Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chinese Food

At the metro station, I said goodbye to the girls. When I got back to the hostel, I was surprised to find that Jessica had left my little green TSA lock on the front counter. I guess part of me figured I’d never see it again, but once again, travel proves you can trust people.

I also found a text from Sabrina that was a few days old. It told me that a letter had come for me at the office. Catching a cab—which is not easy to do being a foreigner, a lot of them speed by or shake their head when you try to get in…even if they have their green available light lit up—I rode back over to the office to pick up my letter, and then caught another cab back to the hostel. At that point, Yu Cui messaged me about picking up my bag and meeting for dinner.
I met her at her apartment and we walked down to a café. We were chatting away when someone bumped into Yu Cui. They said something in Chinese.

“So sorry,” Yu Cui said.
As we walked away, I asked, “Is ‘so sorry’ Chinese?”

She laughed. “Oh wow! I guess you have my brain thinking in English. I didn’t even notice.”
When we got to the café at the corner she asked, “Do you want to eat here or have Chinese food?”

I only have about 36 hours left in China, I thought. “Let’s do Chinese food.”
“You like wantons right?” she asked.

“Yes I do!” I said.
“We will go have the best wantons.”

She didn’t lie. These wantons were probably the best I’ve had. They were filled with pork and shepherds purse, and had that good peanut and sesame sauce drizzled over them. She offered to buy me several orders, but I figured one was enough.
“So,” she said as we sat down. “Are you ready to go?”

I smiled. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been asking myself that the last three days.” I thought for a minute. “I am definitely ready to see my family again. And it will be nice to sleep in my own bed. But I’m not ready for it to be over.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think it will be good for you to go home and have a rest. It is hard to travel all the time. After a break, you can come back or go somewhere new.”

Yu Cui honestly introduced me to most of the best food I had in China. As we ate, I shared with her my list of favorite dishes I’ve been keeping.
“I like milk tea,” I told her. “I’d never had it in the states.”

“Is easy to make,” she said. “You just brew tea in milk and serve over ice.”
“No I know,” I said. “I’ll make it when I go home. I just never had it before.”

I continued. “Hot pot was definitely my favorite.” She agreed. “And the peking duck in Beijing was really, really good.”
“I have never had it,” she said. “Was it flavorful?”

“So flavorful!” I said. “And really, really tender. And then I like wantons. That fried pumpkin you took me to eat for lunch one time, at the restaurant around the corner…”
“Yes,” she remembered.

“That was awesome,” I said. “In Beijing I had this chicken that had vinegar and brown sugar on it. It was sticky but it was really good.”
“I don’t know it,” she said.

“I like the roasted bamboo,” I said. “And even though it made me sick, those yaoming berries were pretty good.”
She laughed again.

"I also like the carmelized potatoes.” She looked confused. “They are potatoes, cut up, covered in sugar and baked. The sugar becomes hard and when you bite into it crunches and shatters in your mouth.”
She thought for a second and then smiled, “Oh yes!” she said. “I love this dish too.”

“And even though it gave me a head ache and just about made me cry,” I said, “I did enjoy the flavor of the mouth numbing noodles.”
She laughed. “I think you will miss all of our peppers when you go home.” I’m not so sure about that.

“And I like bing,” I said.
“Oh!” She said. “I am so proud.” Bing is Yu Cui’s favorite.

“I think the bing you brought me the first day was my favorite,” I said. She agreed.
“The thing you told me you ate in Xi’an, off the street food,” she said. “It is also a type of bing. I really like this one too.”

“Yes!” I said adding it to my list. “And the dumpling you brought me on my last day of work. The one that had beef in it and the juice splattered all over my face when I bit into it.”
She laughed recalling the incident. “It is called Shengjian.” She was impressed that I spelled it correctly when I put it in my phone.

After we finished eating, we talked for a while about plans for the future. I am going to miss these guys so much. They feel like such close friends I can’t imagine not staying in touch with them.
Once again, Yu Cui bought my dinner. She helped me get all of my bags to the metro. As we were walking there all I could think was I hate goodbyes. I suck at goodbyes. I avoid goodbyes like the plague. But at the same time, I know that saying goodbye feels a lot better than never saying goodbye.

But luckily, we put it off one more day. Yu Cui said that she would message Vivi tomorrow when we go out shopping and try to meet up with us.
I successfully navigated the subway and got all my things back to the apartment. When I did, I sent a few emails before sitting down to journal about the day.

Tomorrow is my last day in China…that is such a weird thought to me. After four months of getting ready for it, and two months of adventures over here, I guess I never thought about what would happen when it was over. Coming home from Europe, I had a very distinct set of goals and a life I wanted to return to. After China, I really feel open to anything. I don’t know what I want when I get home.
I still have a lot to think about.

Haggling & Other Adventures in Shanghai

I hate haggling. It scares me a little. Having worked in sales, I get frustrated when people try to negotiate on the price with me. Even though it’s the norm here, I’m just not used to it. But I wanted to get some gifts to take home, so I decided to give it a try.

There are a few items I know I want to get which could be a little pricey. So that I don’t get ripped off, Vivi has agreed to go with me on Wednesday night to pick them out. Some of the other stuff I felt confident I could find on my own.
Sabrina suggested the Science and Technology Museum as well as the Yuyuan Garden area to find good, Chinese themed gifts. I’d made a list of things I’d seen that I thought people would like. My first stop was the Science and Techonlogy museum (aftually my first stop was Family Mart to pick up a muffin and yogurt for breakfast and then I went to the Science and Technology Museum.

The experience was crazy. The Science and Technology Museum station looked a lot like the metro in Japan. Shops were everywhere, and the people were aggressive. As soon as I got up the escalator one man came up to me.
“Ni hao,” he said and rattled something off in Chinese. I kept walking so he switched to English. “Hello, you want bag? You want watch?”

I shook my hand in the Chinese geture for “no” or “I don’t want it.”
“Necklace? Jewlery? Belt? Suicase?”

“Meiyao,” I said [I don’t want] and kept walking.
He followed me, “Bag, watch,” he repeated. “What you want?”

“I don’t know!” I said, a little overwhelmed. He got the message and ran after someone else.
It happened again just 10 seconds later. A woman came up to me, “You want t-shirts?” she asked. “Polo.”

I shook my head and kept walking, but she grabbed my arm and pulled on me, “Men’s shirts. Ladies shirts. Sports shirts.” I pulled my arm free and walked away.
I put on my sunglasses hoping that they would disguise me just a bit. I read in one travel book that a common disguise foreigners use when they want to “blend in” is a pair of reflective sunglasses and a fedora. I haven’t actually bought a fedora, but I’m thinking that even if I wore one, my Jewish curls and German jaw-line probably are never going to blend in.

There was definitely a lot of stuff to buy here, but none of it was really souvenir stuff. There was cheap clothing and some nice luggage (I made a note of that in case my bag I ordered online doesn’t arrive tomorrow) but nothing gift worthy. So I went and got back on the metro to head to Yuyuan Gardens.
When I arrived at the metro for the gardens, I rode up the stairs, crossed the street and made my way to the entrance. Suddenly I heard a voice call out to me, “Hello.”

