China. The name alone makes you want to get packing. It's going places, so jump aboard, go along for the ride and see where it's headed.
Its modern face is dazzling, but China is no one-trick pony. The world's oldest continuous civilisation isn't all smoked glass and brushed aluminium, and while you won't be tripping over artefacts – three decades of round-the-clock development make some parts of the country completely unrecognizable from their more humble beginnings – rich seams of antiquity await. Serve it all up according to taste: collapsing sections of the Great Wall, temple-topped mountains, villages that time forgot, languorous water towns, sublime Buddhist grottoes and ancient desert forts. Pack a well-made pair of travelling shoes and remember the words of Laotzu: 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'.
Few countries do the great outdoors like the Middle Kingdom. China's landscapes span the range from alpha to omega: take your pick from the sublime sapphire lakes of Tibet or the impassive deserts of Inner Mongolia, island-hop in Hong Kong or cycle between fairy-tale karst pinnacles around Yangshuo. Swoon before the rice terraces of the south, take a selfie among the gorgeous yellow rapeseed by Qinghai Lake, or hike the Great Wall as it meanders across mountain peaks. Get lost in green forests of bamboo or, when your energy fails you, flake out on a distant Hainan beach and listen to the thud of falling coconuts.
The Chinese live to eat, and with 1.4 billion food-loving people to feed, coupled with vast geographic and cultural variations in a huge land, expect your taste buds to be tantalised, tested and treated. Wolf down Peking duck in Beijing, melt over a Chongqing hotpot or grab a seasoned ròujiāmó (shredded pork in a bun) before climbing Hua Shan. Gobble down a steaming bowl of Lanzhou noodles in a Silk Road street market, raise the temperature with some searing Hunan fare, or flag down the dim sum trolley down south. Follow your nose in China and you won't want to stop travelling.
China is vast. Off-the-scale massive. A riveting jumble of wildly differing dialects and climatic and topographical extremes, it's like several different countries rolled into one. Take your pick from the yak-butter-illuminated temple halls of Xiahe, a journey along the dusty Silk Road, spending the night at Everest Base Camp, or getting into your glad rags for a night on the Shanghai tiles. You're spoilt for choice: whether you’re an urban traveller, hiker, cyclist, explorer, backpacker, irrepressible museum-goer or faddish foodie, China’s diversity is second to none.
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Enclosed by 3.5km of citadel walls at the very heart of Beijing, the Unesco-listed Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings – large enough to comfortably absorb the 16 million visitors it receives each year. Steeped in stultifying ritual, this otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule, sharing 900-plus buildings with a retinue of eunuchs, servants and concubines, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911. The year 2020 marks the 600th anniversary of the Forbidden City, which the palace intends to celebrate by ensuring more of the complex is open for visitors than at any other time in its history as a tourist attraction. Which is a longer history than you might think – the Palace Museum (故宫博物馆, Gùgōng Bówùguǎn), as the Forbidden City is officially called, first opened in 1925, just one year after Puyi, the abdicated 'last emperor', was evicted from the Inner Court. Built between 1406 and 1420 by the Ming emperor Yongle, the construction of the Forbidden City was a titanic undertaking, employing battalions of labourers and craftspeople. Pillars of precious nanmu wood were floated from the jungles of southwest China to the capital, while blocks of quarried stone were hauled to the palace in winter over ingenious ice roads. Once built, the Forbidden City was governed by a stultifying code of rules, protocol and superstition; 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties governed China from its closed-off world, often erratically and haphazardly, until revolution swept them all away just a century ago. Despite its age, most of the buildings you see are post-18th-century Qing dynasty constructions and renovations – fire was a constant hazard, hence the enormous brass water vats everywhere. Planning Your Visit Although you can explore the Forbidden City in a few hours, a full day will keep you occupied and the enthusiast will make several trips. Most visitors focus their energies on the showpiece ceremonial halls and parade grounds, which take up the central axis in the outer court (southern half) of the complex. But the real thrill comes from exploring the labyrinth of courtyards and halls, laid out on a more human scale, on either side of the central axis, and from parading along the tops of the 10m-high walls for aerial views of the palace. Entering the Forbidden City In imperial times the penalty for uninvited admission was severe, although mere mortals wouldn't have even got close; the Imperial City girdled the Forbidden City with yet another set of huge walls cut through with four heavily guarded gates – including the Gate of Heavenly Peace, upon which hangs Mao's portrait. These days, tourists enter through the Meridian Gate, a massive U-shaped portal at the south end of the complex, once reserved for the emperor alone. Gongs and bells would sound imperial comings and goings, while lesser mortals used lesser gates: the military used the west gate, civilians the east gate and servants the north gate. The emperor also reviewed his armies from the Meridian Gate, passed judgement on prisoners, announced the new year’s calendar and oversaw the flogging of troublesome ministers. Through the Meridian Gate, you pass into a vast courtyard and cross the Golden Stream (金水, Jīn Shuǐ) – shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and spanned by five marble bridges – on your way to the magnificent Gate of Supreme Harmony, beyond which the courtyard could hold an imperial audience of 100,000 people. Mounting the Wall Since 2018, visitors can climb the Forbidden City's Wall just inside and to the east of the Meridian Gate, follow it eastwards to the Corner Tower, and then north to the East Prosperity Gate. This route includes the Gallery of Historic Architecture, with exhibition spaces in the Corner