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Monday, September 24, 2018

Zhoukoudian – a (Very) long way to see Very Little!

I have to admit I had been putting if off for months. Not only was it likely to be a tortuous journey using public transport, but I’m not one of those who gets excited by bones and buried artefacts and anthropology generally. But eventually I gave in and set about visiting Zhoukoudian.

Where? I hear you asking…

Zhoukoudian is better known as the place where Peking Man was discovered. It’s located some 45 kms southwest of the centre of Beijing and to get there on public transport is going to take you over three hours in each direction. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see something that calls itself ‘Olympic Torch Square’ – though what the Olympics has to do with this place is anyone’s guess.

Along one side of the square is a mural depicting early man sitting round a camp fire cooking the spoils of a day’s hunting. Hardly that exciting, but it brightens the place up a little.

Around the rest of the square are notice boards telling you all about this site – the fact that Zhoukoudian is the "cradle of Chinese geo-engineers", it being one of the earliest geological survey localities in China. "Up till now more than several ten thousands of geologists and engineers have been trained and educated here", the text gushes. (If several is more than, say, three, then I calculate that must mean a minimum of 30,000 have trained here.) Zhoukoudian was placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1987.

Another notice board adds that "Zhououdian has been called as the home of the Peking Man. Since 700,000 years ago, our ancestors had lived here, experienced the major human development stages ranged from Homo erectus via Archaic Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens sapiens, dominated by Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis), Xindong Man, Tianyuandong Man and Upper Cave Man." (It goes on and on, but my eyes start to feel heavy at this point and I move on.)

As you approach the site, you know you have arrived by a “sculpture’ (for want of a better word) outside.

And walking up the path, there’s a modern looking building ahead behind the ticket office and entry gate.

I part with 30 kwai…

… and start walking up a hill…

… which has a number of little statues on right and left to “put you in the mood”, I guess.

The modern building turns out to be a cover for the cave in which the discovery of Peking man was made. It has windows that look like they can be closed to keep inclement weather at bay.

Locality 1, otherwise known as Longgushan (Dragon Bone Hill) is where a complete skull of Peking man was first discovered on December 2, 1929. And this so-called Pigeon Hall is where evidence for controlled use of fire and many stone tools were discovered. To date, 27 paleontological localities – horizontal and vertical concentrations of deposits – have been found within the cave system. And work is ongoing.

Most of the bones found before World War II were lost under ‘unknown circumstances’. During World War II there was an attempt to smuggle the more notable fossils out of China for safekeeping; they have never been recovered. Very little mention is made of this, though, which seems odd given the fact that the Chinese like to blame the Japanese for so many other things dating from that period.

Entering the cave, your eyes soon adjust to coloured lights on the walls of the karst rock formations.

There are 17 identified strata containing remains of least 45 Homo Erectus and 98 different mammals. Over 100,000 artefacts have been recovered from the site, including over 17,000 stone artefacts, most of which were recovered from layers 4 and 5.

Various slide shows and text are beamed onto the karst walls, and though one might not learn very much, it certainly looks quite impressive.

But after just a few minutes underground, you realise there is actually nothing to see here, and so climbing up into the daylight once again, you are soon faced with another stone staircase leading you up the hill.

There’s a small plateau just a little way up with more ancient warriors (taking home their hunting spoils) – though I notice the ‘wife’ is a lot taller than her ‘husband’. (The notice helpfully tells us that Peking Man came back to the cave after hunting.)

Walking further up the hill you come across a model of a ‘Wholly rhinoceros’. A what?

Well that’s what it says, though I somehow suspect they mean a Woolly Rhino – or Hairy Rhino, as the Chinese translates.

You are now at the Upper Cave, which contained the remains of early modern humans, as opposed to Homo Erectus. This cave was discovered in 1930 and excavated from 1933–34 during which time the roof and north face opening were removed. Excavations found evidence of human habitation in the cave dating back to 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. The cave was divided into an upper level living quarters and a lower level burial ground, while a small recess on the lower level acted as a natural animal trap.

