Trains and Tumbleweeds

I love high-speed rail.

 I’ve been on high-speed trains in Europe, and now in China. It’s a great concept – on par with traveling by plane, except without the anxiety of flying. I wish the United States would stop being so stuck up about rail and just build it (think of the job creation!)

Our train goes from Beijing to Xi’an. It’s roughly five hours, but it provides a chance to see the transition in geography. That’s why we’re not flying – above the land transforms quickly, but by train you can see the geography unfold at a more gradual pace. The forests give way to scrub brush, lush farmland gives way to drier climes and drier heats. The farmland reminds me of home a little bit – seeing corn is a welcome sight. The patches of farmland are smaller than in the Midwest, and I see more people working by hand.

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What is not like home is the construction. There is nonstop construction the entire way from Beijing to Xi’an. Specifically, housing complexes.

“It just goes on and on,” Dad comments at one point. What I feel words don’t quite describe is the sheer strangeness of these projects. There aren’t many big cities as we travel along, yet in the distance of the countryside there are fifteen to twenty apartment complexes just sitting there. And ten minutes later there are another ten or fifteen, and so on and so on.

China has a massive population compared to the rest of the world, but they don’t need this. I saw similar things in Chengdu – massive construction projects. What I remember is how empty they were. At least a dozen giant structures devoid of people, and that’s just in one portion of the city. Bill told me that people would move in eventually, that the rooms were spoken for.

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That sounds well and good, but they’re still building them. Empty buildings unclaimed, unused, unpopulated. And now, on the way to Xi’an, I see more of them. The International Relations scholar in me is concerned on an economical level. It’s clear that the construction is fueling China’s economy, but no one is using the construction. So if no one moves in, how do the companies make a profit and/or pay off the costs of construction? And if the government is funding all this, then it is borrowing against nothing, building just to build, and eventually this will collapse around them.

(Sixty Minutes did a segment on this recently. VICE did a segment on it in their previous season. I recommend looking at both of them, to get a better idea of the scope of what I am trying – and failing – to describe.)

China’s Real Estate Bubble 

Modern ghost towns, and the populated ones too, fly by on the high speed rail.

We arrive in Xi’an at sunset. The heat is strong and unrelenting. It almost reminds me of my brief times in the Middle East, in Jordan and Egypt. Heat which sits on your shoulders and settles in each of your skin cells. The new parts of the city are empty – massive highways devoid of vehicles, and dozens of empty apartment complexes. I would come to see that most people live in another part of the city, however as a first impression it all seemed like a creepy lie. I expected to see tumbleweeds and vultures circling ahead.

 

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In Xi’an we will see the terra cotta warriors, and other wonders of this former capital city.

 

Ok, I’m going to take a moment to give a snobby, probably inappropriate whiny moment. Forgive me for this, as I know that I have plenty of privileges. Here goes – for the amount of money I spend on the tour in total, I expected a first class train ticket. Instead, we got second class. Smaller seats, more seats, and less pleasant climate control. Having travelled from Shanghai to Hangzhou by first class, I have to advocate for spending more for the upgrade. It is nicer, the seats are more comfortable.

Beijing Day 4: Understanding Stone

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We leave Beijing early, as it’s a two hour drive to Mutianyu, our site of choice to climb the Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China. I’ve heard a lot of the hype – visible from space, etc. It is, in essence, a big ole wall, and perhaps it’s because I’m on a tour that I feel my mental edges starting to crackle like burning film. How impressive can a wall be? How big does big mean? I’m worried about the climb and Dad’s knee. I don’t want to be accosted by merchants all selling the same things. My mood is still apparently sour, but I’m determined to be happy.

 It is, I should have known, not a straight shot to the Wall. First, we must stop at a jade market. Jade is perhaps one of the most recognizable Chinese goods, followed by silk and tea. And while I did not want to stop at a bunch of stores to be gouged repeatedly by simpering store clerks, I also could not afford the “no shopping” tour. Yes, some places charge you more to not be hassled. The Jade store is not so bad. The woman walks us past the requisite man working at a specialty saw. He’s making something for the store, apparently. The massive store with rows upon rows of statues of varying shades of Jade, cases and cases stuffed with jewelry. I just wish they could see the flaws in their own presentations. If everything is made in this tiny little workshop with six tables, why is only one man working? And why is each table making the same thing? She takes us around the corner to the store, and teaches us how to tell good jade from bad, real jade from fake.

