Thursday, December 13, 2007

Journey to the West

Thus begins my entries on my trip to Tibet. Our first full day has ended, but first I ought to do a little recap on our epic journey here.

Step 1: Acquire Permit. Foreigners aren't allowed to visit Tibet without a special permit which can only be given out by a tour guide, since foreigners can only enter the region on a guided tour. There are loopholes, however. Our friend Marcos hooked us up with this woman who would get us the permit, but didn't expect us to call her once we got to Tibet for our tour. China is all about the guanxi. We were texted an account number to deposit money into and about a week after that sketchy episode an envelope arrived in my room with a flimsy piece of paper certifying us to go (postscript: no one looked at it).

Step 2: Epic train journey. The train from Beijing to Lhasa is high tech. They constantly pump oxygen through the cars. It's fairly new. It allows you to see a great deal of China. It's very cheap. It helps you to gradually adjust to the altitude. It's also 47.5 hours long.

The ride was actually no where near that painful, though. We chatted, read, played cards, played chess, made pengyous to play chess with, slept a lot, ate a ton of fruit and weird tofu. It was not the horrid experience of my imagination - although it probably helped that the train was half empty and we had a 6 person bunk to ourselves.

We did see a great deal of China. We took a big of a zigzagy route: BJ-Xi'an-Lanzhou and finally down through Chengdu. Once we hit the Tibet Plateau it really was a constant stream of postcards through our window. I can now say that I've been on the highest train in the world from which I saw the highest freshwater lake in the world (plus a couple thousand yaks and a mountain or two).

A cozy night on a heated bed later (oh how I adore kangs) we launched into our first Tibetan day. We're quite far west - so sunrise was at 8ish (silly communism). Our jetlagged (can I say that? trainlagged?) selves woke up at 7, but we just read until it was time for the city to wake up around 8:30 - 9.

We decided that today ought to be a day for wandering and becoming accustomed to the city layout. Our hotel was just a block or so north of the Barkhor, so that's where we headed. The Barkhor is a circumambulation route around the Johkang temple that is constantly packed with pilgrims. Even in the depth of winter the route was filled to the max; some walking, some chanting, some spinning prayer wheels and some prostrating. The whole experience (and all of Tibet, really) smells of incense and yak butter.

It's obvious that you must traverse the Barkhor clockwise, because to do otherwise is worse than canoeing upstream on a level 5. These people really are quite a force. We walked until we hit the large plaza in front of the Johkang where we decided to stop for a brunch of tsay momos, butter tsamba and masala. We ate bundled on a rooftop overlooking the plaza and contemplating the mix of devotion and commercialism that lines the Barkhor. If those who prostrate here all the way from their hometowns don't achieve some sort of enlightenment/heaven/whatever alternative, then there really is no God. Surely the one I believe in would respect this devotion.

After brunch we took to wandering some more. We passed in and out of shops and ought woolen insoles - necessary - eventually completing the Barkhor and moving towards the Linkhor (a bigger circumambulation that encompasses the Barkhor and all of Lhasa old town).

While looking for a post office we suddenly found ourselves stumbling upon the Potala palace. I had expected the Potala palace to be impressive, surely, but I hadn't expected the sheer magnitude of it's reality. I had thought that it would be something like the Forbidden City - impressive in it's own right, but jaded by the many spectacular photos I'd already seen. But reall, the Potala Palace has excceed all of my expectations and I just could not look away from it's awesome splendor.

We didn't go into the Potala today (tomorrow) but we did wander the grounds for a bit. We watched an incredibly, horrifically biased Chinese made movie on the history of the palace (that history - by the way - stopped in 1958). We also wandered the Zhou village at it's base which included an incredibly disturbing prison museum that held actual human skins.

Leaving the Potala we wandered the square across the way and befriended some pilgrims over spicy potatoes. We wound up at a yogurt shop where we sat and chatted with the fuquyuan over chang for a long while about Tibetan pronunciation.

Later in our wanderings along the Linkhor we walked through the park behind the Potala. It's a beautiful park, and the focal point is a man made lake (the earth dug out was used to build the Potala) with a temple in the middle (which, no worries, we circumambulated).

After this we returned to the hotel for a quick rest/internet break and got into quite the conversation with our proprietress. She's a very worldly woman. Originally from Taiwan, she came to Tibet 2 years ago because she wanted to be closer to her faith. Throughout her life she's travelled to tons of foreign countries. The woman was a wealth of knowledge and had two unexpected political viewpoints: a free Tibet and a reunited Taiwan/China.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

24 Hours In BJ

So begins my last 24 hours in Beijing. I've started the countdown of the lasts: Today I did my last load of laundry here, I took my last Chinese test, rode line 13 for the last time, tomorrow I'll take my last shower in the dorm, buy my last bubble tea, ride my bike for the last time... the list goes on.

It's bittersweet. I'm leaving a lot of friends, opportunities, fun. But on the flip side I'm going back to a lot of friends, opportunities, fun. It's that weird homesick/friendsick feeling that is reminiscent of camp - because who knows which home or friends I'm missing anymore?

I'm lucky enough to have a week long cushion in the middle of this experience - I'm headed to Tibet tomorrow night. I'll be taking the fancy oxygen train from Beijing to Lhasa, an epic 47.5 hour journey. I'm going to see a lot of China, meet a lot of pengyous, and play a lot of chess. In Lhasa I don't really have much of a plan - can't really, because we don't know what roads are open. We'll clearly do the Lhasa thing, and then there are some sacred lakes we want to see. We'll definitely get out of the city for a bit, and I'd like to visit one of the 5 sacred mountains, perhaps Everest if we can swing it. If you're thinking of me, drop me a line, maybe I'll make friends with a monk who has internet.

So that's pretty much where my life is right now, and why no one will hear from me for about a week. I'll come back for a whirlwind BJ visit on the 22nd, and fly home the 23rd. Thanks to the date line, my 14 hour flight takes off at 5 and lands at 5:40. Trippy, but I'll be home for Christmas.

I miss you all and I'll be home soon to see as many people as I can. Let's start making plans? For now I'll be turning up the volume and - as shuffle has just informed me - having Ozomatli and Crosby Stills and Nash cheer me on through the packing process.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Da Xue Qiu!

First Beijing Snowfall!

