Sunday, 22 October 2017

Silk Road: Riding the Train to Turpan


Train staff checking to see if the platform is clear before moving on
Our visit through Gansu province was over and now it was time to board the train to Turpan in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Dunhuang train station looked spanking new -- two years old we were told -- and right at the entrance we had to deal with security checks, showing our passports and putting our luggage through X-ray machines before even getting into the building.

Staff at the entrance have riot helmets and gear ready...
We arrived early so we had time to hit the loo (pretty clean) before heading to our train. Originally our Gansu-based tour guide was not going to join us -- we were going to go on our own and then meet our Xinjiang guide in Turpan.

However, we felt it was best he help us out just in case and we're so lucky he did.

Our second-class train tickets were bought months in advance; in that time period, some people had renewed passports so their passport number was different from the one printed on their ticket.

At least one person had a lot of hassle because of this and in the end had to refund her ticket and buy another one, which meant she could not sit with us. Our guide was on hand to help her out with this.

A high speed train ready to go (not ours)
If that wasn't all, there was the issue of luggage. One would think traveling by train is straight forward, but in China it's not. We easily took the escalator up to go across to the platform on the other side, but when we wanted to go down, there was no escalator, only stairs and a very steep slope to drag suitcases on the far right.

Needless to say it was a complete disaster -- people's suitcases rolled (or slid) faster than their owners and it created such mess that it was just easier, but more muscle work to carry suitcases down the stairs.

That resulted in our tour guide having to go up and down to help many of us bring our suitcases down several flights of stairs which was quite stressful given the sheer number of people also doing the same thing, and having to lift heavy loads.

Inside our train which is quite new
Finally that was sorted and gathering ourselves together we boarded the train, again our tour guide helping put many of the suitcases in the racks above. Some of us sat three to a seat, so six of us faced each other on the right, while on the left there were two seats.

The train started up quickly and we thought the staff would check tickets but they never did, and because there were many free seats some sat in other places. And then after one or two stops more people got on so we had to sit in our designated seats. 

By the way the food selection is quite dire -- there's instant noodles, drinks and chips -- including cucumber flavour. My uncle got soy bean drink with red bean, but it was the powder version which needed hot water and it turned out lumpy. One bright spot was having Haagen Daz ice cream!

One guy sitting near us had a dumbfounded look on his face watching us the whole time. He wore a black leather cap, black vest, T-shirt, glasses and boots. Sitting next to him was a woman on our tour who reported he had terrible body odour!

Finally he got off at one stop, but another man randomly sat next to her and he too stared at us. He didn't seem to belong in that seat, but what can you say? He looked a bit shifty, but that's because he felt uneasy being in a second-class cabin when perhaps he should have sat elsewhere.

Four hours later we finally arrived in Turpan, in time for dinner -- but wait we still had to deal with getting our luggage off the train and down the stairs again...

So that was our experience riding the train. One would expect it to be more convenient than the plane, but having to carry our suitcases up and down was too much!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Silk Road: Yangguan Pass and Yumen Pass

Yangguan Pass is surrounded by a fence
We visited the two westernmost frontiers in China during the Western Han Dynasty in Gansu province near Dunhuang. Well, three to four hours' drive from Dunhuang. They were both important points along the Silk Road.

Yangguan Pass was built by Emperor Wu in 120 BC and was considered a military lookout post, while Yumen Pass, also known as Jade Gate, was used during the Han Dynasty where people went through here along the Silk Road to get to Central Asia.

Visitors can go through Yumen Pass, that's like a fortress
Yumen Pass had a museum that visitors could go through before heading outside to see the actual structure, a giant brick structure that looked like a fortress that you can walk through.

However Yangguan Pass requires a golf cart trip to get to, and then it's surrounded by a fence. Both look like shadows of their former selves... but that's what happens thousands of years later when they fall out of use.

