This site is still very much work in progress. Here you’ll find what’s new on theonearmedcarb.com (and when I added it).

  • From the time we lived in China, from 1997 to early 2000, I added some Beijing Memories, as well as location sketches of some of the Beijing highlights, the Chinese Wall near Beijing, and of places like Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou, Datong and the ice-sculpture city of Harbin (August 2017)
  • Wrapping up the Iran blog, I added descriptions and photos of several exquisite buildings as sub entries under Isfahan, Shiraz and Kashan (June 2017).
  • Our Feb. 2017 trip also went to Oman, and our experiences and observations can be found on the newly created Oman page (Feb. 2017).
  • A brief visit to Qatar resulted in a Qatar page, and entries on Doha and Outside Doha (Nov. 2016). A return visit added an entry on the Khor Al Adaid inland sea (Feb. 2017), and the fabulous Museum of Islamic Art (May 2017)
  • After our two months trip to Iran, I created the Iran page, including a link to the travel blog of Iran, and the Iran reading list (Nov. 2016).
  • I now completed the Myanmar page, with photo-dominated entries on Yangon and Mandalay (July 2016).
  • A Dutch-language article about our first trip in China, to Sichuan and the Three Gorges, from Summer 1997. Accompanied by scanned slides, not of the best quality anymore (July 2016).
  • A travelogue of an old trip through Tibet, in Spring 1999, made it to the site, put together from old notes and scanned slides. As we ended up in Nepal, I also created a country page with, once again, scanned slides, not much text, of Kathmandu and Patan. Ever so slowly catching up with past travels… (July 2016).
  • I finally managed to spend some time on sorting out the photos (scanned slides) of our years in India, which has so far resulted in entries on the rock paintings of the Bhimbetka Caves and on the Sanchi temple complex near Bhopal, as well as a fairly extensive report from a trip to Ladakh, in 2005 (April 2016).
  • One our favourite museums, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, had a retrospective of Dutch expressionist painter Karel Appel, which we went to see (March 2016)
  • In February 2016 we spent a couple of weeks in Argentina, where we went to Santa Fe, on the Parana River, to Tigre – the delta near Buenos Aires -, and to the Museo National de Bellas Artes, the fine arts museum in Buenos Aires, with its great Latin American modern art section (February 2016).
  • Another thing I hadn’t done yet was to include some works, mostly masks and other ethnic artefacts, from the collection of the National Museum in Jakarta, which we visited in December 2014 (February 2016).
  • Some photos of a pretty unique sculpture exhibition of Miro in the York Sculpture Park, where we were in 2012 (February 2016).
  • To complete the SE Europe section to date, I also posted some old pictures from a 3-day passing through Macedonia, in 1997. One of the humbler pages on the site, to be fair (January 2016).
  • I found a plugin that allows me to present a real world map on the home page of this site, The Map, including the possibility to link from this map to individual countries. Great plugin, except that it now becomes abundantly clear that there is still a lot of work to do on the site: many countries I have been to and have content for are not included yet! (January 2016).

the Great Wall of China, in the vicinity of Beijing

The Great Wall remains one of the prime sights in China, and near Beijing access is easy.

No travel website that mentions China can get away without mentioning the Great Wall. I have been in quite a few cities that claim to have the second longest wall in the world, but there is never a doubt which one is the longest, some 6000 km along China’s north. Begun in the 5th C BC, at great expense in terms of both human life as well as financial resources that could have fed quite a few at the time, the wall was meant to defend the empire against the barbarians, a collective for the non-Han peoples to the north. Over the years, the next 2500 years, or so, the wall served its purpose, more or less – it failed to keep out Ghengis Khan, though, and became equally obsolete when China’s borders extended further and further north, far beyond the wall. The last dynasty, the Qing, let the wall crumble without further maintenance; in fact they originally came from Manchuria, north of the wall, which didn’t stop them. And in any case it was of little use in the 19th and 20th C, against maritime powers like the Japanese and the Europeans. But things have changed: as a tourist attraction, the wall is unbeatable.

