Sichuan - China

After the “Big Gun” sights of Beijing and Xian, our Imprint tour moved on to Sichuan Province. We had four nights in Sichuan and engaged in four top drawer activities while there.  An early flight departure from Xian was trying but bought us an afternoon activity on our way to the sacred mountain, Emai Shan.  After a spicy Sichuan lunch we boarded a boat on the Minjiang River.  Our waterborne excursion led us to one of those jaw-dropping sights most Americans don’t even know about.  We visited the Leshan Buddha.  Carved from a sandstone cliff, the LB is nothing less than the largest seated Buddha statue in the world.  The Buddha, which faces out over the river, is 1200+ years old and a whopping 230+ feet tall.  His big toes are 5 feet long.  Pilgrims and tourists climbing up, over, and around the Buddha are dwarfed by it's tremendous scale.  We had the perfect vantage from the top deck of our excursion boat. Leaving Leshan behind, we continued to Emei Shan, the Golden Mount. We settled into our hotel and had another spicy meal together before retiring.  The next day we made the long trek (OK, shuttle bus and cable car) up to the top of one of China’s most sacred Buddhist mountains.  ES has been revered by Buddhists for centuries as a place of spiritual enlightenment.  For the first time on the tour, the weather was against us.  It was lightly raining as we departed and dense clouds covered up the views as the shuttle bus wound up the switch back mountain road.  A brisk, uphill walk brought us to the cable car station and we were whisked to the summit in comfort.  At the top our positive tour karma exerted itself and a slight breeze swirled the clouds allowing peekaboo views of the surrounding landscape.  I’m sure on a clear day the views are truly stunning.  But the clear highlight of ES is the tremendous statue of Samantabhadra the crowns the summit.  It is spectacular.  The clouds parted several times for us, revealing the dazzlingly bright, gilt gold statue of Samantabhadra mounted on four immense elephants.  At the foot of the stairs leading to the religious figure are braziers of and for incense.  The faithful buy incense sticks, light them, and place them at the foot of the steps, much like Catholics do when lighting candles in a church.  Tourists mingle with monks and porters.  The porters carried building materials on their backs up, up, up the many steps to the temple.

The following day was had our cultural connection experience for the tour. At Imprint we always try to build in an activity that connects us as genuinely as possible with some everyday locals.  On this tour, we visited a rural Sichuan tea farm and learned about tea cultivation and preparation from the host family.  Another lightly rainy day did nothing to dampen our spirits as we were taken out into the terraces to pick tea leaves.  Then back to the farm to learn about processing and “roasting” the leaves.  A big highlight was the ancient patriarch who insisted on participating in the explanations though he knew not a word of English.  But his passion and pride were evident in any language, and he charmed us thoroughly.  We concluded our visit with a home-cooked meal, one of the best of the tour.  Traveling with Intent!

Our final Sichuan activity was a visit to the famous Panda Breeding and Research center in Chengdu. Chengdu is another Chinese mega-city of multiple millions. But the previous days’ rain had cleared the air, and we again had blue skies and clean air for our visit.  And the visit can only be described with one word (OK, two):  UTTERLY CHARMING!  My personal expectations were not great for the pandas.  It seemed like little more than a zoo visit.  But the Panda Center in Chengdu is a massive operation and one gets to see many pandas in nearly exact natural environments.  Our guide Dennis got us to the park early when the usually somnambulant bears are most active.  We saw very young pandas, full-grown adults chomping happily on bamboo, and adolescents wrestling and climbing trees.  It charmed my socks off.  And as a bonus, the park was crawling with school groups.  Each group marching along two-by-tow in their school uniforms.  Many wanted to engage and use their stock English phrases.  So the morning was vigorously punctuated by cries of “hello”, “how are you?”, and “What is your name?”.  Hand shakes or high fives often followed and the connection greatly enhanced the day’s delight.

We concluded our excellent Sichuan visit with classic Chengu Hot Pot dinner. My lips are still tingling two weeks later.

