Letters from the Past; Letters to the Future

If it’s possible to be nostalgic for the future, as a teenager, I managed it.

For about five years, on December 31st, I would round up the four or five closest people in my life and force them (on more than one occasion threaten them) to pen an epistle to their future selves. Each year the “To be Opened” date was randomly selected. I think the first time around was when I was 16. Patience wasn’t a strong virtue of mine then (nor is it one I champion now), so I think we wrote to two years into the future. The next time around was maybe three. And so on.

The first group to be strong-armed into this included my brother, best friend, girlfriend, girlfriend’s cousin (my neighbor), and girlfriend’s cousin’s boyfriend. And me.

Madly in love with my girlfriend, I wrote largely about her. I threw in some obligatory concessions to family and friends, but mostly, it was to her. I don’t know what the others wrote about because I delivered their letters to them without prying.

The deal was that they’d write the letters and I’d seal them in envelopes and make sure they got them at the appointed time. Because we had planned to write them each year, burying them like time capsules didn’t seem practical. Instead, I placed them (alongside other childhood treasures like cards, middle school notes, an old pocket knife, and oddly enough, those Jaw-Dropper Magic infomercial VHS tapes) in an army tin and slid the thing under my bed.

True to my word, I never looked at the letters and I got them to their writers each time. Even after I broke up with the girl I had written about, I got her letter to her (and her cousin with whom I was not on speaking terms). The years went by a few more times, and the letter writing continued. The group changed, with a few of us staying and others going. In 2010 I got a group together for the last time and we wrote letters.

The group consisted of my best friend, mother, brother-in-law, my wife, and me.

I just found these letters today, lying at the bottom of the tin, under the Jaw-Dropper videos. They were to be opened on January First, 2013. That didn’t happen because I was in China.

photo(2)

Considering the changes that have taken place in all of our lives since their writing, these letters make me apprehensive. I’m no longer married, I’ve been out of the country for more than two years, and I haven’t seen my best friend yet since I’ve been home for a little more than a week. The rest of the group had a crazy last couple of years, too, so as I stare at the envelopes setting atop the desk I used to complete homework on in high school, I’m hesitant to read mine. I have no clue how to get the letters to the two others that I don’t see, and I’m not sure if my friend even wants his. I can hand my mother’s to her, but then what about mine?

In 2010 I had a life trajectory that I could see ahead into for years. By the end of 2013 that path has been demolished and built over so that now, I’ve got visibility for about a few months out or so. Not only is it a new path, it’s a route that wasn’t even on the damn map before.

As I wrote before: I count myself among the truly blessed to be living the life I want to be living. Even if it comes to an end sooner than I want, I have been able to lead the very life I have always wanted to lead. How many people can say that?

That being sad, there have been plenty of mistakes on my part. I’ve hurt people, and I’ve let others down. I’ve gone through pain and no small amount of stress due to the things I’ve done or haven’t done right.

And every time my eye catches the corner of the envelope hanging half off the desk, I’m reminded of these failures. I truly have no idea what I wrote about, but one thing is certain: I had no way of knowing the Jordan who would be reading the words written.

On this day, though, as is the heart of the holiday, I’m looking ahead as well as at what is in my past. I will read the letter, and I will let the words do whatever they plan to do, but then I will fold up the paper, tuck it back into the envelope, and put it back in the tin where it will stay. The tin will get slid back under the bed that is no longer mine, and I will go about my life.

I’ve got so much yet to learn from life that I can’t be consumed by the lessons of yesterday. Forgetting them would be equally foolish, but then again, I’ve never been one to let go of the past anyways. Instead, I’ll learn from the experiences and just simply let go of the baggage. I recently read a fantastic quote on a friend’s Facebook.

“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” — Aldous Huxley

This is my motto for the coming year. Just decided it, and I feel good about the decision.

Where ever you are and whoever you’re with, take your experiences and do something crazy. Learn, Love, and Live in 2014!

*And because I won’t be able to get the song out of my head until Chinese Spring Festival, here’s a classic.*

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne ?

CHORUS:

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

And there’s a hand my trusty friend !
And give me a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

Robert Burns.

English Version.

The only difference between this picture and most Chinese cities: Confetti. I should totally buy some when I get back and just start launching confetti into crowds and taking pictures. Yeah, that'll work.
The only difference between this picture and most Chinese cities: Confetti. I should totally buy some when I get back and just start launching confetti into crowds and taking pictures. Yeah, that’ll work.

