Highlights of the 2007 China Trip : Beijing, Tibet, Chengdu and Shanghai
This is our 5th tour of China and our first visit to Tibet, the Land of Snows. A group of 19 people from the ACT, New South Wales and the Gold Coast joined me on this trip in September. It was great to share their company and enthusiasm.
Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang (founder of the Hun Yuan
system) and his wife with China Trip Participants
Our first day was in Beijing, the capital of China – 20 million people, 3 million cars. We retreated to Tian Tan (the Temple of Heaven Park) to train with Chen Xiang, a very accomplished disciple of Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang, founder of the Hun Yuan system. Chen Xiang was the subject of some Stanford University research at the Motion and Gait Analysis Laboratory in April 2007, studying the movements and power of a Tai Chi master. Within the walls of the park, we were cloistered from the city noise. The recovery training session from the flight the day before was just what everyone needed.
Chen Xiang is an excellent teacher. He spoke on qi (energy) and how it circulates during the various practices. Our main training that morning was the Silk Reeling (Chan Si) exercises. Chen Xiang has very refined movements and a wealth of knowledge on the internal (qi) aspect of the training. Everyone enjoyed his gentle calming presence. He spoke about qi penetrating the muscles, joints, tendons, organs and marrow. He talked about how animals move their bodies. They are relaxed and their skin is separate from their bones. You can see each individual muscle, tendon and bone moving as they glide along. Tai Chi training helps to restore some of this natural grace to our movements, making us less prone to illness and the ravages of ageing.
Beijing is full of history and the group had the opportunity to experience some of its ancient roots – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City. We were also able to observe the building boom as this modern city readies herself for the 2008 Olympics and the 21st Century.
Grandmaster Feng, founder of the Hun Yuan system, is a great relic of Old China. His jovial personality is refreshing in the hustle and bustle of modern life. Grandmaster Feng enthusiastically instructed our group for 2 mornings. It was an honour to learn from him. As one student commented, “I never thought I would meet Grandmaster Feng, let alone train with him.” Everyone was inspired by his depth of knowledge, vitality, kindness and good humour. Grandmaster Feng is a great example of the training and humility instilled in him by his two famous teachers, Taoist master Hu Yao Zhen and Tai Chi master Chen Fa Ke.
Snow Covered Peaks of Tibet
Visiting Tibet was certainly a highlight. It was a fascinating plane trip into Tibet. The mountains rose majestically through the clouds. Looking out the window, we saw snow covered peaks almost touching the wings. Some valleys were so deep that we could not see the valley floor. A monastery or a small village would appear in the middle of nowhere, and then more mountains.
It takes time for the body to acclimatize. Altitude sickness is not much fun – dizziness, headache, the body feels heavy and breathing is laboured. Fortunately, not everyone was affected by this condition to the same degree. After 2 days, we all felt better and were beginning to enjoy being there. The Potala Palace, fortress of Buddhism, rises above the city as if from the celestial realm. It is difficult to describe the impression it made – certainly something that I won’t forget. The architecture and its treasures – tons of gold in the making of these stupas and Buddhist statues – are truly a sight to behold.
The Yak Hotel, a mecca for Western travellers, was a welcome site for the caffeine deprived tourists and those who needed to taste pizza, pasta and other western favourites.
Tibetan Buddhism has had a profound effect on the once fierce warrior tribes of Tibet. The great Buddhist masters, Tsong Khapa, Milarepa, Padmasambhava and Sakya Pandita, showed the Tibetans an alternative way of life. The enemy is within us. The 3 poisons (desire, hatred and ignorance), as Lhadar, our devout Buddhist local guide, expounded, have to be identified, overcome and finally transformed. Ignorance – not knowing what is good for us – leads to suffering. Self awareness enables us to realise what we are doing and the possible consequences of our thoughts and actions.
The Yak Hotel
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is an advanced level of teaching called Vajrayana. “Vajra” means diamond, symbolising the perfection of wisdom and compassion, the characteristic of all enlightened beings. It is usually taught to disciples or those who have taken vows to uphold the teachings. It leads to a deeper understanding of reality. How we see the world is how the world sees us. Perception, whether it is pure or distorted, determines how we go about our daily life. For example, your boss can be your teacher or your enemy. The world can be seen as a beautiful piece of art or a cesspool of death and disease. Both are true to a certain extent. However, one view empowers while the other enslaves. The choice is ours.