Hold jade up to the light – it should have a grainy, fibrous quality to it. Fake jade (usually made from glass or plastic, though other stones will also be used) will have symmetrical lines in it. Real jade is also cooler to the touch than you would think, and maintains its coolness for longer. This is why you’re supposed to wear Jade over the heart. Jade is heavier than it looks because it is so dense.

I shop the discount racks – any government-approved store in China is going to hike the price at least fifty percent if not more, and they do not negotiate. You are in essence paying for the undisputed authenticity of a product. Dad, having expressed an interest in a cartouche, is whisked away to the “special” back showroom. I do surveillance, amused. I watch as they show him the jade which costs more than a car, as much as a house in Chengdu.

 The Turks did it better – they gave us pizza and alcohol, and they might have drugged my Mother a little before bringing out the “sapphires.” The Chinese have a harder time, hitting us up when we’re stone cold sober. No, we don’t need that $10,000 keychain thank you. Dad buys a dragon pendant, and I get my pig necklace. The woman shows me fancier and fancier pigs, and while the most expensive has the fewest flaws, I take a mid-range pendant.  Our sales girl, Miao Miao, chastises me for wanting brown string instead of red. “You wear things…much plainer. I like to wear beautiful things,” she says, pursing her lips slightly as she ties my necklace. Whatever, Miao Miao, I think – you have to tell all the English speaking tourists your name sounds like a cat’s meow.

 The second stop before the wall is lunch – another bland affair. I’ve been tempered in hot pot, and now I eat this fake sweet and sour with a bit of a grudge. How many people have complained about the food to get it to this point? Why are they treating us like we’re so fragile.

 Because we are. I was tempered in hot pot, but I also got really sick once. Bland is safe, and probably leads to fewer toilet trips. I grimace at the idea of throwing up in a squat toilet…

 

And then, we arrive. Mutianyu just completed a brand new tourist information center. It is, in fact, a village – a whole commercial village, empty and awaiting vendors. It’s beautiful stone work and dark wood railings. If and when it is completed it will be a great spot for the bustling crowds of tourists. You can’t see the wall from here. We take a bus up towards the peaks of the mountain range.

Mutianyu 

 

 

It’s old school vendors up near the top – a street packed with tents and shelves of t-shirts, magnets, terra cotta warriors, plastic models – a treasure trove of dollar-store goods. The climb is steep, Dad and I window-shopping all the way up to the cable car. You can sort of see the Wall up above. The stone ramparts stick up from the trees all along the spine of the ridge.

 

Vendors

Dad doesn’t know why I’m antsy on the cable car. I explain that there is no secondary emergency cable. There is actually nothing to stop us from falling – we ride up one cable, and one cable only. And it’s a steep climb to the top. All the cable cars are like this – just one cable and a shudder at every junction as the little glass box pauses its ascent for a second.

 

Climb 

And then there is the Wall.

 

Let me tell you about the Great Wall of China. Taken piece by piece it is not much of a sight. It’s old – dark grey stone blocks. It’s nice masonry, and wide. It’s a wide, tall wall with guard towers at regular intervals. Like a medieval castle. You cannot look at one section of the Wall and understand.

 

You must look at the Wall in your periphery to get it. It’s not that one section is amazing. But imagine a thousand sections, all along the ridge of the mountain, beyond your eye’s ability to penetrate the haze. Up the tops of the mountains and as far as you can see, there is the Wall. In both directions is the Wall. It keeps going, strong and wide and high enough that even if you climbed the mountain you’d still have to climb the Wall.

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Those hoards must have been truly ferocious to inspire such total ramparts.

 

We stay and reflect. I watch dragonflies dance along the treetops. I photograph my panda bracelet, as my Chinese teacher friends told me that it is a custom to photograph pandas on the Great Wall. I eavesdrop on a French tour guide explaining the history of the wall to her one-man audience.

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It’s an amazing piece of engineering. It took tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers to build (many of whom lost their lives). And apart from climbing from tower to tower, that is really all you can do at the Wall – walk and reflect. I bet that’s what the guards did – walk the ramparts and stare out at the forests, reflecting on life. I wonder if Wall duty was sought after, or if it was a punishment. Maybe it was required for every soldier to guard the wall at some point.

