30/01/17 – Beijing Again: The Smog Clears


Happy Chinese New Year! Now here’s some feng shui!

Happy Chinese New Year! Fireworks are flying everywhere! On our train from Chengdu to Luoyang we would look out the window every five minutes and see yet another small rural village setting off huge numbers of (somewhat mediocre – I think China’s government has a monopoly on the mega-big ones) fireworks. They’re actually banned in the cities, but Beijing had an epic display at the stroke of midnight on January 28th, and even two days later now you can hear them pop off at random times during the day (yes, China does fireworks in broad daylight – don’t ask me why) and hear the larger displays during the evening.

The photo above is from a small park in Chengdu, the only place open on January 27th (i.e. New Year’s Eve) before we left. On Chinese New Year, meanwhile, every tourist attraction was ready for business but every restaurant was closed. We pulled into Luoyang on a bullet-train from Xian around 12:30pm and found absolutely no lunch, anywhere. Mind you, Luoyang is a small and disproportionately smoggy city (explaining the apparent greyscale of my photos there) so it fits the “rural” definition somewhat.

Luoyang was once one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (Chang’an (Xian), Luoyang, Nanjing, and Beijing), but the equation [f(destroyed) = Mongol + Chinese City] means little to nothing has survived there from ancient times. It’s now a vast polluted wasteland of needless high-rise apartments that will never be fully inhabited, so it’s pretty much unrecognizable in the bounds of its ancient city besides for some small archaeological pits which have been turned into equally small museums.

However, what has survived is an impressive set of grottoes: The Longmen Grottoes, China’s largest and arguably most impressive set, as well as the very last set of cave temples I saw on my trip/survey across China. I personally liked Yungang better, but it might be because they were continuously refurbished and patronized up until the modern era.

This is approximately one fifth of several thousand.
And they just keep going, and going, and going…

Longmen, like Yungang, Mogao, and Maijishan, began their carving prior to the Tang Dynasty during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, and like at Qianfoya, Rongxian Da-fo-si, and Leshan, reached their peak around the 8th-9th centuries. Longmen is the best known of the major cave sites (Longmen, Mogao, and Yungang), and because of that it suffered a lot during the (Ok, turning the VPN on….there we go) Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s; nearly 1/3 of all grottoes were hacked to pieces by enthusiastic Maoists, and thus we have in many cases a number of modern tool-marks and empty niches and caves.

Top-right, you see the result of some very intense 1960s pick-axing.


The empty niches, once filled with beautiful Buddhist figures, now form hundreds of dark and empty honeycomb-like holes along the cliff.

That isn’t to say that nothing is left – a huge amount is. Because the cliffs along the river are comprised of limestone instead of sandstone (or simply dirt in the case of Mogao), a huge number of these grottoes have survived in near-perfect condition, and create a unique and voluminous religious landscape. Interestingly, this is the only site in China where grottoes have been built on both sides of the river directly across from one another – at Bezeklik there was a small site further down and the same can be said at Da-fo-si and Gu-fo-si in Rongxian. Here’s a look at some of the better (albeit smoggy and grey) images from the day:

The head has been chiseled off, but the intricately-carved halo remains.
Same thing here: the main Buddha figure is gone, but the smaller niches remain.
On the other hand, this guy has lost his altar and most of what surrounds him, but thanks to some post-1980s enthusiasm for cultural heritage, he’s survived.
And in some cases, it all just works out and nothing gets hacked away. Those incredibly detailed micro-figures on each wall are 15,000 tiny Buddhas.


This is the mega-Buddha from the photo that shows the section of the Longmen cliff. He’s about…20 meters tall.


And this guardian is just fabulous.

Luoyang was short and sweet, and we met up with Francesca’s classmate Alice, an Italian MA student interested in Silk Road Sinology. There’s actually a surprising number of lao-wai historians at Peking University, but Francesca, ever the trailblazer, is the only one who’s an archaeologist.

That night we finally got back to Beijing, and something suddenly struck me: the smog had completely dissipated, replaced by cold winds and some nice minus 7 Celsius weather the next morning. I didn’t need my mask anymore, and that was weird. So we did what anyone would do: go to arguably the most open-air space in all of Beijing, Beihai Park, and freeze our butts off for two hours while walking around and looking at ducks:

Beihai’s primary landmark is the White Pagoda, a relic from when Chinese Emperors actually liked Tibet.

The main draw was the beautiful flock of Mandarin Ducks housed here, not to be confused with the more edible Peking Duck.

I’ve always been a fan of mallards, but those Mandarin Ducks are gorgeous.

We then decided to brace the cold even more, but mostly the surprisingly fresh air, and headed up Jingshan, a pseudo-mountain overlooking the Forbidden City. One cool fact Francesca told me was that all the hills in Beijing are actually just refuse piles of dirt that were dug from the ground to construct the moat surrounding the Forbidden City. Beijing, minus a few man-made hills, is completely flat.

Jingshan serves one, and only one purpose: to create the epic vista overlooking the Forbidden City. Usually, this one is smog-covered…

A normal view from Jingshan…(photo courtesy of Francesca Monteith)

But that day it worked out that there wasn’t a drop of sulfur in the air.

