Tuesday, May 14, 2013

From Yonghegong (雍和宮) To Mr. Shi's (老石饺子)

Today was a relaxed morning, but there one thought was stressing me out completely... 
No credit card seemed to work here in Beijing. I lost the Visa power. Attempting to use MasterCard taught me an important lesson that that there are some things that money can't buy! And yes, the Chinese don't like the Americans, especially the Express kinds...
It seemed as though the merchants had been "trained" or "indoctrinated" into accepting only UnionPay cards, a Sino-centric alternative to the Visa or MasterCards of the world. Most EDC machines in local outlets were UnionPay ones and those could not read other cards. Those EDC machines that did read these cards asked for the PIN which invariably never worked. I was shocked as I am good at remembering my PINs. We faced the same problem with our debit cards.
What would we do when we head to Zhangjiajie, a remote mountainous town in the heart of China, Hunan? There could be nothing worse than being stranded, penniless, in a strange land...
That thought gave me massive shivers!
So as we stepped out to head to the Lama Temple or Yonghegong (雍和宮) as it is known in the vernacular, we stopped by at the branch of China Merchants Bank in Pu Li Cheng neighbourhood. We thanked our stars when the ATM spat out the five pink notes RMB 100, with the cherubic face of Chairman Mao staring at me. 

I was assured that there was nothing to worry - the likes of Bank of China, ICBC, Agricultural Bank of China, Bank of Communications, China CITIC Bank, and the likes were to be found all over this massive country, much like every nook and corner of India has a SBI, ICICI Bank or a HDFC Bank! And that reminded me - ICBC would chase all the way to Mumbai - they recently opened a branch at the Wockhardt Tower in Bandra Kurla Complex.
While I went through a great of stress to get my Yuans, I thought that was a great idea to built a local payment network the way UnionPay has - force banks to latch on to you. In fact, it was also surprising to see that Citibank had been issuing domestic cards linked with both UnionPay and MasterCard. Perhaps, RuPay will also pull it off!
Relieved with my Yuans safely tucked away in my wallet, we headed to the Lama Temple by the subway. The Beijing subway has a massive but efficient network with over 220 stations and 17 lines, which started in 1969. Plans are on to take it up to 17 lines in the next 2-3 years. And in Mumbai, we have have been struggling with the first line for over 5 years now... sigh! Surely, the Indian manoos deserve better than this!
After changing two trains, we reached the Lama Temple. Construction of the temple started in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty. It originally served as an official residence for court eunuchs, which was then converted into the court of the Prince Yong (Yin Zhen), a son of the Emperor Kangxi. When Prince Yong ascended to the throne as Emperor Yongzheng in 1722, half of the building was converted into a lamasery, a monastery for monks of Tibetan Buddhism. The other half remained an imperial palace.
After Yongzheng's death in 1735, his coffin was placed in the temple. Emperor Qianlong, Yongzheng's successor, gave the temple imperial status signified by having its turquoise tiles replaced with yellow tiles which were reserved for the emperor. Subsequently, the monastery became a residence for large numbers of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Mongolia and Tibet, and the Yonghegong became the national centre of Lama administration. The temple is said to have survived the Cultural Revolution due to the intervention of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. Yonghegong was reopened to the public in 1981.

Yonghegong is constructed along a north-south central axis, which has a length of 480 metres - a green leafy strech. The main gate is at the southern end of this axis. Along the axis, there are five main halls which are separated by courtyards: the Hall of the Heavenly Kings (Tian Wang Dian), the Hall of Harmony and Peace (Yonghegong), the Hall of Everlasting Protection (Yongyoudian), the Hall of the Wheel of the Law (Falundian), and the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses (Wanfuge).
The Hall of the Heavenly Kings is the southernmost of the main halls, it served originally as the main entrance to the monastery. In the center of the hall stands a statue of the Maitreya Buddha, along the walls statues of the four Heavenly Kings are arranged.
The Hall of Harmony and Peace is the main building of the temple. It houses three bronze statues of the Buddhas of the Three Ages, the statue of the Gautama Buddha (Buddha of the Present) is in the center, it is flanked by the statue of Kasyapa Matanga (Buddha of the Past) and the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of the Future). That reminded me of the Diskit Monastery in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh, which also had a statute of the Maitreya Buddha.

The Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses contains an 26 metres tall (18 metres above the ground and 8 metres underneath) statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of white sandalwood. 
It was interesting to see how the Chinese, despite being officially non-religious, still nurture a deep affinity for Buddhism. They, like us, liberally use incense sticks which are offerings to the Almighty!

We exited Yonghegong from a small alleyway and headed to the main road. Neelima suggested that we head to Baochao Hutong. She and Maulik had discovered a charming little "hole in the wall" kind of eatery - Mr. Shi's Dumplings

Mr. Shi's is quite a bright warm place with cheery waitresses. Plus it had quite a few exotic dishes on the menu. We ordered two plates of assorted dumplings, which were quite nice, though not as good as those at Bao Yuan Jiaozi. It ordered a plate of Chongqing Spicy Chicken. What came was a massive serving, which had crispy fried chicken with Sichuan red chilli peppers, which went very well with green garlic pickled in soya and vinegar! Wow! That was truly spicy, Sichuan style!

After our hearty meal at Mr. Shi's, we would now walk down to a trendy Hutong close by and then head to Houhai!

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