Monday, May 25, 2009
My last weekend in Beijing was a hectic one. My friend Molly had a birthday, we had a program end of semester dinner, and I had to return to the Silk Market yet again to buy some more souvenirs to take home. But I did manage to take some really cool pictures of my campus, which had by that point blossomed into a really beautiful place. I was very sad to leave it.
That night we all got dressed up and attended our last program dinner, at which several of our Chinese classes sang Chinese songs, and our program director, who is a very successful, well respected businessman in America, stood up and sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" for all of our listening pleasure. Ahh China.
Then it was a night of excitement at Pyro's, a pizza place and bar that my friends and I frequent. The bar owner, Rich, threw Molly a very pink birthday party, and we all spent our last night hanging out, dancing, and eating a ton of food. I convinced one of our program advisors, Joyce, to get up on the bar with me, which had been a semester long goal of all the students. It was a great night to end the semester on.
So now, after a twenty-four hour journey home on Northwest and through Tokyo and Minnesota, I am finally at home, eating cookies, brownies, ice cream and of course, birthday cake. It has been a great semester, and I really appreciate your interest in my trip. I've had a great time, and I hope to see all of you soon!
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The morning of our first day there, we followed our tour guide through the streets and a couple back alleyways to find a shed full of bicycles for us to ride. We all got on and started riding through Yangshuo, and out into the countryside. The mountains were breathtaking, and the weather was warm. We rode towards the Yulong River, where bamboo rafts and rowers were awaiting us.
Molly and I got on a raft together and our friendly punter, the man shown above, started us down the river. The water was very peaceful and pretty clear (especially for China). I thought it looked safe enough to swim in. Because the water is generally polluted in China, and Chinese people, for the most part, cannot swim, my advisors from the program looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if it was alright if I swam. But my punter just smiled and said he'd take us to a deep part of the river where I could jump in.
Among my friends, I am usually the first to do anything crazy or potentially life threatening, so when everyone heard a splash coming from Molly and my raft, they knew I was jumping into the river. They watched me swim around for a while by myself, saw that I had not yet contracted any rashes, hemorrhagic fevers, or the bubonic plague, and then my friends Gill, Cara, Georgette, and Aaron all jumped in as well. The rest of the morning was spent soaking wet in the raft and swimming in the water, with our advisors looking on in consternation. It was probably the most peaceful thing we did on the trip.
For letting me swim, I bought the punter a beer from one of the floating bars that are located at certain points along the river. After the rafting trip was over, the tour guide our program had hired offered to take us to the Water Cave. There are various caves in Yangshuo where you can go explore, swim in underground lakes, and get really, really muddy. We decided to go!
The cave was really beautiful, and we entered on a small boat through an underground lake. The water was freezing, and we were expecting to have to traverse our way through the whole cave, so we went in in just bathing suits. All the Chinese tourists in the cave were fully clothed, and we felt pretty silly. But as we walked through the cave and finally arrived at a HUGE mudbath, we were excited again. We all got in and covered ourselves in mud, throwing it at each other and sliding down a mudslide.
After playing in the mud for a while, we jumped in a freezing cold underwater pool to clean ourselves off, and continued on our journey through the cave. This cave also had hotsprings, and we all soaked in the warm water for an hour before getting back out of the cave. Once we were out again and putting shorts over our swimsuits, we were confronted with vendors selling homemade sandals and some cows that looked like they had had a mudbath of their own!
We rode our bikes back to Yangshuo and once we returned them, we wandered around the town, looking in shops and drinking tea. It was so hot and sunny, but the atmosphere in Yangshuo is very different from the rest of China. It is so relaxed and easy going. I didn't feel as hassled as I do in bigger cities like Wuhan, Beijing, Guilin, and Hohhot
That night, I wanted to do something really interesting, and I got eleven people to come with me. I wanted to watch cormorrants fish for a fisherman, and so the twelve of us set out with a tour guide, got on a boat, and caught up to a fisherman anchored on the Li River, fishing with cormorrants. Cormorrants are birds that fishermen use to catch smaller fish. They tie a cord around the bird's neck so that the bird cannot swallow the fish, and usually loosen it and let the bird eat every seventh fish. It was really interesting to watch, and the birds were amazing. After watching them fish for a while, the fisherman in his raft and our boat pulled ashore and he got to show off his birds to us. He even let us hold them!
On our last day in Yangshuo, I went out to climb a karst mountain in the center of the city. I got about 200 metres up the trail, when two Chinese people came out and told me I couldn't go any further. When I asked them why they told me that somebody had died on the mountain that morning and there were people up on the mountain trying to take care of the body. Apparently climbers will get drunk in town and try to climb the nearby mountains with no equipment. It regularly ends badly. Totally weirded out, I walked back down and instead enjoyed the view of the Li River and the mountains until it was time to fly back to Beijing.
