Trains, Travels, and Touring

In the United States, trains are hardly a viable means of transportation. They tend to be expensive and slow, scattered sparingly throughout the country (and especially the West coast), a sharp contrast to trains here in China. With the National Holiday and a week free from work and school, I accompanied one of my classmates south to 扬州 (Yángzhōu) to spend the week visiting with her family. We hopped on a train late Monday night and in the soft comfort of our soft sleeper reservations, we slept as our train sped for ten hours across the countryside. We woke up to a bright Tuesday morning in Yángzhōu, and after a casual cup of coffee as our train pulled into the station, we spend the next several days loafing throughout the city.

Yángzhōu was beautiful, set alongside rivers and lakes that strolled casually through the city. While large compared to the average city back home, Yángzhōu was without the sprawling, endless metropolitan feeling of Beijing. The people to the south were very friendly, but foreigners were thin on the grounds, so the casual point and exclamation of “外国人!” (foreigner!) was not uncommon. Also, the people speak a different dialect of Chinese, which meant that there were times where I had absolutely no idea what was going on (opposed to my usual feeling of being only 75% in the dark).

Again, because of the holiday, everywhere we went for a glimpse of the sights was teaming with people. Generally, though, having spent the last several weeks familiarizing myself with masses and crowds in boarding the subway every morning during rush hour, I wasn’t much bothered. We toured around Yángzhōu, hopped a bus over to Nánjīng to see those sights, and then on our last day of holiday, we went about two hours outside the city to Zhōu zhuāng, which has been called the “Venice of China.” It was absolutely gorgeous, a little town with canals sweeping all throughout the town, boats casually meandering by, and seafood everywhere you looked.

We hopped back on the train home and arrived back in Beijing bright and early on Saturday morning, just in time to get to class. When you have seven days of rest in China, apparently it is customary that you have seven days of work to follow. Albeit, while school on a Saturday and Sunday are oddly foreign, it was worth the exciting holiday a hundred times over!

Hou Hai and Hutongs

It is perhaps the most the most extraordinarily ordinary things that I find so fascinating here in Beijing. While many of the biggest differences are not new to me (having spent time here before in 2009), I still find often find myself intrigued by the absolutely ordinary. It is these differences that make living here so exciting and rewarding on an everyday basis – whether it’s hanging my clothes up to dry (I’ve always had a dryer back home), learning how to use the shower (which baffled me at first – they are styled quite differently over here), or eating what I believed to be chicken, only to be told that it was in fact pigeon (it was actually quite savory), each day I find myself with no shortage of surprises.

With several hours of daylight left after completing my placement test at BLCU, I hopped back on the subway and headed over to Hou Hai. One of three small lakes in central Beijing (the other two are Xi Hai and Bei Hai), Hou Hai is a rare and beautiful reprieve from the city. The outskirts of the lake are littered with hutongs, narrow little alleyways and streets that are old Chinese neighborhoods. I found it quite exciting to wind throughout them, taking in pieces of the old city that have been left behind and bashfully offer greetings to the curious residents watching me as I passed. After I had gotten lost more than a few times in a number of different hutongs, I continued on and finally managed to reach the lake. The lake is gorgeous, with weeping willows all along the waters edge, bicycle carriages winding slowly around, and old men standing in large groups watching others play mahjong.

I had to get home for dinner with my host family, otherwise I would have been eager to watch the lake come to life at night. If I remember right, there are a series of very popular small bars and places to eat along the waters edge; lanterns are hung at every establishment – bars, restaurants, and boats alike, making it an absolutely magnificent scene in the evening.

One of the hutongs I explored on the way to Hou Hai.

Calligraphy practice.

Hou Hai.

Trip to the Great Wall…

On my first Saturday in Beijing, I decided to hit the ground running and hopped on a bus with the Beijing Hikers club as they hiked to the Nine Eyes Tower. An old lookout tower of the Great Wall, the Nine Eyes Tower hike is about a two-hour bus ride outside of the city.  Heavy rains meant that our course for the hike (which even under the best weather conditions apparently can be a little hairy) had to be improvised a little, which meant that we didn’t make it all the way to the intended tower. Instead, we stayed a bit lower to avoid the steeper sections of the mountain.

