China launched its first self-built aircraft carrier today. Its only previous one was a refurbished second-hand Russian ship. The military build up in China is getting very noticeable and a little bit worrying.
Closer to home, JD's choice of outing today was to YuanTong Temple across town. He's recently been copying Jiajia when she prays to Buddha and he wanted to try praying by himself! He particularly enjoyed the prayer wheels at the Tibetan Temple next door.
I read about XuNing Temple online last week and realised it's not so far from my University. So yesterday I drove up the hill slowly on my e-bike for a look-see. It's a large complex with great views over Kunming. Plus, there was no more than half a dozen people there and it's ticket-free. I hope to take JD there at the weekend as I'm sure he'll enjoy the huge dragons.
We're back in Bangkok. Ava has been keen to visit the Erawan Shrine; not the largest temple in Bangkok but the most famous. She said she wanted to pray to the Buddha there (depite me pointing out that it was actually a statue of Brahma, a Hindu god!). Beside the shrine are a groups of musicians and dancers who will perform for a fee as you pray. It was fun to watch them, but they must get so bored!
I'd read that the Erawan shrine was the target of a bombing last year, killing 27 people so, when I saw an unattended backpack on a bench, I thought it wise to alert one of the guards. He rather sheepishly explained it was his bag and quickly moved it out of sight. Better safe than sorry!
JD and I visited YuanTong Temple today. It was buzzing with activity as tomorrow is Ghost Festival in China - a bit like Halloween in the West. Ava has already bought various fake banknotes and paper items to burn in memory of her grandmother. I was intrigued to see that the money is issued by the "Hell Bank"! With the recent worldwide financial crises you might feel they need to be more specific...
Ava, JD and I spent a lovely morning at the Golden Temple yesterday along with my friends/colleagues Cindy and Martin, their daughter Liv, and two of their Chinese friends. Liv and JD love each other's company and it's a shame that Cindy and Martin are heading back to Australia in a few weeks. We've really appreciated their support and friendship.
When I pointed out how long JD's hair was getting the other day and offered to give him a quick buzz with our shaver, I was told he just needed a trim. So I snipped off a few of the longer bits myself and left it at that. But when I returned home yesterday, I found he'd been taken to a hairdresser by our Nanny to be given a crew cut. Drastic, or what? If I didn't know it would grow back pretty quickly, I might have got slightly annoyed.
My fears were heightened however, when my wife whisked him off today to the Bamboo Temple to meet the monks. Was the haircut a means to enrol him in the holy order? Thankfully, a quick blessing and some sightseeing photos later, they returned home.
Does the scene above look a bit nativity-like to you? I spotted it in the Chen Clan Temple in Guangzhou yesterday. It's a Buddhist Temple, but famous for its western influences and quite unlike any other Chinese temple I've seen. It's "only" 120 years old but the ornate and coloured decorations have survived really well and the courtyard is full of ancient and more modern artwork. Jiajia and I visited it during a free half-day we had here in Guangzhou following our visa application visit.
We are staying with a lovely couple whose empty flat in Shenzhen Ava uses when she is buying stock there every month. It helps (me) that they both speak great English, so I can converse easily with them. Yesterday evening, they took us on a walk from their flat to an amazing pedestrianised area on the banks of the Pearl River. The surrounding skyscrapers were beautifully lit. The central one below is the "Four Seasons Hotel" and, pretending to be guests, we took the elevator 70 floors up for a free look-see. A very memorable evening.
Dave and Esme have had surprisingly little jet lag and have been keen to get out and about during their first full day in Kunming before heading on to other cities, towns and villages. They started today with a visit to the house to meet JD, ma-in-law and our Nanny. JD quickly forged quite a bond with Esme and was very happy to be held and played with for as long as she had the patience. Then off to Green Lake Park to see impromptu dancing and singing, followed by the more tranquil, YuanTong Temple [shown here, with umpteen turtles]. It's Kunming's largest and most active temple and we enjoyed exploring the various sections. We were also lucky enough to stumble across 25-30 local ladies (and a few men) chanting and hitting various bells and drums as part of one of their services.
