Monday, December 23, 2013

climbing to the golden summit at wudang mountain

Our second day in the Wudang mountains we did the hike from Nanyan to the very top of the mountain and the monastery there called the Golden Temple. The hike took us around 3 to 4 hours. We took many rest breaks and were in no hurry. It is all stone steps, but it is a lot of steps, 2,000 some in total we heard. Some of the steps aren't very steep, while with others, you are pretty much crawling up them.

When you start the hike you go downhill for a bit which can be a little disconcerting, since you know you are going to have to make it back up sooner or later. But what is really bad about starting downhill is the fact that it means at the end of the day when you walk back down, you end walking uphill when your legs are completely spent.
The reason you start downhill is so the trail can go through the first of the many temple you pass through on your way to the top.

The first temple you hit after walking downhill.

The main shrine in the first temple.
After you descend, you walk on some pretty flat terrain for awhile and get some really nice views. Along the entire hike, there are many red pieces of fabric hanging next to the trail that are ways of making offerings.

Some trees full of the red fabric.
It's not very long before you hit the uphill. It at least starts out fairly easy, to warm the legs up before the really hard stuff.

If you don't feel like walking up, you can also have some Chinese guys carry you up, like this lady.

 Around halfway up the path you hit the second major temple, the Pilgrims Temple. Here you have the choice of going left or right. The left trail is longer but less steep, while the right trail is shorter, steeper and goes through more temples. We took the right trail up and the left trail down. While steeper going up is hard on the thighs, steeper going down is hard on the knees.

The Pilgrims Temple

Maggie let Andrew take the extra steps to explore the temple while she rested at the bottom.
Once you pass the Pilgrims Temple and go right, it does start to get a lot steeper. There are some sets of stairs that seem to go on forever.

You go through two arches called Heaven Gate One and Two before you hit another temple that is a sign that you are getting very close to the top.

The temple that lets you know, you are getting close.

The view from the "Getting Close" Temple.
Just when you think you can't take anymore stairs, you get to the top and are rewarded with some impressive temples. We heard that during the Cultural Revolution, the Communists didn't make it all the way to the top, so supposedly, the Golden Temple is fairly true to its 1400's building.

 After paying your entry to the Golden Temple, you are surprised with... wait for it, more stairs. Actually a fair amount more stairs. The Monastery takes up a fairly large area of the summit and to get to the actual Golden Temple, you have to keep climbing until there's nowhere else up to go.

More stairs.

The coolest knocker ever on one of the temple doors.

Getting closer to the top, everything starts falling away from you and you realize how high up you are.
As you climb to the Golden Temple, you get a good view back on the Monastery.

Then finally the climbing is over and you feel like you are on the top of the world. Mountain peaks fall away from you all the way to the horizon in all directions. It is quite breath taking.

It was also cold.
The Golden Temple from right below it.

A quick lunch with some Health Wine, before heading back down.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

wudang mountains, day one

From Xi'an we headed to a place Andrew had been excited about going since we decided we were going to China, the Wudang Mountains. They are one of the sacred Taoist mountains and the supposed birthplace of Taoist Martial Arts (Taichi, Baguazhang & Xing Yi Quan).

We took a bus from Xi'an to Wudangshan, the city at the foot of the mountains. It was a scenic bus ride through many mountains and across many rivers.

Once we arrived in Wudangshan, we took an hour bus ride up into the Wudang Mountains to the small village of Nanyan were we stayed. We arrived late at night and it was freezing, so after walking up the only street in town, we found a hotel, turned on the heater and got under the covers. For some reason, the residents of this town didn't understand the concept of keeping the warmth in. Everywhere we went, all the windows and doors were wide open, even though it was close to freezing. When we got in our room, the window was wide open. Even the restaurants in the town kept their doors wide open. We got good at using chopsticks with our gloves still on.

The next day we headed out to visit one of the more famous monasteries on the mountain called the Purple Cloud Monastery. From Nanyan, it was around a half an hour walk down the road we came up from the bottom. We could have taken the bus, that would have been free, but on the bus we wouldn't have had great views like this.

