The Hanging Monastery: History, Tolerance and Engineering

The Hanging Monastery: History, Tolerance and Engineering

The Hanging Monastery is an interesting combination of history, religious tolerance and engineering. The monastery was conceived over 1500 years ago, in 491 AD during the Northern Wei dynasty. Supposedly, one man named Liao Ran (了然) built the first iteration of the building, a pretty tall order indeed. As with most historical buildings in China, the Monastery went through a series of renovations and maintenance during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Religious tolerance: One of the more interesting aspects of the temple is that it is home to not one, but three different religions: Buddhism, Taoism and Confuianism. Throughout the complex, you can find some 78 religious sculptures. Sanjiao Hall houses the most impressive sculptures, including a trifecta of statues from all three religions. Why three religions? There are a couple of conflicting stories on why all three religions are represented at the monastery. My taxi driver, who was formerly a history teacher, told me that foreign invaders once conquered the northern area of China and in order to bring about unity among the people, their leader ordered the temple be converted into a religious conclave for all three religions. Another story goes that due to its remote location, travelers often used the monastery as a stopover on their journeys elsewhere. Back in the day, people were weary of staying at a place home to a different religion. Thus it was a practical matter and not one of unity at all. Whatever the case, in this day and age, rampant with prejudices, it’s a prime example of how things ought to be. How did they do that? The real draw to...
Why you should hike Mount Heng in China (Hint: It’s kind of beautiful)

Why you should hike Mount Heng in China (Hint: It’s kind of beautiful)

Fanyin Valley is lush, even in December I’ve hiked all five sacred mountains, but Mount Heng (in the Hunan province, not the one in Shanxi. Confusing, eh?) was where I felt most connected with nature. Not in a hippy type of way, just in a relaxed, listen to the world around you type of way. Or is that hippy? Whatever. Yes, there are stone stairs, but that’s standard in China, especially when hiking a sacred mountain. What makes Mount Heng different is the 4.2 km section near the trailhead that follows the river. Known as Fanyin Valley or Buddhist Sound Valley, this area is filled with pavilions perfect for relaxing and contemplating your experiences in China; like how scorpion tastes surprisingly good and why you have to take at least five selfies with strangers a day. Additionally, there are some cool accoutrement that you can scope out along the way – namely, weird little elephants and scowling masks. A stone at the trailhead describes this area as a “Fairyland”. And you can’t argue with something written in stone… To contemplate some Chinese Poetry At the belly of the mountain, just before the gondola, is the aptly named Rock Passing Poetry Forest. In 1986, at the behest of the Nanyue Administration, over 50 poems were scribbled on the side of some rocks. If you head off the main trail, you can explore all the words of wisdom. Well, you can at least look at them. I don’t understand a lick of Mandarin so I just pretended they were something very deep, like a tattoo on an NBA player that says “Evil Bird Camphor” or “Can-Do. Okay”. There are several sections where the...
Shaolin Kungfu Kids

Shaolin Kungfu Kids

Just 700 meters from the Shaolin Temple, is the Wushu House, a 26,000 square meter Kungfu exhibition center and training complex. Young students, from pre-kindegarten onwards, come here to sleep, eat and train daily. I was lucky enough to see students practicing for an upcoming performance at an off-site lot. What I like most about this picture are the young martial artist’s expressions. The smallest and most serious, was also featured most prominently in the...
Five things you may not have known about the Terracotta warriors (Travel Landmark of the Week)

Five things you may not have known about the Terracotta warriors (Travel Landmark of the Week)

Most people know the basics around the Terracotta warriors: They were replicas of an actual army buried with an emperor and that no two of their faces are the same. But did you know the following? Blacksmiths used Chrome plating technology Some of the weapons found inside the tomb are extremely well-preserved. After testing several of the weapons, scientists concluded that the surface contained a layer of Chromium, about 10 to 15 microns thick. The chromium helped preserve the luster and sharpness of the blade for 2,000 years. Chrome plating was recently invented in the 20th century, however ancient China had developed a similar technique almost 2,000 years ago! The boots reveal the status of the man You know what they say, it’s the shoes that make a man. And in this case, it’s really true. Depending on the angle of a statue’s boot tip, you can tell whether he was lower, middle or upper class. The lower class infantry, for example, have a flat toe, no upward angle what so ever. Archers and middle level officers on the other hand have a slight upward angle at the end of their footwear, whereas generals (pictured below) have a very pronounced, upward curved boot tip, almost like a ski jump. A farmer found the first soldier On March 29th, 1974, local farmer Yang Zhifa along with 5 other farmers from Xi Yang village discovered some pottery fragments of bronze weapons as they were drilling a series of wells in search of water. This lead to the excavation and subsequent discovery of the terracotta warrior army. Due to the incredible scope and value of the find,...
Descend Sparrow Hawk Flipping Over on Mount Hua (travel experience of the week)

