Yumen Pass

Towering over the western end of the Hexi Corridor, Yumen Pass was once a major gateway along the Great Wall and an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. Alongside Yang Pass, Yumen Pass served as the main pathway to the mysterious Western Regions. The pass’ long and colourful history began during the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), when the western border of the country was ceaselessly invaded by the nomadic Xiongnu people, the arch nemeses of the ruling Han Chinese. Rather than meet the formidable Xiongnu warriors in battle, the early Han rulers resorted to marrying off their daughters to Xiongnu leaders in a feeble attempt to broker peace. As they say, all is fair in love and war!

When Emperor Wu rose to power in 141 BC, he was appalled by this cowardly policy and replaced it with his own strategic military agenda. In 121 BC, fierce counterattacks led by the celebrated military general Huo Qubing eventually drove the Xiongnu troops out of the west and allowed Emperor Wu to secure the western frontier. By 111 BC, the Emperor had established Yumen Pass and Yang Pass, which strengthened the border and thus helped to prevent further invasions from the Xiongnu. As time went on, it became a major trading post along the northern branch of the Silk Road. Silk, porcelain, tea, and a variety of luxury wares all passed through its humble gates. “Yumen” literally translates to mean “Jade Gate”, and it is believed that the pass is so-named because of the many jade caravans that passed through it.

According to an alternative legend, there was once a region in the west of Gansu province known as “Mamitu” or “Horse Loses Its Way”. Numerous caravans carrying jade from Hotan to Dunhuang were forced to travel through this region before arriving at Yumen Pass. The region was a mess of marshes, ravines, gullies, and weeds, making it desperately difficult to navigate. As if that wasn’t complex enough, the extremely hot weather meant that it was virtually impossible to cross during the day so many caravans chose to travel at night. The darkness, coupled with the region’s unusual topography, meant that even the most experienced merchants would frequently lose their way.

There was once a caravan that often traversed this route carrying jade and silk. One day, as soon as it entered Mamitu, the merchant became hopelessly lost. As if by magic, a wild goose suddenly dropped down in front of them. A kind-hearted boy scooped the goose up in his arms and decided he would carry it until they had escaped the treacherous Mamitu region. After some time, the wild goose turned to the boy and said: “Please give me some food, and I will help you find your way”. The boy realised that the goose had dropped not because it couldn’t fly, but because it didn’t have the energy to fly. He immediately gave the goose some food and water. Once it had eaten its fill, the goose flew into the sky and guided the caravan to the small city of Fangcheng. 

It was not long before the caravan once again became lost in Mamitu. As the wild goose flew over them, he promptly stopped near the young boy and said: “Once I have guided you to Fangcheng, please promise to give me the finest piece of jade you have. I will place it in the highest tower, and it will shine so brightly that you will never lose your way again.” The boy told the merchant, but the merchant was reluctant to part with his precious cargo. After the goose had helped them, he refused to give up the jade and thought the matter was over. Who would have thought that, not long thereafter, he and his caravan would become lost in Mamitu yet again!

This time, however, it was much more serious. They were unable to find water for several days and, as they slowly weakened from thirst, they realised that they would surely die if they could not find their way soon. At that moment, the goose appeared and shouted down to the merchant: “Your caravan is hopelessly lost! Give me the jade you promised, and I will lead the way to safety.“ The merchant turned to the young boy, who advised him to kneel down and swear to the wild goose that he would keep his promise. The merchant promptly followed the boy’s advice and the goose kindly guided the caravan out of Mamitu.

Once they had arrived in Fangcheng, the merchant picked the largest piece of luminous green jade he could find and gave it to the goose. The goose flew to the top of the highest tower in Fangcheng and embedded the jade there. When night fell, the jade would shine in the moonlight and guide caravans through Mamitu. From that day forward, not a single caravan became lost, and Fangcheng became known as the Jade Gate Pass.

The Han Great Wall near the Yumen Pass

Unfortunately, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the trade route through Yumen Pass was gradually supplanted by the northern route via Hami and the pass fell into disuse. Nowadays, all that is left of this venerable military gate and trading post are a smattering of ruins, which are located approximately 90 kilometres (56 mi) from the city of Dunhuang. At the grand old age of over 2,000 years, it was considered so integral to the country’s history that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. The complex is entirely built of rammed earth and, due to years of neglect, all that remains today are the gatehouse, a beacon tower, and a small portion of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. In many ways, its desolation is part of its charm. After all, as the poem “Song of Liangzhou” by Wang Zhihuan goes: “Don’t complain that the willows do not thrive there, you should know that Spring never comes to Yumen Pass”.  