Yangtze River Cruise - China

The Yangtze River Cruise, offered as an extension to Imprint’s China Tour, was one of those experiences for which I had little expectation.  And while it did not stack up to much else I’ve experienced in China, it was surprisingly fun and pleasant.  We started in Shanghai.  Now that city blew me away!  Shanghai is bursting with a vibrant and youthful energy and is a fitting showpiece for modern China.  The historic Bund waterfront with its 19th century colonial architecture is brilliantly contrasted by the new city across the river.  Our guide informed us that 20 years ago there was nothing there to speak of.  Now it is like a CGI backdrop scene from a Star Wars movie. The pictures posted her are mere hints to the energy one gets from being here.  The scores of skyscrapers put on a light show at night that has your chin scraping the pavement.  And the variety of creative architectural design is as pleasing as it is impressive.  I saw at least 30 new structures in Shanghai that would be signature buildings in most American cities.  

 

 

After our one night in Shanghai it was on to Chongqin in Sichuan. They claim a population of 32 million citizens. Our Shanghai (24 million) guide had told us that the claimed Chongqin number includes the entire region (but it’s not a competition).  We had some free time so we had a meander through the charming old town, a nice dinner, and then boarded our cruise ship, the Yangtze Explorer. For our departure, we gathered on the very nice forward observation deck to view Chongqin’s skyline “wall” of light show skyscrapers (but it’s not a competition).  During the cruise we were to pass many more high-rise, high-tech cities and many new bridges.  All the bridges are architecturally creative and beautiful, and at least one came with performing lights:  lanterns; Chinese figures; even swimming fish!

The Cruise itself was top drawer – large cabins (bigger than many hotel rooms), everything in pristine working order, a full scale theater, meeting rooms, gym, spa, and clinic. The boat offered many interesting activities.  Tai-chi lessons in the morning, other Chinese craft demonstrations, Chinese medicine demonstrations, a reflexology demonstration, and movies shown in the theater. The boat also boasted gorgeous and comfortable public spaces, early and afternoon coffee, great food, sumptuous breakfast buffet, and friendly English-speaking service.

One of the shore excursions, to the Ghost Village (not because it was abandoned, but rather because it is the traditional place where spirits go to enter the underworld) turned into an instant highlight. We stumbled onto the Tomb Sweeping Holiday festival celebration.  It was very colorful and fun for us with costumed characters, Chinese music (not so wonderful), a parade-like procession, and plenty of firecrackers (they do love those noise makers!).  After enjoying the festivities for a while we continued up to the 2000-year old, combination Confucian/Buddhist/Taoist temples above.  Both the gateways and the temples were manned by extraordinarily colorful demons and gods.

Our ship sailed through some dramatic gorges and by very nice scenery. The Wu Gorge was particularly dramatic.  To visit the Lesser Three Gorges (Longmen, Bawu, & Dicui) we transferred to a smaller boat.  More impressive scenery.  Then, for the final gorge, we transferred to boats rowed by 4 men, demonstrating the traditional way of river transport.  Our guide sang local songs and entertained us with anecdotes of river life.

On our last morning we were transferred by bus to visit the great dam itself. It is a very impressive piece of engineering with immense locks, a small boat elevator (9 min vs several hours), and a nice modern visitor center with handy topographical map.  We were then transfer to Yichang where we had lunch in a cave, wandered through the nearby park with nice views and a pavilion or two, and concluded with a visit to the Three Poets Cave.  We then transferred to the airport for our flight on to Beijing to begin the regular tour.  Quite an adventure.

Yangshuo - Guiling Province China

It is said that Guilin is China’s most beautiful province, and Yangshuo is Guilin’s most picturesque town. I’m not altogether sure that is accurate, but Yangshuo was a favorite stop on Imprint’s China Tour, and it certainly is “staged” in some of Guilin’s most dramatic karst landscape.  I say staged, because Yangshuo is greatly developed for tourism (of course) and it is starting to feel like a Hollywood set rather than the sleepy, charming village tucked among karst stacks it once was.  But there is enough charm left and if one ignores the Starbucks, McDonalds, shopping mall, and string of uninspired hotels, it makes for a lovely home base to enjoy the surrounding scenery. To arrive in Guilin, our group endured and early morning for an 8:00AM flight, but the sacrifice paid off in an entire free afternoon. About half the group opted for the classic, bamboo raft excursion down the famed Li River.  OK, the rafts are now engine powered with comfy seats, railings, awning, and the construction merely hints stylistically at bamboo.  But the experience is still marvelous.  I’ve seen karst geography in Thailand and Vietnam, but I have to say the Li River “drift” is the classic karst experience.  I felt like I was gliding through a Chinese watercolor painting as we passed karst mounds and mountains, both dramatic and simple.  A couple of stone villages drifted by and farmers brought their cattle to the river to drink.  Ubiquitous white cranes escorted us for long sections and the cares of the world faded away.

