The Chinese Take Their Calligraphy Very Seriously

Herein lies the basics of A) actual knowledge vs. B) crap you pick up while only glancing at travel sites.

In communicating our plans prior to arrival and looking for tour ideas, I had sent our guide, David, a terse message, “Would like to see Hutong and have a cultural experience.” Looking back – and knowing what I now know, the absurdity of the message is staggering. In a way, I’m basically saying, “Hey, we’d like to see a group of houses and do stuff.” My hometown peeps would totally understand if I were a tour guide and given the same instructions by foreign visitors, I would take them to a trailer park and then give them a lesson how to ride a rodeo bull.


Narrow alley in a hutong

Hutongs are a grouping (neighborhood) of traditional siheyuan – houses in a common block with an outer wall and an inner courtyard. Hutongs are characterized by narrow streets or alleys and are commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighborhoods.


Siheyuan dates back as early as the Western Zhou period and has a history of over 2,000 years. They exhibit outstanding and fundamental characteristics of Chinese architecture and serve as a cultural symbol of Beijing and a window into its old ways of life.


Gate to a siheyuan



Steps to a siheyuan gate. The more steps the more esteemed the family residing there.

Modern Beijing’s population boom has made housing one of city’s biggest challenges. Siheyuan today are typically used as housing complexes, hosting multiple families, with courtyards being developed to provide extra living space. The living conditions in many siheyuan are quite poor, with very few having private toilets. In the 1990s, systematic demolition of old urban buildings took place in Beijing under rapid economic development. Many siheyuan are being torn down to address the problem of overcrowding, and have been replaced by modern apartment blocks.



Each hutong has a name. Some have had only one name since their creation, while others have had several throughout their history.




Museum in a hutong dedicated to the traditional Chinese drink, baijiu (it’s similar to vodka).


Many hutongs were named after their location, or a local landmark or business, such as: City gates, such as Inner Xizhimen Hutong, indicating this hutong is located in the “Xizhimen Nei”, or “Xizhimen Within”, neighborhood, which is on the city side of Xizhimen Gate, a gate on the city wall.


Hutong equivalent to Home Depot. Storefront for building materials.

Markets and businesses, such as Yangshi Hutong (Yangshi literally means sheep market), or Yizi Hutong (a local term for soap is yizi)


Temples, such as Guanyinsi Hutong (Guanyinsi is the Kuan-yin Temple)

Local features, such as Liushu Hutong (Liushu means willow), which was originally named “Liushujing Hutong”, literally “Willow Tree Well Hutong”, after a local well.


Cars parked in the narrow streets usually cover their wheels to protect from dogs urinating on them

Some hutongs were named after people, such as Mengduan Hutong (named after Meng Duan, a mayor of Beijing in the Ming Dynasty whose residence was in this hutong).


Others were given an auspicious name, with words with generic positive attributes, such as Xiqing Hutong (Xiqing means happy)

Since the mid-20th century, a large number of Beijing hutongs were demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, however, many hutongs have been designated as protected, in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. Hutongs were first established in the Yuan dynasty (1206–1341) and then expanded in the Ming (1368–1628) and Qing (1644–1908) dynasties.


Another gate. Banners can indicate important events like wedding announcements or funerals.

Today, as in the past, hutongs are home to celebrities, business owners, and officials.



Taxi driver sleeping in his cab




Courtyard to siheyuan we visited

One of the things we didn’t quite understand was how much calligraphy was cherished. As Westerners, we’re used to seeing fancy writing – even seeing writing as an art form, but not to the level that is respected within China. It is considered a hugely popular traditional art and many calligraphers are well-known celebrities.




Our instructor explaining the significance of each tool

We were fortunate to have arraigned a family calligraphy lesson by a renowned artist whose extended family of brothers and sisters resided in a siheyuan within the hutong we were visiting. Our guide explained the significance of this particular siheyuan, how the number of steps (five) to the main gate gave credence to the importance of the family, and how this particular siheyuan had been within the same family for several hundred years.


We first started by sitting around a small coffee table while our teacher prepared. His sister told us stories for their family and showed black and white pictures from when they were children.


