Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tourism at its Finest

This weekend was a pretty relaxed one. No train traveling, no hostels, and no livestock. However, I got to do some more sightseeing around Beijing, and by around Beijing I mean AROUND Beijing. On Saturday the program took us to the new Summer Palace, which is only about twenty minutes north of Beijing University. On Sunday I went on a 17km hike with Beijing Hikers along the Great Wall, through the parts of the wall called Gubeikou, Jinshanling, and Simatai.

Saturday morning I woke up early, went for a run, and got ready to go to the Summer Palace. Molly, my roommate, had taken her parents there last weekend while I was in Hohhot, and assured Georgette and I that the Summer Palace was absolutely beautiful, and we were not disappointed.

The Summer Palace consists of Longevity Hill, which has the Cloud-Dispelling Hall, the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, and the Sea of Wisdom Temple, and Kunming Lake, which is entirely man-made, has an island in the middle, and is surrounded by peace gardens and walkways with willow trees, plum, orange, apricot, and cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, the cloud-dispelling Hall was not in service that day, because it was cloudy, but the air was nice and it wasn't too hot. The walkways all have strips of mosaic-form stones, and you're supposed to take your shoes off and walk along them for a lovely foot massage on your stroll. After I saw a few Chinese people spit in that direction though, I decided that my shoes should probably stay on.

The first order of business was to walk along the Long Corridor, which is a covered walkway and the longest corridor in the country. The Summer Palace was ridiculously crowded, but it was a Saturday, and we are no strangers to feeling crowded in China, so we didn't feel so crowded that we weren't able to get anywhere.

Next we headed to Longevity Hill, and explored the temples and buildings there. Most of them are restricted, and we were only able to look in through the windows at some of the old furniture, and others had Buddhas and religious icons in them, and we were not allowed to take pictures. But the hill is beautiful, and the architecture is at its best. The view from the top temple was amazing, and we could see all the gardens and the lake. I hopped a fence and passed some no climbing signs to get a picture of me in front of the lake and the temples.

Several events occurred on Saturday that indicated this would not be a serious sight seeing experience. On the way down the hill, Georgette and I were feeling so peaceful that we decided to do Taiji in a clearing on the hill. As we started, Damien, who has never taken Taiji before and doesn't know any of the moves, decided that he would join us. As we went through the moves slowly, Damien followed, and did a pretty good job keeping up with us. However, our peaceful Taiji practice turned into a performance, and we amassed a large crowd of curious Chinese tourists, who all clapped for us when we finished.

Then, just our luck, a woman was selling goofy masks that we put on over our eyes and nose. We could blow into a mouthpiece and a piece of wrapped paper shot out on both sides. They were for children (obviously) so I had to scrunch up my face in order to accomplish the purpose of the mask. One Chinese woman thought we were just hilarious, and was killing herself laughing. I decided she should be in a picture with us, and she put on her best weird face to fit in.

We finally got to the bottom of the hill, and we went over to the Stone Boat, or the product of the funds for the Imperial Navy in the late 19th Century. In fact, the British and the French destroyed the whole Summer Palace in the mid-19th century, and the Empress Dowager Cixi decided it would be a good idea, despite oncoming naval wars with Japan to use the Chinese Navy's budget to rebuild the whole Summer Palace, and put all the excess money not into a ship that floats, but into a beautifully hand-crafted marble boat that certainly does not float. It is famous as the symbol of Imperial excess and irresponsibility in China.

After visiting the boat, Georgette, Molly, and I decided that we would like to be concubines for the day, and we purchased the headresses that concubines wore in the 19th century and wore them around the Summer Palace for the duration of our trip. I thought that having some Chinese soldiers on our arms would complete the ensemble, so I asked three soldiers walking through the park to take a picture with us, and though a little confused, they obliged.

Once we accosted the soldiers, we got onto a dragon boat, one of the many boats that cross Kunming Lake. There are paddle boats, speed boats, and these ferry boats in the shape of dragons that took us to the island in the middle of the lake. It was a pleasant ride and we had a picnic while sitting on the boat and enjoying all the scenery. People standing on top of a bridge were flying kites on top of the lake, people were paddling around in boats, and the gardens were far away from the sounds of the city. The whole experience was so peaceful, despite our goofy concubine and Taiji antics. I really enjoyed having a day of relaxation at the Summer Palace before my adventures the next day.

The Great Wall is called , or Chang Cheng, in Chinese. Many people mistake this to mean the Long Wall, but it actually means the Long City. All of China's cities were once walled, and when the Great Wall was built it encouraged merchants, vendors, families to move close to the inside of the wall and support the soldiers. There was also a vision for a unified China, a city state created within the boundaries of the wall. As the wall expanded and was rebuilt over time, it began to serve more as a barrier to the Huns and the Mongols, and less as the walls of the imagined city state. Although I had been to see it once before, I decided I hadn't had my fill of the Great Wall yet, so I signed up for a huge hike on Sunday. The hikers met at Lido Holiday Inn, and we climbed onto a bus for a two hour bus ride north towards the border of Beijing province and Hebei province, where the Gubeikou, Jinshanling, and Simatai sections of the wall are located.

