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Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Great Wall (Part 3)

Sunday, December 9, 2012


The weekend before last my friends and I took a trip to Xi'An for a couple days. Xi'An is a urban city located to the west of Beijing, and was once the home of royalty. The name Xi'An means "west security" and since the turn of the new era has become an economic work horse and at the same time a home for many of China's Muslims. The "Muslim Quarter" is a large community of businesses and homes owned and occupied by a concentration of people of several nationalities, but for the most part all share the Muslim faith. They come together in the area for the same reason China towns spring up in the United States, to find a sense of community and familiarity in what is usually a foreign living place.

The Muslim Quarter is a good place to spend a weekend. Their food is phenomenal and the owners of the shops and restaurants are usually not only very friendly but also carry a festive vibe. They have specialty food at every turn like lamb skewers. They usually don't allow the drinking of any alcohol in their restaurants, staying true to the beliefs their community was founded on.  Below are some pictures of the trip.

The streets of the Muslim Quarter

Cooking food

Water fountain show near the Big Goose Pagoda, or  DaYanTa

View of Xi'An from the top of DaYanTa. Those visibility conditions
are not natural weather phenomenon, its smog. A good example of
why China, amongst double digit GDP growth, is still considered a developing country.

The major tourist pull of the region is the Terra-Cotta Warriors. Built in the Qin Dynasty to serve as the guardians for the first emperor of China in afterlife, it was buried with him around 210 BC. At a later date, revolutionaries stormed the tomb and largely destroyed the tomb and the warriors within it. They were discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well, and since then an extensive rebuilding archeology project has been undertaken at the site.

At the site I saw one of the men who originally discovered the warriors. Mr. Yang, after discovering the head of a warrior in the ground, reported it to his brigade leader and was rewarded the equivalent of about a dollar. While visiting the newly renovated site,  Bill Clinton asked to get the autograph of the man who discovered the 8th Wonder of the World. However Mr. Yang was discovered to be illiterate, and could only sign his name as three circles. Embarrassed by the exchange, the PRC sent Mr. Yang to an intensive calligraphy study which lasted several months and then made him work at the visitor center doing just what he'd been schooled to do, sign his name on the inside cover of books for tourists around the world. It's a strange story, but it reminds me that even though myself and many of my well off classmates enjoy freedoms that on the surface looks comparable to ones we have in the U.S., this society is still ruled by an authoritarian government. It is still within their power to change an individual life into a political or economic tool in a very direct way.

Riding bikes atop the city wall, which wraps around
the perimeter of the metropolis.

Section of the Terra-cotta Warriors. Here they are informally
facing each other, indicating they are off duty.

The Terra-Cotta Warriors, "8th Wonder of the World"

Pig feet with your chicken wings.

Squid skewers

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Educated Youth

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time discussing the different types of information control exhibited by the Communist Party both in class and informally with my peers. These discussions have enlightened me to a side to the Chinese that gives me a hopeful outlook to the future of this country. Though the CCP is still strong in its authoritarian ways, the expanding modernization of the country is putting them in an increasingly difficult position. The Internet by its nature is a difficult thing to control, and even in China it is a place where people can begin to speak their minds behind the safety of the anonymous Internet. The “Great Fire Wall” as it is popularly known, is the CCP’s attempt at information control on the fast growing information sharing medium that the world has ever seen.
To their credit, it is the most sophisticated online censorship tool in the world, and works by finding key words on websites such as “democracy” and “Tiananmen massacre” etc. What people are beginning to do however, is express discontent in more subtle ways than blatant criticism. Artist add critical elements into their work, an example is the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei who has also become a anti government pop culture figure with world wide recognition. Users of the Internet use irony and similar devices to construct critical campaigns against the Party’s actions. An example here is the Grass Mud Horse Internet phenomenon, characterized by a particularly vulgar play on words in the Chinese language. If pronounced correctly, it refers to an animal identical to a Llama, but with a slight variation in the tones used to pronounce the words the meaning changes entirely to f*** your mother. It isn’t just an attempt to be gross, the campaign that follows the slogan is a cleverly crafted push against internet censorship, using a song with several similar play on words to slip past the filter system while still addressing the desire for freedom of speech.
Many of my students are aware of these kinds of things, and think that it’s cool. Contrary to some western stereotypes, the country is not just full of a bunch of complacent Chinese who are okay with their right to express themselves being smothered. One of my friends has a VPN, a software used to mask the region you are accessing the internet from and this allows her to see the internet as we do in America. Another student, when I asked him why Chinese students are becoming more critical, responded by saying “Critical thinking is important, most students are just taught to memorize. But if we can think critically we have more power.”
The educated youth are making their way up, and the old structures are crumbling. It is a natural effect of modernizing, and I find the entire thing a bit ironic. The Communist Party takes long strides to improve the country’s domestic and international economic health, and I think they do a pretty good job of that. However with increased economic well being you get more educated youth, wider access to information, and people who have more time to think and need less time just to work and survive. The CCP seems to be digging their own grave here. I believe that eventually the reigns will be loosened on the people of this country, and the change may be sudden and brutal, however I think it is more likely that the change will come silently and gradually with the changing times.

