The Brand New Sanjiangkou Park

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As it has been often said, a forthcoming subway system usually changes many things within a city. One of the more fundamental things is urban planning. That became evident in Xinbei, recently. The construction barricades came down from around Sanjiangkou Park 三江口公园. I decided to go out and take a stroll to see what was there.

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At first glance, it’s a typical ecological park. It’s across the street from the Changzhou Foreign Languages School / Trina International complex. There’s a BRT stop between the two, but there is also a subway station being put in here. That subway station is referenced in the directional signage.

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Besides the more typical things you might find in a public park, a few things stood out to me. Yes, I am a 45 year-old man with a beer gut, but part of me will always have a teenage skateboarder hardwired into my brain. Once a spot hunter, always a spot hunter. For example, the above photo. It looks like a totally skate-able series of flat banks. There are also plenty of stone benches around, too. In short, this park has a few potential skating spots. However, if I’m being practical, I also saw a security guy zipping around on an eBike. So, skating the above may not be quite feasible. And then, I got a real shock.

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I actually ran into an concrete mini-ramp. Behind that, there’s a flat bank with a rail. This is next to basketball and tennis courts. An astroturf soccer pitch is also close by. Obviously, a security guy won’t be yelling at you if you’re here. So, yeah, while I really don’t ride a skateboard anymore, I got totally enthused about this. And then, Changzhou decided to repeat a bit of skateboarding history, again.

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The mini-half has some unsafe spots. This is exactly the same problem that popped up with the park that was put in the basement of Laimeng downtown like a year ago. The metal ramps over in Qingfeng all got rusty before that was shut down. There is one hopeful thing, however.

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While the construction barricades came down, there is still a significant portion of Sanjiangkou that is still under construction. So, it’s a possibility that the damaged concrete will be found and fixed. The above photo is also a reminder that what ever is to be here has not fully come into existence, yet.

So, for me at least, it’s going to be interesting to return in a few months and see what Sanjiangkou actually becomes. Who knows? Maybe the damaged ramp will be fixed? Maybe I’ll dust off my board and ride it? Probably not. I’m not the guy I was in my twenties, and I think I’m too afraid of falling down and getting a boo-boo.

Old Qingguo Postcards

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From time to time, I sometimes buy philatelic products — especially if they have a greater Jiangsu or regional Jiangnan theme. This isn’t so much for myself but for my father. He’s a lifelong stamp collector, and his interest in Chinese stamps mostly comes from me giving them to him since I live here.

So, recently, I happened on a collection of Qingguo Lane themed postcards. These actually already have the postage printed on them. In terms of stamp collecting, this is something that father would term “postal stationary,” which is a smaller niche within stamp collecting.Yes, there is something infinitely more nerdy than stamps: the people who collect pre-postage marked envelopes and post cards. But who am I to judge? I collect Magic: The Gathering cards. The nerd gene is strong in my family!

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While the English name of the set seems to be Elegant Rhyme of Qingguoxiang, these cards really have nothing to do with poetry. The Chinese title of 唐氏八宅  seems more practical. It can be translated as the Eight Houses of the Tang Family.

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The cards themselves are relatively simple — black line drawings on a tan background. However, since Qingguo recently was revamped and reopened to the public, I decided to see if I could actually find the places depicted on these cards.

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A majority of them did correspond with actual locations. Interestingly enough, some didn’t. The locations actually don’t look like the pictures, either. How could that be? There’s an easy answer to that: these postcards were issued ten years ago in 2009.  So, these cards are commemorating the Qingguo that once was. As for the homes that are no longer there, it’s possible that they will be at some point. What was recently opened was just a first step. There are plans to add to Qingguo over the years.

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I took the above photo back in 2014.That was before the area was cordoned off and thoroughly demolished and rebuilt. My guess is the Qingguo of that year also didn’t look like what is on the China Post issued cards. Qingguo of that era was crumbling and nearly derelict. Despite these disparities, the cards themselves can be taken as a celebration of the area in general. Historically influential Changzhou families — like the Tangs — did live here. Still, the disparity of what was and what things are going forward is a typically accurate display of this city’s extremely quick economic development.