From Buddhas to cute, cuddly and hungry pandas in Chengdu, we caught them having breakfast. They were playful and fun to watch. It was pandas in the mist. It had been raining for days and it just stopped for us. Some of our group had photos taken, while patting the big pandas. Chengdu is a place that is teeming with life – huge mountains, forests and abundant water and some of the best food in China. It is definitely a place you would like to visit again.
Shanghai is a classy city. It is big, bright and wealthy. Shopping and visiting the old French quarter are a must. We found a boutique bookstore with a traditional feel and a great coffee shop. There is just so much to do and see in this city. You need a couple of weeks at least.
We all had a great experience. There are so many photos and tales to share with relatives and friends. Many of us will definitely go back again to enjoy the history and culture of China.
– Chief Instructor Brett Wagland
These days, when I do Tai Chi in the cavernous gym at Phillip College, I can imagine the cool quiet of a hotel courtyard in Lhasa, just before dawn. Or a paved platform in a park full of pandas.
There were so many highlights on the Academy's China trip 2007 but practising Tai Chi in surroundings that reinforce the culture underpinning it was deeply moving. The daily practice, free from distractions of day to day life in Australia, Brett on tap with gentle, empathetic advice, provided the space for a whole lot of things to click into place.
Chinese Opera, Chengdu
I've wanted to do the trip since I started Tai Chi a few years ago – this year was my year and the experience was satisfying on so many different levels. I’m not much of a “group travel” type but this is definitely the way to go, particularly for a first-time visitor to China. Travelling with knowledgeable, caring guides has loads of advantages in a complex country like this.
- Sitting in the courtyard of the Sera Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, watching hundreds of Buddhist monks debating their scriptures, full of passion, humour and love.
- Sitting in a traditional teahouse in Chengdu, watching all the many varied skills of Chinese opera performed by people with gob smacking talent. They balanced candles on their heads, brought puppets to life, created shadow creatures with their hands, and played heavenly music from instruments I never knew.
- Watching two big fat pandas crunching very loudly on their favourite food – black bamboo (the only thing they eat, lucky they enjoy it so much).
- Looking at majestic mountains through the window of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, listening to wise words from our local guide, a devoted Buddhist, and thinking how nothing about China is black and white.
- Sitting on a bus in the claustrophobic traffic of Beijing, whiling away precious time with precious conversation about Tai Chi and many other of life’s rich subjects.
Monks debating at the Sera Monastery
And then there was the Grand Master, of course … funnily enough I wouldn’t say that the Tai Chi practice with him was the best of the trip for me. I was too busy watching him to relax into my own rhythm but to meet such a warm, calm, strong man is a real gift. I had bonus contact with him when he offered to show me the way across the park to the ladies toilet. He sang all the while, and moved his arms around, stopping at a little stall to buy lemonade ice blocks for the class.
The stresses and temptations of everyday life have tested the commitment I came back with to practise and to learn, but not a whole lot. It’s a bit early to refer to it as a life-changing experience but it certainly has that potential.
This year's China trip packed a huge amount into quite a short time. The highlights for me were definitely Lhasa (in particular the Potala), the Panda Park at Chengdu and then Shanghai. Climbing the Great Wall was of course memorable, as was the Tai Chi in Beijing with Master Chen Xiang and Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang.
The Potala Palace, Lhasa
The overwhelming impression of Beijing was simply the immense scale of everything, more building happening than seemingly the rest of the world combined. We observed the hugeness of everything, the size of the shopping centres, crowds, traffic congestion and air quality problems. It all made other places such as New York seem small towns in comparison. Fortunately, the parks where we did Tai Chi were surprisingly tranquil, and felt miles away from the rest of Beijing!