For our tour excursion the following day we all mounted bicycles for a leisurely ride through the “dreamscape” of the valley. The trail was flat and mostly devoid of traffic and I found it almost as relaxing as the Li raft trip.  We pedaled along with views of the river, a large variety of karst features and shapes, and the occasional rice paddy. The sky was blue and the air fresh.  It was the perfect rolling idyll and refreshing to the spirit as well as our pollution-burdened lungs.  We finished our wheeled journey at a countryside cooking school.  First cold beers, and then we had a class in Sichuan cooking.

Summer Palace - Beijing

Early on during our tour of China we made our obligatory foray to the Great Wall. We had arranged to stay in a guesthouse at a section of the wall further out from Beijing and, therefore, less crowded.  The strategy worked perfectly and we found ourselves hiking great stretches of the wall while passing only the occasional other tourists and no tour groups.  The weather was fair and we had a splendid morning.  I’ve previously written about the GW so won’t comment further here.  I’ll let the photos do the talking for me.

As is often the case on a tour, an intermediate stop added to “fill a tour day” turned out to be a real bonus. On our way out of Beijing en route to the GW, we stopped at the Summer Palace.  I’d expected more Forbidden City type architecture and had a slight fear of repetition.  But the SP turned out to be a a pleasant surprise.  The lake-side setting is lovely and residence buildings dot the shoreline, connected by covered walkways and rows of blossoming trees. Courtyard walls sport differently shaped windows, each tastefully painted with a creative image.  Pagodas can be seen on the hillside above, arched bridges and willow trees ad to the Chinese painting feeling, and a Suzhou fishing village and shopping street was recreated on the grounds.

The SP was and is infamous as the primary residence of the Dowager Empress Cixi, aka the Dragon Empress, who enlarged and embellished the complex.  She was a 19th C ruler who wielded tremendous power and intimidation. For example, her advisors tried to warn her of her excesses with an allegory of a boat which depends on the river and must be careful the river doesn’t rise up and overturn it.  Her response: she built a marble boat in the lake to represent her stability and imperviousness to challenge.

As pleasant as the SP was, the best moment of the visit was a spontaneous cultural connection moment. Apparently, retirees from the area like to come to the SP park to engage visitors.  A few have rigged giant calligraphy brushes out of a broomstick, ½ liter water bottle, and a sponge tip.  They write large-scale calligraphy on the pavement, in water.

Then it magically evaporates like disappearing ink.  One fellow in particular engaged our group.  He was overtly friendly and invited us to have a try with his giant water pen.  He wrote messages of welcome, hopes for peace and understanding in the world, and friendship toward America.  It was a perfect cultural exchange of good will.  Two weeks later, on the last night of the tour, several of our group mentioned the experience as one of their tour highlights.  This is why we travel.

Heavenly Huangshan

On my personal travels in China, my last stop before picking up my Imprint Tours group in Shanghai was incomparable Huangshan. Without planning it, I managed to save the best for last.  I know I overuse the word, but WOW.  I think the best way I might describe what Huangshan is like is to say it reminds me of the floating mountains in the movie Avatar.  Huangshan is a mountainous region of eastern China that has been a tourist destination for the Chinese for decades.  In fact, they promote themselves as the Origin of Chinese tourism.  And they are spectacular! Once again, I had wonderful luck with the weather. Guidebooks warn the area gets lots of rain and can be socked in for days on end.  But I had a perfect 24 hours on top with blue skies and clear air.  I flew into the regional hub of Tunxi on a Friday, but arriving too late to get up to the mountains that day.  But I headed up about midday next day, bussing to the support village of Tangkou, catching a shuttle up valley to the cable car station, which whisked me up several hundred feet to the peak area. True to the guidebook description, it was crawling with Chinese tourists.  But as I have often found in my travels, places that are “touristy” and crowded are exactly so for a reason.  And the reason here is obvious.  The mountains of Huangshan are remarkable.  The peaks are jagged, sharp, and splintered to a degree I’ve not seen elsewhere.  Pinnacles and spires of rock, twisted and knarled mountain pines, and the amazing rock formations make this a fairytale landscape to explore.  The peaks have been twisted into fantastical shapes by the forces of nature and the result is breathtaking.  And of course, the Chinese have assigned fanciful names to the various formations.  My favorite was Monkey Praying to the Sea (see featured image at top of this blog) – which does not require too much imagination to see.  Pinnacle with a Paintbrush was less a favorite, but cleverly named.  Big Toe was obvious and truly astonishing, crowded with tourist snapping photographs and selfies like there is no tomorrow.