Jiajia and I took JD out for an outing this afternoon. We had seen a small road leading up a mountain about 15 mins drive from our house and had been told it led to a forest/park. The road got smaller and smaller until we hit a locked car barrier. We thought about getting out the baby stroller, but then spotted 100 steps leading further up the mountain. So we took turns to carry JD and trudged on up, stopping off at various small pagodas to catch our breath. We seemed to be the only people there - maybe it wasn't public after all?
At the top, we stumbled on the half-finished "LianHua Temple", due to be finished by the end of the year [see artist's impression above]. The people overseeing the work there were very friendly. They opened up an office to let us have a rest and started plying JD with apples! JD, meanwhile, was much more interested in the attention of two puppies who enjoyed chasing him round the courtyard.
It was the first half-finished temple I'd visited and the basic statues, in particular, were fascinating - bizarrely unfinished as they were [see below]. We plan to revisit early next year to see it in its finished form.
JD is saying half-a-dozen words now although, unfortunately, half of them are "baba". Baba can mean "daddy", "baby", "bird", "bye-bye" etc.
Yesterday I drove JD, Ava and our nanny out to Guandu, a restored "Old Town" on Kunming's outskirts. It's particularly famous for its bean-filled flatbreads called, somewhat frustratingly, "baba". And so it was that JD's baba gave his baba some baba...
It was a National Holiday, so Guandu was full of families enjoying the sunshine. As ever, JD stands out quite a lot and enjoyed some nice little interactions with Chinese babies and curious adults.Inside one temple he became quite taken with a handmade leaf-hat one girl was wearing. Once she stopped giggling, she gently "crowned" JD with her laurel headdress, which immediately slipped down onto his shoulders. JD's consequent laughter caused a few heads to turn and made the girl's day, I think. Baba!
Yesterday was Valentines Day. Ava bought me 5 new goldfish (to replace George, Margaret and Gemma who, frankly, didn't last very long!). I bought her some cacti and a cheesecake!?
It was also Lantern Festival yesterday, which marks the end of Spring Festival, and one of the many traditions associated with it is to visit a Buddhist temple and eat vegetarian food. A friend of Ava's friends offered to show us a new temple we'd not seen before, tucked away amongst a housing estate.There can't be many temples in or around Kunming that I haven't visited before, so I grabbed the chance to explore a new one. It was small and a fairly modern build I think, but the people who had gathered there to celebrate were very friendly and we had a nice meal and an interesting look round. There were no monks, as such, but it seems to be run very efficiently by a band of local elderly women. It reminded me of a community gathering in a church hall at times.
The nanny and I took JD for a walk yesterday, heading for a temple I'd seen some time ago on the hill behind my house. It's probably less than a kilometre away as the crow flies, but getting there requires a good half hour walk along the road around the hill. Ma-in-law had told me not to bother going, as it was closed today but, as we approached, we smelled incense billowing over the walls and heard the sound of a Buddhist band singing, chanting and crashing cymbals. Then I saw an embarassed nanny:
"We can't let JD go in", she said.
"Why not?" I replied.
"Because your mother-in-law thinks it's bad luck".
"But it's not bad luck. In Chinese tradition, it's good luck. And she's not here anyway. Let's go".
"Yes, I know, but she said I was to stop you."
"I'm not sure, but please leave JD outside or I'll get into trouble"
"But she won't even know"
"...she'll know. She'll find out ...please!!"
So as usual I swallowed my pride and let Ma have her way (even though she wasn't even there!) and had a look-see by myself. It was a small, but reassuringly unrestored and unprettified, temple with a group of surprisingly active and friendly participants. I intend to go back there again properly sometime soon (despite Ma's best efforts to thwart my curiousity) and investigate it in a less rushed way.