 

 

Tacos and Messy Fries at Fossils

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I stole this photo from https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2015/01/06/new-tony-hawks-skateboarding-game-due-on-ps4-in-2015/

 

Skateboarding legend, all around cool guy, and notorious taco lover Tony Hawk once said, “The farther you get from the Mexican border, the worse Mexican food becomes.” I wouldn’t know, and I would have to trust him on that. I have never been to California, and I have been nowhere near the line separating the USA and its neighbor to the south. In that regard, I am not a good arbiter of what makes for an authentic or inauthentic taco. All I can speak to is what tastes good to me.

However, I can say Hawk’s maxim did hold true for Changzhou for a long time. A number of years ago, there used to be a chain called “Tacos.” It used to be at Wujin’s Injoy Plaza — what has now been renamed “Wu Yue.” Instead of using actual Mexican spices, they just put lots of black pepper on everything. Sour cream? They actually mistook mayonnaise for that. The menu was pricey, and I never saw anybody in there. So, I was not surprised when it went out of business. That place also had one of the most outrageous acts of Chinglish on its menu. Take a look …

 

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This actually had nothing to do with the rectums, butts, or fannies of scallops.

 

For the longest time, if you wanted a taco, you either had to make one yourself or go to other cities, Wuxi being the closest. Eventually, Yabby Lake in Wujin had something if one needed to scratch a taco itch. For the sake of full disclosure, I haven’t actually been to that place since I moved to Xinbei. However, I have a friend that would vouch for them. However, something relatively new and neat has popped up.

 

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Xinbei has tacos now, and they are fairly good. I have heard rumors that Daniel’s might be doing Mexican on their new menu in the future, but I haven’t had a chance to investigate. I’m talking about something else. I am talking about a place called Fossils on Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street. Fossils is a gut-and-remodel of the old City Corner Bar. Essentially, the owners wanted to reorient their business to towards food as well as pouring drinks.  For example, you can get a decent burger here on a pretzel bun. However, I found myself instantly drawn to the Mexican-inspired options. Changzhou really doesn’t have a lot of that sort of stuff.

 

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Not only do they have hard and soft tacos, but they have quesadillas, burritos, and tostadas. Die hard taco purists might bemoan the lack of guacamole or sour cream, but I have to say I have enjoyed everything I have tried on Fossils’ menu thus far. I also say “Mexican-style” because one of their tacos uses German sausage. I was highly skeptical about that at first, and I actually ordered it with dread. Turns out, it actually works well with the other things in the hard tortilla shell. Moving on, let’s talk about something else with a very high Yum Factor.

 

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They have smothered french fries that incorporates pulled pork, beef gravy, and mozzarella cheese. Can anybody say poutine? It’s very close without actually being that beloved Canadian staple. Still, I loved it and would highly recommend it.

But would a hardcore Canadian from Alberta like it? Well, yes. I actually drank beer and ate at Fossils with one of those types, recently.

So, on to my point. I actually find the food debate of “Is it authentic?” tiresome when it comes to living as a foreigner in China. It’s a pointless argument that will never be won. “Is it authentic?” is not the question somebody should be asking. The question should be: “Does it taste good when you put the food into your mouth, chew, and swallow?” The answer to that — when it comes to Fossils, their poutine, their Mexican fare, and other things — is yes. It’s quite tasty. I look forward to slowly trying all of the other stuff on their menu.

For what it’s worth, it should also be noted that Fossils basically recently opened. The owners and the chef are still tweaking the menu, and so there may be other things in works — I heard a rumor that there might be daily specials at some point. There is nothing really vegetarian, by the way. However, the tacos and messy fries are essentially there to stay. That makes me a happy guy that will be returning often. Also, there is no lunch service, and the doors open at 5:30.

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江苏省常州市新北区河海街道汉江路236号

 

Forgotten Wujin Weirdness

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As noted elsewhere on this blog, the area around and beneath the Wujin TV Tower can be a little weird and creepy. This is especially true for the abandoned retail spaces beneath the tower. That area used to be dedicated to eyeglasses. However, that eventually moved out and to the sunken shopping plaza beneath Hua Yuan Road. You cannot see it in the above photo, but all the entry points to that underground retail area are now blocked off. The above photo is just but one of many. This is likely due to subway construction. So, what did this area used to look like? I think I took the following pictures in 2015.

