Tag: architecture

Lijiang

The Old Town of Lijiang is located on the Lijiang plain at an elevation of 2,400 meters in southwest Yunnan Province, China. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains are to the northwest and this incredibly scenic and snowy range is easily viewed as you take a leisurely stroll through time in the old quarters of Lijiang.  These mountains are the source of much snowmelt that supplies the rivers and springs which water the plain and supply the nearby Heilong Pool (Black Dragon Pond) and the classic canals that wind through the old town of Lijiang .

The Old Town of Lijiang contains 3 main areas and you could easily spend 1-2 days getting lost amidst the cobblestone streets and antique coppersmiths that give this area its characteristic charm. These 3 areas include: Dayan Old Town (including the Black Dragon Pond), Baisha Old Town, and Shuhe Old Town. Dayan Old Town was established in the Ming dynasty as a commercial center and includes the Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office; the Yizi pavilion and the Guabi Tower. Numerous two-storied timber-framed houses combine elements of Han and Zang dynasty architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards, tiled roofs,  and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are built in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements – pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.

Baisha Old Town, though, was established earlier than the Dayan Old Town sector.  Baisha was built during the Song and Yuan dynasties and is located 8km north of the Dayan Old Town. Houses here are arranged on a north-south axis around a central, terraced square. The religious complex includes halls and pavilions containing over 40 paintings dating from the early 13th century, which depict subjects relating to Buddhism, Taoism and the life of the Naxi people, incorporating cultural elements of the Bai people. Together with the Shuhe housing cluster located 4km north-west of Dayan Old Town, these quaint mountain settlements reflect the blend of local cultures, folk customs and traditions over several centuries. You can even see the local tile work depicted on the courtyard floors of the homes representing bats, cats, and other animals thought to scare away local spirits. The local Naxi people still walk barefoot over these intricate tile floorscapes, feeling every ridge and crest of the hand laid tilework in what they call “a free foot massage”.

The colorful village space, the delightful sounds of the water, the outstanding folk art and calligraphy and the old style of the local architecture all make for a very pleasant environment that will leave you with a deep feeling of peace in this gem hidden among the mountains.

 

The Potala Palace

Potala Palace

Built in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama on the site of the surviving Buddhist meditation caves first built by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th Century A.D., the Potala Palace is composed of two parts: the central Red Palace at the top, which is used for religious affairs, and the secular White Palace at the bottom, which houses the  former affairs of government and daily life.  This is something like the White House in Washington D.C.  combined with the Vatican in Rome – the seat of historical religious and political power all in one.

The top of the Potala Palace is 119 meters above the courtyard below and the palace itself contains 1,000 rooms-including assembly halls, government offices, and temples- and has over 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues. Amazingly, the whole structure was fastened together without  steel or nails and was fully constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks using perfectly carved interlocking blocks. At one point in history before the Industrial Revolution, this hand built architectural marvel was the tallest building in the known world.  The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles that glitter in the sun and can be seen miles away.

In almost every chapel, red robed lamas collect donations and sit on a cushions sipping tea and chanting scriptures. Murals and thangkas are illuminated with flickering wax candles and you will see many pilgrims offering butter in thermos containers as offerings to the holy site. The gold-embossed tombs of former religious rulers contain the mummified bodies inside and these are the central attraction of the 1 hour tour that marches from the bottom to the top of the palace and winds through many dimly lit and sacred rooms .

The Potala is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and most Tibetans will try to visit this holy site at least once in their lives. You can find a link to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Map here.

A seven-year $43.9 million renovation of Potala Palace and Norbulingka Summer Palace was completed in August 2009. The aim of the renovation was to foster tourism and promote Tibetan culture.

In August 2006, the number of people allowed to enter the Potala Palace was increased from 1,500 to 2,300 people per day.  Because there are so many people that go through the palace in one day, tour times are scheduled and are limited to one hour once you are inside the palace gates.  This is enough time, but it does not allow for a lot of time to just “float around” and meditate.  So you can expect to be rushed a little and “herded” through crowds in the palace in order to make your time slot.   Your guide (who is required to bet with you for the tour) will schedule in a specific time to enter the Potala Palace, so your day schedule will generally revolve around whatever time your tickets say that you are allowed in.