Nevertheless, both are points along the Silk Road that should be visited, though driving to get to both points (north and south) was a slog!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Silk Road: Dunhuang Celebration

Learning about the story of the Mogao Grottoes through an outdoor show
To extend our Mogao Grottoes experience we got to see a show related to the caves. We didn't quite know what to expect, but then again, what else are you going to do in the evening in Dunhuang?

Our tour guide didn't know the show would be outside, so it did get a bit chilly, but given that an audience of several hundred were packed together, we were able to generate some body heat.

Special effects like these fire-related splashes were a bit much
The stands where the audience sat could move and it turned at right angles around four times to face four different stages. It's described as "luxury live desert theater", but how is it luxurious if you have to brave the natural elements? And the plastic seats aren't very comfortable... are we asking for too much?

The story is about a painter called Mo Ding who works in Dunhuang, painting in the caves. It is highly dubious that he and a princess fall in love, but we suspend our doubts, because there's conflict in that she is betrothed to a warrior leader in order to have peace in the area.

The smitten couple escape and hide for a while, but then the barbarian leader finds her and takes her back -- she apparently later dies of depression! In the end, Mo Ding continues his mission by expressing his love for her on the murals at Dunhuang.

Some of the projections are pretty neat, creating a 3D effect, or at least adding another layer to the production, while other scenes, like in Dunhuang town dancing in the streets and couples standing by windows were irrelevant. There were also some fire special effects used that again were not relevant to the story, but were there to keep the audience interested.

A romantic ending with some 3D projection
The ending was kind of tacky, women dressed in white with the dresses covered in LED lights, while Mo Ding and the princess danced on a huge crescent moon...

Having just been to New York where the performers on Broadway are thrilled to be on stage, the dancers here looked at it as a job, some appeared bored, others managed a smile or two.

The performers stood on or by the stage as the audience left, and a few elderly women pinched some of the young women's cheeks as if to check if they were real or not. Did the performers get this kind of treatment all the time? How bizarre!

It was an entertaining show for the most part, though it's heavily promoted by the government which makes us wonder who gets how much of a cut out of it. Since it's the only show in town, there's pretty much a captive audience every night...

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Silk Road: Mogao Grottoes

The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province
About 10 years ago when I was in Beijing, I checked out an exhibition that was a replica of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang.

There are over 400 caves, but only a handful shown publicly
I didn't know anything about them but it sounded fascinating and was so glad I went. Afterwards I was thinking, I have to see the real thing... wherever Dunhuang is!

It took me a decade to finally go see the place in person and it has to be appreciated on so many levels in terms of art, history, and society. It all started in 366AD, when a Buddhist monk named Le Zun was traveling in the area and had a vision of a thousand Buddhas. He built a cave here in hopes of reaching nirvana.

Others soon followed, digging out their own caves and began decorating them with paintings. It's here in these caves or grottoes that one can see not only the artistic skill that spans over 1,000 years, making it a kind of library of art history of that time, but also how Buddhism was depicted and studied.

Some caves reveal intricate artistic detail and vivid colours
Some pilgrims paid artisans to decorate caves for them, and so it must have become a mini industry in the middle of the desert to demonstrate their devotion to Buddha. Apparently there were some 1,000 caves, but when they were abandoned, the desert sands took over them; there are 735 left, of which almost 500 are decorated.

While most of the caves feature three Buddhas -- the present, past and future, along with musicians and dancers that seem weightless in the sky, there were also more down-to-earth portraits of wealthy patrons, such as the Cao family, featuring women in long robes and make-up. Others captured daily life, such as farming and the foods they ate.

Musicians in flowing robes performing for Buddha
We only saw about seven caves and the ones we saw were not all in good condition. Some figures had black faces, but that's because the pink colour had oxidized over the decades and centuries. Some caves had glaringly empty spots where sculptures used to be and had been stolen, or the "eyes" of Buddhist disciples scratched out because they used to have gold on them.