Tower and the splendid East Prosperity Gate. In total, around three quarters of the 3.4km wall wall can now be climbed, a fine way to leave the crowds behind and take awesome photographs. First Side Galleries Before you pass through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to reach the Forbidden City’s star attractions, veer off to the west of the huge courtyard to visit the Hall of Martial Valour, where emperors would receive ministers. It houses a changing line-up of exhibitions. Just to the south is the Furniture Gallery, occupying an area known as the Southern Storehouses, which opened for the first time in 2018. The Hall of Literary Brilliance complex to the east of the Meridian Gate was formerly used as a residence by the crown prince. It was rebuilt in 1683 after being destroyed by fire. It too hosts a changing line-up of exhibitions throughout the year, but is sometimes closed between November and March. Three Great Halls Raised on a three-tier marble terrace representing the Chinese character for king (王; wáng), are the Three Great Halls (三大殿; Sān Dàdiàn), the glorious heart of the Forbidden City. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City, and was once the tallest building in the capital. It was used for state occasions, such as the emperor’s birthday, coronations and the nomination of military leaders. Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is a richly decorated Dragon Throne (龙椅; Lóngyǐ), from which the emperor would preside over trembling officials. The entire court had to touch the floor nine times with their foreheads (the custom known as kowtowing) in the emperor’s presence. At the back of the throne is a carved Xumishan, the Buddhist paradise, signifying the throne’s supremacy. Today you can only view it from the outside, and it virtually requires a rugby scrum to do so. Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony, which was used as the emperor’s transit lounge. Here he would make last-minute preparations, rehearse speeches and receive ministers. On display are two Qing dynasty sedan chairs, the emperor’s mode of transport around the Forbidden City. The last of the Qing emperors, Puyi, used a bicycle and altered some features of the palace grounds to make it easier to get around. The third of the Great Halls is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for banquets and later for imperial examinations. The hall has no support pillars, and to its rear is a 250-tonne marble imperial carriageway carved with dragons and clouds; it was hauled into the city on an ingenious path of ice – they had to wait until winter to do so. The peripheral buildings surrounding the Three Great Halls were used for storing gold, silver, silks, carpets and other treasures, and now house museum exhibits. Lesser Central Halls The basic configuration of the Three Great Halls is echoed by the next group of buildings, reached through the Gate of Heavenly Purity. Traditionally, this gate was the dividing line between the ceremonial outer court and the inner court to the north, where the emperors and their entourages actually lived and worked. Smaller in scale, these buildings were more important in terms of real power, which in China traditionally lies at the back door. The first structure is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, a residence of Ming and early Qing emperors, and later an audience hall for receiving foreign envoys and high officials. Immediately behind it is the Hall of Union, which contains a clepsydra – a water clock made in 1745 with five bronze vessels and a calibrated scale. You'll also find a mechanical clock built in 1797 and a collection of imperial jade seals on display. The Palace of Earthly Tranquillity was the imperial couple’s bridal chamber and the centre of operations for the palace harem. Imperial Garden At the northern end of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden, a classical Chinese garden with 7000 sq metres of fine landscaping, including rockeries, walkways, pavilions and ancient, carbuncular cypresses. At its centre is the double-eaved Hall of Imperial Peace. Nearby, the Lodge of Spiritual Cultivation is where British tutor Sir Reginald Johnston gave English lessons to the abdicated 'last emperor' Puyi. Treasure Gallery On the northeastern edge of the complex is what feels like a mini Forbidden City all of its own. This is the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (宁寿宫; Níng Shòu Gōng), built around 1771 for Qing emperor Qianlong's retirement, though he never moved in. Today it holds the Treasure Gallery, one of the palace's most important collections of ornamental objects, which are crafted from gold, silver, jade, emeralds, pearls, and other gems and semi-precious stones. The complex is entered from the south – not far from the unmissable Gallery of Clocks. Just inside the entrance, you’ll find a beautiful glazed Nine Dragon Screen, modelled after the one in Beihai Park. From there you work your way north, exploring various halls and courtyards before exiting at the northern end of the Forbidden City. En route, seek out the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, a three-storey wooden opera house, which was the palace’s largest theatre. Note the trap doors that allowed actors to make dramatic stage entrances. Western & Eastern Palaces A dozen smaller palace courtyards lie to the west and east of the three lesser central halls. It was in these self-contained abodes, like far grander versions of Beijing's sìhéyuàn mansions in the hutong, where most of the emperors and empresses actually lived. Many of the buildings, particularly those to the west, are decked out in imperial furniture. Other Attractions Parts of the palace that were previously off limits are opening all the time. Due west of the Gate of Heavenly Purity are a collection of halls and gardens where the empresses and concubines of deceased emperors resided. Known as the Palace of Compassion and Tranquillity, it was used for storage for many decades after 1925 and today houses the Sculpture Gallery, which includes Buddhist statues, terracotta warriors, exquisite stone reliefs and more, from as far back as the Warring States period. To the south is the Garden of Compassion and Tranquillity, where empress dowagers and imperial consorts worshipped the Buddha, entertained themselves and rested. To the west is the Palace of Longevity and Health, built for emperor Qianlong's mother.