The nice thing about Gubeikou is that it is very ruined. The sides of the wall are still in place, but the stones of the walkway have eroded away and all that is left is rubble and stamped earth to walk on. This part of the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty in 1368, though defensive walls of stamped earth were built as early as 555 A.D. This part of the wall required intense concentration, because in many places slipping on some rubble meant falling off the wall and down the mountain. The Chinese call the parts of the wall, like Gubeikou, that have not been renovated "wild wall."

At one point we had to get off of Gubeikou and walk along side it and down into Spider Valley, because on the other side of Gubeikou there is a military training ground. We could hear guns going off as we walked through the valley, before climbing back up for lunch after safely passing the training ground to a point where we would not be able to see in anymore. After lunch we continued on along Gubeikou until we reached Jinshanling.

I have been to Jinshanling in the wintertime, and upon returning to it I was amazed again at how beautiful the area is. Apricot blossoms were in full bloom along the mountains, and Jinshanling, a newly renovated part of the wall, stretched over the mountains. After walking for three hours along Gubeikou, completing the steep steps of Jinshanling was a daunting task. Here vendors who make their living off of selling food and souvenirs to the few tourists who come here offered us cokes and "I Climbed the Great Wall" tee shirts. But the nice thing about Jinshanling is that, while it's been renovated, it is far enough away from Beijing that tourists don't really come out to this part of the wall. In my opinion though, it is the most beautiful spots on the wall.

We walked on Jinshanling for another three hours, our knees getting a little bit wobbly from all the stair climbing. At some parts of the wall all there is to walk on is one side of the wall, with about a foot and half for you to balance on, and the steep ridges on either side. I'm lucky that I'm not afraid of heights, because even some of the regular hikers were getting a little nervous.

If you click on some of the pictures you can see the Great Wall snaking up over the mountain ridge. What is amazing about the wall is not its size or the fact that even the most ruined parts of the wall built in the 13th and 14th centuries are still here, it is that the wall continues on forever across the landscape. If you wanted to you could walk on it for days and days. About eight hours was quite enough for me. It is overwhelming to imagine how many soldiers and workers constructed the wall over the treacherous mountains and how long it took them to complete it.

After the three hour journey over Jinshanling, we finally reached Simatai, the last part of the wall we would walk on. While Jinshanling is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the wall, Simatai is definitely the coolest. A little bit more ruined than Jinshanling, Simatai stretches over the very tops of mountains and across Mandarin Duck Lake, recently renamed Simatai Reservoir. This part of the wall has become popular with trekkers for its near vertical climbs from watchtower to watchtower. You also can take a zip line down from the wall, and across the reservoir to the other side. I ended up not doing that, but it looked like a lot of fun.

At this point of the hike our feet were dragging and we were all sweaty and sunburned (especially me). We trudged down to a small town at the foot of the mountains and all ate a late lunch together at 4pm, drinking tons of water and scarfing down chicken, beef, eggplant, rice, and potatoes. After the long ride home, I cleaned my self off and nursed my red shoulders with aloe. It was a great day, and I think I really got to see a lot of the wall that is worth seeing.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Genghis and the Mongols

So, by now you're probably wondering whether there is anything left of China for me to see and whether I have any money left to see anything else. The answer to both is "Yes!!!!" Traveling in China is cheaper than in any other place I've ever been, and I have really loved and appreciated getting to know China a little bit more intimately than I would from the top of a tour bus. Your next question might be, who would I find crazy enough to go on yet another trip with me as the semester rounds off and our papers in all of our classes are due in the next few weeks. Well these crazy people seemed game enough.

This weekend, Jon, Cara, Jay, Aaron, and I all made a trip up to Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in China (not Mongolia, which is a separate country). On Friday, I took Cara to the Rural Women's Practical Learning Center, where I teach English, and she and I taught my girls American songs to sing. The girls in my class were very excited, as they have been asking me for weeks to teach them some American music. However, apparently Cara and I made a huge mistake and DID NOT include "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" by Britney Spears. How could we be so dense as not to realize that this song is at the top of the playlist for my 28 non-English speaking students? Go figure.

