Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Xian: Big Goose Pagoda

Xuan Zang, in front of the Big Goose Pagoda

I woke up the next day to discover it was raining. Hard. Infuriatingly this was the most rain I’d seen in China in my six months here, and I’d left the incredibly expensive raincoat I’d bought in Beijing at home. I set out to catch the bus to the Big Goose Pagoda, assuming that I’d be mobbed by umbrella vendors as soon as I stepped outside the door.

Not so. At the bus stop, I discovered there was no covered area, and of course, whilst I was waiting for my bus, I seemed to see every other bus in Xian come along at least twice. Eventually, the 603 turned up, but I got off at the wrong stop, because foolishly I’d looked at the map of stops and got off at the one that had the picture of the Pagoda next to it.

a slightly sodden temple complex

After accosting a very helpful Chinese lady, I established that I actually had to go another six stops until I got to the Pagoda. Again, I stood shivering in the rain, watching all the other buses go by.

When the bus had finally turned up and I’d managed to alight at the right stop, I realised I had a long trek across a square and down the length of the Pagoda complex until I reached the entrance. Still, torrential downpour and still, no umbrella vendors.
see how far the water has risen up the walls of the pagoda
It was only after a good half mile of soddenness that the long awaited vendor appeared, around the corner from the temple entrance. I could have kissed her, and felt tempted to say that she could easily have charged me five times what she did and would still have thought it a bargain. So, sheltered under my natty silver and purple brolly I went in to explore the complex.
of the many Buddha statues, this one looked chirpiest

The Big Goose Pagoda gets its name from a Buddhist saying: ‘Bury the wild goose, build the pagoda.’ And no, I have no idea what that is actually supposed to mean. Any suggestions are more than welcome!

a very Indian looking elephant

It was built in 652 A.D. to house the Buddhist sutras which had been brought back from India by Xuan Zang, who had taken an extended gap decade or two in which he snuck away from Xian and travelled to India. He eventually returned with said sutras, was forgiven for going and spent the last 19 years of his life translating the sutras with a team of linguistically inclined monks. After he died he became a legendary figure in Chinese culture and a good example to all those inclined to bum around the world.

I loved this dragon relief

I climbed up inside the pagoda, observing the rainswept temple complex. On the way up I noticed an elderly woman leaving an offering of walnuts in front of one of the Buddha statues but on the way down the nuts had gone. Do the staff remove any votive offerings, or had someone purloined Buddha’s walnuts?

a print of a Buddha's feet, displayed inside the Pagoda

There was a very attractive garden area, filled with blossoming trees and statues, but it was far too inclement to give it more than a cursory inspection, although I did manage to get my photo taken in front of the golden lucky Buddha. Fortunately the halls around the pagoda contained lots of beautiful statues and friezes depicting various Buddhas and Xuan Zang’s journey, and there were so few people visiting owing to the terrible weather that often I’d have an entire room to myself to enjoy them in peace.

After visiting the Pagoda I decided to head off for Shaanxi museum, which was only a block away and had the immeasurable benefit of being indoors!
To take a day trip somewhere new, visit My World Tuesday.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Xian: Muslim Quarter

One of the best things about Xian is how compact the centre of it is: from my centrally located hostel it was easy to walk to tourist sites, not something that is possible in most Chinese cities. Until I'd started researching China prior to living here, I was totally unaware that there is a large Muslim population. Islam was brought to China by Arab traders via the Silk Road and southern ports, and there is also a largely Muslimly province, Uighur, in north west China, whose ancestors were Turkic.