One cave had a giant Buddha lying on his side after death, his disciples mourning in grief, while another had Buddha standing up 75 feet tall.

Black faces are from oxidation of the paint on the walls
A reminder of foreign theft was shown in one cave that had stored 7,000 manuscripts including the Diamond Sutra that was published in 868AD and were gone, now in the British Library. The caves are individually locked with padlocks which our guide has to use a key to open each one and lock afterwards.

We were lucky to come here just before the Golden Week rush, so there wasn't a massive crowd of people, and we came early in the morning too. We wished we could see more, and the prime examples of caves, but alas, our guanxi wasn't good enough.

But just to have the experience of being in these caves and seeing the majesty of the art work was enough to satisfy our curiosity. Will we come back? Not sure, but at least we saw a slice of it.

Some have large statues housed in them with disciples
No wonder artists like Zhang Daqian came here to copy many of the murals, staying here for months at a time. I managed to see some of his works from his time there in August when there was an exhibition in Macau.


Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Silk Road: Singing Sand Mountains

One of the giant sand dunes that make up Singing Sand Mountains
China has a lot of different geographical terrain, and while Gansu province has some lush green areas thanks to land being near the Yellow River, there are other areas that seem very parched to the point of becoming desert.

One such spot along the Silk Road is the Singing or Echoing Sand Mountains about 5km from Dunhuang.

A guide leading a string of camels and tourists
When we reached the site it was literally desert with sand dunes. Some of our fellow travelers came prepared wearing masks -- they were worried about possible sand storms, and the mountains get the name singing or echoing because when the wind blows the sand here, it makes an eerie sound apparently.

But the day we went the weather was perfect -- not too hot -- though a hat helped shade from the sun, and there was a gentle breeze.

The tourist site sold bright orange tall boots to cover people's feet from getting sand in them, but we decided it wasn't necessary. Lots of local tourists were taking camel rides at 100 kuai each, and with each guide leading four to five camels strung together, that was big business, as there was a non-stop stream of camels walking along the sand.

Meanwhile there were others who climbed up a giant sand dune, much like hiking up a snow mountain and then riding a sled down the sand slope. It seemed like a lot of work for about 20 seconds of fun.

Crescent Moon Spring has been here for hundreds of years
The site also has a walkway so tourists won't get sand in their shoes. My aunt and I chose to walk the 1km route and along the way we saw lots of greenery amid the desert, which was man made. The washrooms here were very clean -- they even had soap and toilet paper! When we came out we admired the nearby fruit trees and saw they had fruits on them.

They were small, but too tempting to pass up, so I climbed up a pear tree and managed to pick seven or eight of them! I tried them afterwards and they were quite sweet!

The path we walked along led to Crescent Moon Spring -- it really is that shape and interestingly has never been covered up by the sand. Visitors along the Silk Road would stop here for a drink -- it definitely was not a mirage.

Three of the small pears I picked from the tree!
Today there are gift shops and refreshment stands near Crescent Moon Spring... the modern version of freshening up.

We walked in the sand for a bit, and it was very fine, soft and warm from the heat of the sun. What an interesting experience, seeing sand dunes, camels and picking ripe pears.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Silk Road: Jiuquan Park

General Huo Qubing who celebrated his victory using spring water here
An interesting stop we went to is Jiuquan Park in Gansu province, which has a beautiful lotus pond, shady covered walkways and another pond with white swans.

This spring water doesn't freeze during the wintertime
The highlight is a square well that has spring water in it. The story goes a young general named Huo Qubing who led his troops to a victory against the nomadic Xiongnu.

To celebrate, Huo only had some Chinese wine, but not enough for hundreds of soldiers. So he poured a vat of the liquor into this spring water, which was enough to quench the thirst of his army.

Beautiful lotus flowers still in bloom in the lily pond
What's interesting about this spring water is that it's still bubbling to the surface and even in the wintertime it never freezes. The water is very clear, but no we didn't drink it -- there were many coins that had been thrown in there.