Hometown (Jia Xiang)

The lack of sleep may be playing a part in it, or it could be the jet-lag. Either way, I’m back in my hometown and I feel a bit like Frodo after he returned to the Shire: bored, homesick for a home that no longer exists, and ready for something to happen.

The drive through the place that was home not so long ago felt vacant of meaning and alien as we cruised through empty streets at two am. Suburbs in NE Ohio are truly suburbs. Except for the shopping areas, neighborhoods and communities seemed almost too spaced out—a yard for everyone and plenty of room between the roads and the front doors.

For the last two and a half years I’ve been living in a culture that doesn’t really comprehend the idea of a suburban, or urban for that matter, area that has room enough for all its inhabitants. Parking lots are afterthoughts for building designers, and most cities are filled with residential complexes instead of individual homes. Unlike Japan, where the overcrowding has given rise to a very polite society, Chinese public interaction customs have evolved to exclude the words “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and even, “thank you,” in all but the most direct of situations.

That guy who stepped on your foot and hawked a loogie on the bus floor right next to you? Yeah, he ain’t wasting his breath apologizin’ for nothin’.

In stark contrast to the crowds I’ve gotten used to, we traveled back to my parents’ home without seeing barely a soul on the road for more than an hour. True, it was late, but even when places are closed down in Dalian, there are always people around. I honestly hadn’t realized that I liked that. It’s amazing what you can get used to.

Time is a tricky son of a gun. It’s not so Frostian as nothing gold sticking around for long, it’s just that there’s so much gold out there that once you see a hint of it you want to see more.

Going home is important. Two Christmases away called for a return home, but there is that part of me that just won’t go away. It’s what got me out of Ohio and what is digging at me now to keep moving. Someone once called me a wanderer, but I don’t think it’s as poetic as that. Nor is it as simple as being restless. I think I just can’t sit my ass down in one place for too long.

Christmas and this time of year, as it tends to do for others, puts me in a reflective mood, and I suppose that’s why I’m rambling now. I feel supremely blessed to be living the life that I want, and to have a family that supports that chosen life. It’s not every parent that would tolerate their oldest living on the other side of the globe for long periods at a time.

I’ve still got a lot of folks to see, so I better stop wasting time on here and get moving.

Family Christmas tree for this year. I haven't had one the last two years...nice to see it this time around.
Family Christmas tree for this year. I haven’t had one the last two years…nice to see it this time around.

Home for the Holidays

Culture shock’s got four stages that expats can pinball back and forth through, the experts say. That honeymoon period gives way to frustrations and annoyances faster for some and a bit slower for others. The irritations of the next stage can seem like interesting eccentricities of the culture once you’ve endured them and come to some sort of adjustment. And then, right when you think you’re about to assimilate, one of those quaint quarks sends you over the edge and you’re snuggly back in the frustration stage.

It takes years for most to get to the upper levels of the “adjustment” part, and most never actually assimilate, even if they’ve embraced the new culture.

http://www.thelandscapeoflearning.com/2013/02/culture-shock.html

All that is culture shock for ya, but there is a flip side: reverse culture shock.

I’m going home at the end of the week for the first time in two and a half years. My mother cried when I told her a few months ago about my decision to visit for the holidays, and friends have talked about meeting up whenever my schedule will allow it, but the trip is not all leisure.

When I got my wallet stolen more than a year ago, I didn’t replace my driver’s license, and then I just simply let it expire. Now I have to retake the written and driving test to get it back. I’ve also got a handful of other assorted official To-Dos while back.

All that aside, the thoughts taking up the most cognitive square-footage seem to be about simply being back. In general, I haven’t really wanted to go back home since I got here. This admission invariably invites reproach from Chinese friends, and most of them follow up their scowls with, “Don’t you miss your mother and father?” I try to explain that in our culture when the kids grow up it’s normal for them to branch out and make their way in the world without needing to tether themselves to mom and dad for support. Some respond by shaking their head and others just call me a bad son.

Now that my return is eminent, I’m just wondering what it’s going to be like. The North-East area of China, old Manchuria, has a lot of “Chinese” qualities, but Dalian also has an abundance of western perks. It’s not that I think I’m going to stick out when I walk through Wal-Mart, or that I’ll somehow forget how to order a Little Caesar’s Five dollar pizza—no, it’s actually the opposite. I’m worried that, after the rush of seeing family and friends those first few days, when they have to go back to work and I’m hanging around with no car, bus or Qinggui station to hop on, it’s all going to be…boring.

