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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in China.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in China.
Ivory and imperial-blue sails, arched like dragon wings, pull taut in the evening breeze as the teakwood hull plies an easy 4S-minute loop through Victoria Harbour. The sail design is inspired by Ming Dynasty-era ceramics, featuring a dragon motif as a symbol of luck, and cuts a dramatic silhouette against the night sky, glittering with city lights. There are other ships aplenty in these waters—cruise liners, cargo vessels, fishing boats, and motorized yachts—but I’m aboard what might be Hong Kong’s last true junk.
The Aqua Luna II was built by hand and without a single nail by Au Wai, an octogenarian junk builder and the last of his ilk in the city until he recently retired. These traditional boats emerged during China’s Han Dynasty, and were used for shipping, fishing, exploration—even in battle—for the next two millennia. As recently as the 1970s, Au says, “the industry was thriving and there were a lot of traditional junks docked in the harbor.” But over the years, the boats have slowly disappeared.
Despite a few modern adjustments to comply with government regulations, Au’s building process remained firmly rooted in time-honored methods. He uses bamboo for waterproofing and Indonesian teak wood to construct the hull, carefully cutting pieces according to their flexibility. The curved bottom of the boat, for example, requires the most malleable planks. Each piece is heated into shape, then locked together with a tree-derived glue.
Together with his son, Au Sai-Kit, and a team of builders, the elder Au spent two years constructing the Aqua Luna II in mainland China, before moving his work to Hong Kong. The ship took its maiden voyage in April, joining its sister craft, the red-sailed Aqua Luna, on Victoria Harbour.
Sails aside, it is a near mirror image of the Aqua Luna, though more posh thanks to newer furniture and a bigger bar area where guests are served all manner of drinks. Up close, the 27-meter boat looks nothing short of cinematic, with its polished wood decks and fan-like sails unfurling overhead. It’s a regal valediction from a consummate junk builder who dedicated his life to these historic boats. Originally from China, Au fled by bicycle to Macau during the second Sino-Japanese War when he was around five years old. He later made his way to Hong Kong, where his uncle taught him the trade, and eventually came to run Shau Kei Wan shipyard on the northeast corner of Hong Kong Island. While Au has passed his skills onto his son, the younger shipbuilder works mostly on repairing yachts, and doesn’t plan to take up the tradition due to increasing government regulations and a lack of demand. Though his father has another theory: “the new generation isn’t interested—they don’t like manual labor.”
Hong Kong is unlikely to see any more labors of love quite like this. “You have to be very precise with the wood cutting; even if it is one centimeter too short or too long, it could mean that you have to start all over again,” Au says. “It’s a trade that does not allow for mistakes.” The Aqua Luna II is a triumph of precision, and Au expects it to last 40 years—plenty of time for travelers to experience the journey. “I’m incredibly proud of the work I have done,” Au says. “This boat will leave a lasting impression, as junks have done on maritime history, of Hong Kong’s culture and heritage”.
The name Grimaldi is inexplicably tied to Monaco. In 1395, descendants of a 12th century Genoese statesman took control of the principality and it has remained in their hands ever since. On the other side of the world and 250 years later, a similar attempt to seize power was taking place as the Qing dynasty swept through China. It took them over four decades to conquer the country, from the mid-17th century onwards, but the 150-year reign was a period of great stability for the ever-growing nation.
“The Qing dynasty were builders, bureaucrats, artists, scientists… They built modem China,” says exhibition curator and Honorary General Curator of Heritage Jean-Paul Desroches. “They had a new approach, a new dynamic.” The Qings heritage was somewhat at odds with Chinese culture at the time. They had semi-nomadic roots while the rest of China was invested in agriculture. But despite their differences, the Qing epoch was a golden period for China and its people in terms of culture, art and the pursuit of knowledge. The Grimaldi Forum’s summer exhibition, La Cite Interdite, takes visitors on a tour of the Forbidden City, which was first built in 1420s and remained the imperial palace throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Of the 250 paintings and artefacts that feature in the exhibition, 200 have been sourced from the Forbidden City palace itself and many have never been seen before outside of China. The remaining works have been provided by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions such as the Louvre and the Musee des Arts de I’Asie in Pans, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Desroches first presented a China-themed exhibition in Monaco back in 2001 with China, the Century of the First Emperor. This time it is the Qings (1644-1911), their home and their heritage who have piqued his interest. “The Forbidden City is at the heart of the Beijing, which is at the heart of China, which – in turn — is at the heart of the world for the Chinese people,” says Desroches. “We want to immerse visitors in the world of the Forbidden City.”
