courtyard in one of the hutongs of Beijing

We lived a good three years in Beijing, from early 1997 to early 2000, and good years they were. From our comfortable apartment, just inside the Third Ringroad, it was walking distance to my office, and to the nearby restaurants and supermarkets, and a short taxi ride anywhere into town. The first time we went into town, we actually walked: our city map showed that it was only a few blocks to Tiananmen Square. Right! Blocks are huge, in Beijing, and in the end it took us close to an hour to get there. The first indication that everything in China is just an order of magnitude bigger….

Tiananmen Square, even earlier (in Jan. 1995)

The thing to do in Tiananmen Square, apart from cueing up for the Forbidden Palace, or for Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, the thing to do is to fly kites – which is what every other Chinese, the young but also the old, does. Hundreds of kites were flying low and high above the square, simple self-made models as well as the most extravagant colourful dragons. Somehow the kite flyers managed to avoid each other’s strings, and everybody was just having a wonderful time. It turned out we were not the only tourists. On a Sunday afternoon, the square is also full of out-of-towners, Chinese peasants who have come to the big city for a family day out. Complete with picnic basket and blanket they slowly move across the square from one end to the other, eyes wide open not to miss any of this spectacle. Then they spotted us. Foreigners! They now started circling us, in ever smaller circles, until finally one of them had built up sufficient courage to ask if they may take a picture with us.

more entertainment on Tiananmen Square

Sunday’s popular activity, kiting on Tiananmen Square

the square is regularly being swiped, for which a whole team is being mobilised

Opposite the entrance to the Forbidden City is Qianmen, an old city gate, but more importantly, also the location of the most famous Beijing restaurant, the “Duck place”, or Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck in full. Photos of the world’s famous adorn the wall, all of them came to have their Peking roast duck here. And so did we, frequently, and not only here. Having said so, certainly in the beginning eating out was a bit of a challenge. Not having much interest for the Western hotels, we tried many of the small, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants of which there are thousands in Beijing. But without the proper command of the language, and without menu in English, selecting dishes wasn’t as straightforward as we had expected. In the end, we would wander through the restaurant with one of the waitresses in tow, looking at tables of other diners, and just select what looked appetizing. And more often than not, the Chinese were kind enough to offer us a few chopsticks and let us try the dish first!

backstreet in one of Beijing’s hutongs

entrance to one of the hutong courtyards

decorated hutong door, around Chinese New Year

roofs of a hutong behind the drum tower

laundry drying on a balcony

Behind Tiananmen Square are the many of Beijing’s hutongs, the old neighbourhoods of courtyard houses, some big and comfortable, but many others much smaller, where people typically share the kitchens and the bathrooms, whilst occupying one or two rooms for the whole family. Many of the hutongs are fast disappearing, as the land in the centre of such a big city is far too valuable to house a couple of poor residences. The residents are being offered an apartment, with full amenities, in a highrise building away from the centre: difficult to refuse on account of the step-up in luxury, and perhaps also because in China it just isn’t easy to withstand official pressure. But in the late 1990’s there were still plenty of hutongs in Beijing, first and foremost Liulichang, a street full of antique shops that has been heavily restored, but also more authentic neighbourhoods in the vicinity of Liulichang, and near the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower north of the Forbidden City. They were great for a Sunday afternoon stroll, and they presented great photo opportunities! Combine this with a walk in the park, like the Beihai Park, and you cannot get more Chinese, on your Sunday.

Panjiayuan market

selling bottled water in the market

market seller with his ware tied up

Well, except that there is also Panjiayuan, the Sunday morning market – nowadays it is much more regulated, 7 days a week, with proper shops and all, but in the late 1990’s the market, popularly known as the ‘dirt market’, was mostly interesting on Sunday mornings, when the peasants from outside the city came to town with their emptied attics, or emptied barns. For the best pieces you had to be early, sort of 6 am, when trading started, and for the best bargains later in the morning, for the as yet unsold pieces that the people didn’t want to take back home anymore. Of course, in those days you also had the regular traders in the market, with their wares that were often just a little too expensive to be purchased as a souvenir, but at the same time too cheap to be anything like real antiques!