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Pretty much as abandoned as the circular concourses beneath the tower itself. However, before this place was totally blocked off, there was some semblance of life down here.

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The eye glasses had moved here from beneath the tower. But, even when this was open, it was only at one end of what was essentially abandoned subterranean retail space. However, that was not the weirdest thing down here. The most surreal thing down here were some of the posters that were in one of the men’s bathrooms. These were public service announcements regarding urination.

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Um, rainbows?

At any rate, this whole sunken plaza is on Line 1 of the forthcoming subway. Wujin’s Xintiandi Park and the Tower is a stop on that line. So, this underground retail space will likely be re-purposed. And, who knows, with the metro may come new life. However, part of me has a suspicion the above three posters will not be part of that new life.

 

Xinbei Wanda Hot Pockets

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Most Wanda Plazas in this region have a pedestrian street where boutiques stand side by side with restaurants. Xinbei Wanda Plaza is no different, and one has a pretty standard selection of malatang and more. I know this because I often go to Wanda for dinner while I am on my hour dinner break between my afternoon and night classes at Hohai University. An hour is not a long time to really get an honest dining experience in — and that is not a complaint. So, I mostly opt for quicker, more snack-based fare. One such option includes what, back in Jersey, we would call hot pockets.

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These are baked the same way some Chinese flat breads are.They are slapped against the metal wall inside a barrel oven. Xinbei’s Wanda actually has two options when it comes to this type of snack.

The two above pictures are from Kaobingju 烤饼居. This is a little nook across the way from the Agricultural Bank of China’s door to the their ATM machines. This is on the southern end of the pedestrian street. This is a relatively simple xiaokaobing 小烤饼 consisting of bread around a meat filling. As for vegetarians, there is a bean paste 豆沙 option. On separate occasions, I have tried beef, pork and lamb versions of this. This is also relatively cheap. Roughly 10 RMB will get you a bag of five.

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As for lamb, there is also the Xinjiang restaurant to consider. As full disclosure, I have never actually been inside to try their menu items. However, I have routinely visited their street food window.

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This is where you can get Xinjiang style flat bread. Typically, though, I stop here to get a few lamb skewers / kebabs. However, from time to time, I decide to snack on their hot pockets.

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In Chinese, these are referred to as kaobaozi 烤包子. In some places online, I have read comparisons to what is a “Central Asian Samosa,” and having at more than a few of these over the last few months, that seems pretty accurate.

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Like the earlier mentioned place, these are baked on the inside of a barrel oven. The main differences would be this: they are bigger, and the filling consists of ground lamb mixed with onion. Presently, these go for about 5 RMB each.

Like any bit of street food, both options are essentially fast food while on the go — something to tide you over when I don’t have the time to sit down at a table.

Qingguo Lane Now and Then

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After a couple of years of steady construction and renovation, Qingguo Lane has finally reopened to the public. The city invested a lot of money in this, as the this whole area has been a central part of Changzhou history going back thousands of years. Many wealthy and influential families lived here. The little canal here is likely one reason: it connects to the Grand Beijing-Hangzhou Canal. This tiny artificial waterway was essentially like an on ramp to a mega highway in ancient China. Now, however, this whole area is meant to become one of Changzhou’s signature cultural attractions.

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This idea was not lost on a lot of locals over the Labor Day holidays. The first two days of operation saw massive crowds who came to do a walk through. I was one of those people on a few separate days. The totality of what is actually here, and what is destined to be here years to come, is likely the source of several other blog posts. However, I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate that it’s now open. To do that, I’m going to have to show a few more photos and speak of a famous linguist.

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The above comes from signage that’s located at the west and east entrances of Qingguo.  Note the building with the characters 赵元任故居. The English translation of that would be Zhao Yuanren’s Former Residence. He was a linguistics scholar that eventually became an American citizen. He’s an important figure when you’re studying Chinese, and he’s also important if you are Chinese and studying English. Why? He wrote one of the earliest and most authoritative textbooks on Chinese spoken grammar in English. He’s important for a few other reasons that will make for a separate post at another time. So, recently, I went looking for his house.

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It’s not really there. This is not a complaint; it’s more of an observation. Qingguo Lane has some cool things to look at and some places to shop; however, there are even better things to come. This is just the beginning. The empty spaces will fill in, and more things will be built. However, I also wanted to take a moment to remember what this area used to look like.

