Farewell China

Today was my last full day in China, and what a beautiful day. Perfectly clear, a bit of breeze, and maybe 80ish outside. Made for strolling, which is exactly what I did, through the beautiful French Concession area of Shanghai.

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If the Bund is where the British were, the Concession is where the French rebuilt Paris in Asia. The area is eerily reminiscent of France. With great shade trees lining wide streets, gated villas, and stately French architecture everywhere. I mainly felt like I was back in southern France, in Aix. Same exact feel, and nearly identical type of weather. A stroll in this area is truly a must do, and makes for some excellent people watching. Everyone just going about their business, all the while with bicycles slowly going by.

The French Concession really is all about walking and observing, and is supremely beautiful, almost too beautiful. What I mean by this is that you honestly lose touch with where you are, and, like at the Bund, can suddenly swear you are in Europe. It is a replication. Designer shops everywhere, eateries everywhere, high end and more high end. Not that this isn’t nice, for a while. But one thing I have really noticed in Shanghai is that most people, the normal, everyday Chinese, do not really live like this.

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A great case in point in that nothing is ever busy is the posh parts of town. I honestly think a lot of businesses never see a customer the entire day. A true image I will take back with me is the empty, ritzy stores with some poor person sitting, bored out of their mind all day. I can back this up even more because I have gone in these stores, and it’s like the person awakes from the dead, and is so happy there’s a person in the store. It’s not that they want you to buy something per see. I honestly think they are just so grateful to have something to do.

So, Shanghai is supremely beautiful. A wealthy, posh place full of every imaginable comfort. Geared towards luxury and pleasure. But, for the traveler, quite frankly a pretty boring place. I need some more rough-edges, some nasty smells, some challenges. It’s just too nice here, and that leaves me unaware of the underbelly that makes for the best travel. I find that you really only come to appreciate places when you see the grit and grime and nastiness… these are the things, oddly, that are the most beautiful. The side-streets, the dirty alleys, the people living honestly. The smells and chaos and weirdness and beauty. Things that are too nice are hiding something, and that’s a shame for the traveler (though not perhaps for the tourist).

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This was awesome. An older woman writing on the sidewalk with water!

But, all in all, I can’t complain, though it might sound like I am. Shanghai is a wonderful city, and I have loved being here. It is the future of China, and I would definitely come back. We just can’t lose sight of the ancient, the old, the nasty, the unclean, in that relentless march forward. For me at least, that would be a great, great shame…

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Around Shanghai

Shanghai is a great place to end this trip because it really rounds out my view of China. Beijing is the massive, ancient capital, Xi’an is the cradle of all Chinese civilization, and Shanghai is the modern metropolis, the New York of China. I’ve seen the ancient, and now I see the present, and all of the extreme modernity of the country.

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And so far, Shanghai is an accessible, easy to navigate place. In fact, it is really the only city that I have been able to completely walk, without at all relying on taxis. This is nice, and I think the best way to get around. What I am also enjoying about Shanghai is that it really feels like you are in Europe, or at least London and England.

I say this because Shanghai was once a true colonial city, and the British basically rebuilt England along the stretch of the Huangpu River that cuts right through Shanghai. If you were jut suddenly dropped here, I think you could easily believe that you were in London, not Asia. The buildings look English, the streets are cobble-stone, and inside the buildings you’d even feel like you were in a London hotel. A true nice change of pace from all of the ancient architecture I’ve been exposed to for these last 2 weeks.

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But, Shanghai is also one of those “one off” cities, meaning that you can pretty much see what there is to see in a day or so. There isn’t any huge, massive sight, except perhaps walking up the Bund, or the promenade by the river, seeing the colonial architecture, and going into the excellent Shanghai Museum, which is one of the easiest, most accessible museums I have ever been in. Besides that, Shanghai is more of a sight in-itself, just seeing the modernity and consumerism, and endless shopping that goes on. Sitting and watching the city for a couple of hours is maybe the best way to take it in.

Overall, it is a nice ending, a big, comfortable city, fun to just walk, and so far keeping up with the excellent food I have had this entire time. Tomorrow is my last full day, and I am off to see the French part of town.

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Pagodas and Museums in Xian

Today was a day of museums, pagodas, and street-walking in South Xi’an. I started at the Shaanxi History Museum, which, although small, has one of the best collections in all of China. And, unlike the massive, unwieldy National Museum in Beijing, you can actually make it through the collection in an easy hour or two. One thing that also makes museums in China efficient and straightforward is that they are always arranged chronologically. You just walk through all of the dynasties, room-by-room. I for one find this nice.