The Mogao Grottoes are considered one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world. At its peak during the Tang dynasty (618–907), the site housed 18 monasteries, more than 1400 monks and nuns, and countless artists, translators and calligraphers. English-language tours, running at 9am, noon and 2.30pm, are included in the ¥258 'A' ticket admission price, which gives you access to eight caves; the alternative ¥100 'B' ticket is for Chinese-language tours, with access to four caves. Due to a massive increase in visitor numbers (including school tours), the access procedure has undergone a revamp and all visitors to the Mogao Grottoes now have to go via the visitor centre a few kilometres outside of central Dunhuang. The ¥258 'A' ticket includes transport to the grottoes, access to four museums and admission to two 30-minute films, one on the history of the area and the Silk Road, and one that allows close-up computer-generated views of cave interiors not normally open to visitors, in an IMAX-style theatre at the visitor centre. From the visitor centre, purchasers of both 'A' and 'B' tickets are shuttled to the caves 15km down the road in dedicated coaches. The ¥100 'B' ticket is only for those who have a good understanding of the Chinese commentary (and includes transport to the Mogao Grottoes and access to three museums). After the tour, you are free to wander around the site and catch whatever coach you like back to the visitor centre at your own leisure, but you won't be allowed back into any of the caves. The ¥50 'C' ticket only covers access to the films in the cinema at the visitor centre. 'A' tickets are limited to 6000 tickets per day; 'B' tickets are limited to 12,000 tickets per day. Purchasing tickets is not straightforward. 'A' tickets must be purchased in advance either online at the caves' official website (Chinese-language website only; Chinese phone number and Chinese ID card most inconveniently required for purchase at the time of writing) or in Dunhuang from the (also) inconveniently located Mogao Grottoes Reservation and Ticket Center, a separate booking office in the east of town where staff speak English. During the high season, you should buy your ticket a day or more in advance from the Mogao Grottoes Reservation and Ticket Center. Of the 492 caves, 20 ‘open’ caves are rotated fairly regularly. Entrance is strictly controlled – it’s impossible to visit them independently. On the 'A' ticket, you will be given a roughly two-hour tour of eight caves, which should include the famous Hidden Library Cave (cave 17), the two big Buddhas including the vast 35.5m tall Buddha in Cave 96 (behind the iconic seven-storey pagoda) and another 26m-tall Buddha statue, the vast reclining Buddha, in Cave 148, as well as a chance to see rare fragments of manuscripts in classical Uyghur and Manichean. The cheaper 'B' ticket gives you access to half the number of caves and may be useful if time is tight (but remember the tour on the 'B' ticket is in Chinese only). Photography is prohibited inside the caves. If it’s raining or snowing or there's a sand storm, the site will be closed. History Wealthy traders and important officials were the primary donors responsible for creating new caves, as caravans made the long detour past Mogao to pray or give thanks for a safe journey through the treacherous wastelands to the west. The traditional date ascribed to the founding of the first cave is AD 366. The caves fell into disuse for about 500 years after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty and were largely forgotten until the early 20th century, when they were ‘rediscovered’ by a string of foreign explorers. Northern Wei, Western Wei & Northern Zhou Caves These, the earliest of the Mogao Caves, are distinctly Indian in style and iconography. All contain a central pillar, representing a stupa (symbolically containing the ashes of the Buddha), which the devout would circle in prayer. Paint was derived from malachite (green), cinnabar (red) and lapis lazuli (blue), expensive minerals imported from Central Asia. The art of this period is characterised by its attempt to depict the spirituality of those who had transcended the material world through their asceticism. The Wei statues are slim, ethereal figures with finely chiselled features and comparatively large heads. The northern Zhou figures have ghostly white eyes. Sui Caves The Sui dynasty (AD 581–618) was short-lived and very much a transition between the Wei and Tang periods. This can be seen in the Sui caves at Mogao: the graceful Indian curves in the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures start to give way to the more rigid style of Chinese sculpture. The Sui dynasty began when a general of Chinese or mixed Chinese–Tuoba origin usurped the throne of the northern Zhou dynasty and reunited northern and southern China for the first time in 360 years. Tang Caves The Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) was Mogao’s high point. Painting and sculpture techniques became much more refined, and some important aesthetic developments, notably the sex change (from male to female) of Guanyin and the flying apsaras, took place. The beautiful murals depicting the Buddhist Western Paradise offer rare insights into the court life, music, dress and architecture of Tang China. Some 230 caves were carved during the religiously diverse Tang dynasty, including two impressive grottoes containing enormous, seated Buddha figures. Originally open to the elements, the statue of Maitreya in cave 96 (believed to represent Empress Wu Zetian, who used Buddhism to consolidate her power) is a towering 35.5m tall, making it the world’s third-largest Buddha. The Buddhas were carved from the top down using scaffolding, the anchor holes of which are still visible. Post-Tang Caves Following the Tang dynasty, the economy around Dunhuang went into decline, and the luxury and vigour typical of Tang painting began to be replaced by simpler drawing techniques and flatter figures. The mysterious Western Xia kingdom, which controlled most of Gansu from 983 to 1227, made a number of additions to the caves at Mogao and began to introduce Tibetan influences. Getting There & Away The Mogao Grottoes are 25km (30 minutes) southeast of Dunhuang, but tours start and end at the visitor centre, about 5km from Mingshan Lu near the train station. A green minibus (one way ¥3) leaves for the visitor centre every 30 minutes from 8am to 5pm from outside the Silk Road Yiyuan Hotel (丝路怡苑宾馆, Sīlù Yíyuàn Bīnguǎn). A taxi costs ¥20 one way, and taxis generally wait outside the visitor centre right by where the green minibuses wait, so it's easy to find one on the way back.