 

The climb back down is hard – my legs have decided to hate descending. I stop and haggle for a wood-carving, Dad wants a “bronze” doorknocker. Ted meets us near the busses and buys us both diet cokes, and we sit for a few minutes to catch our breath before continuing down the mountain to our car.

 

If you get a chance to visit the Great Wall, spend a little more and go to Mutianyu. It is farther away than the Badaling climb site, but the crowds are smaller and the views are spectacular (if the weather is good).

 

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Beijing Day 3: In the Footsteps of Ghosts

It is hot. Hot and humid – the air is just thick with moisture, and the pollution adds an additional haze to the haze of heat.

We have a late start to accommodate Dad’s new time zone. We eat at the hotel (NOTE: If you can avoid buffets at nice hotels, do so. Our meal was outrageously priced for what we got, and I imagine it was solely because we were staying at a Marriott brand hotel). Our first stops are Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is a press of people outside the turnstile, as the security guards are implementing an ID policy and only letting people in one at a time. The bottleneck is intense, with people shoving each other, jockeying for inches of space. I look nervously at my Dad, who hasn’t had to deal with this sort of shoving in a long time.  If I had not already been living in China, I would have called the whole vacation off based solely on my experiences in this morning rush.

He handles it better than I do, actually. I warned him ahead of time, yet I’m the one growing progressively darker as all semblance of personal space disappears. There’s a fat man behind me, shirt rolled up under his armpits.  He uses his protruding belly to try and nudge me forward when he thinks I’m not moving. After fifteen minutes of his incessant rubbing and not so gentle shoving, I decide to push back. Playing stupid, I stand still and inch myself forward slowly, taking pleasure in his obvious annoyance. All I can think of is how disgusting it is to have a stranger wiping fat sweat on your shirt. I get knocked about a little because I’m short, and people are screaming at each other, at each imagined slight. But we cannot help but move forward, and through the turnstile to the plaza.

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Tienanmen Square is impressive in scope – a vast flatness of concrete surrounded by massive Party buildings. It is full of pride and patriotism. But it is just that – a giant plaza. There is nothing to really do save take pictures framed by the buildings. Ted, our guide, skirts the political issues embedded in the history of the location, noting only that the infamous demonstration happened. He couples this with a funny story about country boys misunderstanding Chairman Mao during a different speech. I bite my tongue.

We continue on to the Forbidden City. The scope is again, impressive – the sheer size of everything is only matched by the sheer number of people present.  Everything is big.  But there is this strange hollowness to the Forbidden City. It’s like all the people moving through don’t matter. Big buildings have that effect sometimes, but this place reeks of indifference. Notre Dame feels old and full of souls. The Forbidden City could care less whether you walk its halls or not. That is probably because it was built to keep people away.  It was built for a man and his harem, not for crowds. Still, the yellow tiled roofs are pretty, and I like the personal gardens and the tiny little hallways which offshoot from the main paths. The detail work is wonderful and present throughout the giant space.

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The heat does not relent, and we’re flagging by lunch. We find our driver and head to the pre-arranged restaurant.  It’s a tawdry thing, our tour package lunch. It’s westernized Chinese food – a strange sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, and what I think is General Tso’s chicken.  Overhead a CD of sad saxophone music plays dreary covers of movie themes. It’s laughably bad, and so we laugh. This is “safe” food for us – non-threatening and bland so as not to offend.  Having eaten hot pot for months, it’s a stark contrast. Even if I hadn’t been living in China, I was still really disappointed with what they thought we would want to eat. Why not just give us McDonalds?

Next is the Summer Palace – where the Empress Cixi chose to live. She was the original “Dragon Lady” and our guide tells stories of frivolous spending, cuckolding, and executions. She built a giant marble boat just to have a giant marble boat (it does not move – just a symbol). The Summer Palace is beautiful as well, set on a lake that is partially man made. There are elegant bridges and long wooden porches. It’s beautiful, but so humid.