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After Shaanxi, I strolled the streets towards the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, which is maybe 3 or 4 blocks away. I have really come to enjoy just walking and observing what goes on in the streets. You can really get a sense for a place this way, and how people live on a daily basis. Once at the Goose Pagoda, I wandered around the complex, especially admiring its great pagoda. This is the first one I have seen so far in China, and I am learning that the pagoda style mimics what travelers in ancient China saw in India when they themselves traveled. They brought this back, along with Buddhism, which you also see a lot of in Xi’an. This makes sense, since it is best known as being a cultural crossroad.

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Such fitting but forgotten words in our current world…

From the Wild Goose, a long walk brought me back to my hotel, and I took in some great street scenes along the way, especially traffic navigation. It looks and sounds insane and crazy, but there truly is a method to the madness, and is almost hypnotic to watch. It all somehow works out.

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My final stop was the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, and the attached Xi’an Museum. No joke, there really is a Small and Giant Wild Goose Pagoda! And this one, although smaller, I think is the best of two. It is far quainter and quieter, and the museum is great. It has some excellent statues of Buddha that are not sealed off behind glass. You can really get up close and stare.

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So ends my last day in Xi’an, and tomorrow I fly off for the last leg of this trip in Shanghai.

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The Terracotta Warriors

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My first official day in Xi’an started with an early morning out to the most famous sight in this area, and really the whole reason people come: the Terracotta Warriors. It’s actually surprising how this is at least an hour out of town, but the drive, once you leave the city, is nice. Farmland and open fields. It was actually a farmer who found the great horde of warriors back in the 70s by accident.

The Terracotta Warriors themselves are important and cool because the complex is absolutely massive. There’s just thousands and thousands of them in 3 main pits, with each pit itself huge and deep. This was the burial army for China’s first great emperor, Qin Shihuang, who united the country, and started the Great Wall thousands of years ago. This army stands guard, and his mausoleum is nearby.

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What’s also awesome, and is really the main reason I came all the way out to the middle of China, is that nearly every single warrior is unique. With a unique look, stance, job, face, dress, etc. That’s mind-boggling to show all of this individuality that long ago, and then for them to have survived this long, all in their original place. It really is fascinating, and a great feeling to have at least seen all of them, face-to-face.

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My driver and I made it back into Xi’an itself around noon, and I spent the rest of the day exploring this historic city on foot. As I’ve been thinking about it, Xi’an was once a lot like New York City: a huge place where people and cultures mixed, and that sat at the great center of things. During the Tang Dynasty, Xi’an was also a thriving place for the arts. It’s where diverse people and ideas mingled, and where great things happened. And you can see this throughout the city.

The City Walls themselves are pretty cool, and I took a walk along them to get a better sense for the old city. But the brutal heat made a full circuit foolish, and I came down to escape into the shade of Xi’an’s streets.

The best was the Muslim Quarter around the Drum and Bell Towers. This is the first time I have ever seen Chinese Muslims, and it goes to show how diverse this area is, and accepting. The Quarter itself has an absolutely wonderful market that goes on and on for blocks, and it was a nice place to shop and just observe all of things going on. The madness of a market is a great thing, as are the pungent smells.

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The rest of the day was spent cooling down indoors, which is especially easy in my wonderful hotel, the Grand Park. It’s rest next to the wall, and just extremely cozy, comfortable, and with plenty of great food! A perfect sanctuary in the middle of Xi’an.

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Last Images of Beijing

Today was a day of wandering around Beijing, picking up a few more sights, and taking a few photos. They say it best:

The view of the hotel, and the street it is on. A nice area to explore.

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Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, where he rests embalmed inside. Also in Tiananmen Square.

Then the truly massive National Museum of China. Inside it is a huge, huge place! In the bottom of the Museum is the Ancient China exhibit.

After the Museum, here’s a final shot of Tiananmen, from the actual Gate that looks out over the Square, with a side street en route back to the hotel.

And… a final noodles and rice.

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Tomorrow I’m off to Xi’an.

The Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace

Another day out with Mr. Wang, and this time we were off for two key sights in Beijing: the wonderful Temple of Heaven and the huge Summer Palace, which is maybe 30 minutes outside of town. Of these two, I thought the Temple of Heaven was the best. It is situated in a beautiful park, and is a place where a lot of locals spend time. Some were playing tennis, and, down one long walk, older people were having intense games of cards and chess.