So here are some unrelated pictures I’ve taken over the last few weeks, it isn’t much because I’ve been quite busy with school and things.

Temple in The Summer Palace 
Overlooking the Summer Palace lake

Huge, sprawling, Beijing. Make no mistake, the city extends well outside of frame
and the smog only lets you see no more than 1/4 into the depth of the city. 

The Summer Palace

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Great Wall (part 2)

We revisited the Great Wall on Saturday, and I'm a little happier with the pictures I got from this time around. It's the same section of wall. Hopefully at some point I'll get to see a section that is less renovated and more remote.

The interiors of the towers are like small mazes, riddled
with corridors and stairways.

Monday, October 8, 2012

And Back Again

This is part 2 of my update related to my week long travel through Hunan province. Let's start off with some pictures of my favorite place, Phoenix Old Town (Fenghuang). I described it a little in the previous post.

Busy street in Fenghuang, many of the shop owners live in
apartments built right on top of their shops.

Fenghuang canal at night.

We ducked under here to get out of the rain, and had
some of Hunan's famed spicy food.

Fenghuang is the Chinese word for Phoenix. This is the statue
in the middle of the main square.

Thought the visit was brief, I fell in love with the place. I'll be back for a more thorough exploration the first chance I get. After we departed the Phoenix Old Town, the next stop for us was the main attraction of the trip, ZhangJiaJie. Famed for its unique mountainous landscape of steep towers of rock, which was one of the locations of the world that inspired the design of the floating mountain region in James Cameron’s Avatar. We started at 5am to get there early and beat the crowds, and the first several hours climbing up to the top were sublime. However once we got to the top of the hike around noon, all of the tourists who took the busses to the top were their to meet us and it quickly became a storm of people, bargaining, and unfortunately trash was sprawled all over the area. Despite all of this, the place was beautiful and I believe that if it weren’t the National Holiday, the place wouldn’t be such a zoo. We ended the day by taking the world’s largest outdoor elevator from the top of one of those rock towers down to its base. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures of the elevator or the amazing place it spit us out at, because of both the rain and the rush we were in at that point. 

The ZhangJiaJie landscape

The final stop for us was a Traditional Chinese museum, and an art museum that specialized in paintings made of sand, which were phenomenal. If there was one thing that never ceases to amaze me in China, it's their beautiful and variant forms of art. And their food. So that makes two things.

Another example of a preserved traditional chinese area, with
industrialization happening right outside its walls.

This whole thing was within a frame. The tools, stone, and wooden doors
were built onto the canvas with the painting in middle, made of sand adhered to the canvas.
The red tags on the door read "long live the Communist Party and Chairman Mao"

You can see the texture that the sand creates on the dome

Once again, made entirely of colored sand. Pretty unreal huh?

That was the conclusion of the trip with the tour group. We stayed one extra day in the city of ZhangJiaJie while the rest of the group went back home via train. During that day we walked the city streets and generally took it easy. I ate bat on a skewer, which was delicious. I felt attached to many of the people I traveled with after the week I had spent with them in Hunan province, talking about China and life here. Some I could even call friends. During my time in China I've met so many kind people, with seemingly infinite patience in teaching me their language and culture, and an easy going willingness to help in any way they can.
3 Chinese children I got to know along the trip. All 3 of them are learning
English as a second language, and at 7 years old can speak it very well.

My buddy Kevin, son of Rambo. 

Heading back home was a 26 hour train ride. As usual we made conversation easily with the Chinese people near our bunks. Some spoke great english, some spoke none at all and our interactions were done through simple Mandarin, friendly gestures, and card games. I learned much during this last week, about traveling within China and about the people of this country. I have positive impressions of both, and look forward to my next trip.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Out for Air

It's been a while since I last posted some info on what I've been up to. Apologies to those that were waiting. The first half of the last couple weeks was a little too routine to post anything significant, and the last half was too hectic and busy to find time to post anything. The reason for that is, we all had a week off of school for the Chinese Mid Autumn Festival and the Chinese National Holiday. Since this is the only holiday we get during the semester, myself and a few friends made it our mission to travel somewhere far away from our increasingly comfortable life in Beijing. We ended up going to ZhangJiaJie, and stopping by several places along the way including ChangSha, Mao Zhedong's hometown, and Phoenix Old Town. We traveled with a tour group, for several reasons. Though I'm always looking to get away from big tourist crowds, this holiday is a nationwide event that puts billions of people on the move all at once. It's tradition that during the national holiday everybody returns to their hometowns to see their family. The sheer volume of people that travel during this week makes train and plane tickets very hard to come by, and finding hotel accommodations are equally as challenging. With these things in mind we set out with a tour group.