Lhasa of course was at the other end of the scale, with its blue skies, clean cool air and relaxed ways. The Potala was even more imposing than expected. Both the tour of the building and the walk around it the next day were the highlights, simply because of its uniqueness. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama's much more informal summer palace, was also a great contrast. Those of us who stayed longer in Lhasa enjoyed having the time to explore the markets, and relax with some decent coffee at the Yak Hotel!
The panda park at Chengdu was also excellent, both for the range of Giant Pandas we saw, and also for the best location for practising Tai Chi. It was a good contrast to the world's greatest traffic jam we experienced the day before trying to get to our hotel on China's National Day!
Shanghai and its people seemed much more relaxed and friendly than Beijing. Shanghai turned on some clear skies and no pollution for us for our final stop. This added to the sense of spectacle of its signature attraction, the night time cruise on the river. There we observed the contrast of the unspoiled 19th century buildings on one side on the Bund and the brand new skyscrapers of Pudong on the other. This was a great way to finish the tour. I also caught the "Maglev" out to the airport, enjoying a ride on the world's fastest train – about 431 km per hour. The total length of the track is about 30 kilometres. This was well worth doing, although it was all over in seven minutes!
Inside the Jokhang Monastery, Lhasa
Having been to Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai before, the major highlight for me was the cultural, spiritual and natural wonders of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Flying into Tibet has to be the most spectacular plane flight on the planet. The view of the mountain ranges, glaciers, enormous sand banks, and if you’re lucky, K2 and Mt Everest is breath taking. Some of the most impressive photos our group have of the Tibetan landscape are from the airline window seats. Tibet really is the "roof of the world".
Lhasa itself was not a very impressive city, except for the Potala Palace and Jokhang. Lhasa has become the capitalist centre for Tibet, boasting many new hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops. Standing high above the westernised city is the Potala Palace, one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. It extends across the side of a mountain and overlooks Lhasa and the city square. The palace is a maze of wooden stairs, corridors and rooms which led us on a tour of the palace's history and cultural treasures. We only had one hour of time to see the sights inside the palace, but it was more than enough to appreciate the significance and wonder of the place. The amount of gold and precious gems which adorned the statues and stupas has to be seen to be believed.
Stupas which house Relics of Buddhists Masters, Lhasa
We also visited the Norbulingkha Palace which was the summer residence for His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The palace grounds were covered with many floral displays. There were many beautiful gardens and water-park areas connecting the temples and residences. We had the privilege of taking a tour through the bedroom and living quarters of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. These rooms were no more opulent than those of the common Tibetan people.
While in Lhasa, we were fortunate enough to visit Jokhang Monastery. Our visit included a talk with our tour guide Lhadar (a monk for 7 years) on the 3 poisons one must purge from the body as a stepping stone into Buddhism. We saw the Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha statue there. This statue of Sakyamuni Buddha as a 12 year old, also known as the Wish-Fulfilling Gem, is very sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. Outside the temple, we saw many pilgrims performing prayers and prostrations, which was a strange sight for those of us not familiar with the practice. After visiting the temple, we spent some time in Barkhor Square which is a massive market place selling everything and anything Tibetan.
After 2 days of touring and acclimatising in Lhasa, we took the bus to Shigatse. We made one major detour on the way, which was to the Tibetan holy lake of Yamdrok Tso. The lake is 4999 metres above sea level. The air was very, very thin and cold, but it was worth every bit of discomfort. The views and aura of the lake were fantastic. The lake changed colour before our eyes as the cloud patterns and sunlight angles provided a kaleidoscope of blue hues. Here I took my second adventure on the back of a Yak, unless it was a female Dri!
Shigatse definitely had a different feel and presence from Lhasa. There were nomads and sherpas populating the nearby surroundings and sky burial mounds on the route in, old and destroyed buildings visible from the main road. We even saw a monk performing prostrations along the road from Lhasa to Shigatse! (He had travelled some distance when we passed him on the way back!)
