Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Li River Cruise

A cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo takes about four and a half hours but provides a lifetime of memories. The wide, shallow river cuts through incredible limestone formations for mile after mile. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. It turns out that the fantastic cliffs seen in traditional Chinese scroll paintings are not imaginary after all.

The river is not just for tourists. Many people live and work on the water. We saw farmers on the shore, fishermen with trained cormorants, and intrepid ferrymen on bamboo rafts.

Guilin: Jinjiang Prince's Palace

In 1372, a palace was built in Guilin for the princes of the Ming dynasty. Jinjiang Palace served as the home for fourteen successive princes and later became the headquarters of Dr Sun Yat Sen. Today, the palace grounds form part of a green, peaceful university campus. Solitary Beauty Peak rises more than 700 feet above the palace grounds. A path leads to the summit and affords fantastic views of the surrounding city.

Guilin: Street Scenes

From Pingyao, we traveled to southern China and set up our base camp in Guilin, a city of 600,000 in the midst of China's amazing karst landscape. Karst peaks are limestone formations created by subsiding caves and sinkholes underground and by rapid erosion above ground. The peaks rise like a stone forest above the Li River valley. They have inspired poets and painters for centuries. Guilin is nestled among these peaks at the confluence of two rivers.

Guilin itself is a clean, modern city characterized by lakes, rivers, bridges, and limestone peaks. The name "Gui Lin" means "Osmanthus Forest," and many of the city's broad avenues and lakeside walkways are shaded by these sweet-smelling fruit trees. The streets are filled with quiet electric scooters instead of madly honking cars. In short, it is a very attractive small city in a warm, damp tropical climate.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pingyao: Walls and Doors

The characteristic type of architecture in Pingyao is the courtyard complex like our inn. Essentially, a high wall faces the street, behind which one finds a series of interlocking courtyards surrounded by small rooms and outbuildings. As a result, when you walk through the streets of Pingyao, you often see little more than high brick walls punctuated at long intervals by doors and gateways. Here is a little gallery showing some of the variety of entrances into the hidden worlds of the courtyards.

Pingyao: Church and Temple

In addition to its ancient temples and shrines, Pingyao also has a Protestant and a Roman Catholic congregation. This gallery includes a few pictures of the Catholic Church and its Christmas decorations and a nearby Taoist shrine which has become something of a repository for damaged sculpture. The statues now sit in a stoneyard awaiting repair and restoration.

Pingyao: Two Temples

In the southeast corner of Pingyao are two important temple complexes.  The first is a Confucian Temple where scholars came to sit for the imperial examinations.  A good result assured the candidate of lifetime employment in the government, an earlier manifestation of the "iron rice bowl" enjoyed by today's public employees in China.  Students still come to the temple to leave prayer slips in hopes of good university examination scores. The main building was established in 1163, although it has been restored several times since then.

The second temple complex is a series of shrines associated with the worship of the City God, the deity that protected the walled city of Pingyao.  A series of rooms depicts the tortures inflicted on the ghosts of evil humans, but the complex is presided over by shrines devoted to the City God and to the benevolent Kitchen God (Zao Jun) and his wife.

Pingyao: Street Scenes

From Shanghai, China's largest city, we traveled to Pingyao, a small town of about 40,000 southwest of Beijing in Shanxi Province.  Going to Pingyao is like taking a trip in a time machine from China's sleekest, most modern city to a small town preserved in the past.  During the Ming and Qing dynasties (ca. 1350-1900), Pingyao was a powerful banking center, but when the Qing emperor abdicated, the city became a provincial backwater.  As a result, much of its earlier character has been preserved virtually unchanged.  The town is still surrounded by massive Ming-era defensive walls built in 1370.  Inside the walls, more than 3000 historic homes, shops, and temples have been preserved much as they were a century or more ago.

In keeping with the town's historic atmosphere, we stayed in a rustic inn in a quiet little alley.  The inn is built in a traditional 18th-century courtyard house, with each room looking out onto a stone-paved open courtyard.


We took a day trip from Yangshuo to the tiny town of Xingping. The bus ride took one hour. The fare was 5.50 RMB (about 80 cents) each way. We rode through beautiful tropical farm country filled with pomelo orchards and sugar cane fields. It was market day in Xingping, which gave us a good chance to catch a glimpse of rural life in the Li River valley.

Ping An: A Zhuang Village

At the very top of the ridges high above the river valley is the area known as Longji Titian ("Dragon Backbone Terraces"). Over the course of centuries, the Zhuang people have cut countless terraces into the steep hillsides in order to create small rice paddies. Like the Yao people, the Zhuang are also master carpenters. The village of Ping An boasts a number of beautifully crafted wood buildings. We also got to see quite a bit of new construction going on. In addtion to farming, the village is increasingly dependent on eco-tourism.

Yao Village

We took a 55-mile bus ride from Guilin up into the steep, thickly forested hills of the Rongshui River valley. The hills are very steep, topping out at about 3500 feet. In order to farm the steep hillsides, the people have created countless terraces for rice paddies and other food crops.

The villages are populated by two of China's ethnic minorities. The Yao people live in the valley beside a swift, shallow river. The Zhuang people live at higher elevations, up near the summit of the ridges. We got to spend some time exploring both places. It was a fantastic opportunity to explore ancient cultures that are utterly new to us.

This gallery contains pictures from the Yao village. I'll add another post with pictures of the Zhuang.