We then sat at a larger table (like a dining table) and Mr. Zhang came out with a quick introduction. He showed us several traditional tools – fine rice paper, ink stones, brushes and, through translation, explained the relative histories and significance of each.

On to practice.

Each of us was given practice papers in which to mimic our instructor’s strokes. Every few minutes he would peer at our papers, offer encouragement and make slight adjustments. I dearly wanted to impress him and worked hard at my lines. He did praise my work a few times, but I sincerely think it was because I was the patriarch of the group and wanted me to save face. Bailey was later encouraged to continue her studies.


Mr. Zhang showing us his abilities

At the end of the lesson, Mr. Zhang offered to draw some souvenirs. I was grateful, because I wanted this to happen, but wasn’t sure how to ask for fear of seeming disrespectful of his time and talents. I mean, if you had met Andy Warhol, would you ask him to quickly draw a soup can? Regardless, he did so and they’re wonderful additions to our house and made great gifts.


I’m glad we took the lesson seriously and our nervous laughter at being unable to make semi-coherent symbols didn’t seem disrespectful. But still, yet, we didn’t quite understand the deep respect that calligraphy draws from the Chinese people.

Later that night, we had David arrange for us to see a Chinese acrobatic performance. When the show started, an announcer came out and kicked things off…pretty normal. But rather than a quick set of words, he talked for several minutes. Not understanding anything, we waited. And waited. And then after seemingly 10 minutes of the announcer talking with very little response from the audience (say, if he was a comedian to warm up the crowd), four female assistants came out, carrying two long, blank banners. A table was set up and the banners laid out on top of it. Then a man was announced to the crowd and there was some applause. A few more minutes of talking, the announcer seemed to be asking for volunteers, with several people rushing up to the stage, all gathered around the table. Several other people were being allowed to go backstage. It was all very confusing.


Calligraphy demonstration at a show


Later, when we re-told the story to David, he told us that the man on the stage was a well-known calligrapher and the people brought up (and those into the back) were allowed to meet him and get a personalized phrase sent home with them.

What struck us was that it seemed to be so out of place by our standards. To think of an equivalent experience is difficult. The show was seemingly a very different set of audience interest (think of the kinds of acrobatics you see at a circus or Cirque de Soleil show) and yet a fair number of people were very excited to be up on stage and take pictures of the artist doing his work (he wrote on the two banners).

Luckily, we didn’t show any disrespect to either Mr. Zhang nor our guide, only due to our naivety.




Beijing Summer Palace



This pavilion is near the visitor’s entrance. Inside are dozens of people signing patriotic songs along with a small band and a song leader.


The Summer Palace is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens, and palaces in Beijing, China. The two most notable features are Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake.


17 arch bridge connection Nanhu Island

Longevity Hill

Longevity Hill is about 200 feet high and has many buildings positioned in sequence. The front hill is studded with halls and pavilions, and the back hill is mostly forested paths. The central Kunming Lake, covering 540 acres, was entirely man-made and the excavated soil was used to build Longevity Hill.

Family with David, our tour guide, near the entrance. In the background is Longevity Hill

The Long Corridor

The Long Corridor stretches from the Hall of Joy and Longevity in the east to Shizhang Pavilion in the west. The entire corridor is 728 meters long and contains artistic decorations, including paintings of famous places in China, and scenes from Chinese mythology and folktale

Failed the capture the “typical” picture of the Long Corridor, with the end of the corridor vanishing into a horizon point. Instead, I got a dude wiping his nose.



Building in front of Longevity Hill, now a converted restaurant specializing in Imperial Cuisine.


Arched bridge over lily pond in front of Longevity Hill



Tower of Buddhist Incense


Kinda silly, but I failed to get a picture of this after I trudged up the hill to see it


Located right in the center of the front hill of Longevity Mountain. The tower was originally meant to be a nine-storey Buddhist pagoda built to resemble the Yellow Crane Tower. The Qianlong Emperor ordered the construction to be stopped just after the eighth story was built. The tower was built on a 20-metre-tall stone base, measures three stories and 41 meters in height, and is supported by eight ironwood pillars. Empress Dowager Cixi visited the tower to offer incense and pray.