An oasis of methodical Confucian design, the 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park is unique. It originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the emperor (the literal 'Son of Heaven'), who prayed here for good harvests at winter solstice and sought divine clearance and atonement. Since 1918 this private imperial domain has opened its gates to common folk, who still congregate daily to perform taichi, twirl on gymnastics bars and sing revolutionary songs en masse. Don't expect to see worshippers at prayer; this is not so much a temple as a place of arcane, Confucian-inspired statecraft. The emperor, the Son of Heaven (天子, Tiānzǐ), visited the Temple of Heaven twice a year, with the more important ceremony performed at winter solstice. The royal entourage proceeded from the Forbidden City to the Imperial Vault of Heaven in silence, with commoners instructed to close all windows and remain indoors. The procession included elephant and horse chariots and long lines of lancers, nobles, officials and musicians. The imperial sedan chair was 12m long, 3m wide and employed 10 bearers. Although there are four main entry points to the park (with the east and west gates most convenient for visitors; through tickets cannot be purchased after 4pm), the imperial approach was via Zhaoheng Gate in the south leading directly to the Round Altar. On this open-air, raised dais the ceremonies to heaven took place, performed according to solemn protocol every winter solstice by the emperor himself. Arranged in three tiers, the Round Altar revolves around the imperial number nine. Odd numbers were considered sacrosanct in imperial China – nine ( jiǔ) is the highest single-digit odd number and a homonym for long life. The altar is arranged in three tiers, with the top tier containing nine rings of stones, arranged in multiples of nine. The stairs and balustrades are also multiples of nine. North of the Round Altar is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, enclosed by a low circular wall known as the Echo Wall. Despite its splendid, shapely appearance, the Vault of Heaven was a storeroom, used to keep the spirit tablets of the gods and other materials needed for the ceremonies on the Round Altar. Seen from above the structures of the Temple of Heaven are round and their bases square, a pattern deriving from the ancient Chinese belief that heaven is round and earth is square. The Echo Wall, 65m in diameter, is so named for its unique acoustic properties. A quiet word or two spoken a few feet from the wall can be heard at the opposite point on the circle (although the din of other tourists chattering can drown it out!). Continuing on from the Imperial Vault of Heaven is the majestic, 360m-long Red Stairway Bridge, an imperial thoroughfare leading to the marvellous centrepiece of the Temple of Heaven, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. A much-photographed icon, the triple-eaved Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is made entirely of wood without the use of nails, with the heavy roof supported by 28 wooden pillars. First built around 1420, it was burnt to cinders by a lightning strike in 1889. A faithful reproduction based on Ming architectural methods was erected the following year, with timber imported from the USA, since by that point China lacked trees big enough for the task. Rich in esoteric symbolism, the four largest central pillars represent the seasons, the 12 in the next ring the months of the year, and the 12 outermost columns represent the day, broken into 12 ‘watches’ of two hours each. Writhing about on the ceiling is a vivid dragon-phoenix relief, representing the emperor and empress. Connected to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests by the ornamental Long Corridor, the Animal Killing Pavilion was where oxen, sheep, deer and other beasts were slaughtered and prepared before being presented as divine offerings. You'll need to show you passport to get a look in at the copper boilers and cleaning sink on display. To the west of the park, the Divine Music Administration is where the ranks of drummers, pipers and bellringers got their act together prior to the imperial ceremonies. Now a museum, exhibits cast light on zhōnghé sháolè (中和韶乐), the ceremonial music reserved for the imperial court, and there are galleries devoted to ancient Chinese musical instruments. Adjacent to the West Heavenly Gate, the Fasting Palace is where the emperor hunkered down in preparation for the winter solstice ceremony, abstaining from all earthly pleasures for a day or two. Resembling a Forbidden City in miniature, it's surrounded by a moat and has its own Drum and Bell Tower. You'll need your passport for entry. Since 1918 the Temple of Heaven has opened its gates to Beijing's lǎobǎixìng (old 'hundred names' – literally common folk). Among the 4000 or so knotted cypresses, you'll see locals performing taichi, kung-fu routines, dancing, or assembling into impromptu choirs and orchestras to belt out the old revolutionary songs with gusto. The exercise area in the northeast of the park has some of Beijing's best people-watching, where you might catch sight of a septuagenarian twirling on gymnastics bars, and other feats of athleticism.
