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China My Time in

2011-2012 Act 4

Luoyang | Shaolin Temple | Nanjing | Shanghai | Xitang | Chengdu | Leshan Giant Buddha | Lanzhou | Dunhuang | Camel Trekking | Beijing | National Center for Performing Arts

Luoyang – Peonies and the Old City 5 May 2012

An ancient capitol city and home to Chinese Buddhism, Luoyang, Henan is a great city to visit. May 1 was International Labor Day, a holiday that China recognizes meaning school was out for a few days. Aaron and I took the opportunity to visit Luoyang. It is famous for many things including the White Horse Temple and Longmen Grottoes, and although it hasn’t been a Chinese capitol for hundreds of years, it is the Peony Capitol of China. We took an overnight train from Hefei to Luoyang, which is an adventure all its own. First of all, we didn’t get sleeper tickets because they were all booked up. Second, in China they sell standing tickets meaning people are standing, slouching, crouching, sitting and all sorts of other –ings in the aisles for the 10-hour trip. The way the seats are arranged means no reclining so not much sleep was had, more than on the way back but still not a lot. We arrived in Luoyang Sunday morning and napped at our hotel for a few hours before heading out to explore. That afternoon we decided to visit one of the many peony gardens in the city, after all we were there at the end of the Peony Festival. We chose Wangcheng Park because it is the oldest and most established right in the heart of the city. This park was once the royal park or palace or something back in the day, but now has a small amusement area, a zoo and swathes of peony bushes. Unfortunately, the end of the festival is not the best time to see the flowers in full glory. Only a small number of bushes were actually in bloom, most of them already done and bare of blooms. Even with the disappointing flower display, it was a pleasant afternoon in the park except for the dreary zoo with terrible conditions for the animals. The flowers get better treatment then the animals in the zoo. A few highlights of the park were the coolest balloon hat I’ve ever seen, a lady soliciting rides in a mini rickshaw pulled by an animatronic bear and finding two four leaf clovers (giant ones and the first two of the four we would find in Luoyang). After the park, we headed to Luoyang Old Town. This is the historic downtown with narrow streets, old buildings and remakes of city wall fragments. The main pedestrian street we found has a bunch of shops and restaurants with great ambiance. The next day we also walked a bit in the Old City down some quiet, lovely tree-lined streets along one of the canals, and we found an old Ming-era pagoda. Our friend Gail, who lives and teaches in Luoyang, also invited us to the traditional Water Banquet, which is basically a meal with lots of courses. She invited many friends, foreigners and locals, who all teach in Luoyang. It was a nice meal with good company.

Luoyang – an adventure in Chinese Buddhism 6 May 2012

Hundreds of thousands of hand-chiseled Buddha effigies and the first Buddhist temple in China also call Luoyang home. These were our destinations for day two.

Longmen Grottoes

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Longmen Grottoes are an impressive monument to Buddhism in China. For more than 1,500 years, believers left their marks of devotion by carving intricate statues, symbols and guardians into man-made caves along the banks of the Yi River just south of Luoyang. Even amidst the hordes of tourists, this site is a must-see destination not only to see the monuments but also the destruction from early twentieth century looters and from the Cultural Revolution, which left scars of missing heads, hands and complete statues scattered through the grottoes.

It is hard to explain the coolness of this place in words, so just look at the pictures. Due to the extreme smog I didn’t get any great shots from across the river, but I think some of the close-ups are decent. The park has four areas including a temple and tomb. Also, indicative of most big Chinese tourist destinations, there is a big tourist village before the ticket booth for all your curio needs.

White Horse Temple

Buddhism was carried into China on white horses by monks from the West. When they reached Luoyang, the Emperor had a temple built for them to house the monks and sacred texts they brought with them. Over the past 1,000 years, this temple has grown and been added on by each dynasty and generation as a grand shrine to Buddhism. Over its life many of the buildings have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt but there is still a lot of history and grandeur to the temple. Throughout there are beautiful gardens, ancient statues and steles and monks helping visiting worshippers. When we were there the irises were in full bloom with great beds full of them, and it looked as if their peonies would be blooming soon.

Besides the excellent examples of Chinese Buddhism in the architecture, statues and symbols, they are also building an international temple zone. Currently, they have a large Indianstyle temple and a Thai-style temple is underconstruction. This is also the final destination of the Journey to the West, one of the most famous Chinese legends. Although I am not Buddhist, I found it enlightening to visit the home of Buddhism for China. So much has been influenced by it that it is interesting to see where it all began. Both of these places are easy to get to. The grottoes have a handful of public buses that go there for just 1 RMB but it isn’t too far from the city to get a cab either. The Temple is further out but there is a bus that heads that way for the same low price. We opted for a taxi which cost about 35 RMB each way if your driver doesn’t take you the long way. They will try to get you to pay 40-50 but insist on the meter and it should be cheaper.

Everybody wasn’t kung fu fighting 7 May 2012

At nearby Songshan is another famous temple, the Shaolin Temple – home of kung fu. Before heading back to Hefei, we journeyed to this beautiful place hoping to see some awesome monks practicing the true arts of kung fu. We didn’t see any monks but lots of younglings learning the art. However, we did enjoy another historic and beautiful Buddhist monument.

The Temple

The Shaolin Temple is several hundred years old and like the White Horse Temple has contributions from just about every dynasty and generation since it was built. Also, like the other temple, a lot of it has been rebuilt due to fire and other destruction. Some of the structures and statues are hundreds of years old and beautiful pieces of art and history. The whole temple progresses up a hill with grand courtyards in between each hall and other guardian halls on the sides. There are centuries-old trees and magnificent steles on giant dragon turtle backs. My favorite part had to be the upper-most buildings with the amazing frescoes on the walls. The main hall at this level has beautiful paintings of various Buddhas all over the walls, and the floors have the storied divots where allegedly monks spent hours practicing their movements and stances.