Can you see the hidden word in my photos from another temple below:
I had a day off recently and headed to the North Train Station. It only has 3-4 trains a day, serving the suburbs, but I'd been told it was quite fun watching the city traffic come to a standstill as your train passes through the railway crossing, and then seeing city gradually turn to countryside, all for a 2RMB (20p) ticket. In any case, the journey only lasts 40mins and, after shunting the engine round for 20mins, heads back. However, on arrival I found my chosen train had been cancelled and the next one was due 3 hours later.
So instead, I pulled out my map and decided to walk for an hour to TanHua Park. I'd spotted it on the map before, but never made it. The 5RMB (50p) entrance fee was a bargain - a surprisingly nice find. Old folk were sitting in the many nooks and crannies, playing cards or mahjong [see photo above], but otherwise the park was quiet and pleasantly uncrowded. At the top of the hill was an impressive pagoda tower, sadly locked [see photo right]. The grounds were well kept, though the rusting funfair rides had seen better days! Another hour's walk and I returned home trainless, tired but tanned.
Earlier this week I had dinner at the house of a Chinese teacher from my school and was fascinated by their large aquarium - home to fish big and small. Unlike many such tanks in China, it also had a nice selection of real plants, so the fish looked like they were in a more natural setting. It reminded me of my recent snorkelling in the Philippines.
But yesterday Ava and I visited a friend's house for dinner and discovered a much more unusual pet. A baby owl! It was very tame and apparently likes to fly around their large flat. But with the wife due to have a baby in a month, I sincerely hope the bird doesn't grow too much bigger or hungrier.
The other big surprise in their flat was a whole room devoted to Buddhism. The husband is a keen devotee and it felt like walking into a mini-temple with incense burning and recorded chanting in the background. Luckily, the evening meal did include some "meat for the visitors"!
With another day off work, I suggested showing Jiajia the Daoist temple I stumbled across back in May. It's on the outskirts of Kunming, and tucked away in the middle of a run-down town apparently called Garlic Village! Splash along a muddy road, climb over a rubbish tip and walk past a stinky, overflowing public toilet and there it is, up a steep flight of stairs - a real gem. The monks were holding a funeral ceremony when we arrived, in full song and wearing some beautiful robes. As we watched discreetly, the head monk spotted us and seemed to shoo us away. But as we started to wander off, he ran out and made it was clear he was inviting us in to watch (but no photos). We stood behind the drummers watching the elaborate dances, chants and burning incense.
Exploring the rest of the temple was equally fascinating, not least the animal life there, such as enormous spiders and their webs [photo, left], goldfish, a goat, a giant toad and this little turtle [photo, right] seemingly trying to copy the pose of the dragon's head he's resting on!
It's about a year since Jiajia's Grandmother died, so we took a visit to her grave yesterday to pay our respects. Jiajia was brought up by her Gran and she still thinks and talks about her often. It's about an hour's drive from the city. You can see the enormous cemetery in the background in this photo. It's actually a pleasant enough place to visit - lots of greenery, very well kept up, overlooking a lake, piped lift music everywhere, etc.
Afterwards, we visited the fantastic Pan Long Si Temple which is nearby. It's the most important Buddhist Temple in the Kunming Area and apparently the most visited (though it was pleasantly quiet while we were there).
It's an enormous and really interesting complex, and yet gets less foreign visitors than other Kunming Temples as it's 40km from the city and tricky to get to (without a car).
The "Arhats" [see photo above] are disciples of Buddha and their 3D depictions on the walls there were stunning.
The many temple halls had various statues [see photo right] and were decorated in different ways, so there was plenty to see.
There was a small and dingy museum, too, where Jiajia tried to copy the pose in one of the pictures [see below left]. And we saw a tree growing through the middle of a covered walkway which "suddenly seemed to sprout arms" when I went to take it's photograph [see below right]! All in all, a temple worth revisiting, and a bargain at 8RMB (80p)!
Thailand has some of the most impressive Buddhist Temples in the world and there's a real danger of visiting too many, too quickly and finding them all much the same (getting "templed out" is the technical term!). But Oli and Ling drove us out to Wat Phrae today and it really is a stunning collection of buildings.