“Hello,” I said. I saw a young boy and girl. They were both Chinese and  both looked to be about my age.
“Excuse me,” the boy said. “Can you take our picture?”

“Absoltuely,” I said. They handed me their camera.
“With this building,” he said in crispy clear English. I took two photos and handed back the camera.

“Are you from Australia?” the girl asked.
“No, the US,” I said.

“Oh,” the boy said. “How long you have been n Shanghai?”
“Two months,” I said. “Since May. It’s…67 days, I think.” I’d counted just the other day but I wasn’t sure how long it had been since.

“That’s cool,” the girl said. “What other cities you have gone to in China.”
“I was in Bejing last week,” I said.

“We were in Beijing too!” the boy said.
“Yes, and I’ve been to Hong Kong and Xi’an,” I said, not listing all the others.

“That’s cool,” the boy said. “You look young. Are you studying in Shanghai?”
“No I was working,” I said.

“But you are student, yes?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was an internship.”

“Oh” the boy said. “We are students too. What year are you?”
“Fourth year,” I said.

“Me too!” The boy said.
“I am a first year,” the girl said.

“What are you studying?” I asked her.
“English language,” she said. “I like talking to foreigners to practice.”

A thought crossed my head. Maybe these two could help me haggle. They could do the translation for me, and I could help them practice English!
“Where have you been in Shanghai?” the boy asked.

“I’ve been to The Bund,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Lots of beautiful buildings. Did you go up any?”

“Yes,” I said. “I went up the World Financial Tower.”
“Oh,” he said. “Is very big. The Pearl Tower is famous in Shanghai. It is originally tallest building in Shanghai until they built World Financial Tower. And now they are building an even taller one. Maybe you can come back on holiday and see it next year.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve seen it. It’s very impressive.”
“Have you been to Yuyuan Gardens?” he asked.

“I have,” I said. “I am going there now to get some gifts.” This could be a perfect segue.
The boy pulled out a map and pointed to brown dot next to the gardens. I couldn’t help but notice it was an English map…and they were a Chinese couple. Something didn’t add up.

“Do you know this restaurant?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ve only been to the gardens.”

“Oh,” he said. “It is a tea house,” he explained.
CRAP! I thought. The tea scam. Here we go. I know I explained this once before, but basically the tea scam is China’s answer to the pickpocketing problems in Europe. Chinese locals approach tourists saying they want to practice English with them and they invite them to a “traditional tea ceremony.” They will go to the ceremony and then leave part way through it, forcing the tourist to pay sometimes hundreds of dollars to the restaurant staff (which is often in on the scam.)

“Have you had much tea in China?” the boy said.
“I have,” I said, getting a bit defensive at the fact they were trying to manipulate me.

“What is your favorite tea?” he said.
“I like the oolong,” I said, giving the cliché tourist answer.

“Oh,” he said. “I like oolong too, but I like lemon more. Lemon I like one, oolong I like two.”
“Oh,” I said a bit emotionless.

“This restaurant does a tea ceremony,” he said. “It is very traditional. Have you seen the Chinese Tea Ceremony.”
“I have,” I said, hoping to throw off his schtick.

“You have?” he asked. “When?”
“A few weeks ago,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I think this tea ceremony is the best. We can all go together and we will explain to you what is happening.”
“Actually,” I said. “I don’t have much time. I need to go buy those gifts now.”

“It will only take 20 minutes,” he said.
I’m sure it will I thought.

“No, I don’t have time,” I said.
“Fifteen minutes,” he said. Apparently the thousand year old tradition can be modified to meet your needs.

“No thank you,” I said.
“You can help me practice English,” the girl said.

“It was nice to meet you,” I said. “Have a nice day.”
“Ok,” they said. “Bye bye.”

I turned to walk away.
Haggling turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected. I found one stand that sold most of the things I needed. While I’m sure other people could have talked the girl down further than I did, her English was very good, she was very helpful, and she seemed sympathetic to my line that I was a poor student running out of money. I negotiated a bundle price on everything I bought and while it was a little expensive, it was less than the maximum I had set in my head. By looping around to a few other stands (and stopping at DQ for a green tea blizzard) I found just about everything I needed.

Going back to the hostel, I dropped off my stuff. I decided I would try to squeeze in a little bit of site seeing, so I went to find the Jade Buddha temple. This temple is a tourist favorite and often featured on travel shows and blogs. Basically a Buddhist monk went to Burma in 1912 and brought back a two ton, two meter tall white jade Buddha statue. A temple was constructed for the statue, and it has become a pilgrimage site in Buddhist faith. Over the next century, the temple acquired 4 more jade statues, bringing the total to five.
Initially when I looked up the directions in one of my books, I thought that the Jade Buddha was off of Chengshu road. When I got to the metro, I figured that just couldn’t be right, mostly because all of the maps showed the Buddha as being close to the train station. As I studied the map of the metro system, I realized that there was a stop on line 7 called Chengshou road. Looking at the map on my phone again, Chengshou road was close to the jade Buddha. I decided to go there.

When I got out of the station at Chengshou road, I turned left. I didn’t really know which way to turn so I figured it was a 50/50. After walking a few blocks and about 10 minutes, I decided to turn around. And it was a beautiful day for a walk. It was really hot and I was really, really sweaty, but the air was so clear and there was a brilliant blue sky overhead. I think Shanghai is trying to show off for me in the last days I’m here.
As I was walking the other direction, two white girls approached me. “Excuse me,” they said. They had heavy Eastern European accents. One was tall and blonde and the other was shorter with brunette hair. The brunette had the most stunning eyes I’ve ever seen.

 “Is there some temple around here?” the brunette asked.
“With a jade Buddha?” I asked.

“Yes,” they said.
“I’m actually looking for it myself,” I told them. Joining forces we continued a few blocks.

When we walked by one restaurant, the blonde girl stepped inside. In flawless mandarin, she asked for directions.
“You guys speak Chinese?” I asked.

“Yes,” the brunette girl said. “At least a little. We’ve studied it, but all of the dialects here make it hard to understand.”
At that point, we started swapping life stories. The two of them were from Ukraine (and it did take a lot of will power for me not to blurt out, “So how bad is it over there?” when they told me that) and they were on a three week language emersion program in Shanghai from their university. They were both Chinese language majors, although the one was double majoring in English literature too. China had not been kind to the two of them. Being from Ukraine, apparently spicy food was a new discovery, and they were not a fan. They also did not like the crowded cities or the chaotic metro.

The temple, which we did eventually find was a big yellow building. The courtyard was so filled with incense, that ash floated in the smoke as it whirled around the air.
“It smells like the churches in Ukraine.”