The Beijing palace, which can be explored in depth at the exhibition, is a replica of the skies, with the emperor as the polar star and the rest of the world moving around him. The Chinese were famous for their astronomy — the exhibition includes the first documented map of the solar system by Chinese hands and dates from the early Tang dynasty — but it was during the time of the Qing that this art truly flourished. Struggling to secure support from the Chinese elite, who thought of the Qings in the early days as uncultured invaders, Jesuit scholars and artists were invited to work at court and assist the Chinese in further developing their expertise.
Their Western influence and breath of knowledge revolutionised China. The second Qing emperor, Kangxi (1662-1722), was particularly welcoming of the Jesuits and was a proficient mathematic and intellectual himself. He was also an accomplished musician and had a teacher called Grimaldi – although it isn’t know if this family was directly related to the sovereign family of Monaco! One wool and silk painting from the early 8th century and a feature at the exhibition is believed to have been painted by a Frenchman and depicts Emperor Kangxi listening to German astronomer Adam Schall. The annual calendar was established by Schall and his Flemish successor, astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest. Another notable Westerner to infiltrate Chinese culture was Frenchman Jean-Denis Attiret who was trained in Rome then sent to China Works attributed to him include an oil painting of a concubine dating from 1750-60.
At over 2.5 metres tall, the Hongli Hunting Deer silk painting is one of the largest pieces to be included in the exhibition, but it is also one of the most telling. Emperor Qianlong, who is depicted in the painting, was the fourth and most prolific Qing emperor, and was in many ways entirely assimilated with Chinese cultural norms. This stylised artwork of unknown origin, however, reveals that Qianlong was still very much in touch with his Manchu Mongolian ancestry and every autumn would participate in great, traditional stag hunts. Perhaps one such successful hunt resulted in the construction of the beautiful antler throne that features in the exhibition.
From calligraphy, sketches and paintings to furniture and pieces of ceremonial dress, which are extremely rare finds and each piece may only have been worn once, twice or even three times in its lifetime, the exhibition is designed to be wholly immersive. As Desroches explains, it was envisioned as a place where the visitor is transported to the realm of Qing and the vast Forbidden City, which measures an astonishing 72 hectares. The exhibition is taking place from 14th July to 10th September.
As with many things in China, this one is supersized, and while big isn’t always better, it’s hard to argue with the sight of the almighty sculptures on display.
What aren’t you going to see? The Harbin festival has four different display parks all packed with larger-than-life sculptural wonders carved from ice and colourfully lit up like winter fairgrounds. There are cartoon-like characters, animals, mythical creatures and architectural marvels, like a replica of the Great Wall of China and a soaring edifice standing 46 metres in height, to mention just a few.
Try getting in on some ice action by having a go on the ice slides or riding a sled around some of the monuments. Or, if you’re really brave, put your name forward to compete in the annual ice swim. Yes, it is exactly as it sounds.
This vast repository of Chinese art, celebrates one masterpiece after another while guiding visitors through Chinese history. It’s best to arrive in the morning, as only 8,000 people are allowed in daily and queues can be long. The star attraction is a collection of ancient bronzes, some dating back to the 21st century BC.
Shanghai may be famous for its glitz, but it has an edgy subculture, too. The M50 art complex is a prime example, with galleries set up in disused factories and cotton mills to showcase contemporary Chinese emerging and established artists. There’s also great street art en route as you pass graffiti -splashed walls along Moganshan Rd.
PROPAGANDA POSTER ART CENTRE
If armies of red tractors, bumper harvests, muscled peasants and lantern-jawed proletarians fire you up, this small gallery in the bowels of a residential block should intoxicate. The collection of original posters focuses on the Maoist era and there is also a shop.
If the sun is out, pop down to this small, but amusing artificial strip of sand right by the river, with the Lujiazui district’s shiny high-rises as a backdrop. You’ll find a limited bar, deckchairs, beach volleyball and Frisbee. The beach is north of Cool Docks – a regenerated area surrounded by brick warehouses, and full of restaurants and bars illuminated at night.