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This was not the first time I went looking for Zhao’s Changzhou home.  It looked pretty shabby, abandoned, and crumbling back in 2015.

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Before it closed for renovation, I had often walked through the old Qingguo

It was an easy short cut. However, a lot of the photos I had of the the place were lost when I lost a phone a few years back. Thankfully,I do have one surviving shot. This….

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That was then, and this is now. If you would like to see the current reincarnation of Qingguo, it’s downtown and near Wenhuagong. The east entrance is on Heping Road. The West is on Jinling.

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Funny thing. Map apps still think it’s closed and under reconstruction.

Down a Grape Flavored Rabbit Hole

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Originally, the thought was to take my new ebike and seek out Cangshan Temple in Jiangyin, but as is usual, the weirdest things are always the ones not expected. The Huangtu Grape Corridor was one of them.

But first, where and what is Huangtu? It’s the part of Jiangyin that is right next to Xinbei. Actually, it’s considered a village. The part of it next to the Changzhou city line looks the most urban. The more east you go, the more rural things get. The prime industry here is agriculture, and more specifically, the cultivation of grapes.

So, on my way the above mentioned temple, I saw the “grape corridor” and said, well, why not? The things I ended up finding were not necessarily celebrating grapes. Rather, there were a lot of public signage and tiny parks dedicated to Chinese patriotism.

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This includes a tiny park in honor of Lei Feng. This seems a little odd, since Lei Feng was born in Hunan Province, and he died in Liaoning when a telephone pole fell on him. As far as I can tell, he had no living connection with Huangtu or Jiangyin as a whole. Lei was a member of a transportation unit within the People’s Liberation Army. To this day, his image and likeness lives on as an intended symbol of being a “model citizen.”

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There are other things to see in the area. It does function as an integrated green space as part of a residential community. Huangtu people do live around these parts — which gets into something else.

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A lot of the buildings have vibrant, colorful pictures painted on them. None of it has anything to do with Lei Feng. But then again, Huangtu has little pockets like this in a few other places.

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The more I wandered around, it got weirder. I eventually found an area of the village with cannons.

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I won’t include a picture of an anti-aircraft machine gun.

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But here’s a rocket launcher!

Ok? What gives? Why does this town have old artillery pieces laying around? I was able to figure that out due to the ample signage, but none of it was in English. As I always say, the camera translator on Baidu Translate is sometimes my best friend. The military and patriotism theme in this part of Huangtu is likely due to this guy.

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This is 徐超 Xu Chao. There’s nothing on him in English on the internet. However, he was a battle hardened Chinese general. He had fought in both the war against Japanese Occupation and in the civil war that followed that. Unlike Lei Feng, Xu Chao was actually born in Huangtu.

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Although, it doesn’t look like his former residence is open to the public. Eventually, I moved on and found the temple I was looking for. It was closed and underwhelming, so you could say learning about Xu Chao was the highlight of this jaunt into Xinbei’s closest neighboring village. All of this is roughly five kilometers from where B1 bus turns west towards the Changzhou North Station. An intercity bus making local stops comes out this way. I do have to admit one thing. The last time I visited Huangtu, I left quite unimpressed. Times change, and so do perceptions.

 

The eBike Market of Old

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More than three years ago, I went shopping for a new eBike. This was before this blog even existed. My desire was simple; I wanted something heavy duty that could go long distances. I wanted to be able to go places most other foreigners couldn’t as an effort to learn all I could about Changzhou. Part of my comparative shopping process brought me to a massive eBike market on Zhongwu Dadao. The above grainy cell phone pic was from that time.

Eventually, I did buy the powerful bike I wanted. Only, I didn’t get it there. I got three solid years out of that vehicle. In the end, it started falling apart. Besides, the city government was also about to change regulations and enforcement. Larger bikes were basically going to become illegal. This shift has likely had a profound impact on businesses that sell what was essentially electric motorcycles. I can only guess, because recently, I returned to that massive market. It’s a ghost of what it once was.

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What used to be a thriving place that sold electric bikes of all shapes and sizes is now desolate and empty. Three years ago, all of these store fronts were open.