The first room of the temple, which was the main prayer room, had three large gold Buddha’s. They were very beautiful, but I think the altar on the back side of the BUddhas was more colorful. It showed all of the incarnations of Buddha coming to worship one central Buddha. The ceiling was also beautiful. It looked like a black hole, with light spinning in circles, leading up to a small opening of Heaven. The sides of the chamber were lined with other golden statues and I’m not sure if they were Buddhas or guards.
The admission to the temple was 20RMB, but to see the Jade Buddha was another 10 RMB (8USD total.) It was kept in a glass display case in the top story of the monastery behind the temple. The wooden staircase leading up to it was tight and twisted. I had to duck to keep my head from hitting the next flight of stairs above me.

The Buddha was beautiful. The room it was in was dimly light, but the incense smoke was so heavy you could see the beams of sunlight coming through the window on either side of the Buddha. The statue itself was made of white jade and really was quite elegant. The ceiling was guilding with thousands of tiny little buddhas.
Not only could you not take pictures of the Buddha, you also could not approach it, or pray to it. The brunette girl got in trouble for snapping a photo, but they didn’t really do anything to her other than make a scene about it.

Downstairs, there was another jade Buddha, which was actually laying down instead of siting. The one upstairs was the original from Burma but this was the only other one of the five open to the public. We also stepped into the hall of ancestors and a few other prayer rooms, but they all looked a lot like the other temples. One entire wall of the temple had been torn down and was under construction (which kind of killed the atmosphere a bit) it was a nice “last temple” to see before I go home.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Last Supper

I took the subway back up closer to the office so I could meet everyone for dinner. I walked around a mall for a bit trying to find a suitcase to take some of the extra clothes I’ve acquired home, but everything I found was about 3x more expensive than I was willing to pay. I went and got a tea from the tea house across from the office before going and sitting in the café that occupies the bottom floor of our office building. I spent some time looking at career websites on my phone and thinking about all these new ideas I have after working for AllSet. Eventually Vivi texted me that they were ready for dinner and I went upstairs to meet them.
John was with a client so Vivi, Yu Cui, Yang Renjun, Jazlyn, and I snuck out. They laughed at how heavy my pack is but I guess I’ve become a bit immune to it.

We went to a food court in the basement of a mall. This may not sound traditional, but it really is the quintessential chinese experience. So many Chinese people stop to eat at these places on their way home from work. They aren’t like American food courts that have a bunch of fast food chains; they have like individual vendors and delis that make the food for you on the spot.
Vivi bought a pre-made hot pot that had beef, tofu, dumplings, and baked blood in it (I could not bring myself to try the blood…I felt bad, but I’ve made it this far without losing my lunch, I wasn’t willing to take the risk.) She also ordered some special dumplings. Yu Cui got an order of fried dumplings. Yang Renjun bought some fried, boneless chicken breasts.

While they got the food, Jazlyn and I walked around to order drinks. We briefly looked at getting smoothies, but then found liter cups of lemon tea for just 10RMB (about 1.20USD.)
“I guess this is the Chinese equivalent of a Big Gulp,” I joked.

“These special dumplings are eaten during the spring festival,” Vivi explained as they brought over the white delicacies that she had ordered. “We eat them for good luck and to celebrate some special occasions.” We cheers-ed our dumpling bowls together and then bit into the sweet tweets. The inside was filled with sweet rice and sesame seeds. It was really, really good.
The hot pot was really spicy! Not the spiciest dish I’ve eaten (that award goes to the noodle bowl Vivi and Yu Cui introduced me to…the name literally translates from Chinese to English to be “Mouth Numbing”) but it was spicier than the hot pot Yu Cui and I had.

The dumplings Yu Cui bought were also really good. They were fried but shaped more like little balls of noodle with just one edge a little crispy. The inside had some of the meat juice which squirted out when you bit in. I have finally learned to bite cautiously into Chinese food, so I wasn’t surprised this time. The dumplings were really, really good and I probably ate entirely too many of them.
The chicken Yang Renjun bought was also good. It was fried with breadcrumbs on it, and then had a mustard like sauce drizzled over it. Yu Cui said she knew a better version of the same and went to buy it. When she brought it back, it was probably 4 times the size of the dish Yang Renjun had bought. And it did taste a bit better. It had more spicing to the breading and was cooked with the bones in…which I admit gives it a lot more flavor.

When we finished the food, Yu Cui bought us all soft serve ice cream. We sat around and laughed, talking about what they had done since I left. Vivi, Yang Renjun, and Yu Cui had taken a trip with John and his wife while I was in Beijing. Jazlyn had been studying and was about halfway through her internship now.
“Did you get a haircut?” I asked Yang Renjun.

“No,” she said.
“Because both of you look like your hair has gotten longer,” I said pointing to Vivi and Yu Cui.

Vivi pulled on her pony tail and Yu Cui pinched her bangs. “I don’t think so,” Vivi said.
“Maybe my hair got longer because my body never got longer,” Yu Cui said. We all laughed.

“You have definitely lost weight,” Yang Renjun said.
“Really?” I said. I mean I’d kind of noticed it myself, but I didn’t feel like it was that substantial.

They enjoyed my stories (although they told me I was too hard on Hong Kong.) I admitted that I enjoyed every place I went. Xi’an was probably my favorite, Beijing was definitely the most interesting, and Hong Kong was beautiful—just frustrating, although I admit my own preparedness might have played a role in that.
“You know, I don’t think I could live in China,” I admitted for the first time out loud. “I like it so much, and I want to come back, but I can’t do the heat.

They laughed. “You were lucky,” Vivi said. “This summer has set a record as the coldest summer in China in over 30 years.”
“Seriously?” I asked.

They all laughed.
“No I really do like it here,” I said. “The people are friendly and fun, and the cities are beautiful, and the history is so interesting. I just need to live somewhere cooler…but I will come back to China.”

“Yes there are so many places to see,” Yu Cui said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I really want to go to Chengdu.”

“When you go there,” Yang Renjun said, “I can be your guide.”
“Sounds like a plan!” I said. “And when you guys come to the US, I will be happy to show you around.”

After we finished our ice cream—which I noticed they ate the same way I did, so I don’t know why those people were laughing at me in the summer palace—we went outside to walk around. There was a small park behind the mall and Vivi wanted to show us her “Secret Place.”
“But it won’t be a secret place anymore if you show us,” Jazlyn pointed out.

“It is where my book club meets,” Vivi explained.
It turned out that her secret place was not so secret as there were about 10 other people there. But it was pretty. Situated behind a likely 5-star restaurant, her secret place was a little dock that overlooked a small pond. We took off our shoes and sat with our feet dangling in the water. Actually, my feet were the only ones that reached the water, and I realize it was kind of slimy as my toes dipped below the surface.

Yu Cui, Yang Renjun, and Jazlyn took photos and played with the photo editing software on WeChat. Vivi and I sat on the dock talking about trips we want to take in the future.
“If I lived in China,” I said, “I’d either live in Xi’an or Shanghai. Xi’an was beautiful and the air was so clean, but Shanghai is easier to get around with the metro. And I think the people are friendlier here.”