The Yellow River

Known simultaneously as “China’s Pride”, the Yellow River has occupied a controversial space in the country’s history. At an estimated length of 5,464 kilometres (3,395 mi), it is the third longest river in Asia and the sixth longest in the world. It originates from the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai province of western China and crosses through nine provincial level regions before finally emptying into the Bohai Sea near the city of Dongying in Shandong province. While ancient Chinese civilisation would have been unable to develop without it, its turbulent waters have led to some of the most devastating natural disasters in human history.


The Yellow River’s long and winding path through the country can be roughly separated into three sections: the segment northeast of the Tibetan Plateau; the Ordos Loop; and the North China Plain. Characterised by clear waters and shimmering lakes, the upper reaches of the river flow mainly through pastures, swamps, and knolls between the Bayan Har Mountains and the Amne Machin Mountains of Qinghai province. As the river leaves Qinghai province and enters Gansu province, it passes through a series of 20 narrow gorges. A number of hydroelectric plants have been established in this region in order to take advantage of the river’s extremely fast and turbulent waters.


The river continues in a roughly northeastern direction until it reaches the town of Hekou in Inner Mongolia, where it turns sharply south and forms the Ordos Loop. From there, it travels south through the Loess Plateau, creating a natural border between the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi. It is in this section that the riverbed suddenly tapers down from 300 metres (984 ft.) in width to 50 metres (164 ft.), forming the magnificent 15 metre-high (49 ft.) Hukou Waterfall. As the river winds through the Loess Plateau, it causes substantial erosion and thus accumulates a vast amount of mud, sand, and silt. It is in this section that it takes on its iconic ochre hue, earning it the name of the Yellow River. In many ways, this sediment is both its blessing and its curse.

The Yellow River in Ordos Loop


As the river heads east towards the Gulf of Bohai and meanders through the North China Plain, it provides a colossal 140 million people with water for drinking and irrigation. The mineral-rich sediment makes the surrounding farmland incredibly fertile, which frequently results in an abundance of crops. For this reason, agricultural societies were able to survive along the rivers’ banks over 7,000 years ago, and it has been vital to the survival of people in northern China. The myriad of Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age archaeological sites found within the river’s drainage basin attest to the major role it played in the development of ancient Chinese civilisation.


However, in the slower reaches of the river, the sediment is deposited at random in large heaps and eventually forms small subaqueous dams, which in turn elevate the riverbed. This has created the infamous “river above ground”, as high levees are now required to keep the river within its banks. Historically, during times of flooding, the river has broken out of its levees and changed its course entirely, causing mass devastation to the surrounding countryside in the process. The rushing waters would burst forth and inundate everything in their path, including farmland, towns, and even cities. From the year 595 BC to 1946 AD, before the advent of modern dams, it is reckoned that the river shifted its course 35 times and flooded a shocking 1,593 times!


In its darkest hours, the Yellow River has been either solely or partially responsible for three of the deadliest floods in recorded history: the flood of 1332, which killed an estimated 7 million people; the 1887 flood, which caused the death of anywhere from 900,000 to 2 million people; and the 1931 floods, which resulted in the death of between 1 to 4 million people. While the floods themselves caused a substantial number of deaths, it was the ensuing famine and pestilence that drove the death toll to such staggering heights. In spite of the incredible danger that the river posed, a surprising number of these floods were actually manmade.


From the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 B.C.) onwards, sabotaging levees, canals, and reservoirs became a standard military tactic to deliberately flood areas and cause problems for the opposition. In fact, the devastating flood of 1938 was caused by the Nationalist Government, who blew up the levees at Huayuankou and flooded the provinces of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu in a vain attempt to halt the progress of the advancing Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). The plan tragically backfired and resulted in the loss of vast tracts of farmland, the death of approximately 800,000 people, and the displacement of nearly 3 million refugees.


In its time, the Yellow River has been responsible for the rise and fall of dynasties; the reaping of bumper harvests and the absolute devastation of crops; the birth of a civilisation and the death of millions of its people. It is the lifeblood that runs through the country, as important to China as the Nile is to Egypt. Yet its power should never be underestimated. After all, as the old Chinese proverb goes: “Water can not only float a boat, it can also sink it”.

The Yellow River in Shanxi Province

Explore more about the Yellow River on our tour: Explore “the Good Earth” in Northwest China

Turpan

The city of Turpan, also known as Turfan, lies about 180 kilometres (112 mi) southeast of the regional capital of Ürümqi, on the northern edge of the deep Turpan Depression. The Bogda Mountains, an eastern extension of the Tian Shan Mountains, rest to the north, while Qoltag Mountain rises to the south. Its unusual location means its climate is pretty unique, with long hot summers and cold brief winters.