a great view of the Great Wall at Mutainyu

the wall, and watch towers, near Badaling

looking down the wall at Mutianyu, a steep descent

a rougher section in Mutianyu

another less-restored section, Mutianyu

inside a watch tower, Mutianyu

well-preserved watch towers on the wall at Mutainyu

I have described visits to the Great Wall in other parts of China elsewhere on the site (the Great Mud Ramp, Jiayuguan, and on the way to Zanye), but the easiest access is indeed from Beijing. In the 1990s (and I presume that won’t have changed much) the most popular area was Badaling, restored in 1957 and now fully prepared for mass tourism, complete with hand rails and rubbish bins, and a very insisting crowd of souvenir sellers. More authentic, although equally restored, was the Mutianyu section of the wall – although I understand that nowadays a toboggan brings you down again. By far the most exciting part was at Simatai, which was mostly the wall in its original state. A walk here, from watch tower to watch tower, was a sequence of steep climbs and descents, often across crumbling pieces of wall. All these sections were ultimately dead ends, of course, the wall would peter out after several kilometres, or – in the case of Simatai – become completely inaccessible, and dangerous. So the idea of one long, single wall defending China does need to be adjusted. Which in no way diminishes the excitement of walking over the longest wall in the world, by far.

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace at the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and other Buddhist Temples,

or: return to the China page

the wall at Simatai

steep section of the Mutainyu wall, in the snow

another view of wintery Mutainyu

at Mutainyu, too, there are plenty of vendors, even in winter

peppers drying

the wall, winding its way through the landscape, across mountains

the Summer Palace outside Beijing

The Summer Palace outside Beijing is not just a building, but a great park and lake complex ideal for an afternoon, or a whole day, out.

Just outside Beijing is what is known as the Summer Palace – Yiheyuan, in Chinese -, in fact a large complex of park and lake, with on one side of the lake the imperial retreat, a collection of wooden buildings built at the end of the 19th Century. Although the location has seen earlier palaces, the current building is mostly the initiative of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who brought the empire to the brink of collapse.

Much of the palace is built against a hill, with pavilions and corridors coming down to the lake side, where a huge marble boat – one of the follies of the Empress, constructed with money meant to support the navy – will never move an inch away from the jetty.

It is a fabulous complex at every season of the year; in winter the lake freezes solidly, providing space for ice skating and for sledges. Many of the Beijing residents will make the outing, on a Sunday afternoon.

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace in the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, other Buddhist Temples, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

one of the buildings against the hill

the highest building of the palace

the palace from above

one of the corridors to the lakeside

the stairs from one building to the next

the massive marble boat

and in close-up, stained glass

a little bridge, across the ice, in this case

and the lake in front, solidly frozen in winter

a moment’s rest

inside the Lama Temple in Beijing

Some of my favourite Buddhist temples in Beijing were the Lama Temple and the Five Pagoda Temple, great retreats from the always-busy city.

At the end of the 1990s there were lots of active Buddhist temples in Beijing, somehow the Communist Party never managed to stamp out religion entirely. Lots of Chinese people would visit a temple, big or small, and pray, lit a candle – well, incense sticks, really – or just sit and appreciate the peaceful atmosphere.

My favourite was what was called the Lama Temple, officially the Yonghe Temple. This was originally built as a court residence at the end of the 17th century, was later turned into a lamasery, a Buddhist monastery, and now serves as a temple – and tourist attraction.

 

one of the buildings making up the Lama Temple

intricate roof decorations in the Lama Temple

The another remarkable temple that I have pictures of, was the Zhenjue Temple, or Five Pagoda Temple, remarkable for its unusual structure with pagodas topping a large square building, decorated with thousands of Buddha sculptures in niches.

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace in the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

the Five Pagoda Temple in Beijing

one of the pagodas in close-up

the Buddha decorations on the outside of the temple

same in close-up

and an elephant – Indian influence, clearly

the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, in all its glory

The best-known, and most impressive, temple in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven, is also a meeting place for many local people.

The Temple of Heaven is not just a temple, it is perhaps the largest community centre in China. Best time to visit, early morning, is also the time that the grounds of the temple complex are filled with Chinese exercising their daily Tai Chi. Inside the complex, many of the local people are sitting in the corridors leading to the several buildings, talking, drinking tea, showing off their birds in little cages, or just reading the paper. Great atmosphere! Or so it was in the late 1990s.

collective tai chi in the park, early morning

the main temple, and the surrounding buildings

which serve as meeting place

well, mostly elderly people, Mao suits in vogue

or just for reading the newspaper

one of the entrances to the complex

the main temple, from the base of the marble platforf

an incense burner, as there are so many here

It didn’t use to be that way. Like the Forbidden City, the temple was built at the beginning of the 15th century, for the exclusive use of the elite, foremost the emperor himself, who conducted several ceremonies here. Shielded from the public.

There are several buildings, but the main eye catcher is the monumental Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an entirely wooden circular structure on a marble terrace. And not only for its outside architecture, but also the inside decoration of walls and ceiling. Highlight of a Beijing visit!