Apart from Panjiayuan, Beijing was in fact one big market, every day of the week. Street vendors would whisper ‘CD?’ when you walked past, and sure enough they carried an enormous hold-all full of illegally copied CDs and DVDs; those were the days that people still cared for CDs and DVDs. Others would spread a blanket on the pavement, anywhere really, and sell anything from Tupperware to fake Rolexes and underpants to kitchen utensils. They were always at the lookout, though, and they could easily pick up the four corners of the blanket, with everything inside, and disappear into the crowd as soon as the police appeared. In other places semi-permanent markets had sprung up. A big one was the so-called Russian Market, where rows and rows of stalls catered for Russian traders who came on the train from Moscow to buy garments. That these were specifically produced for the Russians, not the Chinese, was obvious from the sizes available!

Probably the most famous market was what was known as the ‘Silk Market’, in an alley opposite our apartment. This was where all sorts of clothing were being traded, some cheap, some branded, some real, some fake. Shopping here required a water pistol: the story went that only on a real Northface jacket water drops would not be absorbed, whilst on fake ones they would disappear inside in no time. With branded shirts and trousers it was much more difficult to distinguish which one was real, and had perhaps fallen of a truck, or was part of surplus production, and which one wasn’t. But sometimes the Chinese enthusiasm helped: my best find was a shirt with a Nike logo on the chest AND Adidas stripes on the sleeves. Real silk, too, was abundantly available, and comparatively cheap; tailors would turn it into anything you wanted, as long as you brought an example that could be copied.

Capitalism with Chinese characteristics, as the government would call it. Capitalism pur sang, as everybody else would have recognised.

next is: Beijing memories 2

food stalls in one of the hutongs

the Pearl TV Tower in the Pudong area of Shanghai

China’s mega-city has lots of character from the past, plus its huge harbour.

Shanghai is something altogether different. A modern city, much more compact than Beijing, and in a way more attractive, too. The centre is a combination of the Bund, the boulevard with old colonial, neo-classical buildings formerly occupied by banks, consulates and the old power brooking companies like Jardine and Matheson, and Nanjing Road, the concentration of commerce, shopping malls and western capitalism represented by Macdonald’s, KFC and what have you. And all illuminated, whether Bund or Nanjing Road, although the type of lights does differ: stylish strings of yellow bulbs outlining the stately buildings of the Bund versus all colour flashing neon lights, beckoning the customer, on Nanjing Road.

a house in the French Concessions, now ‘China-fied’

There are several distinct neighbourhoods. The French, Russian, and whichever concession neighbourhoods are all characteristically un-Chinese, with their large European-style houses along tree-lined streets. The only part of Shanghai which has its traditional Chinese feel, is the Chinese Quarter, the Old City with a network of small streets and alleys, with small balconied houses, tucked-away temples, and the obligatory market stalls everywhere. In fact, upon entering the Chinese Quarter, one has the same feeling as entering Chinatown in San Francisco, New York or London, a Chinese neighbourhood in a big city. Which cannot be said of the Shanghai Museum, a modern building with an exceptionally well presented collection, actually much more in line with Modern China than the Chinese Quarter is.


alley in the Old City

fish market

another narrow street in the Old City

bottle shop?

a man reading his paper

narrow street equiped for drying laundry


the Bund, seen from the water

boats on the river

and more boats, and harbour works

some of the more modern harbour installations

freight in bags

another, smaller boat

freight in bags

these are lined up at the mouth of the river

Across from the Bund is Pudong, the new industrial zone, dominated by the so-called Pearl-of-the-Orient TV tower. Certainly an impressive building, and the reason for plenty Chinese to block the river walk in order to take pictures of each other with the Pearl in the back (remember, we are talking late-1990s, long before the selfie culture). A trip on the river provides yet another view of Shanghai, initially all modern like Pudong, but gradually changing into a rust belt of factories and wharfs, dominated by all size ship building. The river traffic itself is equally varied: long columns of engine-less sand boats being pulled by a lonely pilot, or by a swarm of them; hundreds of ferries, either being used as tourist boats – the more lucrative business, I presume -, or as, indeed, ferries; river taxis, the real efficient way of transport, although one needs to be quick in getting on and off. And in between the big, sea-faring ships getting in and out of the harbour. Great experience.

Nanjing Road by night

and the Bund, same night

one of the canals in the garden town of Suzhou

Famous for its gardens and canals, Suzhou is also a main stop on the Grand Canal

Suzhou is the city of gardens and canals, but could equally be the city of hairdressers and too many paintings. Everywhere are hair stylists, more often than not fancily equipped, and they are full, the whole day up to 9 at night! It looks like everybody has their hair done at least three times a week. Another overkill is the local art scene, where supply and demand are definitively not in balance. Suzhou is picturesque, alright, and certainly inviting for painters, too, but there is a limit. With so much art on sale, it is impossible to choose; one actually gets fed up very easily, and very quickly.

