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Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

In Heilongjiang province, the northern-most of China’s 22 provinces, there is a city named Harbin. Harbin is notable for its Russian influenced architecture, a Chinese beer, being ludicrously Siberian-type cold and probably most famously the largest Ice and Snow Festival in the world that takes place in early January every year.

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The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival originated from local Harbiner traditional ice lantern show garden party in winter since 1963. It had been interrupted for a number of years during the Cultural Revolution but had been resumed in January of 1985.

The first ice lanterns were a winter-time tradition in northeast China. During the Qing Dynasty(1644 – 1911), the local peasants and fishermen often made and used ice lanterns during the winter months.

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This little one couldn’t not be in the photos, so I tried to work her in.

The average temperature in Harbin during the winter sits at a balmy 1.7°F (-16.8°C). Yet, annual low temperatures below -31°F (-35°C) are not uncommon.

I hope this sets the scene because, quite frankly, this is the coldest I have ever been in my life and I need you to know that because this harsh climate definitely colors the experience of traveling around Harbin during the festival. During our journey, we were privileged to enjoy a cool -18.4°F (-28°C) for the majority of the day. Luckily, the wind wasn’t blowing too much because I’m afraid to know what it would have been like with wind chill factored in. Despite this harsh arctic wasteland’s best efforts to thwart us, my fellow travelers and I didn’t arrive unprepared.  I wore no less than 2 pairs of socks, 3 layers of pants, 4 layers of shirts,  a mask, a hood, and a winter jacket with solid winter boots. Even bundled to the max like this, Katie, Lotte and I still needed to pop into one of the many little refuges about every 15-20 minutes.

In spite of all the frigidity, we had a really good time. When we arrived in the city, like many other times this summer, we normally have no idea where to go first. We generally just grab a bus and see where it takes us.  Stakes felt a little bit higher than before, because being outside for even a few minutes would freeze the little hairs inside your nose, which feels REAL weird. Yet fortune smiled upon our frozen faces because we met a lovely young lady on this bus who could speak English and helped point us in the right direction.  We arrived on the main drag of Old Harbin where its Russian-influenced architecture is easily identifiable and also luckily where everything that you would want to see in Harbin is located. We snagged some lunch and popped off to St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral after navigating through many underground shopping streets.

St. Sophia's

St. Sophia’s

After surviving the return route in the underground shopping labyrinth, we hit up a  Lonely Planet recommended coffee shop and let our bright pink mugs, mitts, and toes thaw until it was dark outside which is when we decided to make our way over to the Ice and Snow Festival.

We arrived at the entrance which was absolutely stunning.

Abandon warmth all ye who enter here.

Abandon warmth all ye who enter here.

Our excitement was crushed a little when we arrived at the ticket counter and the attendants wouldn’t let us use our Student IDs to get half price like it said on the advertisements and the sign right next to the window. He told us it was for Chinese people only.  My favorite part about this exchange was that in this very room there were flags from all over the world, yet this jerk couldn’t see this irony. So we forked over 300 RMB ($50) and grumbled all the way in.

But the grumbling was short-lived because the Ice Festival is AWESOME. There were many giant castles, snow sculptures of cartoon characters, pagodas, scenes from famous Chinese mythology like the story of Sun Wukong the monkey king.

Sun Wukong himself

Sun Wukong himself

Everything was so much larger than life. The ice blocks are created with holes in them so that they can run lots of lights inside. During the festival, there are three different venues you can attend. We attended the largest one, but couldn’t justify spending another 240 RMB ($40) on seeing sculptures of Doraemon, Mickey Mouse and Despicable Me minions.  I don’t have much to say about it other than I climbed a couple castles made of ice and rode a two story slide that was glowing bright green all the way to the bottom. I can’t recommend you go to see this crazy winter wonderland enough. Just stay warm, dude.

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Thanksgiving Abroad

I know it’s an American holiday, and mostly its purpose is to put way too much food into you face hole. (That’s my favorite part at least!) but the point of Thanksgiving is to take a moment to talk about the things that you are thankful for that normally get taken for granted. Being abroad instead of at home with my family, has been both great and terrible at the same time. I get to appreciate so many things so much more than I would if I were home, but I miss those things even more because I’m here. In my classes on Thursday we went around the room explaining things that we were thankful for. So I thought I would do the same thing here.

