Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster

Not the easiest destination to get to on your own, but it was well worth it. A local bus from Xiamen got us to Nanjing (南靖) bus station in about 3 hours. Then another 1 hour bus from Nanjing bus station took us to the bus station closest to Tianluokeng Tulou. Not to be mistaken with the city Nanjing (南京), the former is a really tiny village with nothing to see apart from its amazing traditional tulou building.

We had it easy though. I’ve been in touch with this guy who is a local at Tianluokeng Tulou for about 3 months before we came to China. He picked us up at the tourist information centre and took us to Tianluokeng. The rooms that we rented belong to his family’s. In fact, my room was his old room, and had pictures of his baby boy hanging on the wall.

He speaks English, sort-of. He is currently learning, so in the future I’m sure he will be more fluent. He also offers car rental plus the driver, so if you’re traveling in a big group it will be worth it.

Staying at the tulou costs 100 RMB for one room (two people). Toilets at the tulou are communal, meaning that we had to walk down 3 flights of stairs and some 30 metres to get to the toilet. Shower is also located outside the tulou, but we skipped shower as the weather was not exactly summer. Message me if you want his number.

What I loved most about our stay at Tianluokeng is this feeling I got at night after all the tourists are gone. I’m not quite sure how to explain it, so please bear with me.

There are many tourists walking around Tianluokeng during day time, but none of them spent the night there. So during the day, the whole place is just another old heritage spot filled with tourists. There are locals living there, but when the tourists are around, they become mere merchants, trying to sell off their tea or dried bamboo shoots to anyone who comes along. At night, when there’s nothing to sell and no roles to play, they return to being the simple residents of Tianluokeng. They played cards, drank tea, took turns saying hello at one another at the courtyard. Everyone knew each other. I love the fact that such an ancient building with hundreds of years of history could still maintain its original function, that is, one tulou functioning as one community.

In this day and time when we hardly know our next-door neighbours, let alone those living a block down from us, it is amazing that some of the Hakka community still choose to remain with their traditional way of living. I can never live like that because I am used to having my privacy, but nevertheless I think it’s beautiful. I just re-read what I wrote and damn, I’m blabbing too much. But for what it’s worth, do spend a night there.

There are other more touristy tulou in other parts of Fujian, but we only had time for one. So our pick went to Tianluokeng. Would I return to Tuanluokeng? Probably not. Would I visit other tulous? Definitely yes!

The Road Down

There are many ways to reach Chengdu from Larung Gar if you can afford to take your time. Unfortunately, we had no choice and had to grab whatever bus was available first thing in the morning. Three of us were ill with altitude sickness, including one guy who puked non-stop throughout the whole night. Our priority wasn’t discovering remote Tibetan villages anymore, it was to descend from the mountain as soon as possible.

The first bus we found was to Maerkang, departing at 6 am. Ticket office was supposed to open at 5:30am, but there was no one there. Thankfully our driver was a saint. He went around to everyone announcing that his bus was going to Maerkang and that we could purchase the tickets onboard.

Altitude sickness? Disappeared as soon as we went down from 4000m. At 2600m, Maerkang was heaven.

Shanghai

Things-to-do.

Eat-and-drink.

Place-to-stay.

This is also where I got too lazy to write more than a few sentences.

Hangzhou’s Academy of Art

Traveling with a group of architects means shelving Hangzhou city centre for Hangzhou’s suburb where the prestigious Academy of Art is.

The campus is designed by Amateur Architecture Studio, whose principal architects (a duo of then-husband-and-wife) became the first Chinese to obtain Pritzker Prize.

It’s about an hour from the city centre, but it’s worth the trip. The campus has many interesting buildings, including one Folk Art Museum designed by Kengo Kuma. Unfortunately it was closed at the time of our visit because we came during a public holiday. NOOOOOOO!!!! 😥

We opted to spend a night at ShuiShanAnJu, a hotel within the campus. That, is an architectural delight on its own. You can book the hotel via Ctrip by clicking here. It’s cheaper than calling the hotel directly.

Wall at ShuiShanAnJu
Wall made out of recycled tiles at ShuiShanAnJu

I wouldn’t have skipped so many of my classes if my University was this pretty:

And last but not least, we did manage to squeeze in a brief visit to the city. Saw the famous Xihu just before sunset.