Sea of Wisdom

Located on the peak of Longevity Hill. It was built from colored glass and houses over 1,000 statues of Buddhist figures. It was partially damaged during the Cultural Revolution.

Stone Boat

I like to call this one: The Descent

The Stone Boat is 96 meters long. The original wooden boat was burnt in 1860 and has been replaced with a marble copy with western style paddle wheels.  Anyways, there was a boat/building and we avoided a family meltdown with a well-situationed hotdog stand.

Back path of Longetivity Hill
Building surrounded by lily pond
Misc buildings along back path of the Hill
Fancy covered bridge near barge boathouses
Royal boathouses for barges
Decorated peifang
Rocks mined from lake beds
Golden Arch in which when the Empress was sleeping, a lantern was hung to indicate all should do their business quietly
Interesting-shaped window along the Long Corridor
Aiden by a building
Detail of window
Family in with the Hill in the background
Single blooming lily in pond
Rounded gate door
Fire vent built into building

It’s “The Ming Tombs” Not “Ming’s Tomb”, Dummy

If you only casually collect tourist ideas, they tend to run together. So, when you ask your guide about seeing the Great Wall and then the terra cotta warriors, you’re saying something along the lines of “I’d like to see Memorial Stadium and then Chimney Rock, and then get some lunch”. So, when I had asked our guide to see “Ming’s Tomb”, thinking there was this one guy, Ming, and he had a tomb, hopefully with some cool statues that look way better than the frontage of a P.F. Chang’s. David, our guide, would re-assert about the Ming Tombs (plural) and then ask which one we wanted to see. I would dumbly shrug and mumble, “Whatever you think would be the best to see.” Admittedly, I was lost in the significance, which probably irked him that I was reducing a sizeable and meaningful chunk of history down to “whatever looks good on Instagram.” To add, we had just taken that fairly significant hike up and down a mountain to the Great Wall that morning and were way past our FitBit daily steps.

The Ming Tombs are 13 tombs in Ming Dynasty where 13 out of 16 emperors of Ming Dynasty were buried successively there. Of all the 13 Ming Tombs, at present only 3 Ming Tombs are open to the public, namely Dingling, Changling and Zhaoling ( “ling” literally means “tomb” in Chinese).

The Yongle emperor’s mausoleum occupies the largest area of all Ming tombs in the Tianshou Mountains north of Beijing. It is equipped with a double entry gate and most of the typical buildings used in Ming and Qing tombs.

The tomb has not been re-opened or excavated since he was entombed and has presumably not been robbed. Despite what you sometimes may feel about the Chinese government callously handling historical sites, they seem to be very cautious about excavating many of these sites until they feel they can properly do so without significant damage to whatever artifacts may still be present.

The common Sacred Way for all Ming tombs at Mt. Tianshou naturally leads directly to Zhu Di’s own tomb since he founded the entire mausoleum area.

The layout above ground follows his father’s mausoleum (Xiaoling) in Nanjing. South to north, the structures along the main axis are the front gate, Ling’en Gate, Ling’en Hall, the gate to the burial area, Lingxing Gate, the five ceremonial vessels, the “Square City” with the memorial tower (Minglou) on top, and finally the earth mound (“Precious Mound”).

The underground chambers were completed by 1411 but the above-ground structures were only finalized in 1418, seven years later.

Only three of the mausoleums around Mt.Tianshou have an extra front gate to the tomb site, Yongling, Dingling and Changling. This front gate has three openings and is covered by a single-eaved roof with yellow glazed tiles (see photo). The center gate -for the exclusive use of the Emperor and the Empress- is taller than its sisters on each side.

Ling’en Men – Gate of Eminent Favor

Ling’en Men – Gate of Eminent Favor. The center path is smooth and slightly raised and was only meant for the Emporer to tread upon.