-I’m thankful for my good health. Despite China’s best efforts to kill me with wild traffic, and pollution.

-I’m thankful for the supportive family and friends that talk with me every week so I don’t get depressed and homesick. These peeps are keeping my mind off being really bummed out when I want to go to home brew beer with my dad, eat a burrito and play with dogs.

-I’m thankful for the awesome staff at the university for always taking care of us even when they don’t always understand why we do what we do. They are so helpful and I wouldn’t be able to survive here without them. They’re the reason I get to do 80% of the cool stuff I get to do. This is Vivian KILLING IT with her skillful selfies.IMG_0220[1]

-I’m thankful that I have some of the best students ever and that I have the best times in the classroom. These dudes and ladies are by and large the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. It’s like having 100 children of my own but they haven’t grown to resent me yet. I know I will miss them so bad when I go home.

IMG_0360-Most of all I’m thankful that I could have the opportunity to come to China and to have it blow my mind with new ideas and a new understanding of the world and how it works. It’s been a wild experience and I can’t believe I’ll be going home in a little over two months.

IMGP3111I’m also pretty darn thankful for Katie and that she was crazy enough to do this with me. She’s been such a trooper. She helps me out with damn near everything and makes sure I don’t accidentally kill myself 24/7. mad props, boo.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Chillin’ in Jilin

Instead of getting a single day with fireworks like we do on July 4th for Independence Day. China takes a whole week off for National Holiday/Mid-Autumn Day. After messing up our plans to head into Inner Mongolia and see the grasslands and ride a camel, we decided to hit up this mountainous area in the nearby-ish province of Jilin right next to North Korea.

I mentioned before that China has a ton of different ethnicities. Well, this area is no different. Many of the people in this area are ethnically Korean. In fact, this area is call the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. It’s a little like the Tibetan Autonomous Region except a whole lot less volatile. Everywhere we visited in Yanji City, the biggest city in the the autonomous zone, had Korean characters above all the Chinese characters. This area is often referred to as the “Third Korea”.

Hot Springs Spa

Hot Springs Spa

This area or rather the main feature of the area is called Changbaishan (长白山)aka “Ever White Mountain”. It and other landforms like it are called “calderas”, just in case you find yourself with a geologically challenged vocabulary. To the rest of us, it’s just a big ol’ volcano that has collapsed upon itself and now is filled with a beautiful pristine lake named Tianchi (天池)aka “Heaven Lake”.

We managed to really luck out here. According to the local drivers and hotels in the area, the mountain and the surrounding park areas were completely packed with tourists only a few days before we arrived. One driver even said that he had to wait in traffic for 3 hours just to get to the mountain which is only about 10km away.

On the first day, we got off the train and starting eating Korean food by the truckload. It’s definitely different than the usual northeastern Chinese cuisine we’ve been getting in Shenyang. There’s even a bunch of different restaurants dedicated to serving up dog in a lot of different ways.

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Ol’ (T)rusty

Later, visited this really weird run down amusement park. Imagine some really weird county fair and abandoned creepy zone of Pripyat, Ukraine had a baby. That’s what this park was like. It had spinning rides, tiny rollercoasters, cotton candy and even baby bottle fish feeding… What? There were toys to pose for pictures with like little tanks, and creepy dolls. There were even some propaganda style statues from the Korean war dedicated to the all glorious leader himself Kim Il-Sung. Peacocks and deer with less than necessary hair/feathers but also some pretty miserable living conditions. Poor little fellas. Zoos in America bum me out, but zoos in China just make me angry. But, my anger subsided quickly because of all the other weird stuff going on. Piles of old people were lying all over the ground playing a Korean game named “Go-Stop“, an especially talented sugary candy dripping artist crafting his own renditions of the traditional Chinese zodiac.

In case you don’t follow me on Instagram, I’d like to show you something really weird.

The next day, we went to a hot spring spa resort. It cost us around 300 RMB ($48~) and a little extra for me because apparently WVU basketball shorts are a bit of a swimmers faux pas. Who knew? I scored some speedo-esque swimwear (ladies, please.)  and off the pools I was. This spa was so nice! There were tea and flower infused pools, pools with hot jets, pools with cold jets and some with little fish that eat all your detritus. The Sino-fish relationship is getting out of hand, y’all.

On the last day, we walked all around the park where Changbaishan and a bunch of other little scenic spots are. This mountain is really weird for two reasons.