To see a possible tour itinerary that includes the Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Everest Base Camp check here.

 

Admission Fee

May 1 – Oct. 31: CNY 200
Nov.1 – Apr. 30: CNY 100
Free for children under 1.3m and the elderly above 70 (also free for Tibetans, Mongolians, and Nepalese who practice Tibetan Buddhism)

Ticket Purchase Procedure: Your guide will have to purchase the ticket 1 day in advance before your visit using your original ID card or Passport. Once the ticket is purchased, you will then be given a certificate with your specific visit time to the Potala Palace for the following day’s tour.

 

Tips when visiting the Potala Palace

1. There is no heat inside this ancient building.  So be aware that it can be very cold inside the Potala Palace. It would not be a bad idea to take a coat with you even on the sunny Lhasa summer days.

2. As this is a religious site, it is hard to find an adequate bathroom during your tour. So make sure you try to take care of business before you leave your hotel in Lhasa.  If you do end up finding one of the few bathrooms along the tour, it is said the bathroom at the right side of the White Palace Square is the most beautiful one on earth with an excellent view out onto Lhasa :). Lucky you if you make it here!

3. As we mentioned before, the tour time in the Potala Palace is limited to 1 hour. So don’t dilly dally and make sure you stay close to your guide.  It might be easy to get lost amidst the many steps and the labyrinth of rooms and holy sites if you were separated from your tour guide.

4. Entering the palace is like entering airport security.  You will have to check your bags through a X-Ray machine and lighters and any kind of liquid are forbidden. (You can buy bottles of water inside the palace for about twice as much as they are sold for in Lhasa).

5. The best spot to take pictures of the Potala Palace is Chakpori Hill, across the square from the palace. I highly recommend visiting this place at night because seeing the palace all lit up in the dark is pure magic!

 

Danba

Danba used to be an important stop on the Tea and Horse Caravan that traded Chinese tea for Tibetan salt and horses.  One look at the surrounding terrain and it is not hard to imagine that it must have been a grueling journey to get here with 200 pound backpacks full of tea leaves over the treacherous mountain passes. Even today, to reach Danba you have to travel through almost 100 km of nearly continuous interlinked tunnels that penetrate through the steep cliffs that protect the area. As you pass through these concrete tunnels, remember the coulies who had no shoes on their feet and had to walk the very craggy mountains that you now are driving under. 

Danba county varies greatly in altitude, from peaks that are as high as 5,820 meters to river valleys as low as 1,700 meters. The Big Jinchuan and Small Jinchuan Rivers meet here, marking the beginning of the Dadu River.

The county’s landscape varies a great deal and can change quickly in vertical relief, from the high-altitude snow-capped mountains to the low altitude grasslands and valleys.

Danba is the hometown of Jiarong Tibetans, a small subgroup of Tibetans who are known for residing in the lowest part of the entire Tibetan Plateau.  Because of the relatively low altitude (at 1,893 meters/ 6,211 feet) this is a very isolated and fertile valley.  While many other Tibetans often struggle to eek out a living by herding yaks on the unforgiving, windswept grasslands and alpine tundra at 4,000 meters, the Jiarong Tibetans have the benefit of some of the richest (and warmest) cropland available in all of western China. It is not uncommon to see piles of corn or basketfuls of Sichuan peppercorn adorning the large 4 story stone houses that Danba is so famous for.

Usually distributed along the southern mountain slopes and facing the sun for optimal solar radiation,  the whitewashed homes consist of three or four stories, all made of local stone.  Each of these large castle-like homes houses an extended family and is surprising in its elaborate architecture. The exterior walls of the top floors are usually painted yellow, black, or dark red and  are decorated with the patterns of the heavens and other religious designs. The ground floor is usually used for feeding and bedding livestock, while the upper floors contain the hearth and heart of the home: the kitchen, storeroom, living room, and scripture hall. On the 4 corners of the roof there are 4 white turrets which are used to offer sacrifices  to the local deities thought to govern the nearby hills, trees, rivers and fields. Prayer flags hanging around the houses ripple in the wind, adding more charm and color to the already ripe green and yellow fields of the region.