This is the main entrance of the ceremonial area of the mausoleum. It is also nicknamed the “blessing and grace” gate carrying the meaning of showing veneration to the deceased and in return receiving thanksgiving and blessing from Heaven to the mere mortals.

The gate was built in 1427 and has two horse mounting steles in front. The doors and pillars are kept in bright vermilion lacquer and the other woodwork is painted in the traditional green and blue colors with some gold colored accentuation. A plaque bearing its name is suspended inside the gate.

The gate is five rooms wide (about 31.44 meters) and two rooms deep (about 14.37 meters) and is surrounded by a white marble balustrade with three flights of stone. It is covered with a single-eaved gable roof covered with yellow glazed tiles.

Silk burning oven


Silk burning oven


Inside the gate and on both sides of the central Sacred Way are the eastern and western sacrificial burners. These are small ovens decorated with green and yellow glazed tiles. They were used to burn silk and symbolic paper money – a custom that has survived almost unaltered at most Asian graveyards all the way till today.


These traditional silk burning ovens -Shenbo ovens- have been fully restored and stand glistening in the sun fully covered in yellow ceramic tiles. They are larger than those in other Ming mausoleums in Shisanling.

The single-eaved structure stands on a base with Buddha carvings.

Ling’en Hall – Hall of Eminent Favor


Ling’en Hall, viewed from the Memorial Hall


Ling’en Hall is by far the most magnificent and impressive above-ground construction of all the Ming tombs. Also called the “Offerings Hall” memorial tablets with the names of the tomb occupants were kept here in the Ming dynasty. Sacrificial ceremonies were held inside the hall on the anniversaries of the deceased.

This large structure covers an area of 4,400 square meters. The main hall sits on a triple level balustrade of beautiful, white marble. Three flights of stone lead to the plateau of the hall itself.


Supported trees line the outside of the Hall


The lower Danbi stone has two horses between the mountain ranges. Horses were not commonly used in the later Ming Danbi stones.

The center stairway is wider than the side ones and has in the middle of each level a Danbi stone block with engraved dragons and mountain tops.

Stone ediface architecture outside of Hall

The hall is a dazzling nine rooms wide and three rooms deep. One has to go to The Forbidden City to find larger Ming halls. The building is covered by a double-eaved hip and gable roof with yellow glazed tiles.

The inside of the hall is exquisite and unique. The entire structure rests on 60 large columns of precious nanmu wood, each one made out of a single tree trunk and 12.6 meters high. The four innermost columns are up to 1.12 meters in diameter! The columns are left in their natural state and not covered with the traditional vermilion colored lacquer.


Interior ceiling of the hall


Also, the beams and other interior woodwork are made of nanmu wood. This is, in fact, the largest extant Chinese historic building made of nanmu wood. The ceiling is gorgeously decorated with squares kept in rich green and golden colors.

In the center of the huge hall is an over-sized statue of Zhu Di -the Yongle Emperor- sitting on his imperial throne.

Lingxing Gate – The Double Pillar Gate

Lingxing Gate with the Memorial Hall in the background

Also known as the “Double Pillar Gate” this particular structure symbolizes the importance of the tomb occupant. It has a hipped roof carried by an intricate composition of a number of interlocking wooden pieces. It is erected across the central spirited Sacred Way of the mausoleum.

The idea of this structure stems all the way from the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 25). Its purpose is to solicit blessing from the Lingxing Star for a good harvest.

But Lingxingmen served another higher purpose. It was believed that evil spirits were only able to travel in straight lines. By placing Lingxingmen across the all-important center spirit axis of the mausoleum the evil spirits would be blocked and prevented from reaching the tomb mound and burial chamber.

Memorial Tower

The last structure in front of the tomb mound is the so-called “Square City”. It is a large, tall stone covered platform on top of which sits a tower called Minglou -or “Memorial Tower”.

The tower has an opening from all four sides although now the eastern and western accesses have been walled up. In the center of the building is a memorial stone tablet inscribed with “Tomb of Emperor Cheng Zu of the Great Ming”. The characters are huge, each one some 33 centimeters square.