[[the view from my room]]

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Finally Getting Around to Doing the Beijing Thing

This morning, after nearly four months in Beijing, I made my requisite visit to the Forbidden City. It was a bit of a quick and dirty version - all in one morning - but I think I got in everything that I wanted to. At first the City was a bit anticlimactic, as much of it is undergoing remodeling for the upcoming Olympics. It's just like when I was in Athens, and all my pictures of temples came with lovely scaffolding. Quite a few of my pictures of the main halls in the Forbidden City, what you think of when you think of it, are covered in tarp and metal. Really quite beautiful.
However, the halls off to the sides were not only devoid of scaffolding, but also of orange-hatted Chinese tourist groups, so they were definitely worth a visit. The two most interesting side halls I visited were the Hall of Mental Cultivation and the Hall of Water. The Hall of Mental Cultivation contains sacred calligraphy works that date back thousands of years. It used to contain 3, as the name implies, but one of the emperors tried to flee with his favorite, and was caught. The confiscated piece is in the Nanjing museum. I found the Hall of Water after being directed down a random alley by a friendly guard. It was really cool. The hall was built on top of the site of the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, but it was never finished, so now there is this erie building that hovers shell like over a hole in which you can see the foundations that were to make up the cellar. The Palace of Prolonging Happiness burned down in the mid 1800s, so when they went to replace it, it only seemed to make sense to build a Hall of Water instead. (This is the same that the roof tiles of the forbidden city are all yellow, except for the library. Yellow is the color of the royal family, but black is the color of water, and hopefully will protect the books from burning down.)
Definitely the most worthy place (in my opinion) to visit in the Forbidden City is the Hall of Clocks. It's an extra 10 kuai to get in, but it's wicked cool. I made friends inside with one of the volunteer workers, a retired mechanical engineer with a passion for clocks who spends his Wednesdays showing people around the Hall of Clocks. He's been working on learning English so he can volunteer with the Olympic Committee next year, so we had a lively language exchange for a while, and he taught me a lot about those awesome clocks that I never would have learned from the plaques alone. It's amazing what those clocks can do - one runs simply on water, and another one can even write calligraphy!
During the course of my wanderings I met some artists and headed over to their studio South of Tiananmen to hang out for a bit. They were really cool, and now I have a bunch of awesome art.
It was a pretty exhausting morning, and I still have so much to do today. It's pretty overwhelming. But I have so little time left, and so much to squeeze in, it's just crazy. I finish my program a week from tomorrow, and leave for Tibet a few hours later. There is so so so much Beijing, and so little time.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pashaning in the Yulin + Wanna Eat That Spider?

Thanksgiving Weekend Day III

The next morning I was woken up at 5 (which is really 4 Yunnan time) by the Zhang’s menagerie of animals, specifically their evil rooster that just struts around the yard like he’s hot shit all day and doesn’t make a peep unless it’s dark outside and a time for sleeping. Not that I’m bitter, or anything. But I did sleep really well in our attic hidey-hole ‘till then. When we woke and went downstairs, we found the women in the kitchen preparing breakfast, while the men (Xuedan’s father, brother, and several other relatives and/or village members) preparing to go out to the fields to farm. They were planting beans. Since the village is very communal, they were all getting ready to work the same field. I’m not entirely positive, but I’m pretty sure that no one has private land, except for their homes, in Xiangming, and even the homes are practically public land, the way people come and go. Xuedan’s father was in the front of the house cutting large bamboo strips lengthwise to become trellises for the beans to climb. The rest of the men headed down to the field. Since we, once again, were not allowed to help in the kitchen, we asked the guys if we could help in the fields. They at first refused, and wouldn’t even let us go down and watch. But after some insisting, and after befriending a man introduced to us as Xuedan’s grandfather (who clearly wasn’t her zhende grandfather, and whom we from then on referred to as hao pengyou), they decided they could teach us how to plant the beans and let us help. Our desire to farm, however, continued to baffle them to the extreme. They’re probably still not over it. We were each equipped with a poking stick and were told to poke holes about a fingers depth and place 3 dried black beans into the hole. Then you use the blunt end of the poking stick to sift dirt over the top of the hole, but not pack it down. Each line of bean field was covered with a strip of saran wrap type plastic that we poked through. I was told this plastic was to keep the land warm enough (although I can’t imagine this is a severe issue, as in November the average temperature was in the 70s).
After planting for a bit, Xuedan and her mother called us up to the kitchen for breakfast where we had leftovers from the night before as well as homemade zhou from tea and rice, and discussed our pending rainforest hike. Xuedan asked if we wanted to shower first, but we (wisely in retrospect) chose to abstain ‘till after the hike. So Xuedan gathered her pengyous, and we gathered some granola bars and water (they took none and looked at us weird) and set out. We blindly followed 20 year old men with machetes for a bit before one of them pointed out the small mountain we were to climb. It was beautiful. I’ll post a picture.
We set out on a little marked dirt trail that winded through the back of the village and out through some tea fields before plunging full force into the forest. It sounded like the rainforest café soundtrack, but it was real life, and I kept expecting to see a monkey leaping out at me, but was consistently disappointed. Oh well, I guess there’s no wild monkeys in that part of Yunnan.
We hiked past waterfalls and along side of some treacherous cliffs. At one point we began commenting on all these crazy spiders along the trail. They were huge, and black with neon yellow spots. They were also everywhere. The second our friends realized we were interested, they let out an “oh!” and simply grabbed one down, deftly wrapping up its legs with its own web. It was crazy, within seconds this spider was sitting helpless between Xuedan’s fingers when she offered it to me as a xiaochi – snack. I just stared in shock and managed a few zhendemas. They kept insisting that it was delicious, and that I could either eat it now or take it home and fry it up. I ended up declining, and so did my friends. Xuedan and her friends weren’t hungry either, so before I could say anything, Xuedan just flippantly tossed the spider over her shoulder and into the bushes. It was so sad: that spider, I suppose, will just wait to die there since it’s all tied up so tightly in it’s own web – oh the irony!
After going up and up for a while we hit a riverbed that we followed for quite some time. After a bit of walking one of our new friends decided they needed a smoke break and a snack, so we stopped and rested on some rocks while he went, selected what seemed to be a random lilly pad and yanked it out by the root. He then went and cleaned it off in the river, stripped it down with his machete, and offered it to us to eat. Xuedan busted out with some spicy/salty dipping stuff that we had used for peppers at breakfast. These roots were delicious! They were super sour, which was offset by the dipping stuff, but then had a sweet aftertaste. It was quite the rollercoaster for the tastebuds, and I’m really hoping I can figure out an English name for them sometime.
We continued following the river for a while, but pretty soon the banks severely narrowed and it became a pretty extreme game of hopping from slippery rock to slippery rock. Eventually we had to give in and accept the fact that we were going to have squishy socks. While the squishy sock phenomenon is for the most part uncomfortable, the coolness was quite welcome during the extreme morning heat combined with our intense hike.
Our next smoke break (I’m convinced that every man in China is a chain smoker – great combo with the pollution) we stopped at the village’s bamboo collection site. It was just a little hut where a farmer could live for a day or two while harvesting bamboo. It also served as a bamboo storage site.
After a bit more rock hopping/wading we emerged in some dried up rice paddies. The rice had already been harvested, and it was the start of the dry season, so we were able to just walk straight across the fields. It was here that we walked up to what appeared to be a solid wall of woods climbing a steep hill and were told that the Buddhist place was just through there. We were also told that we couldn’t touch about half of the plants because they were either poisonous or dangerously spiny. Fab combo. This did look impenetrable, but we were told “Meiwenti” and to roll our pants down. They asked us to wait while two of the boys went in with machetes and hacked a path through for us. We had been using those machetes throughout our hike, but this was just extreme. Really, if it weren’t for them, we would never have been physically able to reach the Buddhist site.
A few minutes later the boys yelled for us to come up, so everyone else began the scramble up the hill, which involved grabbing onto tree branches and vines and hauling yourself up. It was only a few meters, but it made Simatai look like child’s play. At the top we came out into a small clearing with a miniature grotto. There was one small grotto with a Buddha in it, quite high up, and a carving of a local god at eye level. I later learned that the local god has the ability to enter the earth and reemerge wherever he feels fit, just seconds later. Pretty sweet power. Above the clearing were some crazy stalagmites (or tites? whichever one grows down from a ceiling). We learned that the vegetation around this area was so extremely thick because it’s only visited (usually) once a year, by children who are bringing offerings for good luck for the year. Here we also pulled out our granola bars to share. The nature valleys went over HUGE with our new friends, so I’ve made a mental note to mail them some when I get home. Maple syrup is not a flavor that exists in Asia.
Continuing on our way, we stopped to say hello to some people working in one of the fields neighboring the rice paddies and pick some wild tangerines and some other fruit that’s a relative of the pomegranate, but I have no idea what it actually is. I didn’t really like the pomegranate thing, but the tangerines were AMAZING. Highly recommended.
After this we kept hiking and eventually reached the summit of our climb. The view was spectacular. In this picture you can see the village of Xiangming nestled in the valley below. Rather than go back through the rainforest, we took the direct, but steep, path down this slope. I only tripped once, but I fell on the tangerine I had been saving for later and completely juiced myself. Along the way we passed tons of these little huts; some even had farmers hanging out in them that we stopped to chat with.