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Hangzhou’s famous lake

Would so return to Hangzhou to explore the city.

Larung Gar

The climax of our one-week Sichuan trip: Larung Gar. Getting here was not an easy feat, but it was well worth it. At first, I was extremely disappointed at how developed the whole place was. There are cranes and trucks and tall buildings being erected everywhere at the same time. I expected something more… secluded. Or untouched. Or sacred. Larung Gar in 2016 was anything but. But hey! Still amazing enough considering we were 4000m high up and it was hard to breathe. On a valley surrounded by surreal-looking Sichuan mountain. Inside the world’s largest Buddhist settlement. Surrounded by monks in red robes speaking in languages I do not understand. Getting lost in a tiny city where all the buildings and doors and everything are red, in contrast with the strikingly blue blue sky. Yeah, still pretty amazing.

Transport to Larung Gar from Seda costs 7RMB per person. It’s a set price, so there’s no need to bargain. Read my previous post on how to get to Seda.

At the time of our travel, Larung Gar was “officially” off-limits to foreigners. But, there were no one to enforce that, so we were still able to go around. They did though, reject our permission to spend the night there. The week before we came, the Chinese government issued a rule to forbid non-Chinese nationals from staying in Larung Gar. There was only one sort-of hotel (Larong Hotel) in the whole valley, and the receptionist turned us down as we couldn’t produce any Chinese ID cards. My husband tried to persuade them to let us stay regardless of our nationalities, but they were adamant to the point of phoning up the police office. That’s when we knew that it was non-negotiable. 😦

Anyway, if you’re interested in Larung Gar, come fast. According to this article on Free Tibet website, the government will evict 50% of Larung Gar’s population by 2017. Better hurry.

Sky Burial

I personally think that sky burial is one of the most beautiful concept on Earth. Sky burial represents the true circle of life. We eat. We die. We get eaten. Even in death, we are still useful and able to sustain another living being’s life.

The sky burial is located on one of the mountain nearby Seda. There is a daily burial that takes place around 1 pm. If you don’t speak Chinese, ask your hostel to take you there. If you do, head down to the town square and negotiate your own price with the drivers available there. We got ours for about 100RMB. That includes a return trip, and he had to wait for us at the sky burial site until we are done.

The process was quite long. There were 5 naked corpses laying down on the floor. A Tibetan monk with a huge cleaver was in charge of chopping the bodies into smaller pieces. To respect the dead, I did not take any pictures of the ritual. It’s an experience you have to see for yourself. 🙂

I did take loads of pictures of the vultures and surrounding landscape, because, well, they were both amazing.

What a view!
What a view!

What to expect? Loads of vultures and beautiful mountain landscape. The stench of rotting corpses.

What NOT to expect? A sacred burial. Although it was a burial, the place was swarmed with tourists. There were people taking photographs and there were fences in place to keep the tourists from getting too close to the burial site. Also, the government has big plans for Sichuan tourism that I was so grateful to have ticked Aba province from my travel list before that plan is realized.

Cuz it ain't pretty.
’cause whatever it is, it ain’t pretty.

Still, an experience worth traveling for if you’ve never seen any sky burial. Which, we haven’t.

Seda

Another 10 hours of even bumpier bus ride from Kangding got us to Seda, the town closest to Larung Gar. By close, I mean real close! Only 20 minutes away by public transport. No more sore bums! Hoorah!

We left Kangding around 6-7 am and got to Seda just before sundown. Sounds pretty much like our Chengdu-Kangding trip. Sigh. Packing everything in one week is pretty damn tiring. The long travel time means we lose one day of sightseeing.

We planned to spend a night at Luhuo before going to Seda, but we found out that the only bus that goes through Luhuo comes from Kangding. We couldn’t book tickets beforehand, and had to rely on luck that there will be seats for the six of us. There’s only one bus a day. Since we can’t afford to miss it, we decided to head directly to Seda from Kangding.

We stayed at the only youth hostel we could find online. The staff sort-of speaks English, and were more than happy to pick us up from the bus station for free.

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Here’s the front desk’s number!

