South to Cambodia

Then we had a week and a half off for Chinese Spring Festival. Xiao Ming and I took off right after school that last day and headed to the airport, me changing in the car. We spent a day in Shanghai and visited the museum.

It was the vacation that almost didn’t happen, though.

About a week before the trip I filled out forms online for the E-visa, and I got mine within three days. Xiao Ming waited a bit longer, and by the time we were at the airport in Shanghai she still hadn’t received her visa.

Without it she couldn’t leave the country, and we would miss our flight. All day long I had been on her about checking her mail. Then I had her contact them again. Still, we were in line, ready to check in, when I thought to ask if she’d checked her spam folder.

There it was, a digital e-visa. But the woman behind the ticket counter wasn’t havin’ any of that tomfoolery. She told Xiao Ming she needed to go down stairs and print it out and bring it back before she’d check us in.

That ordeal took about forty minutes, and by the time we got through security and ran to the gate we were the last ones to board. We laughed it off with weary smiles. If I hadn’t had nagged her so much we wouldn’t have gotten a seat on the flight.

Then off to Phnom Penh we went.

We checked out some temples, a museum, and walked around the city during the midday heat long enough to get a bit snarky with each other before finding a few good restaurants along the river. Then, during the evening on the second night, we stumbled upon the…bar street.

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After watching how this boy handled these birds I couldn't stop thinking about the scene from Dumb And Dumber...Duct Taped bird and a blind boy...
After watching how this boy handled these birds I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene from Dumb And Dumber…Duct Taped bird and a blind boy…

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I thought five on a scooter was rough, but a few minutes after I took this photo I saw a family of seven on one of these!
I thought five on a scooter was rough, but a few minutes after I took this photo I saw a family of seven on one of these!

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Neon-lit bar fronts lined the narrow lane, and petite, cosmetically rejuvenated gals of all ages dangled themselves around the entrances, calling out to passersby with their whistles and smiles, hellos and cleavage. Xiao Ming and I trotted down this street once before doubling back and walking straight into what looked like a vampire lair. The VVIP Bar door opened into a dimly lit, air-conditioned interior with a long bar running back into the place, and about fifteen hookers smiling and looking at us.

The scene felt mildly comical to me, but Xiao Ming freaked. She pulled us back out and was half way up the street, speedwalking toward the river. When I caught up to her, she admitted that the girls looked like vampires and freaked her out. I suggested we grab some dinner to chill for a bit. We found a place and as we finished she was ready to try again.

We strolled right back to the same bar, walked in and drank two beers, completely unmolested by the vampire hookers. In fact, two of them just kept staring at us while we talked and laughed the whole time.

Now, before you say, “How do you know they were hookers,” let me just say that it was very obvious that they held a job, but also moonlighted, ok.

Inspired, Xiao Ming suggested that we try another bar—the raunchiest we could find. I was to go in alone for a few minutes and then she’d come in after, just to see how the girls acted around a young, lone male.

As soon as I stepped into the next bar, Oasis, three girls immediately leapt to their feet and ushered me to a stool at the bar. Two sat beside me and one placed her hand on my lower back, keeping it there as she handed me the menu and smiled at me. Totally aware of the situation, I silently removed her hand, ignored the two girls on either side of me, and studiously analyzed the beer list.

The hand girl gave the other two a strange look, and then disappeared. The one on my right, the only attractive one in the joint, kept trying to slide her knee up and down my thigh. She asked me a few times what my name was, and, unable to get her to say the right one, I settled on something that sounded like Joelny. The other one asked the same question. I simply told her it wasn’t important. I ordered an Angkor beer and then moved my leg, for the second time, away from the cute one’s friendly knee.

Due, apparently, to her highly tuned senses, she could tell I was not playing the part of a guy on the prowl. She asked what was wrong and I politely said that all was good. She didn’t press the matter. Instead, she and the girl on my left leaned closer to me and touch my shoulder. Just for something to do, I guess, because that’s all that happened. I stood up, completely surprising them, and surveyed the rest of the bar.

One other Western traveler sat behind me, groping two girls and speaking a language I couldn’t understand. The girls seemed eager enough, but then I saw the Cambodian business guy on the couch in the corner. He had his hand down the front of one girl’s shirt, and the other two around him rolled their eyes and just stared on. The looks on their faces held both revulsion and determination.

“Where you going?”

“I’m moving,” I said.

The girl then nodded, knowingly. She pointed to the back.

“Want to go in the back?”

“Sure.”