Outside the handcrafted homes, orchards of apples, pears, peaches and pomegranates adorn the outer pastures of the valley. In the hillside fields villagers plant crops such as highland barley, rapeseed, corn, and potatoes and these crops enjoy a much longer growing season that almost any other part of the Tibetan Plateau.

Claimed as the “most beautiful ethnic village in China” by Chinese National Geographic The Danba Valley is actually divided into several small villages.  While there are a few luxury hotels in the area, most tourists find themselves cozying up in the stone castle-homes of the friendly Jiarong Tibetans for a delightful homestay experience, sometimes even complete with Yak Butter Tea and an ethnic Jiarong dance. The principal villages that you are likely to encounter as a tourist include: Zhonglu 中路, Jiaju 甲居, and Sopo 梭坡. There are entrance fees in each of these places although many times if you get there after 6:00pm you will find the ticket collectors have gone home for the night. Of the three villages, Sopo 梭坡 has the greatest number of watchtowers although Jiaju and Zhonglu certainly see the greatest numbers of visitors.

Jiaju Tibetan Village and Zhonglu Tibetan Village

Lying in the north of Danba, Jiaju Tibetan Village in Niexia town stands out from all the other villages. It is about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the county town and occupies an area of 1,200 acres (486 hectares), with more than 140 families residing here. Generally speaking, a house is owned and occupied  by one just one extended family. Some houses have a more convenient location right in the center of the village while others are farther away from the village gossip and activity. Stepping into the Tibetan homes, you will find yourself in a world of wonder. The walls, beds, and cabinets are all adorned with delightful patterns such as lotuses, trees, rivers, mountains, and lamas in various bright colors,. 

You can spend the whole day wandering around the village and exploring the marvelous interior of local Tibetan homes with beautiful stone and wood work. The entrance fee was 50 RMB as of August 2016, however if you come after 6pm, nobody will be there to charge. There are plenty of houses to sleep in across the village as most villagers are accustomed to housing visitors and showing them local hospitality.  Accommodation prices vary from 40 – 100 RMB per night per person, and homestays may include a freshly cooked local dinner.

Aside from Jiaju Tibetan Village, the Tibetan houses in Zhonglu Town and Badi Town are very famous too. The narrow winding road from Jiaju brings you further into the mountains to Zhonglu, less visited than Jiaju, but equally beautiful. The Zhonglu village is surrounded by forest, so if you are looking for a relaxed nature walk you may find this interesting. 

Both Jiaju and Zhonglu are are authentic and traditional Tibetan villages where you can still find locals picking Sichuan peppercorns in their hand woven baskets or up in a tree picking the fruit from their pear trees.  Jiaju Village is more popular for tourists because it has more houses, while Zhonglu is more secluded and fewer travelers go there.

Suopo Stone Watchtowers (Diaolou)

Suopo has in total 84 watchtowers, the largest concentration in the area, and as such is the best place to see Danba watchtowers. One can view the plethora of towers from across the road or can walk through the village for a closer look. The history of these stone towers dates back to around 2000 years ago. Local Jiarong Tibetans claim that these towers were constructed mainly as a result of battles their ancestors had in defending their local lands and wealth.  Although apparently the towers have also been used as spiritual high places to exorcise unwanted demons and spirits from harassing the Danba Valley. 

Dangling

Located 68 km northwest to the town of Danba, Dangling is a gallery of natural alpine lakes, forest, hot springs, grassland and a perfect hiking destination in Sichuan. Thankfully, it is still a relatively undeveloped and untouched place in Tibetan area of northwest Sichuan. Over 24 mountains here hover over 5,000 meters and many of these still remain unclimbed and unexplored even in 2018.

Whether you go for the nature, the culture, or the architecture, a trip to Danba is surely going to be a trip of a life time and is certainly worth 2-3 days of your travel itinerary.

Qutan Monastery – another incredible day trip!

Qutan Monastery used to house between 400-500 monks. But if you visit it today the monastic staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew of exactly 11 monks who are now in charge of lighting butter lamps and caring for the grounds of this large, holy complex.