On our way down the the Purple Cloud Monastery, we passed a famous Taoist hermit, Grandpa Jia, who is known for being very nice to anyone who wants to visit him. He is around 70 years old and has lived in a cave above the Monastery for most of his life. Andrew went into his home to meet him, but he was in the middle of making breakfast, so it was a short meeting - a man's got to eat.

Andrew right outside of his cave home.
Photo of Grandpa Jia (courtesy of Vitalii--not our photo)
Right below Grandpa Jia's cave is the suppoesd platform where Taichi was invented.

After leaving Grandpa Jia to his breakfast, we headed down to the Purple Cloud Monastery.

Entrance to the Monastery
The Monastery is famous for movies being shot there because of its classic look, even though apparently it was built in the 80s. One thing you won't find on any of the many plaques around the Wudang Mountains talking about the place's history is that during the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party destroyed almost all the monasteries and temples on the mountain, just like they did most of the cultural heritage of the country. They were rebuilt soon after (probably when they realized they wanted the tourist dollars from them!). We were told that the reason they still look so old is that they were built very poorly in the 80s and have just fallen into ruin that quickly.

Even knowing that, we still thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Monastery. One thing we saw a lot of were large cauldrons used to burn joss paper, which is a form of offerings to the gods. They are very intricately designed with many dragons all over them. Dragons are the most scared animals in Taoism and represent Heaven.

Close up of a dragon on the top of a cauldron.
The Wudang Mountains are known for being the sacred spot for a particular Taoist Deity, Xuan Wu. He is a very old deity and has many stories about his origins, but he is usually depicted with a turtle. There are two different stories about why this is, one being that he slayed an evil turtle. Another is that the deity used to be a turtle, but because of a common Chinese slur comparing someone to turtle droppings, the deity was changed to a warrior. Either way, there are lots of turtle statues around the mountain.

The Monastery is still active with mostly Taoist Priests and Nuns working at it. We explored the grounds for a few hours and found temples in nooks and crannies everywhere. It really was a spectacular place.

The main temple on the grounds.

One of the many altars scattered around the Monastery.
When we were done at the Purple Cloud Monastery we headed back to Nanyan and walked to a temple complex called the South Temple Complex. It was perched on the side of the mountains and had a spectacular view south, hence the name.

A view of the temple complex from Nanyan.

Walking to the South Temple Complex, we got a view of the trail we were to walk the next day to the Golden Temple at the very top of the Wudang Mountains.

More Turtles.

Maggie posing at the entrance to the South Temple Complex.

Getting there and away:
We had a lot of trouble finding information about travel to Wudangshan, and the few blogs we found talking about it were really valuable to our planning. Just in case anyone who finds this blog is having the same trouble, our logistics:
From Xi'an, we took a bus that left at 11am and arrived at about 4:30pm to Wudangshan Village, which is at the bottom of the mountain, outside the park (officially called the Wudang Scenic Area). From here, the entrance to the park was practically across the street. If you're on the same bus we were--and it looked like there were other buses there as well--you'll pull into a dirt parking lot, and you leave it and turn left, and walk for maybe five minutes. It's pretty obvious when you get to the huge complex of shops at the Wudang entrance, which will then be on your right.
For the bus, we just went to the bus station with a picture on our phone of our Google-Translated phrase that said something like, "Two tickets on the morning bus to Wudangshan, please," and this is the bus we ended up with.
We were hoping to stay at Nanyan, the village at the bottom of the main hiking trail to the Golden Summit, because we couldn't find any information about whether the (exorbitant, even more than every other tourist attraction in China) entrance fee was good for leaving and coming back in. We're still not sure about that--all we know is that, for the 240 yuan/person fee, we got entrance to the park and unlimited rides on the inside-the-park bus system (which you pretty much have to take to get up to Nanyan/the bottom of the Golden Summit trail. It takes about 45 minutes by bus, and we hear it takes nearly 8 hours walking). But weren't sure if we'd be too late to get into the park that day, and thought we might have to stay at the bottom of the mountain and go up the next day instead. Luckily, the park gates were open until 5:30 (in the winter--maybe later in the summer?) and we were able to get in and go up on the last bus of the day.
In Nanyan, we hadn't reserved a hotel since we weren't sure we'd make it up that night, but were able to find one for 120 yuan, which was about the same as everywhere else we stayed. And it was...fine. There are a couple really nice hotels up there, but most of them are just a serviceable as any normal room in China. At least there was hot water...
The next day, we walked down to the Purple Cloud Monastery (which charged its own 15 yuan entrance fee) and took the bus back up, and the day after that, we went up to the Golden Summit. The walk took us about 3 hours, including a few not-too-long breaks, and was definitely a strenuous walk, with lots of very steep uphills, but there are lots of places to stop, and lots of vendors selling water and snacks and even beer along the way. We knew we could do it when we saw whole families with toddlers hiking up with us. There's also a cable car that I think costs 80 yuan each way, but we didn't take it. At the top, they charge another 27 yuan entrance fee (I know! It's insane!), but you can't really get all the way up there and not visit the temple. The views really were amazing.
To leave Wudang, we took a very long train to Shanghai. We first had to take the 45 minute bus down the mountain, and the Wudangshan train station is actually in the next town over, a good ~20-25 minute drive from the park gate. Supposedly there's a bus that runs there for 10 yuan (and probably takes at least twice as long, since they go quite slow and stop a bunch), but we met up with a Chinese guy who was also on his way there and shared a cab for 50.