I’ve written about how common and routine life can get living abroad for extended periods, and I’ve even written about losing a bit of my objectivity concerning a lot of cultural details, but the truth is, even sitting in Starbucks becomes more interesting when you have to order in Chinese and you are having conversations with people in other languages.

Knowing everything that’s going on around me will be a nice benefit, but that lack of mystery can also lend itself to a rather lackluster outing when just walking down Hongmei street here for vegetables can be a fun and challenging experience. At this point, there are probably elements of American culture that I’ve demonized and other parts that I’ve inflated and championed way out of proportion, and truth be told, I don’t necessarily want my fantasies shaken just yet.

Don’t get me wrong; I know it’s time for me to go back. Two Christmases away is enough.

I’m probably just thinking too much about this.

Culture Shock – World Travel Syndrome

culture shock

Weekend with the guys

More than a month ago a colleague of mine, the High School Science teacher, sent out an e-mail detailing a bunch of Wikipediaed (it’s a verb, too!) info about Tianjin. The last line quoted plane tickets to the place at around 90 RMB from Dalian, one way—pretty freaking cheap.

I read it, said, “Hmm. That’s interesting,” and honestly didn’t think about it again for an entire week, until one night on the bus ride back to KFQ, another HS teacher asked me if I was heading to Tianjin with some of the guys in a few weeks. We talked it over, and, even though I went to Tibet not long ago, just purchased my tickets back to America, and was already planning a trip to Cambodia for February, I decided to head down to Tianjin with them.

This is what he sent:

Tianjin is a city in northern China and one of the five national central cities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is governed as one of the four direct-controlled municipalities of the PRC, and is thus under direct administration of the central government. Tianjin borders Hebei Province and Beijing Municipality, bounded to the east by the Bohai Gulf portion of the Yellow Sea. Part of the Bohai Economic Rim, it is the largest coastal city in northern China.

In terms of urban population, Tianjin is the fourth largest in China, after Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Tianjin is a dual-core city, with its main urban area (including the old city) located along the Hai River, which connects to the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers via the Grand Canal; and Binhai, a New Area urban core located east of the old city, on the coast of Bohai Sea. As of the end of 2010, around 285 Fortune 500 companies have set up base in Binhai, which is a new growth pole in China and is a hub of advanced industry and financial activity. Since the mid-19th century, Tianjin has been a major seaport and gateway to the nation’s capital. Tianjin also has an active night club and live music scene. 

Air fare to Tianjin is as low as 90 RMB one way from Dalian.  Contact M. Baldwin for more information about this thriving metropolis.

We all grabbed different flights, and they all got delayed…

It was passed midnight by the time we touched down in Tianjin, and almost one by the time the five of us regrouped and found a club.

By 4:30 most of the group had called it a night, but I stuck around a bit longer.

There were a ton of Russians, Ukrainians, Sri Lankens, Persians, and of course Europeans at the club.  I have no clue why there were so many there, but on the second night Ryan and I caught a glimpse of some clashing of cultures.

That second day, morning came around one in the afternoon for some of us, but then the group caught up with each other and wandered for a bit until we found Hank’s Sport Bar and Grill. Hands down, best food I’ve had in a while. It’s an American-owned place, and Hank himself talked with us a while during our late lunch.

The consensus was that we’d go back to our respective hotels and nap away a few hours, and then regroup around nine to catch some live music at another club. Though I felt a bit like roadkill most of the day, I didn’t want to sleep. Instead, I wanted to go see Xiao Ming’s undergraduate university—Tianjin University.

I’d chosen my hotel because of its price and proximity to the school, and when I went off on my own I wandered around the campus a while. It’s a pretty campus, but in the evening, wind blowing like mad, there weren’t a lot of students just hanging around. Still, I managed to find myself—two times—engaged in conversation with curious Chinese kids. One girl and I talked a while about Tianjin and the school, and about Dalian. Another guy wanted to just follow me around for a bit. I’m pretty sure he wanted to follow me as I met up with the other four, but I indirectly told him to take a hike.