The Terracotta Army isn't just Xi'an's premier sight: it's one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. This subterranean life-size army of thousands has silently stood guard over the soul of China's first unifier for more than two millennia. Either Qin Shi Huang was terrified of the vanquished spirits awaiting him in the afterlife or, as most archaeologists believe, he expected his rule to continue in death as it had in life. Whatever the case, the guardians of his tomb – who date from the 3rd century BC – today offer some of the greatest insights we have into the world of ancient China. The discovery of the army of warriors was entirely fortuitous. In 1974 peasants drilling a well uncovered an underground vault that eventually yielded thousands of terracotta soldiers and horses in battle formation. Throughout the years the site became so famous that many of its unusual attributes are now well known; in particular the fact that no two soldier's faces are alike. The on-site wrap-around theatre gives a useful primer on how the figures were sculpted. You can also employ a guide (low/high season ¥150/200) or try the audio guide (¥40, plus ¥200 deposit), although the latter is somewhat useless, being difficult to understand and not very compelling. After this, visit the site in reverse, which enables you to build up to the most impressive pit for a fitting finale. Start with the smallest pit, Pit 3, containing 72 warriors and horses; it's believed to be the army headquarters due to the number of high-ranking officers unearthed here. It's interesting to note that the northern room would have been used to make sacrificial offerings before battle. In the next pit, Pit 2, containing around 1300 warriors and horses, you can examine five of the soldiers up close: a kneeling archer, a standing archer, a cavalryman and his horse, a mid-ranking officer and a general. The level of detail is extraordinary: the expressions, hairstyles, armour and even the tread on the footwear are all unique. The largest pit, Pit 1, is the most imposing. Housed in a building the size of an aircraft hangar, it is believed to contain 6000 warriors (only 2000 are on display) and horses, all facing east and ready for battle. The vanguard of three rows of archers (both crossbow and longbow) is followed by the main force of soldiers, who originally held spears, swords, dagger-axes and other long-shaft weapons. The infantry were accompanied by 35 chariots, though these, made of wood, have long since disintegrated. Almost as extraordinary as the soldiers is a pair of bronze chariots and horses unearthed just 20m west of the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang. These are now on display, together with some of the original weaponry and a mid-ranking officer you can see up close, in a huge modern museum called the Qin Shi Huang Emperor Tomb Artefact Exhibition Hall (秦始皇帝陵文物陈列厅, Qǐnshǐhuángdìlíng Chénliètīng). You can take photographs, although signs forbid using flash photography (widely ignored) or tripods. Among rather tacky souvenir offerings, you can get your own warrior statue personalised with your own face (¥100) or have a photo taken next to a fake warrior (¥10). You can also pick up all manner of terracotta ornamentation – from warrior paperweights to life-size statues – from the souvenir shop in the theatre building. There's also a Friendship Store for jade, jewellery and so forth. The Army of the Terracotta Warriors is easily reached by public bus. From Xi'an train station take one of the air-conditioned buses, either 914 or 915 (¥8, one hour), which depart every four minutes from 6am to 7pm. Take the bus to the last stop; the buses also travel via the Huaqing Hot Springs and the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang (which is included in the Terracotta Army). The car park for the vehicles is a 15-minute walk from the site, but you can take an electric buggy (¥5) instead if you want. If you want to eat here, there's a good cafe in the theatre building; and after you exit to walk back to the car and bus park, you will take another route past a whole assortment of restaurants and fast food, including a McDonald's. Buses head back to town from the parking lot.