However, there are still the gardens and canals to explore. Suzhou is a great place to wander around. Several tall pagodas, like the Beisi Pagoda, establish a sense of orientation. To enter Beisi Ta (pagoda) one pays entry at the ground floor, only to be asked to pay once more to climb from the eighth to the ninth floor, the top level. So, turn back, or pay up?

Beisi Pagoda in Suzhou

and the view from the top, roofs of the neighbourhood

part of the male population of Suzhou

toilet pots collected in the morning

Most of the central part of town has actually been pulled down, or is being pulled down, and replaced with department stores and office buildings. Some attempts are being made to retain the old character, but the result is a series of unattractive, modern, artificially ‘old-looking’, Chinese buildings.

Although gardens have been a thing in Suzhou for over a thousand years, the present ones originate from the 17th century, when rich merchants employed artists to design these unique forms of art. There are many different types, large and small, rocky, with small lakes, hedges, and wooden gates and buildings. Beautiful names, too, like ‘Forest of Lions’, ‘Master of the Nets’, and ‘Humble Administrator’s’ Garden. And they are wonderful, a true delight, which, unfortunately, one seldom enjoys alone, as Suzhou is a very popular tourist destination, especially for Chinese tourists.

entrance to one of the Suzhou gardens

another garden view

with lakes and pavilions

flowers and pavilions around a lake, the essential building blocks of a Suzhou garden

canal in between the houses of Suzhou

almost ripple-less water in another canal

The canals, where they still exist, are actually smelly, and mostly not very attractive. What is special, though, is the Outer Moat, a part of the Grand Canal, which links the Yellow and the Yangzi Rivers. Nothing is more relaxing than seeing China pass by on the narrow, often pretty large canal boats. The Panmen city gate, restored to its old impressive beauty, and the nearby arched Wuman Qiao bridge, is probably the best spot for this activity, and we did linger around there until close to sunset, like many of the locals.

the Wuman Qiao bridge across the Grand Canal

traffic on the Grand Canal, seen from the bridge

narrow alley in between the houses, good place for laundry

the southern city gate of Nanjing

A big Chinese city, with lots of character in the neighbourhoods, and its main attractions outside.

Nanjing served as China’s capital from 1368 to as recently as 1949, when the Communists established Beijing as the new capital. However, unlike Beijing, which means “Northern Capital”, Nanjing (“Southern Capital”) does not have a world-class cultural heritage in the form of temples and palaces. But an afternoon walk through the small Maleng Park, and then to the main commercial area of Xinjiekou is pleasant enough. Especially Xinjiekou turns out to be a picturesque ‘hutong’-like neighbourhood, as soon as one gets away from the main streets and the huge traffic circle in the centre. The back-street area seems very poor, but therefor not less colourful, and with a very pleasant atmosphere. As everywhere in China, here, too, the markets are in full swing. Great snacks, too!

Confucian temple along the water front of Fuzi Miao

morning gathering of Chinese men for a game of dominos

serious business, and watched by many

pavilion in Maleng Park

courtyard in the back-streets behind Xinjiekou

food stall in one of the back-alleys

We end up at the Fuzi Miao area, with an attractive canal and a Confucian temple, and at the Southern city gate, an unexpected treasure with its series of impressive enclosures linked by multiple arches.

Buddhist follower in the Linggu Si temple

Linggu Si pagoda

one of the temples in the Linggu Si complex

corridor in the same complex

The reason we came to Nanjing was really to visit Zijin Shan, where the large temple complex Linggu Si is situated, as well as the Sun Yatsen mausoleum, the rest place for China’s first president after centuries of imperial rule. The Linggu Si complex contains several temples and the octagonal Linggu Ta pagoda. The Sun Yatsen mausoleum is perhaps one of the most visited sites by Chinese – one wonders why, perhaps a hang to that short, post-imperial, pre-communist era? An enormous marble staircase leads to the a memorial hall and the burial chamber, from where there are great views down. Whether the bones of Sun Yatsen are really still there is subject to much speculation: rumour has it that the fleeing Kuomintang took them to Taiwan in 1949, after they lost the battle against the Communists.