Symbolic of colonial Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bund was once the city’s Wall Street, a place of feverish trading and fortunes made and lost. This grandiose curve of buildings, lining the western bank of the Huangpu River in front of Pudong’s ever-changing skyline, was originally a towpath for dragging barges of rice. Visit early morning when locals practise tai chi or early evening when both sides of the river are lit up.
YUYUAN GARDENS & BAZAAR
With shaded alcoves, glittering pools churning with fish, pavilions and pines sprouting wistfully from rockeries, the Yuyuan Gardens are one of Shanghai’s premier sights. The Pan family, rich Ming Dynasty officials, founded the gardens in 1559. The attached bazaar is a treasure trove of handicrafts (if a little tacky). Crowds can be overpowering, so try to come midweek.
JIAN GUO 328
Frequently crammed, this boisterous, two floors, MSG-free spot does a roaring trade on the back of excellent well-priced Shanghainese cuisine. You can’t go wrong with the menu: highlights include the deep-fried duck legs, aubergine casserole, scallion-oil noodles and yellow croaker fish spring rolls.
Good-looking Sumerian packs a lot into a small space. The real drawcard is the coffee: the cafe roasts its own single-origin beans sourced from Ethiopia, El Salvador and China. Next door, the same bright team runs pocket-sized bar Dogtown; on weekends, there’s a free keg of Asahi going from noon until it runs out.
For glittering skylines, bustling markets and steaming bowls of congee.
WHAT IS THERE TO DO?
Glimpse Hong Kong’s Chinese history at its temples, get up close to skyscrapers on tram rides, and bring home souvenirs from one of many lively markets.
A floating piece of Hong Kong heritage, the legendary Star Ferry was founded in 1880 and plies the waters of Victoria Harbour, with backdrop views of skyscrapers marching up jungle-clad hills. The 15-minute ride to Kowloon, or vice versa, must be one of the world’s best-value cruises. Catch it from either Central or Wan Chai.
Rising above the financial heart of Hong Kong Island, Victoria Peak offers superlative views of the city. Ride the hair-raising Peak Tram, Asia’s first cable funicular (running since 1888), to the cooler climes at the top. Once you’re up top, there are excellent gardens and a free viewing deck at Peak Galleria. Expect long queues for the tram on clear days.
HONG KONG PARK
At the foot of skyscrapers such as the Bank of China Tower and the Lippo Centre, this eighthectare swathe of greenery and water makes for dramatic photos (00-852-2521-5041; www.lcsd. gov.hk; 19, Cotton Tree Drive). The urban rainforest effect is at its fullest inside the Edward Youde Aviary, home to 75 species of bird.
GOOD HOPE NOODLE
This 45-year-old shop in busy Mong Kok has a long-standing Michelin commendation and fan following. Its al dente egg noodles, bite-sized wontons and silky congee.
TEMPLE STREET NIGHT MARKET
The city’s liveliest night market runs along Temple Street from Man Ming Lane in the north to Nanking Street in the south, cut in two by the Tin Hau Temple complex. It sells everything, and bargaining is expected. For street food, try Woo Sung Street, running parallel to the east, or the section of Temple Street north of the temple, for anything from a bowl of noodles to a full meal.
TIM HO WAN
Serving what may be the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred food, Tim Ho Wan is the creation of a former Four Seasons dim sum chef. The Sham Shui Po and North Point branches are the ones with stars, but the standard is the same at the more central restaurant under Hong Kong MTR station. Try the top-selling baked barbecue pork bun.
HONG KONG MUSEUM OF HISTORY
The Hong Kong Story exhibit at this museum covers the territory’s natural history and indigenous culture in eight galleries. Displays include recreated shophouses, a vintage tram and a colourful replica of a Chinese marriage procession.
This new arts hub occupies the modernist buildings and breezy courtyard of the 1951 police married quarters. Dozens of small galleries and shops hawk hip handmade jewellery, leather goods, prints, clothing and non-tacky souvenirs. There are also restaurants and bakeries, and an exhibition space with a rotating variety of free shows.