It was an easy trot to the Muslim Quarter from my hostel, and once I’d realised that the entrance to the area was hiding behind the Bell Tower, I was strolling down it’s main street, which is lined with stalls selling food and tourist geegaws.

something fruity

I wanted to see the Great Mosque, and followed the signs onto a street where there were numerous stalls selling dried fruit. This isn’t something I’ve seen anywhere else in China, and there was a slight tang of the Middle East in these bright selections of fruit, a reminder that this was the start (or end) of the ancient Silk Road.

decorated archway

Still following the signs, I turned down a little side alley, barely big enough for two people to walk abreast, where houses and shops selling decorative Arabic carvings fronted directly onto the street. It reminded me of the Tangiers street scenes in the Bourne Ultimatum, which I’d watched a few days previously! Next to the mosque entrance was an eclectic selection of shops and stalls, selling a mixture of souvenirs and Islamic garments. A young man on a moped, playing music very loudly, loitered outside a shop offering a selection of pretty headscarves, obviously trying to impress the girls working inside.

Islamic-Chinese garden in spring
Inside, the mosque was more like an Islamic-influenced Chinese garden than anything I’d been expecting. What I thought was the central pagoda, was, in fact, a minaret. Exquisite Chinese style relief carvings intermingled with Arabic writing. Each section of the garden had beautiful blossoms and interesting features, and I took my time peacefully dawdling around it.

the mosque was full of these gorgeous relief carvings
Many of the buildings were in shocking repair though, some literally looking as if they were about to fall apart. Grass and flowers were growing plentifully in the roof tiles of most of the pagodas and gates. It seems a shame that a building so historically important is neglected so badly, especially in contrast with a lot of the Buddhist temples that I’ve seen.

the minaret

That evening I had my first couchsurfing experiment. Couchsurfing is a website that links up people looking for somewhere to stay or someone to meet up with, with people that are willing to host or help them. I’d joined the day before I set of the Xian, and with such last minute planning hadn’t really expected anything to happen. However, I met up with a guy I messaged and luckily we got on very well (i.e., it’s lucky there were no donkeys in the place, otherwise they would have been severely deficient in the hind leg department).

We chatted away over beer and cheesecake, which he magically made appear from the kitchen, thus earning my lifelong approval, for hours. Eventually I retired to bed, tired but full of beer, delicious Western food and exciting plans for the next day.

delapidated roof

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Xian: Terracotta Warriors

Pit 1

I was so excited on the sleeper train to Xi’an that I had trouble sleeping: it seemed so wonderfully improbable that I was on a sleeper train, in China, by myself, going to Xi’an for the weekend. A year ago, I would never have guessed that this is what I would be doing with myself.
I had been a bit apprehensive about booking the cheap, or hard, sleeper, but it was fine: comfortable bunk, clean bed linen, and silence five minutes after we pulled out of the station and everyone settled down to sleep. Or tried too, in my case.

I was immensely confused by the compartment steward coming round, taking our tickets and issuing us with a plastic card, which we then had to swap back at the end of our journey. I think perhaps it might be so that she can check that everyone gets off at the right stop.

Not that I had to worry about missing my stop, as I was woken up two hours before we reached it by vaguely jazzy music being piped through the speakers.

Zooming in on some of the Pit 1 warriors

As soon as I as got off at Xi’an station, I headed off to take a bus to the Terracotta Warrior Museum. I’d seen the Terracotta Warrior exhibition at the British Museum in London in autumn 2007, so I was looking forward to seeing them in situ.
The Terracotta Warriors were funary relics buried with China's First Emperor, to help him rule in the afterlife, and date from about 210 BC.

Cavalry man
However, and whisper this quietly, it was a little bit of a let down. I attempted to watch the film about the warriors, but the projection quality was so poor I left after a few minutes. Walking into Pit 1 and seeing all the warriors lined up was a ‘wow’ moment of recognition, but I was disappointed at how few warriors you could get up close to, because the truly amazing thing about them is how each one is different and how expressive they are.
Kneeling Archer

Remains of the original paint

Close up of his hairdo

There were only five warriors in cases, and even on a week day in low season I had to dodge the tour groups and be a bit pushy to get good views of them. Most people seemed to be on a guided tour, and each tour guide seemed to be trying out squawk the others. I understood why Jehovah wanted to destroy the Tower of Babel.
Emperor's bronze chariot

Pit 2 and 3 are mostly unexcavated. I tried to get some photos of the pits, but the rooms were far too dark. Sceptics might even wonder what is buried under there. Considering the fame and importance of the site, I was disappointed in how badly it was curated. I got the impression that it was a milch cow, and that there was more concern to provide pitches for legions of stalls selling tat outside than there was to provide the visitor with an informative and enjoyable experience.