On average, temperatures can range from −7 °C (18 °F) in January to 32 °C (90 °F) in July, but extremes of an icy cold −28 °C (−20 °F) in winter and a swelteringly hot 48 °C (119 °F) in summer are surprisingly common. The long hours of sunshine and characteristic dry heat have earned Turpan the grand title of the “Flaming Continent”. So skip the tanning beds, because you won’t be needing them in this sunny city!

The city’s 570,000-strong-population appear to take the heat in their stride, and most of them belong to the Uyghur ethnic minority. In fact, though at a glance the terrain may appear to be harsh and unforgiving, Turpan actually rests at the centre of a fertile oasis and was once an important trade centre along the northern branch of the Silk Road. Proof that you should never judge a book by its cover, or a city by its weather!

Historically speaking, the area surrounding Turpan has been inhabited for over two thousand years. Originally, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), it belonged to the Gushi Kingdom, later to be known as the Jushi and Cheshi Kingdom. The capital of the Cheshi Kingdom, a city known as Jiaohe, came under the control of the Han court during the 1st century, but the entire region was eventually annexed by the Gaochang Kingdom during the 6th century.

In 640, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the region was conquered by Emperor Taizong and Turpan became one of China’s frontier towns, flourishing as a stopover for merchants, monks, and other travellers on their way to the west. By the 13th century, the region had come under Mongolian control and Turpan enjoyed its greatest period of commercial prosperity. Yet the higher you go, unfortunately the further you have to fall!

Tragically, when Mongol rule collapsed, the Turpan Depression was divided into three independent states and the area wasn’t properly united until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). During this recovery period, Turpan suffered greatly during the wars between the Qing imperials and the resident Dzungar people. During the 18th century, a new city known as Guang’an was built next to the old Muslim city of Turpan and this eventually became the site of modern-day Turpan.

Nowadays the abundant sunshine and high temperatures in the city mean that it’s the ideal place for growing several types of fruit, particularly grapes and melons. The Grape Valley is just 11 kilometres (7 mi) northeast of Turpan and has produced the best grapes in the country for over 1,000 years, earning it the nickname “Green Pearl City”. It boasts over 13 varieties of grape, which visitors are welcome to admire and, occasionally, sample!

Aside from the sumptuously sweet fruit, the scorching heat in Turpan has other benefits. Sand Therapy is a practice that dates back over hundreds of years and involves burying people in 50 °C (122 °F) to 60 °C (140 °F) sand in order to treat various ailments, including rheumatism and skin disease. There is even a Sand Therapy Centre in the northwest of the city, which is immensely popular with locals and tourists alike.

Yet perhaps Turpan’s greatest claim to fame is its prestigious heritage and the historical relics that surround it. The Jiaohe Ruins are located in Yarnaz Valley, just 10 kilometres (6 mi) west of the city, and date back over 2,300 years. They are considered one of the most well-preserved ruins of an earthen city in the world and were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.

This heritage site also includes the ruins of Gaochang, another ancient city located at the foot of the Flaming Mountains about 46 kilometres (29 mi) southeast of Turpan. It was once another major city along the Silk Road and was initially built during the 1st century BC. Mummies of both Caucasian and Mongolian ancestry have been found in the Astana Tombs just 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) north of Gaochang and may indicate that it was one of the first multi-ethnic cities in the world.

Not far from these ancient ruins, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves are a set of cave grottos dating back to between the 5th and 14th centuries. As Buddhism was one of the first religions to be introduced to the area via the Silk Road, Xinjiang witnessed the earliest development of this style of cave art in China. Of the 83 original caves in this complex, only 57 remain and most of these date back to between the 10th and 13th centuries.

About 10 kilometres (6 mi) to the east of Turpan, the Flaming Mountains rise up in the sandy desert. Their unusual name is derived from the burnished red colour of their bedrock, which gives the mountains the appearance of being aflame when hit with direct sunlight. With summer temperatures regularly reaching in excess of 50 °C (122 °F), these mountains are widely considered the hottest spot in China and certainly live up to their fiery name!

 

Join a travel with us to explore more about TurpanExplore the Silk Road in China

 

The Gao Family Mansion

With a history stretching back over 400 years, the Gao Family Mansion is the ideal place to experience what ancient life would have been like in the rapidly expanding metropolis of Xi’an. Its entrance is an unassuming gate on the side of Beiyuanmen Street in the city’s bustling Muslim Quarter and it offers a slice of tranquillity amongst the lively chaos of this popular dining area. This venerable mansion was originally established during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and served as the former residence of a scholar-official named Gao Yuesong. During his illustrious career, Gao Yuesong achieved the second highest mark in the imperial examination and was awarded with this mansion by the reigning Chongzhen Emperor for his loyal service as an imperial official. His story might be worth mentioning next time you talk to your boss about Christmas bonuses!

