out wandering

April 5th, 2008

So I did it, I went out and wandered round a bit.

Well, first I took bus 34 round to the east gate of the Temple of Heaven, then the subway Line 5 up to Dongdan, then transferred to an incredibly crowded Line 1 and rode that out to Nanlishi Lu. From there I wandered in a vaguely southwestwards direction, looking for 白云观/Baiyunguan. Found it, too.

For a moment, though, I thought I’d found a different temple. There were two Buddhist monks sitting on a bench just inside the gate. Buddhists look completely different. Daoists don’t shave either their heads or faces. These two guys were definitely Buddhist. Still, Tianningsi is only a short distance to the south.

I took a rather zig-zaggy route from the subway through what was mostly older apartment blocks- about 50-odd years old, by the looks- but with a few newer buildings sprinkled among them. It was nice, pleasant, it had the comfortable feel of an established neighbourhood. I eventually popped out into a park along the north bank of the canal that runs behind Baiyunguan and walked through that to Baiyun Lu, across the canal, past the construction site that neighbours Baiyunguan, and up to the front gate of the temple. I checked the time, and decided it’d probably be best to find a restaurant and get some lunch first, it being just after midday.

After lunch I went back to Baiyunguan and wandered through the temple.

There, finally, I’ve done it. In all these years in China I’ve been to churches both Protestant and Catholic, I’ve been to Buddhist temples, I’ve even poked around a mosque or two- although of course I haven’t gone into the inner sanctum- but up until today I’d never set foot inside a Taoist temple. It’s silly, really, considering when I lived in Changsha I walked past the Taoist temple on Yuelushan on a very regular basis, and yet never went inside. And all these years I’ve been in Beijing, Baiyunguan has been sitting there, and I’ve been meaning to visit, but I never got around to it. Until today.

Well, actually, I did go there once before, several years ago, but it was closed. For some reason I didn’t get back there until today.

I was surprised to see the narrow lane I remember from several years ago had become a fair bit wider, and was paved with some quite decent, and new, looking paving stones, and there was plenty of space for cars to park. And tour buses. Tour buses are never a good sign, and there were several parked outside. Nevertheless, I went looking for the ticket office, and discovered that it was one of those cheap-looking aluminium kiosks that are supposedly for security guards to sit in and… I dunno, guard stuff. And it had those still grills you roll down over shop doors stuck on each side. Not a good look. Still, they sold me a ticket which, at ten yuan, was quite reasonably priced, I thought. I mean, it could be cheaper, but then again, there were tour buses outside.

I was pleasantly surprised. Despite the tour buses lined up outside, I didn’t see any tour groups at all. In fact, for the longest time it looked like I was the only tourist there. Everybody else either worked there or had come to worship, which is good, because too many of the famous temples have more the air of a tourist circus than a place of worship about them, which, regardless of whether you believe or not, is just plain wrong.

What’s worst, though, are those temples which are little more than museums. Jinci and the Twin Pagoda temples in Taiyuan were like that, and they were cold and depressing.

But no, Baiyunguan felt like just a regular temple used mostly by worshippers. No tourist circus, no cold, dead museum. It was quiet, calm, peaceful, and warm and inviting, just the way such a place should be.

Of course, Baiyunguan isn’t just a regular Taoist temple. It’s also the headquarters of the China Taoist Association, the China Taoism Institute and Taoist Culture Research Institute, etc, etc… So it’s a pretty important place. And that means that the temple is very well looked after, and not just by “museum staff”, but by people who have an interest in seeing it flourish. The buildings, the art work, the decoration, the statues, the carvings, the furniture, are all magnificent, beautiful. You could easily spend hours absorbed in the beauty of the place.

The temple management have also taken great pains to make visiting the temple an educational experience- at least for those who can read Chinese. Apart from the usual bilingual signs giving a brief introduction to each building and altar (and the English wasn’t perfect, but not too bad), there were posters up explaining the relationship of Taoism to art, music, history, medicine, and many other aspects of Chinese culture, and even some posters of famous people from throughout history commenting on Taoism. Sima Tan, Hegel, Heidegger, Mao Zedong, Jiang Zemin and many, many others were quoted.

And actually, I’m surprised by how old Baiyunguan is. According to the brief introduction on the back of the gate ticket, it was founded as “Tianchangguan” in the 29th year of the Emperor Kaiyuan of the Tang Dynasty- 741 AD, in other words. This site, though, dates it back to Kaiyuan’s 10th year, or AD 722. I think I’ll trust the China Taoist Association over some Hong Kong organisation. I mean, they live in Baiyunguan, after all.

And it was interesting wandering around the temple, although I think I should’ve slowed down and taken more advantage of the educational opportunities it offered. Anyway, I can always go back if the fancy takes me.

Anyway, then I wandered back up to the Nanlishilu subway station, got back on the absurdly crowded Line 1, and rode the train over to Dawang Lu. I did a little necessary shopping, then grabbed a coffee in O’Farrells. Shouldn’t have done that, I don’t drink coffee that much anymore, and it hit me a bit hard. But then came the day’s second mission: Dongjiao Market.

See, a couple of weeks ago lzh stopped in Dongjiao Market for some malatang on the way home from work. While she was there, she overheard a snippet of conversation about finding a new place to work from, as if the market were in some kind of danger. Since then I’ve been past three times and seen big notices up at the market gates, but each time I’ve been stuck on a bus and haven’t been able to find out what the deal is. Then a few days ago lzh got home and said something about the market closing down and all the vendors leaving. So today, after my coffee, I walked south from Soho, across the Tonghui canal, and past the market.

Indeed, it was closed, or at least, the western half was. The market was still going, just as busy as always, and in no sign of any danger over on the eastern side of the road. But the western half was closed, all the vendors were gone, all the stalls and shops were shut and firmly locked up. No sign of any demolition, though. In fact, the only sign of any work being done in the western half of the market was three cement trucks driving out to the back of it.

Wait…. cement trucks? Hmmm…..

Unfortunately, the notices that had been posted at the gate had all been taken down. And I’ve seen nothing about Dongjiao Market in the news- although that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any reports. So I still have no idea what’s going on there. So far, though, there’s no sign of it being torn down, which is good.

I’ve always wondered, though, no, more worried about how long Dongjiao Market would last. With the eastern end of the CBD- Soho, Blue Castle, Huamao, etc- immediately to the north, and all those fancy developments along Xidawang Lu from Baiziwan south almost as far as Pingleyuan, the Dongjiao Market and the few remaining “rough” areas at Baiziwan look like prime targets for developers. I’m just hoping that the canal, East Railway Station and its associated railway lines and railyards and the long-distance bus station are enough to keep the market safe.

So, yes, I should’ve been studying for the HSK, but I needed to get out and wander around, and, whether it was well spent or not, it was a good day.

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