A marvel of Chinese garden design and one of Beijing's must-see attractions, the Summer Palace was the royal retreat for emperors fleeing the suffocating summer torpor of the old imperial city and, most recently, it was the retirement playground of Empress Dowager Cixi. It merits an entire day’s exploration, although a (high-paced) morning or afternoon exploring its waterways, pavilions, bridges and temples may suffice. The domain had long been a royal garden before being considerably enlarged and embellished by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. He marshalled an army of labourers to deepen and expand Kunming Lake (昆明湖; Kunming Hú), originally a reservoir dug in the Yuan dynasty, and reputedly surveyed imperial navy drills from a hilltop perch. Anglo-French troops vandalised the palace at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. Empress Dowager Cixi launched into a refit in 1888 with money earmarked for a modern navy; the marble boat at the northern edge of the lake was her only nautical, albeit quite unsinkable, concession. Foreign troops, angered by the Boxer Rebellion, had another go at torching the Summer Palace in 1900, prompting further restoration work. By 1949 the palace had once more fallen into disrepair, eliciting a major overhaul. Glittering Kunming Lake swallows up three-quarters of the park, overlooked by Longevity Hill (万寿山, Wànshòu Shān), itself crowned by the eight-tiered Tower of Buddhist Incense, the most elaborate and expensive restoration project of Cixi's grand redesign. Arranged on a north–south axis, the tower rises up behind the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, built by Emperor Qianlong for his mother on her 60th birthday. At the foot of Longevity Hill, hugging the north shore of the lake, is the Long Corridor, a canopied, 728m-long ornamental walkway. Thousands of artworks adorn every crossbeam, column and ceiling arch, depicting scenic views from around China, much-loved myths, Buddhist scenes and folk tales. At the western end of the Long Corridor is Cixi's Marble Boat, a place to entertain (and a common garden design motif), while at the eastern end are her living quarters, the Hall of Joy and Longevity, which echoes the sìhéyuàn layout of traditional Beijing courtyards, and still contains dusty Qing-era furniture. Continue east to the three-storey Grand Theatre where Cixi would enjoy her beloved Peking opera. Nearby, the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity was where the empress dowager still pulled the government strings late into her official retirement. Glimpse the grand throne within; the rockery outside was designed to mimic the famous Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou. Note also the dragon and phoenix statues in the courtyard, the symbolic embodiment of emperor and empress. Here it's the phoenix that commands centre spot, a clear sign that a woman – Cixi – was running the show. If time permits, try to do a circuit of the lake along the West Causeway. You can exit the palace via the West Gate, where you can pick up the Xiijiao Line back to the city, or return along the east shore. Based on the famous Su Causeway in Hangzhou, and lined with willow and mulberry trees, the causeway kicks off northwest of the Marble Boat. With its delightful moon hump, the Jade Belt Bridge dates from the reign of Emperor Qianlong and crosses the point where the Jade River enters the lake (when it flows). At the base of the rear of Longevity Hill is Suzhou Street, built to mimic the waterways and architecture of the famous Jiangsu canal town. Here is where emperors and their concubines would pretend to be common folk by 'shopping' for trinkets in the ersatz stores that lined the shore, with eunuchs acting as shopkeepers. Today it's full of actual souvenir shops, which, ironically, makes it rather authentic.
Commissioned by a local prince in 1427 and sitting beside Palcho Monastery, Gyantse Kumbum is the town’s foremost attraction. This 32m-high chörten, with its white layers trimmed with decorative stripes and crown-like golden dome, is awe-inspiring. But the inside is no less impressive, and in what seems an endless series of tiny chapels you’ll find painting after exquisite painting ( kumbum means ‘100,000 images’). It costs a worthwhile ¥10 for photos (not included in the ticket, bring cash). Gyantse Kumbum has been described as the most important of its kind in Tibet. There are only two contemporaries, both ruined, remote and off limits, in the Buddhist world: Jonang Kumbum, 60km northeast of Lhatse, and the even more remote Chung Riwoche, in the west of Tsang. However, it is commonly held that neither could ever compare with the style and grandeur of the Gyantse Kumbum. Upon entering, follow a clockwise route marked by red arrows that leads murmuring pilgrims up through the six floors, taking in the dozens of tiny chapels that recede into the walls along the way. Much of the statuary in the chapels was damaged during the Cultural Revolution but the murals have weathered well. They date back to the 14th century, and if they were not created by Newari (Nepali) artisans then they were obviously influenced by Newari forms. Experts also see evidence of Chinese influence and, in the fusion of these Newari and Chinese forms with Tibetan sensibilities, the emergence of a syncretic but distinctly Tibetan style of painting. The 1st floor has four main chapels, two storeys high, oriented according to the cardinal points. The four chapels are dedicated to: Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa; along with two disciples, medicine buddhas and Guru Rinpoche) in the south; Sukhavati, the ‘pure land of the west’ and home of red Öpagme (Amitabha) in the west; Marmedze (Dipamkara, the Past Buddha) in the north; and Tushita, another ‘pure land’ and home of orange-faced Jampa (Maitreya), in the east. In between are some excellent murals depicting minor Tantric and protector deities. Statues of the Four Guardian Kings in the east mark the way to the upper floors. On the 2nd floor, the first four chapels in clockwise order from the stairs are dedicated to Jampelyang (known in Sanskrit as Manjushri), Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara), Tsepame (Amitayus) and Drölma (Tara). Most of the other chapels are devoted to wrathful protector deities, including Drölkar (White Tara; 12th chapel from the stairs), Chana Dorje (Vajrapani; 14th chapel) and Mikyöba (Akshobhya; 15th chapel), a blue buddha who holds a dorje (thunderbolt). You can only view the chapels on this floor through the doorway windows. The 3rd floor is also dominated by a series of two-storey chapels at the cardinal points portraying the four Dhyani Buddhas: red Öpagme (Amitabha) in the south; orange Rinchen Jungne (Ratnasambhava) in the west; green Donyo Drupa (Amoghasiddhi) in the north; and blue Mikyöba (Akshobhya) in the east. There are several other chapels devoted to the fifth Dhyani Buddha, white Namse (Vairocana). Again, most of the other chapels are filled with wrathful deities. The 11 chapels on the 4th floor are dedicated to teachers, interpreters and translators of obscure orders of Tibetan Buddhism. Exceptions are the Three Kings of Tibet on the north side (eighth chapel clockwise from the steps) and Guru Rinpoche (10th chapel). The 5th floor, which is also known as the Bumpa, has four chapels and a fine mandala gives access to the roof of the kumbum. Most people are taken in by the outstanding views, especially looking south over the old town where, in the background, the white-walled Gyantse Dzong is perched atop a colossal outcrop. Hidden steps behind a statue on the eastern side lead to the 6th floor and take you onto the verandah at the level of the eyes painted on the wall (this floor was closed for renovation in 2018). The top floor of the kumbum portrays a Tantric manifestation of Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa), but you will likely find the way up locked.