The highlight of the Temple is the Good Prayers for the Harvest Hall, a huge central temple where the emperor would regularly come to give blessings both to the empire as a whole, and to the upcoming crops for the year. It is set on the top of 3 marble slaps, like at the Forbidden City. I am starting to realize that in China being set up on these slabs means something is very special and important. Inside the Hall itself a large number of birds were flying around. The park surrounding the main hall was also a great place to walk, full of ancient trees, tall grasses, and in general a lovely setting where you could easily spend most of the day.

After the Temple, we raced out to the edge of Beijing to take in the Summer Palace, which is exactly like Versailles in France. A retreat for royalty in a beautiful setting. The Palace itself is set around Lake Kunming, and has tons of different bridges, buildings, and temples surrounding it. The bridges especially were beautiful, mainly because they were unusual in appearance. The arches were tall and exaggerated, with one incredibly short, but really high up in the air.

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The other great part about the Palace was Longevity Hill, which dominates the Lake, and is topped with a grand temple that you can only reach by climbing a set of really steep stairs. It is a bit of a tough climb, but the views back out over the area are worth it.

After the Palace, I returned back to Beijing, and am enjoying another nice evening over some tea and dumplings. With the heat so intense, by around noon it’s best to have most of the sight-seeing done, and you can just relax in a nice cool spot and people watch.

Burning Incense in Beijing

Today was all about exploring north Beijing, or the north Dongcheng area. This started with the trusty Mr. Wang picking me up promptly at 8 and driving like a mad man through the Beijing traffic. We always make good time, though, and since it was a brutal, sweltering day, having AC in the car made it not really that bad at all.

Our first stop was the Lama Temple, which is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples in China. What made this a truly unforgettable experience is that I arrived right when they opened, and rushed in with a horde of locals for an incense burning and chanting by the monks. This was a marvelous, surreal experience. Incense floating through the air, the smell of fire and smoke, people praying and bowing, while, off in the distance, deep chanting coming from a temple. Patient drums beat as well, and it was easy to get caught up in the feeling of it all. You never really understand a temple until you see it in use.

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Right across the street from the Lama Temple, over a street smelling of raw sewage, is the Confucius Temple and School. This is a wonderfully shaded, beautiful place that is I think most remarkable because of the giant rock steles, or pillars, with the names of the people who passed the official government examinations. This goes back for centuries, and it was cool to think how important it was to pass a test. A permanent honors list.

The rest of the day was spent at what in China is called a hutong, which is a traditional, winding street filled with all sorts of shops. It’s a refreshing break from the heat, and a great place to wander. I also dropped by the Drum and Bell Towers, which is just up from the Forbidden City, and actually the perfect line that cuts through the Palace is here as well. Remarkable, and it goes to show you how perfectly designed the imperial city is.

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I’m learning, though, that the best way to spend an afternoon and evening in hot Beijing is reading over a tea, and then eating a big bowl of noodles and some dumplings. It is a great, great thing, and I can now more fully appreciate why Anthony Bourdain would be happy to die after eating a big bowl of broth and noodles in Asia! Beijing has awesome food!

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The Great Wall at Mutianyu

Today was an exciting day, and opened with a nice drive outside of Beijing to the Mutianyu stretch of the Great Wall. This takes about 2 hours. And, once you leave the city, I thought it became very nice. Open fields, greenhouses with trees and flowers, and, as you get closer to the Wall, the mountains creep up, and trees are everywhere. My driver, a nice old man named Mr. Wang, added to the enjoyment of this, with his terrifying speed at times, but also his ability to always avoid a horrible death!

I specifically decided on this part of the Wall because it is still relatively quiet and underdeveloped, especially if you go in the early morning, before the tourist hordes come. I think we got there at around 9:30ish, and I was pretty much alone on the Wall. The way up itself was nice – you take a gondola to the top, which drops you within walking distance of this very steep portion of the Wall.

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In fact, from a distance, the Wall looks downright terrifying to walk. The path twists up at an almost unnatural slant, shooting straight up a cliff-side. But, what’s interesting is how this is all so deceptive. Yes, it is steep at times, but the more you walk the more the terror of the steepness goes away, and you realize that the angle is fitting given your environment. It makes sense that, being a defensive wall, it is more intimidating to those not yet on it, rather than those walking along it.