Pilgrims performing Prayers and Prostrations, Lhasa
Our main destination here was the giant Maitreya Buddha statue housed in the Tashilunpo Monastery. This temple is the palace for the Panchen Lama and housed the stupas for the 5th through to 10th Panchen Lamas. The stupas are almost all solid gold and richly adorned with precious gems. However, the stupas are no visual match for the massive 26 metre tall, gilded gold, brass and copper Buddha. Unlike Lhasa and the Potala place, Tashilunpo was teaming with monks, pilgrims and locals, and fewer tourists. Here we also had the pleasure of another lecture from Lhadar on the Buddhist concepts of the Wheel of Life, karma and the consequence of our actions in this life.
During morning Tai Chi practice, a small group of us attracted the attention of a nearby fawn which watched us train in the hotel carpark. A good change from the Canberra moths and flies!
On the drive back to Lhasa, we managed to catch a glimpse of the Korala Glacier. This was the first time I had seen a glacier first hand, a very imposing structure and a distinct contrast to the natural mountains.
Also on the bus ride back to Lhasa, we had the chance to see true Tibetan culture in action, as Lhadar shared our left over picnic lunch with some local village children. It’s hard to describe the experience, but it touched me deeply. It was not just a simple act of generosity, more an extension in our lesson on the 3 poisons and the Wheel of Life. Lhadar mentioned that often tour groups will be encouraged to collect spare hotel toothbrushes, soaps and combs, so he can hand them out to village children.
Throughout our stay in Tibet, I do not think I saw a Tibetan who wasn’t smiling or praying. For me, the people in Tibet really reflect their culture and the culture reflects the people.
I recently returned from a fantastic 16-day tour of China with a group of 19 people, mostly students of the Tai Chi Academy in Canberra.
Master Chen Xiang,
a senior disciple of
Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang
On our first day in hot, sunny Beijing, we were able to find some shade in the gardens of the Temple of Heaven. There we met up with Chen Xiang, a master of the Hun Yuan training and a senior disciple of Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang, founder of the system. Doing a session of Silk Reeling exercises was a great way to relax ourselves and stretch out our muscles, after so many hours cramped up on the flights of the previous day. At the end of the session, Master Chen was gracious enough to demonstrate the Hun Yuan 24 form to us.
On Days 3 and 4, we practised with Grandmaster Feng for a couple of hours each morning. It was most inspiring to be practising with him. He was most entertaining in his manner of showing us what we can achieve with the use of qi behind our movements. Everywhere we went, we became the object of spectacle to local Chinese passers-by who seemed to appreciate Tai Chi but not know it themselves. Grandmaster Feng created the Hun Yuan form, so as we practised the form with him, he introduced several variations at different times. Those of the group who were very familiar with the form found them a little offputting. However, as Brett put it, he is entitled to do whatever he likes with the form, seeing that it is his own.
In Beijing, we also visited Tian An Men Square, the Forbidden City and the Ming tomb. An unexpected treat was having a traditional foot massage after climbing the Great Wall.
In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, we found ourselves short of breath and quite dizzy, at an altitude of 3800 metres. Our Tai Chi session in the hotel courtyard in Lhasa was most relaxing. It really helped to lessen the light-headed dizzy feeling that most of us were having. A few of us also practised in the dark before breakfast while in Lhasa. After acclimatising, we visited some of the sites with our local guide, Lhadar, who had studied Buddhism for seven years and who gave us a wonderful insight into the religion.
Then we left part of the group behind in Lhasa and headed off up to the holy lake and then on to Shigatse. We went on a coach up to Yamdrok Tso, one of the largest and most holy lakes in Tibet at 5000 metres altitude, where some of us had a short ride on a yak. In Shigatse, we had a most inspiring visit to the Tashilunpo Monastery. Here we saw the famous Maitreya Buddha statue – 26.2 metre tall and adorned with pearls, diamonds, corals and other precious gems.
Riding on a Yak
The landscape behind is Yamdrok Tso, holy lake
We arrived in Chengdu on China’s National Day, which meant that millions of families were out celebrating in the city. With many streets closed to traffic and cars everywhere, it took three hours to reach the hotel from the airport, a journey that usually takes 20 minutes.
In Chengdu we visited the giant panda eco-breeding park, where we saw several adults chomping on bamboo, some young cubs playing and three babies in the nursery. I had difficulty restraining myself and only buying a toy panda for my one-year-old niece and not one for myself as well. After the excitement of seeing the giant pandas, we found a great spot in the grounds of the panda breeding park and had a wonderfully relaxing Tai Chi session in the fresh air, with birds singing all around us.