The next morning us girls endured the boys' dirty jokes on a three hour bus ride north through green karst mountains, on bumpy back roads and winding curves until finally our bus came to an abrupt stop. We were then instructed to sit with our luggage in our laps on a smaller bus with a crazy bus driver. Thus began a harrowing journey through steep cliffs and sharp curves for another thirty minutes. And finally, with our rolling suitcases and backpacks, we were told that we needed to hike thirty minutes through the mountains to the hotel.
I was in my glory! All I had was a backpack so I was ready to hike at a moment's notice, but many of the people in our group had heavy rolling suitcases (mostly girls who packed too much and boys who decided to purchase lifesize terracotta statues in Xi'an.) The air was humid and it is rainy season in the Guangxi province, so the stone steps through the mountains were slippery. Longji, the part of Longsheng that we were staying in, is famous for its painstakingly carved rice terraces. The terraces are carved to look just like a contour map, and the Zhuang people, famous for their colorful clothing, have spent centuries keeping the rice terraces and developing an extensive all natural irrigation system through the terraces.
The Yangtze River Adventure Team were reunited again, and Cara, Jay, Richie and I took the lead in hiking blindly up the mountains to look for our hotel. Wet and sweaty (and probably smelly), everyone survived the hike through Zhuang-built wooden houses and hotels to the very top of the mountain, where our beautiful wooden hotel was conveniently located. The view was amazing, and even though we were all soaked from the humid air and the hike, we were given boiling water (Chinese people believe that warm liquid is better for your health even in hot weather) and encouraged to explore.
We set out to explore the rest of the mountaintop and admire the rice terraces, and we spent the rest of the afternoon climbing over narrow dirt paths, crossing log bridges, and looking out over the mountains.
We got to the top, and found a hotel with a large cement patio in front and steep steps leading down to the rice terraces. Cara and I decided we would pay homage to my Grandpa and pretend like we were hanging off of the patio. We weren't very good at the trick.
As the sky got darker, we saw a farmer working on his rice patties, and I decided that I wanted to meet him. Jay, Georgette and I walked over to where he was washing his feet in a stream, and I held out my hand to shake his. I asked him in Mandarin whether I could take a picture with him, and he didn't understand because he only speaks Cantonese. Even though he didn't understand me, he took off his hat and handed it to me to try on. Jay handed the farmer his own hat, and we all got some pictures with him.
The next day, we were encouraged to wander off and explore the neighboring villages in the mountains. I headed out by myself in the morning, hoping I would get to talk to some people. I got my wish, after wandering through the rice terraces and down into a valley, I came across a Zhuang woman weaving a pink scarf outside her home. I asked if I could sit and watch her for a while, and she immediately got me a stool and started chatting with me. She and I both spoke a little Mandarin, so I was able to ask her a little bit about the scarf she was making, and she was able to exclaim over and over how she thought I should be wearing more clothes in the rainy weather. Then she offered to let me try to work her loom, and showed me how to thread the material. I did about ten rows on the scarf, and then she finished it for me. I bought it from her for about $1.50, and she gave me a little embroidered pouch as a gift. My favorite moment was when I asked her if I could take a picture of her, and she got so excited. She asked me to wait a moment while she took off her overcoat to show me her beautifully embroidered clothes.
I met one more woman when she called to me from the second floor of her house and told me to come up and sit with her for a while. By that time it had started raining pretty hard, and I was wearing shorts and a tank top. She was like a fussy mother over me by the time I reached out to shake her hand. She slapped my shoulders and told me I was soaking wet, and she ran downstairs out of sight for a while. I sat down on a stool and she came running back upstairs with tissues and started wiping my arms and legs off, dabbing my face and patting my cheeks with these tissues, as if that would make me dry again. Then she demanded to know whether or not I was hungry, and without waiting for an answer, ran back downstairs and up again with a cucumber. So I sat there, chatting with her, and munching on a whole cucumber while she showed me the waistband she was working on. She was such a funny lady, and I couldn't figure out how to tell her I wasn't cold and I had planned on getting wet, so every time she told me I needed more clothes for the rain, I just told her I was "crazy, a crazy American."
Later I met up with the rest of the group and we explored the villages, walking into shops selling scarves and clothes, and drinking soda and eating noodles on mountainside restaurants.
Later that night, the hotel we were staying in, and in which we were the only guests, set up a dance party for us in the lobby. We were goofing off outside on the porch when two Zhuang women showed up in their colorful garb. They wanted to learn how to dance! They were so happy to be there, just watching us and trying to copy whatever we did.
Our time in Longsheng was very relaxing and the rice terraces were amazing. Despite the long hike through pouring rain back down the mountain in the morning, we all had a great time and loved the beautiful views and the friendly people.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Our program made the trip out to the Chengdu Panda Research Center in the morning, and the day was not the most beautiful. It was cloudy, and it was drizzling when we left. However, this turned out to be a good thing, because it was cloudy weather the pandas all came out in the cool air. There were so many pandas, at all ages. Many people don't know that there are two different kinds of pandas - Red Pandas and Giant Pandas. Red Pandas look more like raccoons.