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I tried to buy a milk tea, and after some confusion was given a piping hot milk tea. My guide laughed at me and patronizingly said to let him handle such things in the future. I was properly knocked off my perch. I do understand his attitude, though. I was in a snitty mood all day, uncomfortable in the heat. I had told him earlier I did not really want to hear the history of a rock (literally, I shooed him along after seven minutes of a story about an argument over a giant rock that had been moved from one place to another). I had little patience for Ted’s upsell of a rickshaw ride. I had declined it on the original itinerary, and now I get to do so in person.  He was probably hoping for some opportunity to remind me who was the tourist.

 

Ok, so the rock is bad luck because one guy wanted it, but then it cost so much to get it to the space he had the courtyard built around it, and then he went bankrupt, and was killed for...you know what, I really just want to move out of the sun please....

Ok, so the rock is bad luck because one guy wanted it, but then it cost so much to get it to the space he had the courtyard built around it, and then he went bankrupt, and was killed for…you know what, I really just want to move out of the sun please….

 

Again, I don’t feel particularly welcomed by the architecture or the landscape.  If I had to make a comparison, it would have to be Versailles. While not as big as these palaces, it is so opulent it is off-putting (especially when you consider how everyone else was living at the time). There are beautiful scenes – picturesque, grand, elegant – but it’s also aloof. I feel like I’m walking halls filled with nothing but ghosts, even though I’m being pressed by people. I feel inconsequential.  And that is the point of these buildings – to make us feel like we don’t matter. We are but a conglomeration of shadows, the living and the dead just stirring dust forever on the flagstones.

It’s like looking at jewelry in a museum – it’s a removed beauty.

By the end of the tour day, Dad and I are exhausted. The oppressive heat and humidity sapped my energy, and I am content to stay in that night and eat satay at the bar.

Tomorrow it’s the Wall, and climbing.  Tonight it’s cushioned pillows and sleep.

 

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A practical boat

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An impractical boat

 

Beijing Day 1 & 2: Confucius Says…

Off from Chengdu! Zaijian, Sichuan Province – hello Beijing! Landing in Beijing, I’m reminded of my first impression of China – the smoggy cloud covering the ground greets me, and I regret my loss of facemask. The second thing to hit me is the heat – it’s hot and humid, in oppressive waves that get me sweating almost before I reach my luggage.

I meet my tour contact, who in this case I will call Ted, who drives me to the hotel my Dad booked. It’s ritzier than any place I have stayed at to date, save for the Marriott Champs-Elysee (again, not my booking) – the JW Marriott Beijing. There is a fleet of attendants to take my bags, guide me to check-in, and generally ensure that I don’t feel any anxiety about being abroad in a foreign country.

Enjoying feeling posh, I don’t tell them I’ve been in their country for four months, and allow myself to be pampered all the way up to my comfortable room. There’s a dragon fruit in the fruit bowl, and chocolate dim sum. The Marriott in Beijing smells exactly like the Marriott in Indianapolis – that’s what hits me the strongest. They must use the same shampoo, or the same air filters, or something.

That is my first day – travel, checking in, settling on a plan of action for the next day. I turn up the A/C, put on a fluffy robe, and watch HBO in peace.

Morning and a horrendously overpriced buffet later (I’ve been spoiled in Wenjiang, spending 10rmb a day on a meal), I’m off walking, umbrella in hand. I have a day to myself, which I use to learn the Subway system. In Shanghai I took the advice of the jetsetters and relied on inexpensive taxis. But I want to learn a Metro, and the Beijing Metro has the pull of cheap travel. 2rmb for a ticket, with unlimited transfers. Imagine that – basically a quarter for wherever you want to go! Pressed like sardines, and not a ton of ventilation – I recommend avoiding rush hours. So off I go, to my first stop, the Lama temple:

The Lama temple is home to a large Buddha statue that has the distinction of being in the Guinness Book of World Records for being carved from a single giant piece of sandalwood. That sounds promising and familiar. By this point I’ve seen quite a few temples, so when I see the green avenue leading to the gates of the first hall, it’s calming.

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I recommend visiting this temple. It’s not very large, but it’s full of character. You can feel the history in each of the buildings, and it’s pleasant to watch the monks go about their business, spinning and praying at the prayer wheels at the behest of the practitioners. They also sit in the corners and look at their cell phones – they are not afraid of bringing in modernity to their lives, though it’s done in singular, small things like the phones.