At an elevation of 4000m, the air was significantly thinner than Kangding. Three of us had altitude sickness. My husband and a friend has constant headaches. Another friend puked nonstop at night. With the exception of the two heavy smokers in our group, all of us suffered from shortness of breath at night and therefore had trouble sleeping. I have no idea why the heavy smokers were not affected in the slightest. They said it was something to do with them being accustomed to having less oxygen in their body?

Husband and his oxygen tank
Husband and his oxygen

Temperature at night gets down to 0 °C. Yep, practically winter. Which makes it very inconvenient for us backpackers since the rest of our travel were to be conducted in the summer heat.

The next morning we returned to the town square to find it occupied by Tibetans selling cordyceps. That’s like the elixir of life for people practicing TCM. Well, I’m exaggerating, but Google cordyceps and you should have an idea of how amazing the stuff is.

I bargained the worm for 3RMB per piece. Cordyceps sold at TRT (同仁堂) go for the price of hundreds of RMBs. I thought this was a good deal, but after a while, the worms I got became mouldy. The ones I bought previously at TRT never turned mouldy, so I guess they properly dried them.

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Although Seda is a part of Sichuan, it felt more Tibetan. The inhabitants are Tibetan. The food is Tibetan (yak meat, yak butter, yak meat, yak butter everywhere). The main language isn’t even Mandarin. Seda was interesting, and if it wasn’t for our group getting really sick, I think we would have stayed at least a day longer to just absorb the view and atmosphere Seda has to offer.

The Road To The Top

The only reason we came to Sichuan this trip was to visit Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist settlement, nestled in Larung Valley, over 4000m above the sea level.

We heard many stories about altitude sickness. All the advices we gathered from blogs and travel websites told us to take our time. Ascend slowly. Stop every 1000 m. So we tried to accommodate that into our one-week schedule in Chengdu.

There are many ways you can approach Larung Gar. Heck, if you are used to breathing at 4000m, you can even take a more-or-less 18-hours bus ride from Chengdu all the way to Larung Gar. Both my smoker-lungs and ass would not survive the trip, so I gave it a miss. What we did instead, was take a bus from Chengdu to Kangding (康定). That’s 500m going to 2000m.

There are busses leaving from Chengdu’s Xinnanmen (新南门) Bus Station heading for Kangding in the morning. The mountain roads are steep and there are no lights anywhere, so there are no transportation once the sun is down. Tickets can be bought the day before. Unless it’s a public holiday, there will always be seats available for at least one person. Expect bumpy roads. Expect delays and unreasonable traffic.

We got to Kangding just before sunset. We stayed at Zhilam, a hostel run by American expats. One of the girl working there told me that Kangding has awesome hiking spots. Pity we only stayed there for one night, so we didn’t get to hike at all.

Kangding
Kangding
This was part of Kangding old town
Kangding town central by night
And this was dinner!
This was dinner!

Overall, Kangding was quite fun. Our goal was to get closer to Larung Gar as soon as possible, so we did not explore much of Kangding. Had to conserve our energy for the next-day early morning bus to Luhuo. If we had more than just one week in Sichuan, I would have stayed longer in Kangding to check out the hiking spots suggested by the hostel.

Chengdu

Snap shots of one of the gloomiest city in the world. Didn’t see any sun for three days in a row. A local friend informed us that due to its location (surrounded by mountains), Chengdu is perpetually foggy.

But they do have one awesome hotel smack down in the middle of an outdoor shopping area, in the exact same style as Sanlitun Village in Beijing. Both were developed by the British-HK Swire Group. They have a knack for commissioning famous architects to design their hotels. Opposite House in Beijing was designed by Kengo Kuma, and the beautiful Temple House in Chengdu was the baby of Make Architects.

So there’s that, and there’s the hotpot. Now, that is the sole reason as to why I would return to Chengdu: hotpot. ♥♥♥

Beijing

Bits and pieces of our Beijing travel this year.

 

Food was as always, amazing.

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Like this glistening duck

The air was good, pollution seems to have decreased by a significant amount. So significant that I was tempted to return to what I think is one of the best city in the world. Still am tempted, actually.

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One of the exhibit at 798

 

Beijing was home for four and a half years. I have such fond memories of it that every single time we come back for our yearly visit, I have this tinge of regret for swapping China for Indonesia.

Beijing was where I learned the language of my (half) ancestor and more importantly, where I met my husband.

Can’t wait until next year! ♥