I got off the cable car about 3:00PM and had a fantastic couple of hours winding my way along well-groomed and railed pathways and through the crowds of Chinese. The infrastructure up here is almost as impressive as the resource.  Steps have been cut into rock faces, secure and well maintined stone railings edge every dangerous section of trail, and hanging walkways provide access virtually everywhere.  The adrenaline was pumping as I pumped photographs and enjoyed the pristine, fresh air (a real treat in China!).  I summited a couple of peaks and stopped at many viewpoints.  I reached my hotel about 5:30, got checked in, and headed out again.  The rays of the late day sun had turned golden and the photogenic peaks, pinnacles, escarpments, and ridges were even more impressive.  I didn’t have to walk far for lovely vistas of golden rocks in the foreground and misty, hazy purple hills stretching out to the background horizon.

The next morning I rose early and headed out for sunrise. It was not spectacular, but it was certainly very nice and I got some nice shots of Monkey Praying to the Sea.  I returned to my hotel for a hot breakfast and then checked out.  I had intended to hike the short route to the 2nd cable car and go down, but I managed to miss the cut-off (apparently) and ended up hiking clear across the summit area and back to my arrival cable car.  No worries, as it was a particularly clear morning, making for many more new, very clear vistas.  It was a spectacular and memorable morning and I had the entire afternoon to make my leisurely way back to Tunxi.

Huashan

Its possible Maia and I saved the best for last. However, I would be very circumspect before declaring anything “the best” in China.  It has been a trip of wonders.  I am ever so pleased with our decision to travel here and I am excited to introduce our first Imprint group to this storied land.  But I digress.  The subject is Huashan, one of Taoism’s sacred mountains.  One can easily see why this place would be considered sacred.  Just its inaccessibility would make it both rare (think rarified air) and the perfect place for ascetics to escape the profane world far below.

Mt Hua (literal translation of Huashan) is actually a cluster of 5 peaks, accessed by two cable cars or stupendous stair-stepped walking paths.  Soaring to 6500+ feet, the mountain is known as "The most precipitous mountain under heaven."  As a sacred mountain to the Taoists, it was also a retreat specializing in martial arts training.  For us, the appeal was spectacular views, steep ascents and descents, and dramatic rock formations.  I’ve already established the principle that the harder it is to get to a sight, the more one appreciates it. That applies here.  Suffice it to say it took the entire morning to get the 90 kilometers to Huashan.  Then we got stung by a stiff entrance price.

But it was all worth it.  Thanks to modern technology, and a handy assist from the redoubtable Austrians, the Chinese have built a cable car, sporting breathtaking views, to whisk visitors up to the lower reaches of Huashan.  The awesomely scenic ride saves countless thousands of steps.  It is dizzying and daunting to look down upon them and know this was the only way up for centuries.

Even after riding the cable up a couple thousand feet, the climb that remains is significantly rigorous. The trail is steep, narrow, vertiginous, and occasionally down right treacherous.  Steps cut into the rock often resemble a ladder more than a staircase.  Iron chains stretching between iron posts add a small sense of security, but one can still see the precipitous drop on one and sometime both sides of the trail.

We trudged up with the chattering Chinese, stopping often for photographing the various and impressive vistas and to catch our breaths. The way up is punctuated with huge rocks to climb, tiny shrines and pavilions, snack huts, and viewing platforms. After a good 45 minutes of up and down (but mostly up) clamoring, one arrives at the real climb.

The ascent gets serious on a razor’s edge of a ridge that goes straight up into the clouds.  Tourists and pilgrims alike trudge up up up onto the sacred mountain, leaving civilization and sometimes clouds below.  We had a relatively clear day.  The perma-haze that seems to be ubiquitous was present, but glimpses of blue sky and occasional sun breaks made for a cheery hiking afternoon.

We summoned up our mental and muscular resources and managed to conquer the steep steps to achieve the lower reaches of the summit. But upon learning we still had hours of climbing to go to reach the second cable car, we opted to turn around and go back the way we’d come.  It was a magnificent day, and more than fitting for Maia’s last day in China.  We had a brief rest in our comfy Xian hotel and then dinner in our favorite restaurant.

