As I am still wrangling my 1,000+ photos, I thought I'd point you to one of the women who joined our trip to Gansu Province earlier this month. Anna Greenspan has a gallery on her website that showcases much of what we saw in southern Gansu starting with the incredible mountain scenery on the way to Binglingsi to the monastery decorations at Labrang in Xiahe and the Tsewey Bon Monastery in the Ganjia Grasslands outside Xiahe.
Enjoy! Anna Greenspan's Photo Gallery.
We spent the Dragon Boat Festival holidays with friends in Moganshan, a nearby mountain retreat outside Hangzhou that takes about 3 hours to reach from Shanghai. Once the playground of expats escaping the summer Shanghai swelter, Moganshan now plays host to several eco-retreats and lodges as well as many rentable homes. We stayed in a converted farmhouse at the end of a road that leads up the mountain toward a small temple.
For Shanghailanders, Moganshan is a nice escape from big city life. Our kids quickly unplugged, stripped down and headed across the road to an ice-cold stream that tumbles down the mountain. Chickens, dogs and neighbors wander between houses so you never know how you'll see in your front yard. We, ourselves, wandered over to the farmhouse next door to see them hard at work making pork and sticky rice zongzi dumplings, eaten annually during this season.
Despite rain, we hiked up the mountain. On the first day we went as far as the small temple that is still active on the mountainside. An elderly nun brought out snacks for the kids and we all made offerings in the small sanctuary. The next day brought fog and no rain so we hiked all the way up to the Lodge, a restaurant/bar at the top of the mountain that serves all kids of Western comfort food, including a decent Bloody Mary.
Two nights seemed to short, but we'd managed to eat and drink through all of our supplies so it was time to head back to work and school on Wednesday. But Moganshan isn't far away and is a good escape for anyone spending long periods of time in Shanghai and wanting to experience country life in China.
Read more about Moganshan:
Photos: top - the girls hike up the steep stairs to the temple on Moganshan, bottom - our neighbors make zongzi during Dragon Boat holidays. © 2013 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.
A quick diversion: it's officially rainy season in Shanghai and the non-stop drizzle that greeted me when I landed earlier this week has hardly let up for a moment. Shanghai's rain is very impressive during the season. There's no need for an umbrella because it typically rains sideways, or it is so misty that with or without protection you end up getting wet. If you're in town this season, hit the fake markets. They've got knee-high rainboots in every color in the rainbow.
It did rain on our last day in Xiahe but we lucked out on weather while we were there. We woke up on the second day of our trip to cool dry air and blue skies. If you stood in the shade you were chilly but as soon as you got in the intense sunshine, you needed to strip off the layers.
We began the day with a walk to Labrang Monastery from our hotel (only across the road from the monastery compound) and a hand-off from our guide to the monk who was our guide through the monastery. 24-years-old and with a constant grin, our monk led us through the main structures speaking English the whole way. One of the most amazing sights we saw was a group of young boys, probably 9-11-years-old practicing a dance that required them to do back-bends and marches with interesting props in hand. I snapped a few photos before it registered that there were very obvious "no photography" signs everywhere. We six were put along with another group of six and there was a large French group following us but it still felt very un-touristy indeed.
Our tour lasted until lunchtime so we headed off to have a Tibetan meal at a Xiahe restaurant before beginning our walk around the 3km kora (or pilgrim way). We got halfway and then our guide invited us to his home to drink Tibetan yak-butter tea. Our guide's wife is from Lhasa and apparently yak-butter tea is something you really only authentically find there. But he whipped us up a brew of mostly butter tea and we all dutifully gulped. I didn't get a centimeter through it although one of our group finished hers and then helped out a neighbor. One does hate to waste anything in this poor region where food choice is scarce and yak butter costs 80rmb/kilo.
After our tea break, we continued through town back to the kora stopping at a nunnery along the way. The nuns were inside avoiding the high sun but we toured their small sanctuary and prayer hall. Finally finishing the kora, our day ended at around 5pm. It was the first time I'd spent an entire day basically just hanging out at a monastery, soaking up life (and sun). It was somewhat overwhelming - trying to process all that we'd seen - and I was happy to have another day to perhaps walk the kora or go back to the monastery on my own, slower, terms.
After dithering, we ended up right back at the same restaurant we'd gone to for lunch and tried the Chinese side of the menu. The food was equally good (perhaps better since Chinese cuisine uses so many more ingredients. And we spent the evening discussing the day's events and watching life along the evening streets of Xiahe.
I've just returned from my trip to Xiahe in the Tibetan region of Gannan in Gansu Province. Once again, this trip has validated that if you travel very, very far, you get to fabulous places in China.