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace in the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, other Buddhist Temples, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing

Long considered the centre of the universe, Beijing’s Forbidden City is one of the great monuments of dynastic China.

What is popularly known as the Forbidden City is, in reality, the Imperial Palace, the residence for 25 generations of Ming and Qing emperors. Created at the beginning of the 15th Century, the present palace has been very well restored. In spite of its particularly un-Communistic credentials, pragmatism towards the spoils of the many tourists trumps the ideological purity. Imagine the approximately 800 wooden buildings that require regular painting, and it is clear that you will never visit the palace without encountering one or more maintenance crews.

one of the first court yards

well maintained, freshly painted buildings

another builiding

gate from one to the next courtyard

inside one of the ceremonial halls

multiple gates deeper and deeper into the palace

the roofs decorated

and in colour…

perhaps this gives a better impression of the size, street inside the Forbidden Palace

At the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the access to the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, you buy your ticket; whether it is still the same I don’t know, but in the 1990s you could also get the audio-tour here: switch it on and you were treated to the characteristic voice of Sean Connery telling you the ins and outs of the Chinese dynasty excesses that took place here.

I have been to the Forbidden City several times, and could return many more. Great place to wander around, and not only admire the fabulous ceremonial halls and other buildings, but also soak up the atmosphere.

other Beijing entries: the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, other Buddhist Temples, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

view of another hall

Buddha sculptures inside one of the Yungang caves near datong

Buddhist caves and temples light up the surroundings of coal capital Datong

Quite a few cities in China have been a capital of some dynasty at some stage, and Datong is not different. In fact, it was a capital in 4th and 5th Century AD, and again in the 10th Century. But present day Datong, is mostly known as capital of Chinese coal production – it produces around a third of all Chinese coal -, and it shows. It is not only the air you breath, it is also visible everywhere in town, in the dark-stained houses, in the trucks that transport the stuff, and in the coal dust that you find back everywhere.

Datong town, coal capital

the Yungang cave complex

inside one of the caves

one of the big Buddha statues

another sculpture – note the coal dust!

the sculptures

thousand Buddha niche

and sculptures outside, too

detail of the decorations

That coal dust is also present on the shoulders and the heads of the many Buddha statues in the nearby Yungang caves. These caves, man-made during Datong’s first stint as capital, of the Northern Wei dynasty, were started in 453 AD and apparently took forty thousand workers a century to complete. They may have held up to 50,000 sculptures in a variety of sizes, originally covered with plaster and brightly painted. Those in the know claim that these are some of the nicest, artistically outstanding Buddhist statues in China – and China has a lot of them!

the wooden pagoda

every floor made from wood

and inside the pagoda, more Buddha statues

The second period as a capital generated further treasures for Datong. In nearby Yingxian stands the oldest wooden building in China, the over a thousand year old wooden pagoda, initially built without the use of nails, although these days that concept has been abandoned. Still, impressive, with its multiple stories and 70 meter height.

the Hanging Temple, in all its glory

the narrow stairs and corridors

one of the temple rooms

Even more impressive, though, is the Hanging Temple near the town of Hunyuan, also not far from Datong. Also largely made of wood, this structure is kept upright, against a sheer vertical cliff face, thanks to wooden poles supporting the temple, that somehow have been attached to cliff ledges. You can enter the temple, which naturally is a rather narrow affair, linking small rooms with a series of wooden stairs and corridors. The dramatic scenery of the Heng Shan mountains serves as the perfect backdrop.

All together worth the trip from Beijing, which we did by train very early in January. When it was so cold, thanks to a freezing wind, that we couldn’t stay outside for longer than 15-20 minutes – we moved through downtown Datong from heated shopping centre to shopping centre, warming up enough to brace ourselves for the next walk outside.

outskirts of Datong

temple decoration

ice sculptures and life-size buildings from ice, during the Ice festival in Harbin

A very un-Chinese city, with a very Chinese-style Ice Festival in winter.

Winter in China is not the most inviting time to travel, but there is one exception. Harbin, in the northern most part of Manchuria, towards the Russian border, hosts its annual ice festival, and we were determined to go and see it. So off we went, well prepared with thermal underwear, fur coats and fifteen jumpers, in late February to avoid the worst of the cold.

selling sweets, a quintessential winter activity

Harbin is a two hour flight from Beijing, but one enters a different world. The old part of town is architecturally rather nice, mostly build by the Russians at the turn of the century, although it cannot escape the impression of being rather run down. It even contains a beautiful Orthodox church, which miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. The church is not being used as such anymore, it now houses a picture exhibition with clear evidence that Harbin was actually a much more developed and advanced town 80 years ago, when it was still mainly inhabited by Russians. So much to say for Chinese progress.