Gao Yuesong’s mansion was often a hive of activity, as he regularly hosted events with prominent writers, thinkers, scholars, and performers. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to enjoy his luxurious home for long, as he tragically died at the age of 31. His family, however, continued to live in the mansion for seven generations and many of his descendants went on to have successful careers as officials within the imperial government.

The mansion itself sprawls over an area of over 2,500 square metres (26,910 sq. ft.) and is made up of 86 rooms, 56 of which are currently open to the public. The entire complex is separated into two courts, the north court and the south court, which in turn each contain four small courtyards. Wandering through this labyrinthine complex, visitors will be met with rooms lavishly decorated with period furnishings and walls beautifully bedecked with traditional Chinese paintings. Alongside being a popular tourist attraction, the Gao Family Mansion serves as the offices for four different organisations, including the Xi’an Chinese Painting Academy.

Nowadays, the Gao Family Mansion acts as a beacon of ancient culture in the city of Xi’an. Every day, performances of traditional Chinese opera and Shadow Puppetry take place on its main stage. Shadow Puppetry is a type of performance that uses simple colourful figures made from leather or paper to act out its stories and is believed to have originated in Shaanxi province during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). In-keeping with this local flavour, both the opera and shadow puppet shows at the mansion utilise the local dialect of Shaanxi province and the stories they tell revolve around popular folk legends. These lively performances are complemented by classes on the traditional Chinese art of papercutting and peaceful tea ceremonies at the courtyard teahouse.

The 8 Immortals Temple

With their ability to bestow life and overcome the forces of evil, the 8 Immortals have captured the imagination and admiration of people throughout China for centuries. Think of them like the original Chinese superheroes! They have been a focal feature of Chinese mythology since the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and have been particularly influential when it comes to the indigenous Chinese religion of Taoism, although their identities weren’t strictly fixed until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Each of them carries a special magical item, which are regarded as holy articles in Taoism.

The 8 Immortals are traditionally known as: Han Zhongli, who clasps a fan that can bring the dead back to life; Zhang Guolao, whose sacred item is an unusual drum made out of a bamboo tube; Han Xiangzi, who is often depicted playing his flute; Li Tieguai, who heals people using the special medicine in his magical gourd; Cao Guojiu, who is rarely seen without his imperial jade tablet; Lü Dongbin, who wields a powerful sword; Lan Caihe, who carries a basket of flowers; and He Xiangu, who delicately holds a single lotus flower. They are predominantly male, although He Xiangu is the only woman among them and Lan Caihe’s gender is often left ambiguous.

Outside of the 8 Immortals Temple in Xi’an, a stunning mural recounts a famous legend known as “The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea”. According to this fabulous legend, the 8 immortals were on their way to attend a conference that was being held by a goddess known as the Queen Mother of the West, who is renowned in Chinese mythology for her magical peaches that can bestow immortality. Their journey, however, was unexpectedly brought to a halt when they encountered an ocean in their path. The typical mode of transport for an immortal in this instance would be to ride on a cloud, but the 8 immortals couldn’t resist the chance to show off their powers!

Rather than simply conjure up their celestial clouds, Lü Dongbin suggested that they should each use their unique skills to get across. In some depictions, the immortals are shown literally skidding across the waves sat atop their sacred items, but the mural outside of the temple recounts the version of the story in which they transformed their sacred items into various different fantastical animals, which they then rode. This enthralling tale gave rise to the Chinese proverb: “The Eight Immortals cross the sea, each one reveals their divine powers”, which is used to describe when everyone uses their unique skills and expertise in order to achieve a common goal. In some instances, however, people use this proverb to refer to a situation where each person is striving to outshine their peers and assert their superiority. Even when it comes to divine deities, it’s still all a matter of perspective!

In-keeping with the grandeur that surrounds these mythical figures, the 8 Immortals Temple is the largest Taoist temple in Xi’an and has a particularly special historical pedigree. In 1900, an international military coalition known as the Eight-Nation Alliance was formed by Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary as a response to the ongoing Boxer Rebellion, which had been responsible for the deaths of numerous foreign missionaries.