One of China’s most supreme examples of Buddhist cave art, these 5th-century caves are simply magnificent. With 51,000 ancient statues and celestial beings, they put virtually everything else in the Shanxi shade. Carved by the Turkic-speaking Tuoba, the Yungang Caves drew their designs from Indian, Persian and even Greek influences that swept along the Silk Road. Work began in AD 460, continuing for 60 years before all 252 caves, the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China, had been completed. Pass through the visitors centre and a recreated temple on a lake before arriving at the caves. You may find some caves shut for restoration and this is done on a rotational basis. Despite weathering, many of the statues at Yungang still retain their gorgeous pigment. The caves that are deeply recessed, in particular, have been well protected from the outside weather, although the penetration of water from above is a constant hazard. A number of caves were once covered by wooden structures. Many of these are long gone, although the very impressive Caves 5 to 13 are still fronted by recently constructed wooden temples. Some caves contain intricately carved square-shaped pagodas or central columns which you can circumambulate, while others depict the inside of temples, carved and painted to look as though they're made of wood. Frescoes are in abundance and there are graceful depictions of animals, birds and angels, some still brightly painted, and almost every cave contains the 1000-Buddha motif (tiny Buddhas seated in niches). Eight of the caves contain enormous Buddha statues; the largest can be found in Cave 5, an outstanding 17m-high, seated effigy of Sakyamuni with a gilded face. As with many here, the frescoes in this cave are badly scratched and vandalised, but note the painted vaulted ceiling. Bursting with colour, Cave 6, the Cave of Sakyamuni, is also stunning, resembling an overblown set from an Indiana Jones epic with legions of Buddhist angels, Bodhisattvas and other celestial figures. In the middle of the cave, a square block pagoda or column fuses with the ceiling, with Buddhas on each side across two levels. Most foreign visitors are oblivious to the graffiti in bright red oil paint on the right-hand side of the main door frame within the cave, which reads 大同八中 (Dàtóng Bāzhōng, Datong No 8 Middle School), probably courtesy of pupils during the Cultural Revolution. The frescoes here are also badly scratched by recent visitors from the years of turmoil – the 50-year-old date '76.12.8' is etched crudely. The dual chamber Cave 9, the Aksokhya Buddha Cave, is an astonishing spectacle too, with its vast seated and gold-faced Buddha. Caves 16 to 20 are the earliest caves at Yungang, carved under the supervision of monk Tanyao. Cave 16, the Standing Buddha Cave, contains a huge standing Buddha whose middle section is badly eroded. The walls of the cave are perforated with small niches containing Buddhas. Cave 17 houses a colossal 15.6m seated Maitreya Buddha, badly weathered, but intact. Examine the exceptional quality of the carvings in Cave 18; some of the faces are perfectly presented. Cave 19 contains a vast 16.8m-high effigy of Sakyamuni. Entirely exposed to the elements, Cave 20 (AD 460–470) originally depicts a trinity of Buddhas (the past, present and future Buddhas). The huge seated Buddha in the middle is the representative icon at Yungang, while the Buddha on the left has somehow vanished. Prayer mats are arrayed out front so that pilgrims can worship. Past the last set of caves, you can turn off the path down to the slick and informative museum (9.30am to 4.30pm) detailing the Wei Kingdom and the artwork at the caves. English captions are limited. Most of the caves, however, come with good dual Chinese/English captions. English-speaking tour guides can be hired for ¥150; their services include a trip to the museum. Note that photography is permitted in some caves but not in others. To get to the caves, take bus 603 (¥3, 45 minutes) from Datong train station to the terminus. Buses run every 15 minutes. A taxi from Datong is around ¥40 each way. You will pass the rather less appealing but interesting Datong Coal Mine en route.