Day time shot from the next morning. This is in the open area of the campus
Day time shot from the next morning. This is in the open area of the campus

photo(4)

photo(17)

We found the Italian Style Street not long after nine, and then Club 13. The place had that local hang out vibe, the interior inspired by industrial warehouses and T.G.I. Fridays. Eventually I asked the owner why she chose the name, and she reminded me that 13, in the West, is considered a bad omen, so she wanted her patrons to think it a bit dangerous as they stepped into the place. She said this all with a smirk and thick sarcasm, so I have no way of knowing if it held any truth.

When the band took a break their buddy hopped on the stage and sang a few.
When the band took a break their buddy hopped on the stage and sang a few.

The band playing—a trio of young guys—turned out to be pretty good. The lead singer, a fast-talking local, seemed to constantly exaggerate the well-known Tianjin accent just to get a rise out of the audience. Another guy, the bongo drummer, wore a Jamaican-style shirt and Sesame Street pants. The guitar player drank a lot of water and told jokes between songs. They sang songs with lyrics more than mildly anti-government. It was great.

The place had communist murals all over the walls. They looked like traditional images, but they had a sarcastic feel to them.
The place had communist murals all over the walls. They looked like traditional images, but they had a sarcastic feel to them.

photo(9)

After a while it was pushing elevenish and there was a decision to call it an early night. The workers and I had been talking throughout the evening and one even bought me a drink, so before we left I asked if they knew of any other places where we could hang out. They gave me animated instructions and recommendations (and a handful of their customer-friends chimed in) and eventually we got a lead on two more clubs to check out. Before everyone left, though, we realized Ryan was missing.

The place was closing down, so there wasn’t much noise at all. What we did hear, however, was the sound of two hand-drums being played. Following the sound, we found Ryan cradling a drum between his knees and jamming right next to the drummer from the band. They sounded great. It was completely improvised, but they really had a rhythm.

photo(15)

On the way out Ryan and I chatted with the workers and basically secured the opportunity to come back and actually play for the club. He gave him one of his CDs and as we all walked out of the club Ryan’s one-man-band Cronkite Satelite blared out into the Tianjin city streets as the girl played it over their system.

photo(11)

A look from the balcony of Club 13
A look from the balcony of Club 13

Once the others left, Ryan and I followed the directions to a place called Helen’s, a restaurant by day and bar by night.

After taking an elevator to the third floor, we grabbed a table and ordered some food, taking in the crowd of dancers and diners. Once again, a large Sri Lankan presence could be seen, but this time things didn’t stay harmonious for long. About thirty minutes later, our conversation got interrupted as some of the sober Sri Lankans tried to help drunk ones to their tables. A Chinese guy got in the way, and then got decked, hard–twice. He sort of stood there a minute without doing much, but after his lady friend and his buddy checked on him he seemed to realize he needed to do something to exert his awesome manness. He went crazy.

Chinese and Sri Lankan alike duked it out in the restaurant while the staff and other hungry folks just ignored them—for like 15 minutes. Eventually, the Sri Lankans left, and the Chinese guy who got clocked settled. For a minute. At one point he tried to use a beer bottle as a club, but his group took it away. Somehow he managed to convince his table he had calmed enough to go out for a smoke.

About this time Ryan and I decided the show was over and also thought calling it a night sounded good. As we walked out of the building hollering and screaming reached our ears. Sure enough, the fight had migrated to the street. This time the swings were more furious and the rage a bit more entertaining. We watched a while, but when the cops showed we grabbed the nearest cab.

In China, the cops like to just collect anyone and everyone at a fight scene, even the gawkers. Often a fee exchanges hands before anyone can leave the police station. We avoided that.

The morning came quickly, and another teacher and I were on the same flight back, so we grabbed a cab and hung out till boarding time. Xiao Ming met us in Dalian, and drove us back, concluding our weekend away.

Although not a traditional tourist city, Tianjin proved a good place just to visit and get to know some of my coworkers. I’m sure we’ll go back again at some point, or maybe to another nearby city.

photo(3)

photo(2)

Guanggun Jie

Tabao sales, Korean Pocky stick treats symbolizing one, and a full Starbucks…must be Singles’ Day in China.

If you’re a cynical person, you might call this the highly commercialized polar opposite of Valentine’s Day, or you could just focus on eating bland tasting, chocolate covered sticks and go with the flow.

11/11 every year is when singledom is celebrated like the bittersweet Warheads you used to shovel into your mouth just to say you could. Don’t know about that anology.