In that same year, the alliance’s armed forces invaded and occupied Beijing, forcing the ruling Emperor Guangxu and his mother Empress Dowager Cixi to flee to Xi’an. They sought refuge within the 8 Immortals Temple, which is now occasionally referred to as the 8 Immortals Palace because it briefly served as the residence of royalty. After Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi were able to safely return to Beijing, they donated substantial amounts of silver to fund the renovation of the temple and a board inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi herself still hangs within one of its halls. While it is believed that the temple was originally built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), most of its existing structure dates back to these renovations made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Alongside the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, the temple can roughly be divided into three sections. The first section is made up of five halls that are dedicated to a Taoist deity known as Wang Lingguan. The second section is formed of two halls, with the back hall featuring colourful painted statues of the 8 Immortals. The third and final section simply consists of the Main Hall, which is where the tablet inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi is housed. Inside this hall, locals and visitors alike make offerings to Taoist deities, with particular emphasis on a high-ranking goddess known as Doumu or “the Mother of the Great Chariot”.  To the west of this hall lies a hall for the immortal Lü Dongbin and a hall for the deity Yaowang or the “King of Chinese Medicine”, while accommodation for the resident Taoist priests can be found to the east.

At the centre of the temple courtyard, visitors can cross over the Bridge of Meeting Immortals, which was built in memory of Wang Chongyang, the legendary founder of the Quanzhen sect of Taoism. This venerable master of Taoism is also intimately connected to the 8 immortals, as he was supposedly enlightened by none other than Lü Dongbin. It’s a small spiritual world after all!

While they are not represented by individual halls within the temple complex, the 8 Immortals Temple is also the place where locals in Xi’an come to pray to the hundreds of other Taoist immortals, who are each responsible for a different area of human life. In many ways, they have been said to resemble the patron saints of Catholicism. On the 14th day of the fourth month and the 9th day of the ninth month every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar, worshippers will converge on the temple for the 3-day-long temple fair and the Double Ninth Festival respectively. During both of these festivals, the temple will be fragrant with the sweet smell of incense as vibrant worshipping ceremonies take place throughout its many halls.

Gaochang Ruins

The Gaochang Ruins were once the site of an ancient oasis city built on the northern edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert. They are located at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, about 46 kilometres (29 mi) southeast of Turpan, and have miraculously survived for over 2,000 years. They were incorporated into the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and, thanks to renovations and preservation projects, have since enjoyed a much deserved facelift! Though they may not be in as good a condition as the Jiaohe Ruins, which are about 40 kilometres (25 mi) to their west, they still maintain a certain inimitable charm.

The city was built during the 1st century BC and was ruled by the Cheshi (Jushi) Kingdom, until they surrendered control of the area to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) around about 50 BC. It played a focal role as one of the main trade hubs and oasis towns along the Silk Road, making it a prized asset that the Han court was keen to protect. It became the capital of the Gaochang Kingdom (531-640) during the 6th century but returned to Chinese control in 640, when it was conquered by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, this would prove to be short-lived as the Tang court was forced to withdraw its military forces from the area in 755. Like a property in Central London, Gaochang’s prime location meant it was incredibly valuable and hotly contested!

By 803, the Uyghur ethnic group had taken control of the city and it became part of the Kingdom of Qocho (856-1335). In 1209 this kingdom came under the suzerainty of Genghis Khan and eventually became part of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but was seized by a rival Mongolian kingdom known as the Chatagai Khanate from 1275 to 1318. When the Yuan Dynasty eventually collapsed, the trade route that ran through Gaochang was disrupted and war broke out between the Mongolians and the Uyghurs. This warfare greatly damaged the city and this, coupled with the disruption of trade, led to the city being gradually abandoned.

Although the city was left in bad shape, much of the additional destruction happened long after it was deserted. Initially Muslims from outlying areas destroyed many of the Buddhist frescos within the city that depicted human or animal forms, believing them to be blasphemous. Then, over a period of time, local farmers took wall paintings from the temples and soil from the walls of the earthen buildings, as they made good fertiliser. So remember, if you happen to sample any of the locally grown vegetables, you’re quite literally enjoying the taste of Gaochang!

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the archaeological value of the region was discovered, and soon archaeologists from across the globe flocked to the area to marvel at the ruins. Many of the relics excavated in Gaochang are now scattered throughout museums in London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and other far-flung cities, but many more still remain within the city’s dilapidated walls.

In its heyday, the city boasted an impressive population of approximately 30,000 people and was undoubtedly one of the livelier towns along the Silk Road. Its colossal earthen walls once towered in at over 11 metres (38 ft.) in height and it was separated into three parts: the outer city, the inner city, and the palace city. The inner city was protected by a secondary inner wall, which has since vanished, but large portions of the outer wall still remain. The palace city at Gaochang’s northernmost point was once arguably its most magnificent edifice, but now contains only the massive cornerstones of the ruined imperial palace.