First, it reportedly has a mythical and ancient creature living inside of its Heaven Lake that is very similar to our other underwater ally, Nessie, despite it being a very small body of water. Some folks claim that there are estimated 20 monsters! Reports say it might look like a giant buffalo, but at the gift shops they sold lots of Disney-fied little dragons with blurry pictures, so it probably looks like that. Although, my favorite description found on while researching this beast monster says:

“More recent reports describe the monster as having a human-like head attached to a 1.5 m neck. It is said to have a white ring around the bottom of its neck, and the rest of its skin is grey and smooth.”

Yeesh.

Secondly, on top of this mountain, according to North Korea’s propaganda, is where the Supreme leader Kim Jong-Il was miraculously born. I bet you were thinking “Wait, a minute dude wasn’t it a camp in Siberia?” Well, probably not because who in their right mind keeps track of all the sources of demagoguery in the world. The Ever White mountain is on the border of China and best Korea. When Kim Jong-Il died in 2011, nature mourned its loss apparently as the ice cracked on this lake and it shook the heavens and earth.

Changbaishan and Tianchi are really beautiful. It was also very, very cold and windy. The road to the top was incredibly steep and included gratuitous nausea-inducing switchbacks. There isn’t much to say about our friendly neighborhood caldera and the surrounding parks that I haven’t already. So I’ll just let the rest of my pictures do the talking.

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Trapped! Tale of an Escape Room Survivor

I remember loading up these flash games about 10-ish years ago, wherein you the nameless/faceless protagonist are trapped within a room of a certain color.  These games are fun in a really creepy sort of way. The object of the game is to escape from the room but this can only be accomplished by completing a series of puzzles. Usually this involves several weird seemingly unconnected objects and a lot of lateral thinking. At times, they may seem impossible, but you know that you have been given the tools to save yourself, it’s just your dumb brain that’s keeping you away from that sweet, sweet freedom.

Crimson Room by Toshimitsu Takagi

Crimson Room by Toshimitsu Takagi

Yesterday, my students told me we were going to play this game together but in real life. If you’ve ever played one of these games, you know the kind of headache-inducing anxiety these games can bring even when you have the ability to close out a window any point.

Four of my students and I arrived at this apartment complex on middle street, which is the main shopping area in Shenyang. We went up the 16th floor and down a tiny narrow hallway. I was really excited but still nervous because I have no idea what I’ve signed up for. The proprietor of the business shows us into this tiny space, tells us that we have 1 hour to get out. The blue numbers on the clock slowly ticking down doesn’t help. After a few minutes, the stress of being in this room evaporates and we start having a lot of fun. Everyone is grabbing everything in the room and basically yelling “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!” in both English and in Chinese.

To give you an idea of how this puzzle worked, I’ll give you the steps for this room in particular. Disclaimer: This was not figured out so simply and there was lots of backtracking and trying so many things while freaking out and shouting ideas.

First, there is a dictionary on a bookshelf. Inside of the dictionary there is a safe with a key. We moved around another cabinet on the other side of the room and found the key hanging on a hook behind it. Second, inside the book safe there is a pencil, eraser and paper with a math equation written very heavily on it. The math problem doesn’t add up correctly. When examined more closely, there was pen writing inside the numbers that gave us 3 numbers that opened a lockbox inside the cabinet mentioned earlier. Inside the lockbox was a #1 pool ball, and a Rubiks cube that didn’t move. There were 5 paintings on the walls, a big black light and loads of strange things. All of the weird objects in the room corresponded with the paintings. Pool player painting = Billards ball, Munch’s “The Scream” = Scream mask, Eiffel Tower Painting = Figurine of Eiffel tower. Each of these things had a color on them. Third(I guess?), the if the colors on the Rubiks cube were counted, you could put the paintings in order based on the objects with their color. Fourth, once the paintings were in order, four switches needed to be pressed in the room at the same time and the black lights would come on, revealing hidden numbers on the back of the paintings. This code opened the door… to another room just like this.

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This is Jack and Nick trying to figure out why the lights have letters on them.

We were so close! We ended up running out of time. We solved everything in the second room except for the very last thing. The room’s owner told us we needed to flip our keycode over because the whole room was upside down. (OF COURSE!) We laughed a lot and it feels really good when your suggestion gets you to the next step. By the end, our brains were throbbing out of skulls and I demanded coffee or beer. The boys agreed and we settled on some delicious milk tea before heading to the arcade. At the arcade, I ran into some more of my students and they told us they just escaped from a room too! But, it seems it was a different one. There are apparently a lot of these in Shenyang and they’re pretty popular.