The last stop was Shanghai, still busy with the holiday week. In the Fuxing Park, we found many elderly Chinese doing their morning exercises. This included all sorts of Tai Chi, sword practice, dancing with fans, ballroom dancing, badminton and choir singing. We created quite a stir amongst the locals as we found a spare spot (soon discovered to be free due to the smell emanating from the nearby toilets) and started practising our form.
I think we all came away richer from the experience and determined to keep up the regular Tai Chi practice.
Having taken part in previous Academy tours of China, the main highlight on this trip for me would have to be our visit to Tibet (followed by a close encounter with a Giant Panda at Wolong Nature Reserve).
On the Way to Lhasa
from the Airport
On the flight from Chengdu to Lhasa across the mountains, the scenery was awe inspiring with clear skies, enabling us to have wonderful views. We took great photos of rugged snow-capped peaks and deep valleys – seemingly just below the wings of the plane. Monasteries and small village settlements with carefully tended fields appeared occasionally below. We wondered how and if the inhabitants managed to travel into and out of these very isolated places and how much contact they had with the outside world.
Lhasa is 62 km from Gonggar Airport and the bus journey afforded us time to take in some of the sights on the way to the hotel. We crossed the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra River once it flows into India) and passed through the recently completed Galashan Tunnel, which, at nearly 2,500m long, has cut 30 minutes of the original journey. Then, we stopped to see and photograph Tibet’s largest rock sculpture of a seated Buddha.
The next day saw many of the group suffering, though not badly, from the effects of high altitude. However, we left the hotel early to visit Norbulingkha, the summer palace of mainly the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas. Following our local guide Lhadar, we made our way slowly through the very colourful restored gardens (displaying marigolds, dahlias and chrysanthemums amongst others), to the interior of the main building. The many rooms are very ornate – the walls covered with floor to ceiling murals depicting Tibetan Buddhist history. A guide from another group pointed out bullet holes in beams near the ceiling, dating from the time of the 1959 uprising.
The day had warmed considerably by the time we’d had lunch at a very elegant restaurant and embarked on our exploration of the Potala Palace – the White and Red Palaces combined. It was hard, slow work in the heat, climbing the 300 steps, interspersed with ramps, to the entrance of the White Palace. However, we all made it and it was certainly worth the climb. The views over Lhasa from some of the courtyards are magnificent. The Palace architecture is astounding when considering the original construction dates from the 7th century, and the Red and White Palaces weren’t completed until the 17th century.
Yamdrok Tso, one of the largest and most holy lakes in Tibet
The shape of the lake resembles a Scorpion
Once inside, we passed through the many halls, rooms and corridors. We climbed up stairs that sometimes were little more than steep, sturdy ladders until we finally reached the roof of the White Palace. We then descended through the Red Palace, passing the many statues of past Dalai Lamas and Buddhist deities, draped in silk brocade cloth and coloured scarves. The huge gold and jewelled stupa tombs of the former were truly amazing. The tops of the stupas, some up to 14m high, almost disappeared from sight in the heights of the darkened halls. There were rooms containing many precious books and scrolls, embroidered thangkas and large intricate three-dimensional jewelled mandalas. Yak butter lamps burned throughout the Palace, adding light and atmosphere to the spectacle as we mingled with Chinese, Tibetan and western tourists and pilgrims.
A short bus trip later, we were at the Jokhang Temple – the most revered religious structure in Tibet. Inside the main building, Lhadar led us past the Inner Sanctum, side chapels and shrines. Each shrine is devoted to a particular deity, king or Dalai Lama and contains fabulous statues adorned with jewels and bright fabrics. Tibet’s most important shrine is housed here. The Chapel of Jowo Sakyamuni contains an image of 12 year old Sakyamuni, which was brought to Tibet by Princess Wencheng, the Chinese wife of King Songtsen Gampo, in the 7th century A.D. Yak butter lamps burned here as well and the crowds and the air were equally thick.