Our first day took us from Shanghai to Lanzhou and then on to Xiahe, home of Labrang Monastery, by way of Binglingsi, a collection of Buddhist grottoes a few hours south of Lanzhou. It was quite a lot of travel. We left Shanghai at 8:20 a.m. and arrived in Xiahe 16 hours later!
Binglingsi is a set of Buddhist grottoes carved into the mountains most famous for its very large Maitreya Buddha statue that, unbeknownst to us, was under renovation. The trip there included a detour, a taxi guide for our bus and a boat trip - but it was all worth it.
After our visit, another detour and a white-knuckle 3-hour drive over the mountains in the dark, we arrived at Linxia, our mid-way point between Lanzhou and Xiahe for a quick dinner of Muslim street food at 10pm. On a major road from then on, we managed to catch some sleep and arrived in Xiahe to our accommodation, the Tibetan Overseas Hotel, at 1am.
Waking up to incredible sunshine at this 3,000m town a few hours later was an excellent payoff for the grueling trip there.
Photos: top - Binglingsi landscape, middle - Maitreya when not under renovation, bottom - Muslim street market in Linxia. © 2013 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.
When traveling in China, you come across plants in gardens that you may, or may not be, familiar with. I've recently written a few articles about some of the most common (an my favorites).
Flora of China:
- The Gingko Tree
- The Lotus
- The Camillia Sinensis - better known as tea
- The Osmanthus
- Yartsa Gunbu - bet you don't know what that is!
Photo: Gingko leaves in the fall. © 2013 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.
I'm in the midst of planning another trip, this time back to Gansu Province to tour the southern region called Gannan which is a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture within the province. It is home to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, ancient Buddhist grottoes, beautiful grasslands and incredible scenery. It's a reprise of our group from last year when we went to the northern part of the province to visit Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves.
If I can, I like to find a local agency who can help us out in trip planning and guiding services. I think I've found a gem of one located in Xiahe. The manager has been incredibly responsive and informative so we're looking forward to following his suggested itinerary through the region.
Right now I'm trying to research as much as I can about not only the region but the nature of Tibetan monasteries and Tibetan Buddhist symbolism. When we visited Kumbum Monastery outside Xining last year I felt like I missed a lot and wished I'd been able to ask more questions about what some of the art meant and what some of the things we saw were for. (That was a different trip, one with two pretty sick kids along so I wasn't able to take as much in as I would have liked.) After the Qinghai trip I ordered a fabulous guidebook called Tibet Handbook that covers the entire region, not only the TAR but also parts of other Chinese provinces that have large Tibetan populations. So I'm studying that one as well as anything else I can get my hands on to be prepared for the trip.
We're also considering getting some altitude-sickness medicine. Xiahe sits at about 2,900 meters (9,500 feet). Considering I didn't feel great during our trip to Qinghai where we made our base in Xining at 2,275m (7,465 feet), I'm thinking this is not a bad idea. But I'm going to have to purchase it in Hong Kong as it doesn't seem like it's available in Shanghai.
I'll reveal our itinerary once we've gotten it fixed, now I've got to go back and continue researching.
Photo: a Tibetan Buddhist monk from Golung Monastery, Qinghai from my trip there in October 2012. © Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.
If you're in this market and planning on visiting Shanghai, now is the perfect time to try the Mandarin Oriental and take advantage of one of their summer offerings:
Your Second Night On Us package includes two nights' accommodation in a guestroom or suite - the second night is complimentary. The package also includes complimentary wireless internet access.
Discover Shanghai package includes one night's accommodation in a guestroom or suite, complimentary wireless internet access, a credit of CNY888 for room guests and CNY1,888 for suite guests that can be redeemed at the hotel's spa or restaurants, plus complimentary butler service for suite guests.
The MO Shanghai is offering these packages between now and September 30, 2013. For bookings contact the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai.
One of the great pleasures of my job is, on occasion, getting to visit new hotels when they open. The Mandarin Oriental Pudong showcased its new offering and I can happily report that the MO is a welcome addition to Shanghai's broad market of luxury hotels. Even if you're not planning on staying in a luxury hotel in China, you should make note because in Asia, many fabulous restaurants and bars are located in cities' upmarket hotels. You might very well find yourself enjoying a cocktail, a meal and even perhaps a meeting in the luxurious surroundings of the Mandarin Oriental.
The MO Pudong, Shanghai is special because it is located not in one of the city's towering skyscrapers but in a new building right alongside the Huang Pu River in Lujiazui, Shanghai's financial district in Pudong. Guest rooms have dramatic views of both the fabulous Shanghai skyline and the busy river - giving guests a true sense of location. Furthermore, if you're a runner or like to walk around where you're staying, leisure-seekers will enjoy walking or jogging along the riverfront and business people might find they don't need to wait in a taxi queue, as many of Shanghai's office towers are located at the MO's doorstep.
