S: China 2012
FC: China 2012
1: June 17, 2012 | Beijing | Beijing
2: Beijing. First impression? Smoggy. Its as if the city is covered in a thick layer of fog. It has a definite smell and taste and breathing it is like breathing a very faint wisp of rust.
3: I know Beijing is a massive and densely populated city, but Holy Cow its six feet deep in a sea of people. Its busy, packed, bustling, enormous, dirty, overcrowded, exploding, sprawling and polluted. The city is developing economically but still learning to combine capitalism with communism and there's still a large political feel to it, with stadiums and streets named after "the workers".
4: I took the subway and transferred 3 times to get to the school, which is located in a shabby village-like area. | The front gate looks like the Black Gate of Mordor, with black metalwork covered in spikes.
5: The school is in no way similar to any school that I've attended growing up in the states. Its really lacking in resources - many of the kids don't even have paper to write on.
6: Weekdays start with the kids waking up super early for morning exercises. It won't even be 6:40am and they'll be running around the courtyard skipping and hollering.
7: The school is more of a home for these kids than anything else. They live-in five days a week and there must be 300 of them total in grades K-6.
8: The kids are charming and I enjoy their company.
10: They like to play "Kick the Football". They love the way it bounces so unpredictably. | The kids enjoy the balls that I brought.
11: The "little empress" | There's a little girl here who's taken a real liking to me. She comes looking for me pretty regularly during the breaks. She likes to hold my hand and hang from my arm like a monkey. She calls me "rice teacher" (my last name in Chinese means "rice") and sometimes just "teacher". Sometimes she doesn't go for formal and simply calls me "big nose".
12: One night after class some of the kids followed me back to my room to play. They were like little magnets because before I knew it more kids were whizzing into my room as though it were some sort of party place. | my cellphone and playing Egyptian Rat Screw on the floor (a fast-paced card game that I taught them). | At one point there must have been more than 20 in my room: playing on my computer, listening to my IPod, taking | funny pictures of each other with my camera, playing a video game they found on
13: It's amazing how bustling it is at night. It's dark, late and business is booming. Everywhere there are lights, shouting and laughing. People are shopping, eating out and getting haircuts. Shops are not deep and they're completely open to the street. | On the street itself people are cooking food and have set up stands for fruit, shoes, clothes, you name it. All meals are communal. When you cook or order food you get big dishes that are | placed in the middle of the table. Everyone has little plates and then picks from the big plates together.
14: The sky was blue today! The smog was 90% gone. Beijing is a different city with a clear sky and a horizon line. I didn't even know that the city is surrounded by spectacular hills!
15: I took the beautiful weather as a sign that I should spend the day trekking around the city. I walked for hours. God DAMN this is one big city. I must've covered at least 16 kilometers. My legs ached and I was exhausted. I drew out the route before I left and man-oh-man did it look a lot shorter on my little scrap of paper. It was a long day of city hiking with lots of stops for water and snacks.
16: The traffic here is crazy. In America there is order and rules to the road but here it's just a big free-for-all. As a pedestrian you really have to be careful. In America you have the right of way. Here they'll just run you right over.
17: The fast paced economic transformation lends itself to strange sights of modern and old existing within the same reality.
18: Nanluoguxiang is a famous hutong in Beijing. A hutong is a maze of alleyways jetting off of a larger street, lined with shops, cafes, and food vendors, and everyone who wanders in is a tourist.
19: Julia and Kristina (top) are Chinese teachers about my age. I like them a lot. | Merusa (right) is Irish of Filipino descent. | The morning of my departure I woke Merusa at 5am to say goodbye. Then I looked back at the school one last time and stepped into the wide and empty street that would lead me away.
20: The Overnight Train to Guilin | I didn't sleep all night but instead stood in the aisle. Occasionally I took turns sitting in an older man's seat that he kindly offered to share. This train had twice as many people as it had seats. My body ached from the cramped environment. We were packed in such a way as to make sardines enviable. | There were people crunched in the aisle, at the ends of the car, outside the bathroom, many smoking and all shifting uncomfortably. I watched the sun emerge above rice paddies and apartment buildings. God have mercy, I was on this train for 30 hours.
21: I could get used to this. | This time I invested in a bed ticket. It felt like I was on the wrong train - it was too comfortable! | The Overnight Train to Kunming
22: I just woke up from the most relaxing nap. Everyone on the train eats a type of instant noodles that comes in a cardboard bowl with spice packets and a fork. The scenery is what I'd call a jungle-scape, spotted palm fronds and thick mists covering lush green hills.
23: The Train to Lijiang | This train ride has been pretty awesome. My unit is full of eccentric young people who are all very friendly. We talked about many things, all in Mandarin, from my experience in Beijing to the pitfalls of democracy. We laughed together a great deal and time has just flown by. | Its been a great last leg to this three day train journey.