Sunday, 15 October 2017

Silk Road: Jiayuguan and the Great Wall

Visiting Jiayuguan, the western outpost of the Great Wall
Jiayuguan was the last part of the Great Wall before heading towards Central Asia. It was built during the Ming Dynasty with stones, bricks and rammed earth, those these days it's been fixed up for tourists.

Tourists sampling some Peking opera at Jiayuguan
It was here that people had to have passports if they wanted to travel beyond the Great Wall along the Silk Road. The passport was a document in calligraphy that had their name and the emperor's seal on it. Outside of the Great Wall were the nomads called Xiongnu, Mongolians and Tibetans, basically barbarians.

Today's tourism officials have tried to spiff up Jiayuguan by making tourists feel like they are going back in time. There are "guards" standing by the gates and later on they parade around a "prisoner" in a wooden shackle before they start showing off some amateur martial arts routines.

Around the corner up on a high but small stage are Peking opera performers in costume complete with musicians. Did the audience really have to crane their necks to see the show back in the day? Just wondering.

One tourist giving his best drumming performance
There were also some odd-ball amusements -- literally. Our tour guide was so excited to shoot tennis balls from a mini cannon at a target that he did it twice, for 20 kuai for each round.

One of our fellow travelers paid 10 kuai to be able to hit a massive drum 10 times. However, instead of just banging the drum, he did a little dance routine as well, much to the amusement of local visitors.

Tourists could also purchase the "passport", where your name would be written in calligraphy and stamped with the Imperial seal. Strangely not many interested in getting the "modern antique" document.

People needed to carry passports to go beyond this pass
After our visit, we headed to a nearby part of the Great Wall, called The Overhanging Wall. It's called that because it looks like it is clinging onto the cliff. It also apparently has the nickname "Western Badaling" because it looks similar to the popular part of the wall near Beijing.

Our tour guide challenged us to climb up to the top, so five of us women took it on with aplomb. It took around 20 minutes to get up, and climbed over 400 steps. My aunt and I were the first to go, and it wasn't too difficult a climb, just that it got steeper and we stopped periodically to catch our breath.

When we almost got to the top, I heard a small boy's voice shout, "Ayi, jia you!"

I climbed the Overhanging Wall!
I looked up to see a boy, about five years old looking down at us and smiling with three other male adults. He kept shouting, "Ayi jia you!" "Auntie, add oil [keep going!] and I thanked him for the encouragement.

I regret not taking a picture of him before he scampered off again to the next section of the wall. We soaked up the amazing view below, celebrated our summit with three others before making it down again. Now I can say I've visited four parts of the Great Wall -- Badaling, Mutianyu, Simatai all near Beijing, and now the Overhanging Wall in Gansu province!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Silk Road: Zhangye Danxia Geological Park

Minerals and sandstone helped create these colourful rock formations
One of the highlights of the Silk Road tour was visiting Zhangye Danxia Geopark. It took a while to get there, and once we arrived, we had to board the park's own buses to tour around the place in a kind of hop on, hop off style to four different spots.

Located in the county of Zhangye, in the foothills of the Qilian mountains, the park covers 322 square kilometres and it's very impressive -- the hill formations look "rainbow" coloured, with layers of colours formed due to deposits of sandstone and other minerals over a 24 million year period.

Each spot in the geopark looked amazing
And the colours and the rock formations really are cool -- it's kind of like the Chinese version of the Grand Canyon, but with brightly coloured hills in layers of red, orange, white, green that seem to go on and on.

Each location seemed more amazing than the one before, providing dramatic backdrops for people interested in selfies and group pictures. It was quite hot that day, not scorching, but enough to warrant a hat and some sunscreen.

For the most part people were respectful of the environment, though a few did go out of bounds to get what they felt was a better shot. Our tour guide quickly reprimanded them and they complied. One more step and they could have fallen down the hill...