MAN MO TEMPLE
One of Hong Kong’s oldest temples, atmospheric Man Mo Temple is dedicated to the gods of literature (‘Man’), holding a writing brush, and of war (‘Mo’), wielding a sword. The temple was built in 1847 by wealthy Chinese merchants. Back in the day, it was a court of arbitration for local disputes as well as a place of worship. Rows of large, smoky incense coils curl down from the roof.
InnSight has warmly decorated rooms, and the owner makes an effort to please. For a wider bed, opt for a Comfort Double (www.innsight.hk; 3/F, 9, Lock Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui; from ` 4,800). Hong Kong hotels aren’t known for spacious rooms and those at Mia Casa 11 are a case in point. Still, it’s located close to the Kennedy Town tram terminus, there’s a roof terrace, and some suites have balconies.
Cosmo is a VFM hotel on the quiet side of Wan Chai, with rooms done up in cool whites and greys with modish pops of bright orange.
A symbol of China’s historical detachment and sense of vulnerability, the Great Wall snakes through the Chinese landscape, over deserts, hills, and plains, for more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km). Yet, despite its seemingly impregnable battlements, the wall was ultimately an ineffective barricade. In the 13th century it was breached by the ferocious onslaught of the Mongols and then in the 17th century by the Manchu, helped by the decline of the Ming dynasty. Today, its dilapidated remains crumble across the rugged terrain of northern China and only select sections have been restored.
Sections of the bastion called the Great Wall were first built during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) by individual states to thwart incursions by northern tribes and to defend against aggressive neighbors. Simple and unconnected earthen ramparts, they were not joined together until the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) first unified China under Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor. The maintenance and expansion of the wall reflected each succeeding dynasty’s feelings of insecurity. Enlarged under the expansionist Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the wall was neglected by the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), only to be heavily fortified by the more inward-looking Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
The Qin wall was a simple tamped earth affair, but the later Han dynasty adopted a more advanced technology that enabled them to build walls even in the bleak expanses of the Gobi Desert. They would line wooden frames with a layer of willow reeds and twigs and then fill the frame with a mixture of mud, fine gravel, and water. This would then be pressed firmly into place. When the mixture dried, the frame could be removed, leaving behind a large slab of hard, bricklike mud that could be built upon again in the same manner. This is much like modern construction, when steel rods are use to reinforce concrete.
One of the legends about the wall tells that during the Ming dynasty, General Cai Kai was put in charge of building the section of wall at Huanghua, 40 miles (55 km) north of Beijing. Word got back to the emperor that the general was taking too long over the task and wasting too much money. The unfortunate general was therefore summarily executed. Later, when the Mongols mounted a concerted attack, General Cai Kai’s efforts paid off; Huanghua was the only fortress that successfully warded off the enemy. Realizing his mistake, the emperor exhumed General Cai Kai’s body and had it reburied with full honors near the part of the wall that he built.
This shows a section of the wall as built by the most prolific wall builders of them all the Ming dynasty. The section at Badaling, some 43 miles (70 km) north of Beijing, was butt around 1505 and is similar to this. It was restored during the 1950s and 1980s.
These enabled the soldiers to fire down on their attackers with relative impunity.
Warnings of attack were signaled by the smoke given off by burning dried wolf dung.
Another Ming addition, cannons were used to defend the wall and warn of attack.
These were spaced two arrow shots apart to leave no part unprotected.
This averages 26 ft (8 m) in height and 23 ft (7 m) in width.
Because the wall took advantage of the natural terrain for defensive purposes, following the highest points and clinging to ridges, it now offers some superb panoramic views.
Away from the Beijing area, most of the wall is unrestored and has crumbled away, with only the core remaining.
A Ming addition, these served as signal towers, forts, living quarters, and storerooms for provisions, gunpowder, and weapons.
In addition to enabling communications via smoke, flares, drums, and bells, the wall acted as a road for the rapid transport of troops over very difficult terrain.
The Chinese word for city, “cheng,” also means wall. For the Chinese, the wall, as well as serving a practical purpose, symbolized the boundary between home, safety, and civilization inside, and the chaos and barbarism outside.
5th century BC: Individual states make defensive wallls out of firmly tamped earth.
119 BC: After driving the Mongols back into the Gobi Desert, the Han dynasty extend the Great Wall.
589: After centuries of strife, Yang Jian unites China under the Sui dynasty and rebuilds the Great Wall.