Which makes me wonder if people would get a kick out of escape room games in America or if this something that would only fly in Asia. If anything I think it’d be perfect for Halloween. I can’t wait to go back.

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Day 13: Terracotta Warriors

After a lot of miscommunication and getting lose at the bus station, then an hour ride on such sought after buses, we arrived at the very confusing complex for the the Terra Cotta Army. Why is it confusing? To arrive at the gate to see the warriors, you must first embark on the noble quest of acquiring tickets. These tickets are posted far away from the parking lot of the park, and farther still from the actual entrance into the dig sites and museum. After getting your tickets, which you should totally bring your ancient student ID from college because it will still work and save 50% of the ticket price, you must wander through what seems like miles and miles of tourist shops all selling the same things: candy, magnets, little replica warriors and horses about the size of  your finger, and all sorts of toy guns and light-up tops.

IMGP2809But it’s worth it, because the actual full-sized soldiers are a pretty amazing piece of history. The story goes that in 1974 a farmer was digging a well and stumbled onto this site where now current estimates suggest that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits near by Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. What’s more interesting is that out of all of these statues, they may be similar, but no two are exactly the same.

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Another thing about being in China that I love is that I’m experiencing first hand all sorts of history that I never even came close to learning about in America. It’s a real bummer because I never considered taking an Eastern World history class. Qin Shi Huang was a crazy dude but did so much for China.  This guy was the first emperor of unified China, he started construction on parts of the Great Wall, created massive road networks, standardized money, weights and measurement systems and of course had these Terracotta soldiers guard his future final resting place. Yet, all of these accomplishments came at the expense of many Chinese lives including my home girl Meng Jiang Nu, and the 460-1100 scholars he BURIED ALIVE. Oh yeah, and to top it off he burned books too! Plus, his tomb hasn’t been fully excavated because this jokester probably has it booby trapped with rivers of mercury and crossbows primed to shoot anyone trying to break in.

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I’d like to impart some advice on you if you are ever going to visit the Terracotta Warriors exhibit. Do the dig sites in reverse order. Site 3 is the smallest and least impressive, 2 is a little bigger, but 1 is what you’re there for. It’s enormous and they’re still doing tons of excavation to this day. It would have been a little bit of a let down to see the other sites after 1. I’m glad Lotte suggested this when we headed in.

It was pretty remarkable to see something so old, and in pretty decent shape. Even if many of them are missing heads, or are broken, some of the soldiers even have still have paint on them. This is definitely one of the coolest spots we stopped at on our trip. I just wish these pictures could do this experience justice.

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Day 12: Kai and Muslim Food

After rushing Datong and Pingyao over previous few days we decided to take a 9 hour hard seat ride to Xi’an, one of China’s most historical and culturally diverse cities. (or at least it used to be). Xi’an used to be a major hub on the Silk Road. According to my Lonely Planet book, Xi’an once expanded be around 83 sq km and had influences in buildings, cultures from as far away as Persia, and really alien religion like Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism, and Manichaeism. (Which I didn’t even know was a thing.)  All of this is pretty cray considering how much bigger the world would have seemed then.

But before we get to what a cool time we had in Xi’an, I want to bring up something about riding trains.  (I know I’ve brought it up before but trains were the main mode of transportation for this trip. All time considered, I think we spent 90+ hours on trains. So forgive me if I’ve got a few things to say about them.) The previous few trips from Beijing >Datong & Datong >Pingyao, we had taken over night sleeper trains which were actually kind of nice once you get past the sleeping exposed thing. We decided from Pingyao to Xi’an we’d ride on a just a regular hard seat with Han Q. Public.

IMG_3550Boy, we were in for an… experience.

So we’ve been stared at and gawked at plenty by this time living in China as a laowai. No big deal, right? Well, imagine having captive audience for 9 hours in close quarters. It gets a little hard to just stare back at people or pretend not to notice until it goes away. After a few hours and chapters into our books, this became much less of a source of anxiety and more a source of …well, kind of a mix between entertainment, worry and disbelief. Mostly because this man decided to nest under our seat.