Thus ends a very successful rainforest hike. I saw and learned a lot. It was spectacular. When we returned to Xuedan’s house
her mother made us eat something and take a nap before we could do anything else. After our nap we showered off the rainforest and just chilled with the family for a bit. We did some karaoke in the living room, and taught her brother how to play BS. Then Xuedan offered to show us around her town. It didn’t take long to walk from end to end (5 minutes), but we met a ton of people and played some intense games of badminton with the kids who had just gotten out of school (around 6 – count your blessings, America). Xuedan also taught us how to harvest and eat our own sugarcane and youzi, which grew in some random person’s backyard, but since this is a communal village it was meiwenti that we went in there unannounced and macheted ourselves some sugarcane. Pretty cool stuff.
That night after dinner we went downtown (a 5 second walk) to hang out with our new friends. We sat around Mrs. Zhang’s Shao Kao stand (where she grills a whole range of random items) and chatted. We sat on low stools around a short table made of wood set up on concrete blocks. The boys heard that we thought their motorcycles were cool, so we got rides around town. Basically we just sat around hanging out and eating sunflower seeds for 4 hours while having a good chat.
The next morning our bus left at 8, so we just woke up to the rooster and headed out with little ceremony, although we made the family let us take their picture so we can send it to them later. They have precious few pictures, and those three that they have they clearly treasure, so I think a family picture would be a nice gift. Our bus was uneventful, except for our waiguorenness being commented on every five minutes by the other bus patrons. We made it to Jinghong around noon and found ourselves with the rest of the day to spend before we left for Kunming around 7:30.
Dai food for lunch and market exploration till late fit the bill, as well as a quick stop at the Blind Massage College for a sample, which turned into an hour-long sample. My suspicions are confirmed, however, that I am super ticklish and massages probably are not the best option for me. Cest la vie. One night bus, one plane ride, and one shuttle bus later, and I arrived back at Bei Wai by noon with a whole day to spend recouping and prepping for the next day’s tingxie. A Thanksgiving weekend well spent, and certainly one to be thankful for.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Never Doubt the Kindness of Strangers

Thanksgiving Weekend Day II:

We pulled into Jinghong at 6:30 am, but it looked like 5:30 because China is all on one time zone. This picture of the entry gate was taken at sunrise, so it's a bit dark. The first thing we did was to buy return tickets, since we weren't sure when we would be back in Jinghong, and if then there would be open seats on the bus. Next we went straight to a cafe for some breakfast - crazy overnight busses really take it out of you. We looked at our map of Jinghong that we had brought along and determined that the bus stop was labeled as being on the North side of town and assumed that we would find cafes in the center of town. So we pull out our handy dandy compass to figure out which was is South and set out. We quickly found that this was the incorrect decision, since the buildings started to fade away and the landscape turned into rainforest. We asked a few construction workers which way it was to the center of town. They all laughed and pointed back in the way we'd come. Now, Jinghong isn't very big, but this bus station had been moved obscenely far down, so we were in for a bit of a trek North. Silly outdated maps. We eventually settled into some muesli and discussed our next move.
According to our original plan, we were to head to the bus station on the North side of town (for real - we asked several people to confirm) and buy tickets to Damenglong, get there by 1ish, complete a 6 hour hike/tractor or elephant hitch, and then find a place to sleep. We ran our itinerary by the people who ran the cafe we were in and they agreed that it was a good plan. Fantastic! We make it to the bus station around 10 and inquire about tickets. Not only does the driver try to charge us twice as much as the Chinese people for the ride, we also discover that because of road construction our original 2 hour journey had become a 4-6 hour one. Since we still needed to do a 6 hour hike, the trip just became somewhat impossible. It's not exactly polite to ask around for a place to sleep if you arrive in town at 10ish at night. While we're sitting around in the bus station lamenting and trying to figure out another town to go to, a girl who was helping us fight for a fair ticket price asked us why we wanted to go to Damenglong in the first place. We told her that we wanted to hike in the rainforest, see some Buddhist sites, meet a bunch of minority people etc. She thought for a minute and then said (in Chinese of course) "You know, you could do all that at my place. My friends and I could show you around. I bet my parents would let you stay in the attic." Obviously this sounded like the best plan ever so we quickly agreed. Her bus was leaving in 10 minutes, and as it turned out there were only 4 seats left on the bus - and four of us. It was fate. Suddenly we found ourselves on a minibus for a five hour ride on a dirt road through some of the most beautiful tropical landscape that I've ever seen. (Kyla, if you're reading, I'm pretty sure a Chinese minibus = a Kenyan matatu). Along the way we chatted with our new friend - Zhang Xuedan - and confused the heck out of everyone who boarded the bus and did not ever in their lives expect to find waiguoren sitting in the back seat.
Xuedan lives in a small town called Xiangming. I've since tried to Google this town, and tried to find it on a map anywhere, both with no success. How crazy is that? It's a tiny Yi village, and most of the people who live there are communal farmers. There is a bit of a downtown that stretches along the main road that's comprised of a couple shops, a market and even a KTV, but it only covers a distance of a couple hundred meters. We were the first white people to visit the village in about a decade, and thus the first white people many of the children there had ever seen - it was pretty exciting stuff for them, and they lined the streets to stare and yell hello in our direction (all Chinese schools offer beginning English, so no matter where you go, you're always greeted with a hello of sorts). Xuedan's home was hand made of bamboo, you could see the sky from our attic spot. There was obviously no need for much protection from the elements - it's late November and the average temperature during our visit was about 75 degrees. Since Thursday was Thanksgiving (which we explained to our new host family), Xuedan and her mother cooked up quite the feast in the giant wok that served as the only implement in their kitchen. They wouldn't let us help, but we did observe the cooking process (and took notes on how to do it) and familiarized ourselves with the many animals that lived on their farm.
Our Thanksgiving feast was spectacular. Everything we ate was grown on the farm. The Zhangs are entirely self sufficient. They grow beans and rice and several other veggies. They have fruit trees and sugar cane in the village that are communal. They have several chickens and pigs that are used for meat. They also hunt (they shot down what they claimed was a mouse, although I'm quite sure it was not since when they showed me the head it was quite large, for a celebratory we-have-white-people-in-town meal). Everything was pretty spicy, and the beans (the Zhang farm specialty) were absolutely spectacular. Like really. Who ever would have thought I'd be blown away by beans? After dinner we met a couple of Xuedan's friends, and her father when he returned home from hunting, but since we were so tired we went to bed early with promises of rainforest hiking in the morning.
Xuedan gave us a candle to light our way to the blankets she had laid out for us in the attic, and we fell asleep looking at the moon and the stars through the spaces between the bamboo that made up the roof. It was glorious.

All in all, it was a pretty spectacular and once-in-a-lifetime Thanksgiving. How was everyone else's Thanksgivings? Please keep me posted! I'll write more about my trip when I have the time.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Xiao Chiing in the Eternal Spring City

Thanksgiving Weekend Part I

This past weekend my program asked us to find a friend or two and arrange a long weekend for ourselves. If our itinerary proved to be educational (and if we stuck to it) they would refund us 1000 kuai (an incredibly substantial amount of money - sweet). So, I proposed that my friends and I head down to Xishuangbanna, mainly because I really like the Dai restaurant behind East Campus, and because it's tropical and has elephants and pineapples. Our proposed itinerary was something like this:
-Fly to Kunming, hang out till next flight.
-Fly to Jinghong
-Take bus to Damenglong
-Hike from Damenglong to Bulangshang over about 2 or 3 days, finding homes to stay in as we go.
-Take bus from Bulangshang back to Jinghong
(all of the above villages are Dai)
-Fly to Kunming
-Fly to Beijing.

An excellent plan if I do say so myself. However, it's not entirely how things turned out, although that's probably for the better. Here's the real story of my Thanksgiving weekend:

We flew to Kunming on Tuesday night as planned, however we did not book a connecting flight to Jinhong because it was so expensive. (It cost almost as much for the 45 minute flight to Jinhong as it did for our 3 hour flight from Beijing!) Luckily, we had heard that there was an overnight bus to Jinghong from Kunming for about 180 kuai, so we decided to wing it. So we got into Kunming at about 1:30 am, fought with a cab driver, and eventually settled into the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in for 40 kuai a night. The south is wonderfully cheap.
The next morning we woke up and went straight to the bus station. Fabulously, this rumor about an overnight bus was truth and no rumor, so we bought tickets and found ourselves with a whole unexpected day to spend in Kunming (as our bus didn't leave till 8:30. We spent the day eating (or in my case, eating and totally stressing about this bus situation - 12 hours on a bus?!). First we found a place to eat across the bridge noodles - the local Kunming specialty. The noodles were pretty good, but even better was the catfight that broke out over noodle prices while we were there. A huge crowd gathered and the police got involved. There was hair pulling and spitting and slapping and even shoving people out into traffic. I managed to snap a quick picture, but got many many disapproving looks.
We decided it would be cool to check out this temple just outside the city that is supposed to have really crazy statues, so we began our trek northward to the minibus station just as the fight was getting to be a little too intense and it felt like we should move along. On the road we ate all sorts of tropical fruits, and even found STRAWBERRIES. These wonderful berries, as far as I knew up till this point, didn't exist in China. No one I've met in Beijing has ever tasted one, or even heard of them. They were glorious.

We eventually wandered into a street of wedding candy shops, made a pengyou, and bought pounds of different candies that we either ate or handed out to small children along the rest of our journey this weekend.
Kunming was really interesting in that the south part of the city (where we started walking) felt like one of the more third-world-like cities (I realize that's not so PC) that I've been to in China, but the further north we went the more modern things
became. It wasn't quite the same juxtaposition that I found in Shanghai's old sectors, but it was a pretty quick transition from street side markets and run down buildings to impressive skyscrapers and beautifully cultivated lake districts.