1215: The Mongols capture Beijing after being held off for four years by the wall.
1644: The Manchus overrun the wall from the northeast and create the Qing dynasty.
1987: The Great Wall of China is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Built during the Ming dynasty, Tiantan, commonly called the Temple of Heaven, is one of the largest temple complexes in China and a model of Chinese architectural balance and symbolism. It was here that the emperor, after a ceremonial procession from the Forbidden City, would make sacrifices and pray to heaven at the winter solstice. As the Son of Heaven, the emperor could intercede with the gods on behalf of his people and ensure a good harvest. Off-limits to the common people during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Temple of Heaven is situated in a large park that now attracts early-morning practitioners of Tai Chi.
The temple is replete with cosmological significance. All the major structures lie on the favored north-south axis. The ancient Chinese saying “sky round, Earth square” is represented by the interplay of squares and circles. Heaven is suggested in the round, conical roofing and the blue tiles of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The Round Altar symbolizes heaven, while Earth is there in its square enclosure. Also important is numerology, with odd numbers being the most fortunate, hence the triple eaves of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Round Altar’s three tiers.
The emperor would perform the ceremonies at the Temple of Heaven following natural disasters, which required the appeasement of heaven, or to ensure rain and good harvests. After fasting for three days, he would be conveyed in a spectacular procession from the Forbidden City to spend the night before the sacrifice in the Palace of Abstinence. The next day, before dawn, he would be ceremonially robed. Then, proceeding north to south, with sacred music and dance, he would ascend the Round Altar to burn a freshly killed ox and bundles of silk before an array of wooden spirit tablets (shenpai), including those of his ancestors, who were thus also “participating.”
Observed by China’s emperors since the Zhou dynasty (1100-771 BC), the winter solstice rites at the Temple of Heaven were last performed by the first president of the Republic of China, General Yuan Shikai (1859-1916). Yuan had helped modernize the Chinese army and, as the head of such a force, could easily ask for positions of influence in return for his and the army’s support. Once he was made president, he aimed to install himself as emperor and reestablish an imperial dynasty. He performed the ceremony at the Temple of Heaven in 1914, clearly asserting his imperial ambitions. However, despite donning the appropriate robes, he failed to achieve the traditional majesty of the occasion by arriving in an armored car.
The Qinian Dian, or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is the most famous structure at the complex and is often thought to be the “Temple of Heaven.” In fact, Tiantan refers not to one building, but to the whole complex.
Dragon and Phoenix Motifs
Used inside and out, these represent the emperor and empress.
These often copied the calligraphy of an emperor.
Three tiers of marble form a circle 300 ft (90 m) in diameter and 20ft (6 m) high. The balustrades on the upper tier are carved with dragons to signify the imperial nature of the structure.
Dragon Well Pillars
The roofs of the hall are supported on 28 highly decorated pillars. At the center, the four colossal columns known as Dragon Well Pillars represent the seasons, while the outer 12 pillars represent the months of the year. The inner circle of 12 pillars represents the 12 two-hour periods into which the Chinese divided the day.
The splendidly decorated, circular caisson ceiling has a beautiful gilded dragon and phoenix at its center.
Sitting atop the temple, the finial is 125ft (38m) high and prone to lightning strikes.
The Center of Heaven Stone
The Center of Heaven Stone at the heart of the Round Altar
This Ming emperor ruled from 1403 to 1424 and was responsible not only for moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, but also for starting work on the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Ming Tombs.
The main parts of the complex are all connected by the Red Step Bridge (an elevated ceremonial path) to form the focal point of the park. The doorways at each triple gate are for the emperor (east), the gods (center), and the officials (west). The circular Echo Wall is famous for its supposed ability to carry a whisper from one end of the wall to the other.
1420: Qinian Diari is built. It is originally called the “Temple of Earth and Heaven.”
1530: The Round Altar is constructed by Emperor Shizong.
1889: Qinian Dian burns down after a lightning strike.
1918: The Temple of Heaven is opened to the public.
1998: UNESCO inscribes the Temple of Heaven onto the World Heritage List.