Another special point about the hotel is its exclusive collection of art curated by Tokyo's Art Front Gallery featuring 4,000 original artworks by Chinese artists displayed throughout the property. The hotel transforms into a gallery with magnificent pieces from your guestroom living space to the function area, from the lobby to the restaurants.
For bookings & inquiries contact: Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai
Check back to read about their special summer offers.
Photo: a fantastic work of art welcomes guests to the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai.
On Friday we didn't get as early a start as I would have liked but we hit our favorite market, Panjiayuan, for some bits of Earth for my rock-collecting son. On weekdays not all the vendors get there early - or come at all. So we had to scour the market for the things my son was interested in. Still, there's plenty to see during the week but if you really want to see Panjiayuan in action, go early on a Saturday. With pink beads for the little one and a big chunk of lapis lazuli for my big one, we headed over to my favorite Beijing attraction, the Temple of Heaven.
I love the Temple of Heaven because the scale is somewhat smaller than other main attractions such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. And the architecture is so unique. We all enjoyed the walk through the garden, a stop for popsicles midway and the grandeur of the main temple. By the end, after a grand total of four hours of walking (including the market), the kids were exhausted so we had to cut our sightseeing short and head back to the hotel for R&R.
We rallied again in the late afternoon for a walk over to Tian'anmen Square but the little one didn't make it around the block before she fell asleep while I was carrying her. We took turns carrying her all the way to Tian'anmen Gate and around the Forbidden City when finally she woke up when we caught a cab to dinner. This episode made me regret not bringing a stroller as Beijing is decidedly a stroller-friendly place.
We met up with our friends again for dinner at Southern Barbarian Beijing, a Yunnan Province cuisine restaurant in the heart of Baochao Hutong near the Drum Tower. We had a fun rickshaw ride from the Forbidden City there (our cab driver dumped us out and refused to take us to Baochao but we managed to convince a rickshaw driver) through some of the old neighborhoods that have survived development. The kids ate all their favorites and we enjoyed Southern Barbarian's signature Basil Drop cocktails and their amazing beer selection.
After three days, there are a lot of things on my list I didn't get to check off but I do have to remember to manage my expectations when my kids are along. Making it a fun trip for them makes it a better trip for me, even if I don't get to spend twelve-hour days sightseeing.
Photos: top - my kids choosing rocks at Panjiayuan Market; middle - the main temple at the Temple of Heaven; bottom - refreshments at Southern Barbarian, Beijing. © 2013 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.
Thursday was our Great Wall day. I asked my friend for a recommendation for hiring a car on Wednesday so that we wouldn't have to pay outrageous hotel prices. You can negotiate with a taxi to take you to the Great Wall but it's not always guaranteed you'll find someone willing to wait for you there and bring you back. Of course there are tourist buses that go there and back but we wanted to be able to take our time and not have to rely on timetables to get back to the city.
Our car met us at the hotel and we left Beijing for the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall at around 9:30 in the morning. We were slightly worried about traffic but didn't run into any and by 10:30 we were at the tourist section buying our tickets. We decided to take the chair lift up to the Wall and the toboggan down. You can hike up and down but with small kids, we were saving their energy for the Wall itself.
When you get to the top of the Wall from the lift, you can go right or left along the wall. Every other time I've been, I've gone left, but this time we decided to go right. From here, you can hike for about an hour (slow as we had small kids with us) before you reach the end of the restored wall and either have to risk climbing through a battle tower window to the Wild (i.e. old, unrestored) Wall or go back the way you came.
Since my three-year-old had decided she needed a lift on my back, we decided to turn around and not risk my carrying her off the beaten path (climbing the paved stairs of the restored Wall with her on my back was dangerous enough!) but I would love to go back some day and hike along the Wild bits where there aren't many other people. But I wouldn't recommend this with small kids.
After about two hours on the wall, we tobogganed down and headed over to the nearby Schoolhouse Mutianyu for lunch. The Schoolhouse is a beautiful eco-lodge just a ten-minute drive from the tourist section of Mutianyu. We had a lovely lunch of homemade and home-style food while the little one blew bubbles in the courtyard and my eight-year-old watched the glass-blowing demonstration by the Schoolhouse's onsite glass artist.
The Schoolhouse is a collection of restored old houses in a small village. The main house can be rented for meetings and classes and the homes can be rented for several families to stay together. They've modernized these old homes with beautiful kitchens, gorgeous cozy furniture and lovely gardens with BBQs. My son was ready to move in. The Schoolhouse has another inn not far away in another small village called the Brickyard but we ran out of time to visit.
Photos: top - a steep section of Mutianyu; bottom - glass blowing demonstration at the Schoolhouse. © 2013 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.