After wandering around Kunming for a few more hours, eating several other kinds of specialty xiao chi, and wandering through a church and a mosque, we found ourselves at this obscenely large market. I like to refer to it as the taste testing market, since pretty much every stall allowed you a free (and substantially large) taste test of what they were selling. It was all absolutely delicious and tropical (although some of the stuff was wicked weird - but hey, this is still China). Later we wandered though another market, but this one was clothes and jewelry rather than food. Before we knew it, the sun was going down and it was clearly too late to get to this temple, so we made our new goal the vegetarian restaurant in Kunming that Lonely Planet absolutely raved about. 3 of the 4 of us are vegetarian (and the 4th willing to make the switch for the trip) so I was in good company. That restaurant turned out to be closed, so we got a recommendation from some monks for another veggie place down the block. It turned out to be quite delicious, and Terra's 21st birthday was a success.
Just after dinner we rushed off to the bus station to figure out what this whole overnight bus business was all about. These buses are pretty well designed. From the outside it looks like a regular coach bus, but the inside has been gutted and replaced with three rows of reclined, bunked, seats - the backs are at about 45 degree angles - and they all overlap each other a bit, so your legs are underneath the person in front of you from the shin down. Luckily we had all bottom bunks (I think I would have freaked out if I were on top) and my friends were kind enough to keep me out of the middle row. In general the bus was a lot less claustrophobic than the train, since it was windows all around, but it wasn't the most comfortable sleeping experience of my life. It was cleanish, however (they made you remove your shoes and put them in plastic baggies before boarding), and they made bathroom stops every 2 hours (so the on board bathroom wasn't ever used, I don't think, and thus no smelliness). I did not sleep incredibly well, although my ipod helped, and whenever I woke up I was greeted with a vision of glorious mountains or beautiful lakes. This picture is the view from my bed. I wish I was better able to capture the bus ambiance. The movie, by the way, was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It was in English and perpetuated the worst Asian stereotypes ever.
We finally pulled into Jinghong at about 6:30 in the morning (after a bit of a rough patch where the highway was under severe construction for about 10 kilometers and reduced to a muddy, rutted road I didn't think our bus would be able to pull through). It was still wicked dark because of the whole all-of-china-is-one-timezone-phenomenon. But more on Jinghong later, when I have more time to write.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Random Beijingness

Just a quick update on what's going on in my life:

Last week I went with my econ class to tour the Lenovo headquarters. The building was gorgeous and filled with crazy electronics - as would be expected. We got free coffee (which is the height of luxury in Beijing) and VIP stickers (which paled in comparison to the coffee) and then commenced a tour of the factory. I got to see PCs being made, and going through crazy tests, like high heat and mini earthquakes. We also talked with some of the workers, who all seemed quite happy in their jobs. Awesomely, Lenovo provides them all with apartments near the building, so they only have to pay utilities. In Beijing real estate is crazy crazy expensive, so that's a pretty sweet deal. This picture is of their interior courtyard where any employee can go to "have a rest" and where office employees can choose to work, since it is equipped with wireless. This Lenovo vending machine is also the first place in China where I've seen Pepsi products.

Saturday I played around in the Hutongs for a bit, which is always a good time. The neighborhoods there are just too cute. I also found this billboard in the subway on the way over there. It's an ad for paidui - trying to convince Chinese people that lining up for the subway is cool, and that it's polite to let other people off the train first before you barrel in. Saturday night I was sitting in a cafe waiting for my friend and reading a Chinese magazine when I stumbled across some of the most glorious Chinglish ever, unfortunately it's a bit inappropriate to post on this blog. The actual Chinese was an advertisement for showerheads. Innocent enough.

Sunday I went over to my friend's host family for lunch. Since it was a celebration for her birthday, they made each of the dishes that she's ever expressed appreciation for. Meaning, there was a veritable feast before us and I was so full for the next two days it was ridiculous. All the girls in my Chinese level took our Chinese teachers out for dinner that night, and it was a bit miserable because I just couldn't think about eating more food.

Tonight I'm headed out for Xishuangbanna. I encourage you to Google this destination. It's a pretty sweet place, and I'm getting quite excited. I'll be back on Sunday.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

In China, 11/11 is More Complicated Than a Rorschach Test or: That Day I Walked a Lot

This past Sunday was a momentous occasion for three reasons that I can think of at the moment.

1. I Circumambulated the 2nd Ring Road.

Beijing is made up of a grid system (pretty much) overlaid by a series of concentric circles. The road surrounding the forbidden city is the first ring road. I live on the 3rd ring road. Deng deng. Anyhow, I wanted to understand the city better - I've been to a lot of places, but I'm wasn't quite so sure how it all fit together - so I decided to walk the ring. The first ring road is clearly for wimps, and the third would have taken me two days, but the second seemed just right. Four legs of 8 kilometers, plus a 5ish kilometer detour through the hutongs (where Steven Spielberg has recently bought a home) and a two hour break for lunch at American food mecca Steak and Eggs = an 8am to 6:30pm journey of awesomeness.

I brought along a couple of laoshis, including the history professor, so things were definitely a lot more interesting. They clearly had all sorts of tidbits to throw in. We started at Xizhimen and in true Buddhist fashion proceeded north so we would head in a clockwise direction. That meant that the hutongs were up first. At the first lake we were confronted with this sight:

No, those are not dead bodies in the bags. A couple of questions later, it turns out that this is a Buddhist group who buys fish from restaurants (where they're often swimming happily in their aquariums on full display 'till someone orders some dinner) and then free them into the lakes. I love the idea, but I do worry that those sorts of breeds may not be best fit for these lakes. After slipping through Houhai, we ended up at this gorgeous neighborhood where the aformentioned star (as well as some other big names, including Clinton - the Chinese LOVE him) own homes. This neighborhood was so cute that I'll be returning for lunch/the afternoon tomorrow. We also broke into an old hutong converted into a psychiatric hospital and poked around for about 15 minutes before being kicked out.

We hit the lama temple and cut a corner in order to check out a Buddhist nunnery. We weren't able to stay and poke around though, since a living buddha was about to start a lecture and the place was absolutely buzzing with the devout and with women in grey robes and shaved heads.

A quick southward jaunt through Western Chaoyang and past all the olympic monuments ended at the Russian district (always a throw off - all the signs are Russian, no Chinese in sight) and a glorious lunch. The head chef/manager of Steak and Eggs was the former head chef/manager of all the restaurants in Howard Johnsons of Canada. So this guy knows his North American fare, and pancakes, pie and rootbeer have never been more welcome than after a 25 kilometer journey.

For the last leg of our trip we traveled through the area that held host to the Boxer Rebellion. It was a completely different place. I could have sworn I wasn't in Beijing. The streets were quiet, tree lined, rich looking. It was nuts. The Catholic cathedral is here (Boxers, right?) and it's gorgeous. I'll have to try and make it for a mass before I leave Beijing (SO MUCH TO DO BEFORE I LEAVE!) We also walked past Wen Jiaobao's house. The place was immense, and beautiful and in that spectacular neighborhood, as is only appropriate, the man is a baller.

Just steps from Wen's place was Tiananmen. I NEVER would have guessed we would be coming up on it if my map hadn't told me so, because that neighborhood was just so incredibly different from anything else I've ever experienced in Beijing.