The Pagoda Forest

Further up the hill from the temple is the Pagoda Forest, a cemetery of sorts for monks of

the temple. Each stupa contains the ashes of a monk. Some are very old and others very new. One particular pylon had a laptop computer, an airplane and a car carved on it. This really was one of the coolest cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

Kung Fu Training

The temple is famous for its kung fu. There is a large training school on the property and many more in the area. Also near the temple is a training center with the training equipment we’ve seen in movies like Kung Fu Panda such as the posts of varying heights and the large bowls. No one was training there, but in a few other places we found students of the training schools practicing. These students weren’t training to be monks but mostly kung fu performers much like Jet Li and Jackie Chan, who according to some I’ve talked to trained there. I don’t know how true this is since I couldn’t find any evidence pointing to it. Personally, I think this is just a great myth to make the two of them even cooler by having trained at the legendary Shaolin Temple. We didn’t see any monks actually training as we had hoped but it was a very busy day. Also in the scenic area is another temple as part of the complex, where visiting monks would have stayed, and it is surrounded by mountains. We didn’t have time to hike and explore, but if ever I return, I’ll try to make time to hike around the mountains. Until then, adventure is out there.

Turtle in a Jar | 24 May 2012 Last weekend I took a final trip to Nanjing with Aaron. We used the opportunity to buy some souvenirs at what I think is the best market in China and to see some of the sites we hadn’t seen on our previous two Nanjing adventures in November and December.

The China Gate

The title of this post comes from our first stop, the Zhonghua Gate built in the fourteenth century during the reign of the first Ming emperor. This gate was designed to put the enemy in a tough spot like “a turtle in a jar” as it said on one of the signs. The gate is an ingenious and great defensive structure. Composed of four sections of walls and gates, this south entrance to Nanjing is an imposing structure built with one thing in mind, deter the enemy and if that doesn’t work destroy them before they get into the city. The first section is the main gate through the actual city wall except this gate is nearly three times as thick as the rest of the wall. If the enemy breaks through the gate, there is a long dark tunnel to get through with surprises of its own before reaching three more walls. In the tunnel are two small entrances to two more tunnels on either side, which could hold up to 3,000 soldiers ready to storm into the main tunnel behind or in the midst of the intruders. At the end of the tunnel is the first of three courtyards surrounded by high walls that would have been stalked with archers and other means of deterrents like heavy rocks for dropping.

Each of the courtyards has a gate in the middle. The design for the fortress basically trapped the intruding army into four areas of combat, three of which were basically pits for slaughter. They would divide the sections with heavy stone slabs at each gate thus trapping the invaders like turtles in a jar or more appropriately with the archers above like fish in a barrel. Not only is the structure, engineering and strategy impressive but it is a cool place to visit too. You can walk through the tunnels and up on the walls. With ivy growing over the walls it is pretty cool looking. There are small exhibitions about the gate, Nanjing and other things in some upstairs corridors and a bonsai garden in the middle courtyard. If you really want to get into it, you can even pay a few Reminbi to shoot a quiver of arrows at a small archery range in the first courtyard.

The Drum Tower

Having walked passed it several times to get where we were staying and to go to church on all of our trips to Nanjing, we figured we should stop in for a visit at the old drum tower. Most ancient Chinese cities have a drum and bell tower for telling time and making important announcements. Nanjing’s bell tower was destroyed but the drum tower still stands on a roundabout in a lovely little park. The top structure with the actual drums has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the last several hundred years, but the base or pedestal of the tower has survived from the original. One can climb up to get views of the nearby skyscrapers. In two of the corridors of the base there were art exhibitions to peruse for free.

The Presidential Palace

Most non-Chinese people don’t know that Beijing has not always been China’s capitol. In fact, it has moved several times, but Nanjing was a favorite place several times over the last several hundred years. For that reason, Nanjing is full of amazing history covering not just ancient dynasties but also playing a very pivotal role in modern Chinese history and the current relationship with Taiwan. Among the more modern sites is the Presidential Palace, the equivalent to the White House for Nationalist China. The property and some of the buildings have a bit older history, but the most important history is what it saw at the infancy of modern China. If those walls could talk, the stories told would be fascinating. This is the place where the first modern China was created and where they tried to set it all in motion. Dr. Sun Yatsen lived and worked there and after his death the government of the Republic of China operated from

this building. They received foreign heads of state and planned, wrote and revised China’s then constitution that would later be the base for the current Taiwanese government. Kuomintang leaders met with CCP leaders and eventually it was the site of the “liberation” in 1949 by the new People’s Republic of China People’s Liberation Army. If you’re a Sinophile then this is a must see. So much happened there, and from the few English translations, the role of the short-term Nationalist government is fairly treated as essential and not all bad. There are some Qing-style buildings and cool Chinese art deco buildings built in the 1920s. There are also many buildings and gardens to explore. Depending on how much you’re interested in China’s history, plan on anywhere between a day and a few hours to explore the complex. There are exhibitions about the governments, the old constitution and the Five Yuan System, and displays about Sun Yatsen. Of all of the cities I’ve visited in China, Nanjing is one of the very top. It is for the most part clean and relaxed. The tree-lined streets make it more intimate and the transportation system is decent. I’ve been three times and each time it has been a good experience.