Forming the heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex, with 980 buildings across 1,614,600 sq ft (150,000 sq m). Completed in 1420, it was the Chinese imperial palace for almost 500 years, housing 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) and the seat of government. As the symbolic center of the Chinese universe, the compound was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and dignitaries on royal business, but in 1949, it was opened to the public.
The harmonious principle of Yin and Yang is central to Chinese design. The Forbidden City is arranged symmetrically on a north-south axis, with hall entrances facing south to avoid the malign Yin effects – cold wind, evil spirits, and barbarian warriors — that come from the north. Odd numbers represent Yang, the masculine element associated with the emperor. Hence the frequent occurrence of three, five, seven, and the highest (and therefore best) single-digit odd number — nine — in architectural details. It is said that the palace has 9,999 rooms, and as nine times nine is especially fortunate, imperial doors usually have 81 golden studs.
Because of the dual role of the Forbidden City — as the living quarters of the imperial family and the center of administration — eunuchs, the only male servants allowed in the palace, were in a unique position. Allowed access to the emperor’s family, a few influential eunuchs wielded great power, siphoning off vast fortunes from the imperial coffers. The fate of the majority, though, was similar to that of a slave. Higher up the social scale, the emperor’s concubines lived in a series of palaces beside the Inner Court. At night, the emperor would decide which concubine would sleep with him, and the number of times a concubine was chosen determined her social standing.
The structure of the Inner Court mirrors that of the Outer Court, but on a smaller scale. There are three main Inner Court palaces — the Palace of Heavenly Purity was originally used as the imperial sleeping quarters, and later for the reception of imperial officials. Beyond this palace lies the Hall of Union, which was used as a throne room by the empress, as well as a depository for the imperial seals used to sign official documents. Still farther on, the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity served as living quarters for the Ming empresses. Behind the Inner Court is the Imperial Garden. On either side of the state apartments were the residences of the imperial family and their attendants — reputed to number as many as 9,000 by the 1700s.
Despite the name, this forms the very heart of the complex. The surrounding buildings, originally built to service this series of halls, now house a variety of interesting displays.
Gate of Supreme Harmony
Originally used for receiving visitors, the 78-ft (24m) high, double-eaved hall was later used for banquets during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
From this, the most imposing gate, the emperor would review his armies and issue the calendar for the coming year.
Five marble bridges, symbolizing the five cardinal virtues of Confucianism, cross the Golden Water, which flows from west to east in a course designed to resemble the jade belt worn by officials.
Filled with water, these vessels were a practical precaution against fire.
Gate of Heavenly Purity
This led to the Inner Court, which was reserved for the imperial family.
Hall of Supreme Harmony
This building served as a place of preparation for the emperor when on official business.
Hall of Middle Harmony
This building served as a place of preparation for the emperor when on official business.
The lion symbolized the power of the emperor, and the splendor of the imperial palace. Males are portrayed with a ball under their paw, while females have a lion cub.
These figures, which are associated with water, were supposed to protect the imperial buildings from fire.
The central ramp, carved with dragons chasing pearls among clouds, was reserved for the exclusive use of the emperor.
In 1644, as peasant rebels were storming the capital, the last Ming emperor, Chong Zhen, killed his daughter and concubines before fleeing the Forbidden Palace to hang him self on nearby Coal Hill.
Henry (Aixinjueluo) Puyi ascended the Qing throne in 1908 at the age of three. His brief reign ended on February 12, 1912, when he abdicated in favor of the Republic of China. Puyi remained a virtual prisoner in the palace until 1924, when he fled to the Japanese concession in Tianjin.
He never returned to the Forbidden City and died childless and anonymous in 1967 after working for seven years as a gardener at the Beijing Botanical Gardens.
1406: The Yongle emperor of the Ming dynasty commissions the Forbidden City.
1664: The Manchus (later the Qing dynasty) invade, and burn most of the palace to the ground.
1925: The Forbidden City becomes the Imperial Palace Museum.
1987: The Forbidden City is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Perched on Lhasa’s highest point, the Potala Palace is arguably the greatest monumental structure in Tibet. Thirteen stories high, with more than 1,000 rooms, it was once the residence of Tibet’s chief monk and leader, the Dalai Lama, and therefore the center for both spiritual and temporal power. After the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the palace became a museum, serving as a reminder of Tibet’s rich and devoutly religious Buddhist culture. The first palace on the site was built by Songtsen Gampo in 641, and this was incorporated into the larger building that stands today. There are two main sections — the White Palace, built by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645, and the Red Palace, which was completed in 1693.