Russian architecture in harbin

the orthodox church in Harbin

entrance to the ice sculptures park

an ice block pagoda, life-size

sculptures, fences, bridges, everything made from ice

more ice constructions

ice constructions lit at night

But the main attraction of Harbin is the ice festival. Harbin is situated on the Songliao River, which freezes solid in winter, and allows large ice blocks to be cut out and transported to the park in the centre of town. Here, some of the blocks are carved into quite attractive sculptures, whilst others are used to build huge pagodas, temples, castles and what have you, out of ice. Very impressive during day time, when you get a good view of the immensity of some of the structures, and even more enchanting at night, when all the sculptures and constructions are elaborately illuminated with coloured lights, both from within and from the outside. Especially at night there is a real nice atmosphere, inevitably dominated by thousands of Chinese families, and undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that we visited during the Chines New Year, the so-called Spring Festival (although temperatures were far from what I image to be related to Spring).

more ice buildings, and fireworks in the air

the river, solidly frozen

to the effect that the bridge isn’t being used anymore

a tiger in the park

Having seen the old town, the church and the park with the ice sculptures, there is not much else left, except for the Siberian Tiger Project. This was touted as a park outside town, where tigers in captivity are being prepared for the real thing, so that they can be released in the wild again. In the meantime, visitors are welcome, probably in order to pay for the facility. Now this one is run in a very Chinese way. The park is actually not bigger than a few square kilometers, maybe ten football fields, and it houses perhaps 20, 30 tigers. It has not one, no, it has a number of roads dissecting it. When we were there, at least four busses (just normal busses, like you see in town) loaded with visitors were driving around. At the same time, two Landcruisers were also in the park, their drivers throwing live chicken out of the window, to train the tigers to catch them, and no doubt also to allow some spectacle for all those paying visitors. No wonder that all the tigers are waiting at the entrance of the park. Anyhow, a culturally revealing experience.

a real-materials pagoda, outside town

and a glimps in a temple, also out of town

park decorations for Chinese New Year in Beijing

Beijing celebrating its Spring Festival, and two unique moments in the history of China

China does not celebrate many Public Holidays, but the country, and Beijing, closes down for the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year. This is the time for new cloths, and for family visits, no matter where they have to travel to. Quite a challenge for the local transport systems, especially airlines and trains. The railways announced that on one day alone, the Monday after the holiday, they transported 4.28 million people, and I believe them. (Have I commented earlier on the fact that everything in China happens an order of magnitude different from what we are used to?) The other Spring Festival element is eating and drinking, either at home with the family, or in one of the many parks that have been decorated for the occasion, with red lampions, and fitted out with numerous stalls selling dumplings.

more Spring Festival decorations

Two of the highlights of our three years living in Beijing, in terms of celebrations, were the handover of Hongkong, in 1997, and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China after the victory of the Communist Party, in 1999.

food market

market stalls in a park

The Handover was Britain returning Hongkong to China after a 99 years lease on the 1st of July in 1997 (which in fact wasn’t correct, China lost Hongkong ‘indefinitely’ to the Brits in 1842 after the first Opium War, and it was only the New Territories that Britain claimed around Hongkong in 1898 that had a 99 year lease attached to it). What struck me most in the run-up to the handover was the explosion of Chinese nationalism that was on display in the months and weeks before the actual ceremony. The old Mao suits were in those days anyhow still relatively popular under the older Chinese, but it seemed that in the run up to the handover more and more people were wearing them. Everywhere in the hutong neighbourhoods quite a few of the men started wearing red armbands, too, that must have originated from the Cultural Revolution, or thereabouts. And this didn’t look like politically stimulated, no Communist Party had encouraged people to do so; somehow, Chinese have a long memory – far beyond ‘living memory’, certainly in this case -, and are genuinely moved by the return of territory to the Motherland.