China in the footsteps of Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman & J.J. Abrams 29 May 2012

All around the Shanghai region of China there are numerous canal or water towns. These are towns built around a series of streams, rivers and canals with wonderful bridges spanning them. Of course, if you’re in China for any real length of time, you should probably make a trip to at least one of these formerly quaint and now tourist-overrun villages. That’s what I did last Saturday with Aaron, Jamie and Alyssa. I did some research to choose the best village to visit and decided on Xitang, a little town about 80 km southwest of Shanghai. Why did I choose this one? It isn’t listed in Lonely Planet and it isn’t very well known, but the couple of places I found information about it mentioned its photogenic qualities and that part of Mission Impossible 3 was filmed there. Yes, I chose which water town to visit based on that fact. Why not? Aaron is a film junkie and most of these little towns look very similar. So, we chose to go to the one where Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the amazing J.J. Abrams shot MI3. Anyway, it is a nice little town with narrow alleys winding between old buildings all lining a series of canals. It has been highly touristized, which may be one reason LP doesn’t mention it, but it is a beautiful place to visit and easy to get to.

The admission price gets you into a bunch of old buildings including a temple, some gardens in a building called the drunk house and a couple of museums. Along the way there are numerous restaurants, shops and interesting people. You can take a boat ride down the main canal or just meander through the little alleys and over the bridges. To get there, you take a 20-minute train ride from Shanghai Hongqiao to Jiashan South then a taxi to the village. You could probably get there from Hangzhou and Suzhou as well pretty easily.

Stinky Tofu

If you’ve ever been to Asia, you may have wandered through a market or past some food stalls and smelled something very rank. You learned that it is simply called stinky tofu in English (basically it’s rotten or fermented tofu that is then fried) and said that you would never put that in your body especially if it tastes as bad as its odor. Every time you walk by a cart with it you cover your nose and get upwind as fast as possible. Well, in Xitang, right across from the bridges seen in MI3, Aaron decided to give it a try. I said he was crazy, but then I had a bite. It’s surprising how it tastes so different from how it stinks. It tastes a bit like fried egg.

Shanghai’s Jews and Old Architecture 30 May 2012

During the Nazi invasion of Europe and the ensuing Holocaust, thousands of Jewish people and others were forced to flee their homes or be killed or imprisoned and tortured. At the time, no nation was willing to welcome Jewish people as refugees other than China, which was in the middle of their own occupation by Japan. Because of this, tens of thousands of Jewish people ended up in Shanghai. One of the biggest Jewish communities was in Hongkou just north of the Bund. This history is not only important to Shanghai but many others whose families were rescued from certain death if they had stayed in Europe. To memorialize this effort and honor the Jewish heritage of Shanghai, a museum has been built there, in and around the Ohel Moishe Synagogue. The Synagogue itself has been restored with amazing brick work on the exterior. The third floor has an exhibition about the holocaust curated with the help of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. In the rear courtyard of the synagogue are two small buildings. One has the history of Shanghai welcoming the Jewish people with a short video introduction. The other has stories and images of Jewish life in Shanghai told by those who experienced it. This is definitely worth a short visit. We are all victims of the Holocaust because of its lasting effects on the world. It is also refreshing to see Shanghai paying tribute to a group of outsiders who helped make the city what it became since they sort of cover that up at the Bund and in the French Concession.

Brick Architecture in Shanghai The synagogue and surrounding buildings are made of some beautiful brick work. These weren’t the only amazing brick structures in the neighborhood either. All around the old part of Shanghai we found great old architecture with some beautiful, intricate brick work.

My final week as a teacher in China 10 June 2012

I just finished my final week as an English teacher at Anhui University in Hefei, China. I’ve learned a lot, taught a lot and hopefully inspired a lot. My final exam for my students, all but one are freshmen, was for them to give either a stump speech or a presentation about a badge they created. They talked about everything under the sun, from animal protection to zombies and so much more. A good chunk focused on environmental issues, education issues and the food service on campus. It was an enlightening experience to listen to their thoughts and ideas. The best line from any of the speeches was from a boy who spoke about cannibalism (supposedly a growing issue around the world) and ended by saying some think it is a sign of the zombie apocalypse. He then said as options for how to react to the problem, “One, sit back and wait for the zombies to come, or two, pick up weapons and fight.” Other great one-liners include this translation of a Mao quote: “Any relationships that don’t end in marriage are all crap,” or this bit of wisdom, “managing a successful marriage is the most difficult career.” Friday night I held a party for all of my students. It was a dance party but that means they sit and watch as we attempt to get them to dance until I start teaching them dances. A heat wave came to town that day and made it extremely hot and humid, but it was still fun. I taught them the Virginia Reel, the Macarena, YMCA and the Chicken Dance. We also did the limbo and had a piñata that I made with a balloon, paper and flour paste. They came up and gave gifts as classes including lots of personal messages. Perhaps the most personal gifts besides the notes are two posters made with Up graphics and images from adventures with the class. They also gave me a shirt with Russell from Up on it. Now, I’ve submitted my grades and am preparing to travel several thousand kilometers by train all around China for a few weeks. I had good days and bad days as a teacher, days when I gave lectures to seemingly uncaring students and days when we laughed and laughed with each other over the stupidest things. I’m not sure if this will be my last time as a teacher like this. Honestly, it is a pretty sweet gig. But it is time to go home and do some other things. I hope my students work hard and remember a little bit of what they learned from my classes not necessarily the lessons and vocab but how to think, dream and have fun while learning.