From the school, Cara and I rushed to the train station to meet Jon, Jay, and Aaron, who came from their internships. We all jumped on our overnight train to Hohhot just in time. We slept in hard sleepers, which I'm sure you've heard of before if you've been keeping up with this blog. Our train left at 7:18 pm, and the five of us hung out on the lower bunks and ate snacks until 10:30pm, when all the lights on the train were turned off. We climbed in our bunks and fell fast asleep until 5:00 am, when the train attendant banged on our bunks to tell us that the train was arrive in Hohhot in 20 minutes. Luckily for us groggy college students, we had a ride to our hostel as soon as we got off the train.

It is important for me to pay due attention to the Anda Guesthouse, where we spent our Saturday night. After finding them on the internet, I proceeded to email the owner of the hostel 8 times to organize a tour to the Gobi Desert, arrange for him to buy our return train tickets ahead of time, arrange for us to have traditionaly Mongolian breakfast at the hostel on Sunday morning, and change the number of people going and time of all things listed above multiple times. However, despite our last minute planning for this trip, Zorigoo, the owner, was fantastic. He went out and bought our return tickets ahead of time for us, and drove us all the way out to the Gobi Desert on Saturday morning so we could ride camels. (more on that later.) The guesthouse was really comfortable, and all the people who live and work there were very kind and warm-hearted. It was Zorigoo who was waiting for us at the train station on Saturday morning at 5:20 am, and he drove us immediately back to the guesthouse, ushered us into our bedroom and told us (not suggested) that we were tired and needed to get some sleep before our big outing.

When we woke up again at 8 am, breakfast was waiting for us downstairs, which we ate quickly and hungrily. Then the five us, and four other guests at Anda were squeezed into a mini bus and driven out to the Gobi Desert, which is four hours west of Hohhot. Part of our tour of the Gobi included lunch, and we stopped along the way to eat at a really great restaurant in Baotou. Then, to the Gobi.

It's hard to describe how bizarre it was to just be driving down a highway, with grass, farms, animals, and a decent number of people on either side of the road, and then suddenly the desert appears right in front of you, looming overhead with massive sand dunes and a huge, empty horizon. It was really beautiful, and in even 50 degree weather the sand reflected the sun enough to make the desert warmer than everywhere else in Inner Mongolia. The air was breezy and from the mini bus we were directed through a Mongol settlement with cement yurts (circular tents that are the traditional Mongolian nomad residence). After that, we walked to a camel farm at the very edge of the desert, where we were introduced to the camels that we would get to know very intimately for the next three hours.

The camels here were very different from what others have told me they are like. I hugged and petted my huge camel, and he didn't smell bad, didn't bite me, and never spit on me. Instead, he nuzzled his head against my chest and let me rub his ears. The sweetest camel I met was a baby camel that was kept in the corral. She came up and stuck her neck out for me to scratch her ears and rub her nose. She rubbed her nose against my shoulders and let me hug her. So sweet! The other thing that is endearing about camels is how funny they look. They have the most comical, lackadaisical faces. Ours had their noses pierced, and to keep them together, our guides tie a rope from the pin in one camel's nose to the back hump of the camel in front, forcing the camels to walk in a line.

I was led in a caravan of four camels with Aaron and two other travelers. The camels and their humps swayed back and forth as they walked across the desert, and it was a completely new experience for me to have only a big hump in front of me to hang on to while admiring the yellow sand dunes. To make the camels go up and down the dunes, the guide made a whirring sound with his mouth, and it seemed to calm the camels, even if they were going down a steep dune.

The camels rode out an hour into the desert, until we reached a huge sand dune that was bigger than all the others. We dismounted our camels, and the guides tied them up while we climbed to the top. Once we reached the top, we saw sleds and a very smooth, steep slope for us to slide down. So...we went the desert. It was not terrifying even though the hill was quite long and steep - the sled moved pretty slowly across the sand.

After a couple of turns going down the sand dune, we wandered around the area, exploring the dunes and petting our camels until it was time to turn back and head towards camp again. The camel lies down on the ground when you mount it, and then the guide makes a whirring noise and the camel stands up with you balancing in between its two humps. The camels trotted back towards their corral, and we enjoyed our last looks at the desert. The most impressive thing about the Gobi desert is its vastness and emptiness, a trait very much a part of Inner Mongolia. The rest of China is so over populated, and in Inner Mongolia the Gobi Desert and the Grasslands are practically empty except for nomadic Mongolians. It's such a huge change from all of the other places I have been, I really appreciated the chance to look at a part of China that hasn't been completely industrialized or changed into farmland despite its unsuitability.

Our camels finally returned us to the Mongol settlement, and we were able to explore a little. This place was a little bit touristy, but luckily for us the tourist season starts in two weeks. We were alone with all the Chinese and Mongolian people working on the settlement, managing a temple, small museum, and concrete yurts that guests can stay in overnight if they choose to. We found two ostriches and a funny dog that really enjoyed terrorizing the ostriches. Every time we went close to the ostriches' fence, they would come towards us a little bit - maybe because they were curious and probably because they wanted to bite us. As soon as they got close the dog would run at the fence, barking like crazy, and the ostriches would lift up their feathers like a skirt and prance around the inside of their corral to the other side to get away from the dog. It was so funny. The dog was very friendly though, and I of course couldn't wait to make friends with him.

