The mausoleum of Wang Zhaojun - Part 1
9km south of Hohhot, is the site that all the tour guides want you to see, and it is certainly worth seeing, but I would recommend understanding what you are seeing before you go: it helps set the historical context but also provides a bit of an understanding of patterns of migration and the relationship China has had (?) with its peripheries.
The mausoleum is a small garden complex, with a 30m high mound forming the mausoleum. Actually it is one of several in China for this princess of Chinese legends.
The story is simple and poetic, but read between those lines and remember it as you travel through Inner Mongolia.
Wang Qiang, as she was, from Zigui in Hubei, was a minor concubine of the Western Han emperor Yuandi. Successive emperors had been troubled by the migrations and serious atitude of the Xiongnu tribes, particularly in the Ordos area (inside the great northern lop of the Huanghe). In 51BC, Emperor Xiangdu invited the Xiongnu Khan to the capital Chang'an (near modern-day Xi'an, Shaanxi) and they got on well. In 33BC, the then Khan Huhanye Chuanyu (as he is constantly referred to in China) requested a Chinese princess. Needless to say, there was little enthusiasm among the court princesses, used to the luxury of Chang'an. Then young Wang Zhaojun steps forward and volunteers to be married to him. It was maybe a better bet than spending the rest of her days managing the court library. They were duly married at Chang'an and returned north to the Khan's homelands.
Guihuacheng - another walk through the old city
Behind the new buildings lining Danan jie lies the 450 year old city of Guihuacheng. A quick look at any street map of Hohhot shows the outline clearly, with the circular walls - clearly out of synch with the grid layout of the rest of the city.
Around the Dazhao lamasery, Guihuacheng (which translates as 'City beyond civilization' is fast disappearing). The replacement buildings are predominantly grey brick Qing Chinese structures: Qing buildings and grey brick have never been seen in Hohhot, so while the buildings are sympathetic, they are totally out of character with the culture and locale. The new buildings do have space for the shophouses and restaurants so the authorities deserve credit for their attention to ensuring the livelihoods of local people, but it is a pity that he buildings could not better reflect the local architectural style and use local materials.
Sadly, apart from the main shopping street running east away from Dazhao, Guihuacheng has degenerated into a slum, and the rebuilding is understandable. One block east of Dazhao lamasery, the new buildings end, and you are back in a neighbourhood that is largely 450 years old. There is a maze of alleyways and old buildings: however, the area to the south of the street has already been totally razed. At the far end of the street, about a five minute walk, the road ends by the fetid mess of the river bed of the Wuishahe river-bed. The city walls have long gone - I think they had even gone by the time Francis Younghusband visited Guihuacheng in the 1880s (read "The Heart of a Continent" for his recollections; pity he was such a died-in-the-wool racist and imperialist).
There is a tiny riverside park, in the Stalinist style with concrete structures, broken foortpaths and weed-infested. The street running north from here is basically an open sewer and unpassable before, during, and after rain or when it is dry.
The area east of Danan jie provides a better picture of the old city, but it is worth coming down to the east side as a comparison.
Dazhao Lamasery - Part 2
The temple was known in the early days as the Hongci temple, but has also been known as the Wuliangsi (at the end of the Ming dynasty).
In the main hall, as well as the sacred and famous buddhas, there are two additional spectacles: the Yueminglow painting and the curious gilt dragon carvings on the two main central columns. The former is painted with mineral paints and has remained fresh down the centuries; the latter must be unique as a specifically Han Chinese feature in a Mongolian lamasery. If it was there from the outset, it is yet another poignant symbol of Anda Khan's conciliatory approach towards the sensibikities of his southern neighbours.
Dazhao is spectacular, and is really a symbol of Mongolian and Chinese friendship more than any other more obvious symbol in Inner Mongolia.
Dazhao Lamasery - Part 1
The Dazhao lamasery barely merits a mention in the tourist literature (not at all in Lonely Planet either), and is not even shown on any maps, yet it is central to the history of this city. Without the Dazhao lamasery, there Hohhot would probably not exist, and Fengzhou to the east would probably be a flourishing village (see Baita entry).
Situated at the very centre of Guihuacheng, the Dazhao lamasery is a testament to the courage, guile and foresight of a man unknown even in China. Anda Khan (also known as Altan Khan) managed to reunite the local Mongolian tribes in the early 16th Century, and it is thanks to him that much of the Ming dynasty Great Wall was built all around Beijing: it was to keep him out, yet all he really wanted to do was trade with China! The Chinese court remembered the Mongolian Yuan dynasty and didn't want Mongolian's having access to the markets and cities of the Chinese empire.
In 1577, Anda Khan travelled to Amdo, in modern-day Qinghai, to visit Tibetan lamaists. He converted to Buddhism, and created the position of Dalai Lama. (And you thought he was a Tibetan incarnation, huh?). He returned to his city of Koke kota and started building a lamasery to hold a giant silver buddha that he had promised the monks he would build: and he did. The first Dalai Lama travelled to Dazhao in 1579 for the Ceremony of Heavenly Light for the silver buddha - both the silver buddha and the chair that the Dalai Lama used remain in Dazhao.
In the excitement, as lamaism grew in strength in the city, more lamaseries were built, and at one time, 10% of the city's population were monks. This naturally attracted more Buddhists, including the exiled White Lotus sect.
A walk through Guihuacheng
As on the western ide of Dananjie, Anda Khan's city is fast disappearing. Modern buildings are arising from the ashes of Anda Khan's 450 year old city. New apartment blocks are encroaching on the alleys and squat brick buildings.
A ten minute walk from Wutasi to the Xilitu lamasery takes you through the heart of Guihuacheng.