My Great China Train Trip 26 June 2012

The next several posts chronicle my trip around China over the last couple of weeks. Many posts I wrote on the train between destinations. On the trip I spent just over 100 hours on 7 trains traveling almost 10,000 kilometers. If I add the excursion to Leshan by van from Chengdu then I broke 10,000 km on this trip not including walking, camels, subways, buses and boats. I traveled with my friend Aaron. We visited five UNESCO World Heritage Sites and added two more provinces to our list not including train travel through many others. Before I go into detail about each adventure, here is an introduction to our trip and why we went where we went. Our first idea was to visit Tibet, but we felt we could see more of China for less money by going a different route so that’s what we did. It turns out our decision was well made since the week before we left, they canceled all permits for travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region meaning anyone with plans would have to change them and anything already paid for would be lost. In Chengdu, we met a few people who lost their opportunity to visit Tibet. Many of them changed their plans to instead visit Tibetan regions of other provinces like western Sichuan and northern Yunnan. For our trip one thing was sure, we were going to visit Sichuan to see the pandas in Chengdu and the giant Buddha in Leshan. After I planned that, I explored many options including Yunnan, Inner Mongolia and Gansu. In the end, due to time limitations and recommendations from students, we decided on Dunhuang in Gansu province. We started routing trains and planning accommodations. Our final plan was to go from Chengdu to Lanzhou, the capitol of Gansu, to Dunhuang. Then from there we would hit up Zhangye in the middle of Gansu. After all, Marco Polo stopped in this town for a year and nearby there are mountains with a Tibetan monastery. This plan was swiftly foiled by the train situation – we couldn’t book a ticket out of the city. Maybe that’s why Polo was there for a year. Anyway, instead we exchanged the ticket to Zhangye for a new route that took us from Dunhuang to Xi’an and then Xi’an to Beijing, which was our next destination. Making it to Beijing would let us do two things, each one something that one of us wanted to do since we were there ten months ago. For Aaron it was to visit the Beijing Film Academy and for me to visit the National Center for Performing Arts. Both were a success. We also had time to visit some other sites, hit up some markets and just relax. After Beijing we were planning on visiting Hangzhou, but we were both ready to get back to Hefei. We figured out a train route and finding that one full we chose another that would actually be faster albeit a little more expensive. The following posts are of our adventures riding camels, visiting pandas, eating quintessential Chinese food, exploring ancient history and art, and experiencing China’s modern side. I hope you enjoy.

Chengdu, Sichuan – China’s gate to their Wild West 26 June 2012

After a 27 hour train ride, Aaron and I arrived in Chengdu, the biggest city of the western Chinese provinces. I’ve been waiting for this trip since I decided to come to China for two main reasons; Sichuan is the main home of the awesome giant pandas and the biggest Buddha statue in the world in the small city of Leshan.

Green Ram Temple and Huan Hua Xi Yuan (park)

After arriving, we checked into our hostel, Lazybones, and then began wandering the city. We made our way to the main square in the center of the city where the Great Helmsman salutes passersby. From there we wanted to find the Green Ram Temple in the western part of the city. We found it near a nice big park that is now fully equipped to act as an emergency center, most likely in response to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The temple is a Tang-era Taoist temple with mostly Ming and Qing-era buildings. The temple is very nice with beautiful gardens and some amazing frescos on the walls in the Temple of the Two Immortals that is also part of the complex. The Green Ram Temple gets its name from two statues of bronze rams outside the main hall. One looks like a ram. The other looks like a mythical creature as it is made up of pieces from all twelve of the animals from the Chinese Zodiac. I could only tell a few of the animals. After the temples, we wandered through the peaceful green parks littered with open-air tea houses, lush water features and old people on strolls. It is a nice sanctuary in a grand city. The only problem was the number of mosquitoes.

Jinli Market and Face-Changers

From there we walked to the Tibetan neighborhood that is mostly shops with Tibetan religious trinkets, clothes and art. Near this neighborhood is the Wuhou Temple, which at 60 RMB we decided to pass. However, around the temple is a nice park and series of winding allies of food vendors, souvenir stalls and shops. As we meandered we found a tea house with an opera singer posing for photos out front. Curious, we checked it out. It ended up being a tea house theater where you get to watch a show highlighting Sichuanese culture just by purchasing a cup of tea. We don’t drink tea, so we got a cheap cup of chrysanthemum tea, flowers in hot water, for 15 RMB so we could see the show. The show was a nice showcase of culture that was more than worthy of 15 RMB. The performance included Chinese opera, folk instruments, a puppet dance, storytelling and the seemingly magical face-changing opera. This last is a must see for someone visiting Chengdu, and since we didn’t want to pay to see a full opera (heard enough of it to know I wouldn’t enjoy two hours of it) this was a fantastic way to see the mysterious art. It was a great first day in Chengdu with a couple more to come before heading off to Gansu province and the desert.

What big ears you have! – the giant Buddha of Leshan 28 June 2012

Many years ago I saw Samantha Brown on the Travel Channel visit this colossus and I told myself I would go there someday. That day has come and gone and it was pretty darn cool. It is the biggest Buddha statue in the world ever since the Taliban destroyed a bigger one in Afghanistan, and it is more than 1,200 years old. We arranged to take a van with some other travelers from the hostel to Leshan getting us there a bit faster and earlier than if we had taken a bus. This got us there before the crowds making it easier and less stressful to see the big guy. This statue was carved into the side of a cliff overlooking the confluence of three rivers in order to calm the rapids that were hazardous to fishermen and other boatmen. A monk decided to have a Buddha carved into the mountain to have a calming effect, and it worked. Many say it is due to the debris from carving the statue that calmed the river by adding loads of boulders to the river. Whether it was a blessing from Buddha or natural coincidence doesn’t matter because the Buddha is impressive either way. His ears are about 17 feet tall and his toenails are about 1.5-2 meters squared, and it is a real miracle he hasn’t eroded more since he was carved into a soft sandstone hill. This is partially due to the hidden irrigation system inside the statue. When you first see him, you are at eye level. From there you can wind down some narrow stairs to get a Lilliputian view of this Gulliver, as it says in Lonely Planet. Along the path down and all around the mountain are other smaller carvings and statues. There is also a temple, a really old and awesome looking pagoda and some beautiful semi-tropical scenery. There was a lot of going up and down stairs and hiking about but it was a delightful morning. After exploring the park, Aaron and I made our way to the boat dock up the road to get on a tourist boat for seeing the Buddha from the river with his two guardians on either side. On the way to the docks we encountered the area’s crazy lady who grabbed Aaron’s water bottle out of his hand and started drinking from it. After we yelled at her she got crazy and started throwing the water all about while yelling back. We saw her again later and she started smiling, laughing and yelling again. Nothing happened but it is a fun story to tell.