From this vantage point one can look all the way down into that original Pigeon Hall, I started off in. 
But it’s somewhat underwhelming, I fear.

As the site maps show, the entire area is built on steep hills and you somehow know that walking up and down nonstop is what still awaits you.

Up a hill; down a hill; soon one comes to a simulated archaeology site to show how archaeologists set about exploring a find. Hardly exciting stuff.

There’s a notice board explaining how they go about methodically looking for fragments and other archaeological clues…

… while if this is too boring for the average visitor, the site does what so many other Chinese visitor attractions do – place a dinosaur next to a picnic spot – which is guaranteed to attract the family visitors like a magnet.

Actually the picnic area is probably the most attractive spot in the entire park, with a cascading waterfall and koi carp swimming about in the water.

Surveillance cameras are attached to camouflaged poles with fake pine needles to make them look like a rare genus of pine tree.

Soon, the call of nature encourages me to visit the gent’s loo which has a number of information plaques stuck up over the urinals and on the stall doors. Talk about a captive audience!

And I can reveal that the aforementioned ‘wholly rhino’ was indeed a woolly one, and all thanks to what one can read on the walls of a public lavatory. All kinds of lewd jokes spring to mind, but I will desist from the temptation!

There even appears to be a water saving feature in this public convenience, though I’m still trying to work that out.

Very soon, my feet find themselves heading in the direction of the Popular Science Experience Pavilion. Now, I wonder if they mean it’s a popular ‘Science Pavilion’ or a Pavilion for popular science.

Actually it is aimed squarely at bored teens, I think, who wonder why they were brought out all this way to learn about ancient man.

For instance, you can, if you have a mind to, throw rubber balls at walls with videos of animals darting across (presumably to “learn” how homo erectus had to have a sharp eye to be able to hit his prey).

Others prefer to make do with video arcade games…

… though I have to say they look pretty ancient by today’s hi-tech games available on most people’s smartphones.

There’s an attempt, of sorts, to educate the little dears with what-if and how-can questions, stuck up on the walls of an ‘Interactive experience’ room…

… but they get zero interest.

A notice on the floor advises me to “going on” and I do so, out of this popular experience.

Outside, there are examples of deposits containing animal fossils, and something called ‘soherical stalactites’. I keep going on…

Soon I am in what is described as a Rock Landscape (or rock garden, as it’s called on the map) but try as hard as I might, this is one area of the park that seems almost totally devoid of any rocks, with greenery covering everything in sight.

A little further up the hill is a “Scientists’ Memorial”, which is actually a cemetery containing leading scientists who worked at Zhoukoudian. "The scientists devoted their youth to the development of the site research and now are resting here with the green hills and water. To visit the cemetery is a way of commemorating the dead and getting inspired for us.”

And that, dear reader, is practically all there is in this park.

What? No skulls, bones and stone tools? No. It appears that they have been put in a museum some 15 minutes walk from here. Only problem is that there is absolutely no mention of the museum anywhere in this park – even in the visitor centre. Someone has posted on TripAdvisor “The museum is OK if you're into archiology, but really not much there.” (sic).

I find out later that it is in fact a building that the bus careers past on its way to and from this park. But my natural reluctance to spend yet more time looking at fossils and bones kicks in once more, and I decide to head for home, eschewing the potential excitement of seeing yet another skull.

The best way of getting to Zhoukoudian is by bus from Qianmen West. Take the 901 Rapido (which leaves every 30 minutes) and 5 stops later (45 minutes) you get out at Yancun. There you change onto the 38 bus and get out at YuanRenYiZhi (27 stops!) which is the stop after Zhoukoudian BeiZhan. Another route involves going to Liuliqiao East on Subway Line 9 and from there taking the 917 (towards ZhangFang QiCheZhan) getting off at Guce (10 stops) and transferring to the 38. But beware! There are different 917 buses that go to different destinations, and you HAVE to get the right one if you don’t want to end up some 15kms from where you were aiming for! 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Unmissable Tiebi Yinshan

It’s been described as one of the eight most beautiful scenic spots in Beijing during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but I have to say I think that description certainly holds true today.

