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

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