In one spot outside the Temple entrance, we saw numbers of pilgrims prostrating. We dodged one in particular prostrating (at speed) in a clockwise direction round the Barkhor Circuit (surrounding the Jokhang). He appeared to be oblivious to the crowds who seemed to take no notice – I guess quite a common occurrence! The Barkhor area is a fascinating glimpse of old Tibet. The streets around the Jokhang are filled with market stalls, small temples and older style Tibetan buildings. I wish we’d had more time to explore further.
Yungdrungling Monastery, on the way to Shigatse
Early next morning, we left Lhasa for Shigatse, via Lake Yamdrok Tso. We crossed the Tsangpo Bridge and passed through small towns along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, southwest of Lhasa. Here, we began our steep, winding climb into the mountains to Khamba La pass and the lake, at nearly 5,000m above sea level. The scenery on this trip was stunning. The mountains, though very steep, were mostly brown and barren, but for the very low growing vegetation. Small settlements on the lower slopes made use of any available flat land, or made terraces, for crops of barley and canola. Higher up, yaks were grazing on the distant slopes. Looking back down the valley as the bus climbed, we had very clear views of our starting point way below, and the steep winding ascent we’d travelled. We were amazed to come across cyclists pedalling determinedly upwards near the top of the pass. I marvelled at their ability to perform such a feat at an altitude where any more than walking would have had me needing a Bex and a good lie down!!
Coming over the top of the pass, we were confronted by an enormous expanse of beautiful blue, surrounded by brown mountains. Yamdrok Tso, one of Tibet’s holy lakes, provided a stark yet compelling landscape, with the added bonus of huge snow covered peaks in the distance on the border of Bhutan. Following a 20 minute stay at the top (use of smart, newish toilet block and photo ops on Yaks included), Vincent, our national tour guide, took a photo of the group with Lhadar and we once again boarded the bus on our way to Shigatse. We weren’t able to travel via Gyantse due to new road works on that route, so we re-traced our journey down from the pass and back to the Friendship Highway. From there, we followed the Yarlung Tsangpo River all the way to Shigatse, passing the snow capped Mount Nyimukari. We stopped for lunch at a small roadside restaurant, where the food was good (though bland compared to Sichuan cuisine), and the toilet was memorable for all the wrong reasons (the worst I think since Tian Shi Temple on Mount Qing Cheng)!!
Tashilunpo Monastery, Shigatse
Travelling along by the river, we passed many small settlements. They were often surrounded by bright splashes of green and gold, the colours of the crops grown in narrow, terraced fields, some literally hewn into the steep slopes above the river. We stopped for a break at Tadruka, a small town by the river, and took photos of the surroundings, including the distant Bonpo Monastery, Yungdrungling, once home to 700 monks. Some of the local people had spread cloths on the ground by the river to display jewellery and souvenirs etc. for sale to passing tourists. Just before we reached Shigatse, Lhadar pointed out to us a very large hill, which he said was used for Tibetan sky burials. We could just make out the shrines on the very top as we passed.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Shigatse and, after checking in to our hotel, a few of us decided to go for a walk before dinner. The traffic and crowds were far less than we’d encountered elsewhere and despite the spitting rain, we enjoyed the chance to stretch our legs again. The Chinese influence is still very much in evidence in Shigatse, with signs on shops and businesses mainly in Chinese – sometimes with Tibetan script underneath. Not far from the hotel, we found ourselves in a very extensive market covering many blocks and selling absolutely everything from clothes, jewellery and souvenirs to food and homewares. Although not as clean an area as previous markets, we’d strolled through and noticed that there seemed to be more of a Tibetan/Muslim influence here. Our dinner at one of the hotel restaurants was a buffet of both Chinese and Western food, and quite a number of our fellow diners were also Western tour groups. During the meal we were treated to a floor show performed by dancers in Tibetan costume – firstly young women and finally the men, who wore fabulous masks.
