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.
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.
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.
And just two weeks ago we took a week long trip to Tibet. I’ll write about that soon enough…
The other day someone asked me six different questions about being here, my work, and just what I thought….I decided to post my article on here as well.
I’ve also posted this in the “What you need to know” section of my blog because I think it fits there nicely.
My name is Jordan and I’m from Ohio, but for nearly two years I’ve been calling Dalian, China my home. I came over here with the expectation of staying for one year before returning home and getting an “adult” job. One and done, that’s what I kept telling myself, but before long that mantra became like a propaganda tactic that I really didn’t need or want to listen to. When my one year contract came to a close, I decided to stick around another six months. My coworkers were excited, and my supervisors didn’t need to replace a Western teacher (an arduous process here). So I settled back in and enjoyed the time.
I absolutely loved the training school I worked in for the first year and a half—the other teachers, the Chinese staff, the students, and even the building had a unique appeal to it that I will never forget. I enjoyed the walk into work on the nice days, and the convenience of my apartment’s central location. Dalian proper is definitely an urban setting with all the pros and cons of one. You’ve got access to just about any kind of cuisine, attractions, shopping, good public transportation, and parks. You also get great big whiffs of exhaust from all the traffic, the grit and grime of a city getting over populated, and the general chaos associated with a metropolis on the rise. But I don’t live in the actual Dalian city.
Dalian’s Development Zone, or Kaifaqu, is a twenty minute Light Rail Train ride north of the city, and has a much slower, almost quasi-urban-suburban feel to it. I love it. Everything I need is within walking distance, but for those lazy moments the ubiquitous taxi or bus is always available, too. While still technically a part of Dalian, Kaifaqu has its own aura. Seriously. Stationed so close to the coast, there’s always a sea breeze to cool you down, and though the beach is rocky, there’s plenty of swimming in the summer. When I first got here I wandered around, a lot. I took walks almost every evening, just to get a good look at the place. I walked at all hours, usually by my self even though a few coworkers chastised me for doing so at late hours. Even with their warnings, I felt safe. I still feel safer here than I did in my home town.
In the summer, when the heat is too much and you don’t want the stony beach of Kaifaqu, Golden Pebble Beach to the north is the place to go. Just a fifteen minute Light Rail Train away is the “ritzy” side of Dalian. All of Dalian has a large amount of foreigners from all around the world working with many different companies, but in Golden Pebble Beach there are a lot of North American teachers of all disciplines. Two international schools with great reputations entice them to stay a few years, but the area also has a few other cool features. There’s a nice beach, an amusement park, and it’s one of the only places you can escape the curse of one of China’s most well-known idioms—People, mountain, people, sea (ren shan ren hai). The crowds haven’t quite made it up there, but in a few years we’ll see. Plans to move Kaifaqu’s center closer to Golden Pebble Beach have been put into motion, and China loves construction.
My certification as a Secondary Integrated Language Arts teacher has come in quite handy, and is really the big reason I’ve been able to seek other employment opportunities in the area. To get here, however, you don’t necessarily need anything but a Bachelors degree. China has been making it hard to get over here for anything more than tourism, but it is possible. Get your degree, passport, and jump online and start applying. I went through Footprints Recruiting, and they worked as a liaison between me and the first school I worked at. Not only that, but their website www.footprintsrecruiting.com and their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/FootprintsRecruiting have a wealth of information about China and other areas around the world that regularly have postings for teachers. Going through an agency like Footprints put me in contact with a trustworthy school in the smoothest way possible.
Though I hold credentials for the high school English classroom, the majority of my students the first year were under the age of twelve. At first I wondered if I had what it took to be in that age range, but after just a few classes my hesitancy fell to the wayside. Learners here are a different breed of student, and for the most part that actually works to a new teacher’s benefit. Respect for elders, the desire to earn the teacher’s praise, and their peers’ admiration are three elements I’ve noticed that sort of collude to make the classroom a politely controlled and often hassle-free space. I had to design classes around asking questions just to get them to raise their hands and let me know what they were thinking! Once they get to know you, though, it’s anybody’s guess how they’re going to behave. I have kids hug me, poke me, try to use qigong to (play) fight me, and ask me to throw them into the air between classes or when we have a break. They like to give gifts, and it was only after a few stomachaches and colds that I realized I needed to stop accepting the damp cookies and candies they were handing me with their dirty hands.