“Yes,” Vivi said. “I like Shanghai. I have many friends here. But when I get married and have a husband, I think I want to live in the country.”
“I can relate to that,” I said. “I think living in the city is fun. It’s definitely easier to meet people and see lots of things, but it is nice to settle down some place quieter. I’d like to live in a city for now, but when I get married and have a wife and kids, I’m not sure I want to raise my family in a down town area.”

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t want to spend my whole life in the cities.”
Marriage really does seem to be a big topic of conversation in China, and we talked about it a lot. Vivi was also interest in how gay marriage worked in the US since it really is not socially acceptable over here.

Everyone had a bit of a commute to get home, so about 8:00 we headed out. Yu Cui, Yang Renjun, and Jazlyn went on one line, Vivi and I took another but in opposite directions. We made plans to see each other again on Wednesday before I go home.

As Vivi and I walked to the train station she said, “I think traveling reminds me of the movie Alice. You know it?”
“Alice in Wonderland?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You get to see new things and go to fun places. And in the end, it feels like a dream.”
“That’s so true,” I said. “My internship went so fast. I can still vividly remember my first couple days. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve been in China forever. It’s funny for me to think back to life without subways or crowds or smoggy air. I’m excited to go home but it…it feels weird.”

I really do feel so torn. I am so ready to see my family again, but I am so not ready for it to be over. I miss that crazy rush of being on the go, totally lost, and just taking adventures as they come. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most incredible.
Back at the hostel, I bought tokens to do laundry. As I sat in the lobby waiting for my clothes, I overheard a girl checking into the hostel. She was white and didn’t have much accent (in other words she sounded American) but her speech pattern sounded as if English was not her first language. I couldn’t completely tell though and I haven’t really been around enough Americans lately to completely remember the dialect. I find that often when I am talking to people, my grammar kind of takes on a “Chin-glish” form.

Anyway, the conversation I overheard with her and the hostel manager was that they were out of locks for the lockers in the bunk rooms. They thought they’d have more in the morning.
“But I have a laptop and other stuff in here,” the girl said pointing to her bag. “Is there somewhere safe to put it.”

“Maybe you can sleep with it?” the kid at the front desk said. She thanked him and walked away.
Feeling in my pocket, I realized I had my own lock with me. It’s a little green TSA lock that my aunt and uncle loaned me when I went to Europe. I never returned it—it literally hung on the zipper of my old backpack for 11 months—and it’s been a real lifesaver on this trip.

I stood up and followed the girl. Finding her wandering the maze like hallways of the hostel I said, “I have a lock.”
She looked at me a bit confused and I realized it was an awkward way to start a conversation. I pulled the little lock out of my pocket. “I overheard your conversation back there. I have a lock that carry with me, but I’m in a private room tonight so I didn’t need it. You can use it if you like.” I handed it to her.

She took it. “Oh thank you.”
I told her the combination. “You can just leave it at the front desk,” I said.

“Great!” she said. “Thank you so much. What is your name?”
“Zach,” I said.

“Jessica,” she said. We shook hands and from her handshake I am definitely thinking she is not an American.
As I walked back to the lobby I realized I am probably never going to see that lock again. At the same time I thought I feel like I can trust her. Most travelers are pretty trustworthy it seems.Besides, enough people have bailed me out on my adventures—with outlet adapters, medications, etc.—it’s my turn to pay it forward.

Yu Cui is helping me order a suitcase online so we’ve been texting back and forth. Tomorrow, I guess I get to sleep in. I think I’ll use it as my last day of touring around, and then Wednesday I’ll get packing.
Here’s to a great last…62 hours(!) in China!

Purgatory

The train ride was actually quite comfortable. I fell asleep about 11:00 after listening to music and got a solid 7 hours in. When we stopped in Suzhou, two of my cabin-mates got off and their movement woke me up. I dozed for another hour or so but never really got back into a heavy sleep.

I had to smile a bit as I looked out the window in Suzhou. It was at this very platform, just 7 weeks ago that I was stressing myself out over the idea of traveling China. Leaning on the very railing that was now outside my train window, the gravity of what I was doing sank in. I realized I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone. I wouldn’t be able to read anything. And most stressful of all, I would be alone.
But here I was…on the other side of that trip…back at the same platform in Suzhou…and I did it! Everything I’d stressed about that night I said goodbye to Bryan, Johnny, Emily, and Luke was behind me. I just went on absolutely wild ride and I survived the very thing that a month ago I thought I couldn’t do.

When we rolled into Shanghai, an English audio started playing over the loud speaker. It said, “Welcome to Shanghai. Shanghai has been a destination for world travelers for centuries.” It went on to describe the lush Yuyuan Gardens, the bustling hustle of the Bund, the over commercialization of Nanjing Road, and the diverse ex-pat bars that line the streets.
As I got off the train, I started laughing. It wasn’t just a chuckle either; it was deep, hearty laugh…the kind that rolls from your stomach and echoes out of your body. Soon, warm salty tears rolled from my eyes. I was giddy and practically hysterical and I’m sure I looked like a moron. In that moment, I realized how scared I had been for the past 15 days. I never consciously felt scared, but I realized in that moment, I had been scared. I had been lonely, I had been worried, I had been stressed, and I had been fighting to keep those emotions at bay so that I could enjoy the trip. And you know what? I was totally successful at doing so. I was able to enjoy myself, live in the moment, and ride the adrenaline rush for every adventurous second of it.

But now that I was back in Shanghai, the dam broke. I felt overwhelming joy and pride that I REALLY DID IT!
At first, I thought about continuing on and going to explore some of the sites in Shanghai I haven’t seen yet, but when I got back to the apartment and laid down on the couch in one of the other interns rooms (since I checked out of mine two weeks ago) I decided that a low key day might be in order.

So I spent yesterday saving my photos, editing my journal entries, and finally re-gaining access to my blog. After taking a shower, I Skyped with my parents. It was the first time I’d talked to them in almost three weeks and only the second time we’ve talked this month. I realized I had so much to tell them but I didn’t really know where to start.
And the truth is, I feel like my head is spinning. I have so many ideas about what I want to do next—academically, professionally, personally—I don’t know where to begin. I feel like Europe opened a door for me, but China has taken me to an entirely different universe. I have an entirely different respect for myself and vision of what I want to do with my future.

And then today, I packed up and headed out. I’d talked with the other interns and we decided that having my own space for the last few days might be more desirable than couch surfing. I found a private room at a hostel for just 80USD (for all 3 nights) and decided to move in there.
But I couldn’t check in until 3:00. I needed to meet with the recruiting office to finish the paperwork and check-out process from my internship at 1:30. Once I left the apartment, I couldn’t get back in and I didn’t really want to lug my pack any further than I had to.

So I contacted John. He said I could leave my stuff at the office for the afternoon. Folding my dirty laundry into my bag and grabbing my leftovers out of the fridge, I went have lunch with my co-workers for the first time in two weeks.
“Wow!” John said. “You’ve lost weight.”