The view of the Forbidden City we were gifted with. Beijing knew it, and there were approximately 500 people up there with us on that small mound. Francesca said she’s never seen a view like it off of Jingshan.


I visited the Forbidden City two years ago but had to catch a train to Datong (which I ended up missing – see the Yungang Grottoes entry) so I wasn’t able to hike up here. I’m so happy I finally got that National Geographic view…

I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the survey and about traveling around China with Francesca in my last China Project entry, but I’ll say now that she had to meet her parents in Tokyo for a family trip early this morning so I’m now on my own in Beijing. I’m in a really nice hostel called the Saga Youth Hostel , a more Western accommodation situated in a small Hutong, or pre-1949 neighborhood road, close to the Forbidden City. Because we finally got the GPS running and the 3D models divided into chunks to turn into giant super-models (Er-fo-si crashed both my and Francesca’s computers and Da-fo-si was missing both arms, so Photoscan allows you to divide each model into photos representing specific physical features of the figure, i.e. chunks, and then combine them into a single model – it saves RAM but takes a lot of time), I decided I would drop my bags off and go see a few temples I’d missed the last time I was in Beijing.

The first one was the Lama Temple.

No, no! Wrong Lama!

The Lama Temple, not llama, was constructed during a period of Chinese History (like the White Pagoda at Beihai) where the Emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE) quite enjoyed the inclusion of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama into their cultural and political platforms. This temple was converted from a princely palace to a house of Tibetan Buddhism (since just plain-old Pure Land Buddhism) by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735 – 1796 CE), and is now a huge center for Buddhism in the ever-atheistic Chinese capital.

The tradition following Chinese New Year is that Chinese people, regardless of which of the three primary faiths (Daoism, Confucianism, or Buddhism), make the rounds of the temples in their city or province and burn incense in various ceremonies for their ancestors. The rough Chinese pronunciation for this is bai-bai.

I’ve seen a lot of Chinese temples in the last couple of years, but this one I really enjoyed. Mainly, as you’ll see, because there are bridges in between the upper levels of the temple. I love me a good temple-bridge.

After yesterday’s emptiness in Beijing (except for at Jingshan) I was totally wowed by the number of people who’d suddenly popped up in the capital. Even in the summer it doesn’t get this crowded. Beyond bai-bai, it’s said that rural Chinese come to the capital following Chinese New Year as part of their holidays to be patriotic and show their support for their country and their government. Makes sense, it is Chinese New Year.

The Lama Temple is also the home of an odd Guinness World Record: World’s Largest Maitreya Statue in Sandalwood.

I wasn’t kidding…


There’s a ceiling in the way so my attempt to take a full-body photo of the Maitreya was somewhat in vain.


And there’s the suspended bridge. I’m a sucker for some well-engineered architecture. I drool just a bit every time I go to Angkor Wat.


So much incense that the lion looks like it’s breathing fire!

After the Lama Temple, I had to go back to the Temple of Heaven – last time I went, in July 2015, my girlfriend and I were denied entry to the temple proper because we got there at 3:25 and the final ticket sales were at 3:30…we’re still convinced the woman at the counter wasn’t interested in selling a ticket last-minute to two lao-wai. But amongst enormous, and I mean enormous crowds, I got my wish and walked all the way from the Circular Mound Altar to the Temple proper. It was a weird wish, but besides for the enormous “China has the day off” crowd it was well worth the wait:

The Emperor would worship here at the Circular Mound Altar facing North – traditionally, his subjects would face North to placate him, but because the Emperor was the only person worthy of worshipping the highest spirits, the Temple of Heaven faces South to be able to directly receive the Emperor’s prayers.
As noted, in Imperial times the Temple of Heaven was meant to only house the worshipped by one person: the Emperor – I now understand the claustrophobia. THE STAIRS ARE AESTHETIC! IT WASN’T MEANT TO BE!

Travel Note: Both the Lama Temple and the Temple of Heaven are located on Line 5 of the Beijing Metro, as is the exit station for the Saga Youth Hostel. Off-season admission is 25 RMB and 28 RMB, respectively – don’t get the park ticket for 10 RMB for the Temple of Heaven because you can’t get into the main religious complex that way.

Beijing, in the right non-smoggy condition, is actually quite a beautiful city with loads to do. The combination of intense modern progress (sixteen subway lines in sixteen years – Toronto’s had one-and-a-half in that time) and the preservation of ancient beauty makes it a great starting point for any first-timer to China. Most tourist services speak English, and the vendors/storeclerks that don’t you can usually grunt through an interaction or cash exchange successfully. The folks in Beijing can be a little rude at times, but it’s a very nationalistic city – picture it as a city of better-behaved Trump supporters.

It definitely makes for a good place to both sightsee and get a bit of work done while I wait for my flight to Phnom Penh and then Seoul.

Seeing the Forbidden City again was like seeing an old friend, and it’ll probably be the last time for a long time. It’s time to look forward to Cambodia and publishing our Chinese data.

Next Entry: A final China wrap-up/retrospective and my brief adventures in Beijing’s Hutongs.

Andrew Harris



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