One of the nicest things of Zijin Shan is that one can walk from the temple to the mausoleum, through a quiet wooded area: there are not many places in China where that is possible.

the monumental stairs towards the Sun Yatsen mausoleum

and the view from the top, back down

haphazard tourist talking to a Nanjing man

the main bath area of the Sultan Mir Ahmad hamman

The Hamman-e Sultan Mir Ahmad in Kashan is one of the best examples of an Iranian bathhouse, beautifully restored

This hamman in Kashan derives its name from the nearby shrine of Sultan Amir Ahmad. It dates back to the Safavid era, some 500 years ago, but further additions came in the Qajar era, whilst the building has been extensively restored in recent times.

There are several rest areas, baths, changing rooms and cleansing rooms, all connected by tiled corridors. The main rooms are beautifully decorated with turquoise and golden tiles, stucco and several subtle, small paintings. One gets a good impression of a very comfortable area, where business could be conducted in a relaxed environment. I suspect a men-only affair.

The roof, accessible from the hamman, is another impressive construction, several domes providing light for the rooms below, but in such a way that the convex-shaped glass prevents looking inside.

The hamman is next to the Khan-e Boroujerdi , and close to the other two Kashan residences, the Khan-e Tabatabei and the Khan-e Abbasian.

a small pool, and the bath area behind

and lots of benches to relax, before or after bathing

subtle small paintings decorate the pillars

tiled corridors lead further inside

to individual bath rooms, tiled benches and small pools

more domes, glass cut in such a way that you cannot look inside

the domes on the roof provide light to the various rooms below

badgir, or wind tower, mirrored in the pool of the courtyard of Khan-e Boroujerdi


Khan-e Boroujerdi is one of the most ostentatiously decorated merchant houses in Kashan

This 3500 m2 house was reputedly built as a condition for marrying the daughter of Mr. Tabatabei, who lived nearby, to ensure that his daughter lived in a house at least as beautiful as her parental house. But it took carpet merchant Sayed Jafar Natanzi, locally known as Boroujerdi, no less than 18 years to complete the house, and the legend doesn’t say whether the daughter has waited so long.

The result is one of those fabulous houses in Kashan. Only one of the several courtyards is open to the public, and only part of the two-storey house, but the main attraction here is on the inside. In a large room the walls, arches and pillars are covered with a collection of beautiful wall paintings, either directly on to the wall, or bounded by stucco frames. Portraits, hunting scenes, buildings, all subject matter is included, much of it painted by the Royal painter of the Qajar Court, Kamal al-Molik.

Those parts not painted, are elaborately decorated with stucco, both inside as well as outside, again showing a range of items. A museum of which the treasures cannot be removed!

A short walk away is the Khan-e Tabatabei itself and Khan-e Abbasian, which in turn is next to the Hamman-e Sultan Mir Ahmad.

the main reception room

part of the main painted gallery

detail of the main gallery

portrait gallery

stuccoed red soldier

one of the pillars, and is that a little devil, supporting it?

another stuccoed soldier, looking equally sombre

delicate decoration on the side

another painted scene, mythical perhaps?

hunting scene gone wrong

the colour of Delft blue, and a stuccoed and painted clock

decorated ceiling

the main facade of the Khan-e Boroujerdi, along the courtyard

detailed stucco work on the front facade

also resting place for a pigeon

the mirrors-in-mirrors in Khan-e Tabatabei

One of the bigger of the Kashan merchant houses, Khan-e Tabatabei is decorated with elaborate stained glass windows, as well as the other usual decorations

The 19th Century Kashan carpet merchant Sayed Jafar Tabatabei has this house, all 4730 m2 of it, built in 1834. The house consists of a family section, a servants section and a section to receive and entertain guests, amongst them business connections. The 40 rooms are set around four different courtyards, across two floors, all elaborately decorated with stucco and stained glass. Especially the stained glass provides a wonderful spectrum, with playful patterns on the floors, in the late afternoon light.

the main courtyard and fountain of Khan-e Tabatabei

row of doors on the courtyard, all containing stained glass

The house is crossed by two qanats, underground water channels, and the four cellars are designed to keep large quantities of food cool, helped by the badgirs, the wind-towers that caught each and every little breeze and transported them downwards into the house, as an early-day air conditioner.

