the end of the holiday whilst I would hop on the fast train back to Beijing in order to return in a timely fashion.

Because I’ve written about several of these types of trips in detail before – by now you get the picture pretty much of what it’s like to ride as two foreigners on the back roads of China – I thought I’d regale you with this most recent adventure using a slightly different format.

Day 1 – Beijing to Zibo

  • Clear, sunny Saturday, gonna get a good start before the maddening exodus on Sunday – Shanghai, here we come!
  • So… with my nonexistent navigational skills I managed to get us lost pretty much instantly and we’ve been going the wrong way trying to get out of the city for about the last half hour – what a noob.
  • Gaosu Lu (highway), all the way baby! Whoohoo! Ok, NOW Shanghai here we come!!
  • Think I actually fell asleep a few times there, highways are soooo boooring.
  • Ok, getting battered by the wind is not so fun when you’re going 120km/hr… but better make the most of this fast pace before the highway police kick us off.
  • Gas station, gas station, ga- oh look, crossing the Yellow river! Gas station…
  • Uh oh, I think we should have taken that turn the- yep! We’re going the wrong way, again, um…
  • Highway police give us a stern talking to and then kick us off (whatever, we wanted to get off here anyways).
  • Entering Zibo *cough, cough*, apparently this is where the factories make up for lost time while Beijing shuts down for their Golden Week, nice.
  •  Authentic Zibo dinner and beer, good way to end the first day.

The potholes from hell and the heavenly hotel

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The following day it was time to be on our way again. Buck was still feeling the effects of the flu, but we needed three days on the road to get back in time. Before leaving we managed to fit in one more tourist sight – the pagoda on the peer that is featured on the Tsingdao beer label – and then we were once more on the road.

Getting out of Qingdao without using the highway was a bit of a challenge. Again, there was so much new road that the GPS had a bit of a nervous breakdown. Then once we thought we were in the clear we hit around 20km of really bad roads. Let me paint the scene for you (without, of course, any embellishment on my part): Giant, cow-sized potholes – let’s just call them the potholes of death – that made riding at any speed completely impossible, inevitably paired with the reliably impatient 4 x 4 drivers tailgating and honking at us every 5 seconds trying to make us swerve into the potholes of death so that they didn’t have to, topped off with giant trucks thundering past and actually succeeding in making us swerve into the potholes of death. I believe now you have an accurate impression.

On the upside, trusty ‘Mafan’ held up incredibly well! We were both very relieved and slightly surprised once we reached the end of those atrocious roads and nothing had dropped off or caught fire. Unfortunately, because it had been such slow going, we only made around 130 km and had to stay the night in the charm-less town of Pingdu. Riding down the main road at sundown was rather disconcerting. The roads were very much empty – apart from the odd grizzly guy leaning against a building, spitting – everything was covered in a layer of dust and more than half of the businesses were boarded up. We managed to find the least dodgy looking hotel in the area, which wasn’t saying much as the front desk seemed to be just as sketched out at having Westerners stay there, as we were at the prospect of actually stay there (I don’t think they had a license for foreigners). So we made the best of it and got an early night in preparation for the final leg of the journey back home.

Day 6 was spent mostly on the road again, making up for some lost time. The scenery was nicer than the day before, and we were thankful that the roads were back to normal. We managed to make it to Huanghua, a city close to Tianjin before sundown, and checked into a very nice hotel for the bargain rate of 300rmb. Being on a bit of a budget, it was the most we’d spent on accommodation that trip, but it was worth it. The staff were super friendly and seemed to be quite excited to have some foreigners staying, hurriedly informing us that they could make us coffee! (Presumably they don’t get many requests for coffee, and of course, being foreigners we must like the stuff!) They seemed genuinely pleased to have us there, and were asking a lot of questions about why and how we were traveling. It was a lovely experience after a long day, and a great treat to wake up well rested in a soft bed the next day!

