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!

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.


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.

Day 2 & 3: Beijing

Our day began, much to our surprise, with a western style breakfast in our hostel. I had muesli but instead of the standard berry inclusion that normally comes with any granola-like substance my had watermelon in it! It was surprisingly tasty. (I had blended watermelon juice a while back and it was so so good.)

After navigating the somewhat circuitous and ever-expanding Beijing metro we arrived at the more than steep mountain at the foot of the Summer Palace. A lot of love for these tourist attractions quickly dwindled as we dealt with the crowds and just existed in this 95°F weather. But it was still fairly picaresque.


In the park, we saw these huge strangely weathered rocks and Lauren mentioned these were called contemplation stones. Apparently, in the middle of a monk’s garden there maybe be one of these big fellas and the monks would gaze into them because the shape of the rock was also a reflection of the shape of the universe. Whoa.

Lotte and I woke up early and said goodbye Maia and Lauren the only other Americans I know in China. (It’s a real bummer we won’t see them anymore.) Afterwards, we helped a lost Australian couple buy fast train tickets to Shanghai while waiting on our couchsurfing compatriot.

I’ve never experienced couchsurfing in the wild. I’ve always stayed with friends or relatives. This trip is going to rely heavily on this largely personally untested method of lodging. But after today, I’m really excited to see what else it has in store for us.

20130720-235035.jpg Mao Gourd for luck/prosperity. But we all admit it kinda looks like a grandma.

Enter Qian. A true blue dude that really grasps the spirit couchsurfing is shooting for. He went out of our way to show us around Beijing and even took us to Tiananmen Square. He said he felt bad because he lived so far outside of the city (almost an hour and a half) but it is so nice and quiet out here. I definitely needed this after being crammed in subways and tourist spots.

20130720-235011.jpg Here’s my main dude showing us how easy it is to make the Tomato/Egg dish we all love.

Day 1: Beijing

We departed July 6th, which was a day earlier than previously planned because SOMEONE bought the wrong tickets. Whoops! It wasn’t no thing. We hit that sweet sweet fast train all the way into everyone’s favorite Chinese capital city of Beijing.

Allow me take a moment to teach you a little bit of the Mandarin I’ve been learning. 北 is běi and it means “north”. 京 is jīng and it means “capital”.

When we arrived 5 hours later we headed out to the Temple of Heaven. It was a beautiful park, and like everything in China filled to the brim with people. While normally this is a little aggravating, in this instance in was great. There were large groups of people, mostly elderly, playing musical instruments and assembling 20+ person choir to perform traditional Chinese songs together. We explored some more of the park and I learned that people have been worshipping Heaven in China since the 26th Century BC. That’s bananas!

We headed to the hútòng district near a few lakes in the middle of the city. We weaved through some alleyways and endured a whole row of the same bar that featured cold drinks, good food and, most prominently, a single dude or girl crooning some Chinese pop song while playing a guitar amplified to 11. What.

We met up with Katie and her sister who suggested this banging pizza joint named Hútòng Pizza. Pizza isn’t the same as home, but isn’t bad either!
Destroyed from walking so much at the Temple of Heaven and through the hútòngs, we came home and slept hard.