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One could argue that regulations and policies could have had a shaping influence, but it’s quite possible that this sort of death of a place didn’t happen overnight. It seems other markets have been shrinking in size. The digital plaza near Jiuzhou New World Mall seems to have gone out of business the last time I went there. The cellphone markets on Youdian Road downtown are half empty. Even Computer City isn’t quite what it was a few years ago. Given the city’s continuing growth at a breakneck speed, one can’t argue that this is a sign of a bad economy. Still, it is an indication of a change in consumer buying habits.

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As for eBikes, the current shift in regulations and enforcement does mean one thing. The demand for super bikes clearly isn’t what it was a few years ago, and this old market is now — as I mentioned earlier — a ghost from the past.

Shawarma at Dinosaur Park

UPDATE: April 18, 2019. This place is no longer exists. The owner is looking for a new location.

It’s happened to me across many cities and countries: New York, Brussels, Utrecht, Oxford, and elsewhere. I would be stumble out of a bar, feel a bit peckish, and find a food cart. Street food can be an awesome thing, especially when it’s a gyro, kebab, or a shawarma. When it comes to that last one, I can now add Changzhou to that list of cities.

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A shawarma stand has become a very recent addition to the culinary scene at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei.  Last time I went, it was next to a guy who was frying up shrimp cakes — and that was next to KFC. The name is not in English, but the Chinese goes something like this: 德立士俄式的沙威玛  Dé lì shì É shì de shā wēi mǎ. That literally translates as something like “Russian Shawarma.”

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For those who don’t know, shawarma is slabs of meat skewered on a stick and then rotisserie cooked. It typically tends to be chicken — and other variations like gyro would have it as beef / lamb mixture. The Chinese do something similar with pork and baobing 薄饼卷肉. All three are basically meat and other stuff wrapped in flatbread.

So, what’s the verdict? I can only speak for the chicken and cheese option that I tried recently. It was awesome and I would recommend it to anybody. The chicken was juicey and tender, and the yogurt sauce mixed well with the cheese and veggies. The stand also offers tuna and vegetarian options, but I think I’m basically going to stick with the chicken and cheese for the foreseeable future. It costs about 27 RMB, and it’s filling enough to be a meal unto itself. The owner recently told me that he’s working on getting listed on Meituan and other delivery apps. So, that’s something to look forward to.

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The 8, From Temple to Temple

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Tianning Temple, Downtown Changzhou

As has been stated in previous bus-related posts, most routes have a specific meaning in connecting destinations. The Number 8 city bus is no different. To put it simply, the 8 basically gives people in the former Qishuyan District (now the far eastern part of Wujin) access to Tianning Temple and Hongmei Park. Qishuyan is basically near the city line with Wuxi, and it has historically been linked to Changzhou’s part of the Chinese railroad industry.

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The south entrance of Weidun. The 8 doesn’t actually pass this part. I sued this picture because it was more picturesque the the park admin building the 8 actually stops at.

The 8 does pass near some of the train-related plants and companies, but it also passes one of Qishuyan’s major greenspaces: Weidun Relics Park. There is a prehistorical museum here, but it has be shuttered every time I have been in this part of the city.  About ten more stops past Weidun, and you end up at this line’s terminus.

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So, what is actually out this far? Not much. The area seemed pretty working class and industrial. For instance, there was this ongoing, slow, steady clanking noise from a decrepit factory next to the bus depot. However, there was something out here I wasn’t expecting.

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Yeah, I know this picture looks just like a regular old rough slab concrete road. However, look at the big row building on the left side of the picture. That structure is actually concealing something.  Further into the background, you will see a gap in the buildings. I walked there.

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Turns out, there is a temple out here, tucked away in seclusion. According to Baidu Maps, it’s Guanyin Temple 观音禅寺. It really isn’t open to the public, as all of the unpaved dirt will tell you. This area is not meant for tourism — at least not right now.

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The buildings are basically look like new construction. So, to point out the obvious, here, it looks like a new temple is going up in Qishuyan. I find it interesting though, that the 8’s official terminal points are both temples. That’s likely not an accident, but I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why. For the most part, my estimate would be that this line primarily exists to get people in Qishuyan to Tianning and downtown in general, as stated earlier. Unlike most buses, the fare is 2 RMB on the 8.

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