Even so, the hike was spectacular and far surpassed even my highest expectations. We scrambled up the country led by a local village guide and spent the afternoon on a foggy mountainside where the Great Wall of China sprawled out before us, chasing the horizon up and down each vaulting hillside. Built over 500 years ago, this section of the Great Wall had fallen into disrepair, but was no less magnificent. The cracked and beaten stones clearly could not be undone – not by attack, weather, or its greatest enemy now, the test of time – and it was absolutely incredible to walk along the fortress and imagine it as it had been when it stood as one of the mightiest military precipices the world had seen.

Standing on the Great Wall, amidst the clouds and mountains of the rural Chinese countryside, I felt all over again how very extraordinary my opportunity is here in Beijing. It really is amazing to live in a whole different country, on the other side of the world – amidst a people with an entirely different culture and way of life – and still feel apart of a family. My host family and the staff at Lotus have done exactly that for me. Both continue to encourage my Chinese and my exploration of Beijing, making me feel right at home, even half a world a way.

My host brother on the Great Wall…

Day 27: Chinese Movie

Today Lotus treated us to see Chinese movie in the movie theater.  I think the Chinese name was Wuxia, which means master of gongfu or something like that. It was in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, but people got what was going on in the end and enjoyed it.

Afterwards people either stayed in the shopping mall to do some shopping or went home. Even though our trip is winding down to a close, there does not seem to be any less enthusiasm.

The Maret students have a Chinese exam Wednesday and, after having talked to Natalie, Evan, and others, I know they’re preparing for that as well.

Day 25: Zen

Today we took a long drive out of Beijing to visit a Zen meditation center in the mountains. As soon as we got out of Beijing,  it immediately became much cleaner and green. When we pulled into a driveway of one of the highway roads, there were only a couple of buildings surrounded by woods. In every direction were lush green mountains, all very beautiful. Once out of the bus we had to take a little bit of a hike up a mountain to the retreat. It was actually a very nice area. There were little boarding rooms next to the main couple of wooden buildings. I guess the best way to describe it is that it was very Zen-like (lots of very friendly butterflies), and a lake where you could float on some bamboo rafts.

The first meditation we did was walking meditation. The Zen master said that meditation is all about focusing on the inner self and blocking out all other distractions of the senses. This walking meditation was practice. Then we went inside to discuss our experiences shortly followed by a stagnant meditation (the kind you’re used to seeing on TV).

There was lots of interesting philosophy connected with meditation. One comparison the master made was that your mind is a lot like a driver of a car. If the driver gets distracted, the car might crash or is in greater danger of doing so. In the same way, your mind needs to pay attention to the body to make sure it is doing the right things. At this point Eric turned to me and said “That’s a really good analogy.”

When we finished our lesson we had a wonderfully tasty lunch and then some time off to walk around the grounds. Most everyone ended up down by a very small dammed lake to go float around on the rafts for a little while. The water was surprisingly clean compared to the Beijing water we’re used to. Then we piled back on the bus for the long trek back home.

Day 24: Calligraphy

Today we all met in the Lotus office to learn calligraphy from a professor, I think he said, of Beijing University (or at least one of the colleges in the area). First, he gave us some background of calligraphy and where it came from. The oldest Chinese characters were inscribed on tortoise shells and animal hide something like, 4,000 years ago. Later, during the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD) calligraphy started to bloom as an art, and it has been a very important art in China ever since then.

The calligraphy professor showed us how to hold the maobi or paintbrush and then taught us how to make the different types of strokes that make up the characters. We practiced these and then practiced writing characters. Chinese calligraphy is very difficult because it requires lots of practice and lot of patience. It was hard but whenever someone wanted a break, a little doodle on the side of the page was welcome. The Professor himself showed some of his doodles…slightly better than ours of course.

Day 23: Confucian Temple

Today was a very laid back day. Several took the day off to rest but, for the others still brave at heart and strong in will, it was off to the Confucian Temple and its next door neighbor, the Imperial College, an institute of higher learning in imperial times.