Pingyao

After a leisurely second day in Datong, we caught our second night train. We had enjoyed the relative comfort of our hotel until the early afternoon, then retreated to the most remarkable coffee house I’ve ever seen.

Called Maan’s, it is a warehouse-sized building, with 4-5 stories, all beautifully appointed with comfortable stuffed chairs and couches, and thousands of chandeliers.  Featuring espresso drinks, waffles (yeah really), and toast (hot toasted sandwiches), it was a unique experience.  Any time someone enters the entire staff shouts a greeting (we supposed) in unison.  It was certainly a nice place to while away some time and catch up some writing.

Our night train dropped us off at 6AM in a quiet, sleeping Pingyao. Pingyao, Shanxi is China’s best preserved ancient walled town.  Lonely Planet calls it a wander through ancient China. We found a taxi driver who took us to a small café.  It was closed and dark.  But he let us in and called the owner, who showed up in about 10 minutes and proceeded to cheerfully provide us hot coffee and hot breakfast.  Then she offered to keep our bags while we explored the town.  Where else in the world would something like that happen?  Pretty cool.  As we were ready for some sightseeing we departed for nearby Zhangbi.  Zhangbi Underground Castle, as the guidebooks and tourist brochures call it, is really an underground fort.  It is a 1400 year old network of defense tunnels, not unlike Cu Chi in Vietnam.  The tunnel network stretches for over 10 kilometers and is the oldest and longest such fortification in China.  It was built during the Sui dynasty for defense against Tang invaders.  Today only about 5000 feet of tunnels are reinforced and accessible to visitors.  But one descends as deep as 80-85 feet underground to view storage rooms, guardhouses, bedrooms, ambush niches, escape routes, and air holes.  Its pretty interesting.  After surveying the underground network, you emerge at the far end of the tiny village of Zhangbi Cun.  The stroll back through the now deserted village is almost as interesting with tiny temples, stages, and tile-roofed houses.  We had hired a guide -  I think we could have managed the tunnels but I know I would have gotten confused trying to navigate the village.

We returned to Pingyao for lunch with our breakfast patron. Then we went exploring the town. The perfectly walled inner city is a warren of tiny lanes, traditional shop fronts, courtyards, and towers.  It really is charming.  Pagoda-like towers mark the main gates into the fortified center.  Needless to say, it attracts Chinese tourists in hoards.

We were here on a Saturday and the streets were teeming with visitors. It was fun to spend a couple hours wandering the main streets examining all the wares on display.  Maia bought a wallet and purse.  Later in the day we succumbed to the sidewalk touts offering massage.  We opted for the foot soak and massage.  It felt good after our many days of walking, but it was none too gentle and I had to beg for gentleness more than once (eliciting giggles but not much pressure abatement).

The Chinese seem to love big, flashy automated machines that produce treats or foodstuffs that were surely hand-made for centuries. Pingyao boasted several of these.  The mechanisms are kind of fun to watch.  The Chinese also go in for a lot of kitsch.  The big favorite on this Pingyao Saturday seemed to be little yellow birds (I thought they might be Peeps at first), mounted on springy wires with clips that attached to one’s hair.  The effect (with imagination) is a tiny animated little bird nesting in your hair.  We saw lots of them being purchased.  The Chinese also seem to like a lot of noise.  Restaurants blast music or television soundtracks with loudspeakers out front.  People hawk their products with bull horns or other amplified voice projection.  The fascinating part of this is the fact that they all try to overshout one another.  On a given block one might encounter 10 or a dozen competing hawkers blended with 3-4 different versions of amplified music projected out to the street.  It is nothing short of cacophonous. With the automated food machines, silly hats and baby yellow head birds being sold, hawkers selling everything else (loudly), and touts calling for massages, lunch, or drinks, there is a decidedly Disneyesque quality to the otherwise, truly authentic feel of Pingyao.  I’m not sure I would feel compelled to visit here again, but it was fun for a few hours and I’m glad we included it this time around.

