The Longmen Grottoes

Hello all! It has been quite a while since I’ve updated and I wish I could blame that on the jet lag, but that’s certainly not the case. I arrived back from the US on July 2nd, so a little over four weeks ago. I will be writing more about that experience later since I wrote some things down I wanted to talk about concerning my reentry into American culture and such, but for now I just want to show you guys my photos from Longmen.

Sometime around mid-May a friend and I went to the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang. The grottoes are famous for housing some of China’s most famous sculptures of Buddha—there are over 17,000 in total, ranging in sizes from some as small as your thumb to others larger than your house! Many of the Buddhas are hundreds to thousands of years old. They were all truly a sight to behold. It’s a very touristy area and therefore the tickets were a bit expensive, but the park itself was totally worth it.

Because the sight has essentially become a tourist trap, I really didn’t feel like I was visiting a very spiritual place. It wasn’t very quiet because there were a good number of people visiting, but I suppose that’s for the best because it didn’t feel like we were disturbing anybody trying to pray (which sometimes happens at smaller temples and sites), nor did it feel like we were intruding upon holy grounds. The photos don’t perfectly capture the enormity of the park or some of the Buddhas , for that matter. But I hope you enjoy the photos!

Beijing–Day 3 (The Great Wall)

Welcome back reader! This post will conclude the retelling of my shenanigans in the capital of China. We actually didn’t leave until the evening of the fourth day, but much of that day was spent sitting in the train station and wandering around through the biggest mall in Beijing. On the third day, however, we set off for the Great Wall!

Before leaving Kaifeng, some research was done concerning the Great Wall. The closest section of the wall to Beijing is Badaling making it the most visited section. There are many other sections you can visit, but they are further away and are much less convenient to travel to unless you’re with a tour group. Several modes of transportation are available to get to the wall, such as a handful of buses that leave from Tian’anmen to Badaling, a train line that only goes to the wall and back, and ridiculously overpriced taxis. We opted for the train because trains have never let us down in China before, and they’re usually a bit faster and more comfortable than the buses. To catch the train to Badaling, we had to go the Beijing North Station. While there, we ran into another fellow who was travelling to the Great Wall but spoke no Chinese. This was a problem for him at the ticket window because the teller didn’t speak any English, so we helped him out. The tickets were surprisingly cheap—each one was under $1! Unfortunately, we missed the first train and had to wait a few hours for the next one.

The train ride took about an hour or so, and we arrived at the Badaling station around 1 PM or so. From the station, it’s a good mile or so up to the entrance of the wall itself. It was surprisingly chilly that day: the sky was filled with clouds and there was a pretty constant wind blowing, but I suppose that’s better than unbearably hot weather. There was also a mist or fog that settled over the mountains that made photo-taking a bit frustrating. I was really hoping to get some nice, clear shots of the wall winding over and through the mountains, but most of them didn’t come out so well due to the obnoxiously passive grayness that stubbornly covered the landscape the entire time we were there. But it’s okay—I’m not bitter.

When we finally reached the entrance to wall, we decided to go to the right. Because the wall is, well, a wall, when you enter it at Badaling you enter in the middle and can choose which side you’d like to climb. I want to take a moment to briefly comment on the use of the word “climb” when in context of the Great Wall. Before I myself climbed the Great Wall, I always thought that people who used the verb “climb” to describe their journey on the wall were over exaggerating the effort required to tackle a big old fence. I mean, it has stairs, right? Right. But after visiting the wall, I can honestly say “climb” is the most accurate word to describe how this wonder of the east is tackled. There are parts of it that do not have stairs yet the surface is slanted at a 50 degree angle or so, and the bricks are quite old and have become slick and worn with age. At the sections where there are stairs, they are inconsistently spaced and are often not level. Some of the stairs might be only a few inches tall and others over a foot. The only thing more difficult than going up the wall is going down it—particularly on those stretches where the Chinese felt stairs weren’t necessary even though the wall was slanting at a 45 degree angle. In fact, most people just ran down those parts because it was easier than taking your time and trying to walk down it.

We hadn’t picked a specific spot to end at or specified a certain amount of time we wanted to stay on the wall, so we ended up turning around at North Tower 8. It’s one of the higher points of that section of the wall, and we were pretty tired by that point so after resting awhile and getting some photos, we turned around and worked our way back down. There’s a cable car that goes up pretty far along the wall, so that’s always an option if one is pretty tired and doesn’t feel like walking all the down. They also had something that looked like a little roller coaster that one could take down if they so chose. Dannysha and I declined these options but did take another way down: along one side of the wall, a newer and less intense path has been constructed that lacks the crazy dips and uneven stairs that make the wall a challenge. There are still many, many steps though.

We caught the 5:30 train back into Beijing, grabbed some dinner and then headed off to Wangfujie. We weren’t heading there originally, but I could find the street market I’d originally looked up and so we ended up at one of China’s biggest tourist streets. It was lined with many different stores and restaurants, some of which I knew and some I didn’t. We did find a little night market down one of the side streets, but it wasn’t all that impressive. Some vendors had live scorpions on sticks that they would cook for you if you so desired. I didn’t get any photos of this, however, because it was really all stuff I’d seen in Shanghai.