Silver Mountain Pagoda Forest, a.k.a. Tiebi Yinshan, is located some 45 km north of downtown Beijing and is a part of the Badaling-Ming Tombs Protection Zone of Scenic Spots and Historical Sites. It’s been designated as a national 4A scenic spot as well as one of the 28 designated tourist destinations during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. 

Maybe during the Olympics they laid on fleets of buses for the visitors; but with the rapid expansion of the capital’s subway system, Yinshan is now easy to get to on public transport, albeit that the journey from the city centre is likely to take you just over three hours.

There are 18 pagodas in this area built during the Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The most spectacular are the multi-eaved ones, and they are what everyone comes to see. The eleven ‘overturned-bowl’-shaped ones are boring by comparison.

Pagodas were introduced to China from India along with Buddhism and here they blended with unique Chinese wooden structures such as pavilions, terraces and towers which gave Chinese pagodas a particular charm of their own.

To get to the site, you travel through scenery of rolling mountains and steep cliffs, all covered in pine forests.

The bus drops you unceremoniously in what appears to be the middle of nowhere; but as you walk up the hill (about a 15 minute walk), there are flowers everywhere…

…and the local residents have gone to a lot of trouble to make the place welcoming to visitors.

I particularly like the way they have incorporated a 3D cart into a 2D painted backdrop that runs along the road for a few hundred metres.

Everywhere (it being nearly autumn) there are trees loaded down with ripening chestnuts

Finally you arrive at the ‘scenic spot’ (only another five minutes to the ticket office now!).

You can see how the park is laid out on this map. We have just entered on the road at the bottom…

‘Yinshan’ or ‘Silver Mountain’ was so named because in winter the snow-covered mountain is said to be as white as silver. ‘Tie (iron)’ refers to the colour of the rocks on the mountain, which are mainly granite, and are rich in minerals such as manganese and iron, which have become black owing to erosion. The dead lichen and moss on the surface of rocks adds to the overall colour. So, the rocks of the Yinshan Mountain are as black as iron’. ‘Bi (wall). refers to the shape of the Mountain. The cliffs are as steep as walls. Thus the mountain was called ‘Iron-Wall Silver Mountain’ by the ancient Chinese.

At the ticket office is a Tourism Bureau whose only purpose in life appears to be to try to sell you guided tours. Worth avoiding!

But once I have my entrance ticket (20RMB) I enter the park proper.

There’s no sign of any pagodas as yet (although along the way there are the remains of former stupas with no signing on them whatsoever).

Here’s another stupa… Maybe it too was pagoda-shaped once upon a time?

Eventually the path makes a slight turn and all of a sudden is the sight that everyone comes to see.

This cluster of pagodas was where a former temple stood. The five multi-eaved pagodas were built in the Jin Dynasty and represent the largest and best-preserved of their kind in China. The five pagodas here are among the 100 still extant in the country.

There’s a diagram on display showing how the temple was laid out in former times.

In the early Tang Dynasty (618-907) , the Avatamasaka Temple with more than 70 rooms was built here; but the temple fell into disrepair over the centuries.

In the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), Man Gong, a Zen master, built the Temple of Precious Rock here. Later, three other Zen masters came to practice and preach Buddhism. The temple was then expanded in 1125 during the Jin Dynasty with personal funds from the empress, and renamed the Great Temple of Perpetual Holiness. It was renovated in the early 15th century. Many more temples were built around Yinshan Mountain during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).

In 1428 it was rebuilt under the sponsorship of a eunuch called Wu Liang. It became a complex with three main halls lying on the axis as well as Jialan Hall and Zushi Hall, corridors and monks' dormitories on the two sides. In 1437, Emperor Yingzong visited Silver Mountain and gave the temple yet another name: "Splendour-of-the-Buddha Temple". Construction of 72 nunneries on the mountain was started.