IMG_3555This may seem really crazy. And yeah, it probably is, but after talking to my students about it they told me that it’s probably because many people take “Standing Tickets” because they can’t afford or don’t want to pay for a seat. It’s a pretty common thing on Chinese trains for the aisles to be jam packed with people as well as the seats.

After being seriously tired of close quarters with people, we were ecstatic to finally arrive in Xi’an. We met up with our Couchsurfing host in the middle of the night and felt really bad about waking him up. Our host’s name was Kai. Kai’s a really interesting fella. One, because his Couchsurfing profile reads seems to be really serious. In his profile, he’s very pro-communist, very pro-China and oh yeah. He’s a cop. Two, after meeting him all of this is rendered moot because he has a really funny sense of humor. He says he’s a cop because he couldn’t pass the test to be a geography teacher. (He’s actually a crime scene investigator after being a beat cop and a prison guard. After hearing his stories about Chinese prisons, I definitely don’t want to go.) He says he’s a card carrying communist (he showed us the card) because he has to be to be a cop. In his words, “Why do we base our government on a book? Didn’t they see how it worked out in Europe? Maybe the book was just a joke and we took it seriously!” Aside from all that, Kai loves hotpot like most other Chinese people and has mad guanxi at a local place. So he took us there was another Couchsurfer that was staying around his place named Dorothy who teaches in Gansu province.

IMG_3566Anyhow, enough about Kai,  let’s talk more about food. Remember how I mentioned Xi’an was culturally diverse? Kai lived about a 5 minute walk from the Muslim quarter. They had beautiful mosques, for once not just temples! We wandered around this part of the city for a while and discovered they have bread! Almost like real bread!  This part of town kicked my whole Chinese food experience up about 10 notches.

We discovered Hui food. The Hui people are one of the recognized ethnic minorities in China. This food doesn’t taste anything like the food we had experienced in China up to this point. The real key indicators that you’re in a restaurant of the Hui variety is the lack of pork on the menu, the little white hats, and most importantly a person swinging, rolling and flying some dough into the most delicious and fresh noodles I’ve ever had. It’s some serious pastamancy, dude. The only part that’s a bummer is that the noodles come out as really long strips of lava burning mouth death. Luckily, they’re also the most slippery and difficult thing to eat with chopsticks as well.  You and the rest of your noodlin’ party will look like heathens in comparison to Western standards because it’s totally okay to shovel as many mile long strands of noodles as you can into your mouth and bite off the excess while the sauce flies everywhere. But seriously, what’s eating like a prude with a fork ever done for anyone? My shirts are never clean after a meal anyway.

The city was actually really nice with all its walls, but we only scheduled 2 days to stick around. So we were off to the Terra-Cotta Warriors ASAP!

Casualties of War

Counter-Strike Laser Tag

School is back in full swing. It started up around 3 weeks ago. I now have 2 more classes than I had last semester. So needless to say things are really busy around these here parts. I have mostly different students but luckily managed to retain one class from last semester.  That would be Class 122 and they are my real buds. Their English level is great, they work really hard, but most importantly they got the memo that I’m a real cool dude that somehow most of the world managed to misplace. Because they’re really cooperative in class, we do lots of fun activities and sometimes hang out outside of class. We’ve gone to the movies, ate pizza and most recently we played laser tag.

Except my students don’t call it “laser tag,” they call it CS, which I’m assuming “Counter-Strike” because video games are pretty prevalent here. It’s also probably a safe bet on account of all the equipment required and the amount of times I shamelessly shouted “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” (That last part may or may not be false.)

My students and I bussed about an hour north of Shenyang to this little place… I don’t know where to begin when describing it, so I’ll do what I normally do and explain an elaborate story that a much more eloquent man than I could summarize in a few words. Imagine if some rather industrious people stumbled upon an abandoned warehouse complete with broken glass, rusty nails and overturned…everything in the middle of overgrown field. These industrious people then say “Yo, let’s build some little cinder block forts and get people to PAY US to come here.” This place is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and would never fly in America, but it’s a still a great time.

We arrive around 9am and strap on a few pounds of military surplus equipment (huge surprise there) in the little plaza area that this rickety ol’ business has established as its headquarters. We got split into two teams and became mortal enemies for the rest of the day. As we fought our friends, our little camouflage vests and helmets blinked, vibrated, beeped and screamed depending on our current state of marksmanship and mortality. I was an American terror on that battlefield.