It was after three steps that I realized that, no, no I do not want to go in the back. What I thought was just a larger area at the back of the bar turned out to be just a private room with a couch and no light. I about-faced and walked back to the bar just as Xiao Ming walked in smiling.

The girls left us alone once they realized we were together, and the two of us enjoyed another beer. Before we left though, we got to see the whole staff stand on the bar and dance to Cambodian rap that I hope I never hear again.

Then, after a few days in Cambodia’s capital, and after I had acclimated to the temperature change, we took a seven hour bus ride to Siem Reap in the north, bound for the famous Angkor Wat temples and beautiful natural scenery.

A few thoughts that occurred to me during this week-long trip:

I know next to nothing about Cambodian history. Aside from being a French protectorate for a while and home to jungles that hid majestic ruins for years, the place and its culture was entirely a mystery to me.

The language is in no way decipherable to me, nor would it reveal its grammatical gems upon further study—it’s just a language I could never pick up, I’m sure.

Living in China for the last two years and spending RMB did not make it easy for me to flip to using USD and Cambodian money, both of which are widely accepted there. Though the dollar is about 4,000 Cambodian Riels, the prices in the two cities we spent the most time reflect this leaning toward the US buck. Things that most Americans would stop and exclaim were so cheap seemed a bit steep for me. I’m not a cheapskate or anything, but still, the place was very comparable to Chinese prices—something I wasn’t necessarily prepared for.

Speaking Chinese with Xiao Ming on the sly to avoid eavesdroppers did not work as there were many who understood both English and Chinese. And though she can speak French, I cannot—but that wouldn’t have mattered either because there were a surprising number of French speakers as well.

We got into Siem Reap around seven-thirty and, after conferring with the bus station’s map, let an impatient Tuk Tuk driver take us to the center of the city, on one side of the river. We were a day early, but we figured that didn’t matter. After all, Siem Reap was chalk full of hostels and hotels—we were bound to find a place to sleep for the night easily enough.

On one hand, I was completely wrong. On the other hand, we got to see a lot of the city by walking around for 45 minutes looking for a place. Eventually, we managed to secure the last room in a hotel. A minute after we checked in, a group came by asking for a bed and the hotel explained we got the last room available. Yeah, we got lucky.

The next day we found our way across the river and to the Siem Reap Hostel. Check in was at two, so we decided to leave our stuff and take a ride to the Floating Village.

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The next few days we saw all the temples in the area. After that first day without sunscreen my neck was nice and red. It was then that I realized why so many wore those loose scarves even in the heat. I bought two and let my neck turn from lobster red back to a more human tone.

Everywhere we went Tuk Tuk drivers called out to us, wanting to know if we needed a ride today or tomorrow. This constant barrage of questioning prompted me to buy a shirt that proclaimed, “No Tuk Tuk today and tomorrow.”

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These guys were right on the eastern side of Angkor Wat, just hanging out in the jungle around the temple.
These guys were right on the eastern side of Angkor Wat, just hanging out in the jungle around the temple.

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Even my uncle Larry came for a visit!
Even my uncle Larry came for a visit!

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Ok...I do feel bad about this. I'm not sure what made me climb up this centuries-old temple....Sorry, History.
Ok…I do feel bad about this. I’m not sure what made me climb up this centuries-old temple….Sorry, History.

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There are many temples in the area. More than most realize. And we saw all of them. Long three days. But very much worth it.
There are many temples in the area. More than most realize. And we saw all of them. Long three days. But very much worth it.

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I heard a guy say there are two types of trees in these temples: good ones and bad ones. The good ones help keep the walls intact and the bad ones crumble them...
I heard a guy say there are two types of trees in these temples: good ones and bad ones. The good ones help keep the walls intact and the bad ones crumble them…

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We actually went to Angkor Wat twice. Once in the morning and once during sunset. We wanted to see what it looked like from the top tower in the evening since the line to go up there was too long during the day. Unfortunately, the tower closed at 5 and we got there around 6. As we walked around the perimeter though we saw five guards all huddled together playing poker. One looked at us and told us if we wanted to go to the top we needed to give him ten dollars each.

Annoyed, I told him that was ridiculous because that money would go right in his pocket. I asked him to lower the price, but he wasn’t having it. So we kept walking. And as we rounded the corner and disappeared from their eyesight, we formed a plan. If all the guards were there…At that time of the day, most tourists were actually outside of the temple. We could only see a handful of visitors, and not one guard. We hopped the wooden gate and crawled up the steep stone steps, rushing to the top before anyone could see us. Once at the top, we snapped pictures, and then began to hurry down. We stopped when we realized what we’d started, though. Those other tourist, they were now climbing up, too!