Some areas allowed visitors to have a good overview
There was a sign that said no aerial cameras, probably meaning drones, but there were lots of selfie sticks...

We were so lucky to come just before Golden Week so there weren't that many tourists. And since the park is so spread out, there was lots of room to move around freely and take good shots. Somehow I feel like the pictures I took didn't even capture this awe-inspiring place properly...

Friday, 13 October 2017

Silk Road: White Pagoda Temple

A bronze statue of Tibetan Lama Sagya Pandit with a reconstructed temple
North of Lanzhou is the White Pagoda Temple, a massive white stupa set against the blue sky and roses. It was built in honour of a Tibetan Lama, Sagya Pandit Gonggar Gyamcan, who came here for talks with Mongol prince Gotan, about Tibetan submission to the Mongols.

The ruins of the original temple with an offering urn
This also led to the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia, as Sagya Pandit taught for five years until his death in 1251. He was buried here.

The original temple was destroyed and rebuilt a few times before its current incarnation, a large white bulbous stupa. But after you walk past it, you can see the ruins of the original temple which are even more interesting.

It looks like a pile of old bricks that only amount to part of the base of the temple, but they seem to have more meaning than a shiny bronze statue of the Lama completed in 2012.

A very old gate within the Confucian Temple
Our Tibetan guide was keen to pay his respects here, circling both the new and old temple, saying prayers and bowing three times.

We also visited the Confucius Temple in Wuwei that was built during the Ming Dynasty in 1439 on instruction from the reigning emperor at the time. It took two years to build it, but various extensions were added on later.

A statue of Confucius
Wandering around here is nice -- there's hardly anyone else around and lots of architectural details to photograph. One wonders though if it still has as much significance today as it did centuries ago...




Thursday, 12 October 2017

Silk Road: Leitai Han Tomb

The Flying Horse in its glory finally revealed at Leitai Han Tomb
When I was a kid, I remember my father bringing home a statue of a horse that was running so fast it was captured balancing on one foot. He glued it onto a granite slab, and while I thought the horse looked pretty cool, I didn't understand the significance of it -- until decades later.

An army of soldiers and horses led by the Flying Horse
It is known as the Flying Horse, galloping so quickly that it is stepping on a bird. The original statue was found at Leitai Han Tomb in 1969 when some farmers stumbled upon the tomb of an official from the Han Dynasty which held funeral treasures. The horse was quickly adopted by Lanzhou as its official symbol and you can see replicas of it displayed everywhere, like the airport and other government buildings.

The actual statue is quite tiny, along with an entire cavalcade of soldiers, horses and chariots. They can be seen in a museum, while much larger versions of them are displayed above ground.

It is believed the rest of the treasures were stolen by robbers...

Visitors can also go down into the actual tombs, which entails going down a long dark narrow path before you finally reach the end, which is very cool, but there's nothing to see, except the ceiling that is made of brick but reinforced with a metal web.

Farmers would pray to the God of Thunder
We went down into two tombs when once was plenty.

Above ground is Leitai Temple, Leitai referring to the God of Thunder, that farmers would pray to for rain to have a good harvest.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Silk Road: Labrang Monastery

Pilgrims turning prayer wheels at the entrance to Labrang Monastery
In Xiahe county, Gansu province is Labrang Monastery, home to the largest number of monks outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, about 2,700. It's a large compound that doubles as a tourist attraction, and so the monks must get used to tourists gawking at them or taking pictures or video of them.

The monastery was founded in 1709 and is Tibetan Buddhism's most important monastery town outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. What also makes this particular place interesting is that it is the intersection of Tibetan and Mongolian cultures.

The monastery is a large compound where 2,700 monks live
It was and still is a place for education. Previously several thousand monks attended university here, now the numbers have dwindled to about 1,000. Monks can study subjects such as painting, medicine, philosophy and astrology. For medicine, they have to study for 15 years, learning about the various herbs and their medicinal benefits before they can treat patients.