Memorial Stone Tablet

steleThe characters read “Cheng Zu Wen Di Zhi Ling Mu”. “Chengzu” is Zhu Di’s temple name; his posthumous title was “Emperor Wen”. Thus the inscription reads “Chengzu, Emperor Wen’s tomb”.

A hipped and gabled double-eaved roof with yellow glazed tiles cover the tower. Under the highest eave at the southern side is a plaque inscribed with the name of the tomb -“Changling”.


Five Thousand Miles of the Great Wall and All I Got Were Some Pics

Ok well, we really didn’t travel thousands of the miles along the wall or even more than a handful, but what we did see was amazing.

The day started off with an early van ride out of the city. Along the drive our guide, David, would pepper us with facts about Beijing…about how all the buses now use natural gas and how, within just two decades nearly the entire population of Beijing switched from mostly bicycles to cars and buses, and look! Do you see that digital sign? The “three” and the “six” means you can’t drive today if your license plate ends with either of those numbers! Also, there was a lot in there about nut and fruit tree planting, which I kinda didn’t get. All of this narrated in a voice meant to be carried to the very back of the van or another car – on the other side of the road. With its windows closed.

Breakfast items on display


Since this was our first actual day in Beijing, we were very excited to try an authentic breakfast and David delivered. About sixty kilometers outside of the city we stopped at a small town and were ushered into a small restaurant. We figured they didn’t get many foreigners there since just about everybody stopped and stared at us. We were quickly ushered into a back room. We couldn’t yet tell if this was the VIP or Elephant Man treatment.

Fried and stuffed bread, dumplings, porridge

David kept bringing back several different kinds of choices: Long, airy fried bread meant to be dipped in sugar crystals, thick-skinned dumplings with pork and spices or eggs and spinach, and rice porridge. I went up to the front to see what else might be on the menu and there were two large containers with different kinds of salted, spiced cabbage. It was very filling and tasty.


First close look at the wall. Broken open to make way for a road.

We loaded up and drove another 20 minutes to a small hamlet made up of a few grouped buildings. One of them a convenience store where we loaded up on bottled water. It was also our first real glimpse of the wall. In order to make way,  the road’s construction unceremoniously blasted an enormous whole in the wall.





Houses had no running water, hence an outhouse

We drove to another small village comprised mostly of former barracks for the soldiers who originally manned the wall’s towers. The barracks have long-since been converted to housing and that’s where David’s aunt and uncle lived. Their housing unit consisted of two buildings behind an exterior wall. One building was being used for storage and the other was their house. No running water and only and an outhouse for a restroom.


We spent a few moments speaking with David’s relatives. They were baffled why we would travel so far to see the wall, or to Beijing for that matter. For them, both had always been there and was something relatively unspectacular. The wall was simply a part of the scenery. And Beijing, well, it was full of too many people moving much too quickly. In all of their 70 years, despite being a mere 100 km away, they had never visited.

We toured around at other buildings. An investor friend of David’s had bought and was fixing up several of the barracks hoping to make them a tourist destination.

We set off for the trail with David continuing to extoll various facts to us…nothing you could really use for Trivial Pursuit dominance…just things about the chestnut groves we were walking through.


View of the wall from the trail. In the forground are chestnut trees
A gravesite along the trail

As the trail began to go more upward, there was less talk and more grim gazing at the set of feet before you. When we asked David how much longer, it was “forty minutes”, which became the inside joke for the rest of the trip. We seemed to be “forty minutes” from everywhere.


Moments before there was mass mutiny, the trail deposited us on the wall. Finally, on flat(ter) land, we caught our breath and enjoyed the views of both the surrounding mountains and the trail of the wall going in each direction.



Unlike many of the typical tourist pictures showing pristine wall, this part was pretty “rustic”. Volunteer trees and shrubs had taken thick footholds in top part of the wall. We walked for several hundred meters until we came upon a large tower where the wall took a 90-degree turn. Between the next tower, the wall followed the crest line between two mountains but dipped at about a 30% angle both ways.


Walking down was fairly precarious, necessitating us to hold on shrubs or parts of the ramparts as the flat stones were smooth and slippery.