It started in China not long ago when a bunch of the guys looked around and said, “Crap, there sure are a lot of us with no girlfriends. Let’s buy Korean candy, go to Karaoke, and pretend to be happy about this fact.” It may also have gone a different way.

Though I have it on good authority (my Korean students, Chinese friends, and girlfriend) that Guanggun Jie, Bare Sticks Festival, is a Chinese pop culture holiday that got its kick off in the early 90s in Nanjing universities.

Speaking of students, three of my Korean middle schoolers gave me boxes of Pocky sticks today and wished me a happy “Pocky Day.” Interestingly, the three kids who gave these little sugary symbols of being a bachelor all saw me with my girlfriend yesterday at an orchestra concert. Don’t know if they’re trying to tell me anything there…

Though it’s mainly an Asian thing, Pocky Day, or Singles Day seems to be gaining momentum each year. Who’s to say by this time next year folks back home in the States won’t be opting for a fun Nov. 11 instead of that annoying Feb. 14…

Still don’t know Jack…

I’m losing perspective. I can feel this; the elusive sensation that what I believe to be is not as it is.

(Pic found: onpoint.wbur.org/2011/01/20/china-america-question)

It’s been more than two years since I’ve been home, and with my imminent return to the States for a holiday visit, I find myself trying to recall American life in its most minute details. I’ve fielded so many culture questions, answered the most absurd inquiries regarding social aspects of life for Westerners, and debated the validity of either nations being more open or conservative than the other with college students, drunk Asian businessmen, colleagues, and my girlfriend that I actually think I can’t remain objective any longer.

The fault is my own, not China’s, though there are many days I feel blaming this place is the easier route. Expats here have a tendency to be viewed as vast information repositories of the culture from which they come. People routinely ask questions and then whatever answer you provide is considered Gospel, not a biased opinion. I’d like to think I’ve never let myself be pulled in by that sort of perceived power and authority, but I have been.

I’m sure I’ve told someone things like, “We don’t ever worry about our reputation,” in response to the topic of mianzi, or “In America workplaces never have a problem with nepotism,” only to later realize I care a great deal how I’m viewed, and that classmates of mine have walked into cake jobs because of daddy’s help.

And then, when I’m on the receiving end of deep guanxi, I don’t bat my eyes at all, just smile and make a joke and accept the offered service or gift. As a rule, it is hard for someone like me to gain meaningful guanxi, but when you have close Chinese friends or a girlfriend whose uncle happens to be some sort of industrial leader, there are certain perks you can take advantage of.

Cut lines, forged documents, lowered prices—parts of China I can’t be bothered to form objective thoughts about any longer. Does that say something about me?

It’s not like I’ve been here that long—just under two and a half years.

Just when I begin to feel that China can’t faze me anymore, a ridiculous driver will decide the left lane is a good place to park, a worker will refuse to do something that fits their job description because he doesn’t know you, or a man with no scruples will make a move on a girl fully aware of his friend being her boyfriend, and I lose it. I lambast China with the worst vitriol I can conjure (which is usually a statement of comparison between it and the US, where China is degraded to a nation of imbeciles and chaos).

When I take a step back from that, I can see that I am the one who has taken all that culture and understanding I’ve gained these past few years and thrown them out the flippin’ window. The cathartic release is quite satisfying at times, but then I listen to another stubborn foreigner griping about the Chinese having no manners or traditions of nonsense and I feel like a heel.

There was one older guy I met, from Liverpool, who actually choked a man when he was cut in line. Another Englishman who’s been here for about six years—a bar fly everyone knows—routinely yells foul Chinese obscenities to people. Others come and go on 3-6 month contracts and use every opportunity they have to tell others that they know China. Some of the stories are amusing and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, true, but others are complete bull. From Chinese economics to bedding the locals, I’ve heard just about every piece of crap adage and advice the Expat community here has to offer, and I still know jack-all about the place I’ve called home since 2011.

If there is anything I’ve learned, and by extension, the point to this rant, it’s that I will never reach a moment of complete clarity or catch that concrete understanding of Chinese culture. Ever. It will bend, wiggle, snap, and break, but it will never just occur to me conclusively that I can say, with authority: I know China.

Traveling in the Rain

It’s raining as I type this, so I suppose that is only fitting.