About five of us stood at the top, illegally taking pictures at Angkor Wat. After a few minutes one of the guards did catch us, and kept yelling that we all needed to pay two dollars. I told him that he needed to talk with his boys in the back who were charging ten each. He said he didn’t know anything about that. While he wrangled the others who had gone up, Xiao Ming and I vanished in the temple without shelling out four bucks. We laughed the whole way, surprised that we were the two brave enough to do what everyone else was apparently thinking.

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Looking down from our illegal perch at the top...
Looking down from our illegal perch at the top…

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Xiao Ming found the Cambodian’s accented English hilarious, and took to imitating them at the most inconvenient times. Everything they said sounded like a question, the end of the sentence rising more than necessary. I had to tell her to stop a few times when she did it around crowds of Cambodians just in case they didn’t take kindly to a skinny Chinese girl mocking them.

We spent a week wandering around Siem Reap and seeing the sights, and only once had to stay at another hostel for a night when the Siem Reap Hostel ran out of rooms. On that last day, we took a drive out to Kulen Mountain and hiked through a temple and found our way to a beautiful waterfall.

Phnom Kulen is a sacred mountain plateau on which Jayavarman II as the first independent king founded the Angkorian monarchy and Khmer Empire in 802 AD. Also the Siem Reap River originates from Phnom Kulen. Nowadays Phnom Kulen is a National Park and is with its waterfalls, the Siem Reap River and forest a popular recreation side for the Khmers. Especially at the weekend or during holidays it is a very popular destination for a refreshing swim in the waterfalls or a picnic on the riverbanks. (globaltravelmate.com)

It was a blast swimming in the water and jumping around off the rocks. About ten minutes after I got dried off a whole group of people showed up. Some tourists and even a group from a local orphanage came out and had fun. It was a good way to bid farewell to our vacation.

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Once at the Siem Reap International Airport, I changed back into jeans and a dark shirt. We were flying into Guangzhou, a much colder destination than we were leaving. One night in a Youth Hostel there and we were back in Dalian that Sunday afternoon.

Best of all, going from the freezing air of Harbin down to the tropical climate of Cambodia within days of each other didn’t even give me the sniffles. No, it was coming back to Dalian that did that. The next day at work I fought a runny nose, and endured shorts and t-shirt withdrawal symptoms.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Xi’an Day Two and the Bing Ma Yong: featuring Bragon and the Big Duck.

More than anything, when I travel, it’s the people who catch my attention. I’m not talking walking-in-Wal-mart-after-hours kind of people, but still, characters nonetheless.

After eating breakfast in the Han Tang Inn while American country music played on the house stereo, we boarded a long van with other travelers—Canadians, Brazilians, French, Scottish, Italian, English, Australian, Singaporean, Chinese, and yes, me as the one American. We were on our way to see the Terra Cotta Warriors (Bing Ma Yong), the first emperor’s army that was to protect him in the afterlife.

As we sat down behind a group of four girls, all with different accents, we listened as the tour guide introduced herself. Jia Jia, or Lady Jia Jia, as she liked to be called, spoke good-enough English, smiled a lot, and liked to emphasis points by repeating words and nodding her head.

She gave us the intro info about the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Considered a great leader because he was the first to unit China in an empire, built roads, added, unified, and improved on parts of the Great Wall, had his big-ass mausoleum that’s protected by his terra cotta army built, and made some big waves with his policies….oh, and to stifle free thought—er, I mean to maintain stability—he burned a lot of books and even some scholars alive.

Great leader, Lady Jia Jia said, adding, “but ruthless, ruthless.”

After the intro she decided to quiz us, and for some reason the person she happened to ask was me. She asked me how many different kinds of statues were made in the army. I told her (four: soldiers, archers, cavalry, generals). People were surprised I rattled the answer off so quickly, but it wasn’t difficult: she had just given us the info a few minutes earlier. Anyway, she followed her question up with a smile and another question: “What’s my name?” I answered again and got another big smile and a nod.

That pretty much sealed it. From that moment on I was her # 1. After she spoke a little bit with me she turned her attention elsewhere, for a time. My friend and I got talking with some of the other travelers and enjoyed the 40 minute ride to the site.

Once there Jia Jia came up to me and handed me someone else’s license. She said that using my passport as my only photo ID was not wise since sometimes they misplace them. Ever since my wallet was stolen months ago I’ve been using my passport as my sole photo ID and it has never failed. She said to just hold the ID and the ticket together at the three gates and it would be fine. Uh, ok.

