Three Temples and Nine Dragons

Nicholas Quirke was constantly reminded of his age on 16 April 2021 and the benefits of having managed to live to over sixty as every venue they went to on their exploration of some of Shanxi’s treasures he was given free admittance and when the cost of entry was almost 160 Yuan each time this was a beneficial reminder. The air had cleared a little and the view from the hotel room was a little more expansive. Breakfast was quite a banquet with a large selection of vegetarian dishes and the noodle chef seemed completely unfazed by the request for ‘Su’ unlike many of the establishments he had inhabited. It was an early start as the drive to Hunyuan County and The Hanging Monastry, or Xuankong Temple 悬空寺; is built into a cliff 75 m above the ground. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice but also because it is the only one that exists with the combination of three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The monastery building hangs from the middle of the cliff under the prominent summit, protecting the temple from rain erosion and sunlight. According to legend, construction of the temple was started at the end of the Northern Wei dynasty by only one man, a monk named Liaoran. Over the next 1,400 years, many repairs and extensions have led to its present-day scale. To his delight he was given free entry to the site and then another free entry to go up onto the terrifyingly high structure. It wasn’t overcrowded but there were tour groups and he was amused to see the terror with which some people clung to sides. Conquering his fear he looked over the balustrades and managed to take a few photos and some film. He was the subject of some curiosity and as they made their way around the building he was included both obviously and surreptitiously in the tourists pictures. There was even one group that mistook Peng for a Laowai too. When they arrived the skies had been grey but for the duration of their tour the sun came out in honour of his presence. They had dressed for the cold, and even with the blue skies it proved to be a very sensible move as the wind when it blew was lacerating. The next location on their itinerary was The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple 佛宫寺释迦of Ying County which, is a wooden Chinese pagoda built in 1056, during the Liao Dynasty. The pagoda has survived several large earthquakes throughout the centuries and reached a level of fame within China as the oldest existent fully wooden pagoda still standing in China. The building was impressive and with the trees in blossom it really felt like he was in ancient oriental china. They had intended to skip lunch but it turned out that the number 1 restaurant in the area sold Liang Fen which is a starch jelly dish and accompanied by Tang Bing. The next stage of the trip was to return to the city to see the ancient Datong in daylight, view another ancient temple building and the Nine Dragon Wall. He was anxious to get Peng’s parents a present for having suggested the Hanging Temple and as the area was also famed for its Vinegar, Cu, 醋 and when they came across a distillery they stopped, were given a taste of the various tastes and purchased a bottle. They revisited the streets they had walked along the previous evening and it was fascinating to see that they were razing the derelict old Hutongs and rebuilding them on the same foundations. The decay fascinated him though he was saddened to see what had been a way of life disappear to be turned into a fashionable shopping mall whilst it residents were rehoused in the austere and dramatic slender buildings that disturbed him. The Hua Monastery temple, he had a third complimentary admittance, was another product of the Liao Dynasty and had been built in 1038. The grounds were beautiful, solemn and contemplative. He saw the second ancient pagoda of the day and dozens of cultural relics but the highlight was an underground bronze hall . The final sight to be devoured before supper was the largest Nine dragon spirit wall. He had seen many Dragon Walls (九龙壁; pinyin: Jiǔ Lóng Bì) which, is a type of screen wall with reliefs of nine different Chinese dragons and typically found in imperial Chinese palaces and gardens. This one had the distinction of being built during the regime of the first Emperor of Ming Dynasty 1368 and it is the oldest and largest glazed-tile Nine Dragon wall still extant in China. Amazingly it is still in a perfect condition owing to its perfect architecture and craft work. Peng had discovered a nearby restaurant that served Vegan Shumai: 烧卖 which, is usually served in the form of meat and vegetables wrapped in thin sheets as a dim sum snack which had been impossible to find in Beijing and it was important to try it. The restaurant was in an authentic Chinese style and Nicholas was able to watch them making the Shaomai. They decided to head back to the hotel and explore the nearby park but first they stopped at a Walmart to buy some nuts for the journey the next day. Somehow the supper they had eaten was not quite enough and they found themselves in another fly restaurant (Greasy Spoon) for a bowl of noodles. It was a bowl too far and he was relieved to have a walk to the park to absorb the feeling that the over eating had given him. Night had fallen and a chill had settled on the air. The lights on the moat and on the art gallery were not as spectacular as those in the ancient city but its was still a colourful sight. The cold, the chorus of joggers and the late hour encouraged them to walk back to the hotel where they had been given an extra humidifier. He ended the day with a comfortable and damp sleep.

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