24: Lijiang | I arrived in Lijiang at 10:30pm only to find the hostel sold out. Fortunately I stumbled upon a beautiful hotel in Old Town. After three nights of sleeping on trains, I believed I could afford a little luxury. I collapsed on the enormous soft bed and slept like an emperor.
25: If I've learned anything already it's that Beijing is NOT China. The environment is just so different here. Things are not overwhelmingly out of control like they were in Beijing. | I really like Lijiang.
26: Lijiang is very hilly and scenic. It's guarded by small green mountains rising like protective walls, their tops blanketed in a thin layer of clouds.
27: The city is surprisingly walkable.
28: Compared to Beijing, the people here just seem warmer, though I can't really explain why. I'm taking it easy now and it feels good. I've gotten pretty used to traveling by myself by now. | Ice Cream
29: Barbeque | Tofu | Pepper Steak
30: There are many Western brand names here and all of them have branded themselves as upper-class and elitist. Even foreign food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut, which in America are truly low class restaurants, have positioned themselves as luxuries in China. And it's not just food. Everything foreign here without exception is marketing themselves as something for the rich and being advertised as a status symbol. It works well here in China and foreign brands are always perceived to be the better ones. The Chinese are also pretty big on status symbols and this plays well into the companies' marketing plans. As a Westerner though, its weird seeing these brand names perceived as luxuries for the rich. | KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds
31: Yak Jerky | The bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge
32: Tiger Leaping Gorge
33: The path began by only allowing me to gaze at a massive green mountain across the river below.
34: The trail cut through forest, slope-side cornfields, people's backyards, along cliffs, streams and waterfalls and allowed me to see some really striking scenery.
36: After an hour I finally turned a corner to see the trees stop and mountainous stone rise into the clouds and disappear.
37: The pure magnitude of it all was enough to stun me and make me fall backwards, catching myself on a rock that I then had to sit on to regain my bearings. | And then the real climb began...
38: At this point I wasn't even a quarter of the way up the slope and the path soon became a leg-breaking test of endurance. It ranged from thick, deep mud to steep and uneven bare rock. The trail snaked up the mountain and oftentimes at frightening angles, sometimes winding like a squiggly line and other times zigzagging like a lightning bolt.
39: I trekked this path for over two hours and my legs burned like they never have before. Sometimes I couldn't go on and had to stop for a break. This one length alone was brutally intensive. I kept thinking how much Tim and Dan would've loved the gorge, Tim more for the majestic and artistic beauty of the place and Dan for the rugged outdoorsman hiking part. Being on your own is good for self-reflection, and I've certainly had a lot of that, but it's piss-poor for conversation.
40: The view from The Tea Horse Inn was absolutely spectacular.
41: These titans of the earth are silently roaring in laughter at my complete insignificance in their presence. Their heads are shrouded in white clouds, they wear green leggings, and their chests are bare rock. At their feet flows a brown river that they all add to with rivers of their own creating torrents of crashing rapids at their toes. | It rained the second day and the trail down the mountain was slippery and downright dangerous. I nearly slipped and hurt myself over a dozen times. When I reached the end of the trail there was a hostel where I ordered some food and then napped waiting for the bus back to Lijiang.
42: On the road back to Lijiang there was a landslide and the road was blocked by massive boulders. The road had been running along the side of the gorge and a whole part of it had caved in and fallen to the river below. We had to exit the bus and climb along the newly created cliff wall until we reached the other side of of the road where another bus was waiting. It was both dangerous and awesome.
43: On my last day in Lijiang I navigated my way through a residential area to a path that climbed Elephant Hill. Then I descended to a small pond known as Black Dragon Hill. | I got a fantastic view of Lijiang. Compared to Tiger Leaping Gorge this walk was light and easy.
44: When I bought my tickets for the train to Shanghai I first waited in line behind a tall white man. When it was his turn to buy tickets he struggled to use a mixture of English and poor Chinese to try to get his message across. It was a little hard to watch and he eventually walked away without purchasing any tickets at all. It was then my turn and I spoke clear and efficient Mandarin not only conveying my precise needs but also understanding exactly what the service woman was telling me. It was a flawless exchange and I walked away satisfied with the exact tickets I needed. I'm actually quite proud of that moment.
45: The people at the train station have not yet learned or accepted "the cue". Where there are lines and social guidelines of courtesy in America, here there is only a mass pushing and shoving fest. It's not that everyone is rude, it's just the culture here. | On the train people simply throw their trash on the floor and every eight hours or so passengers miraculously part for a man with a broom who sweeps most of it away, though to where I'm not sure.
48: I took the subway on a long, long ride to Shanghai airport to meet up with Saisai.
49: We enjoyed wandering a small district with lots of little shops and eateries. | This is a watermelon cut in a flower-heart shape. .
50: YuYuan Garden ("Garden of Happiness") built in 1577.