Luckily for me though, I found the rest of Xi’an much more enjoyable.

I thought these two marionettes were unspeakably disturbing!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Doggone at 798

I'm off to Xi'an for the weekend, so in the meantime I thought I'd leave you in the capable care of this adorable dog that caught my attention in the 798 area. I think he was enjoying himself more than I was!

J is for Juniors

These photos are of my Junior 2 students at their New Year's Eve parties. Junior 2 students are 13-14, and most have quite a basic grasp of English, although there are some who receive outside tutoring who are very good. An average class size is 75 students, and a single period is 40 minutes. I generally play word games with them, as there are so many students that I can't possibly speak to each one during class.
As well as going to school all day Monday to Saturday and Sunday morning, many of the children also take classes in dancing, Beijing opera (below) and music. Their timetables are so intense that few have time for 'hanging out' Western style, but if they do have free they will generally spend in playing computer games obsessively.

These photos are of my most difficult (sorry, should that be 'most challenging') class. I feel that teaching them could be a good preparation for zoo keeping. If I class ever goes well, I feel incredibly accomplished, but more often their behaviour means that between telling them to be quiet, stop throwing things and stop hitting people we normally accomplish half the activities that I do with my other Junior classes.
Some of them don't even mean to behave badly, they just literally cannot control themselves and seem incapable of even sitting in a chair without falling off it. I suspect some of them might have problems like dyslexia or ADD, which are as yet unheard of in China. However, some of them are also just troublemakers happy to take advantage of the fact the school is unwilling to back us up with disciplinary issues.
A little light pyromania anyone? At least I haven't had any of my students try and set fire to their classmates as one of my friends has.

This is one of the students with better English. He is a complete motormouth, but quite a sweet boy underneath it all.

This boy had bought in lollipops for the class and took the responsibility of handing them out very seriously.

Visit other abc wednesdays.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Beijing: 798

798 is a huge disused electrical factory complex that is now an arty mini village filled with galleries, cafes and tattoo parlours. It is my new favourite place in Beijing, and I’m planning on a trip back up at the end of April to see the new exhibitions. Not only is it filled with an eclectic selection of modern Chinese artists, but everyone there is having fun. There’s nothing of the pinched atmospheres I tend to associate with art galleries, just a sense of quiet joy. The people there were a mixture of hip young art students, the Beijing intelligentsia, expats, photographers and art dealers. People watching alone is an entertaining enough reason to go there.

The area is quite far out of the city centre and isn’t talked up in guide books, so there weren’t that many obvious tourists there, which seems a shame. I feel like if you want to get an idea of what China is like, you are much better off coming here rather than trolling around the Summer Palace or Forbidden City. Although perhaps it’s a good thing it’s not popular on the tourist circuit yet, as it means that even on a Saturday afternoon I was the only person in some of the galleries.

these freaked me out so much I had to leave the gallery

You can also take photos inside all the galleries, which means that I have a multitude of pictures that I want to show you. I’ve eventually managed to whittle it down to some of my favourites, although I could have posted about 798 for the rest of the week! Click on the signs to enlarge them so that you can read them. It's well worth the effort as they give an interesting insight to the variety of different opinions Chinese people have about the development of their country.

I liked this violin statue

Work by Wang Jiuliang, from my favourite gallery MR Gallery

Cheng Yuyang's photographs of the Sichuan earthquake, again at MR Gallery.

From the 'Rush to the City' series by Chen Yufei. Many of the rural poor come to the cities as migrant workers, where they work for next to nothing and often have terrible living conditions.
This notice accompanied an exhibition of stereotypically art studenty photos of the Birdsnest Stadium, but it is an interesting contrast to the views above. Note that the years of the Cultural Revolution are completely left out of the narrative.