It turned out to be a great time, and we were able to befriend several of the chinese families that were in our group. Usually they were the ones that could speak some english, as they would often help us translate information throughout the day to get around. Among the ones I became friendliest with was a man whose english name was Rambo, and his wife and son. There is also an english speaking Chinese student named Angel whose father is a goofy demeanor government officer. Many Chinese use the holiday period to do some touring of their own. Seeing foreigners on vacation, at least in our experience, was a rarity.

I'm sitting in my hotel room now and my return train trip is in several hours. It will be over 20 hours of travel time straight to Beijing. Here something of a walk through of the trip, and looking back now I'm regretful of missing some pictures of a few things, but I'll do my best to fill you in with words.

The hard sleeper train we took to ChangSha

Our den. My bed was the highest bunk on the right.

The train ride was 15 hours long. We passed the time playing cards, eating snacks almost constantly, a little bit of homework, reading... We made friends with the group of Chinese people in the den next to us. We shared food at dinner time and eventually they were feeding me as much of their rice liquor as I dared to take.

Upon arrival and meeting up with the group, the first stop was Mao Zhedong's hometown and the school he attended. There were more effigies of the famous leader than I could count, he was literally everywhere.

A bust of the young Mao Zhedong, over 40 meters high and 80 meters wide

After getting a fair share of nationalism, we heading out for what would become my favorite leg of the trip, The Phoenix Old Town. On the way there the massive amounts of traffic going in and out of the city caused a huge traffic jam. It was bad enough that the tour guide decided it would be more effective for everyone to just grab their luggage and walk the remaining several miles to the hotel. It was raining. But my saying that visiting this place was my favorite part of the trip wasn’t sarcasm. The city was everything I would hope from a hub of preserved Chinese culture and architecture. It had a very unique character, the native people often spoke their own dialect of Chinese making them completely unintelligible unless they wanted to be understood, and the architecture and design of the town was unreal. Unfortunately we were only there for a very short time, but if I ever get the chance I’ll be back.

Ill finish this post soon, but as of now I'm getting kicked out of the hotel and I have to get moving towards the train station. Expect this to be finished within 48 hours. The best is yet to come!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Into the Eastern World

This update is strictly a shout out to my roommate's blog, Into the Eastern World. He was good enough to put a link to this blog on his, so I'm returning the gesture. He voices more than I do, so you'll probably learn something cool if you check in every once in a while. If you want to see this experience through a different pair of eyes, you can follow his adventure here

Monday, September 17, 2012

To elaborate of my previous post

I've decided to write a little something about the last week and the pictures I put up. If for no other reason than I owe it to my family. First of all- the Forbidden City. Obviously a spectacular place, but to me what was even more striking than it's grandiose interior structure was its existence in the heart of one of China's largest and most modernized cities. Living in America, I feel like the trend for metropolises is for the hub of the modernization and urbanization to be in the middle, with residential and more suburban areas diffusing outwardly. Beijing from this perspective seems to be just the opposite with its conscious choice to preserve its traditional roots. Nonetheless, the place is truly amazing on the inside and is not overrated as must see for people visiting Beijing, however the food within the walls are expectedly pricy for tourist and comparative to typical chinese restaurants it isn't that good.

Then there was Tiananmen Square. It's spacious, and a central tourist attraction as well as local gathering spot with much political significance. If you know the stories of what's occurred there, it can be a very meaningful visit.

The art district we went to is  called the 798 Art District. It's home to many high profile artist's work, some of it surprisingly untraditional Chinese. Unfortunately, there were many great galleries I went into that didn't allow photography of the work, but there was one exhibition in particular that housed huge sculptures of very surreal figures made by Chen Wenling. This work stood out as very bizarre, expressionist, and political. Which are all things that, at least in my mind, go against the stereotypes of a Chinese resident and high profile artist. But I'm learning more and more that the characteristics that once merited these predispositions are dying, especially amongst the younger generation of Chinese.

I will have more to come of the Forbidden City, as there wasn't enough to time to see all of the inner halls that I wanted to see. Until then--

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Another week, another update

Another update with a few shots of a few things I've seen this week, once again with no coherent theme. At some point I'll actually have a point to these posts, besides just showing off a bunch of cool looking sites. Until then, enjoy.

The Forbidden City's North Gate

YuanMingYuan Park

YuanMingYuan Park

Inside the Forbidden City

Ornamental Roof Inside the Forbidden City

Hall of Preserved Harmony 

Tiananmen Square's Monolith at Sunset

Tiananman Square

Beijing City at Night

North Gate of the Forbidden City

Sculpture by Chen Wenling

If you read the front of the barrel of this baby's tank, it says Made in China.