After Tiananmen there wasn't much new. I went back through the market area and calligraphy street that I visited earlier this semester, and there's not too much to say about Xierhuanlu. So, back to the list, shall we?


If you read my China Rage entry, you may recall a little note on paidui day. Paidui means "to line up." Paidui day is officially recognized on the 11th of every month, because the two one's in the number eleven look like two people standing up. On this day you're supposed to line up in an orderly fashion to board the bus, subway, etc etc. This clearly does not happen, because A. it's China, B. it's one cause of my China Rage, and C. most Chinese haven't even heard of paidui day, despite the little government official in the red sash who shows up on the 11th to regulate it.

Unfortunately, because I was trekking, I was unable to use the subway on Sunday, and try as I might I never walked by a bus line that was a line and not a violent mob. So I decided (much to my chagrin) to ask my fudao laoshi about it. The conversation went like this:

Me: Shangge zhuo mou shi yi ge jie ma? (Was last weekend a holiday?)
Fudao: DUI! Ni shi hen congming! (YES! You're so smart!)
Me: Qian sui! Shi le da paidui jie, dui bu dui? (HORAY! It was big line up day, right?)
Fudao: Ni shuo shenme? (I have no idea what you're talking about).

Leads to a hopeless explination in which I explain paidui day, and then explain my assumption that II/II would be a big paidui day, since there are 4 people in line. This, in turn, leads to list item #3

3. National Singles Day!

So it actually was a holiday here on Sunday, just not paidui day (apparently, although I'm still convinced it was, just my fudao didn't know). It was national singles day, which follows the same logic as paidui, II/II looks like a bunch of single people standing around with no significant others. You celebrate this day in three ways that I have learned:
1. Eating popsicles and other foods that look like the #1 (get your minds out of the gutter - this is entirely innocent).
2. Going out to dinner with your other single friends to revel in your singleness.
3. Going to singles parties to attempt to find another single to fall in love with in order to end your singleness. (I agree, 2 and 3 contradict, but don't you really want a popcicle now?

I think that's all for now. Hope everyone is doing well!


P.S. Today I used the post office successfully. That = cause for celebration. I think I'll go eat a popcicle.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tian Tan, Muslim District, Tea Street

On Wednesday of this week I went over to the Temple of Heaven, Tian Tan. I tried to get there early to avoid the crowds, but my hour long bus ride may have defeated that purpose. I did get there a little before 9 though, and while it was wicked crowded, I did manage to get a few pictures of the temples without millions of people in them. Unfortunately it was also quite smoggy, although I've attempted to fix both the people and pollution factors in photoshop (I like to call it the "china button.")

I didn't have too much time to walk around, since I had a meeting back on campus at noon, but I did my best to squeeze everything in. I went to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and it's associated halls, the Vault of Heaven and it's Echo Wall and the Circular Mound Altar. It was all wicked interesting. I learned quite a bit in the museums, and at one point acted as a translator for this American couple whose tour guide didn't speak very good English. That was a great opportunity both to practice my Chinese and to take advantage of the tour guide to ask questions.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the temple you think of when you try and picture the Temple of Heaven (which is actually a huge complex of parks and temples). One of the museums walked me through the steps to worship here. The emperor first had to fast for a few days in the Fasting Palace (the one building I was unable to visit), then he had to approve the animal sacrifices, then watch the sacrifices being made (in fire, usually 3 cows), say his prayers, then retreat to Tiananmen to announce that he had prayed. Something I'm still a bit confused about (and my Chinese just wasn't good enough for me to figure it out) is what sort of religion the Temple is for, and what religion was official at the time. I'll have to do a bit more research (unless someone could enlighten me).

The Vault of Heaven wasn't too stimulating, although I think the major draw of this place is the echo wall. You can stand on one side of the circular wall and whisper along it, and your friend on the other side will hear you quite clearly. Since I was alone I couldn't really participate in that, perhaps another time. The mound mirrors the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, except that there's no building. It's pretty cool to stand in the middle though. If there weren't such a long line, and if I weren't so pressed for time I would have asked someone to take a picture of me there, but it's probably for the best, since that would most likely have been quite tacky.

On the way home I took the new subway line! Line 5 is beautiful, and I'm quite jealous that I have no reason to take it all the time. It's designed just like the subway I took in Shanghai, except newer and more wonderful. I'm excited to keep taking it.

Today I had planned on going to Maliandao, Beijing's tea street. I recruited some friends and we decided we would grab lunch in the Muslim district on the way, since it was nearish and we're all missing Xinjiang food like crazy. I have still yet to figure out why the street is called Niujie (niurou de niu, for you Chinese speakers) Lunch was fabulous, and then we decided that while we were in the area we might as well check out the Mosque there, which we learned was built in the 900s. It was a good decision because it was crazy cool. If there was no Arabic, and if you didn't know any better, you wold most definitely think that it was a Buddhist temple. It was gorgeous though, and most certainly worth a visit. Plus, the guy we paid our entrance fee to was just so jolly. Actually, everyone in the Muslim district was quite jolly, especially our waiter at lunch. We also discovered that the Muslim district is an excellent xiao chi location, and I am now stocked for a while.

We finally made it to Maliandao around 4. It's pretty overwhelming, and after some random stuff we ended up at this tea shop tea tasting for hours and chatting it up over watermelon seeds with these random people. It was really cool, and I know a lot more about tea and the tea ceremony than I ever did before. I'm really glad we ended up staying impromptu for so long and really checking stuff out. I have a tea guy (well, actually, girl) now!

Terra had to leave to meet her soc. class (is there a proper spelling of soc. as is sociology?) so I decided to walk North until I was tired and/or had to pee after my gallons of tea. So I walked for a while and eventually made it home. It was nice to walk around a new and random part of Beijing, especially since tonight wasn't quite as hanleng as it's been lately.

I think that's about it for now. Tomorrow I'm circumambulating the 2nd ring road. I think it'll take me about 7-9 hours, depending on where I stop and such. I'll keep you posted.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Eating My Way Through Shanghai

This past weekend some friends and I went to Shanghai. Because I wanted to. So I made some people come with me.

We caught our train Friday evening after my harrowing experience attempting to register for classes in a sketchy wangba. Since I was in Shaolin the previous weekend, I wasn't able to be at the train station when the tickets went on sale, so I wasn't able to buy sleepers. Boo. But it was ok. I got us soft seats, which are like airplane seats but with more legroom. Granted it's not the best way to travel 12 hours overnight, but my only complaint was actually the freezing temperatures in the middle of the night. I packed for Shanghai, not the Arctic. During the trainride we drove through my roommate's hometown, which she pointed out to me. It had a giant nuclear reactor in the middle and extreme smog/pollution/death as far as the eye could see. Really, quite pleasant.