On top of being a centre for trade, it was once an important religious site and, during the Tang Dynasty, it became one of the foremost Buddhist cities. In 630, while on his pilgrimage to India, the renowned monk Xuanzang even gave lectures there. At one time, the city was host to numerous monasteries, including a Confucian college and a Nestorian church, and over 3,000 monks made a home within its walls. Nowadays all that remains of this illustrious heritage are the ruins of two major temples in the southern part of the outer city. The temple in the southwest still has remnants of a gate, a courtyard, a sermon hall, a sutra[1] depository, and the monks’ living quarters, while the temple in the southeast only consists of a tower and a series of well-preserved murals.

Mummies recovered from the Astana Tombs, just 4 kilometres to the north of the ruins, were discovered to be of both Caucasian and Mongolian descent, which suggests that Gaochang may have been one of the oldest multi-ethnic and multi-religious cities in China. Murals in the nearby Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves also depict both Central Asian and Chinese monks. So who knows, you might recognise your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather in one of the frescos!

 

1. Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

 

 

 

Hoklo People

Like the Hakka, the Hoklo people are not one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities but are also just a subgroup of the Han ethnic majority. They are sometimes referred to as Hokkien, Hokuro, Min-nan, or Hokkien Lang people and, in the same vein, their language can be referred to as Hoklo, Hokkien, Fukien, Amoy, Minnan, Min, Fujianese, and Taiwanese.

However, unlike the Hakka, there is no strong cultural identity linking the subgroups of Hoklo people and they have seemingly failed to hold on to any significant cultural traits. Some people are not even aware of their Hoklo heritage and, to this day, there is no standard Chinese term for “Hoklo”. Since many of them intermarried or assimilated with Hakka people or Taiwanese aborigines, the term “Hoklo” became more of a linguistic heritage.

Their language is a branch of Min-nan or “Southern Min” Chinese, which is a dialect that is mutually unintelligible to Eastern Min, Standard Chinese, and Cantonese. They are believed to have originated from lands bordering the Yellow River in northern and central China, much like the Hakka, and settled primarily in southern Fujian province, although communities of Hoklo people can be found in Guangdong and Hainan.

zhangzhou

Nowadays most Hoklo people live in towns and cities, but a few still live in large earthen constructions known as Tulou. These fortress-like buildings were designed by the Hakka and are usually round or square in shape. They can be several stories high and were initially built to protect inhabitants from bandits and wild animals. Evidently the Hoklo knew a good thing when they saw it, because they took to these safe havens immediately!

However, by far the largest constituency of Hoklo people can be found in Taiwan, where they make up 70% of the population and are thus the ethnic majority. Hoklo Taiwanese is a term generally used to mean anyone whose ancestors emigrated from Fujian to Taiwan prior to 1949. In the north and south of Taiwan, there are two marginally different dialects of their language that point to their diverging origins. It is believed that the Hoklo people in the north originated from Quanzhou Prefecture and those in the south originated from Zhangzhou Prefecture. No matter how they got there, the Hoklo Taiwanese have developed their own unique culture that continues to thrive to this day!

 

Get more stories about Hoklo people on our travel: Explore the distinctive Tulou(Earthen Structure)

Victoria Peak

Of all the wonderful tourist attractions on offer in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak is undoubtedly the most iconic. With an elevation of 552 metres (1,811 ft.), it is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island. Locals and tourists alike flock to the peak every day, making it the most visited attraction in the region. Yet it isn’t the peak itself that attracts so much adoration; it’s the panoramic views from the top. Dazzling skyscrapers and the sparkling Victoria Harbour stretch out beneath you, glittering in the midday sun. At night, a galaxy of multi-coloured lights transforms the urban jungle into a twinkling wonderland. Hong Kong is renowned for having one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the world, and Victoria Peak is the ideal place to appreciate it.

To reach the peak, most visitors take the Peak Tram, which has been in operation for over 100 years and currently ferries an average of 11,000 people to the top every day! Its lower terminus hosts the Peak Tram Historical Gallery, where visitors can learn all about the tram’s history, and its upper terminus ends in the magnificent Peak Tower. This is one of two large complexes atop the peak, the other being the Peak Galleria. Both of them boast viewing decks where visitors can soak in the celebrated scenery, although the Peak Tower’s Sky Terrace 428 charges a small entry fee and views of Victoria Harbour from the Peak Galleria are unfortunately obscured.

Most of the peak is dominated by public parks and luxury residential areas, although the summit is occupied by a radio telecommunications facility and is actually off-limits to the public. With properties regularly selling for over HK$1.8 billion (£170 million), it is the most expensive location to buy real estate in the world! Historically speaking, this area has been attracting interest since the 19th century, when European expatriates quickly discovered that its panoramic view of the city and its temperate climate made it the perfect escape from the oppressive humidity in the rest of Hong Kong.

