Alishan National Forest in Taiwan (阿里山)

Alishan National Forest an area of approximately 415 square kilometers  is located in Chiayi County.  It is a resort and tourist area with good quality of mountain trail for hiking.  Excellent quality of fresh air with fragrance from the famous cypresses known for this area.  It is said that the fragrance has a calming effect on the nerves that it would settle the mind during the day and promote sleep during the night.  I think I can attest to that.

Alishan’s climate is versatile, it can change momentary so a light rain proof jacket is recommended.  It is because of this versatility, one can see a massive amount of drifting clouds, layer upon layer ever-changing making lots of wonderful picturesque scene of nature. 

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Dawn from Yushan, neighboring mountain which is also the highest mountain of Taiwan very good for professional mountain hikers.

In addition, there are a lot of beautiful rare birds acclimatized to this area which makes Alishan a good place for bird watching as well.

 

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I was told that this is one type of  song birds

In the summer, Alishan has cherry blossoms along with many wild beautiful flowers making Alishan one of the top choice for photographers.   But most people come here to be infused in the cypress forest air.

 

It was during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan that mass logging for the precious cypress in Alishan started.  The Japanese build a railway just for moving the logs down the mountain.  It was estimated 300,000 yellow cypress was cut down.  Therefore there is no yellow cypress in Alishan over 100 years old.

Any giant trees that are left are all of the red cypress variety.  The yellow cypress was chosen over the red cypress is because the yellow cypress is solid while the red cypress has cracks inside making it not as solid and prone for disease cause by bacteria and mold.  I guess sometimes imperfection is an advantage.  One can see a lot of cypress grew out of the dead cypress and they call these second generation cypress.  Each one of these second generation cypress has a unique form which is open for imaginations.

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This is actually a third generation cypress which is a new cypress took root on second generation cypress and in turn the second generation cypress took root on the first generation cypress.

The Alishan Forest train left by the Japanese would take you up the mountain to greet the sun in the morning.  If your lucky, you will be able to see the sunset from the top of your hotel.  They can be both exuberant and  beautiful.

We made a stop at Fenqihu (奮起湖) , an old town midway up Alishan where workers use to replenish their supplies.  Due to the destruction by typhoons, these days, this is the last stop for trains going up Alishan.  There is a museum of old trains for visitors in town.  However, we stopped for the famous old railroad lunch box.

Along the way down Alishan, another good place to stretch your legs is Chukou Village.  You will appreciate the stop due to the winding road of the mountain which was finished in 1980

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A mountain view of the  winding Alishan highway with it’s open tunnel finished in 1980.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hanging Monastery(懸空寺)

Hanging Monastery

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The Hanging Monastery was built in the later years of Northern Wei Dynasty around 1500 years ago.  It had been repaired many times since but the foundation and structure had never been altered.  It is located about 65 kilometers away from the city Datong, Shanxi, facing Mount Heng and back along the precipice of Mount Cuiping (翠屏山).  Above it hangs dangerous stratum of rock layers and below is a 75 meters deep valley.  It is an architectural wonder.  The straight pillars that you see are not the support of  the temple.  The actual supports are the cross beams that was inserted into the side of the mountain.  It has survived with minimum erosion for so many years is due to its positioned in a natural crevice which gets minimal exposure to sunlight, wind, and rain.  It is said that it conforms to the Taoist theory of no noises.  It is shield from all noises by nature.

Legend has it that the reason for building a hanging monastery was because this mountain was mainly a Taoist cultivation ground.  But monk  Liao Ran (了然), who also had been cultivating here wanted to build a Buddhist monastery.  Fearing that the Taoist would oppose his Buddhist temple, he built it single handily off the cliff and also included the monastery a temple dedicate to Sakyamuni Buddha,  Laozi, and Confucius.

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See to crossbeam underneath.  It is the real support of the monastery

It is small but concise including everything that a large monastery would have.  If you are venturous enough to go up to have a closer look, be sure to watch your head while going up and down the stairs.  It feels like on a boat without the waves.

 

Yungang Grottoes (雲岡石窟)

On the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain of Datong is Yungang Grottoes.  For 1 kilometer along the mountain were 53 caves and about 51,000 sandstone statues.  The Grottoes were started around 450 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-354).  The sculptures were heavily influenced by the Indian Buddhist art incorporated with the Chinese culture and the social features of that time. Not all caves were open to the public.  While we were there, a number of caves were closed for restorations.

The entrance park designed in accordance to the artwork found on the cave walls of Yungang Grottoes.

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A typical architect of the Wei Dynasty

 

 

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Sandstone caves.  These are either windows or entrance way.  Many served as temples for cultivation.