“Have I?” I said. It was funny because I did notice the other day that I am buckling both my belt and my watch several notches tighter than I always have.
It was so good to see them. I sat at my old desk and recanted my troubles in Hong Kong, my frustration in Macau, my excitement in Beijing, and my awe in Xi’an. They laughed and asked me questions about specific things I did and saw. John had to go to a lunch meeting but the four of us hung out in the kitchen for the whole lunch hour.

“It’s so nice to be back in Shanghai,” I said. “And thank you guys for texting me and checking on me while I was traveling. I feel like you all have have become my Chinese family.”
Which is kind of true. I guess I never mentioned it on the blog but before I left for my travels, they gave me the Chinese name He Ruiguang. The “He” is just a common Chinese surname that sounds like my actual surname. “Ruiguang” means “Lucky Light.”

Even when lunch was over, I stayed while Yu Cui wrote down directions for me to my meeting my hostel. I was still there when John got back from his meeting.
“I guess I’m tired of being alone,” I said. “It’s nice to have some familiar faces for a change.”

“I’m certainly not kicking you out,” he said.

I didn’t realize how late it had gotten however and I had missed my meeting with the recruiter, I texted them to tell them I was on the way and went outside to hail a cab. When I got there, they had me fill out a questionnaire rating my experience. Emma then sat with me and asked me a few questions about AllSet, John, the rest of the staff, my duties, and rather or not I would recommend AllSet to other interns…which I definitely did!
When I left, I hailed another cab and took it to my hostel. I got checked in and found my little private room. With no windows, it kind of feels like a jail cell. But it is also very cozy.

I sat down and looked through my notes of things I want to do before I leave. I feel like I’m in purgatory in a way. My trip really is “over” but yet it isn’t “over” yet. I don’t really have enough money left to do anything big, but I’ve kind of done all of the small stuff for now. I have so many things to think about, but I am not sure where to begin.
So I went outside and took a walk. As I did, I saw the sights of the Shanghai that I love: The shady trees that cover the streets, the smells of the little one room restaurants, the fruit vendors calling out to people from the backs of their trucks, the random workers playing American music on a boombox, people welding in the middle of the street with no precautions whatsoever, taxis honking, kids laughing, people hustling to where they need to go. I really am going to miss this place.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

And So It Ends...

When I got back to the hostel, a Dutch couple I met the other day on the tour was waiting for their taxi. I sat with them and we talked about travel. They only reinforced how I feel that traveling makes you feel truly alive. After we talked for about an hour, they took me back over to the Muslim quarter to try some street food they’d sampled the day before.

“Don’t think about it,” the guy said (I never caught their names.) “Just eat it.”
It tasted great whatever it was. It was some sort of flat bread, sliced in half like a bun. In the middle was shredded lamb with some sort of sour and spicy sauce. It came with a cup of that sweet and bitter tea that I’d had the other day. It was definitely better than the lamb soup I had the other day. In fact, it’s on the list of best things I’ve eaten in China.

We also bumped into a British kid who is staying at our hostel. We toured him around a little bit while talking world events including Scotland wanting to leave the UK and rather or not America should get involved in Ukraine.
“I think America has to help,” the guy said again. “It is hard because people will always be mad at you for getting involved, but you are one of the few countries that has the resources to help other countries.”

When we got back to the hostel, we sat in the café and got drinks. Johnny (the British kid) made the comment, “Going home from China is going to be so hard. No one is ever going to understand.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. We again reminisced over stories and decided for a third time that traveling truly makes you feel alive. It’s nice to meet other people that feel the same wanderlust.

About 3:00 I headed out. We exchanged email addresses and promised to look each other up on Facebook at some point. The girl at the front desk wrote out “please take me to the main train station” In Chinese for me on a slip of paper and I went out to find a cab.
In that moment, I felt like a real adventurer. With everything I own on my back, and 14 incredible days on the road under my belt, I realized I really am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for.

Except apparently hailing cabs! Not only could I barely get one to stop for me, but the two that did declined to take me to the train station. One guy on a tuck-tuck bike offered but wanted 30RMB. I only had 20 on me (I had more but not in small bills) so I wasn’t budging on my price. Eventually a guy on a motorcycle agreed to take me—after about 5 minutes of fierce bi-lingual negotiating.
As I climbed on the back of his motorcycle, I realized this broke every “don’t talk to strangers rule” I’ve ever been taught. I was now on the back of a motorcycle with some strange guy who barely spoke English, with no helmet, with everything I own on my back, bobbing and weaving through Chinese traffic. It struck me that if you wanted to kidnap and American and take all their stuff, this would be a perfect way to do it.

But in a very odd and terrifying way…it was awesome!
He didn’t take me all the way to the train station but dropped me off about ¼ mile away. He said he wasn’t allowed closer and given all the bus traffic, he might have been right. Either way, I was here.

I got my ticket in the hottest sweatiest room I have ever been in (which is saying something in China) and then went to wait in line for the train. Initially when I asked a woman for directions she shook her head and started to walk away. I think she then put together the lost look on my face and came back over and pointed the way for me.
After standing in line for about an hour, our train boarded. I found my sleeper compartment and luckily had a bottom bunk. The compartment actually is very nice. The bunks are more like couches and I’m only sharing it with 3 other people.

I changed into clean clothes when the train started moving. I am yet to sleep on the floor of a train station and I don’t really want to bring the germs off of one into my bed. The rocking motion of the train is very relaxing to me, and I fell asleep pretty quickly. After a nice little two hour nap, I woke up to find that my compartment-mates are also sleeping. I’m about to go find some hot water to add to the cup of noodles I brought with me.
My only frustration with this over night train ride is that I don’t have a book to read. Then again, I have all 160 journal entries from my trip saved on my tablet. Maybe rereading that is exactly what I need to bring closure to this awesome adventure.

Pandas

I had to wake up at 6:00 today to go to the Panda sanctuary. The staff of the hostel kept telling me I wasn’t going to like it, but I wanted to go (especially since I don’t have time to go to Chengdu.) They even cut pictures of pandas out of magazines and gave them to me so I didn’t feel like I needed to go. But, when in China…I wanted to try and see the Pandas.

A driver met me at the front desk at 6:30 where I checked my bags for the day. The drive was about an hour, and once again, the further we got from Xi’an the smoggier it got. I didn’t even realize we were driving along the foothills until the car started to climb. Once again, we had to stop for gas, and again, all passengers had to get out of the car while it fueled up.
When we got to the sanctuary, the driver walked me to the entrance and then said in broken English that he’d meet me at the car when I was done.

For being an animal sanctuary, it looked a lot like a zoo. I walked around “Panda Garden” for a while but didn’t see anything. I passed a Chinese tour guide who said that he’d seen two pandas. I did eventually find one. For being a bit white bear, it really blended into the shadows pretty well. It woke up briefly, ate a branch, and then went back to sleep. I took a few more laps, but for the longest time, it was the only one I saw.
I did run into an American family. The elderly lady was very thrilled to introduce me to her grandsons TJ, Alden, and Marshall. TJ taught English in Beijing while Alden and Marshall were in their fourth year of studying engineering in the states. They were all well traveled, and Grandma had taken them each on a big trip at some point.