I’ve gotten to teach some memorable lessons, including one about Mexican food like tacos. At the end of the unit about Mexico, I decided to have the class make tacos for real. I readied the ingredients: lettuce, tomatoes, tortillas, cheese, olives, and I even fried up some beef. After teaching the vocabulary and the instructions for the receipt we dug in and made them. We snapped photos and the kids had a good time putting their tacos together, but not all of them grasped the concept of how to eatthem. Some students nibbled on the very top of the tortilla where there’s no filling at all while others munched on the middle of the bottom. The ladder resulted in a few messes as the filling just spilled out! Still, others placed the taco on a plate and used a fork and butter knife to cut into it. I let them play around until finally I showed them the right way to eat them. After that, we all enjoyed our tacos the right way.
My time here has been filled with experiences like that, some inside the classroom and many outside. The clash of the cultures isn’t so much a clash as it is a constant blending that a lot of the times results in humorous misunderstandings and always something learned. Everyone will have a different experience, though. No two are ever the same, and the location will affect this in a multitude of ways. Depending on what province or city you’re in, China will present you with plenty of opportunities to make your own stories.
During my time here I’ve gotten to see a handful of pretty cool places. I’ve visited Beijing and seen the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors, and even Luoyang and the Longmen Grottoes. Natural sights such as sacred Hua Mountain and the beautiful scenery of Guilin and Yangshuo are fantastic, too. Even old Song Mountain where the Shaolin Temple has stood for hundreds of years is a wonderful destination. But if you’re going to live in China, I truly believe that Dalian, and even more, Kaifaqu, is one of the best places you can be. Dalian is a young city by Chinese standards, but it has an interesting history, great parks to see, a nice zoo, some beaches, a lot of job opportunities, some friendly and open people, and I would recommend this coastal city to anyone. No matter where you go, people will always want to get out, to travel. I talk with people all the time here who just want to see different areas of China. They don’t know why I like it here so much, but I tell them that one man’s back yard is another man’s adventure. And I’m still having a great time.
Getting the qualifications and choosing a destination are two big steps to moving abroad, but I would offer a few pieces of advice if you’re looking to take the plunge for an extended period. Before going to a country check out their internet set up. Is it monitored a lot? Get a VPN (Virtual Private Network). This can be the thing that saves your soul, or at the very least allows you to get accurate world news. There are plenty of options available to people for this kind of service.
My second piece of advice is, that even before you arrive, cultivate a habit of observation. Read about the country you’re going to. Do research. Then when you get there just watch and listen. A lot. Do a lot of observing with all your senses, and just try to refrain from passing judgments of any kind. This is a much harder task than you’d imagine, but I challenge you to do it. I’ve heard a ton of foreigners here complaining about one thing or another, but many of them haven’t been here more than three months. Don’t get me wrong, some of the complaints are valid, but certainly their day would improve if they spent the time trying to understand what confused them instead of immediately venting about it. The reward for this? Understanding, awareness, changed or improved perspectives, and you could quite easily make a bunch more friends by being willing to learn all the angles to this new culture in which you find yourself.
Developing and maintaining a sense of humor is paramount. Smiling when you want to curse the world is a skill not only useful for becoming a saint, but for dealing with the other seven billion people roaming around on this Earth. Laughing at an exchange that sees you shorted 50 RMB or on the wrong side of the city at an inconvenient time is, I would argue, the most versatile and practical skill you could have in your arsenal.
I didn’t come to China to get rich; I came to learn something about the world and myself. I have succeeded in ways I could never have imagined, and I know I am not an anomaly in the abroad community. Living and learning in a place that is so different from where you used to call home has a mystifying way of altering you, changing you into something new. My last piece of advice is a fun thing that you can only do when you make a big change. By moving abroad and settling into a different place you get the unique chance to reinvent yourself. That person you’ve always wanted to be? Now’s your chance.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.