52: Shanghai is amazing. Its the most modern city I've ever been in and it has a clear imprint of the West. You see it in the architectural styles as well as the advertising everywhere for luxury products. The whole city has a Western vibe, almost like it's an extravagant Manhattan, only everyone's turned Asian.
53: Shanghai is so different from Beijing. You see it in the way people dress much more fashionably, in the way they act and behave more expressively, and in the very attitude of the city itself. It's a beautiful and wealthy metropolis with a lot going on, and my favorite city in China so far.
54: The high speed train to Saisai's hometown of Zhengzhou was more like a jet than a train.
55: Zhengzhou | Zhengzhou is like any other big city in China: a smaller Beijing. There's no real downtown as far as I can tell, rather it's just one huge smoggy sprawl. Its crowded, dirty and gray. And it's Saisai's home. | Saisai's new haircut.
56: The Henan Museum in Zhengzhou | Bronze vessel, Shang dynasty. | A musical performance at the museum using very ancient instruments.
57: My first karaoke session. | Billiards and karaoke with Saisai's friends.
58: In advertisements here containing beautiful women, what's being sold is beauty and femininity, not sex (the difference is subtle but real). Popular TV reality shows focus on finding a life partner, and getting a job to make money. Romance is portrayed in a simplified and corny form, much in the same way that a little girl dreams of her prince coming to take her away. There's also a focus on girls to find a guy that "has money". That doesn't mean finding a rich guy to marry, rather simply a guy with financial stability. If you have an okay job then that's enough to attract women regardless of your appearance. There's zero sexual expression here.
59: Saisai's dad picked us up in his Mercedes and took us out for lunch. On the way there he got a speeding ticket. We accompanied him to a hotel to eat in a private room. We dined with other businessmen and a few politicians and some of their wives. In China oftentimes when eating out with lots of people the type of table you eat at is round with a wheel laid on top. Dishes are then placed on the wheel and the wheel spins around the table allowing everyone to pick from the dish. As the businessmen and politicians conversed I remember one of the dishes had a chicken's head on it and for hours it went around and around staring at each and every one of us.
60: Millennium City Park in Kaifeng | is a theme park that recreates life during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) including Imperial gardens and palaces.
62: B | We saw wax figures, actors in traditional clothes, a wedding scene, acrobats, martial arts demonstrations, a fire swallower and cockfighting.
64: The nighttime performance enacted by hundreds of performers was a magnificent outdoor spectacle the likes of which I've never even imagined possible outside of North Korea.
65: Its close to 4:30am and I'm on a crowded, muggy and uncomfortable overnight train to Zhangjiajie, the final stop on my itinerary. The coach is very similar to the one I first took from Beijing to Guilin although perhaps not quite as cramped and miserable. After all these train rides a sleepless night in a hard seat doesn't seem to faze me much, but Saisai is getting demolished.
66: Zhangjiajie National Forest
68: The line for the tallest elevator in China (326 meters high) was hours long so we decided to climb instead. | Saisai and I had been climbing for about half an hour when we stopped to rest at a small stand selling water and snacks. We asked the guy how many more steps there were and he said about 3000. Who knows if he was right, but regardless, it was A LOT OF STEPS.
70: The floating mountains in the movie Avatar were inspired by the sandstone pillars of Zhangjiajie. Hollywood photographers spent four days here in 2008 filming the spectacular scenery. | The pillar above, previously called the Southern Sky Column, was renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain by the Chinese government in 2010.
72: It was very cool being able to fly up along the mountainside on a cable car.
73: We thought it would be worth it to grab a rest on the train, but it turns out we had to pay and wait in line. Then it barely went a mile on horizontal ground before we were dropped off. And there was a path where people were walking right next to the tracks the whole way. It was completely lame.
74: YELLOW DRAGON CAVE
75: This 15-kilometer cave has an underground river and thousands of stalagmites and stalactites.
76: When we returned to Zhengzhou, Saisai's dad treated us to another meal in the private dining room of a restaurant. He selected the menu from aquariums of seafood.
77: Saisai tried the scorpion soup. I couldn't do it. | Snails | Unknown sea creature | The watermelon was my favorite. | Dish after dish after dish of special foods were brought out, most being delicacies. Almost nothing tasted good but I guess that's the thing about delicacies, what's important is that they're rare and expensive.
78: Saisai's mom has been overwhelming in her care for me. She's done my laundry and cleaned our room when we're not around and she always makes sure I'm fed and comfortable.
79: Back in Beijing | We rented a tandem bike on my last day in China. | Last delicious dinner.
80: I've found sometimes that even when I don't know what lies ahead, or if another direction might be better, my legs will continue to walk forward almost indifferently like a machine. This summer however everything paused and I've avoided such mechanical and rushed continuation. When the gears grind again my road will be the result of careful consideration.
81: Beijing Lijiang Tiger Leaping Gorge Shanghai Zhengzhou Kaifeng Zhangjiajie | China 2012