Tibet: I survived!

I’m back! Our Tibet study tour was one of the most amazing experiences of my life – I feel like I can’t even begin to describe the breathtaking mountains and blue skies, or the beautiful culture shock I experienced visiting a majority Buddhist society. I’m going to try, though, with posts about my daily activities like I did for the Beijing and Xian study tours at the beginning of my trip. For the moment, however, I’m recollecting my life, homework, and dirty laundry to prepare myself for classes starting up again tomorrow. I’ll try to post about my adventures soon, but for now, just know that I’m alive and loving life!

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The Tourist Life: Xian -> Chengdu : August 31

Stop 1: City Wall

The most recent (but still fairly ancient) version of the Xian city wall is still standing today, and we spent the morning biking/golf-carting around the perimeter (~13 mi, if I remember correctly). I was super bummed to have to take the golf cart rather than a tandem bike (who wouldn’t want to ride a tandem bike around a city wall??), but the combination of a bad cold and the smoggy morning was no bueno for the lungs, and I played it safe by being driven at a breakneck pace in a golf cart overloaded with aggressive elderly Australian tourists instead. It was quite the experience, to say the least, but I still enjoyed getting to much of the inner city of Xian. The less-developed, older areas inside the walls and their sharp contrast to the sprawling apartment and industrial buildings outside the wall was fascinating, even in the pearlescent smoggy clouds that obscured the sun. 

Stop 2: Flight to Chengdu!

By midday we were at the airport, and I had the pleasure of overhearing a bunch of older tourist complaining profusely about the squat toilets while they backed up the line in the bathroom all waiting for the one Western-style stall available. The flight went fine and we arrived in Chengdu in the early afternoon exhausted, sweaty, and ready to settle down after an incredible (and incredibly hectic) week and a half of travel.

The Tourist Life: Xian: August 30

Stop 1: Terra Cotta Warriors Factory & Site

When we woke up it was pouring, so we hopped on the bus for the long ride out to the terra cotta warriors without further ado. Before arriving at the actual site of the tomb and surrounding pits where the warriors are located, we stopped at a kind of tourism-terra-cotta-warrior factory. All the tour groups stop there before the site, and workers are there creating reproductions (of all sizes) of the warriors and horses. You can even have a warrior bust made with a reproduction of your head on top! I chose NOT to purchase…

Next up was the actual warriors, housed in huge airplane-hanger sized buildings over the original dig sites. The actual tomb of the emperor is 1.5 km away, and has not been excavated in any way out of respect. The sheer number and detail of the warriors was amazing, but I found myself wondering what else would be inside the tomb, especially if the warriors are simply what guards it. Even our tour guide joked that if the warriors are the unofficial 8th wonder of the world, perhaps the inside of the tomb will someday be excavated and become the 9th. 

Stop 2: Bei Lin: Forest of Stele

The Forest of Stele was our next stop, partially because it’s mostly covered, but also because it was pretty damn cool. A ‘stele’ is a stone tablet or monument, in this case inscribed with religious and academic texts in various forms of Chinese script. This temple housed the most complete version of the record of all Chinese characters – a large room full of huge stone tablets covered in tiny characters. The sheer number of characters and the time it must have taken to carve each one so perfectly was hard to fathom. In the rooms displaying tablets with buddhist texts, poems, and pictures, workers were covering the stones with paper and patting on ink with large round sponges to create prints for tourists and devotees to purchase. 

Stop 3: Muslim Quarter for Dinner

Xian has a large Chinese Muslim population, and our professor helped us to locate the Muslim Quarter in the city for dinner. We ate one of the local famous dishes, a hearty beef or lamb broth with filled small pieces of bread. It definitely wasn’t my favorite food option so far, but very filling. Wandering through the small smoky streets of the neighborhood did a number on my lungs, but it was worth it to see all the different traditional foods and wares that were being sold – I personally purchased one of the palest (the seeds were almost white) and most delicious pomegranates I’ve ever had. 

(Unofficial) Stop 4: Very Weird British Bar

On the walk back to the hotel, our group (sans professor) decided to stop at a bar to check out the nightlife in Xian. We climbed many flights of stairs to a weird British-themed spot that included a special bar where you could order neon drinks in an IV bag and drip them into your glass, or, presumably, your mouth. As tempting as that was, we opted to head back to the hotel and play some ping-pong instead. 

The Tourist Life: Beijing Day Five: August 27

Stop 1: First Seminar

In the morning, we had the first seminar of our Western China class, to be taught by the professor leading our trip. We sat in the courtyard of our hotel under a canopy of hanging vines and discussed our experiences thus far and a few readings about Tibet and China. It went well, and I’m excited to have this class with the rest of the students all semester!