As we toured the various temples, there were Tibetans, most of them women, wearing masks, hats and colourful outfits as they made their pilgrimage to the temple, praying in the hopes their loved ones would get better.

They would do this for hours, and one devout woman even wore knee pads as she kneeled on the ground, then with pads on her hands, prostrated herself on the ground, then stood up, took one step forward and again kneeled down and lay flat on the ground.

An elaborate sculpture made out of yak butter!
Many of the temples had huge Buddha statues sitting or standing serenely. One room we were taken into had air conditioning -- that's because it was filled with sculptures made of yak butter! Every new year the artistic students compete to see who has the best one and all the colourful entries are displayed all year, hence the need for air conditioning. They all seem to look very similar to each other which must make judging even harder...

Another room was filled with random objects that were given to Tibetan Lamas, from books to porcelain, to paintings, ivory carvings, robes, furniture and a globe. They didn't look nice enough to be in a museum, which is what this room was, but the monks were probably proud of receiving such gifts over the decades and centuries.

The last time there were problems with this monastery was in 2008 in response to the riots in Lhasa before the Beijing Olympics. But perhaps the Chinese government has retained its control over the monastery as our monk guide explained the Panchen Lama was the one sponsored by Beijing... one wonders if he gritted his teeth having to say this over and over again...

Another observation is that the monks here have a ruddy complexion and some look portly too -- that's because they do eat meat. However they are modestly dressed, except when they attend prayers. They all arrive at the largest temple in the compound -- which seats some 1,000 people -- and they wear a golden-coloured headdress that matches their robes.

Monks take off their boots before going in for prayer
We saw them outside the temple, taking off their black boots before going inside, and they just randomly left their footwear there, which made us wonder how they would know whose pair was whose?

But then we joked to ourselves that perhaps because of their Buddhist teaching of letting go of materialistic things that it didn't matter if they wore someone else's boots afterwards...


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Silk Road: Binglingsi Grottoes

The Maitreya Buddha at 27 metres tall, makes humans feel very small
The highlight of our Silk Road trip would be visiting the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, but before we got there we had a mini preview at the Binglingsi Grottoes.

Cruising along the calm Liujiaxia Reservoir
To get there was quite the ordeal which is only accessible in the summer and fall. We drove several hours to get to Xiahe, and then we reached the Liujiaxia Reservoir where we donned orange life jackets and squeezed into tiny covered speed boats that alternatively went fast and slow through the reservoir for about half an hour to to reach the grottoes.

But even after we arrived we had to walk a good 15-20 minutes down a winding path just to get to the grottoes.

Apparently these ones were a work in progress for over a millennium. The first one was started in 420AD, and work continued all the way up until the Qing Dynasty. But over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the 183 caves that feature 694 stone statues and 82 clay ones.

Buddhist statues from the Northern Wei Dynasty
Only a few of the "doors" were opened for visitors to peer into them. One of them had a pair of disciples dating back from the Northern Wei Dynasty with their long faces, highly-arched eyebrows, slanted eyes, and flowing robes.

Other Buddhist statues looked like Indians from their dark skin, but it's actually skin colour on the pink side that has changed colour thanks to oxidation. We liked how one cave featured a Buddhist statue flanked by two palm trees painted on the cave.

Check out the palm trees behind Buddha!
Anchoring the area is a giant Maitreya Buddha that sits more than 27 metres high. What a sight!


Monday, 9 October 2017

Silk Road: Lanzhou

Taken from our bus, there are many terraced hillsides in Gansu province
Our Silk Road tour started in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province. It is home to 6.3 million people, of which 3.7 million people live in Lanzhou. That's probably because there are seven ethnic groups who live here, including Tibetans, Hui, Dongxiang, Mongolians and Kazak, as well as Han Chinese.