Turn left outside the temple, walking west. Note that many buildings are built on a stone base. This protected the houses from flood water. This base, uncemented in the old days, also allowed air to circulate under the floor so keeping houses cool. In winter, firewood would be stocked against the walls so cold air would not flow through the cracks. A downside of this was that the cracks also allowed rodents to get in. These would be regularly smoked out!
Many of the buildings are constructed from red brick, but there are many walls made of mud and straw, and many more using the tamped earth.
Notice also the long overhang of the roofs on many buildings: this kept the high summer sun out, yet allowed the lower winter sun in.
Turning right at the T-junction you come into a square, with a ceremonial gate slowly decaying at the north end. All around are stores, pool tables out in the open, and food stalls. The new buildings are obvious on the western side. Note the Manchurian style of some of the entrances to houses on the east side.
At the north end of the square, a road leads away to the west (left). On the corner here, on the north side, is a really nice two storey building, still occupied.
On the last 200 metres to Xilitu there is a variety of building style. The buildings to the south face away from you, while the buildings to the right face towards you. Particularly notice the larger house on the left at the kink in the road: its roof line is classic Mongolian Chinese. It incorporates the barrel style found in the predominantly Mongolian north, with the offset ridge line (shorter on the north side) common in southern parts of Inner Mongolia. I saw no other examples of this blend of styles.
Traces of the Zhao Great Wall
Local tour guides were just stunned to be introduced to this. One of the highlights of my visit to Inner Mongolia was the looks on their faces when I showed it to them.
Note that the state of the wall here makes it very difficult to photograph in a way that does justice to it.
Wuliang of the Zhao State built a fortified wall around 300BC, which extended east-west between the Huanghe and the Yinshan mountains. The wall was generaly built 150 to 300 metres in from the lowest foothills and at the most strategic point across long valleys into the mountains.
Near Hohhot, the most convenient place to see the Zhao wall is in the upper part of the Wutusu Forest Park in the long valley that runs northwards.
Ask your driver to take you to Wutusu, but when you come to turn right off the tarmac lane (by a big blue sign) continue straight on up the road, basically heading for the huge cliffs towering over the valley to the west. The road becomes a dirt road, but still well-used and more villages are passed. You should end up on the western slopes of the river, and eventually you will come to an enormous gravel quarry. The Zhao wall runs east-west straight across the valley. At the very west side of the valley, the wall forms the northern edge of the quarry. It looks like a grass embankment about 2 to 3 metres high with humps every 50 to 100 metres: these are probably the remains of watchtowers. Do not expect to see any stone or brick! The wall here ends (at the west end) where a mountain stream splits as it comes into the main valley. At the east end, it ends above the alluvial floodplain. It will continue on the other side of the valley: I didn't have time to cross over. At this end, there seems to be the base of a large fort extending *outside* the wall: this would be to stop marauders coming down the riverbed when it was dry.
Finally, as you stand on it, remember that this wall is 1800 years OLDER than the bits around Beijing!
This quiet secluded lamasery lies half way down Dananjie (not on Tongdao jie as suggested by Lonely Planet), in the heart of the old town of Guihuacheng, and its solitude and serenity makes it one of the nicest places in Hohhot. I can find little information about Xilitu lamasery anywhere.
It is much quieter than the nearby Dazhao lamasery.
It is brick-built (unlike Dazhao which is a wooden structure) and the main hall is a particularly attractive (perhaps unique?) building, having a Tibetan form with a Chinese roof (why?).
This lamasery was known as the gem of the Hohhot lamseries, and it was here that the fourth Dalai Lama, Yundanjiasuo, studied. His presence certainly would have strengthened interest in Buddhism in the southern steppes of Mongolia.
Unfortunately, the rather unusual stupa on the east side has recently been painted so that the carvings and lettering is in bright paint. I do not know if this is authentic to the original (many other Buddhist carvings in this area are also painted), but I have seen early 20th Century photographs where the carvings are unpainted.
The Tabansuburga or Xiaozhao lamasery has disappeared, but we are left with the spectacular five-pagoda (or Wu ta) structure on its northern edge. It formed part of the Cideng temple of the lamasery. The whole complex was built during the time of emperor Yongzheng (reigned 1727 to 1732)
This is a rare structure because it is in the Indian Xumi style, and the only similar one in China is the Zhenyuesi in Beijing. The Diamond Sutra is carved on the stupa in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit. The whole structure is covered in carvings of Buddha. In between the Buddhas are an incredible number of other carvings of animals, birds, monsters, people and the whole array of Buddhist symbols. It is claimed that the monks of the lamasery would take the goldfoil offerings of worshippers at the lamasery and stick them onto the Buddhas so that the whole structure glittered in the sunshine. It must have been spectacular.
However, the absolute star of this stupa is much more discreet: on the rear wall are three marble panels. One of them is a circular panel showing the night sky. It contains all the constellations and individual stars with the legend in Mongolian. This is the only Mongolian star chart in existence. The version on the rear wall (the original position) is a copy, as the oriinal is now kept in the entrance lobby of the stupa, behind plexiglass. The copy is easier to read, but the original just makes the hairs on your arms stand up.
You can climb up to the main platform of the stupa, but ayone above 5' 2" needs to take care because the roof profile of the staircase is very low, especially towards the top. On the main pagoda are carved the feet of Buddha.
The shops in the remaining temple buildings are better than the average temple shops: the staff are friendly and unaggressive, and serve a good cup of tea and will bring hot water if you have coffee sachets!
Note that the shop on the left has some stunning little watercolours of the Mongolian grasslands for RMB40, one of the nicest souvenirs I know of Inner Mongolia.
Again, a lot of beautiful bits of architecture to this place. Another piece of serenity in the chaos that abounds.
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