So I did, but at all three gates the guards barely even peaked at either the ticket or the ID. I wondered if this was Jia Jia’s way of making it seem like she was going above and beyond and all that, when really, it was no biggie. Whatever.

Then when we were all through the gates we hopped onto another small van, but not before Jia Jia handed me her tour guide flag/wand-thing. You know, that flag or banner they all have for the group to easily see them? Hers was this red bear-dragon stuffed animal attached to a retractable wand. Yeah, she called me out of the group, handed it off to me, and then told people to follow me onto the van. Once on a few others and I dubbed it “Bragon.” Then she took it, leaving me to wonder again why she’d even given it to me in the first place since we only walked about ten yards.

Lady Jia Jia and Bragon
Lady Jia Jia and Bragon

Our first stop was Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, a large hill with a lot of manicured land and pretty flowers, but not much on the tombiness. Turns out that the tomb is buried beneath the hill, and scientists and archeologists want to do things right for a change. They are waiting an estimated 20 more years before they dig into the hill in order to preserve the integrity of the artifacts inside. Legend says that the tomb is surrounded by a mercury mote, and science has recently picked up readings that suggest it’s not just a legend. Why 20 years? I don’t know. They’re banking on better technology then. I’m happy to hear they want to go about it the right way, but it was a bit of a bummer only walking around a glorified hill.

Also, once there Jia Jia insisted on taking some pictures for my friend and me.

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Then we hit the three pits backwards, working our way up to Pit one, the best one.

In three not much of the soldiers are visible since the archeologists are still working on them, but there are broken remains scattered about in the places that have been excavated. The majority of pit three is comprised of ancient earth and stone that have been packed and compressed by time into a wavy terrain that looks a bit like a mud pool was frozen with brown waves at the surface.

Jia Jia asked us if we knew why the terrain looked that way—wavy. No one did. The group crowded around her, but I was hanging around in the back, kinda checking out the area and looking over the railing. So I almost missed her calling for me.

Even though I was literally the farthest away from her she asked if I could assist her with her explanation. I pushed my way through the group and she asked to see my left hand. She directed me with her fingers to open my palm. She explained that the soldiers had all been lined up in rows that looked similar to the way your fingers do when your palm is opened flat. After the emperor kicked the bucket other armies broke into the tomb and ransacked the place. They stole the real bronze weapons the clay soldiers held and then burned down the wooden roof that covered the tomb, sealing the army beneath the ashen remains. Over time they were buried deeper and deeper, but because of the way they were lined up, the waves were formed.

Cool story, but why couldn’t she have used her own hand?

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We carried on, taking pics and soaking up the sights. The Terra Cotta Soldiers were only discovered in 1973 when a man digging for a well stumbled upon this guy, the kneeling archer. He’s the one who started it all. He also still has some of the original painting on his butt.

Mr. Archer...
Mr. Archer…

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A man and his horse...Touching tale of equestrian love and pottery.
A man and his horse…Touching tale of equestrian love and pottery.

In the second pit I noticed my friend’s expression. She didn’t seem impressed one bit, so I asked about it. “I don’t think they’re real,” she said.

“What are you talking about? Of course they’re real.”

“No. There are no guards. Look at the floor there.” She pointed out that the floor beneath the spots excavated seemed too even, too precise. “And how do they know where to dig? If there are still people working on these where are the tools and equipment?”

I countered her as best I could, but she was unconvinced even through to the number one pit. In fact, we kept going back and forth, gradually getting more heated. She believed that they were once real, but that all the stuff we were seeing were replicas. The government had hidden away the real ones to protect them.

Finally, once inside the first pit we did get a glimpse of tools being used to unearth the army, and we saw evidence (or well-placed decoys) of on-going archeological pursuits. She seemed a bit more convinced once we were staring at rows and rows of the world-famous clay statues, but still not wholly sold on their authenticity. And by the end of it, I was starting to see that she might not have been so crazy. For a Chinese person to say that about a famous historical Chinese sight shows a level of cynicism I was unprepared for, but her stubborn conviction began to wear on me.

I’d like to think that the soldiers we saw were the real McCoy, that China isn’t puling a fast one, but who rightly knows…

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After the pits the group voted on a place to eat. We got there and the food was already prepared, Chinese style. Chinese style includes setting a dozen communal dishes on a spinning table and turning it around and plucking what you want from them. A few of the group members who’d been in China a bit were comfortable with this method of eating, but some weren’t. Either way, the food was great.