Back to the boat ride, it was a short trip just long enough to go past him and hover in front for ten minutes to get pictures. This really completes the scene seeing him carved into the cliff flanked on either side by guardians and overlooking the river. The drive back took us through hills and farmland. My favorite crops to see are the fields of lotuses of which the Chinese eat the pods, seeds and roots. We made it back to Chengdu and we’re welcomed by severe traffic jams that took nearly an hour to maneuver through. After a short nap we headed out for some dinner near the U.S. Consulate, an adventure that would lead to some delicious food including bacon wrapped mushrooms, freshly made tortilla chips and salsa, and confirming my adoration of Dr Pepper. All in all it was a great day punctuated with a titan, a crazy lady, ridiculous traffic, and some reminders of home.

Pandas are so darn cute! 28 June 2012

I wrote this as I snaked across the Chinese countryside from Chengdu, Sichuan to Lanzhou, Gansu on a 21 hour train ride. Chengdu was well worth the trip. The highlight had to be our trip to the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center just north of the city. This is home to scores of cute, fluffy pandas.


Pandas are China’s national treasure and severely endangered for a few reasons. One reason is because they have evolved into sedentary fur balls that sit around eating bamboo by the kilo. This has made survival in the wild difficult because of mating habits that have been affected by this lifestyle. They are also greatly endangered because they naturally give birth prematurely and mothers don’t always know what to do and may kill or abandon the pink, squealing mole rat it just gave birth to. For these reasons, China and many partner scientists have invested a lot of time, money and energy into researching and artificially breeding the cutest little things you ever did see so this iconic species can survive. The Chengdu center is spread across the hills in a northern Chengdu suburb with lots of natural enclosures and air conditioned buildings for the pandas. It gets too hot for them there so they need A/C through the summer. I had wanted to volunteer for a day or two at one of the panda bases but found out too late that you need a medical form filled out to do it. Someday I’ll go back with a bit more money to spend a few days volunteering as a panda keeper and also getting a photo holding one. That I could have done without being a volunteer but it cost 1,300 RMB or around $200 to do it, and I didn’t have that kind of cash this time.

We got to the center right after they opened at 8 a.m. beating the tour groups and the heat that would send the pandas inside. First we found the enclosures of the small red pandas that are just as cute but less doted on than their black and white cousins. From there we made our way around finding mothers with cubs and big lazy black and white blobs munching on bamboo or just loafing around. We saw younglings climbing and playing and the unique eating methods of unsheathing the bamboo to get to the green succulent part underneath. Our trip was arranged through the hostel with a bunch of others so we could get a car directly there since buses couldn’t get there early enough and taxis would try to scam you. I enjoyed our trip there and loved seeing so many of China’s national treasure in one place.

Wenshu Monastery

That afternoon we made our way to the Wenshu Monastery in the northern part of downtown. This Buddhist temple is a Zen temple meaning when it was rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty it was designed according to principles of Zen. The original temple was built in the 7th century A.D. But like so many other places in China it was destroyed some time at the beginning of or during the Ming era and rebuilt some time over the last 500 years. The temple itself isn’t anything to gawk at but the surrounding gardens are quite nice. My favorite part was the pond of long life where there were hundreds of turtles and a few over-sized bullfrogs. There is also an elaborate library in the rear with some nice paintings and statues. Surrounding this monastery is a series of “old” streets with shops and restaurants. However, this isn’t a fantastic market when compared with the one in the Jinli area around the other temple.

Sichuan Hotpot and Ear Cleaning

We finished our Chengdu experience with Sichuan hotpot. We had to do this to make our trip to the province complete even though I can’t stand spicy food. We joined a few new friends from the hostel (Shivani from Sydney, Will from Austin, Simon from Norway, and Eric from Canada) to get this eye-watering meal and had a good time with some tasty but tongue burning food. This hotpot is a special variety, for those hotpot connoisseurs out there, where you put the bits and pieces in on skewers to cook and then you don’t have to fish it out when you go in to eat it. They charge by the skewer and have just about everything available on the skewers to eat including lots of meats, fish and veggies. Our group of six had

about 80 skewers and paid about 25 RMB per person. I don’t like spicy food but now I can say I’ve had real Sichuanese food, known for its spicy tendencies, in Sichuan, China. One Chengdu adventure we observed but did not participate in was the royal ear cleaning. I didn’t really feel comfortable having complete strangers poking long sharp sticks into my ears, and I don’t know who else’s ears they’ve been in. But don’t worry because you can do it if you want. You can find them all over the city.

I won’t post this while on the train but as I wrote I was riding for hundreds of miles to Gansu Province where we rode camels in the desert near the Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang.

Lanzhou, Gansu 8 July 2012

On the way to Dunhuang we stopped in Lanzhou, the capitol of Gansu province on a long layover. As we woke up on the train we looked out the windows and saw desert landscape that reminded both Aaron and I of southern and western Utah. The biggest difference besides a yellower soil was the extensive farms growing mostly cabbage and corn.