The final day of riding went by fairly without incident. After a hearty breakfast – the staff were so pleased we’d braved the Chinese style buffet (which unbeknownst to them was actually the best breakfast spread we’d come across so far) that they brought us toast, fried eggs and coffee – we said our farewells and hit the road with optimistic smiles on our faces. We had to navigate around Tianjin, a major city just south of Beijing, but thankfully it wasn’t as difficult the second time around. Once we actually reached the 6th ring road there was a noticeable difference in how people were driving. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they were driving well, but Beijing drivers really are better than anywhere else I’ve experienced in China so far. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the 2008 Olympics and the general ongoing push to become more “civilized” (that’s not me being condescending, there really are signs everywhere telling people to act more civilized, create civilized environments etc.).

Whatever the reasons, I never thought I’d say so, but it was great to be riding in Beijing again!

Our heavenly hotel

Day 4 – nice day for a white wedding

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This post continues with my account of last year’s motorbike road trip; Beijing – Yantai – Qingdao – Beijing, during the national holiday. (For those newly joining the ride, start with October, October and the posts following that, it will make a lot more sense.)

The next day it was time to move on to Qingdao. At 200 km to the south-west of Yantai it wasn’t too strenuous a journey. The only thing that complicated things a bit was the fact that the whole area seemed to be constantly developing and updating it’s roads, resulting in us getting lost several times as our GPS couldn’t figure out where we were. At one point we ended up on a brand new highway and started to see the all too familiar sight of cars coming towards us in the opposite direction, in our lane. Turns out many of the exits were not yet completed and so once people figured this out they were doing u-turns in their lanes, which was unnecessary, as we managed to reach the end of the road and simply turn around into the correct lane to drive back down again… but hey, why waste time doing things safely, when you can do them recklessly fast instead?

We reached Qingdao by late afternoon and had a few hours of daylight left to explore the city. By this point Buck was starting to fall ill and it soon became very clear that he had caught some form of man flu, and was forced to rest up in the hotel for the remainder of the night. In all seriousness, the stressful few days of driving, plus a dip in dodgy sea water the day before probably had a lot to answer for.

On a lighter note, Qingdao really is quite an interesting city. Granted, I think the beach at Yantai is a little prettier, but the city itself, sharing the same historical fate as Yantai, features a nice blend of colonial German and contemporary Chinese architecture. The pockets of wide streets and German style government buildings, as well as St Michael’s Cathedral and square are reminiscent of any northern European town you might have come across. But like any city of import in China, there’s no denying the machine that is Chinese urban development, which was hard at work all around us. Another pleasant reminder that you are, in fact, in China was that once we arrived at the St Michael’s Cathedral there must have been around 5 or 6 wedding shoots going on at the same time in the square.

I’ve mentioned before about these wedding shoots and how much I love watching them (see the post Let’s go to the seaside!). These couples had obviously hired their suits and dresses from the photography company and were all taking pictures – or waiting their turn for the best spot, the brides sitting on their dresses on the floor –  so that they could have a wedding album with Western wedding pictures and a typical Western backdrop. I think it’s really nice to see how Chinese people have taken a very Western concept and are molding and changing it in order to fit it into their own existing traditions. It makes for a uniquely Chinese wedding custom (or maybe it’s the same for places like Japan, Korea and South East Asia, I don’t know) which I feel reflects the adaptive nature of the people with regards to their social outlooks and traditions.

Beach, beer and… buildings – a day spent in Yantai

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Day 3 of our road trip was spent recovering from the road and discovering the city of Yantai. We’d heard that the beaches of Yantai are much nicer than Tsigdao, and with that in mind, after a relaxed breakfast in a cafe we sought out the beach and proceeded to spend half a day there drinking beers, attempting to fly a kite and generally entertaining the locals with our strange behaviour and appearance. The boys even decided to go for a swim, which I thought was pretty wrong, judging the brownish hue of the sea water, but, boys will be (smelly) boys!

