Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
China-U.S. Tourism Year 2016
This is the China-U.S. Tourism Year and I was invited to participate in “The Gathering of One Thousand American Visitors on The Great Wall” to celebrate. All arrangements were to be handled by the China & Asia Travel Service A.K.A. Sunshine Travel International USA; transportation, hotels, meals, special access to sites visited and English speaking tour guides were arranged. Our auspicious trip was to include Xi’an and the eastern portion of the renowned Silk Road. Xi’an means Western Peace and was the eastern starting point for the Silk Road that opened a trade corridor between China and the West 206 B.C.-9A.D. (See Xi’an - a World of Wonder). Beijing, the cultural capital of China, was our starting point and we were blessed by cool but sunny weather and surprisingly little pollution.
China’s reputation for being a vast land mired in the past is no longer so. Seemingly overnight she picked herself up by her five-clawed dragon paws - the number of toes on dragon claws denotes status with five-toes the sign for the Emperor alone - and thrust herself into the 21st century world. So you see handsome landscaped wide boulevards in Beijing with monstrously huge buildings flanking both sides of the road vying for the largest, most modern architecture, and all but crushing the human size of the old and the past. Periodically the ultra-modern monoliths give way to a traditional ancient temple or historic building too precious to tear down... and peeking out between buildings are the Western Hill mountain tops in the distance.
Chinese people responding with enthusiasm, march to the drum beat of the new China. Motor vehicles have come to reflect the new prosperity; hence the wide boulevards and the 24/7 traffic jams of Biblical proportions. It is advisable to take public transportation to visit Beijing’s historic sites to avoid the bumper to bumper traffic; however there is no way to avoid the bumper to bumper people.
We visited the Forbidden (Imperial) City and the Temple of Heaven where in the courtyard we were invited to learn the ancient art of Tai Chi. The Temple of Heaven is high and round reflecting the ancient Chinese belief that Heaven is round and the Earth square. Larger that the emperor’s residence, it supports the unwritten law that the dwelling of Heaven should be larger than the dwelling for man, even the emperor himself. We paid our respects at Tiananmen Square and drove to the Summer Palace and Lama Temple.
From Beijing we drove to the city of Chengde in Hebei Province, to join the celebration at the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. On the way we stopped at the Mountain Resort built in the 18thcentury by the Qing Emperors to straighten ties with the ethnic minorities who populated the countryside. It is the world”s largest Royal palace-garden complex and a perfect example of Chinese geomantic culture or “fengshui” harmonizing buildings and temples with the natural landscape.
The following day was the gathering and ceremony at the Jinshanling Great Wall. Dragon dancers with yellow and red dragons representing both the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, as well as musicians greeted our arrival, while local dignitaries including the Mayor of Chengde, addressed the crowd and then everyone climbed the wall... no easy task. Jinshaling is famed as one of the most beautiful sections of the wall. All six miles are in a great state of preservation and include scenic landscapes in all seasons, 67 guard towers, and periodic platforms to catch your breath between steep groups of stairs. The day was cool and breezy with a clear blue sky and at intervals along the route ravishing costumed attendants posed for pictures with the climbers, and young helpful aids were assisted with the steep parts of the climb. I must admit the climb was a bit daunting and I gave up mid-way while the group of dignitaries waved as they passed on their way to the top. Certificates were handed out to all those who finished the climb to the top to commemorate the occasion.
After the ceremony we took the short flight to Xi’an and were treated to a formal dinner and a Tang Dynasty Grand Welcoming Ceremony at the ancient city wall surrounding the old town. This performance was a duplicate of one given to welcome President Clinton and his family when he toured China some years ago and it literally took my breath away. The wall and gate houses were outlined in lights providing a stunning background to the dozens of men and women dressed in traditional Tang Dynasty (618-906 C.E.) costumes. There was a formal welcoming and then the assembled crowd walked between the warriors arrayed in golden armor and toured the wall. Editors Note: A modified performance takes place every Thursday to Sunday; tickets can be arranged by your tour guide or hotel. The wall is outlined in lights every night.