About 170km southeast of Lhasa, on the north bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River) is Samye Monastery, the first monastery in Tibet. Founded in 775 by King Trisong Detsen, Samye is famed not just for its pivotal history but for its unique mandala design: the Main Hall, known as Ütse, represents Mt Meru, the centre of the universe, while the outer temples represent the oceans, continents, subcontinents and other features of the Buddhist cosmology. As renovation work continues at Samye, the original ling (royal) chapels – lesser, outlying chapels that surround the Ütse – are slowly being restored. Wander around and see which are open. Following is a clockwise tour of the major chapels open at the time of research. Aside from the Ütse, none require any entry fees. Just inside the East Gate, the square in front of the Ütse has some interesting elements, including the Jampel Ling gönkhang (protector chapel). The top-floor balcony offers fine views of the Ütse. The ruined seven-storey Geku (Tower) that used to display festival thangkas has been rebuilt in recent years, and is once again used to display a large thangka during the Samye Dhoede festival. From the East Gate follow the prayer wheels south to the Tsengmang Ling, once the monastery printing press, and just beyond the minor Mela Ling. Further on is another renovated chapel, the Ngamba Ling (Subdued Demon Temple), with modern murals and two 3D mandalas. Past the yellow-walled residential college of the Shetekhang, the restored Aryapalo Ling, Samye’s first building, and Drayur Gyagar Ling, originally the centre for the translation of texts, are worth extended stops. Beside the Sacred Tree that serves as a popular stop for pilgrims and upon which they place stones and tie threads, the upper floor of the Vairosana Lakhang is lined with old paintings and a small chapel to Tantric Buddhist masters. Just north of here is a small chörten that pilgrims circumambulate. The Nugko Jampa Ling is where Samye’s Great Debate was held, and an essential stop. Beyond the modern rebuilds of the relatively minor buildings of the Samten Ling and Jampa Lakhang, the delightful Triple Mani Lhakhang just to the north also has lovely murals. Rounding the corner of the complex past the large Tree Shrine, the first major structure is the Natsok Ling. The chapel is a modern rebuild, but the statues of 21 Taras and the Past, Present, and Future Buddhas are worth a look inside. The green-walled, Chinese-roofed Jangchub Semgye Ling is well worth a stop before breaking from the kora to walk south along the concrete path here to the Dawa Ling, returning after to the kora path. East of here is the Kordzo Pehar Ling, the home of the oracle Pehar until he moved to Nechung Monastery outside Lhasa. It was once a highlight of Samye, but only time will tell what it looks like after the ongoing renovation. Finally, return to the Ütse past the Namdok Trinang Ling. Though quite impressive from the outside, this temple is of relatively minor importance and was not open to visitors at the time of research. It's also possible to enter the four reconstructed concrete chörtens (white, red, green and black), though there is little of interest inside. If you walk for 10 minutes beyond the southern gate, you'll reach the Khamsum Sankhung Ling, a smaller version of the Utse that once functioned as Samye's debating centre. It's been under renovation for years, but there are seemingly no plans to reopen it soon.
The very definition of classical beauty in China, West Lake is utterly mesmerising: pagoda-topped hills rise over willow-lined waters as boats drift slowly through a idyll of leisurely charm. Walkways, perfectly positioned benches, parks and gardens around the banks of the lake offer a thousand and one vantage points for visitors to admire the faultless scenery. Originally a lagoon adjoining the Qiantang River, the lake didn’t come into existence until the 8th century, when the governor of Hangzhou had the marshy expanse dredged. As time passed, the lake’s splendour was gradually cultivated: gardens were planted, pagodas built, and causeways and islands were constructed from dredged silt. Celebrated poet Su Dongpo himself had a hand in the lake’s development, constructing the Su Causeway (苏堤, Sūdī) during his tenure as local governor in the 11th century. It wasn’t an original idea – the poet-governor Bai Juyi had already constructed the Bai Causeway (白堤, Báidī) some 200 years earlier. Lined by willow, plum and peach trees, today the traffic-free causeways with their half-moon bridges make for restful outings. Lashed to the northern shores by the Bai Causeway is Gushan Island (孤山岛, Gūshān Dǎo), the largest island in the lake and the location of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum and Zhongshan Park. The island’s buildings and gardens were once the site of Emperor Qianlong’s 18th-century holiday palace and gardens. Also on the island is the intriguing Seal Engravers Society. Though it was closed for renovations at the time of research, it's dedicated to the ancient art of carving the name seals (chops) that serve as personal signatures. The northwest of the lake is fringed with the lovely Quyuan Garden, a collection of gardens spread out over numerous islets and renowned for their fragrant spring lotus blossoms. Near Xiling Bridge (Xīlíng Qiáo) is Su Xiaoxiao's Tomb, a 5th-century courtesan who died of grief while waiting for her lover to return. It’s been said that her ghost haunts the area and the tinkle of the bells on her gown are audible at night. The smaller island in the lake is Xiaoying Island, where you can look over at Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, three small towers in the water on the southern side of the island; each has five holes that release shafts of candlelight on the night of the mid-autumn festival. From Lesser Yíngzhōu Island, you can gaze over to Red Carp Pond, home to a few thousand red carp. Impromptu opera singing, ballroom dancing and other cultural activities often take place around the lake, and if the weather’s fine, don’t forget to earmark the eastern shore for sunset over West Lake photos. It's hardly needed, but musical dancing fountains burst into action at regular intervals throughout the night and day, close to Lakeview Park. Crowds can be a real issue here, especially on public days off when it can seem as if every holidaymaker in China is strolling around the lake. Escape the jam of people by getting out and about early in the morning – also the best time to spot the odd serene lakeside taichi session. The best way to get around the lake is by bike or on foot.
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