We pulled into Shanghai about 7am on Saturday. Luckily my roommate was with us to negotiate putting 3 people into rooms that were potentially meant for 2. (They had 2 towels, 2 toothbrushes, etc, but the bed was definitely big enough for 3). This was substantially cheaper, so we were quite happy (if only equivalent US hotels cost me $7 a night). The hotel was pretty funky. There was fruit in the floor, and the whole interior was done up in art deco colors. The best part, however, were the bathrooms. There were decorative white rock piles beneath the sinks, but best of all the shower had a large window that looked out over the bed. It was like this in every room. The frosted glass part of the shower really was not high enough to cover much (unless you were wicked short I suppose) and then the writing down the side totally defeated the purpose whatsoever. Please reference this picture. My words do not do it's absurdity justice. I suppose it was a nice way to get some daylight into the bathroom?

After we found a hotel and everyone showered and everything, we finally headed to brunch around 10. For brunch we went to Winter's Dad's Best Friend's restaurant. The connection is really not as ridiculous as that sounds (think about it) and its pretty cool that we've got connections. From the restaurant we went to the Old Town area. Since Shanghai is a pretty young city, Old Town has nothing on it's Kashgar equivalent, but it's still definitely worth a visit. However, the guidebooks don't lie: avoid this place on the weekends if at all possible. It was a veritable mass of people. We window shopped for a bit and tried some local delicacies, including baby squid/octapus thingy on a stick (full body - see picture), dragon's beard candies (shredded sugar stuff with peanuts) and chou dofu. For the non-chinese speakers, chou dofu means "smelly tofu." This is no lie. Every time we approached a chou dofu stand I first thought that we were approaching an overflowing sewer (not uncommon in Beijing - but would have been shocking in Shanghai) and then I thought I was going to puke. I did eat it though, and no vomit. It was pretty tasty once you added sauce - and ran away from the smell. Shanghai is most famous for it's Xiao Long Baozi. Baozi are like dumplings, but with thicker skin. This particular kind is filled with soup that you slurp through a straw before eating the baozi. See picture. We did not try, although we all sincerely wanted to, the ovaries and digestive tract of a crad.

In Old Town we also visited the famous 9 corner bridge, which crosses a pond filled with bajillions of incredibly fat koi fish. Then we went to Yu Yuan, a gorgeous gorgeous garden that some officials decided to build themselves one day. It took 18 years to cultivate the plants to perfection. I think it was destroyed twice, once during a war and once during the cultural revolution, but it's looking pretty top notch these days. The pictures were pretty much non-stop and it proved an excellent place for a rest in the sun for a bit (we were pretty tired from our journey, and Shanghai is about 70 degrees to Beijing's 40). Immediately after this rest we went back to sampling Shanghai street delicacies: tofu w/ quail eggs, black corn, glutenous rice balls with stuff on them, fruit concoctions. I was not messing around when I titled this post.

Next up: The French Concession. The French Concession is this lovely neighborhood that never actually had that many French people in it, but today still has excellent coffee, and a baguette or two if you search hard enough. This is also where Sun Yatsen hid out for a while after the whole Yuan Shikai debacle. So obviously we wandered the area for a bit and wished we lived in the neighborhood, and then settled down at a coffee shop for afternoon tea.

Post delicious tea we walked/wandered Shanghai until we reached the trendy district of Xintiandi. It was my oh-so-missed ethnic food for dinner. Indian/Malaysian/Thai. No words really. This meal was indescribable.

We wanted to see the Pudong side of the river (with all those crazy buildings) lit up at night (like you do in every media about Shanghai), so at about 10:15 we grabbed a cab over that way. We pull up, and walk down Nanjinglu (the Time's Square of Asia) which is suspiciously dead, except for creepy Chinese boys asking us where we're going and if they can come. We hit the bund, walk up the stairs all excited, and find it dark. Dark! Zhendema!? I interrogate a street vendor and learn that they TURN OFF THE LIGHTS at 10:30. It's now just after that. I'm all about energy conservation, but since when has CHINA conserved energy? It was quite dissapointing, but I'm getting over it knowing that it's on every postcard ever made, and I can look at those whenever I want. And it was just as impressive by daylight anyways.

Sunday was Ji Ah's birthday, so we went to fancy brunch. When I say fancy, I mean fancy. Like, 4 course, western silverware, attentive but not hovering waiters, NAPKINS, bread basket fancy. Since I usually go out to eat at 5 kuai (60ish cents) noodle joints, this was absolute luxury and so so so worth it. The resaurant overlooked the bund and the Pudong area, and it was gorgeous. Our table was right near the window. It was the most relaxing and wonderful and WESTERN thing I've done since arriving in China.

After lunch we strolled the Bund for a bit and then took the Tourist Tunnel across to the Pudong area. Let me say that the Tourist Tunnel is easily the best 30 kuai I've ever spent. You ride in what we fondly dubbed "Wonkavators" (after how I would imagine the great glass elevator to look) through a glorious laser tunnel a la the Chicago Airport Light Tunnel. It was amazing. There were even blown up people. I live in China, and I've never seen anything so tacky in my life.

On the other side we checked out all the crazy buildings including the tallest building in Asia, and the Pearl TV Tower (the purple and silver tripod that looks like it's the girly version of War of the Worlds - think about it, it's eerie). We wandered around the area and took in some more snackies - ice cream and smoothies and the like, before we had to take the subway to the train station and head home. The Shanghai subway, by the way, is beautiful. I highly recommend it.

So, that was pretty much my trip. I would elaborate more if I didn't have some shengzi to take care of (boo). Comment or email me your life stories!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kung Fu Hustle

This past weekend I went with my Gong Fu (how it's spelled and pronounced in Mandarin) Master to his alma mater: Shaolin. You may know it from several movies, specifically ones starring Jet Li. Shaolin is a monastary, but it's also the capital of all things Gong Fu. All of the monks are Gong Fu masters, and those who are training practice Gong Fu, religion, or Buddhist medicine from 5:30 in the morning to 8 at night. It's a pretty full day. To hear Xiao Xie (my Gung Fu master) tell it, it's all day long physical exhaustion after which you collapse into your bed and sleep like a rock. (All of this, by the way, is sustained on a vegetarian diet).