The next day we checked out of the hostel, went to the Joy City Mall, got some lunch and much needed Starbucks, then headed off to the train station after we grew tired of looking at overpriced American brands. This ended our trip to Beijing. I hope you enjoyed reading about it, and hope you enjoy the photos below! Again, the weather wasn’t perfect but that’s part of traveling. I hope to update again in a few days, so until then, 加油!

Beijing–Day 1 (Tian’anmen/Forbidden City and The Olympic Park)

Well hello there! It has been quite some time since I’ve updated my blog, and for that I sincerely apologize. After getting back from Taiwan, I began preparing for the HSK which is a Chinese Language Proficiency Test. Before Dannysha and I left for Taipei, the school told us we would be taking HSK level 4, but when we returned they informed us we would be taking level 5, which is much more difficult. We took the exam on May 12th, and until we reached that date much of our free time was spent studying, though I did take a little trip to Taiyuan to free my mind a bit (I’ll make a post about that later). So, again, I apologize for my absence, but I plan to post quite a bit before I leave, particularly since my departure is looming ever closer.

About a week ago, Dannysha and I jumped on sleeper train to head up to Beijing, the capital of China and probably the most famous city in the country. From Kaifeng, it’s about a 14 hour train ride to get to the thriving metropolis. Fortunately, this ride wasn’t so bad–we left around 8 PM on a Friday and arrived around 10:30 AM the next day. This was not my first time on a sleeper train, but I did take a photo for your viewing pleasure. They aren’t necessarily the most comfortable, but it’s way better than a hard seat. What I really enjoy about them is that people won’t bother you because you’re white–they’ll still talk about you, but people book the sleepers because they want to sleep, and sleep they do.

When we got to Beijing, the first order of business was to get to the hostel. We found ours off of hostelworld.com and the cost per night was only around $6 per person. This is, of course, for the dorm style room which means you’ll be rooming with other people and using a community bathroom. But for $6 a night, I am absolutely okay with that. We took the subway to the appropriate stop, missed the entrance to the hostel at first but eventually stumbled upon it. The girl working the front desk knew very little English (not a problem for us, of course) and was not very helpful. She forgot to give us our key and gave us the password to the wifi begrudgingly. When we entered into the room, we noticed that there was indeed an air conditioner (just as it said online) but it did not work. There was also a 127-year-old woman that was apparently living there. She seemed nice at first and it’s always useful to practice Chinese–I found the Beijing accent to be much easier to understand than the Henan accent–but then she just became a bit annoying. She would ask us where things were in Beijing even though we explained we were just there to sight-see, and she would go to sleep very late with the TV blaring and then have the audacity to be the first one up the next morning, usually clambering out of bed around 7. The bathrooms were nice–but there was only one shower per restroom. This was apparently not a very popular hostel because this never became an issue, but the shower itself wasn’t too pleasant: the temperature options were Direct From the Arctic or Straight Out of Hell. Needless to say, I will not be patronizing that hostel again.

After checking in and putting our stuff down, we decided to head out for lunch at the fine American establishment, Burger King. No, seriously. It was in the gourmet food section of the mall instead of the food court. Burger Kings are much more difficult to find in China than McDonald’s and are far superior in quality in that they are less Asian and retain more of the American fast food feel. After dining on a delicious Western meal, we set out for the Forbidden City. Tian’anmen is located directly in front of the Forbidden City, so it’s essentially a two-for-one deal. It was a Saturday so the palace was pretty packed. I was a little bit disappointed, to be honest. The Forbidden city has three main palaces, and two out of the three were blocked off for renovation. It also wasn’t quite as tall and grand as I thought it would be, the Chinese movie Curse of the Golden Flower being the cause for my disillusion (which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it). But it was much much bigger than I thought it was going to be. The spaces in between the palaces were absolutely huge, and it’s not hard to believe that there actually are 9,999 rooms within it’s walls. My favorite places in the Forbidden City were definitely the smaller alleyways in between buildings. The walls were maybe 30 feet high on either side, with random gates and intersections that seemed to have been placed there for the sole purpose of confusing the person wandering through them. After meandering through many of the palaces and smaller chambers, we exited into Tian’anmen. Tian’anmen also wasn’t too impressive, though it was also quite large. There were some nice looking buildings surrounding it, but because there was not even a sliver of shade to rest under and it was about 90 degrees that day we left pretty quickly.

That night we went to the Olympic Park to check out the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. Since the 2008 Olympics, the Water Cube has been converted into a large indoor water park. The cost of admission running on the high side, so we settled for some photos outside. The Bird’s Nest is still mainly a giant stadium, though a 5-star restaurant has been installed somewhere inside, and I’m fairly certain there’s a large gym in there too. You can take a tour of the stadium during the day, but, like the Water Cube, it’s a bit expensive. The park was nice though–lots of people selling cheap novelty items, many people were rollerblading, and most interestingly, there were some karaoke set ups. People came out with their own flatscreens, generators, microphones, etc and set up a little karaoke area. You told the guy what song you wanted to sing, paid him the appropriate amount, and then waited for your song to come up and sing. It was fun to watch, but looked very intimidating to participate in.