The sixth Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Richard MacDonnell, famously built his summer residence on the peak in 1868. Tragically MacDonnell’s mansion was destroyed during the Second World War, but its verdant gardens remain and are now open to the public. The Governor evidently inspired a trend in the Hong Kong elite, because soon other houses, such as the Austin Arms and the Eyrie, began cropping up on its expanse. However, the tram service had yet to be developed, so these original residents would have to reach their homes by being carried up and down the steep slopes on sedan chairs. If you thought your job was bad, imagine what it would be like to work as a servant for the Peak’s rich and famous! It wasn’t until 1888 that the Peak Tram finally started operating.

From 1904 until 1947, the peak was designated an exclusive residential area reserved only for expatriates, which is why it’s visibly dominated by colonial architecture. The Peak Tower wasn’t built until 1972 and only contained a café and a restaurant at the time. In 1993, the tower underwent a major redevelopment, and nowadays is a colossal complex with its own Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, and observation deck, along with numerous shops and restaurants. Similarly the Peak Tram, which was initially powered by coal-fired steam boilers, was updated into an electrically powered system in 1926.

Modernised though it may be, Victoria Peak still retains its quaint charm and provides a welcome escape from the bustling metropolis of Central. With its lush greenery, tranquil public parks, and breath-taking views, it represents a little slice of peace and quiet for the locals of Hong Kong. Whether it’s hiking, shopping, or simply people-watching, it has an inimitable attraction that draws people from all walks of life. In short, if you’re in Hong Kong, it’s sure to pique your interest!

Hong Kong

As one of the most densely populated places in the world, Hong Kong evidently holds a particular fascination for people from across the globe. Perhaps it’s the fact that, with over 1,000 skyscrapers and more buildings over 150 metres (500 ft.) than any other city, it has one of the tallest and most magical skylines in the world. In Hong Kong, more people live and work above the 14th floor than anywhere else on Earth, making it the world’s most vertical city. Unfortunately, it is also notorious internationally for having the most unaffordable housing, so don’t get your heart set on a Hong Kong apartment!

The skyline is considered so spectacular that it’s earned Hong Kong the nickname the “Pearl of the Orient”, but the region’s actual name has rather different connotations. The Chinese name for Hong Kong, known as “Xiānggǎng” (香港), literally translates to mean “Fragrant Harbour” or “Incense Harbour”. Some historians believe that this may refer to the sweet taste of the water in the estuaries of the Pearl River, while others argue that it derives from the incense that was made and stored in factories along the coast north of Kowloon. Regardless of its origin, the name clearly indicates the importance of maritime activities in Hong Kong’s history.

Officially the region is made up of three parts: Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories, together with 230 offshore islands. Before the mid-19th century, Hong Kong was an area of little significance, inhabited only by a small population of Tanka fishermen and Hakka charcoal burners. Compared to other regions in China, it lacked fertile soil and a stable fresh-water supply, and was rumoured to be a haunt of pirates.

However, in 1821, British merchants soon discovered that its natural harbour made a safe and sheltered base where they could anchor their opium-carrying vessels. These merchants swiftly realised the great commercial and strategic value that Hong Kong held. The area where they first landed became the Victoria urban district, and is now the centre for administrative and economic activities in Hong Kong. Victoria Peak and the stately colonial mansions that surround it are now popular tourist attractions.

After the First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars, Britain forced China to sign a series of treaties that granted them control of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula. In addition, the New Territories and offshore islands were leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. Thereafter, Chinese immigrants frequently flocked to Hong Kong in droves during times of crisis, because it was heavily protected by foreign powers. It was soon established as a place of shelter, and its population grew rapidly. Unfortunately, its status as a safe haven was not to last, as it was occupied by the Japanese for over three and a half years during the Second World War (1939-1945).

During the late 1970s, with the 1997 expiration date on the New Territories lease fast approaching, the Chinese government began to argue that the whole of Hong Kong should be returned to China, since the Hong Kong-British agreements counted as unequal treaties that required resolution. From 1982 to 1984, the British government negotiated with the Chinese and eventually the Chinese-British joint declaration was signed. It stated that all Hong Kong territories, including Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, would be returned to Chinese control.

On July 1st 1997, after 156 years under British colonial rule, Hong Kong was officially transferred to the People’s Republic of China and renamed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This new name indicated that, although Hong Kong now belonged to China, it was still allowed to maintain its capitalist economy and retain a large degree of political autonomy, excepting only in matters of foreign policy and defence. Nowadays, this is commonly referred to as the “one country, two systems” concept.