Because Xiao Xie is an alumni, we got to do all sorts of cool stuff at Shaolinsi. The first thing we did was watch a Gong Fu performance. They do some crazy crazy stuff. For example, they can do handstands on just two fingers (do the peace sign with both hands, now flip yourself upside down). One guy took two metal-tipped, pointy spears, and made a diagonal between the ground and the nape of his neck. The sharp pointy parts were in his neck. He then used his NECK to bend the METAL spears. Another guy broke steal bars on his head. Several people broke thick wooden sticks with various body parts. Their acrobatics could easily rival the best gymnasts, and make any break dancer drool. It was absolutely crazy.

After the performance, we toured the grounds for a bit. We checked out a tree that was filled with holes that any normal person would believe was made by a woodpecker. No. These holes were made by monks who, in order to strengthen their fingers so they could do those crazy finger-stands - poked the tree over and over again till there was actually a hole in it. The main temple floor, paved with stones, had dents in it from where the monks used to practice Gong Fu before they built practice space. Crazy.

During this walk around the grounds of the temple we learned why Shaolin monks wear robes that cover one arm and leave the other arm free. The very first monk there was visiting from India. On a very cold day a bunch of people waited outside his house on the pretense of wanting to become his desciple. It even snowed overnight and still they waited. Finally he came out, and one of the waiting people said "When will you teach us?" The monk replied: "When it snows red." (similar to "when pigs fly). So the man who asked the question, to prove his dedication and desire to learn the Buddhist way, grabbed his sword and cut off his arm, causing the snow to turn red as it fell around him. This man became the next (and second) Abbot of the monastary, and in his honor, all Shaolin monks wear robes that cover their left arms, and bow to each other holding only their right arm up in a half prayer position.

Next we went to the Pagoda Forest: Ta Lin. It was absolutely beautiful. After a monk dies, his ashes are placed under a pagoda. The more important or more deciples a monk has, the more awesome his pagoda is. Those monks who are just average have shared pagodas. I took a bajillion pictures, because it really was stunning. Also, interesting, I found one pagoda with Daoist markings on it, although Shaolinsi is a Buddhist temple. I'm still trying to figure out who would be the best authority to ask about it.

After Ta Lin Xiao Xie got some of his monk friends to work out with us. So we had some Gung Fu lessons with Shaolin monks. We learned some new moves, new combinations, and got to try and fight them (clearly, winning was not involved). It was pretty awesome. We also got to play around in the monk gym, which was like a playground filled with hard to work toys. One of the more exciting things was a bunch of posts, that stood about 6 feet off the ground. The point is to stand on them and fight with your fellow monks without falling off. Equally fun, a giant, supremely heavy marble that you have to push a long a track.

That night Xiao Xie took me and the other kids in our Gong Fu class weapons shopping. I learned that swords are pretty cool, and I taught Xiao Xie the word for vicious. He loves that word and now uses it to describe all of his Gung Fu moves. After shopping we got to meet Xiao Xie's Gong Fu master and his little brother who is currently enrolled in Shaolin (and who is sporting a broken hip, thanks to a crazy fighting class, but is still going to workouts, because Shaolin people are hardcore).

Saturday morning we woke up, worked out with monk, ate breakfast, said goodbye to Shaolin and headed for Kaifeng. Kaifeng is one of the ancient capital cities of China. Kaifeng is also known as the "city of snacks." Thank goodness, we all know just how I feel about my snacks. I even learned the chinese word for "snacking between meals" and "viscious cycle" this weekend. Anyways, they had these giant puffed rice balls that were the most amazing thing in the world - mosty because they tasted like cereal that i miss with all my being. Also amazing was this nut stuff. It's like a Chinese granola bar kinda, except there is no granola in it. What I mean is, it's almonds and peanuts and various dried fruits all held together with honey and it's like heaven in your mouth.

After binge eating for a while we went to this park called Qing Ming Shang He Yuan. It's like the epcot of China. Everyone is in traditional Qing dynasty garb and you can watch all these Qing dynasty events and fun things and buy Qing dynasty items. I now own a Qing dynasty purse. I watched water puppetry and stilt walking and women's polo. I skipped the cockfight - 'cause that's just sad. Also in the park were several olympic displays (because the countdown is on) so I did some vogueing with my favorite katong's - especially jing jing, he's the cutest. Kaifeng had just finished up with hosting the World Chrysanthemum festival, so the park was covered in beautiful flowers. A woman asked to take my picture in front of the Chrysanthemum Festival sign because "ni shi zhi shi bairen zai kaifeng!" - I am the only white person in Kaifeng.

Sunday we found ourselves in Luoyang, another ancient capital. After a nice early morning workout with Xiao Xie, we stuffed ourselves with breakfast and headed off to Long Men Shiku - Dragon Gate Grottos. They were absolutely awesome. Really. There were so so so many carvings. They ranged in size from multiple meters tall to one centimeter. (Clearly the big ones were donated by important people and the small ones made by civilians). It was really nice to wander the place because everything looked so awesome.

[[side note: right now there is a man outside my window singing opera at the top of his lungs...he's pretty good]]

After the grottos we went to a paper cutting factory for an educational experience in this traditional art, and also the chance to try it out for ourselves. I made a butterfly. It's beauty is pretty much indescribable.

Just after lunch we visited an underground household. Back in the day, people in the Luoyang area used to carve out their houses underground. The would dig a big square that would become the open-air courtyard, and then dig rooms off the sides. From the surface you wouldn't see anything, unless they had trees growing in the courtyard - then you could see some treetops. Even cooler than this, was that the woman who lived in the house we visited had just turned 100 years old, and had bound feet! She showed me some of the shoes that she made for herself, and maybe my thumb would have fit in them. Perhaps two thumbs actually. But they were about thumb length. Thats just crazy crazy stuff. Her two great great grandsons were there visiting and they kept calling the white folks aliens and chasing us around pretending to be dogs. They were pretty funny (if mildly abusive to aliens).

Finally we ended the day with some free time in downtown Luoyang. I opted to go to a museum built around an ancient tomb that they recently discovered on the site of a middle school while building a sewer pipe. It was kind of like the terra cotta warriors in content and setup, except everything was real - not terra cotta. There were a bunch of horse drawn chariots (wooden fossilized chariots now, pulled by horse skeletons) as well as a couple dog, chicken and human skeletons. You've got to be prepared for the afterlife. Unfortunately, they only excavated the area around the main part of the tomb where the body is, because the body is underneath a huge bank that noone wants to tear down. That's China.

So I think that's all for now. Next up - Shanghai! I leave tomorrow, right in the middle of my registration time. Ha. We'll just have to see how that plays out. And, there were no sleepers left - 12 hour soft seats, here I come. You had better be chabuduo yiyangde feiji like Candy says!

Miss you all and love hearing your updates!