This is cave #20.  Although this giant Sakyamuni Buddha is exposed outside for all to see, it was once inside a cave when it was first built like the other caves with windows and entrance way.   Due to the window opening damaged the structure’s support stone over the doorway, the front of the cave collapsed shortly after it was built.  But, there is always a silver lining to this calamity, this Giant White Buddha exposed became the main feature of Yungang Grottoes.

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The big Sakyamuni Buddha, a perfect person.  One can see the influence of Indian Buddhist art here. Notice the intricate carvings behind the Buddha.

Cave 1 and 2, which are dual caves in stupa form.  In the middle of the Cave #1 is the stupa like column of 5.75 meters in height.

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square stupa like a pillar of cave #1

 

Around the cave were more carvings depicting the Buddha stories and other Buddhas.

Interconnected cave #2 also has a square stupa like column support of approximately 6 meters high.

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square stupa like a pillar in cave #2

Surrounding it were also more Buddha stories and Buddha carvings.

One can see these art relics are heavily eroded by nature.  Yungang Grottoes are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001.

Cave #3 is the largest cave of Yungang Grottoes.  It is an unfinished cave which is lucky for us because it left indications of how they were made from the top first then continue down the cave.

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Main Buddha,  Amitabha Buddha

Cave #5  and #6  are another dual cave and are one of the richest.  The cave entrance is covered with eaves which made it look like a temple from the outside.  We were told that originally, every cave entrance has these eaves built extended from the cave.  This one was reconstructed during the Qing Dynasty.

 

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Temple-like eaves extended from the front of the Dual Cave #5 and #6

Inside the cave are covered with painted carvings.  In the center is a large column reaching 15 meters high into the ceiling.  Top of the caves were carvings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and celestial beings.  On the column were carved with stories of the life of Buddha Sakyamuni.  Around the bottom portion of the wall were carved with stories from the scriptures.  The painting was done many times over by each Dynasty so it would be hard to identify the original color scheme.

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The upper level of the center column against the backdrop of the walls of carvings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and celestial beings.

The lower level of the column depicting the life of Buddha Sakyamuni.

One needs to spend a lot more time to study these cave carvings.  These are only a minute few just to tickle your interest.

We can see from the outside through the window of Cave #18

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Outside of Cave #19

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You can see what a herculean effort would be required to maintain and restore these treasured relics.

Nine Dragon Screen of Datong

Nine Dragon Screen

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This glazed screen is the largest and oldest of its kind in China.  It was built 600 years ago by the thirteenth son of the first Ming Emperor (1368-1644).  It is made of 426 glazed tiles.  Its length is 45.5 meters and height is 8 meters and 2.02 meters thick .  The strong agility of the Dragons are dynamic.  It shows that it can move waves,  command wind and control rain.  This is a display of power through art.

Datong Huayan Monastery (大同華嚴寺)

Huayan Monastery

In the ancient city of Datong, Shanxi is the Huayan Monastery.  It was built during  the Liao Dynasty (1038) covering an area of 66,000 square meters.  Due to partial destruction during the later years of Liao Dynasty, it was rebuilt during the Jin and Yuan Dynasties.  Further repairs were made in the Ming Dynasty and also at the same time separated to an upper section and lower section according to their respective ground level.  It is during the repairs done in Qing Dynasty that the Monastery  was scaled down.

According to records the Huayan Sect of Buddhism was exceptionally popular during the Liao Dynasty.  The emperor Daozong wrote 10 volumes on Buddhism and carved the Khitan  scriptures into 579 sets. They were placed in the Bhagavad (referring to Sakyamuni Buddha) Hall.

 

Bhagavad Sutra Hall is a typical architect of Liao Dynasty stylish cubicles for holding scriptures built in 1038.  It also houses 31 sculptures of Liao Dynasty.  The three main statues represents the past, present and future Buddhas.

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Sakyamuni Buddha, represent the present Buddha. Notice the bright colors shining through the dusts of all those years.  Statues were more relaxed and lifelike.
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Future Buddha represented by Maitreya Buddha.  All statues are covered with thick dust which had become part of the statue.  No right way has been found to remove the dust without damaging the original paints that covered the statues.
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Dipamkara Buddha represent the past Buddha.  Notice all statues were placed on Lotus pedestals.

Rarely, statues were made with smiles exposing teeth.  Here is one of smiling Bodhisattva, “Venus of the East”.  Notice the carving of the flow of the clothes and body curves are quite exquisite.

Arhat Hall

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depicting different characters of individuality which is still not perfect yet.
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A great way to represent  the artistic value of these statues

The Main Hall shows a typical Liao architectural building.  It was first build in 1062 and later rebuilt in 1142 by Jin Dynasty.