They turned out to be my ticket to more Panda action. Their guide (who at first I thought was a volunteer at the sanctuary) used bamboo rods to lure a Panda out of the back. He came right up to the fence and took the bamboo from TJ. Making little squeaking noises as he ate, he ripped the leaves from the bamboo, wrapped them up, and chewed them in a little roll.
“His name is Ono,” the guide explained. Ono clearly knew his name and would look at you when called. For about 30 minutes, we stood around talking to him and feeding him—which I’m sure the sanctuary would be thrilled about if they’d found out. When he stood to reach up and take a branch, he was easily six or seven feet tall. His face was so sweet, and the squeaking noises he made while eating were just hilarious.

At one point, a large beetle walked by Ono. He picked it up and ate in one bite.
Eventually, we heard one of the sanctuary volunteers calling him and he got up and went back inside the building. I followed the American family and their guide as he showed us some of the other animals in the sanctuary including tuxin (which looked like yellow yaks), Asian black bears with their golden brown manes, leopards, a little creature that looked like a deer the size of a dachshund, golden emperor monkeys (including a baby), red pandas, and a phoenix (which we learned is what the Chinese call peacocks.)

Again, if it was an animal sanctuary it had to be one of the most unethical animal sanctuaries. There were stories throughout the park about how many of the animals had been found on the verge of death and nursed back to health here. The pandas appears to be pretty well cared for, but the other animals all looked pretty malnourished and were kept in concrete pins around the “sanctuary.” There are definitely zoos that have better animal treatment practices than this place.
As we walked we talked about the adventures of travel. We came to the conclusion that part of the fun of traveling is that you stop caring about so many things like privacy or physical appearance. Alden and Marshall haven’t shaved in the time they’ve been backpacking around, and they shared embarrassing stories about using squat toilets in public places that turned out to be more adventure than they bargained for. I told them about my adventures on public transport to and from Huangshan, as well as getting thrown out of the restaurant in Hong Kong. We actually swapped the stories the entire time we were walking and it only reconfirmed for me how much fun travelling is.

When we reached the exit, we exchanged WeChat information and said we’d add each other once we get to reliable internet. As we shook hands Marshall said, “Way to survive with style these past weeks.”
As I rode back to Xi’an, I thought a lot about that phrase. “Survive with style.” I thought about what I’ve done this summer. I boarded a plane and flew to a communist country that American tourists have really only gained access to in the past 20 years. I lived in the most populated city for 7 weeks. I worked in a position unlike any I’ve had before and learned and incredibly useful marketing skillset I plan to pursue when I get back to the states. I learned nearly flawless mandarin pronunciation. I gave a tour of Shanghai to my ex-pat friends. I navigated a train to Suzhou where I bought a suit in the silk capital of the world. I climbed Huangshan by myself to see the legendary sunrise on the mountain of mists. I went clubbing in a remote town with Chinese people that treated me like a celebrity. I went to Japan and studied Buddhism for a week. I walked across the world’s highest observation deck. I got stranded in Hong Kong. I got lost in Macau. I biked around Beijing. I took a motorcycle sidecar to the Great Wall of China. I’ve dove into the culture of three incredible dynasties in Xi’an. I’ve made some incredible friends. I’ve eaten both amazing food and terrifying food (I’ve been going back in my head and I think I broke down and ate western food for just six meals the past ten weeks.) I’ve navigated public transportation without a word of Chinese. I’ve survived 110* heat and battled a rattling cough from the pollution. I’ve prayed in temples, shrines, pagodas, and mosques. I’ve come to understand an amazing culture unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I’ve discovered China…and I survived with style.

Not to brag, but it is all pretty awesome when I think about it. As I think about graduating college next year (in just 286 days!) I also think back to my High School graduation party. I remember talking with my cousins about what I was going to do in college. If you told me I was going to do any of this—Europe or China—I would have thought you were on drugs. This is not at all the life I thought I’d be living, but it is exhilarating.
Before Arafat left the other day he made the comment to me, “When you get back to America you will miss this place.”

I laughed when he said it and replied, “Oh I hope not! I already miss Europe, I can’t miss Asia too.”
But I know he’s right. I think the thing about extended travel like this is that you develop a new life. The homesickness we feel when we travel is a longing for the familiarity of our life back home. When we get home, we have a longing for the familiarity of the life we created abroad. Just as I miss things about living in America, I also miss things about living in Prague. I’m sure when I get home, I’ll miss things about living in China too. The trick is how to be both “American lifestyle Zach” and “European lifestyle Zach” and now “Chinese lifestyle Zach.”

When I think about my time in Europe, I feel like I conquered a lot of fear while I was abroad. Here, I don’t feel like I conquered fear so much as I had to really confront some of my personal beliefs and thoughts about life and the world. History and religion are so “unimportant” in China (I put that in quotes because it is not non-existent, but compared to the US or Europe, both are much more downplayed here) but at the same time relationships and reputations are so much more important here.
There are also so many similarities between the American psyche and the Chinese psyche that it is funny to see how similar thought processed play out differently. For example, the average American (not every American of course, but a percentage of the population) seems to be under the impression that America is the greatest place to live and they assume other people want to live in America. In China, so many Chinese people are under the impression that when you visit China, it is your intent to move to China, because that is what most of the world wants to do. The nationalism and poltical ideology between US and China are not that different really. The execution definitely is, but the motivations are very similar.

Over the next 4 days I have left in China, I hope to do some sorting and figure out what it all means. I do feel like I’ve been away from the US for a long time. Even though it is about 6 weeks shorter than the time I spent in Europe, I feel like it has been even more life changing than Europe. Ireally have some concrete ideas about what I want to do next (and as a teaser, one idea involves 12 days at Machu Pichu…maybe there will be more on this later) which really is a very satisfying feeling going into my senior year.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Eighth Wonder of the World

Today was the big day. I still remember being in Mrs. B’s section of 6th grade world history. I’d studied Anchient Greece and Rome in Ms. R’s section. Next quarter I would study anchient Egypt with Mrs. C. But Mrs. B taught Anchient China, and on that first day of class, she passed out an article about a farmer who discovered statues of soldiers buried in his field, which became the greatest archeological find since King Tut. These soldiers were the Terra Cotta Army that guarded Qin Shihuang’s tomb. We studied them twice more after 6th grade, once in 10th grade World History and once as a Senior in AP Human Geography.

Today I got to see them.
When I woke up, the guy on the bottom bunk was gone (thankfully.) Unfortunately, so was Arafat. IT had been nice having someone to talk to at night, but hopefully we can keep in touch. Kate was still here and in fact she was going on the Terra Cotta tour today as well.

The tour included a breakfast of French toast. Once again it wasn’t really French toast but an attempt at the dish. It tasted good either way and was definitely filling before we piled into the 15 passanger van to go to the warriors.
There were 23 of us on the tour from 3 different hostels. We were split up into two vans, and our guide switched back and forth between them at the toll booth.

