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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



April 26. BEIJING It was Saturday and we planned to take the train to Tianjin on Sunday for the antique market.  The streets of Beijing were getting quieter by the day and the number of mask wearing people were increasing.  Tianjin, not far from Beijing, had not been hit as hard by SARS and we were hoping for a bit more lively place.  

We walked from our hotel to the Beijing train station and found a chaotic sight.  There were lines of people traversing more than halfway across the huge square in front of the station.  People were loaded up with food and belongings, apparently planning to be gone for a while.  It seemed that the SARS panic was hitting an apex and with rumors of Beijing being quarantined people were making a mad rush to get out of town.  Being crammed on a crowded train with a bunch of people from Beijing was really exactly where you wouldn't want to be during this crisis.  So, our plans for Tianjin were quickly cancelled.  We decided it would be better to take advantage to having the city to ourselves!

With everyone filing into the train station by foot, subway and cab we opted not to travel via the subway.  We caught a cab to the northern part of the city to see the Lama Temple, Beijing's only Tibetan temple.   The guidebooks warned about the masses of tourists but we were among the only people enjoying the peaceful ambiance of the colorful temple.  Compared to the temples in Tibet this clearly had its Chinese influences, including a rolly-polly laughing Buddha facing us as we entered the main gate.  Like its Tibetan counterparts the temple was full of colorful decoration but the architecture had golden Chinese tile roofs.  The monks also dressed in brown robes that were tied at the waist with sashes of different colors, probably indicating some kind of rank.  

The most impressive sight at the temple was an enormous 26 meter high standing Buddha that was carved entirely out of a single sandalwood tree.  I never knew a Sandalwood tree could get so big.  The diameter of this statue made me think of a northern California redwood tree, not a Sandalwood tree!  It stood so tall in the temple that it was hard to see its face.  The Guiness Book of World Records plaque that was attached to a pillar in front of the temple stated that the statue was indeed carved out of a single tree indicated and that it was done in 1990.  

The temple also had some "informative" exhibits about the history of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism.  There were numerous pictures of the young 14th Dalai Lama with Mao. Who knew they were once such good friends?  There was also an explanation about changes made to the method of determining a lama's reincarnation.  Apparently this was all spelled out in a document some centuries earlier and it is certain that the Chinese method is the valid method, hence the fissure between Tibetans and Chinese over the Panchen Lama's reincarnation.  This document apparently also made clear what Tibet's relationship to China was and that this was why Tibet was annexed in the 60's.  It was very informative indeed!

From the Lama Temple we took a side street past small stores selling incense, candles and other religious goods, to the Kong Miao Confucius Temple and Imperial College.  After the bright colors of Lama Temple this was a very subdued place.  A white statue of Confucius greeted us in the outer courtyard.  We sat in the main courtyard of the temple for some time and saw only a handful of other people pass through.  The temple hadn't seen any restoration which gave it a forlorn look but also a feeling of genuine age that sometimes gets lost with restoration.  The courtyard was full of flowering cypresses and a smaller temples.  Dozens of tall steles, stone tablets that record the names of those who achieved the highest level in the Confucius examination system, surrounded the grounds outside the main courtyard wall.        

From the Kong Miao Temple we walked back down the hutong alleyway and peered into the shops.  A couple of small local stores were gathering places for local people to drink, smoke, play games and chat.  Even the Coca Cola overhang that adorned one shop couldn't detract from the very Beijing sight of an old man in a Mao jacket sitting and enjoying his day.

We returned to our hotel by cab and took a gamble on our hotel restaurant.  It was vacant except for one table of people which isn't usually a good sign but given that there were only seven rooms in use at our hotel and the whole city was deserted it was hard to tell what to expect.  The food was actually okay and very reasonable for the volumes we received.  The tasty sesame balls we ordered for desert made the meal for me.

CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30