But, the once-so-celebrated temple was ruined during the War of Resistance against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. All that is now left are some pagodas, wells and broken tablets and walls. Amazingly you can find very little on the web about the demolition of the site. One can only wonder…

There are seven pagodas in the temple including two Lama pagodas (shown here on the right) and five multi-eave brick pagodas. In the five are enshrined relics of some of the earliest monks in the Jin dynasty.

Some of the wildlife up here is stunning, with beautiful blue butterflies of a kind I have not seen before, and this lovely green beetle who is much more happy to pose for me that his butterfly friends.

Once you have taken in the sights of the pagoda cluster, you will no doubt be looking forward to seeing how many of the other pagodas you can find in the park. A word of caution: from here on you will be walking up endless steps, some of which are well made, such as these ones, but of which the majority make for difficult climbing. You should take a walking stick with you if you have one. I can guarantee that your leg, calf and thigh muscles will be hating you by the end of the day if you try to make it to the top! Also take plenty of water with you! It’s a tough climb!

Just above the former temple is what is known as The Luoluo Cave. This was a place where the monks lived and practised Buddhism. It was once called the Cave of Multiple Layered Rocks; but Luoluo is a nickname given by local people, meaning ‘piled up caves’.

However, there is nothing to get excited about. You aren’t allowed anywhere near the cave entrance.

Further up the hill is another cave – the Sun Facing Cave, which used to be another place where the monks lived.

Monks' activities can be seen in the cave we are told without the notice going into specifics.

Yet higher up the hill we come to the Waist Turning Pagoda.

This Lama Pagoda was built in the Ming and Qing dynasties and only its base and parts of its body are left. (Was it knocked over by the Japanese, I wonder? Again we are not told.) It is the highest pagoda in the forest park, and legend has it that by circling this pagoda three times clockwise and three times anticlockwise one can get rid of pains in waist and legs (which you presumably wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t just climbed up the mountain to see it!) . This is why it was called Waist-Turning Pagoda.

But from it you can get excellent views of the surrounding hills … and if you look carefully you can just make out the ruined temple below you.

I like the way that have gone to great lengths to camouflage rain water pipes that have been laid by the paths. OK, it doesn’t fool anyone, but at least they made the effort!

Near the Waist-Turning Pagoda is what is labelled as The Preaching Platform. Legend has it that Deng Yinfeng, a celebrated monk in the Tang Dynasty, preached here. To which I can only say Big Deal! There is nothing to see except for some grass and the remains of a wall.

Sometimes one comes across unmarked stupas such as this one. I’m sure there’s a tale to be told, but the park guardians haven’t seen fit to share any details with us.

There’s also something called the Ancient Buddha Rock. Engravings and Buddha statues made by ancient people can be found on the rocks, one is told. But the graffiti looks pretty modern, as far as my untutored eye can tell. Either that, or the ancients had some very advanced inks they used in those days.

I climb down the steps once more, my legs giving my brain a piece of their mind! And just to the side of the five + two pagodas I saw at the start, I find yet another parked casually by in an adjoining field.

There’s also a cage with bits that have fallen off past stone masterpieces. Maybe this is all that is left after the baddie Japs inflicted the damage the blurb hints at?

In summary, you might feel that travelling some seven hours in a day purely to see seven pagodas standing in some ruins is somewhat pushing it. But, if you have any reason to be this far north of the capital, I can honestly say you’d be well advised to go and see Yinshan.

Oh, and a word to the wise… if you want to save yourself the 20 RMB entrance fee, simply enter where it says Road Closed, some 200 metres before the ticket office and make a loop around, turning right at every junction. That’s what all the locals appear to do.

Take the Changping line to Nanshao station and exit from B2. 100 metres ahead of you is a bus stop from where you take the local Chang 31 bus (two every hour). 16 stops and over an hour later you should get off at HuMenCun (the stop after Yinshan Lukou). Walk for about 600 metres under the archway and up the hill, and you will eventually arrive at the park entrance. The ticket office is another 200 metres further on.