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April 26, 2010

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Relics of battles and Buddhism

PROBABLY no other poet has been as inspired by the city of Yangzhou as renowned Li Bai, who visited five times in his life.

But Li's first visit ended in disappointment, though not in the city. It was AD 727, and the man who would become the Poet Sage was then 26 years old, young and restless. He was amazed by the vibrant city, one of the world's most prosperous places in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) - so entranced that squandered all his money on wine, women and song.

Li was known for his love of drinking, as well as poems in praise of wine, and was among the Chinese scholars known as the "eight immortals of the wine cup."

During his later stay in Yangzhou he created the poem "Ascending the Qiling Pagoda One Autumn Day" as well as the famous "A Farewell to Meng Haoran on His Way to Yangzhou:"

At Yellow Crane Pavilion in the west

My old friend bids farewell;

In the mist and flowers of March

He goes down to Yangzhou;

Lonely sail, distant shadow,

Vanish in blue emptiness;

All I see is the great river

Flowing into the far horizon.

The poem catapulted Yangzhou to fame in China and the world at that time.

I was attracted by "the mist and flowers of March" - March here refers to the third month in the lunar calendar, which is April in the solar calendar, and the best time to visit. So I made my fourth visit to this city in Jiangsu Province.

I skipped well-known Slender West Lake, Shuangdong Block and Geyuan Garden. This time I went to the Songjiacheng (Middle City of the Song Dynasty) Relics Park, which opened at the Yangzhou Trade and Tourism Festival.

It runs through May 31.

Historical records show that Yangzhou had three sections in the Song Dynasty (960-1279): the Main City, Baoyou City and the Middle City.

As the name implies, Songjiacheng used to be the middle military stronghold between the main city and the fortress itself.

Four gray-brick city walls rise high in the park, exactly as they did hundreds of years ago. Greenery and water shield the 50-hectare area north of Slender West Lake.

The flowing waters in the Songjiacheng, also a wetland park, will soon be connected with the Grand Canal as they once were.

The fortified Middle City is especially important for military study of that period since no civilians were allowed to live there, and the artifacts are virtually all military. Huge ancient weaponry is displaced, even towering armored vehicles. It's mind-blowing.

I stared at a large and tall box-like wooden structure, 3 meters high, 4 meters long and 2 meters wide. It contains window slits through which soldiers shot arrows, and three holes on either side housed three sets of wheels.

Peace of mind

"This is the ancient 'armored vehicle,' with the body made of wood instead of iron or steel," says a museum employee. "Don't dismiss it - this blocked incoming enemy arrows and soldiers fired through the little windows."

Leaving the Songjiacheng site, I was still preoccupied by imagined raging battles I'd seen in blockbusters - my nerves needed rest.

"Check out the Buddhism museum, and you will find peace of mind and heart," recommended a local friend.

When I first arrived at the Yangzhou Buddhist Culture Museum, I was disappointed. From the outside it looks like another ordinary temple.

I passed through a voile entry curtain woven with the character Ning (tranquility) in a floral pattern.

Once inside, I was stunned. It is a world apart.

This newly opened Yangzhou Buddhist Culture Museum, so far China's biggest museum of its kind, is a combination of the magnificent Tianning and Chongning temples, among Yangzhou's top eight temples in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

It's said Tianning Temple was a renovation of a residence of Xie An, an official in the Eastern Jin Kingdom (AD 317-420). Chongning Temple was a birthday gift from the Qing Emperor Qianlong to his mother. The compound with blooming trees and flowers has been called the "Little Summer Palace."

A winding corridor connects the museum's nine sections - "Chinese Buddhism Stories," "Buddhism and Yangzhou," "Buddhist Temples" (displaying models and photos), "Stories of the Guanyin Buddha," "Stories of Zen Buddhism," "Collection of Buddhist Paintings," "Buddhist Music," "Buddhist Stone Carving" and "Marco Polo Hall."

It is a place of both learning and tranquility.

Songjiacheng Relics Park

Opening hours: 9am-5pm

Address: Siwangting Rd (north to Changchun Bridge, near Slender West Lake)

How to get there: Tour Bus Lines 1, 2

Buddhist Culture Museum

Opening hours: 9am-5pm

Address: 3 Fengleshang St, Weiyang District

How to get there: Buses No. 8, 20, 29, 30, 61, 303, 315

Design your own trip

The Yangzhou Trade and Tourism Festival is underway through the end of May and the city beloved by poets on the Grand Canal offers numerous sites and tourism routes.

The "Mist and Flowers of March" (after a line in a poem) festival offers flower exhibitions, folk art performances, intangible cultural heritage shows, community events, kids' activities, a half-marathon, and art exhibitions throughout the city.

Wang Minghong, deputy director of the Yangzhou Tourism Bureau, describes highlights and says visitors can plan their own trips.

Tour of the Grand Canal. Among all 21 cities on the canal, Yangzhou has the most heritage sites along the banks. Dawang (Great King) Temple, Dongguan (East Gate) Ancient Ferry, Dongguan Old Street and the Tomb of Puhaddin lie along the waterway.

Sustainable Yangzhou. The city has built a 5-square-kilometer "ancient town" incorporating architectural relics from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The recreation follows the principles of "being true to history, keeping integrity and leading a sustainable life."

Salt merchants' life. Yangzhou is known for classical gardens built by the wealthy salt traders from the Song to the Qing dynasties, all with unique characteristics.

Wang suggests three trips:

1. Culinary delights, combining local delicacies and scenery, such as Lu's Ancient House.

2. Arts, combining traditional opera, folk arts and landscaping, such as Geyuan Garden and Wang's Residence.

3. Varied experience, featuring accommodation in a garden, such as the Yangzhou Center and Residence and Wu Daotai Residence.


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