The official celebrations, in Tiananmen Square, were a bit of an anti-climax. The square had been cordoned off days before, cleared out of bicycles, and thoroughly cleaned. We watched from the balcony of an upmarket hotel, where American acquaintances of us had rented a room to throw a party. As my wife put it, any self-respecting group of Greek basketball supporters make more noise after their team has won any random match, then the Chinese do when they finally get Hong Kong back. The only thing left was to admire the fireworks, at ten in the evening for about six minutes, and at twelve again. In both cases the fireworks themselves were, within two minutes, completely invisible because of the smoke that had developed on and above the Square, only the noise of the explosions testified to the continuation of the show.

street sweepers in central Beijing

soldiers observing the military parade

Was the handover a big moment, the celebration of 50 years PRC in October 1999 was even bigger. One of the main elements of the celebration was going to be a military parade, for which the organising committee, or the army, had been rehearsing for months. Right in front of our apartment building, which was on the way to Tiananmen Square. Quite a few times in the preceding months the road would, without notice, be blocked at the end of the afternoon, for hundreds if not thousands of army material – trucks, tanks, rocket launchers, anything on wheels – to pass. Where they came from, so suddenly, I don’t know, and where they disappeared to I don’t know either, but it certainly was an impressive display, every time again. It was just that crossing the road, which was necessary to get home from my office on the other side, became quite a challenge.

military parade to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China

more military equipment in the parade

tanks in the streets of Beijing… for the military parade

The actual parade on the day itself, the 1st of October, was an even bigger spectacle, now in broad daylight instead of the dark hours of the evening when the rehearsals took place. The enormous string of vehicles on the road was accompanied by fighter jets and helicopters in the air. Thousands of people were lining the road, cheering their military brethren, waving red flags, and once again wearing their red armbands. Never mind they couldn’t get to Tiananmen Square itself, which was once again hermitically sealed, invitees only. Nobody complained, not a word. Not a dissident in sight.

spectator during the military parade

and the young are equally interested

 

sweet potato man, providing the ubiquitous winter snack in Beijing

Beijing and the strugggle with its seasons

Beijing is one of those places with four distinct seasons. My favourite would be spring time, the nicest period in town, closely followed by autumn: pleasant temperatures, blue skies – or what get closest to blue, in one of the most polluted cities of the world. Summer could get very hot. Opposite our apartment would be one of those neon light boards recording the current temperature, which regularly hit the 39.9 oC. Never more, because at 40 the government was, apparently, obliged to close offices and factories and send all workers home.

a temple, a chimney and residential highrise, all together in Beijing

But winter in Beijing conjures still my strongest memories. You knew that the winter was coming once you started smelling the roasted sweet potatoes. Come October, come an enormous quantity of carefully bicycle-mounted barbeque-turned barrels, which were being strategically located near street corners and bus stops. Simmering coals inside, and grill on top. These were the sweet potato men (and to a lesser extend the corn-on-the-cob men), and they took over small scale commerce for the months ahead. Quite nice, actually, the smell, although I have resisted tasting them. Somehow, the idea of these things roasting next to the busy streets, with all the cars and buses exhuming their foul smog, was not very appealing. Not in the least because another typical sight in the run up to winter was the many tricycles packed with coal briquettes, and these were not just being used for barbecues. Plenty small households still used coal for heating and cooking, and the average Chinese family started to build up his stock of coal well before the cold sets in. And not only small households. Despite the environmental awareness of the Chinese government – a lot of effort has been going into bringing natural gas to the city, from Central China – many factories and power plants had not been converted. Because Beijing had grown so rapidly, it wasn’t uncommon to find a factory chimney right in between high rise apartment buildings, making life on the top floors particularly unpleasant, I imagine. Still, improvements were noticeable, even in the time we lived there: the metro network opened, from a certain time onwards only lead-free petrol was available in the inner city, and the Miandis, the small, cheap mini-van taxis so common everywhere China, were banned in Beijing – which means: they were forcefully taken off the streets and incinerated.

mid November, and first snow has fallen already

market stalls conitue their business, whatever the weather

bicycles are temporarily less comfortable

the Chinese men on the street

domino player concentrating

the most popular form of public transport in the late 1990s

Larger apartment buildings and offices had another heating regime. According to the Chinese government winter started at the 15th of November, and was officially over on March 15th, and those were the days from which the heating in all those buildings was switched on, and off again. And they were surprisingly close to reality: in all the winters I lived through in Beijing, it usually started snowing only a few days after – or before, of course – the November 15th. The waste was more at the end of the winter, where although sometimes it could still be bitterly cold at the beginning of April, often from mid-February onwards there were plenty of spells of quite nice weather, which was inside the heated apartment only bearable if you would open all the windows as wide as possible.

next: Beijing memories 3

another typical snack

street seller and customer

inner courtyard and hutong roofs in Beijing; note the coal briquettes next to the door