Xian

After our day of exploring Pingyao and nearby Zhangbi Underground Fortress we hopped a bullet train to Xian, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. We were tired and gritty (night train, no shower) by the time we arrived at 8PM.  But we instantly liked Xian.  Our hotel was right in the heart of the action, Bell Tower Square.  The Bell Tower itself is quite magnificent, as is the Drum Tower, and they light them both up impressively at night.  The entire area has been redesigned with tasteful deference to the replaced, traditional buildings.  Modern storefronts of KFC, Starbucks, and McDonalds jockey with Chinese chains, flashy clothing stores, and big department stores.  The alley-like lanes between the modern boulevards still retain their aged character.  We checked in, showered, and headed out for late dinner.  We realized we had arrived on Saturday night and the youthful energy was palpable.  We found a memorable “hole in the wall” restaurant, full of locals.  One single dog-eared English menu with outdated items and prices – otherwise, nothing but Xianese.  But the food was plentiful, excellent, and cheap.  The trifecta!

We tried to make an early start of it the following morning, but a groaning breakfast buffet roped us in for a leisurely start. But we eventually headed out for the famed Terra Cotta Warriors (TCW).  Certainly one of China’s top 3-4 sights, both Maia and I were looking forward to this visit.

We were not disappointed.  A couple of efficient bus rides delivered us to the site about an hour east of the city. The now expected extravaganza of Chinese sight entrances welcomed us upon our arrival.  Fountains, statues, conference halls, a theater, the obligatory grandiose entrance gate and countless food stalls represented the gauntlet we were required to navigate to get to the sight.  We were again reminded of how lucky we are to have come in late winter as we walked right up to the scores of ticket takers and turnstiles to walk right in, bypassing hundreds of yards of empty, zig-zagging control lanes.

The facility that the Chinese have built to house, preserve, and display the sight nearly outshines the resource itself. Pit One, the largest of the 3 excavated areas is covered by an aircraft hangar sized roof.  I marveled at the engineering and at the protection provided.  Compared to many developing world destinations, where the “draw” sights are in danger of being loved to death, the Chinese represent a beacon of hope.  I guess it is necessary because the visitor numbers are clearly staggering, here and everywhere in China.

I assume most of you know the story of the TCW, since they were discovered in our lifetimes and made big news even at home. Like the Pharoahs of Egypt, the emperors of China wanted protection and company in the afterlife.  So guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, is this astounding army of life-sized terra cotta soldiers.  There are chariots, horses, generals, foot soldiers, archers, pike-men, and swordsmen, etc.

Estimates go north of 8000 suspected figures in the complex (many “pits” are yet to be excavated).  Dating back almost 1700 years, they were discovered by local farmers digging a well in 1974.  Pit One is impressive primarily for its tremendous scale.

The “hanger” is huge and the rows upon rows of reassembled soldiers is frankly awesome. Pit Two shows what the pits looked like before archeologists did their magic.  Still roofed, this pit displays only a few broken figures.  However, in nicely maintained and illuminated cases, they have displayed 5 figures one can observe up close.  The detail is remarkable and it is while examining these figures one can really appreciate the well-known fact that no two faces are alike.  Wow.  Almost hard to believe.  Pit Three is the smallest and allows closer inspection of a handful of figures and four horses still in their trenches.

Also on site is a very nice museum which houses 2 bronze chariots and a variety of weapons unearthed in a nearby tomb. Another building houses a 360-degree theater that gives a brief overview of the site's history.  There are several important tombs in the area too, but Maia and I were bushed.  So after a quick lunch we grabbed a bus back to town for some afternoon shopping and down time.  We returned to our favorite local restaurant for dinner and called it a day.

Datong

Like our day at Cangyan Shan, our sight-seeing around the northern Chinese city of Datong was very rewarding. We had our first night train from Shijiazhuang to Datong, arriving at 6:45 AM.  The train was about as comfortable as a couchette in Europe, and Chinese trains run spot on to schedule.  We were happy to find our room ready, even at 7:00 AM, in our lovely Datong hotel.  Having made arrangements with our taxi driver to return for us, we indulged in a spectacular buffet breakfast and had rejuvenating hot showers before heading out for the area’s highlights.

Our pleasant, though non-English speaking, driver sped us south to Heng Shan mountain, and the Hanging Monastery. WOW!  No other word for it – wow!  I don’t recall how I learned about this place but it is truly spectacular.  Aptly named, this ancient Buddhist monastery defies gravity, clinging to a steep cliff, half supported by precarious-looking bamboo poles of varying lengths.

The valley itself is rather stunning, the narrow end blocked by a huge dam.  The setting is made even more impressive by spectacular ice falls and a frozen stream below the monastery.  In true Chinese style, very loud (but pleasing) music blares from visitor center loudspeakers.  In this case, it added to the unique ambiance.