The White Palace is seven stories high and was used mainly for secular purposes. The top three levels were built around a large central skywell and contained accommodation and offices for senior monks and officials, as well as kitchens and storage areas. The Dalai Lama occupied two rooms on the top floor called the East and West Sunshine Apartments Beneath the top levels lies the Great East Hall, a vast 7,500-sq ft (700-sq m) assembly place for important political ceremonies. The lower levels of the palace are used for storage and provide a frame that supports the main buildings. The first hallway, after the entrance, has several large murals depicting the building of the Potala Palace and the arrival of Princess Wencheng.
At the heart of the Potala complex, the Red Palace was intended for spiritual concerns. It is a complicated structure, with numerous halls of worship as well as the remains of eight Dalai Lamas inside magnificent stupas. Like the Chapel of the 13th Dalai Lama, the Chapel of the 5th Dalai Lama holds an enormous funerary stupa that rises up over 40 ft (12 m).
It is made of sandalwood and reputed to be covered with nearly four tons of gold and almost 20,000 pearls and other gems. Other treasures on display include rare handwritten Buddhist sutras, and a great deal of statuary — one of the best statues is the one of Maitreya in his own chapel on the east side of the top floor.
The warrior king and founder of the Tubo kingdom, Songtsen Gampo was born in AD 617 and built the original Potala Palace for his wife, Princess Wencheng. Most of it has long since burned down — only the Dharrna Cave and the Saints’ Chapel remain from the 7th century. They are both in the northern part of the Red Palace. The Dharrna Cave is said to be the place where King Songtsen Gampo meditated. Inside, statues of the king, his chief ministers, and Princess Wencheng are venerated. In the Saints’ Chapel on the floor above, several important Buddhist figures and the 7th, 8th, and 9th Dalai Lamas are enshrined and worshiped.
This intricate mandala of a palace, covered in precious metals and jewels, embodies aspects of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.
Purely structural, this holds the palaces onto the steep hill.
Chapel of the 13th Dalai Lama
This chapel holds the funerary stupa of the 13th Dalai Lama, rising up nearly 43ft (13 m) in the gloomy interior. The stupa contains the lama’s mummified remains and is coated in gold and jewels.
The largest hall inside the Potala, the Western Hall is located on the first floor of the Red Palace and contains the holy throne of the 6th Dalai Lama.
Seemingly floating above the huge structure, the gilded roofs (actually copper) cover the funerary chapels dedicated to previous Dalai Lamas.
Heavenly King Murals
The east entrance has sumptous images of the Four Heavenly Kings, Buddhist guardian figures.
On a clear day, the view of the valley and mountains is unequalled, although the modern parts of Lhasa are less impressive.
The entrance to the main part of the building has a triple stairway – the middleone was reserved for the sole use of the Dalai Lama.
Important religious celebrations were held in this huge open space.
This shows that the palace also served a defensive function.
In 641, a member of the imperial family in the Tang dynasty (618-907) was offered as a wife to Songsten Gampo to broker peace between the Tubo kingdom and the Tang. Princess Wencheng is revered in Tibet because she is said to have converted the king, and thus Tibet, to Buddhism. She also instigated the building of many of Tibet’s finest temples.
AD 641: The first. Potala Palace is built by Songsten Gampo, founder of the Tubo kingdom.
800s: The Tubo kingdom collapses and the Rotate Palace is almost completely destroyed.
1642: The 5th Dalai Lama becomes spiritual and political leader of Tibet and reconstructs the palace.
1922: The 13th Dalai Lama renovates much of the White Palace and adds two stories to the Red Palace.
1994: UNESCO adds the Potala Palace to its list of World Heritage Sites.