This complex is actually very close to the Lama Temple that we went to earlier on this trip.  At the Imperial College, candidates from all over the country came to take the civil service exams.  Their exam results would decide whether and how they were going to serve the government. The better one did, the higher their position and the closer they were to the emperor.

At the Confucian temple, originally built in 1302 and expanded in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, memorial services were held in honor of Confucius by the Emperor and other people. I read on one of the signs that they actually did dances there. The more influence you had, the more dancers you could hire.

One of the aspects I liked the most about this place was the old trees. Many of Beijing’s temples and palaces have these. They are often twisted and crooked but beautiful. There are quite a few that are over 300 years old.

After that, Andy, Evan, Ben, Austin, Olivia M. and other Lotus students decided to hit the Hutongs to do some shopping and relaxing. The others returned for some well earned rest.

Day 22: Beijing Opera

Today, at Kelsey’s suggestion, we went to see the Beijing Opera. Everyone met at the QianMen Hotel at around 6:55pm and then went up the stairs to our seats.

This particular performance did not show one whole opera but segments from two different operas. I do not remember the names, but the first was about a noble lady trying to catch her love (a nobleman) who took a boat down the river. The whole scene involved her interacting with a boatman who, after playing some jokes on the noble lady, finally takes her to find the nobleman down the river.

The second was a scene from an opera about the Monkey King. This is a very famous story which I have just been informed about, but basically the Monkey king is a very kooky, mischievous but powerful being that escaped from the prison where Buddha in heaven was holding him. Buddha sends his servants out to try and capture the Monkey king only for them to be dominated by the Monkey King’s complete and utter awesomeness. They did flips and crazy tricks I can’t even begin to explain. In addition to the action, there was lots of great humor too.

I think that Ms. Cohan was worried people weren’t going to like it but, from what I heard, everyone enjoyed parts if not the whole thing. This might not have been the case if we had to watch a whole opera but changing the plot and shortened duration of the show kept the audience interested.

After that people either went home or out to grab a bite.

Day 21: Tai ji (taijiquan)

After lunch today, Maret and other Lotus students gathered in the courtyard of the Lotus building to learn Taijiquan from a two masters. We started with the tradition slow taiji warm-up (it looks a lot like a dance with waving arms).

It looked kind of silly, but then the masters started showing us how it worked (using other peoples energy against them), and it was very impressive. Basically, everyone first practiced with a classmate, then went to spar with a master who, of course, made them look silly, then they went back to their partner to practice more. It was very challenging but very fun.

One of the masters explained that every person should be like water and not use force on the other person and, in tern, not let the other person’s force influence them (for instance, push them off balance). The reason is that if you use force, then the other person can, in turn, use your force against you. There were lots of flailing arms and awkward stand-offs, but it was still a lot of fun. I saw Andy and Evan created their own taiji routine, which included karate chops and no physical contact what so ever. It was quite amusing to watch. I sparred with Austin and ended up doing some very awkward pirouettes, not quite sure what acting like water is supposed to look like. The master walked over to me laughing saying I was doing it all wrong. I glad to say I got better.

Day 18: The Senior Center

Today was our second community service trip. We took the Lotus bus to a senior center. This is not like an American senior center, however: its facilities are not nearly as good. The only reason these people are there is because they have nowhere else to go. Family is very important in Chinese culture. Grandparents often live with their grandkids, but occasionally one thing leads to another, and the grandparents are left without that close-knit family support.

Because of this, it was our desire to give them smiles and entertainment for a whole 2 ½ hour period. First we played a game of ‘hit the balloon really hard in any random direction,’ then we did our performances. Eric and Will displayed some American culture with a rap song. Other volunteers who had joined our group performed as well. One guy played violin, many others sang songs. Then a couple of old folks performed, too.

Afterwards, we celebrated birthdays for anyone born in June, July, or August. Lisa brought out a big, beautiful cake and Maret students and Lotus volunteers served everyone.

After the elderly had returned to their rooms, we split up into groups and gave each elderly person a gift from Lotus. It was an anti-itch ointment for mosquito bites.

Everyone went back to Lotus for an organic vegetarian lunch (very tasty I must say!) followed by a discussion about the day’s events.