With some parts dating back over 500 years, the temple felt active, "lived in" and cared for (without being overly restored). It seemed like there was something of interest or a new architectural style awaiting around every corner. Yet we saw very few other foreigners there, being some way out of (an untouristy) town. I particularly enjoyed a large gong which, when stroked in a certain way, emitted a low humming noise. An energetic party of uniformed school children started it with a stick until I showed them how to do the strokey/hummy thing and after that it was all they wanted to do!
After Wat Phrae we drove into the countryside to visit a large plaster Buddha perched on the top of a hill overlooking Lampang. Ling and Ava have quickly become best buddies [see photo], as I suspected they would, chatting in away in Kunming local language and sharing all sorts of "in-jokes"! The Buddha was fun to see, but more impressive were the hundreds of butterflies collecting pollen from the surrounding flowers - fluttering movement as far as the eye could see.
In the evening, Oli and Ling rang the changes with dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Quite different from the Thai food we have been enjoying so far, but also delicious.
The destinations of a few of the dozen or so buses that stop outside my flat are still unknown to me. I can't read the Chinese characters on the bus route signs and, even when I can, I don't know where the places are in Kunming. There's nothing quite like a map, a notebook and sense of adventure!
So the other day I jumped onto the first "mystery" bus that came along to see where it led. It was the start of a lovely and lucky afternoon.
After about 45 minutes, the bus terminated outside the Kunming Botanical Gardens (somewhere now very much on my list of places to visit) and just down the road from Black Dragon Pool Park [see photo]. I've been there once before last year with Ava, for our first proper date!
On the journey there, however, I'd noticed a small sign pointing to a Daoist Temple, 1km away. So on the way back I jumped off the bus and determined to try and find it... easier said than done, as it happened. The road suddenly ended when crossed by a dual carriageway, still under construction [see photo]. A few enquiries suggested the old road continued across the dual carriageway, so I headed on. The village at the end of the road smelled awful - sewers overflowing - and still no sign of the temple.
A local lady spotted me looking here and there. She kindly offered to show me the way to the temple. I'm not sure I'd have found it otherwise, as it was down a series of small alleyways. But I could hear it due to the dozens of little bells there, tinkling in the breeze.
The temple turned out to be well worth effort, though. The Daoist monks - both men and women - were decked out in traditional robes and were very friendly, insisting on giving me fruit and wanting to chat. There were only a couple of other (Chinese) visitors, and no tickets or guards (as most Chinese temples have these days).The temple walls have wonderful murals on, depicting ancient religious stories. They looked fresh without seeming too new or tacky.
There was a fantastic 3D diorama on the back of one temple, featuring a host of deities riding a large tidal wave. And inside the various temple halls were some enormous statues (the monks asked me not to photograph them). It was one of the quietest, most interesting and friendly temples I've ever been to in China. What a lucky find! I'll certainly be back!
Next week is China's annual "Tomb Sweeping Festival" where people return to their ancestor's graves to tidy them up and celebrate their lives. Jiajia will be in Shenzhen again next week, so today we took the opportunity to avoid the crowds and pay an early visit to her Gran's grave. The cemetery is about an hour's drive outside Kunming, though as we hit a series of tailbacks from various traffic accidents on the highway (one was a five car pile up), it took us longer.
Jiajia was raised by her Grandmother, so it was particularly sad when she passed quite suddenly about 6 months ago. Jiajia still thinks and talks about her a lot and was naturally a little upset when visiting her grave. Her Gran was a strong believer in Buddhism, so Jiajia honoured her belief by finding her a spot in a Buddhist cemetery, overlooking an auspicious temple called "PanLongSi". After leaving flowers and cake, and burning incense and fake money we visited the small temple in the cemetery for a chat with the monk there. Ava said she also prayed for my dizziness to stop, which was a kind thought (I've had worse dizziness over the last week since starting to take the medicine designed to stop it!?). Despite black clouds, the rain held off (the government are said to be seeding clouds to try and overcome the current drought) and we drove back to busy and noisy Kunming having enjoyed the peacefulness and birdsong of the cemetery.