Tashilhunpo Monastery, seat of the Panchen Lamas, was our destination next morning after breakfast. We were shown the tombs of the 10th and 4th Panchen Lamas, with their magnificent funerary chortens of silver, gold and jewels. We also saw a tomb for the 5th to 9th Panchen Lamas, built to replace tombs destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and dedicated in 1989 by the 10th Panchen Lama. Throughout the monastery are many treasures – Buddhist sculptures, symbols and carvings – but the most impressive sight was the 26 metre high golden statue of the seated Maitreya in the Chapel of Jampo. Each of his fingers is at least a metre long and 300 kilograms of gold went into the statue’s coating, which is also studded with gemstones. The oldest building is the richly decorated and furnished Assembly Hall, which contains the Panchen Lama’s throne and rows of raised padded cushions for the monks. Nearby, in the balconies around the Kelsang Courtyard, we saw many monks and pilgrims engaged in conversation. The flagstones paving the courtyard and many of the laneways we walked through are actually jade! In places, millions of pairs of feet over time have polished them to a soft green sheen. Lhadar told us that the Tibetans do not prize jade as much as the Chinese, and instead prefer coral and turquoise.
Tashilunpo Monastery, Shigatse
Of all the grand buildings we visited in Tibet, this monastery is the one that appealed to me most. Walking through the various rooms, I gained the impression that despite its long history (from 1477), it was less like a museum than others. It was a calm and peaceful home to an active ongoing community. Treasures notwithstanding, I loved the cobbled laneways and intriguing architecture, with each gateway and opening between buildings revealing a new scene or hidden courtyard.
Our group had made a decision that on the way back to Lhasa, we would rather have snacks and fruit for lunch than a heavier meal. We pulled off the highway and Lhadar and Vincent produced many different packets of biscuits and nibblies, plus apples and bananas and spread them out by the side of the road. Although we satisfied our appetites, there was still food uneaten. At the next small village, Lhadar distributed what was left to a group of very excited school children, who seemed to appear from all directions. They were bright, happy youngsters, all wanting to have their photos taken so they could see their images on the camera LCD screens, producing gales of laughter all round.
Following one more brief stop to take pictures of the snow on Mount Nyimukari, we continued back to Lhasa. We left Tibet the next morning and flew back over the mountains to Chengdu, taking wonderful memories with us.
We arrived back in Chengdu on National Day in the middle of celebrations, and the crowds were absolutely incredible – a complete contrast to Tibet. So many of the roads had been closed and the traffic and pedestrians were so thick that our bus driver had difficulty in finding a route to our hotel. It took hours to accomplish, but gave us time to observe and photograph the chaotic scene. A very entertaining and colourful Sichuan Opera show was a fun ending to the day.
Early the next morning, we were off to the Wolong Panda Reserve. On a previous visit here, we’d entered the park in the late afternoon, well past feeding time and all but a couple of pandas had retired for the remainder of the day. We saw the Red Pandas close up and two of the group were able to hold one, but it was a little disappointing not to see more of the giant variety. This time the weather was damp and misty, though not cold, when we arrived and this seemed to add to the experience. Best of all, it was feeding time and we had much better views of the pandas! The bigger ones, in sitting positions, were chewing on bamboo non-stop and covering their round tummies with stems while the ones of kindergarten age were playing games with each other on climbing equipment.
Glen, Polly and I took the opportunity to pat one of the Giant Pandas while she was feeding. A female, Xiu Yuan, of I guess about 4 years, was delightful and seemed quite oblivious to our attentions, as long as she had plenty of bamboo to chew. While she ate contentedly, we donned disposable plastic gloves and shoe covers and stroked and patted her large head. One of the attendants took photos of our experience with our own cameras – we couldn’t wipe the smiles from our faces for ages! After walking round the park, including photographing the red pandas, we found a quiet and peaceful spot to practise some Tai Chi – a great ending to our visit with these gentle giants.
I always look forward to going back to China and have experienced wonderful sights and journeys each time. The opportunity to meet Grandmaster Feng and Chen Xiang again, practise Tai Chi with them, and listen to their teachings was enjoyable and insightful. The differences in Beijing and Shanghai on each visit are amazing as each city, while trying to protect more of its history, embraces modernisation with gusto. Beijing – in preparation for the Olympic Games – is striving to finalise buildings and infrastructure on time, and Shanghai is soaring ever skyward. Each visit sees more new skyscrapers, particularly in the Pudong Area across the Huang Pu River from the Bund. Here, the nearly completed Shanghai World Financial Centre, at 101 storeys, dwarfs the previous tallest Jin Mao Tower.