Stop 2: Exotic Food Market

Next, we all took the subway (for the first time on the trip, and if my memory serves me well, my first time on a subway ever) to a popular shopping district in Beijing. The streets are blocked off from car traffic and the streets are filled with folks strolling along, doing their shopping. After a bathroom stop in the fanciest two-story McDonalds I’ve ever seen, we found our real destination; the exotic food market, located on a side-street from the main thoroughfare. We bought and shared delicacies such as fried centipede and scorpion, and I personally purchased and consumed a stick of what appeared to be tiny apples coated in a thick hard sugary candy. They had huge pits and were delicious to crunch on as we walked, taking in all the food and goods for sale. We also saw, but did not sample, fried starfish on a stick and smoking tea that appeared to have dry ice at the bottom. 

Stop 3: Leg of Lamb Dinner

The exotic food trend continued into the evening with a stop at a local restaurant one of our group members wanted to try. Looking through the windows you could see that each table had a hood, like for an industrial stove, a hole in the table where trays of hot coals were set, and, on the tables where patrons were seated, racks with huge animal legs roasting over the coals. After walking in and collected a number of curious stares, we were seated at a table between two 5-6 member groups of older, mostly shirtless, mostly drunk Chinese guys. With a lot of trial and error, hand gestures, and help from our neighbors, we ordered a leg of lamb and some side dishes. The rest of the meal was punctuated by frequent interruptions from our new friends to mime instructions on how to cut and distribute the meat (no simple task for a beginner) and which spices were to be used where. Actual verbal communication consisted mostly of ‘Yes’, ‘no’, and “China good country. America good country. We should not fight.” We all agreed, of course. 

Stop 4: Exploration and Club MIX

After a break at the hotel, most of the group decided to take a stab at the bus system and try to find a group of clubs recommended by a friend. An hour and a half and one gang fight later (for all you worriers out there – don’t. We were a street over, very not involved, and the weapon of choice seemed to be folding chairs) we found the spot and ended up having a good evening. In short, it’s pretty surreal to be dancing with an entire floor full of Chinese people and, say, start clapping your hands, and have them all start clapping their hands too. I don’t yet have fully formed opinions on the kind of privilege I’ve been experiencing here as a foreigner, but I find it disconcerting, to say the least. But it was also incredibly fun to just be able to dance and have fun without the language barrier being an issue – we made some friends we’ll never see again!

The Tourist Life: Xian: August 29

Stop 1: Arrival in Xian

We arrived in Xian at about 7 AM, and hopped off the train tired and stiff but  ready for a whole day of sightseeing. (Not that we students really had a say in the matter.)

Stop 2: Xian History Museum

The Xian History Museum covers the history of most of the Shaanxi province since prehistoric times. I was most interested in the metal and ceramic work from the early dynasties. I took a Japanese/Korean art history class at Lewis & Clark last spring, and one of the main messages to take away from the class was that much of early Japanese and Korean art and culture originated in China. I got to see in person the Chinese versions of the huge brass bell sets and celadon-glazed bowls that I had to memorize artist, material, and date lists for in my class last spring. 

Stop 3: Korean Lunch

We actually ate at a Korean-style restaurant for lunch – Xian used to be the capital city of China back in the day, and a fair amount of international culture remains from that time. There were also British and Indian joints on the same street. The food was similar to the hot pot we sampled in Beijing, but with a grill instead of boiling soup. Also, Mom – we ordered and ate the elusive bi bim bop, and it was very good!

Stop 4: Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was built by a certain monk who notably traveled the Silk Road before settling in Xian and creating a place of worship for himself and his followers. It wasn’t as exciting or colorful as any of the temples or imperial buildings we visiting in Beijing, although the height of the many-tiered pagoda was impressive.

Stop 5: Special Dumpling Dinner

Dinner was, again, dumplings – but anyone who thought they were tired of eating dumplings was quickly proved wrong. Each plate came out with exactly enough dumplings for everyone at our table, and they were molded and shaped to represent what was inside. We had green frog shaped dumplings, winged chicken-shaped dumplings, and even little corn shaped dumplings. The hedgehog shape and the sweet bean paste stamped with an elaborate swirling design were my favorites. 

Stop 6: Dinner Theater

The dinner theater provided free drinks – I got champagne, which came with a healthy dose of grenadine and watermelon – and featured a number of short skits from various operas and performances. Most impressive was the man who played a set of pipes to sound exactly like the chirping of a bird common in the area around Xian. The orchestra overall was very impressive, with opulent costumes to accompany intense percussion and lilting string melodies. 