Yantai is definitely worth a stop-over if you are in the area. The beaches are quite nice and the city itself has some interesting architecture. Yantai was not much more than a fishing village up until the late 19th Century, when it became a treaty port for the British. During the early part of the 20th Century when Germany was controlling large parts of Shandong province, Yantai also fell under German rule, only to be handed over to the Japanese after WWI. The result being that the city is made up of a mixture of colonial European and “contemporary” Asian buildings. It has to be said, as with all “restored” architecture in China, everything looks a lot newer than it has any right to look, but nonetheless it is still interesting to see the various styles in a Chinese setting.

Towards the end of the day we made our way up to the highest point in the city where there was a lighthouse and watched the sunset. We found a nice little restaurant for dinner down one of the streets that could have been the main bar street (two pool clubs on one street, had to be) and ended up in one of the two open Chinese bars where we continued our good work of entertaining the locals by playing drinking games.

I suppose you’ve heard of the saying “start the day with beer, end the day with beer”, no…? Actually, I just made that up, but I think it could catch on.

“Oh, I’m sorry, were you driving there?” – day 1 and 2 on the road

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For last October’s national holiday a bunch of us decided to do a weeklong road trip to Yantai and Tsingdao, a 1700 km roundtrip. We were 7 people in total, 5 in a car and Buck and I on trusty Mafan (麻烦). Buck and I set out a day earlier than everyone else to get a head start. It would take us twice as long to get to Yantai – a coastal city close to Tsigndao with a colourful European influenced past – and so we would have to stay on the road one night. Part of the reason it would take us longer is because bikes are not allowed on the highways outside of Beijing. I have no idea why that is, but that suited us fine as highway driving is tedious, and with a bike we could explore the back roads and get a taste of the small towns and cities we passed through.

By the end of our first day we’d done 320 km and were happy to stop over in the nondescript town of Wudi. The ride out of Beijing had been difficult, as it seemed everyone was on their way out of the city. If ever you’ve come to visit Beijing and thought the traffic was a nightmare and that all drivers are suicidal, let me assure you, outside of Beijing there are some truly awful drivers. At the best of times most people consider a motorbike to be nothing more than an inconvenience to be pushed out of whichever lane they happen to be driving in as quickly as possible. However, usually these crazies can be held at bay with the horn and a viscous look from yours truly (sometimes further “encouragement” is needed with a hand gesture). Not so much on the backwater roads surrounding Beijing. Often a car following us would decide our spot was his now (despite the fact that we were following a truck and he’d be going nowhere fast), and would sidle up so close to us that there really was nothing for it but to drop back and let the usurper have his way.

Twice we saw cars coming towards us on a dual carriage way in the wrong lane going against traffic – obviously these people had gotten on at the wrong entrance and it was too much trouble to find an exit, so they simply decided to turn around and get back off the way they came – and  we also passed several serious accidents (wonder why), all of which lead to an exhausting first day.

The second day was much better, getting away from the major cities and their urban sprawl and riding through smaller towns and villages where farmers everywhere were laying out their harvested corn cobs to dry. All surfaces lining the roads were used to lay out the corn, the result being that for miles on end you could see patches of yellow dotting the way ahead.

Beijing Countryside / Sunset

Sunset on the road

Seeing as we’d covered much less distance the day before, we had to make up some time. We ended up riding for 13 hours, the last hour being in the dark (not a fun experience when there are giant trucks thundering past you that do not stop for traffic lights), and finally made the remaining 450 km to Yantai. Happy to have made it in one pice we met up with our friends and indulged in a hearty dinner, which set the world to rights again.

Despite these road horror stories, it has to be said that there are a lot of friendly, reasonable and completely sane people out there. At one point we got lost as we went through what looked like a brand new town, all the road signs had stopped and our gps thought we were in the middle of a field. We saw a car parked up on the side of the road and Buck went over to ask for directions. Not only did the kind family tell us which way to go, they showed us, driving in front of us for 20 minutes to get us back on track. When you stop for food at local restaurants the people are some of the friendliest I’ve come across in China. Everyone is curious to find out why you are in their little town, where you came from and where you are headed, and locals are happy to give you tips about the upcoming roads. All in all this type of traveling leaves behind fond memories of very warm and welcoming exchanges.