Its unusual history means that Hong Kong is frequently described as a place where “East meets West”. Whether its colonial architecture built according to feng shui[1] principles or dim sum restaurants sat elbow-to-elbow with fancy French bistros, Hong Kong represents a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western influences. Unlike other parts of China, English is listed as one of the official languages in Hong Kong, so a much larger portion of the population is fluent in both English and Cantonese[2]. Coupled with the incredible public transport system, this makes getting around Hong Kong a breeze for first-time visitors!

Geographically speaking, Hong Kong benefits from a humid, subtropical climate, and most of its terrain is hilly or mountainous. Average temperatures range from a sweltering 29 °C (84 °F) in summer to an unbelievably mild 16 °C (60 °F) in winter. Be forewarned, this warm weather comes with a price! From June to October, the area is buffeted by an average of five to six typhoons every year and strong torrential downpours dominate the rainy season.

While the region is famed for its urban development, Hong Kong’s mountainous terrain and subtropical climate mean it’s also a haven for nature lovers! Lush plant-life thrives in the region and there are plenty of public parks to simply get lost in. These slices of greenery are the perfect place to practice tai chi, take a gentle hike or a leisurely bike ride, indulge in a spot of kite-flying, or enjoy a few water sports.

That being said, Hong Kong is best known for the myriad of cultural activities that take place there every year. The Hong Kong Heritage Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra host numerous annual events that never fail to dazzle the crowds. And, if you’re in the mood for a bit of frivolous fun, there’s always Hong Kong Disneyland!

[1] Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain buildings or objects will bring good luck.

[2] Cantonese was once considered to be a dialect of Chinese, but is now widely regarded as a language in its own right.

The Yin Mountains

Forming part of the eastern border along the Gobi Desert, the Yin Mountains stretch for over 1,000 kilometres (631 mi) from Inner Mongolia to northern Hebei province. At points they rise to a mighty 2,180 metres (7,152 ft.) in height, while at others they drop to a modest 1,500 metres (4,921 ft.). Their northern slope is comparatively gentle, but the southern slope is steep and forms a sharp natural barrier against the plain below it. Yet it’s not the mountain range’s height that makes it so special. The range is home to over ten thousand cliff paintings known as petroglyphs, where the rock’s surface has been incised, carved, or abraded to form a primitive work of art. Since prehistoric times, these mountains and their surroundings have served as the muse for countless individuals.

These petroglyphs can be separated into four main sets: the first and oldest set, which dates back to the Xia (c. 2100-1600 BC), Shang (c. 1600-1046 BC), and Zhou (c. 1045-256 BC) dynasties; the second set, which were carved by Xiongnu nomads and range from the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC) to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD); the third set, which portrays distinctly Turkish characteristics and dates back to between the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907); and the final set, which were executed by Mongolian tribes sometime from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Some of the oldest rock paintings were examined as early as the 5th century by the geologist Li Daoyuan of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). While his findings represent the earliest record of the paintings, they weren’t formally surveyed until 1976. From then on, experts, scholars, and tourists have been drawn to the mountain range, tempted by the opportunity to catch a glimpse of our prehistoric origins. The paintings provide an invaluable insight into the lifestyle, beliefs, and customs of the ancient nomads that once roamed these open plains.

The paintings themselves are scattered throughout the mountain range, with the largest concentration being located on Mount Hei. The early paintings are dominated by scenes of hunting and feature a wide range of animals, including goats, sheep, antelopes, elks, moose, deer, horses, camels, wild ox, wild boar, rabbits, foxes, wolves, tigers, leopards, and even ostriches! Many of these species have since disappeared from the region, but these paintings act as a testament to their presence.

On many of the cliff-faces, a certain pattern emerges regarding the distribution of the paintings. While scenes of hunting and wild animals are found mostly towards the base or mid-point of the cliff, those of deities, celestial bodies, or constellations tend to be engraved high on steep cliffs or on giant rocks near valleys. This demonstrates an early veneration for religious figures and implies that, as with many primitive peoples, the nomads of the Yin Mountains associated the life-giving properties of water with the gods.

These early paintings were predominantly chiselled or ground into the rock using basic metal or stone tools, meaning they are often uneven in depth and density. The rock paintings of later periods are characterised by thinner and more superficial lines, which were formed by literally scratching into the rock-face using much slimmer utensils. As time went on and the paintings became more sophisticated, so too did their themes. Scenes of hunting are replaced by tableaus of herding and grazing domestic animals; the faces of anthropomorphic animal gods are gradually superseded by the distinctly human features of Buddhist deities; and simple skirmishes between different tribes become spectacles of brutal warfare. As society continues to advance at a rapid pace, these paintings serve as a poignant reminder of mankind’s humble beginnings.