White Pagoda Hill

After arriving in Lanzhou we checked our bags at the train station and headed to White Pagoda Hill, what seemed to be the most interesting sight listed in Lonely Planet. It was easy to take a local bus to the bridge right across the river from the park. This river is China’s mother river, the Yellow River that stretches from Beijing to Qinghai province (in between Gansu and Tibet). Across a small bridge is the park going up a hill and at the top is the relatively small White Pagoda. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get too close to the tower since there was construction all over the hill and around the pagoda. The construction was making nice paths and pavilions along the trails, but beware there are tons of stairs. There is a cable car that takes passengers from the opposite side of the river to the top of the hill. The construction seems to be turning this area into a bigger destination for tourists with new old-style buildings that are or will be shops, restaurants and museums. Three of the museums are open although they didn’t appear completely finished since the audio-visual presentations were not working. The main purpose of these museums is to highlight the cultural heritage of the region.

Opera Museum

The first museum we visited is the Qin Opera Museum. This very nice museum succinctly and artfully takes visitors through different aspects of this performing art including the music, costumes and make-up, watching the show, the organization of troupes and more. Best of all it has English signs throughout explaining everything for all to understand and appreciate.

Intangible Heritage Museum

The museum just behind the opera museum highlights many pieces of Gansu’s “intangible” heritage. The displays show handicrafts like gourd carving and embroidery as well as cooking techniques and musical styles. It looked like there are spaces for performances and live displays integrated into the exhibits, but like the A/V presentations they were absent. On the first floor of the museum there were also shops displaying paper-cutting and gourd carving and painting. The artists also have many pieces available for purchase. Some of the museum was not open yet so there should be more in the future.

Pottery Museum

The third museum we checked out is the Pottery Museum telling the story of the province’s clay-working heritage dating back thousands of years. The first level shows these ancient Chinese. The second floor displays examples of earthenware unearthed from all around the province and the various motifs for decorating. On the third floor was an area where people can make their own pottery, but this wasn’t available for us when we were there. I think that once the construction and restoration is all done this park will be a very nice destination to learn about and soak up some Gansu culture and history. From there we wandered the city. We came across the Lanzhou Municipal Museum and explored a park and the pedestrian street. The museum was small and showed us pretty much the same thing as the museums on the hill but there is a nice old pagoda in the courtyard of the museum with little Buddha statues in niches all around. After wandering around in the sun, downing about five or six bottles of water each and Aaron getting new jeans for his recently ripped ones, we made our way back to the train station to wait for our ride to Dunhuang, which right before we should have begun boarding we found out was delayed for about an hour.

Dunhuang, camel trekking near a desert oasis 9 July 2012

We reached Dunhuang a couple of hours later than expected the next day and made our way to the Dune Guesthouse to arrange our adventures for the next couple of days. Since we arrived late, we didn’t really have time to do much before embarking on an overnight camel trek. This meant we had to figure out a way to do everything we wanted to do in one day instead of two. In the end we figured it all out and had a great experience in Dunhuang. Dunhuang is an oasis town in the northern end of Gansu province at the edge of the Gobi Desert. It was a stop on the ancient Silk Road and has since developed into a little city built around tourism. Bordered by sand dunes, remnants of ancient great walls and the crown jewel of Buddhist grottoes, this area is a fantastic time capsule and definitely worth a visit.

Camel Trekking

Our first night in Dunhuang was spent out on the dunes. We arranged with Charley of Charley Johng’s cafe and the Dune Guesthouse to go out on an overnight camel trip with Mr. Li. I had read about this from the moment I began researching our trip and wanted to do it. Only positive reviews can be found since the positives completely outweigh the negatives. We started out about 5:30 p.m. from Li’s home. There were four of us in total with Li, Aaron, myself and Brad, another Texan traveling around China. Li walked and the camels followed with us on their backs. The couple hour journey, which is longer than you think, took us out to the desert across the dunes. Along the way we passed by desert graves, similar yet different from graves all around China. When we found our campsite, Li told us to climb a nearby dune to watch the sunset. We fumbled up with the soft sand, which gave way under our feet, and made it to the top of a grand Gobi dune only to be sandblasted. We quickly went down to get out of the wind. The sun wasn’t setting for a while, so we didn’t miss anything. As it got later, we each lost our shoes to the soft sand and climbed another less daunting dune for the sunset, which in the end wasn’t that spectacular, but the surroundings were.

The sun set at 9:30 and we got down to camp with dinner ready by 10:00. It was a simple meal of ramen soup and rolls that in the desert was delicious and filling. After dinner we all found a place to lay on the sand and gaze at the stars. I couldn’t help but ponder the meaning of the Biblical phrase “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore.” It was easy to ponder just about anything at that moment because of the tranquility of the night.

In China, a land of one fifth of the world’s population, it is hard to be in a place of complete silence and peace. In the cities there is always noise like car horns or fireworks and everywhere you go you are bound to find people, but out there, under the stars, you can find that moment. This has only happened twice for me in China — in Dunhuang out on the dunes camping and on the Li River in Guangxi when we turned off our boat motor and floated surrounded by majesty for a few moments.

Our reverie of the sound of silence ended after a couple of hours by some rain that came from one of the little white clouds floating by. We scurried into our tents and tried to sleep on the lumpy warm sand. It would have been more comfortable where we sat star gazing but not with the rain. Later I stepped out for a minute and witnessed an even more brilliant site with no wispy clouds and the brightest I remember ever seeing the Milky Way, which was helped by a new moon. It was breathtaking. Mr. Li woke us up just before sunrise to go up and watch it. We climbed a nearby dune to see the sun peaking up on the horizon. We also found evidence of desert creatures by means of tracks from little lizards and mice and hares. We even saw some of the lizards. They run with their bodies high above the sand and flick their tails to distract would-be predators from their well camouflaged bodies. Soon after we got back on the camels, whose names I never learned (I decided to name mine Nile after my student who loves the desert and Dunhuang), and rode back to town. It was a wonderful experience that I would highly recommend.