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And the Buddha – it’s been awhile since I’ve seen something so beautiful. I think the Golden Summit at the peak of Emei mountain was the last time where I was in awe of something. This would be the second. It’s not just the height of the statue, though it is tall. It’s the serene grandeur – Buddha draped in long swaths of yellow fabric, staring at everything around it, but focused on nothing. The air is muffled and full of incense. It’s improbably peaceful in such a hectic city. Up unto seeing this statue I have adhered strictly to the tenants of each Buddhist temple, specifically that you cannot take photos inside the temple.

 

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I make up for my indiscretion by putting a larger than normal donation in the temple box. Worth it for a memory worth remembering.

My second stop, just up the street, is the Confucius temple. It’s one of the very few sites in China where people make offerings to a man instead of a deity. I think the best Christian comparison would be how I pray to the Saints to help carry my prayers. I think that would make Confucius the patron saint of Education, and being generally egalitarian about work.

There are very few people at the temple – I don’t think it’s as famous or popular a tourist stop as some of the other places in Beijing. So entering the space, there are two groups ahead of me, walking in schools like fish behind a high-flying flag. I give them space, and wander through the giant steles alone. It’s creepy, how empty it all feels. Stoic huts house dragon turtles, carrying faded stone carvings with names and dates no one reads. I always felt a strange resonance with the dragon turtles here – carrying things forever. Now I feel a little bad for them.  A chipmunk goes scurrying around the bases of the huts, looking for food. It’s strange because I know that there are millions of people outside the walls, that the city spreads and spreads and is packed with souls. But there are none here, not in the front of Confucius’ school.

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The museum is similarly deserted – a single soul wanders reading the plaques. The museum is nothing but sunshine and pro-China quotes, positing Confucius as the progenitor of all education systems in the world.

There are more people at the actual tomb of Confucius – his statue is festooned with red tags. Each tag has the name of student and school, or student and graduation year. The tags are prayers to Confucius, hoping he’ll inspire them (or maybe inspire their teachers to be generous). It’s a pretty area, and again I’d say if you are looking for a place that is not as crowded as the Forbidden City, but still has some interesting history, spend an afternoon at the Lama and Confucius temples.

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Before heading back, I stop at the Silk Market – but that’s another post.

Then I meet Ted, and we go to collect my Parent. Now, the “official” tour of Beijing can begin!

Another Suitcase, Another Hall

I’ve wept upon leaving places.

I’ve run away from places.

And Wenjiang? My new school? In the Lifetime Movie of my life, I walk around the classroom and gently touch mementos of a four-month experience that has changed me for the better. A small smile tugs at the corners of my mouth as I recall hijinks or that one great day where I succeeded at getting a point through the barrier of language. In reality, I slowly walk around the classroom, swatting mosquitos and throwing away the food in the refrigerator. My feelings were…a little muted. I am sad to say goodbye to the people who have been so friendly. I regret that the teachers and I did not bond until my last two weeks here.

 I rejoice at the thought of going home, where I can understand all the signs. It might sound touristy or hopelessly Western of me, but it has been hard not understanding 95% of what I try to read. I’ll be happy to go where there is Internet that simply works. I’ll be grateful to drink the tap water again.

 Truthfully, I will miss my students, though not as much as the Lifetime Movie Channel version of me ought to. Instead, I feel very practical about everything. My suitcases must be packed, my room tidied and emptied. The classroom needs to be cleaned and locked It might be because I am so undecided about my emotions that I default to logistics.

 That is a safe thing for someone with mixed feelings – break it down to immediate needs. I pack my medical suitcase, filled with treatments I thankfully never had to take. That surprises me – I ate a lot of local food and things I probably should have avoided, but I only got sick once.  I pack up the souvenirs for family and friends, the packets of tea, the decorative tassels, my red clay teapot. I leave behind my newly acquired heels, my dishes, a pack of instant ramen, and my little dragon turtle statue.

 And it is not as though I am going home straight away.

 I’ll be in Beijing and Xi’an for the next few days. So there will be photos and stories aplenty before I have to write travel stories about the Midwest.

 

Suitcases packed, classroom cleaned, I stare at my uneven floor, my broken shower, my IKEA furniture and the tiny touches which made the space my own. I might feel a twinge of sadness. Endings are always a little sad for me – they represent a change, and most of my life is change.

Off I go, into the wild blue yonder!