After exploring some of the habitats, Georgette, Molly, Cara and I decided that we each wanted to hold a red panda. The cost to hold a red panda is 100 Yuan, or about 15 dollars. We head over to the red panda breeding center, and they dressed us in plastic gloves and blue hospital gowns, and had us sit in a chair. I gave my camera to Jon so he could capture all the magic. Imagine my surprise when a very adorable baby red panda was placed into my lap, chewing on apples and seeming very unconcerned with where he was.
We each took turns holding him and petting him, and he never seemed upset or scared, he just kept eating his apple and staring straight at the camera. Jon decided that a red panda was not good enough for him. He wanted to hold a baby giant panda, which costs 1000 yuan, or 150 dollars. Luckily, out of our group, he chose me (for my camera) to be the one person who got to go in with him. It was the most amazing experience ever. Jon also had to wear the hospital gown and the plastic gloves, but we both had to wear blue booties over our shoes. They make us wear these to protect our clothes and to protect the baby panda from our scent.
When they brought the panda in, he looked like a marshmallow. He was sleepily slumped over the researcher's shoulder almost like a towel. He looked like he weighed about 40 pounds, and he was totally adorable. Jon was in his glory, holding the panda's paws and petting his head. The baby was so sleepy he just stared up at Jon and out at the camera, a little dazed.
After the baby panda adventure, Georgette, Molly, and I went out to look for more pandas. We hit the jackpot when we found four pandas munching on bamboo conveniently close to where we were standing. We took lots of pictures, and watched them play with each other for awhile.
The next day, 17 of us woke up and checked out of our hotel at 6:30 am, earlier than the rest of our group. We left our luggage at the hotel and boarded a bus to Leshan, a town about two hours north of Chengdu. We were determined to see the biggest sitting Buddha in the world before we left Chengdu, even though it was not organized by the program. The biggest sitting Buddha in the world, Dafo, is located outside the town of Leshan.
Dafo was built on the side of a river in 713 AD. A Chinese monk named Haitong decided that, if they built a Maitreya Buddha on the side of the river, the turbulent waters would calm and ships and fishing boats would be able to pass through unharmed. As the buddha was under construction, temples began springing up around the site, and villages moved closer in order to enjoy the benefits of such a big buddha. Haitong's idea worked, and all the rubble and stone removed from carving Dafo was tossed into the river, lessening the strong current and making the river sailable. The buddha took 90 years to complete, and the monk Haitong actually gouged out his own eye when Chinese officials threatened to pull funding for the project in order to show his sincerity. Consequently, there are Buddhist temples, Haitong's burial site, and memorials to Haitong dotting the area.
We explored the hills surrounding Dafo, and finally made it down the winding and steep stone steps to the base of his statue. His big toe is large enough for six people to stand on it, and his ear is 7 meters high. The area also includes a park commerorating the many different styles of sculpting Buddha, with originals and recreations of Indian and Chinese Buddhas. The park surrounds another giant Buddha, the gigantic Sleeping Buddha, which stretches across a rock face over several mountains. This one is not as famous as Dafo, as it has eroded quite a bit.
My favorite part of the park was an old fishing village that has been reconstructed in the shape of a boat. The men and women still fish for a living, and they displayed their live fish and turtles in buckets for prospective visitors. We decided, from looking at the quality of the river they were fishing from, that we were not that hungry.
We also visited many burial tombs, complete with stone carved dogs and horses, clay pots and beds. This used to be the biggest fashion for burying family members, and caves are quite deep. There I am sitting in somebody's previously final resting place.
While I was being disrespectful and picking a smaller reconstruction of Dafo's nose in a cave, I made a new friend who was not as happy about me being there as I obviously was. If you look closely at the second picture, you can see him on the right side of Dafo's neck.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
After the lecture, we went to a restaurant to taste some of
Xi'an's finest. Xi'an is famous for its dumplings, or as we call them jiaozi, and we were brought 18 different kinds of dumplings in round steamed crates that stack on top of each other. There were dumplings with pork and chives, steak and onions, and odd ones like eggs and catsup. Each one was amazing, and I was stuffed once I had sampled all 18 of the different dumplings.
The next morning, we woke up early to visit the Terracotta Soldiers. An army of eight thousand soldiers were constructed to surround the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi during the Qin dynasty. They date from 210 BCE, and were only discovered in 1974 by some farmers. Every single soldier, each of the 130 chariots and 520 horses are different, with different facial features and adornments. The majority of the soldiers are still buried to protect them from air contamination, but about 1,000 of them are on display. It was overwhelming to imagine that each soldier was individually constructed and worked on, and the faces and positions were not created by simply filling a mold. This is one of the sites that is firmly on the tourist line, so we saw more white people than usual.
In the afternoon, we visited the Great Mosque in