Descend Sparrow Hawk Flipping Over on Mount Hua (travel experience of the week)

Your sweaty hands tightly grip the rusty metal chains.   You wedge your right foot into a small 4 in. deep cubby hole on the cliff face. The left foot dangles freely and paws at the wall, searching. Unfortunately, the steep angle of decent makes it impossible to get a visual on your left foot’s next landing pad.   You find it. Surprisingly, it’s off to the right side of your right foot, making your legs criss-cross each other.   Continue this way for another 15 meters, flailing and prodding blindly for the next recess chiseled into the mountain. As the path snakes and almost “flips” over on itself, you’re not sure where you’ll land if you fall. Thank God you’re wearing a safety harness.   Finally you reach the bottom.   Congratulations, you’ve just conquered Sparrow Hawk Flipping Over. Now go collect your reward – a sweeping view of jaunty mountains atop a lonely chess pavilion. How much does it cost, How to get there, Safety: Sparrow Hawk Flipping Over is a steep rock face on the East Peak of Mount Hua. The trail was dangerous in the past, however with the recent addition of a safety harness, it’s become much less so. Entry into the park costs 180 Yuan, or 90 with a student ID. The harness costs 30 yuan and if you want a picture, tack on an extra 20 spot. High speed trains depart 12 times a day from Xian North station and cost 35 Yuan (42 minutes). A 20 minute taxi ride from the town’s train station to the mountain is between 20 and 30 Yuan. What...
Sunset Rider in old town Datong (Travel Photo of the Week)

Sunset Rider in old town Datong (Travel Photo of the Week)

In the middle of old town Datong is this massive, open courtyard. Earlier in the day I had seen a bunch of old Chinese guys rollerblading around the square. After that, I knew there was a picture there somewhere, so I returned at sunset to see what I could capture. Unfortunately, the locals had deserted the square. What was once bustling, was not now desolate. I walked to the back of the square and found some really interesting old school style buildings. Really, they are not old at all. The entire downtown area is being restored to the tune of 50 million yuan, but the design and style of them were perfect for a well framed subject. I just had to wait for someone to come into the frame to make it interesting. After about 15 minutes, a moped rider transporting his wares came zipping through. I was trying to capture the weird feeling of isolation you can have inside a place that is normally...
The Yungang Grottoes will take you back in time (Travel Landmark of the Week IV)

The Yungang Grottoes will take you back in time (Travel Landmark of the Week IV)

Datong is a coal mining town – smokey, hardworking and practical. In stark contrast to the city’s rough and dirty exterior, quietly sits the Yungang grottoes. In case you need a reminder though of what pays the bills around these parts, a coal refinery sits squatly on the exterior of the cave complex, billowing out its modern-day smoke made from ancient animals. When you arrive at the cave complex, notice how everything either glistens like new, or is beautifully dull due to its old age. Let your self drift. Once you make it past a weird metal tree, pillars of elephants and a renovated temple, put the modern world behind you and allow yourself to be transported back to 460 AD.  51,000 statues were painstakingly carved here during the 5th and 6th century. Some are the size of matchbox cars. Others the size of Semi-trucks.  And some look like ET. Time has taken its toll, but for being over 1500 years old, these guys are in pretty good shape. Well, this guy definitely is past his prime. And some are so cool, that they won’t even let you photograph them. Make sure to check out cave number 5, which holds the largest Buddha in the complex at 17 meters, and 6, which is known as the Indiana Jones cave due to its plethora of Buddhist Angels. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed, but here is a picture of the wooden structure built around them to give you a sense of the scale. Practicals: How to get there: Take bus 4 to the end of the line and then cross the road...
Bike the Xian City Wall: Travel Experience of the Week

Bike the Xian City Wall: Travel Experience of the Week

What do a perfectly engineered kill zone and a bicycle built for two have in common? Answer: You can find them both on the Xian City wall. Well, let me be more precise. The kill zones are actually outside the wall. Ramparts, or defensive protrusions, are positioned every 120 meters along the perimeter. Each rampart is 60 meters from the crossfire point, which is just within the range of throwing weapons and firearms like crossbows and bows (the wall features 24 watch towers erected on top of the ramparts). Which brings me to my next point, never get involved in a land war in Asia! But you already knew that, right? As for the bicycle built for two, the entire wall has a perimeter of about 14 kilometers. It is 10 to 12 meters high and 12 to 14 meters wide at the top, giving you plenty of room to ride that bike built for two without fear of hitting a rampart or fellow bikers. The city wall didn’t start out looking soooo good. It took years of engineering and a couple of different dynasties before it achieved its present glory. 2,000 years ago, when the city was known as Chang’an it started as just mounds of rammed earth. The extant wall was built in the third to eleventh year of the Sui Tang dynasty (1370 AD to 1378). If you fancy seeing the wall, but don’t really feel like paying the dough to get inside, the outside of the wall features some green areas, occasional ping-pong tables and tai chi dancing as well. Particulars: How much does it cost: 40 Yuan...
Travel Photo of the Week: Phanar Greek Orthodox College