The crown jewel of Buddhist grottoes – the Mogao Caves 10 July 2012

The main draw for Dunhuang and why the town gets any real attention is because of the Mogao Caves, a series of ancient grottoes that have been preserved by the desert with a brilliant collection of statuary and frescoes that put nearly all other ancient Chinese art into the amateur category. The first caves date back almost 2,000 years with hundreds being carved and used in many dynasties thereafter until about 1,400 A.D. at the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty. Since that time the caves were largely forgotten except to the locals and some pilgrims and monks. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the western world found out about the caves and brought them back into China’s consciousness. This, however, happened at a time when China couldn’t protect them and the West was on a crusade to collect ancient treasures from around the world. This is precisely what happened resulting in priceless artifacts, scrolls and artwork, including frescoes right off the wall, being taken back to France, England and America. Many Chinese scholars and historians are still bitter about this as evidenced by the exhibitions in the museum. Some claim that it is good these antiquities were taken out of China so they wouldn’t be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Since their coming to light in the Chinese academic world during the Republic of China, the caves have been explored, researched and documented extensively. They have been preserved, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and can now can be enjoyed and appreciated by those who make the long journey to Dunhuang. The caves are only accessible on a guided tour. We got there at the wrong time for the English tour and decided to tag along with a Chinese tour instead of waiting for the next English guide. We figured we could still appreciate the art and grandeur of the caves. We were partially right but I think I would wait for the tour next time so that I can understand. Anyway, the tour takes groups of about 25 people to more than ten different caves including the longlost library cave and the big Buddha cave, which houses an amazing giant Buddha statue. Each cave is immaculately decorated – some with frescoes covering all of the walls and the ceiling. Each cave is different in motif, style of statuary and more. After the caves themselves, Aaron and I went to the research center museum. This museum tells the story of the grottoes. It shares more

information about their creation, their “discovery” and preservation. The most interesting part for me were the recreated caves that lined one wall of the museum. They had reconstructed the caves including statues and frescoes. Best of all, these were caves we hadn’t seen on the tour, and we could take pictures of them (no photos allowed in the real caves). Of course like any tourist site in China, there are many shops and vendors all around the property to get souvenirs and snacks. If you visit the caves, take your own powerful yet pocket-sized flashlight or torch since none of the caves are illuminated. The guides have them to point out what they are telling you about, but having your own is handy to admire the caves in greater detail. Also, the caves are closer to the train station and airport than the town is, so if you haggle with a taxi to take you after you arrive instead of going to town first, make sure you aren’t swindled and instead negotiate the price down a lot. With the meter it would probably be between 10 and 20 RMB. They may not settle for that low but don’t do it for much more than that. The caves are a wonder to behold because of the collection of ancient art that has been preserved by the desert and seclusion. If you visit China make this a part of your itinerary. Honestly, Aaron and I are both surprised that these aren’t better known and more of a destination for people visiting China.

Western China’s Ancient Remnants

24 July 2012

From the Mogao Caves we hopped in a taxi for the day to visit a few other sites outside of Dunhuang including a 2,000 year old wall and gate and Yadan National Park where Zhang Yimou’s Hero was filmed.

1,000 Buddha Caves

Just outside of Dunhuang is another set of Buddhist grottoes. Today there are only a handful here, but this site originally had more caves than the Mogao site because it was right on the Silk Road in a ravene with river and shade, according to the tour guide. However, because of that river and desert flash floods only a few remain.

These caves were also carved and decorated nearly 1,500 years ago but because of damage from floods many of them were redecorated in the last few hundred years. The frescoes and statues aren’t nearly as impressive as the Mogao Caves and each cave that we saw was basically the same in layout and size. If you visit these caves definitely have your own torch or flashlight so you can look at some stuff on the back walls the guide doesn’t point out. My favorite image was of a Buddha lying on his side at the back of one of the cave. If you look closely at his face you’ll see a curly goatee with matching mustache. Usually, Buddha is shown with graceful and soft womanly features so facial hair is a unique motif.

Han Dynasty Wall and Jade Gate Pass

From the caves we drove out to the desert to see a wall and gate still standing from a couple hundred years before Christ during the old Han Dynasty of western China. The gate is a large square building made of mud and reeds with walls a few meters thick. It was a check post for people entering the region on the Jade Road. It is an imposing structure that once had walls running from it for miles in either direction to other gates on the border. A bit further up the road is some of the better preserved wall from the same era also made of mud and reeds. We saw wall fragments running along the road but at the designated stop to see it there are some bigger sections giving visitors a better idea of what they may have looked like in their glory day. Also, at the wall pullout are remnants of some bastions that once lined the wall.

Yadan National Park

Right at the edge of Gansu province and Xinjiang province is an ancient lake bed with the look of a distant planet that has been used to set the scene for different movies, most notably Zhang Yimou’s Hero. In some places there are miles of nothing but pebble flats. In other places there are rock formations caused by centuries of erosion. Of course, in true Chinese fashion, every rock has a name and looks like something. Some are dead-on while others take a real stretch of the imagination to conjure the rock’s namesake. When we got there we waited a bit for the bus to load up that would take us through the barren desert. When it was about time our taxi driver found us and took us to a golf cart. He had arranged a private golf cart tour for us instead of a crowded bus ride with loud Chinese tour guide. We aren’t sure if the driver just wanted us to get done sooner or if there was some other motivation for us to have this special treatment, but we were happy with it.

We were whisked out through the desert and got to see some beautiful scenery. However, it doesn’t quite compare with the natural sandstone formations in southern Utah. Our long road trip ended by driving the 200 km back to Dunhuang and getting some delicious street bbq amid the bustling nightlife of this desert oasis with the perfect temperature for hanging out outside. After a night in Charlie Johng’s hostel in downtown Dunhuang we hopped on a train and headed for Beijing. Dunhuang is a great city with fascinating adventures available for just about anyone. I highly recommend a visit to this desert oasis on the Silk Road.