There are also other little details that I think you only can notice and appreciate if you are actually here at the Wall. There were a lot of butterflies I noticed, white ones in pairs. Every now and then they would fly across your path. Also noticeable is the wonderful smells coming off the trees that branch over the Wall at times. And, the great watch towers, and how some are very big inside, with arches, and steep ladders that you have to climb on either up to the roof, or even to get back on the path. I also for one enjoyed the great views, and especially the ruggedness of the mountain range. It really is imposing, and offers such sweeping views over the entire countryside.

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I ultimately made it half way up that massive climb up the cliff in the distance, and had to turn around in order to make it back in time to have Mr. Wang drive me back to Beijing in the afternoon. It has slowly turned rainy and cloudy, which is nice because it has been so hot.

Tomorrow I stick in town, with Mr. Wang again picking me up in the morning.

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The Forbidden City

I rolled into Beijing yesterday with I think only like 3 hours of sleep for the last 2 days. Everything is a haze of extreme fatigue, traffic, a gray, cloudy day, and then just blackness until early morning. I discovered when I woke up that my room has a great view of downtown Beijing, which is good and cool.

Because I went to sleep so early last night, I woke up at 6 in the morning, and set off for a long day of walking and in general getting oriented to the city. My hotel is maybe just a 30 minute walk to Tiananmen Square and the entrance to the Forbidden City, all down a nice, tree-lined and incredibly wide avenue. I discovered as well that walking isn’t all that bad. In some Asian countries, you sometimes take your life into your own hands crossing the street, but the Chinese seem to actually follow walking lights. It was all very orderly and efficient, although I still always walk with a group of locals across big streets, preferably old women with shopping carts. This is always safer. I mean no one’s going to run down an old woman, right?

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While I was walking it is also very noticeable how security becomes tighter and tighter the closer you get to Tiananmen. All roads once you hit this area are completely blockaded in, and you are left in a little sidewalk trap where you are funneled ahead with everyone else through maybe something like 3 different security checks. It all seemed pretty harmless and non-invasive to me, though, and I never really felt all that bothered by it. You just have to submit to it all, and move on.

How to actually describe the Forbidden City? The first thing you have to understand is that you walk endlessly. I think I covered like 6-7 miles today all told, back and forth to my hotel. And most of this is walking through massive, massive squares and huge open areas dotted with beautiful halls in the middle. In fact, I would say that most of the Forbidden City is empty spaces with wonderful views. But by this I don’t mean to take away from the incredibleness of being there. You’re just surprised by how vast everything is, and how you just walk and walk and walk… but I guess this is the point.

The actual Forbidden City itself is primarily an engineering masterpiece. The entire palace is perfectly designed, almost too perfectly arranged. Down the very center of the complex, and then out onto Tiananmen, there is a straight line of white marble, which was reserved for the emperor. It’s a wonderful sight to see this line going on and on. Then, adding to this perfection are 2 massive areas, both of which mimic a design of 3 primary halls. These halls, as far as I could understand, revolve around perfection and harmony of some kind or another, both on earth and on heaven. This central grid structures the entire place.

What I found most interesting, though, about the Forbidden City were the smaller, quainter palaces branching off to the sides of the center. You could tell this was where the imperial family actually lived, and this really was the only place in the City that actually felt livable and comfortable. Everything else was cold and just meant to display power.

I wandered around the Forbidden City for nearly the entire day, before leaving and walking around Tiananmen Square, which is basically just a huge open space that has great views out back towards the Forbidden City. It’s like standing in a massive football field in the scorching sun. After this, I began my walk back to my hotel, and, as I always do, realized how the true heart of a city, I think, is in the places a bit off the main drags. I love those scenes of ordinary life you catch glimpses of in passing. Like people eating, walking their dogs, or just passing the time on a bench. It makes you realize how we are all so similar, just living life one day at a time.

A good start to Beijing today… tomorrow I’m off on a hike around a less known part of the Great Wall.

Boxes and Batteries

Matthew Henningsen's The Literary Doc

On a bus in a deep Asian jungle,
Full of rain and wet,
I thought of a time when I
Held my memories in my hand,
Squeezing them and squeezing them…
So alive.

I thought of a box with a lid
Cracked open, a gap where we see
Time walked in parks, hands held in
The fading light of a distant day. Hollow
Trees on campus greens, places where
Gold was hidden. Moments so
Fragile, like plates thrown into
The air, suspended.

People I wave at, smiling.
I knew them once.

Yes – a kiss hurled by the hand,
Like a football toss in a game. Looks
Before lights dim, glimpses and
Memories trapped, sealed in a box I
Hold under my arms on days when views
From cars mingle with my mind, and
I’m taken from jungles to dry moments when
People waved, and I waved back.

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