Pan Pan has been doing his bit for modern China, and at the grand old age of 30, he’s earned his retirement. “Pan Pan means ‘Hero Father,”’ my guide, Jack Feng, explains. “He’s sired 130 cubs in 20 years.” I look at the world’s oldest male panda, lying on his back in a generous green enclosure — one of 40 at the Dujiangyan Panda Base. The vegetarian bear chews noisily on a length of leafy bamboo. “That’s over six cubs a year,” 1 say. “No wonder he’s taking it easy.” I ask Jack if the word ‘panda’ actually means something in Chinese? “People think it’s the Chinese name for the animal, but it’s not. We call it xiongmao, which translates as ‘bearcat’. There’s a story that the word ‘panda’ comes from a French missionary called Father Armand David, who was the first European to discover the animal. In 1869, he was shown a panda skin by a hunter and he asked what it was. The hunter described the animal using the words ‘ fat ’ and ‘big’. Which in Chinese is ‘pang da’.”
The word is also said to have some Nepalese roots too, but, regardless, during my two hours in the reserve, the animal I thought of as an ‘endangered vegetarian panda’ turns out to be none of these things. The bearcat is an omnivore — in fact, eight million years ago it was a lean carnivore (it still retains relic canines in its lower jaw). And, thanks to the efforts of six panda reserves in Sichuan Province (as well as some heroic copulation by Pan Pan), it’s no longer endangered: in May 2016, the WWF officially reclassified it as ‘vulnerable’, with over 1,400 animals now doing quite nicely in the wild. Pan Pan has also helped to reveal a simple truth. Like most people in the West, I think I know China — it’s the place where 1.35 billion people live in choked-up cities, marching inexorably towards lifestyles enjoyed in the West. Clearly I’m in need of some re-education.
My lessons are conducted in a mountainous corner of Sichuan Province. I base myself for five days at the new Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, a luxury resort located at the foot of Mount Qingcheng. It’s on the edge of a small city (‘small’ meaning half-a-million people) called Dujiangyan, which in turn is a satellite oft he Chengdu megalopolis, peopled with a rather more substantial 15 million. The resort is owned by US venture capitalists and offers a contemporary escape for wealthy Chinese — an almost unthinkable proposition 35 years ago, when the only five stars that Chinese people saw were those fluttering overhead on Chairman Mao’s red flag. It’s a walled compound with a distinct Zen vibe, with 113 suites that echo an ancient village and the sort of gardens that once moved emperors to poetry. Its three restaurants, spa and 30-metre swimming pool offer perhaps the greatest luxuries of all for Chinese guests — space.
But it’s not long before the very otherness of China becomes apparent. There’s the internet for instance. Or more exactly, there’s not the internet. I’ve got wi-fi in my suite but the ‘Great Firewall of China’ means I need to do a complex virtual private network workaround to access non-Chinese websites — and no amount of geek trickery will get me onto Twitter or Facebook. Unlike in the West, the resort is practically empty most weeks. This is because the Chinese take their breaks according to a well-defined calendar of public holidays; it’s also because in 2013 President Xi Jinping cracked down on lavish (read ‘corrupt’) corporate hospitality, which had become a mainstay of Chinese luxury hotels during the working week. At the weekend, however, it’s the exact inverse.
The entire resort gets booked out, and an oddly Chinese tableau plays out: guests gather in the genteel courtyards with cardboard boxes filled with their own vegetables, fruit and even tea. They spend the afternoon reclined among the sprays of bamboo and trickling streams, indulging and snoozing. Ninety-five percent of guests are Chinese and most oft hem come here to de-stress and, in particular, to breathe the air. Mount Qingcheng, which rises to one side of the resort, is thickly clad in forest and often wreathed in mist. The Chinese believe it to be the nation’s richest source of ‘negative ions’ — oxygen molecules with an extra electron to purify mind and body.
At 6am, I get to taste the air for myself in the grounds of Puzhao Temple. Built into a sheltered cusp of the mountain, the 200-year-old complex is surrounded by equally antique pinetrees, which soar into the swirling clouds. A woman sweeps the flagstones of a courtyard and peacocks cry from tiled rooftops that curve upwards at either end. I’m here to get personal instruction in Qingchengtai chi, the slow-mo version of a local brand of kung fu. My instructor is a very serious 25-year-old grand master called Mr Liu, who demonstrates his elegant, taut-muscle ballet and bids me to follow his patterns. It all goes quite well until he becomes irritated by (of all things) my hand posit ions, and repeatedly halts his instruction to painfully yank my thumbs into more acceptable right-angles.