“Hello,” she said as she got into our van. She was a Chinese girl, and I would guess she was between 25 and 30. “My name is Jia-Jia” [that’s my best guess at the spelling, it’s pronounced more like ‘Jaw-Jaw.’] “I will be your tour guide today. There are 23 people on the tour. I would like each of you to introduce yourself and say where you are from.”
We went around and introduced ourselves. I was the only American. There was a Swedish company, a ton of Dutch people, quite a few English folk, Kate from Australia, and some buddies from Rio in Brazil (it turns out it is too soon to talk about the World Cup.)

“Ok,” Jia-Jia said. “Today we will go to see Terra Cotta Warriors. Very famous. We will also see tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang, very good emperor. Then we will see a cinema, then we have lunch. Lunch not included. Then we come back and that’s it. Again, my Chinese name is Jia-Jia. My English name is Lady Jia-Jia.”
Everyone laughed.

On the way to the tomb she told us about Emperor Qin Shihuang. I was actually surprised how much I remembered from that article in 6th grade. The Emperor was the king of the Qin kingdom. He found many battles and invaded many neighboring kingdoms to unite them as one kingdom. This kingdom (called Qin, again from which the name “China” comes from) closely resembled the modern day borders of China. He was the first to declare himself “Emporer” (which meant he was a son of a god) thus making him the first Emperor in China.
Once he was Emperor (at age 22) he began buiding a great wall to keep invaders out of his newly unified kingdom. He also began building his tomb. He also developed many forms of torture, and was the first recorded leader to use the method of “drawing and quartering” people. The proper technique for this form of torture is tie the arms and legs of a victim to four different horses and send them in opposite directions. While the person is stretched out and hanging mid-air, a sword is used to cut off their arms and legs, while their body goes into shock and eventually bleeds to death. Wanting to be emperor in the afterlife, he built the largest tomb in recorded history. It is significantly larger than any of the pyramids or tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. According to records, the mausoleum that would house his body was carved almost 100 meters down in a man made mountain just outside his capital in Xi’an. His body was to be surrounded by a moat filled with mercury, and all entrances and rooms of the tomb were boody-trapped (Indian Jones style) to kill anyone who entered—because of a moat of mercury wasn’t enough.

“The tomb is just a hill,” Jia-Jia told us on the bus. “I hope you will not be disappointed. We cannot go inside yet because we do not have technology. There are plans to open it in 20 years. Maybe you come back.”
When the tomb was found, the mercury levels in the soil are 1000x greater than naturally occurs. This seems to confirm the historical record that his body was surrounded by the moat. If that is true, it makes archeologists believe that the other legendary traps were also true.  At this point in time, we do not have the technology (a) to keep a person safe from the high levels of mercury once inside or (b) to protect the 3000 year old artifacts from oxidation once the tomb is open. As the mecca of archeology, scientists are working to develop a method of entering the tomb, but it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon.

The emperor really had a thing for mercury. He didn’t choose it because it was dangerous, but because he thought it was magical. In fact, he took a mercury supplement every day so that he could live forever. Shockingly, this didn’t work and he died suddenly (before the entire tomb was completed.) We’ll talk more about this later. His body was buried inside along with all of his gold, treasures, live animals to give as gifts to the gods, concubines (both human and clay), as well as all of the workers who had built the tomb were buried alive with him, as to not give away the secrets of how to get in or out.
When we arrived at the tomb, it was in fact just a hill.

“That is it,” Jia-Jia said. “The hill is man-made and the body is buried underneath it. The emperor chose this area outside of Xi’an—which was his capital—because it has good Feng Shui. Feng Shui? You know it? It is good energy. Certain features of nature have Feng Shui. For example, building your house with  mountains behind it is good Feng Shui and will protect your house. The mountains as you can see are behind the mosaleum.”
I couldn’t help but notice there was significantly more pollution here than in Xi’an. You could barely see the Feng Shui mountains behind the tomb.

“You can ride little carts around the tomb,” Jia-Jia said, “but I think here is the best picture.” We took pictures and then walked on to see the Warriors.
The Warriors are far more famous than the actual tomb. Mr. Yang was a Chinese farmer outside of Xi’an. When digging a well on part of his property he began finding remnents or armor made of Terra Cotta. Archeologists came in and discovered over 6,000 Terra Cotta Soldiers buried on the property. Further investigation led to the discovery of the tomb, all of which confirmed the myths and legends of Emperor Qin Shihuang.

The Warriors were designed to protect the emperor in the afterlife. Servants were commissioned to design them. They were supposed to be taller than the average person, with solid legs and hollow bodies and heads. Servants worked in pairs, each working on their own soldier, but they would design the face of their soldier to look like their partner. The clay would molded and then baked at 1000*Celsius. It took nearly 7 days to get the ovens hot enough to harden the clay. They were then painted. Once both partners finished their soldiers (which looked like each other) they were both killed so that their souls would be transferred to the statues in the afterlife. On one hand, it’s a promotion. You go from servant in this life to soldier in the next…on the other hand, you’re dead.
There were 4 types of warriors: Generals, Infantry men, Chariot drivers, and Archers. The Generals were the tallest and typically had two large buns on top of their head. The Infantry men were all tall, but only had one bun. The Chariot drivers were positioned in actual chariots, while the archers were positioned squatting. Originally they were all buried with weapons, but being made of wood—and 3000 years old—they have rotted away.

“The archer is magical,” Jia-Jia told us. I never quite figured out why, but she used a poster to explain that the first statue found was an archer. The statues have incredible detail down to the treads on the bottom of their shoes, and individual hairs carved on their heads. She also explained that shoes were important in the Qin Dynasty. Wives made shoes for their husbands. If a man did not have shoes, it meant he was unmarried. Additionally curved toes denoted nobility while flat shoes indicated they were commoners.  
There are current 3 pits of soldiers that haven un-earthed. There are probably more pits but Ill explain why they are still buried later.

We started our tour at pit 3. It was about the size of half a football field. The bottom was wavy with chunks of armor and broken horses sticking out of the ground. Every now and then the ground would break away and there would be an intact soldier.
“The wavy appearance is caused by the rotted roof,” Jia-Jia said. “The roof is gone so the soldiers are trapped in the dirt. The waves show where their heads are.”

They have decided not to unearth all of the soldiers in order to protect them. The soldiers were originally painted (and when they are found they are.) Because of the age, the paint oxidizes in minutes and the color is lost almost as soon as the clay hits the air. Again, archeologists hope to develop a technology to preserve the color, but until they do, they are leaving the older soldiers buried. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t dug up a lot. In Pit 3, there are 700 unearthed soldiers. In Pit 2, there are 2000 and Pit 1 has 4000.
Pit 2 is smaller, but also cooler. It is shaped like a U with three distinct rooms. The first room is a meeting room filled with generals. The second room (across the bottom of the U) was a storage room for chariots. The final room was for animal sacrifices. Animal bones—including deer antlers—have been found in this room. Most of the soldiers in this pit are assembled, and they truly look just like the pictures. The horses have large round holes drilled into the side so that when they were baked in the oven, the hot air could escape. The soldiers are baked with their heads and bodies separate. The neck has a hole to let air escape and the bottom of the head has one as well. Once both were cooked, they were connected.