As we ate we all talked. Everyone there had a different story. Traveling on business, holiday, passing through on to somewhere else, living and working in China…We shared travel experiences and made recommendations, compared info and even exchanged some contact numbers. After a good meal and good conversation Jia Jia stood up and asked everyone if they’d had had a good time. Greeted by an affirmative answer, Lady Jia Jia smiled and told us how happy she was to have been with us that day and that she hoped we had a great rest of our travels. Then she asked, “Where’s Jordan?”

Hesitantly, I raised my hand and said, “Here,” as though checking in for roll call. In front of everyone she pulled out a three inch tall Terra Cotta Soldier and handed it to me, saying simply, “This is a gift for you.” I accepted the little soldier gladly, but could feel the eyes (and maybe judgment?) of the other group members as I held it. The thing looked much older than the few I had bought in Xi’an for souvenirs and I instantly liked it, even though the condition under which I came to possess it seemed a bit strange.

The ride back to the hostel was one filled with speculation over Jia Jia’s motives, and me trying to defuse my friend’s annoyance. In the end, I just had to laugh it all off. People climbed out of the van when we arrived, and my friend and I grabbed some grub, cleaned up, and then headed back out to see Da Yan Ta, The Wild Goose Pagoda (I spent the majority of the night referring to it as “Da Ya Jia” Big Duck House. I even made a song to go along with it and sang it in Chinese. Yup.).

We hopped on a bus and got there in the early evening. It’s positioned about 20 minutes away from the hostel, so we thought it wouldn’t be too late. We were wrong. Once we got there and strolled along the park that’s sprung up around the pagoda the place was already closed. We didn’t let that bum us out, though. Instead, we just found a place to chill out and people watch, the pagoda always in the background with lights illuminating it. People from all over China were walkin’ along the sidewalks and through the park. We tried to guess which provinces some were from, but it isn’t easy, even for a Chinese person. A common physiological trait I’ve come to notice is the proportionally correct torso and slightly shorter legs. This can be seen on both men and women, but it’s more noticeable on the women…at least for me.

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Da Ya Jia at night...the big duck is lurking through the corridors...waiting...waiting...
Da Ya Jia at night…the big duck is lurking through the corridors…waiting…waiting…

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I sort of lost myself in the peoplegazing until it was completely dark out, and we both realized we were exhausted. We made our way back to where we thought the bus stop was, but with no luck. We ended up walking around for about twenty-five minutes before we managed to find a bus. By the time we did make it back to the hostel I could barely hold a conversation. Maybe it was the excitement of travel, lack of sleep, air, whatever—I needed sleep.

Because tomorrow we were going to climb Mount Hua Shan.

Class Photos

SK1, Each of the kids got a chance to take a picture, so in each shot one of them is missing.

I wanted to put a few more pictures up with a few of my students. This group of shots is from this weekend. Three classes: SK1, SK4 a, and SK4 b. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but every teacher knows that’s just not practical. These kids are definitely some of my favorites!

Just goofin’ around…
SK4, Just chillin’…
Betty helping Aiden and Jeniffer.
Lily and Aiden kept trying to cover my face in each of these shots.
Betty with the little runts. I do love these kids.
Tom tried to cover my face…again….But I managed to outsmart the eight year old.
Seriously…one of my favorite classes I’ve taught here at Jayland this year.
Will and Sophia…My other SK4 class. These two boogers are “hen congming” (Very smart! *In Pin Yin*)
He slowly slipped all the way off and eventually just collapsed on the floor…Haha…He’s a goof.
We’re missing a few of our usual students, but we still make it work.
I think Sophia is trying to eat me here….?

Activities At Jayland

Our May Activity: A Picnic in Tong Niu Ling. We had two big groups spread out playing games, snacking on chips, and learning to make Peanut Butter and Jelly! A lot of parents showed up, so it was a big crowd. Weather was nice, the kids weren’t too crazy, and most people had smiles. Good day.

It’s been a while since I posted some pictures, so here are a handful. Enjoy.

Joyce explaining the intricacies of peanut butter spreading.

A few of my students with Betty. I swear they were smiling before and after this picture!
Noelle with her Orin
An August Summer Camp Activity
Lemonade Stand!
They sold out of the lemonade in like thirty minutes!
She never smiles!!!! One of my SK4 students.
Debriefing.
Erika’s going away dinner. She’s back in Canada now, but not for long. She’s heading to France for a year!
This is our, “too cool to look at the camera Album cover group shot.”