The factory was so large that it even used to have it’s own station, and there is this preserved steam train with a carriage in the old station. Unsurprisingly, Chinese little boys seem to be as fascinated with steam engines as Western little boys! It is also a popular backdrop for photographs, and I caught this group of hipsters organising their group photo.

The area is kept immaculately clean by a legion of sweepers and litter pickers, and I snapped these two workers having a ponder whilst gazing at the steam train. As I walked around I noticed that several of the street cleaners (who probably work every day of the year for a barely subsistence wage) taking a quick break to look at something interesting, which found it quite heart warming.

To take a day trip somewhere new, visit My World Tuesday.

Monday, 23 March 2009


My Beijing break was badly needed, as I was feeling exhausted, a little lonely, culture starved and wanted to walk down the street and not have anyone stare at me. And it worked. I’m still exhausted as I haven’t slept well for weeks, but am happier even if my cash stack is considerably smaller than it was last week. The highlight of my trip was the amazing 798 gallery area, which merits an entire post to itself tomorrow.

Despite the very irritating man sat next to me on the train who obviously hadn’t thought that or just didn’t care that perhaps not everyone around him would want to listen to the video clips he was playing on his laptop, the train journey to Beijing was uplifting. For the first time that I’ve made the 5.30 to 7.30pm trip, it was during daylight. This gave me an opportunity to stare out of the window at the newly green fields of Hebei. I saw flocks of goats or sheep being tended, people bent over working the land in the sun’s dying hours, children climbing trees and playing exuberant games, clearly revelling the spring time warmth.

We dined at one of our favourite Western eateries, The Den, which is a sports bar that serves pizzas with light crisp bases and succulent cheesy toppings. I adore cheese, but in provincial China it’s almost impossible to find because the vast majority of Chinese people loathe it, so my trips to Beijing normally feature eating as much of it as possible.

Shooters is one of the most popular bars in the Sanlitun area as it sells incredibly cheap shots and cocktails. We had a few rounds of tequila shots, and it was so crowded in there that it was difficult to hold the glass and manoeuvre it to your mouth without spillage. The majority of our evening was actually spent in the street outside, giggling, chatting to people and eating chips from the fish and chip shop that is conveniently opposite Shooters. Chips after a pizza dinner might seem excessive to some, but I was so glad to get something that vaguely tasted like home that I really didn’t care if they live on my hips forever.

I woke up miraculously unhungover on Saturday morning, and on the way to the bus saw an old man airing his caged birds.

When I got off the bus I had about a mile to walk before I got to the 798 area, and on the way I passed this wall. It’s hard to choose which photos to show! I wish that there was more of this street art in China, as cities are blighted by hugely depressing expanses of grey concrete and bleak, dirty walls.

Our Saturday evening was almost a rerun of Friday night, but at another of our favourite restaurants, where I had (among other things) a baked potato with sour cream and cheese.

Sunday was shopping day, and we headed to the Silk Market. This is five floors of densely packed little shops, selling almost anything you could imagine. I needed prescription glasses, a waterproof coat, shoes and a few gifts. You shop by choosing what you want and then bargaining with the vendors to find a mutually acceptable price. You will be shouted at and grabbed by vendors, and during price negotiations they will emotionally blackmail you to agree to a higher price than you should do. However, if you actually take the time to talk to them and they’re not too busy, most of them are very pleasant. Most of them work every day of the year, saving to one day open their own shop.

When I first came here, this way of shopping blew my mind, but now I’m quite used to it, and even enjoy it if I’m in the right mood. I got everything I wanted except for the shoes: none of the vendors would give me a reasonable price for a pair of black ballet pumps so I shall buy those in Shijiazhuang.

One of the most exciting parts of the weekend happened back in Shijiazhuang train station, where I purchased the train ticket that will take me to Xian on Wednesday.