At the end of June Xiao Ming and I traveled to Guilin and Yangshuo in the southwestern part of China. At the end of July, we traveled to Changbai Shan in the Northeast of the country. Both places seemed bent on soaking every set of clothing we brought.

Yes, Guilin and Yangshuo’s natural scenery were spectacular and truly breathtaking, but rain can be quite annoying. We ducked into Reed Cave that first day in town, just to seek shelter from the storm, had our basement level accommodations changed to the second floor on day two, and then finally just sucked it up and enjoyed an awesome half-day bike ride across Yangshuo’s countryside in the rain on the third.

The bamboo raft ride down the Li River got the ax, but the big yacht worked out all right. Moving from our first room to the next seemed irritating, until we were put up in a private room with a shower. The rainy bike ride appeared less than ideal, but then we realized the rain cooled us down when the area is usually painfully humid most times of the year. The hostel, Riverside Hostel, actually sat along the banks of the river, and the young staff, helpful and tolerant of my accented Mandarin, was fun to talk to.

Guilin. Chongqing 137

Guilin. Chongqing 157

Guilin. Chongqing 115

If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like "I will love you forever."
If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like “I will love you forever.”
Longji Rice Terraces.
Longji Rice Terraces.

Guilin. Chongqing 051

Guilin. Chongqing 059

Guilin. Chongqing 244

Guilin. Chongqing 278

Guilin. Chongqing 253

Guilin. Chongqing 298

Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago...
Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago…

Changbai Shan (mountain), the spiritual home of the Qing Dynasty, is an old volcano that sits along the China-N.Korean border in the Jilin province. Beautiful countryside begins just north of Dalian, and continues, interrupted only a few times by cities, until you reach the protected land of the Changbai range.

The seventeen hour train ride there through this landscape surprised me. I’d almost forgotten that most of China’s population still lived in rural areas, not the fast-developing major cities. At night the stars were beautiful.

Being the only Westerner on the train provided the usual amusements: stares, giggles, and curious children that continually walked by our car. One boy forgot to keep walking. He stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at me. I asked him in Chinese what he was doing, but he just smirked, and then ran away. He walked by once more, quickly. I saw him coming the time after that, and as he walked by I jumped out of the car and grabbed him, bearhugging him and laughing. When I released him he stepped away and said, in English, “Bad man!” He didn’t walk by again.

The rain began in a haze, then precipitated into a sprinkle until finally, dropping all pretense, the clouds released their bounty and drenched the mountain. We trekked up and down the north and west side of the mountains the first two days, taking in the scenery and clean air even though it continued to rain. Our goal was to see the famed Tian Chi, Heaven Lake, but the ubiquitous fog sabotaged that mission those first two attempts. The small town we stayed in right next to the mountain lucked out and most of the rain passed over it, leaving us free to wander about between excursions up to the lake.

Dirt roads, mobile merchant karts, and small packs of semi-wild dogs playing with filthy looking kids wearing slit-pants made up the town, Bai He, White River.

On the third day there, it stopped raining long enough for us to summit the top. We set out early, and then realized it hadn’t been early enough. Ten thousand or more (easily more) crowded around the outside and inside of the check-in building. A few thousand more packed in tight as they herded themselves through corrals that led to little shuttle busses that rocketed up the side of the mountain to another spot where the people had to queue up again…then they boarded tiny white vans that shot up the narrow road to the top of Changbai Shan. Every van sped up and down the roads, always keeping a distance of a car and a half between themselves, much like the worker bugs in a giant ant farm. We waited in lines for hours that day, and then, when we got to the top: Fog.

P1050651

P1050649

The trip, while full of pretty trees and no actual emergencies, seriously teetered on becoming a complete waste if we couldn’t at least see those blue-green turquoise waters of Heaven Lake. The murky white of the fog clung thick in the air and taunted us as we gazed around at the peak. Once again, another ten-plus thousand travelers greeted us at the top, but we waded through the throngs and found a spot along the rim of the caldera.

Right as we were getting ready to throw in the towel the breeze picked up. Slowly, slowly, the fog rose from the surface of the lake, granting the faintest hint at a color other than gray. The winds continued to lift the mass of fog, revealing more and more green and blue. As one, the entire population of the summit howled and hollered, cheered, and gasped. I laughed like a mad man.

We could see Heaven Lake.

P1050676

P1050690

P1050731

P1050750

P1050744

And just two weeks ago we took a week long trip to Tibet. I’ll write about that soon enough…