Speaking of America and its terrors, I met a little boy around 10 years old while we were playing who, unlike the majority of Chinese folks, was more than unimpressed that I was from the US of A.  My brother-in-laser-arms and student, Fred, mentioned that he was around the age that kids join the Young Pioneers of China or “red scarves”. From what I can tell is like a Chinese nationalist version of the boy scouts. Fred went on to mention that many kids join this group, and when they grow up they realize we live in a world where no one country is perfect.  Eventually, this little boy grew to really like me. He always was huddled in my fort yelling “LAOWAI!” or “WAIGUOREN!” telling me to do stuff that I can only half understand.  Like I’m an idiot because I don’t know the Chinese for “move this cinderblock over here so I can stand on it and see over the wall.” He did speak a little bit of English though, and flipped out when I said his laser rifle was cool.

To be fair, it was pretty cool.

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Peking Opera-rarararararara

So I don’t know if you are entirely familiar with Opera of any kind, but I had heard about how important to Chinese culture the Beijing Opera. There’s been movies and documentaries about the Opera and what the people go through to be a part of it; to keep this crazy and interesting part of their culture alive.

It’s a pretty wild experience. If you clicked the video above, which I’m sure you have by now. You will have discovered the true meaning of the word caterwauling. The ol’ Peking Opera is something to really take in. Besides the elaborate costumes, they tell interesting folklore stories, use only a few very simple instruments to orchestrate the production. While half of the Opera is singing and dancing the other part includes some intense high-flying acrobatics and choreographed on-stage battles.

The plays are normally several acts long and take a few hours, we experienced a tourist-friendly version that included subtitles on big displays and was only 45 minutes long, showing two different plays. Act I was a play about a concubine and an emperor leading into battle and how the power of music motivated the soldiers to win. It was bonkers and the lady ends up killing herself because China. Act II is about this lady who needs to steal secret mushroom to revive her dead husband but in order to do that she must climb Kunlun mountain and defeat a crane god and a deer god because they were so the guardians of the mountain.

Another thing interesting unique to this style of story-telling are the masks used in the Opera They are color coordinated according to their personality, character type or role. (So much for subtle foreshadowing, y’all.)

  • White: sinister, evil, crafty, treacherous, and all around a suspicious fella. Anyone wearing a white mask is usually the villain.
  • Green: impulsive, violent, often makes rash decisions.
  • Red: brave or loyal type.
  • Black: rough, fierce, and a totally righteous dude.
  • Yellow: ambitious, fierce, cool-headed, but also kinda like cruel and calculating.
  • Blue: steadfast, someone who is loyal and sticks to one side no matter what.
  • Silver/Gold: Often used for gods or Buddha but sometimes for ghost bros too.

So basically if you’re in Beijing, you’ve got an open mind and you want to see something you won’t forget. (for several reasons) Do yourself a solid and see the the Beijing Opera.

This’ll be my last Beijing post. Katie has some great posts about the next few stops on our journey. I think she captures the spirit of our trip really well for leaving Beijing, and taking the trains to DaTong, and Pingyao. I’ll be making a picture portfolio page in the coming days that will feature the best pictures I’ve taken. I’ll probably post my best pictures instead of making a whole post on it.

Class just started back up today and I’m so excited. I missed teaching these guys!

Matreiya is huge... well everywhere.

Day 5: Lamas, More Gods and Forbidden Palaces

After hanging with Qian for two days, we decided maybe it was a good time to move back into a hostel in the city. Not because he wasn’t the nicest and most hospitable dude ever, but mostly because it took a 1.5-2 hours to do anything inside the city and that bus trip was killing us. With our new home-base established at a little place among the hutongs named “the Red Lantern”, we actually were able to explore the city over the last few days.

This was a quick google  image that is similar to what I’m talking about except the size of a wall. @___@

We saw a Tibetan style temple named the “Lama Temple” where I took many notes to research some of these incredible many-appendaged deities, both wrathful and good, though often times it’s hard to tell which is which. The temple was also a museum of sorts. It contained old artifacts like period clothing, tiny teapots, tiny statues, large statues, printing press materials, scrolls that had been printing-pressed upon and tapestries that would put any college stoner’s wall ornaments to shame. It’s probably for the best that they’re locked up in a museum, because even the shortest baked-gaze at one of these mind-melters would surely leave even the most experienced Reefernaut plunging into the depths of a rabbit hole so deep they could never emerge. Real talk.