Beijing, part two 3 September 2012

Our journey to Beijing took us on two trains; a twenty four hour overnight train to Xi’an and another eight hour D train to Beijing. Last time we were in Xi’an we saw the Terracotta Warriors. Ever since then I was a bit upset with myself that I didn’t get a small set of cheap figurines. You can get these small replicas in any market in China but they are much cheaper in Xi’an. I wasn’t planning on getting any during our short stopover but as we walked to the subway to transfer train stations, I noticed a set for only 8 RMB so I got them. Later in Beijing at the market I asked a lady how much for an identical set, and she started at over 100 RMB. When I laughed and told her I got them for 8 in Xi’an she laughed, and you could tell she knew they weren’t worth what she wanted. When we got to Beijing we found our hostel in the great Qianmen district just south of Tiananmen Square. The next day we went to the Beijing Film Academy so Aaron could check it out since he hopes to go there for graduate school. That afternoon we walked around the “new Forbidden City.” That’s the name I gave it based on the super intense security surrounding it. It is the big complex next to the real FC that we’re pretty sure is home to the CCP and many party officials’ estates. There is even one place on a bridge where you could take some pics, but the roaming security guard (army) comes and yells at you that it is forbidden. Directly north of the real Forbidden City is a park, which I think is a highly underrated gem for visitors to Beijing. For only 2 RMB you can gain admittance to this once forbidden royal park where a prince hung himself and where there’s a man-made hill made from the dirt dug-out of the FC moat. Not only is the park a peaceful retreat with beautiful gardens, but from the top of the hill are great panoramas of the ancient palace and more. It was a smoggy day, like many in Beijing, so the view wasn’t pristine, but on a clear day or even a slightly smoggy one the views would be worth it.

For food we decided to go get some western food and found the Beijing location of the Tex-Mex place we found in Chengdu. It was delicious, however a bit hard to find. Located in the old embassy district with lots of western chain restaurants like Friday’s and expensive hotels, Peter’s Tex-Mex is tucked around a little corner. I’ll post the location on my Adventure Patches Google Map if you want to find it. Other good eats on this trip included traditional Peking Duck at the most famous restaurant in the Qianmen District, which by the way, is an amazing area for shopping and dining. We also found a delicious little noodle shop down a nearby alley. This neighborhood has just about everything you could want and more. To get there go to the Qianmen Gate subway stop and go directly south of the old wall gate.

Temple of Heaven

Another must-see sight in Beijing is the Temple of Heaven. This isn’t a Buddhist or Tsaoist temple. It is an ancient Chinese temple. Well, the sights and the ceremonies performed there are ancient, but the buildings, of course, were rebuilt during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This is a fascinating place with amazing history, especially for people who like learning about ancient beliefs and practices. There is an admission fee for the park itself and for the sites within the park. You want to get the through ticket that includes the sites. You can get here by subway pretty easily, and just outside the subway stop is a market with all the knock-offs, souvenirs, pearls, and other stuff you could want.

Mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong

We also paid another visit to Tiananmen Square and waited in the long, fast-moving line to see the well-preserved Great Helmsman. At first we tried to check our bags at the official bag check building across the street and were about to get scammed, officially, because we were foreigners with cameras. Nothing is allowed in the mausoleum, no cameras, bags or anything except your I.D. and a flower if you want to pay tribute. So, you have to check your bags, which as I said is a scam, or you get around it like we saw many tour groups doing by going in shifts and having one person staying out to guard your stuff.

I waited outside with the gear while Aaron and Melissa went through, then I went through as they waited. The first room has a large statue of Mao and beautiful tapestries. This is also where people leave the chrysanthemums they purchased while waiting in line. The next main room is where the Chairman is lying in state and has been since years. Due to the lighting and preservation of his body, he gives off a glow. This is one of the few places in China where you can listen to a pin drop. Everyone is so quiet and respectful, a complete oxymoron to their normal lives.

National Centre for the Performing Arts

My favorite part of this trip was our visit to the National Centre for the Performing Arts. Having performed in and worked shows in more than a hundred theatres and concert halls around the world, I always enjoy visiting performance venues. I wanted to visit the NCPA when I first went to Beijing, but didn’t have time, and I wanted to visit the whole time I was in China. It is a modern building in the heart of the city right across from the Forbidden City and behind the Hall of the People. Made of glass and metal with a reflecting pool around it, some hate it, but I love it. The admission fee includes the exhibition halls under the reflection pool and access to any of the open performance halls. We saw the main theater and the opera house. The exhibitions had great overviews of the productions, costumes, staging and construction of the building. My favorite exhibition was the one about the latter on the upper floor surrounding the main theater. It is also kind of funny because some of the pictures of the finished spaces have plastic still on the chairs and surfaces or cleaning crews working in the house. I was very satisfied with this visit and happy I finally made it. It is a beautiful building, and if someday I had a chance to see the amazing backstage areas, I would jump at it. I enjoyed Beijing part two. From there we decided to head straight back to Hefei to pack, clean and prepare for the journey home. A week later, I was on a plane headed back to the States just in time for Independence Day, more about that soon.

Yonghe Gong Tibetan Temple Beijing

A Little More Hefei ...

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Profile for Kevin Earl

My Time in China 2011-2012 Act 4  

Act 4 of my time teaching at Anhui University in Hefei, China from August 2011 to June 2012. This section covers the ancient Chinese capitol...

My Time in China 2011-2012 Act 4  

Act 4 of my time teaching at Anhui University in Hefei, China from August 2011 to June 2012. This section covers the ancient Chinese capitol...

Profile for kevinearl

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