A long and steep climb was rewarded with panoramic views up and down the valley and the Indiana Jones-like exploration of the monastery itself. Low railings and the knowledge of what is missing under your feet made it a rather nerve wracking exploration.  But what an experience!  A definite highlight.  We will have to include this in the next Imprint China tour.

After the HM, we made brief stop in the town of Yingxian to see the world’s oldest and tallest wooden pagoda. The Muta tower is over 200 feet high and impressive, though forlorn and weather beaten.  But it was a perfect place for lunch and we had a pleasant encounter with engaging locals and a filling and inexpensive lunch.

Our final stop of the day was the most famous of Datong’s area sights – the Yungang Grottoes. These 5th-century caves have been carved by Buddhist monks, turning a cliff side into a collection of cave-temples.  Numbering 252 caves, and boasting 51,000 statues, it is an impressive collection.  Many are closed for restoration, many more are weather-worn and damaged, but one cannot help but be impressed with the shear grandeur and scale of the place.

Like many “big ticket” sights in China, the entrance infrastructure nearly rivals the resource in terms of grandeur and panache. A huge new visitor center gives way to a massive decorated courtyard, huge statuary, elaborate entrance gates, lines of obelisks, bridges, and even a huge temple complex on stilts in the middle of a frozen artificial lake.  Only after conquering all that does one arrive at the caves themselves.

And the caves are still the star. Huge carved and sometimes brightly painted Buddhas, intricately carved internal pagodas, and Bodhisattvas beg for photos.  Some of the best and most colorful ancient frescoes in China are within.  Many walls are covered with dove-cote like niches, each containing a tiny stone or clay Buddha statue.  Elegant depictions of angels, animals, and birds grace the walls.

It was a fun scavenger hunt peaking in the many caverns to discover their hidden riches.  After a couple hours of exploring and photographing, we braved the ubiquitous gauntlet of souvenir vendors to reach the exit. But not without tarrying just long enough to try some Chinese sweets.  In this case the giant “bubble” waffles cones we’d been seeing quite often.  The perfect sweet ending to a power-packed sightseeing day.

Cangyan Shan

I’ve noticed something in my lifetime of travels. Often, the sights we find most impressive are often not the most famous.  My theory: it has something to do with expectations.  High expectations for famous things (The Great Wall) and lesser or low expectations for less famous sights.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I loved the GW, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.  But those paled in comparison to the things Maia and I saw once we left Beijing.

We were actually advised to skip Cangyan Shan, a hard to reach destination that attracted hordes of Chinese tourists. I guess our travel karma was still strong – and traveling at the tail end of winter in the north probably didn’t hurt.  At any rate, we found CS almost too ourselves after a 2+ hour bullet train ride from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, a 30 minute taxi ride to an out-of-town bus depot, an hour’s bus ride, and a 55 minute hired car ride up into the surrounding Hebei mountains.  I think enduring an ordeal to reach a sight also adds to it's ultimate enjoyment.  The ordeal didn't end at the parking lot as we still had a rigorous climb up hundreds of stone steps.  But the reward was . . . you get the idea.

The combo of low expectations and demanding travel logistics made the CS payout particularly sweet.  And sweet it was!  CS is an ancient palace, built like a bridge across a steep gorge.  It was featured in the Hollywood epic, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".  Our first view was from far below as we climbed the many stone steps.  The palace came gradually into view far above.

After many, many more steps we had passed under the palace where we were treated with a second perspective - from behind, looking out to the great cleft valley below.  A third view was enjoyed from the bridge immediately in front of the palace.  And a final vista from the path that leads away on one side of the gorge rim.  Such a dramatic setting, defying both gravity and our understanding of why the ancients decided to undertake such a demanding building location.  I’m running out of superlatives:  it was stunning, awe-inspiring, breath-taking, and sublime.

Like the best sights, this one proved more interesting and expansive than the one, albeit spectacular, palace. After the obligatory tourist shots from the bridge in front of the palace, we continued up the winding mountain path to find more vistas and more temples.  Every corner seemed to reveal a new highlight.  Snap, snap, snap went our camera shutters.  We ended up climbing much, much higher than CS itself.  Our Great Wall-hardened leg muscles complained a little, but of course it was worth it.  Like the GW, I’ll let the images do the describing.  But it was an amazing day.