Travel Photo of the Week: Phanar Greek Orthodox College

Istanbul has a storied history of religious changeovers (remember Istanbul was at one point Constantinople). So it’s fitting that the city has embraced religious tolerance for the last 500 years. The Phanar Greek Orthodox College draws its roots from 550 years ago. The school was original built in 1454 under the decree of Mehmed II so Greeks could have their own Orthodox school (in their own language) within the predominate Muslim city. Konstantin Dimadis built the current school in 1881. Konstantin sourced the signature red bricks all the way from France. Phanar College has a height of 40 meters and an area of over 3,000 square meters. Supposedly, if you look at it from above, it looks like an eagle. Phanar is off the tourist track and can be found close to St. Stephan’s church. You can find more of “off the beaten track” Istanbul...
Travel Landmark of the Week: Lama Temple

Travel Landmark of the Week: Lama Temple

What is it: Back in the day (1694), court eunuchs resided in the original complex of the Lama Temple and served the emperor of the Forbidden city. Interestingly, other than not having, ahem, some of the anatomy of fellow-men, eunuchs didn’t have it all that bad. Think of the most privileged of the bunch as Varys from Game of Thrones. They ran the daily operations of the imperial court, in various capacities, from 220 BC to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. They also vied for power with military officials and other politicians. Some even chose the profession to escape the clutches of poverty. A “small” price to pay for the possibility of wealth and power. Eventually, Prince Yongzheng heir to the imperial throne, took up residence here. After his accession in 1722, half of the temple was turned into a lamasery and the entire complex was converted in 1744. Of particular note in the temples are the three statues of the Buddhas of the Three Ages (pictured above) and a 26m tall White Sandalwood statue of the Maitreya Buddha. How to pray: Today, tourists and faithful alike visit the temple. Upon entering the complex, the smell of incense may already be noticeable. If you want to have your prayers heard, there is a very specific way of doing it. The number three plays in important role in the ritual. Basically, you have to light three incense sticks and bow three times in all four directions, but that is a definite oversimplification. An extensive article on the subject can be found here. But ladies, be forewarned, there are certain “times” of the month when your prayers will not be heard. The following excerpt was taken from Theworldofchinese.com (the source of the link above). Menstruation: For some reason, praying while having your...
Travel Experience of the Week: Dumpling class Beijing

Travel Experience of the Week: Dumpling class Beijing

Ah, Dumplings – my default food of choice in China. If I am unsure what to eat for dinner, dumplings are there to rescue me. Until now, I haven’t met one I don’t like. In fact, after 20 days in China, I would consider myself a pro at eating them (if you can be a pro at eating something. Wait professional eating is a thing, right?) I do not, however, consider myself a pro at making them. For how small and innocent they look, they sure do require a lot of effort to manufacture. The cooking class I took was about two and a half hours long and we needed that entire time to finish our little bundles of deliciousness. We made both boiled dumplings and their tastier pan fried version, pot stickers. When making a dumpling, you should start from the outside in. The dumpling dough is flour based and the idea is to knead it until there aren’t any cracks. Obviously I’m no Emeril, but no worries as the dumpling shell is not the main attraction here, the filling is. I won’t go into all the ingredients we used (cilantro, ginger, mushrooms, onions, carrots, minced pork to name the bulk), but we needed to finely chop them all; you don’t want to bite into a phatty chunk of ginger half way through your dumpling. The key is balance and subtlety here. For the coup de grâce, comes the folding of the dumpling. I kind of fat fingered a couple of them, but I think mine didn’t look too bad in the end. And remember, the filling is the...
Travel Photo of the Week: Caretaker on Mount Heng

Travel Photo of the Week: Caretaker on Mount Heng

Taoist temples dot the landscape of Mount Heng in the Shanxi province like tiny Lego huts in the distance. When you approach a temple, one of their caretakers may greet you, like this man who also lives on the mountain. Mount Heng is one of the five sacred mountains of China. The five mountains are designated North (Heng shan), West (Hua shan), South (Heng shan again, confusing right?), East (Tai shan) and Center (Song shan) and were premier pilgrimage destinations for emperors throughout the last 2,000...
Which part of the Great Wall near Beijing should I see?

Which part of the Great Wall near Beijing should I see?