China is a land of such contrasts. Away from the bright lights and hustle and bustle of the cities, one can still find places where time seems to have stood still and life goes on at a calmer, more peaceful pace.
Thanks to my fellow travellers for the fun and companionship, our guides and Brett and Fontane for another unforgettable journey.
Wooden Pavilion (constructed entirely without nails)
at the Qing Yang Temple in Chengdu
(built during the Zhou dynasty, 1022-486BC),
one of the most ancient Taoist temples
- its people and temples
- our guide, Lhadar, who has the faith and devotion of a practising Buddhist, and who was energetic in sharing the teachings with us]
- the deep devotion of the traditional Tibetans visiting the holy Jokhang Temple in Lhasa
- the monks going about their business in the temples, from sweeping floors with 'foot brooms' to debating points of doctrine
- the long trip to Shigatse by road, with the opportunity to observe how the rural people live and work
- the tranquillity and timelessness of the Qing Yang Taoist Temple, contrasted with the happy teaming crowds and traffic jams on the National Day holiday in Chengdu
- meeting and practising with Master Chen Xiang and Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang
- practising as a group in hotel courtyards and public parks
- experiencing the physical benefits of Qigong on that first morning at high altitude in Lhasa
My last visit to China was in 1978, and it was wonderful to see the Chinese people looking happier and enjoying more personal freedom than 30 years ago.
In Beijing, we stayed at the Courtyard Beijing (a Marriott chain hotel). The Beijing New World Centre is attached to the hotel. The label, shopping centre, doesn't do this place justice. It is absolutely enormous (6 floors, any one of which would have more floor space than Woden or Tuggeranong in total).
Beijing 2008 Olympic Stadium under Construction
It was a pretty full few days, including one Tai Chi session with Master Chen Xiang (50 something years old senior disciple of Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang), and two sessions with Grandmaster Feng himself (80 years old, and absolutely amazing). The sessions were fantastic, mainly sets of exercises to improve our overall Tai Chi skill levels. We have done quite a lot of Silk Reeling exercises, Qigong exercises and practice in the Hun Yuan 24 form.
We have also done lots of tourist things – an acrobatics show, a visit to the jade factory, the Ming Tombs, a walk up the Great Wall, a foot massage (absolutely a highlight of the trip), a visit to the Academy of China Medical Sciences (looking at acupuncture and massage treatment), Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City.
Patting a Giant Panda at the eco-park
I won't bore you by raving about the food excessively. I will just say that it has been out of this world – lots of different styles of food, and all exceptional quality!
We were off to Tibet via Chengdu. I can't really do Tibet justice. All I can say is that it is the most beautiful country I have ever visited, with the most awe inspiring scenery imaginable.
I have been thinking about highlights of the China and Tibet trip, and have really found it hard to pick just a couple. I enjoyed the whole trip so much that it is hard to narrow it down :
- seeing even a little of a culture which has existed for thousands of years
- sampling the variety of foods
- training with Tai Chi masters
- visiting locations as diverse as the huge cities of Beijing and Shanghai with their teeming crowds and populations larger than our entire country
- and then Tibet – with its awe inspiring scenery and small population centres
All of this added up to an unparalleled experience.
I would have to say though, that the absolute high point of the trip for me was the visit to the giant panda park in Chengdu. To see these beautiful, placid creatures, and the efforts being made to preserve the species, and to increase the population and help them thrive, was quite amazing. Wandering around the park, seeing pandas in different stages of development from infants to very large adults, and seeing them in close contact with humans was fantastic. We went into the nursery and saw several babies only a few weeks old (one was lying on an attendant's lap and getting a bath while we were passing through). And then, to finish with a Tai Chi session in a quiet, peaceful, relaxing corner of the park seemed very appropriate somehow.
Top part of the Statue of the future
Maitreya Buddha in Tashilunpo Monastery