Driving from Xining, you can take the G6 highway east towards Ping’An and Lanzhou.
After 44km on the G6 you take the exit for Ledu 乐都 and then get off the freeway ramp into the small, relatively obscure town of Ledu. Ledu in the original Tibetan language means “entrance to the valley” and anyone driving from Lanzhou to Xining must pass this tiny town in order to enter the valley that bisects the large mountains to the north and south of the highway.

Once you have crossed the freeway toll exit and paid your highway toll you immediately take the next right onto the main street of Ledu. After a few kilometers traveling east on this main street you will see a road veer slightly to the right and up a hill with a sign pointing to “Qutan Monastery” and “Qutan Ski Resort”

Take this road and it is about another 20 minute drive to the actual monastery.

This road to the monastery is currently a narrowly badly paved road with a good deal of bumps, potholes, and poorly maintained road repair that winds through a few dusty Tibetan villages to about 8,000 feet in altitude where it drives in front of the monastery. However, as I was driving the road on January 5, 2018 I noticed a good deal of construction and it appears that within the next year the government is planning on building a 4 lane elevated highway to this formerly unknown and remote spot to promote tourism among local Chinese.

After crossing a bridge to the monastery you can park directly in front of the outer courtyard. Unless you are Tibetan or Mongolian, you will need to pay the 50 RMB/person entrance ticket fee for the monastery in the small white tin shack on your right as you enter the monastery.

Once you pay your ticket, you can enter the first courtyard with two large and beautiful temples set among a peaceful environment. During the winter I was practically the only person in the whole monastery complex and we had to ask a monk to unlock a few of the temples which had been bolted shut.

Being one of the few people wondering the temples and the old style stupas made this a very thoughtful and quiet winter experience. The back corners of the monastery were very dark and cold and it felt like no one had set foot there in a few hundred years. And it was certainly one of the cleanest monasteries I have ever been to. Every courtyard and temple was immaculately swept and I did not see a single piece of trash or debris anywhere. I guess the advantage of having such a small staff is that there are not as many people to clean up afterwards.

It would be easy to spend about 2-3 hours meandering around the various halls, temples, courtyards, and stupas of the monastery. Of particular interest are the hand painted Thangkas painted on the back wall of the main temple.

These 7th century artifacts are easily 10 meters high and 10 meters wide and I have actually never seen another Thangka wall painting (not painted on a canvas but directly onto the wood frame of the wall) that was either this big or this original. If nothing else, it would be worthwhile to walk through the temples just to see these incredible pieces of preserved history. Other things of interest in the temples include a giant drum with a 1 meter-diameter leather cow skin stretched over an impressive metal frame. I tapped every so lightly on this skin and it belted out a very deep tone, like the tone of an ancient leviathin rising out of the water from beneath. My mind instantly raced to a time when monks pounded on this monstrous drum and the base vibrations must have shaken and stirred the entire surrounding village with reverence and awe.

If you have a day or a half a day in Xining, I can highly recommend this trip to Qutan Monastery. If you have another 1 hour or so to kill you can drive another 8km up the road (sometimes a little icy in the winter) to Qutan’s smaller sister monastery that has the same small amount of monks taking care of the monastery.
This sister monastery only has 2 temple halls and does not offer much in a divergence from the original Qutan Monastery, so don’t get your hopes up too much here. But the monastery does provide a great view into the high mountains of this valley.

This smaller sister monastery also overlooks the Qutan Ski Resort, which is nothing more than a small bunny-hill type plain with a 5% slope grade where novice Chinese learn to ski. While this “resort” would be an insult to any serious skiiers, the slightly inclined slope looks like a fun place to bring the family in the winter for tubing or just sliding around the snow. With an entrance ticket price of 70 RMB per person this pseudo-ski resort doesn’t offer much in the way of real skiing but could be a nice day trip for families looking to fight off the long wintry “cabin fever” from the chilly winters in Xining at 2,300 meters above sea level. In either case, some may find the gaudy, cheaply built ski resort here as an utter contradiction to the peace and stillness found in both the upper and lower Qutan Monastery complex. I am sure, at the very least, it makes the monks in their red-robed reverence very curious and even cautious about how quickly the world around them is changing.