And that concludes day 1 in Beijing! Tomorrow I plan on writing about day 2 and post the corresponding photos!

天灯节!

Hello everyone! Today concludes the Chinese New Year celebration. Most people returned to work last week, but today marks the two week point after Chinese New Year, which makes it the Lantern Festival thus ending the celebration. The Lantern Festival was one of the main reasons Dannysha and I decided to come to Taiwan for the winter break. We did some research and reliable sources (wikipedia) said that the town of Pingxi is supposed to be one of the best places to go for the lantern festival, which was where the 天灯节 or “sky lantern festival” originated.

Pingxi isn’t too far outside of Taiwan, but it’s not accessible via metro. To get there, we had to go to the Taipei Main Station and buy train tickets to Ruifang, and from there transfer to the Pingxi line and take another train to our final destination. Buying the ticket was easy, but getting on the train was a little tricky. China’s train system is very well organized and there are many workers on the platform to help you if you have any questions. Unfortunately, Taiwan was severely lacking in the helpful department, and the arrival/departure board was utterly confusing. Despite the confusion, we boarded the correct train and arrived at Ruifang within a short amount of time. We bought our tickets to Pingxi again (which was a mistake because we’d already paid for the full ride at the previous station) and rushed to the platform. The train was waiting for us when we got there, and was packed with people. I was dismayed at first, but realized the cars further down the platform were fairly deserted. Dannysha and I nearly sprinted to get a seat and were practically kowtowing to the gods for it by the time the train started rolling. Anyone who is claustrophobic or doesn’t like being in close proximity to strangers would not handle this trip well at all.

Being in a seat, we were unable to read the sign when we reached a station and the train began emptying. We followed the crowd and wound up at the wrong town and station, but it was no big deal. We ended up in Shifen, which had a very large Sky Lantern Festival itself. The tiny little town was completely packed. I’ve been to large, crowded theme parks and various other big cities but I’ve never been so jostled in my life. I’ve also never seen so many foreigners in any one place in Asia–I’d say that the crowd was maybe 30% foreigners. There were so many shops selling lantern trinkets and snacks that the streets were clogged and getting down to the area where people were sending up lanterns in groups was incredibly difficult and maybe even a bit arduous.

Finally, we came to a large area where people were selling lanterns and providing markers with which to write your hopes for the new year. People say that by sending the lanterns into the sky the gods are more likely to see your wishes and prayers. So we purchased a red one from an option of about 9 different colors, my favorite of which (purple) was sold out. After writing our wishes on our lantern, a girl came by and helped us send it to the gods. The way these things work is that it’s like a mini hot-air balloon–they light a fire under it and then it just floats up. This can, of course, go terribly wrong. One of the lanterns became entangled on a telephone wire while ascending and caught fire, another hit a building and sort of exploded, and several simply hit a strong pocket of wind causing them to tumble over and immolate mere feet above the heads of the crowd. I’m assuming that all of these scenarios do not forebode good fortune. Fortunately for us, Dannysha and I’s lantern flew away safely, and thank heavens for that because I did not want to see my message of 给我钱 or “GIVE ME MONEY!” go up in flames.

The ride back to Taipei was, well, crazy. There were thousands of tourists in this tiny town, and only a few trains were coming to take them back. This was the first time I’d ever seen the train workers shoving people into the train to make them fit. However, Dannysha and I made some new friends while being crammed into the train. It seemed better to be friendly to the fellow foreigners whose faces were only several awkward inches away from your pelvic region than to ride on in an uncomfortable silence. It was very interesting to hear their opinions on Taipei and the Chinese spoken there since they were all exchange students and also studying Chinese. I wish I’d met them at the beginning of my stay in Taipei, but at least some nice conversation made the uncomfortable train ride a bit more tolerable.

I’ve uploaded some fairly bad photos for your disappointment. I should have taken my camera’s instructions with me or read them before I came to Taiwan. I did not, however, so many of the photos are a little blurry. Some of them are not the camera’s (or my) fault–there were so many people that I was constantly being jostled and it was difficult keeping the camera still. Still, here they are!

Taiwan–Day 3

Hello all! 新年快乐!It is now the year of the Snake! I really have to be honest—I was let down by Taiwan’s celebration of the New Year. There were almost no fireworks that I could see, or hear. It’s very possible I was simply in the wrong place to see them, but I was let down nonetheless. I would recommend, therefore, those wishing to experience a Chinese New Year to go to mainland China.

Today we wandered around the city for a bit, along with visiting some famous places in Taipei. For lunch we stopped by the Modern Toilet restaurant. The food wasn’t outstanding, but let’s be honest—you go there for the experience. After that we went to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. It was pretty outstanding. The crowds weren’t terrible at all, particularly for this being a holiday in which many people seem to go sightseeing and such. It was a fairly exhausting day filled with much walking and photo-taking, my favorites included down below.

So far, I am absolutely loving Taipei. It’s not really as clean as Shanghai was, but it just seems much more…me. I can’t really describe it, but I just feel a sense of belonging here. I know I said the same for Shanghai, but this is true love, I think. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!