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This is the Main Hall.  Typical Liao Roof top.
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Notice the one of the right.  It was buid during Jin Dynasty.  It depicted one of the Dragon’s nine sons who loves to swallow fire.  It was believed that placing him on the roof top could prevent fire. 

Inside the Main Hall is the Buddhas of the five directions.  They are 3.1 meters tall and pedestals are 2.9 meters.  They were built during 1426 to 1435 during the Ming Dynasty

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Buddhas of the Five Directions.  The ceiling has 1012 tiles. Every one is of different designs of symbols of auspiciousness.  Tiles were of Ming Dynasty but coloring and the gold inlays were finished in the Qing Dynasty.
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Amoghasiddhi Buddha of the North
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Amitabha of the Western Paradise
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Vairocana Buddha of the center
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Akshobhya Buddha of the East
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Ratnasambhava Buddha of the South

Lined against the wall on both sides are statues of 20 celestial beings of heaven.

The Huayan Pagoda is also made of only wood. No metal nails nor any cement.  It stood 43 meters high only second tallest to the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County.

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The square wooden pagoda 

Under the Huayan Pagoda is a bronze hall constructed with 100 tons of bronze.  It contains the consecrated remnants of the eminent monk Hui Ming, of Huayan during the Yuan Dynasty.  Buddhas of four directions and many small carvings of Buddhas on the walls is the other reason for naming it the Underground Bronze Hall of Thousands of Buddhas.

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the Underground Bronze Hall

 

The Wood Pagoda of Ying County, Shanxi

The  Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple (佛宮寺釋迦塔)

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Observe the 2nd level.  It is a little tilted, but still standing strong

This wooden pagoda was built by Liao Emperor Daozong(遼道宗耶律洪基)  in around 1056 at his grandmother’s home town.  The pagoda sits on stone platform of 13 ft. and the pagoda itself is 207 ft tall.  Add together is 220 ft tall.  It is the oldest completely wooden pagoda in China, without even a nail, standing on its own for million years.  It has survived at least 7 earthquakes.  This octagonal pagoda appears to have 5 levels but it actually have 9 levels because hidden from outside view are four mezzanine levels.   Its structure is an architecture wonder worth further studies.

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A closer look at the eaves shows how it spread the weight of the beams.
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This plaque on the third level, carved “The Pagoda of Sakyamuni” was carved in Jin Dynasty (1194) to date about 800 years old.

Many Buddha statues are in each level of the pagoda.  On the first floor, of course, is Buddha Sakyamuni sitting of the lotus.  The statue is 11 meters tall.

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Legend has it that there used to be 8 local devils who caused havoc here.  Buddha Sakyamuni transformed himself into a handsome scholar who bet the 8 devils that they could not lift him up.  The devils tried but was forever stranded under his lotus pedestal.

For the 20 centuries the Pagoda stands, it only required 10 minor repairs, but the last repair done in 1974 was more extensive than the previous due to the 200  more rounds of ammunition fired by the Japanese soldiers into the pagoda during the second Sino-Japanese War.  However, during this repair, ancient Liao’s Tripitaka, block printing and hand written scripts were found along with a Buddha tooth and other ancient relics.

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Block printing of the Liao Dynasty  in the year 1003

 

A Section of the Great Wall in Guangwu(廣武)

The Ruins of the Great Wall

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A panoramic view from the foot of the Great Wall looking down the north side towards the nomads territory in ancient times

The Great Wall scatters in the northern region of Shanxi.  They were built as an important military outpost to prevent the nomads from the north from invading China in the south.  During the Waring States (475-221 BC), each kingdom built its own section of the wall until Qin Dynasty, it gets connected as a single  Great Wall.  further constructions and restorations made to the Great Wall were by all the subsequent dynasties that follows til finally its use became obsolete during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  Due to its disuse, its been neglected.  The Wall has fallen by natural erosion and from World War II during the Japanese invasion.  The province of Shanxi is trying to preserve parts that is still relative standing but the project is massive.  We visited the Guangwu section of the Great Wall which showed the part of the wall that has not been recently repaired, revealing how it was originally built.

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the foot of the wall at Guangwu Section
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The view from below .  One can see far away above the mountain a section of the Great Wall
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looking down from the foot of the Great Wall at Guangwu Section.

One can see the original building materials of the time.  It does not consist any metals, steels or any cement.  Only the local yellow mud grass and grains for the inner wall which they said were first steamed so it won’t decay or invade by insects.   The it was sealed with outer wall of stone and mud bricks also steamed before applied.  This section of the Great Wall is not far from Yanmenguan (雁門關).  Guangwu section is where the once famous Moon Gate stands but unfortunately it collapsed on the night of  Oct. 3rd, 2016.

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This wall will reach ultimately to Beijing and each post would send fire message if an invasion occurred.