The centerpiece of the Lama Temple is a massive 18-meter statue of my new main dude, Maitreya, sitting on an 8-meter pedestal.  It was all carved out of one solid piece of sandalwood. Whaaaaat. Where do you get a tree as big as this thing? (You should take this time to go peep Katie’s site. She’s a much better writer than me, it’s her photo of Maitreya at the top of the post, and she’s covering the same excursion as I am except offers a different and often funnier point of view.)

This is Vajrapani. He's a pretty angry dude at times. He's one of the 3 protective deities surrounding Buddha. I will own a mask like this.

This is Vajrapani…or rather just a mask of his head. He’s a pretty angry dude at times. He’s one of the 3 protective deities surrounding Buddha. I will own this someday.

Over the next few days, we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. Maybe it’s because these places get a lot of hype that they weren’t as exciting as we were expecting, maybe it was the 90°+ weather or maybe it’s because we were absolutely mobbed by fellow tourists and we weren’t ready for it. Either way, they were neat to see but our experience was kind of a letdown. Inside the Forbidden City there is a calligraphy museum that was worth checking out.

I can’t help imagining how cool it would be to be inside the Forbidden Palace with only a few hundred people, but we were definitely dealing with thousands and thousands.

Oh well. That’s pretty much China tourism in a nutshell.

Although, the giant Mao portrait and tomb didn’t  disappoint at all.

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Travel Advice: New Beijingings

We spent a grand total of eight days in Beijing. We realized after the breakneck pace of the first few days of our stay that we should start to space out all the excitement to one sight a day. I think by the end we were pretty over old Peking. But, if you’re looking to travel to Beijing during the tourist season or just popping through to catch the best tourist attractions on summer vacation, I have a few tips of Beijing travel advice that might make your trip a little easier.

1. Get centrally located. While this seems like a no-brainer, it’s really important because Beijing is so large and most of the must-see spots are located in the center of the city including Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven as well as many other sites. There are a number of really reasonably priced hostels like the Red Lantern that are actually relatively short distances to the spots.

2. Depending on your length of stay, get a smart card. You’ll be taking public transportation all of the time. All the subway stops were a flat rate, but with a ton of other tourists and Beijingers around it can take a long time just to get your tickets. It’s not too expensive to get one, either. It’s a 20 RMB deposit and then you add money from there. It makes things go smoother when you’re navigating the circuitous, lengthy subway terminals, you get a 60% discount when riding the bus, AND you can turn it back in at certain subway stations to get your deposit back when you’re done! CHA-CHING!($u$).

I'm so bad at math, though.

After doing a brief number crunch, this is the amount of dough I saved.

3. Add an extra hour for travel time if you have to change to a different metro line to reach your destination. I’ve never experienced quite a large subway system like Beijing’s before, but 9/10 transfer stations have you walking a country mile to get to the next train. It feels a lot like walking to different terminals in an airport.

Hutong A-Go-Go, Baby!

Hutong A-Go-Go, Baby!

4. Be prepared both mentally and physically for crowds. Before I moved to China, I thought I knew what it was like to be crowded. I thought “There’s no way it could be worse than the Red Line on the Washington, DC metro during rush hour.” Oh to be that naïve, once more. It turns out I didn’t know what a crowded subway, bus, hallway, park, train, or really just any room you want to exist in could be or was actually like. Everyone always says China has a lot people. Sweet heavens is this ever true. Overcrowding is nightmarish in the dead of that blistering summer heat.This goes for a lot of cities in China, but doubly so Beijing. Many of the experiences we had like the Summer Palace, which had around 300 thousand people visiting by the team we were leaving early the day that we were there, and 400 thousand the day before. Things can seem far less magical if you aren’t mentally prepared to see the sights you want stuffed with a whole gaggle of camera-toting, electric-fan-hat wearing sightseers.

5.Lastly, if you’re getting burnt out on seeing the sights, I recommend taking a nice stroll through Nan Luo Gu Xiang near Houhai lake. You can walk through the hutongs and find all sorts of neat little shops, even some that aren’t completely aimed at tourists! After walking around you’ll realize that almost all of the bars feature the same crooning one man/woman with a guitar to pop songs. It’s charming in that weird China sort of way.

Keep these little tips in mind when heading into the Middle Kingdom’s ever-expanding capital city. You’ll have at least a marginally more enjoyable time. I promise.