Nearby are the houses Khan-e Boroujerdi, built for Tabatabei’s daughter, and Khan-e Abbasian, as well as the bathhouse Hamman-e Sultan Mir Ahmad.

exquisitely plaster-decorated balconies

more plaster decoration

sunlight colouring the floor through stained glass windows

two rows of stained glass doors and windows in one of the reception rooms, in the Khan-e Tabatabei

top row of stained glass windows

projection of stained glass windows on the floor

sunlight on the floor

series of doors in the Khan-e Abbasian

Easily the largest of the Kashan merchant houses, Khan-e Abbasian is a very impressive structure across several courtyards and multiple floors

Khan-e Abbasian is one of the older Kashan houses, dating from end 18th Century. The exact origin is not entirely clear, some say it was owned by a cleric, others claim the initiator was a rich glass merchant in town, but the result is a huge residential complex, covering a total of three floors. The lower floor contains the reception halls,  with very high ceilings; the courtyards increase in size upwards, the higher ones each more spacious than the one below.

Great place to wander around, and to get lost from one courtyard to the other, from one cellar to the next.

Nearby is the bathhouse Hamman-e Sultan Mir Ahmad, as well as two other houses, the Khan-e Tabatabei itself and the Khan-e Boroujerdi.

one of the facades around the central courtyard, including two of the badgirs

and its mirror image in the pond

stained windows in one of the tall reception rooms

another of the facades around the courtyard

look-through from one courtyard to the next

outside decorations along top floor windows

intricate plaster patterns on the outside walls

the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha

Fabulous collection, in a fabulous building

It is not only the largest collection of Islamic Art in the world – of which a small part is exquisitely displayed -, but also the building itself that makes this the main tourist attraction in Doha. The museum building, a stand-alone modern design at the end of the Corniche, is attractive from the outside, especially when lit in the evenings, but even more spectacular on the inside – even if you don’t like Islamic Art, do walk in to admire the tall dome and the lighting of the interior.




the museum is an attractive modern building

also on the inside, with a spectacular central hall

The collection comes from all over the world, from China and India to Morocco and Spain, and is partly exhibited by theme – figurative art, patterns, calligraphy, etc -, and partly by regions (Iran, Syria, Turkey, amongst others) and time. This makes for a varied and highly enjoyable exposition. The floor space is not even that large, but we spent easily two hours in between the tiles, the jars, the carpets and the golden jewellery. Below a small sample of my favourite pieces.

figure of a monkey, iran, ca 1200

bowl, afghanistan, 13th C

ewer, central asia, 10th C

mina’i bowl, iran, 13th C

tile, iran, 17th C

bronze fountain head, spain, 10th C

bronze fountain head, spain, 10th C (detail)

jug filters, egypt, syria and iraq, 9th to 14th C

jug filters, egypt, syria and iraq, 9th to 14th C

jug filters, egypt, syria and iraq, 9th to 14th C

steel and gold mask, eastern turkey or western iran, 15th C

Qavam House in the botanical garden Bagh-e Eram

The peaceful Bagh-e Eram, a garden with a Qajar place inside, is a wonderful place for an afternoon in Shiraz.

Bagh-e Eram is famous for its cypresses

Gardens are a Persian thing, and Bagh-e Eram – Eram garden – is one of the great examples in Shiraz. The present version was built in the Qajar period, mid 19th Century, but its design is probably older, maybe 18th Century Seljuk Turkish, on account of the distribution of four Persian Paradise garden elements. Some even claim that the garden is over 900 years old, as it has been mentioned in ancient poems, too.

In 1963 Shiraz University was appointed custodian, and they have turned the garden in a Botanical Garden, with a great variety of plants and trees, as well as a nursery and glass house. On the other end of the garden is the Kakh-e Eram, Eram palace, a Qajar house with a pool, a portico and paintings, as well as tiled mosaics. Except for a small section for the souvenir shop, the building is closed.

as a botanical garden, it contains rare flowers

and more, colourful additions

the nursery in the back has its specifics, too

This is a great place to wander around on a lost afternoon, even a Friday afternoon, when the mostly young Iranian public flocks to the garden, too. Opera singers and narcissist selfie-takers intermingle with unmarried couples trying to find a place out of sight from their families.

turtles in the pond, or outside the pond, in this case

Eram House, a Qajar construction

here, too, tiled mosaic decoration

Eram House, and pond leading up to its terrace: vintage Persian