Moving west from Xi’an we flew to Dunhuang in Gansu Province and another rich experience awaited us... the legendary Gobi Desert. Echoing-Sand Mountain on Mingsha Hill so named because the shifting sand is said to make musical sounds... not that you can hear them over the squeals made by the humans being slowly perambulated on the backs of lumbering camels up the hill. Actually walking on the sand requires wearing knee-high orange booties and is extremely difficult, not at all as simple as it looks in the movies. At the half-way mark you have the option of climbing to the top of the sand mountain and sliding down before re-boarding the camels for the trek back to base. The ride back is awesome; the camels negotiate the side of the mountain and manage not to topple over even with a heavy burden on their back... us!
Close to the mountain is a natural spring that creates a crescent or half-moon lake. It has been this way for perhaps a thousand years. Echoing-Sand Mountain and Crescent Moon Spring are not the only attractions in Gansu Province. This is home to the World Cultural Heritage Mogao Grottoes. In 366 C.E, Le Zun, a monk traveling the Silk Road, stopped to meditate near the cliffs on the east side of Mingsha Hill. In his meditative state the monk saw Buddha in the clouds and spent the rest of his life there dedicating his cave to Buddha. Over the next thousand years hundreds of caves were decorated with carvings, sculptures, paintings and frescoes honoring Buddha’s teachings. Each cave is different and reflects the wealth of its sponsors as well as the fashions of the times. It is a artistic tour de force and treasure trove of information representing different dynasties and changing styles. When cave #17 was opened it was found to contain a secret library of over 50,000 documents of a historical nature dating from the 4th to the 11th centuries that was hidden by the monks from the Mongolian invaders.
Cave #96, the Giant Buddha Hall, holds a nine story-high Maitreya (future) Buddha carved out of the mountain (Early Tang Dynasty 618-704) with stucco added to create details and the whole brightly painted.
Cave #148 is constructed in the form of an enormous coffin holding the largest indoor clay statue of Sakyamuni (First Buddha or “awakened one”). The gold-plated and painted statue is so large that eight men could sit side by side on his ear. Realistically detailed life-size disciples line up behind the Buddha, some in despair while others are rejoicing that he no longer rides the wheel of reincarnation and has passed into Nirvana.
In the 1960s an unfortunately unattractive construction was built to safeguard the caves as a conservation effort. Ignore the exterior and enjoy this amazing collection of art treasures. Mogao Grottoes requires prior reservations and special guides are assigned to show caves that are rotated to protect them from overexposure, unfortunately no photos are allowed to conserve the still bright colors.
And so our journey ends... at the beginning! Next day we drove to Jiayuguan Pass and the beginning or the western starting point of the Great Wall. Outside the wall is the renowned shrine to Guan Yu, now worshiped as a God of Good Fortune because of his strength, loyalty and bravery. He actually lived and fought during the civil war at the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period; a revered Han General sworn to preserve the Han Dynasty (206B.C to 220C.E.). He is normally depicted with a ferocious red face but as I walked around his enormous statue searching for a good photo angle, I noticed directly behind him was a painting on the wall of a royal lady... confirming the old adage that behind every great man is a greater lady. Unfortunately there was no legend in the temple to explain who she was... at least not in English.
We also visited the Wei Jin Dynasty group of tombs built between the 3rd and 5th centuries. These Gobi desert tombs were discovered only in 1972 and although there are over 1,400 only a dozen have so far been excavated. The small tomb we visited was decorated with art work depicting daily life of the people. No photography is allowed but once we saw the originals we visited the Jiayuguan City Museum and were able to take pictures of the exact reproductions.
There is so much to experience of an artistic, cultural and historic nature in China, and since this is the year of China/U.S. Tourism, its worth traveling around the world to visit.
For Information about visiting China contact:
China & Asia Travel Service A.K.A. Sunshine Travel International USA
325 West 38th Street, Suite 709, New York, NY 10018
Call 212-268-6886 or 800-850-2958
China & Asia Tours: email@example.com
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