History of the Great Wall: The Great Wall of China is one of the world’s great engineering marvels. The original wall was started over 2,000 years ago and an estimated 180 million cubic meters of earth were used to build it. Officially, the wall is 8,851.8 km (5,500 miles) long, although in many places the wall is non-existent or just mounds of earth. During the years, needy villagers have pillaged the wall and have reduced many of the sections to nothing more than rubble. Where to go near Beijing: There is over 550 km (342 miles) of wall in Beijing, so you have literally miles of choices. Here are three choices that I researched: Badaling This is the most popular choice, and is overrun with tourists. Expect lots of touts and souvenir hawkers as well as restored brickwork, but since it’s the closest to Beijing, it’s a good choice if you have a time crunch. 45 Yuan / 25 Yuan for students. Open 6 am to 7 pm in the summer and 7 am to 6 pm in the winter. Take a tour or local buses 877, 919 or 880   Mutianyu Less touristy than Badaling, Mutianyu is a better option if you have a bit more time. It still has great views, cable cars and is easily accessible from Beijing. Plus it has a pretty cool toboggan ride. 45 Yuan / 25 Yuan for students. 7 am to 6:30 pm summer, 7:30 am to 5:30 pm winter. Take the special bus 867 which leaves at 7 am and 8:30 am from Dongzihmen bus stop (near the metro station) and returns...
Travel Landmark of the Week: The Forbidden City

Travel Landmark of the Week: The Forbidden City

What is it: This residential palace of past emperors, where entering the grounds without an invitation used to cost you your life, sits squarely between Tian’anmen Square on the south side and Jingshan park to its north. Most tourists (and there are a ton of them), concentrate their efforts on the main drag of the complex, hitting the three main Great Halls: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, built in the 15th century, is the star attraction and includes a huge, elaborately decorated Dragon Throne. Here is where the emperor held court and made underlings kowtow, a practice of touching the floor with the forehead nine times. Tips to avoid crowd frustration: I hate crowds, so I always try to find the quieter, less trodden parts of attractions. If you want to slip off into a less densely packed area, after passing through Meridian Gate, try heading left to a Caligraphy exhibit, or right to a meticulously curated porcelain exhibit. Make sure to check out: For a small fee, you can hit the Treasure Gallery, which contains the interesting Nine Dragons Screen. Try to find a square panel that looks different from all the rest. Legend has it that one of the workers broke the only porcelain tile made and there was not enough time to make another one. The workers decided to use a wood panel instead, hoping that no one would notice. Time is the great revealer and now the eroded wood is noticeable when compared to the pristine porcelain tiles. For a good Picture: Off...
Landmark of the week: Palácio da Alvorada

Landmark of the week: Palácio da Alvorada

The Brazilian capital was founded in the late 1950s in an attempt to move more Brazilians inland, away from the coast. Architect Oscar Niemeyer was the chief architect of the new city and built many of the cities most iconic buildings. Palácio da Alvorada (Palace of the Dawn), is the presidential residence and was the first building dedicated in Brasilia. The name was supposed to signify a dawning of a new age in Brasilia. Learn more about the iconic building...
Travel Experience of the Week: Witches Market La Paz

Travel Experience of the Week: Witches Market La Paz

The Witches market in La Paz Bolivia is an interesting tourist destination. Love potions, cursing powder and other spells can be bought here. Although it sounds like something out of bad B movie, locals buy many products here for daily use. One of the more interesting purchases are Llama fetuses, which are used to consecrate construction sites. Say you are building a new home, well then you better give Pachamama (Mother Earth) a blood offering. Enter in Llama fetuses.  But what happens if you have a huge sky scrapper? You would need an even bigger sacrifice. This is where urban legend enters in. Supposedly, drunks and homeless people are lured into a conversation with a Yatiri or Witch Doctor (so that’s where the word Witch Doctor comes from, huh). He then drugs them, takes them to the construction site and promptly buries them underneath the foundation!  Which brings me to my mental note of the day, don’t pass out in...
Landmark of the Week: Castle of the Counts

Landmark of the Week: Castle of the Counts

Landmark of the Week: Castle of the Counts Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen) in Ghent, Belgium was built in 1180 by Philip of Alsace. If you can stomach it, there is a torture museum inside as well. Cost is 10 Euros which includes a movie guide. More info...
Food of the Week: Belgian Waffle

Food of the Week: Belgian Waffle

Food of the Week: Belgian Waffle If you are ever in Ghent, Belgium, make sure to check out establishment Max which has been family-run for five generations. They serve some damn good waffles. They even boast that Max-Consael (aka OG of Waffles aka waffle daddy), invented the Brussel’s waffle back in 1839 – which is kind of weird considering he lived in Ghent. The waiter told me that he wanted to have a more international appeal and thus used Brussels in the name of his “invention” rather than...