We left at around 4pm and started the drive home. We went straight from the Gobi Desert back to Hohhot, and it was a long trip. We were all pretty tired when we returned, but very hungry. The five of us plus two hippies also staying in the guest house set out for some late dinner and managed to have a feast in a nearby restaurant before going to bed.

The next morning we came downstairs and were met with an appetizing aroma. Zorigoo's wife made traditional Mongolian breakfast for us with hard white cheese, a pancake that is fried with mutton and carrots baked inside, cornmeal, Mongolian cream and Mongolian sweet cream. It was so good, and very filling. We were all a little nervous about eating so many dairy products, because outside of Inner Mongolia, the rest of China consumes very few dairy products. We hadn't had any dairy products since we left for China, so we were a little nervous we would get sick. However, we all felt wonderful afterwards, and the breakfast was so delicious.

Cara decided that she would hang around the guesthouse and work on a paper she had due today, so we decided to leave her in Hohhot for the day and let her concentrate. We explored the city a little bit, and went into a temple called the Great Mosque. It is an attractive building built with black bricks, combining Mongolian and Muslim architecture to create a really beautiful mosque. The worshippers there didn't mind us visiting, and they all waved at us while we wandered around the grounds.
After exploring the Great Mosque we caught a bus out to a town called Zhaohe about an hour and half north of Hohhot. There is absolutely nothing in Zhaohe until the tourist season starts, but there are yurts and horses, and of course there is the fact that Zhaohe borders a huge grassland in Inner Mongolia called Xilamuren.

In keeping with all the vastness, Jon, Aaron, Jay, and I wanted to eat a roast lamb in a yurt and then take off across the grassland on horseback. As soon as we got off the bus a woman was waiting to take us to her yurt and serve us lunch. We ordered a roast leg of lamb for the four of us, Mongolian milk tea, and Mongolian Baozi. The milk tea was warm and delicious, predominately made of goat milk with a little bit of tea. The roast leg of lamb was definitely worth writing home about. The woman returned to our very decorative yurt, where we sat with our shoes off on mats around a low table, with a huge leg of lamb, from hip to foot, that had been roasted over a fire. It was so delicious, and certainly enough to fill all four of us. We gorged ourselves on milk tea, leg of lamb, and baozi before leaving the yurt to meet our horses.

I was a little disappointed because our horses had no names, but they were very docile and we thought. It turns out, anything would set them off, and when Jay, who was probably the worst horseback rider I've ever seen, kicked his leg the wrong way and set his horse off galloping, the rest of our horses followed suit. So there I was, galloping wildly across the grasslands along with the three boys, our guide following a little ways back on his horse, yelling "turn right" and "turn left" every once in a while.

Sometimes walking, sometimes trotting, and sometimes galloping, the four of us explored the huge expanse of the grasslands. We came across a herd of cows feeding on the yellow grass inside their fence. Other than that, we were alone on grass that has yet to turn green and continues on for a hundred kilometers. It was again, just like the desert, so strange to be practically alone in China, where everywhere else is full of people. Our horses were very patient with us - all inexperienced riders (especially Jay).

When we returned after a couple hours of riding, we found that getting a bus back to Hohhot was a little bit difficult. We couldn't just buy a bus ticket at a bus stop, as Zhaohe is practically a ghosttown. Instead we just had to wait by the side of the road for a half an hour, waiting for a bus that would stop to pick us up. In the meantime, we had people from the town try to rip us off by offering us mini bus rides back to Hohhot for the wildly overpriced cost of 300 Yuan, or about $45. We weren't having any of that, and finally caught a bus back to Hohhot for 20 Yuan each, or about $3.

When we got back, Cara was eating pastries and finishing up her paper. We all packed our bags and said goodbye to Zorigoo and his wife. We had one last thing to do before we got on our 9pm overnight train back to Beijing. We had to eat Mongolian hotpot!

Hotpot is kind of like a poor man's fondue. In a hotpot restaurant, a big vat of boiling hot water is placed in the center of the table, seasoned with different spices and vegetables. Then heaping plates of mutton, chicken, potatoes, lettuce, bok choy, and anything else you feel like ordering are brought to the table. You dump the food into the pot and fish it back out with your chopsticks after it has been flash-boiled. We gorged ourselves on hotpot until we were all sweating from the spices and heat, and then we picked up our backpacks and headed for the train station for our overnight train.

After our arrival in Beijing at 7:25 am, we all trudged back to Beijing University for much needed showers and naps, and of course, to upload all our exciting pictures!