The Tourist Life: Beijing -> Xian: August 28

Stop 1: Hutong Exploration

Our hotel in Beijing was situated in the hutongs – the alleyways and courtyards of the pre-revolution style housing. We explored the winding roads to find breakfast and other goodies – my favorite being a tiny postcard shop that was packed wall-to-wall with racks of postcards and notebooks and adorable stickers. They had the classiest postcards I’ve ever seen in my life, and even a little table at which to write, stamp, and send them.

Stop 2: Peking Duck Lunch

We were on our own for lunch, and a friend and I decided to go to a restaurant that served Peking (Beijing) duck. It consists of roast duck, a sweet sauce, onions, and cucumbers, all of which you roll up in a little pancake yourself and devour. It was incredibly delicious, and the shop owner was so tickled that an American was eating there – he asked me if I was enjoying the food numerous times. I always responded with a thumbs up!

Stop 3: Overnight Train to Xian

After gathering all our stuff, our whole group took the bus to the train station and the train to Xian! After a near-fiasco in which one group member lost his ticket and almost didn’t make it on the train, we settled in  our cabins – two, with two sets of bunk beds crammed in each. We made lots of jokes about being on the Hogwarts Express before settling in to sleep away the 11-hour ride. It was my first time on a train, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed the experience. Falling asleep to the rocking and humming of the train speeding along the tracks was much more calming than one might expect, and waking up to views of rural China whipping by the windows certainly wasn’t bad either. 

The Tourist Life: Beijing Day Four: August 26

Stop 1: The Great Wall

We got up early to head off to the Great Wall – about an hour and a half drive from our hotel in downtown Beijing. Once arrived, we bought tickets and hoofed it up the steep stairs to the wall. It was tough, and hot, and our group traveled at various speeds, but we all made it up. But it was nothing compared to the Wednesday morning stair workouts the crew team does in the spring…

When we reached the top, we could walk along a renovated length of the wall as we pleased. My group found our way to the highest, furthest point before the tourist area ended and the wall became overgrown with trees and vines from the surrounding forest. I actually found myself more impressed with the natural surroundings than the wall, as the surrounding forests and mountains were definitely very different from my beloved North Cascades. I asked our tour guide, and he said that people do backpack along the non-renovated sections of the wall in various areas. I would love to do that some day, in order to get an understanding of the incredibly enormous monument the Great Wall really is by walking some of its length.

The best part could have been getting down, though… We took the toboggan! For about $15 USD (80 yuan) you can ride down from the wall in a tiny cart on a shiny metal luge. It’s definitely something you would have to sign a liability form for in the states, since you control your own speed with a lever and can shoot down pretty darn fast if you lean into the curves. I deemed the ride definitely worth the money!

Stop 2: Vegetarian Buffet Dinner

We were on our own for dinner, and made our first foray as a student group into Beijing without tour guide or Professor surveillance. We did, however, take their dinner recommendations and go to a vegetarian buffet restaurant across the street from a nearby temple. The food was delicious, and there were an incredible number of choices of misleadingly meat-like products. My personal favorites were the dessert and fruit areas, however, as I hadn’t had chocolate or bananas since arriving and got to nab both – fresh nanners and chocolate cake were both available.

Communication with the wait staff went reasonably well – we have a couple of students that speak functional Chinese. It’s very funny, however, because one of our students appears to be Chinese, and everywhere we go Chinese folks assume he is our guide and try to talk to him, when it is actually one of our other, American-looking students that speaks the best Chinese in our group.

(Unofficial) Stop 3: Reggae Roots Bar

After dinner the group went out on our own and trekked over to a shopping/nightlife area that surrounds a small artificial lake. We had passed it earlier, in the daytime, and it looked like an average shopping street with food carts and other small attractions. Arriving in the nighttime revealed a spectacular transformation of colored lights, neon signs, and bright doorways and windows. Even every tree and lamppost were wrapped in strings of purple and green. My personal favorite has to be the lights that hang from almost every tree and balcony – long strips that light up in sequence that create the effect of drips and drops of light, as if the trees were raining LED. I surprised myself by finding this scenery just as beautiful, although very different from, my usual green trees and flowering gardens of Seattle.

The Reggae Roots Bar was the only nightlife spot we could find that didn’t charge 50 kuai for a beer (10 dollars!). Mixed drinks were about $4 US, and needless to say, it was a fun spot. The best part, however, was the band – a mixed ethnic group of Chinese and who knows what else who sang and played relaxed versions of many American pop songs, as well as a few Chinese pop numbers. The walls were covered in posters, flags, and sharpie scrawled on every available surface with messages from foreigners and locals praising the spot in every imaginable handwriting and language.