Pit 1 is the largest pit and also the original. In it, 4000 soldiers are lined up row after row—most of them infantry men—all in formation ready to defend the tomb. At the back of the room, there is an area where archeologists reassemble the broken fragments of soldiers.
I have to say, they were as tall as I imagined, but not quite as big. For making “giant people,” the proportions are a little off. They almost look like their torsos have been stretched rather than just being made larger.

But they were incredible. As I stared at them, I just had a total ah-ha moment of how old China is. I cant imagine the servants who carved these things, hundreds of years before Christ. I can’t imagine what to tomb must have looked like, or what kind of nut-job Shihuang must have been.
And Chinese history is starting to come together for me. Qin was the first dynasty (which unified China and started the Great Wall). It was over thrown by the Han (the bloodline that most Chinese people today come from), and later by the Tang (which was pretty much the Renaissance period of Chinese music and culture.) That ended with the Mongolian invasion which gave rise to the Yuan dynasty. They were driven out by the Ming Dynasty (who built the Forbidden City and finished the Great Wall.) Eventually the Manchurians invaded to form the Qing Dynasty (who built the summer palace) and they were the last dynasty leading up to WWI. After about 50 years of disorganized government, Mao came to power to unite China under the People’s Republic.

After we left the pit, we went to see the movie in the museum. The attempt at a 360* panorama video waqas really just nauseating and didn’t show anything that Jia-Jia hadn’t told us. Our final stop was the gift shop where we got to meet Mr. Yang (the farmer) and Jia-Jia used some of the souvineers to point out more details on the soldiers.
Lunch—which Jia-Jia continually emphasized was not included—was very cheap. We went to a nice Chinese restaurant, and for 5USD each, we all shared dishes. Many of them I recognized as things my co-workers brought for lunch like sausage and peppers, egg in tomato, and different types of cabbage and fungus. There were other dishes I’ve had in traveling including sweet and sour meat, caramelized potatoes, and spicy green beans. I have to say, while I won’t miss some of the scary Chinese food, I will miss a lot of the good stuff.

On the bus ride back, I slept most of the way. As I drifted in and out, I heard various conversations about the difficulties of living in China, including pollution and life without Facebook.
For Dinner, I had bought tickets to go to “dinner and a show” at the local performing arts center. Kate from Australia was also going, as were Veronica and Karen (from Jingdi’s tomb.)

As we walked in, we immediately felt under dressed. The tables had red, white, and yellow table clothes on each table and a full assortment of dishes and glasses. We each got a cup of tea, a cup of rice wine, and a cup of sprite. The food then came out on over 26 trays (one again triggering Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” in my head.)
The first course was vegetable soup, which had mini dumplings in that were about half the size of an American dime. We then had seafood dumplings stuffed with crab, followed by wild mushroom dumplings. There were duck dumplings and pork dumplings. We had some that were filled with lotus root (another vegetable I will miss when I get home.) There were dumplings that had fish in them, and were actually shaped like little fishes—with the extra dough folded into fins and green peas used as eyes. There were ham dumplings (not sure why ham and pork are different but I didn’t ask.) We had a platter that had tomato dumplings, cabbage dumplings, and purple sweet potato dumplings. There were also pork and carrot dumplings, as well as shrimp dumplings. The final rounds were fried dumplings and steamed dumplings. We then got into dessert dumplings which included roasted dumplings (that tasted like baklava) as well as walnut dumplings (which were not as good.)

All of them tasted amazing! The pork dumplings and tomato dumpling stick out specifically because they were super spicy, while all of the other ones just kept tasting better and better. The rice wine was also very sweet and pretty tasty (although it did little to soothe the spicy flavor.) As we ate, a woman sat on stage playing some sort of flat harp that made the sweetest most atmospheric music for the occasion.

The dinner lasted 2 hours before the show began. When it did, it was just as breath taking as the warriors. The directors came out on stage, one speaking Chinese and one English, both wearing silk robes and fancy crowns. They introduced each act before it started.
The first was a musical performance. Sitting on the stage, musicians cloaked in silk played drums, bells, and cymbals. It sounded like some sort of war march and immediately drew you back into the glorious culture of the Tang Dynasty. Next was the “White River Dance” where girls in blue robes with flowing white sleeves danced and twirled in perfect unison. They were so synchronized even the ripples of their dresses matched. I couldn’t help but think the costuming looked a bit like Princess Elsa, but I decided not to make too many Frozen jokes.

Up next, and actor came out to entertain us. The Actor was more of a musician, so I think we might have had a mistranslation. He played a nose flute which produced both beautiful and god-awful noises, almost simultaneously. If you listened to it as music, it was tough to enjoy, but if you thought of it like the chirping of birds, it was sweet and melodious.
The next act was a group of young girls performing a spring dance. Again they wore flowing dresses with long sleeves that billowed as they spun and twirled. They were followed by a male dance troupe that did a masked dance to ward off demons.

The next one was one of my favorites. They said it was inspired by a painting in Suzhou called “Looking at birds and chasing cicada.” They introduced it as “the painting is of 3 women. The first is looking at a bird, the second is chasing a cicada, the third is missing her family.” Our dancers will bring this painting to life for you.
As the three women on stage recreated first the painting and then danced out an adventure of chasing birds and catching bugs, I realized, the three emotions have a lot in common. Looking at birds symbolizes wanting freedom. Chasing cicadas symbolizes persuing adventure. Missing a family is a bit more obvious…but all three have a yearning, and yearning is a pretty universal emotion. They are also three emotions I feel like I’ve experienced on this adventure. When I first left the US, I wanted to be free. As I got here, I wanted to chase adventure. Now that I’ve done both of those things, I miss my family.

There was another dance after that to celebrate a good harvest, as well as two more musical numbers called “hunting ducks” and “smiling tiger.”
But the finale was awesome. All of the performers came out in read and golden gowns. They dances, and pounded drums while an orchestra off stage played the most powerful and beautiful music I’ve heard in a long time. As I watched the majesty of Chinese tradition unfold, I thought back to Yu Cui’s text when I left for Huangshan…”Now discover china” she had said. I feel like I’ve done that. I really understand their culture, I love the people, I enjoy the food, I know so much more about their history, and I feel like my perspective of China has changed 180* since I arrived.

Thinking back to when I arrived, it does feel like forever ago. I have this overwhelming sense of “holy rap I did it.” Its been so hard, but it has truly been an adventure. I am absolutely a different person than I was when I arrived. I am more aware of how different the world is. I am also more aware of who I am as well as who I want to become. I also have a whole new respect for myself. Looking back at it, I think if you’d told me everything I’d go through in Hong Kong and Beijing, I never would have believed it or have gone for it, but these past 14 days have been incredible…this whole summer has been incredible.
And this beautiful show was a perfect finale. China is beautiful and I am so glad I came to see it!