What you first notice about the province is that it's very mountainous. While Lanzhou is situated on the upper reaches of the Yellow River, not everyone has access to water, and so hardy crops are grown, such as corn, millet, and dates. When we rode along the highway we could see terraced fields on hilly areas -- they were in such remote locations, but if there are terraces, there are people.

Two sheep taking a ride on the highway...
Historically and geographically Lanzhou was an important strategic point along the Silk Road leading to the west towards Xinjiang and Eastern Europe, and east towards Xian. And during the Sino-Japanese war, the Lanzhou corridor was crucial to the Communists in transporting Soviet supplies to Xian. It was so well protected that the Japanese were not able to take Lanzhou. 

In ancient times, the Great Wall was also extended to Yumen to protect Lanzhou, and we got to see this place a few days into our trip.

Today's modern Silk Road still considers Gansu province an important one -- geographically it is right in the middle of China, and so all transport links go through here.

However, not all the roads are paved smooth, nor efficient. Some highways were single-lane traffic, which mean waiting until the opposite lane was clear before passing trucks carrying cars, fuel, equipment, sheep and pigs.

As a result our tour guide would never give us a definitive number on how many hours we would be on the road because if there was a traffic jam, or single-lane traffic, it could slow us down immensely and he wanted to manage our expectations.

Periodically we would encounter toll areas where security officers would come on board to check us and our passports. One time one officer looked long and hard at us before he finally advised us all to wear our seat belts.

Facing north, the Qilian mountains in the distance
Nevertheless, it was pretty amazing to see so many trucks on the road, but perhaps it was the only way to get goods to remote areas that were not necessarily near the railroad system. It makes you appreciate North American and European highway systems so much more!








Sunday, 8 October 2017

Review: Little Door Gods

A movie poster of Little Door Gods, a Chinese full-length animation
Hello I'm back to Hong Kong! I have finally completed an epic journey, and am ready to tell more stories again.

I'll be going back and rewriting about my Silk Road trip in more detail, though there will be some Hong Kong new stories interspersed in between.

Raindrop learns about tradition and culture in the story
In the meantime on the plane I watched a few movies. From Urumqi, Xinjiang to Beijing, I watched a full length animation feature called Little Door Gods.

The premise is that all Chinese gods have lost their jobs because people nowadays don't believe in them anymore. They range from the God of Earth, Guanyin or Goddess of Mercy, Insect King, Wine God, Dragon Mother, and so on.

They have to take retraining courses otherwise they will lose their job, except for the God of Wealth, who has spun himself into a DJ-like character who sits on a flashing casino-like pedestal and wears modern clothes.

Raindrop befriends Shentu, who is looking for brother Yulei
Other than the God of Wealth, the only other gods that seem to be able to keep their traditional jobs are the door gods, brothers Shentu and Yulei, though their popularity is waning.

That story line is juxtaposed with today, featuring a girl called Raindrop and her mother who take over her grandmother's wonton shop. Raindrop encounters the two door gods in a wild adventure and she learns the importance of having Shentu and Yulei on your door.

It's an amusing but also informative story with lots of action to keep kids interested. The evil monster Nian looks like a precursor to Te Ka in Disney's Moana, both looking like nasty wood-like characters, though both films were released in 2016.

Shentu and Yulei are the door gods posted on people's doors
Perhaps even more intriguing is that Little Door Gods was distributed by Alibaba Pictures, eager to get into the cultural sector.

There wasn't any buzz of this animation feature that I know of in Hong Kong -- it would have had a decent play here, being kid friendly, though humour-wise it's not non-stop like The Lego Movie or hilarious like Moana with the rooster sidekick.

Regardless we enjoyed it and are curious to know what else Alibaba PIctures has up its sleeve. It's already a good step in the right direction.

Little Door Gods (2016)
Written and directed by Gary Wang
Produced by Light Chaser Animation Studios
Distributed by Alibaba Pictures and The Weinstein Company
107 Minutes