Holding on to the wall to make the trip down


We made it to the next tower, climbed on top and took in the views. It was a spectacular site situated high above a dam.









Gwangalli Beach, Igidae Park


Gwangalli Beach is one of several beaches in Busan. Located west of Haeundae Beach, it sits inside a cove spanned by the Gwangan Bridge over a length of 1.4 km in a curved in a half-moon shape with fine sand. Nearby are several restaurants, coffee shops, and nightclubs.

The beach is near the Busan Yachting Center used for the sailing events of the 1988 Summer Olympics.


Eli and a panorama of the beach with Gwangen Bridge
Nearby marina
Bailey had posted this photo to Instagram with the caption “Not all who wander are lost”. I would have said if I was in front leading then we were definitely lost
A little dark, but I’ll take this memory all day long, Igidae National Park with Gwangan Bridge in the background
Igidae Park has a coastal walkway with scenic views.
Sure, her eyes are closed, but that smile! A proud dad couldn’t possibly leave this photo out.



Collin on one of the many walkway bridges on the coastal hike in Igidae National Park


Gamcheon Cultural Village

gamcheon_mapGamcheon-dong (aka Gamcheon Culture Villiage) is a subdivision of Saha-gu district in central-west Busan, South Korea. The area is known for its steep streets, twisting alleys, and brightly painted houses, which have been restored and enhanced in recent years to attract tourism. Some painted street murals and craft boutiques have also sprung up in the area. Previously one of the city’s poorer shanty areas, government money was projected into Gamcheon-dong in 2009 to encourage an artistic vibe with the “Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan project”. Subsequently the area has won several regional awards including the 2012 UN-HABITAT Asian Townscape Award and a cultural excellence award from Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Kimchi jars on Gamcheon rooftops was a common sight



Jagalchi Fish Market (or Why I’m Too Stiff To Be Korean)


Vendors drying fish greeted us at the entrance of Busan’s Jagalchi Fish Market

Jagalchi Market, located on the shoreside road in Busan’s Jung-gu, is Korea’s largest seafood market, selling both live and dried fish. After the Korean War the market solidified itself as a fish market.



Looks like the Pirates of the Caribean franchise needs a new krakken

This market represents Busan and is famous throughout the country. If you visit you can eat fresh raw fish right at the market. One of the iconic things you see on food travel shows or Youtube channels is getting a live octopus, having it cut up and eaten while still moving (replete with a tendril half-in, half-out of your mouth). It’s like the G-rated version of eating a tequila worm.


So, we were going to do this as a Family Fear Factor thing, but it was a little pricey and we were having cash-letting fatigue and decided that paying that much for a photo op wasn’t worth it. Looks like you’ll have to watch Andrew Zimmern instead!

jagalchi_drying_fish3There are literally dozens of vendors selling very similar wares. We had originally thought we could buy some fresh fish and take it to a nearby restaurant to have it prepared. Along with the vendors, there are dozens of restaurants doing that anyway, making the process of picking out your food somewhat superfluous.


kelp, seaweed vendor

We chose our lunch eating spot based on a well-honed method of A) are there pictures with prices and 2) does someone speak toddler-level English in the establishment? We did make a tactical mistake in finding a traditional eatery which only had seating at low tables – meaning you sat on the floor. Normally, this might be ok, but I get really stiff spending hours walking and on my feet (which we had already done). I suggest if these establishments want to get more Western tourists in that they have a hot room so we can do some Bikram yoga prior to sitting for an hour.



At this point in the meal, I can’t feel my legs

The meal was various grilled fish accompanied with the typical pickled side dishes and a tasty light broth. We had no idea what the “XL” amount was so we ordered way too much food, only to perpetuate the notion of gluttonous Americans once again. The table next to us had the makkoli (rice wine) flowing, so they were becoming boisterous and, as we were getting ready to leave, finally spoke up to us (one of the group had lived in California a number of years).


The ubiquity of makkoli and the relative fervor the average Korean table drank it persuaded us to try some. We hated it. Sorry, Korea. There’s a reason why Zima is making a comeback.