Jianshui (pron: jen shway) is a small, well-preserved town about a 4 hour bus ride from Kunming. I last went there some 13 years ago, but only to visit teachers I was training at one of their schools. I also passed through the town about 2 years ago en route to the YuanYang Rice Terraces. I saw this gate (on a roundabout) then and decided to return and explore the old town sometime. So Jiajia and I headed there today.
Jianshui's two claims to fame are it's "chaodofu" (smelly tofu) and the Confucius Temple (one of the largest in China). I'm not a big fan of the former, but the Temple was very impressive - large, active and very well-kept (if expensive, at 60RMB or £6 a ticket). It also helped to be there on a warm and sunny day.
The highlight for me, though, was spotting this UFO hovering above the temple. It was a pinprick spot [see red circle] but, when I zoomed in on it with my camera, an odd and fascinating shape was revealed. Not very "aeroplane" or "balloon"! It stayed in the sky for some minutes, but when Jiajia and I glanced back after chatting about it, the object had completely disappeared. Very spooky.
Despite forecasts of rain, today turned out to be dry and sunny, so Jiajia and I decided to drive out to Black Dragon Pool Park on the outskirts of Kunming. After parking the car we got a bit of a shock to see goats munching on moss on the roof of a nearby restaurant! [see photo].
The ever-reliable Lonely Planet guide is a bit negative about Black Dragon Pool Park, but we found plenty of interest - trees, temples and towers mostly. The pool itself has an interesting story attached to it. It's split into two parts by a pretty bridge, with the water on one side noticeably muddier than the water on the other side. Apparently this has been a mystery for centuries and the only time when the colours of the water swap over is just before an earthquake!
This afternoon I taught Jiajia to play Monopoly (rather too well - she won) and then we had a delicious Muslim meal in the evening with mutual friends. All in all, a really nice day.
I’m probably in Colombo a day longer than I need (or want) to be. It’s such a big city that to get anywhere means a crowded bus, super-slow train or exhausting walk (with persistent cries of "Taxi?" from every passing tuk-tuk). Still, I need to do a little shopping, and there are a variety of religious buildings to view – Muslim mosques, Hindu Devi temples [see photo], Buddhist shrines and Christian churches dating back to the British occupation of the island. I had a nice meal at a restaurant famous for being used in Duran Duran’s "Hungry like the wolf" video and later, having had my fill of cheap and cheerful curries, I took the chance to blow my budget on a tasty Pizza Hut meal.
Sigiriya Palace is a day trip from Dambulla and a fascinating site. On arrival, I was somewhat take aback by the ticket price ($25) which is not only the amount of my daily budget on this trip for everything – hotel, food, tickets, travel, etc, but also, I think, more than I’ve paid for any tourist site, anywhere in the world. After that little shock though, the day itself was great fun and fascinating. The Palace is built on a steep hill which rises out of the surrounding plains like some sort of Sri Lankan "Ayers Rock". You approach it through what used to be water gardens, temple buildings carved from huge boulders and small caves. These are all ruins now, but it’s easy enough to imagine what it was once like. Then up a series of steps, viewing ancient, but extremely well-preserved, frescoes on the way. The halfway point is at the bottom of the photo. Climbing these next steps involves passing to half a dozen large hornet nests [middle left black dots in photo]. As I arrived, other tourists were rushing into a heavily netted shed, as there were rumours that the hornets were about to swarm. I waited a few minutes, but really quite fancied climbing the steps by myself, so set off before the cowering crowds re-emerged! Arriving unstung at the top of the rock I explored the remains of an enormous palace (or possibly temple – no one is quite sure) and enjoyed the great views. It was very windy but a nice way to cool off after the hot and tiring ascent. Then it was time to face the hornets again…!
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