Hope this helps someone have a bit more of an idea what they're getting into traveling to Wudangshan!

Monday, December 16, 2013

xi'an, that's pronounced shiy-an

Our next stop was the city of Xi'an. It is the ancient capitol of China and is about a twelve hour train ride from Beijing. We took a sleeper train, so most of the time we slept but in the morning we got to see the sights on our way into Xi'an.

For a country as large as China, you would think that you would see a lot of open land, but that doesn't seem to be the case. For hours this is what it looked like, farms with tall buildings in the background. I don't think there's anywhere in China where you're out of sight of a building over ten stories - or pollution.

The old part of Xi'an is a walled city and we were staying within the walls.

We lucked out and got a place right in the heart of the city with its most iconic building right across the street. It's called the Bell Tower and is kind of like the Big Ben of China. During the day, it's alright looking, but at night when it lights up, it's spectacular.

We were also very close to Xi'an's famous Muslim Quarter. Xi'an was the beginning of the historic Spice Road, so it has quite a large Muslim population and after a week of Chinese food, we were ready for a little Muslim food: good old bread and potatoes.

Even on a Wednesday, the Muslim Quarter is pretty crowded.
While exploring the city, we ran across the fanciest Burger King we had ever seen, so we had to stop in.

It is kind of sad to say, but we were still on a once a day Subway Restaurant routine. One Chinese meal a day was all our stomachs could take, so the other one would inevitably be Subway (it never hurts to Eat Fresh). When we leave China, we need to go to Subway Corporate Headquarters and give them our report about how they're doing in China.

Subway, we love you!
But really can you blame us? Look at the food you get, even at convenient stores. From left to right, that's pickled chicken legs, pig's snout, cow tongue, chicken feet & chicken gibblets. This is normal Chinese junk food.

final days in beijing

We continued to go out at night and explore Chinese cuisine with Zach and Wenjing. After one dinner we ended up that the hotel bar of the original Communist hotel in Beijing, the very fancy Raffles. All over were pictures of the Communist big-wigs enjoying drinks together. From Mao to Ho Chi Min, we were sitting on hallowed Communist ground.

Wenjing sitting at our table while Zach and Andrew walked around and looked at all the pictures.

What do you order when drinking on hallowed Communist ground? Southern Comfort of course.
During the days in Beijing, we went around and saw more of the city. At one point we ended up at a Walmart (we had to look in Walmart--it was too funny not to) and saw these gems. It just seems un-American to have them in China and not the US.

We also ran across this picture of Chinese Santa Claus.

 We were catching a night train to our next destination, so we had a whole day to kill and decided to take drinks to the Forbidden City and have a look around.

Maggie and Mao, just chillin'.

Now that's a rain gutter.
Before our train we caught a bite to eat of our favorite Chinese street food: a whole Sweet Potato.