Thursday, November 19, 2009

Long Weekend

It's been way too long since I've posted. It's due in part to the fact that nothing big has been going on lately, and also because I've been up to my ears in homework.

But this weekend is going to be different. We've got a three-day weekend worked into our schedule, starting tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to making the most of it. Some folks here are using the opportunity to get outside of Beijing (I have a couple of friends who are going all the way down to Sichuan!), but I'll be sticking it out in the city, trying to catch up on the things that I've missed while holed up in my room working on my characters.

I got off to a good start on this plan just today, deciding that I wanted to go see the Temple of Heaven. It was a cold, hour-long walk from the subway station to get there, but because Beijing is relatively far north, and winter is coming about, the whole city is bathed in an orange, 'sunset' kind of light from 12:00 noon onwards 'till sunset at 5:00pm. This made it a really beautiful walk by myself, especially once I got inside the park (in which sits the Temple itself).

I've gotten the pictures posted on Facebook here, so have a look. To be honest, the Temple wasn't that spectacular up close. Strangely enough, it looks much more majestic and imposing from far away. The temple isn't the only sight to see, though; its just the northern-most of a number of religious sites devoted to ancestor and deity-worship generally dating back to the early Ming Dynasty. From there, you go south to another temple complex that sits in a perfectly circular wall, rightly dubbed the "Echo Wall", because if stand at the edge of the wall and yell down it's curving length, someone far away down the wall can hear you as if you were standing right next to them!

This is about the point that I met the companions on my trip. Just like at Fragrant Hills a month or two ago, I was walking by my lonesome when I got accosted by a couple of Chinese girls who wanted to speak English with me. One of them, named Sun Li Li, is going to a university to become a tour guide. She's a freshman from Anhui province, and hasn't had much opportunity to check out Beijing's sites yet, so the three of us got to meander around the park and enjoy watching people pray at the altars. She also has a biting sense of humor and, unlike almost every other girl in China, a knowledge of sarcasm. I feel lucky to have met the two of them; we've arranged to meet up again to go to another section of the Great Wall on Saturday. I'm hoping this isn't just a very elaborate plot to steal my kidneys.

On another note, I've begun doing research on where I'd like to travel during the winter break. I worked with my program director, Ai Laoshi, on planning a route, and he gave me some fine suggestions and lent me his Lonely Planet travel book for the weekend. The tentative plan is to either:

1) Train-hop down the eastern coast of China, passing through Shandong (Confucius' home), Fujian, and occasionally hitting some of the islands off the coast until I find myself in Hainan, the "Hawaii of China"; or,

2) Go down through central China, hitting Shanxi (whose capital is Xi'an, where the terra cotta army is), then down through Henan and Hubei, taking a detour into Sichuan, and then going through Hunan (Mao Zedong's home province) and Guangxi down into Hainan.

You'll notice that Hainan is playing an important role in both plans, largely because it's getting cold here in Beijing. It doesn't get much above freezing anymore, even during the peak daylight hours. It's good, then, that two weeks ago I purchased a bona-fide People's Liberation Army winter coat! Check the Facebook photos; I look great. Really though, this thing is thick, heavy, and wonderful. Great purchase.

I'll update once I get back from my adventures this weekend. Wishing everyone well!

Monday, November 2, 2009


I got back from Pingyao, and pictures are up! A lot of similar ones have been tagged on Facebook already from my friends, but most of the pictures I host should have a story in the caption, so check 'em out.

Being in Pingyao was a really good experience. I was a little nervous that it would turn out to be kind of kitschy, given that I'd heard that it had become something of a tourist town, but it actually had a lot of merit.

First, it has one of the best old city walls anywhere in north China, partly because they were so poor during the Cultural Revolution that they didn't have enough money to tear them down like everyone else was doing. Second, Pingyao hosts the oldest draft bank in China. Sounds a little lame on paper, I suppose, but it's actually pretty sweet. One of the ways they would prevent fraud when printing bank slips was to embroider silk into the bank slip, making it really, really hard to counterfeit. I'm sure partly because of the financial success that the bank brought to town, Pingyao also hosts China's first armed escort agency, which we got to visit. There's a few pictures of us toying around with weapons the escorts were trained with, starting here. Lastly, Pingyao still has a lot of old temples, including Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian, several of which we visited during our ample free time.

Since I've gotten back, life's been relatively quiet. I'm getting a better and better rapport with my host dad. I'm deliberately making time for myself every week to cook with him at least once, if not a couple of times. We have some really good chats, and it boosts my Chinese really fast. I actually just talked with him last night about staying in this same home-stay next semester, and he was game for it, so that's got me settled with a good home next semester as well.

Yesterday, we got the season's first snow storm. My dad mentioned that it was record-setting early, so I figured it must be just one of China's weather phenomena this year. Oh the naïveté. It was seeded by the Chinese government to try and alleviate the drought that's been hitting this part of the country for the last decade. I guess I see the logic in it, but seeing as the Beijing authority doesn't turn on the heat in most homes until November 15th, I have to imagine that a lot of people are kinda chilly. I lucked out; Shushu mentioned that BeiWai has separate heating rules because so many foreigners live on campus. Don't want to give the 老外 a bad impression, I suppose.

I've also been having a music revival, lately. Why? Because all of it's free. And legal. Turns out that Google has a sweet deal with a bunch of record companies. Since piracy had become so rampant in China that no record companies were making money at all, Google approached them with a solution: provide all of their music available for download, free on a Google-hosted site, and at least come away with the advertising profit. Only caveat is that you have to be in China to be able to download. One of the very few times that China's internet users have an advantage over the rest of the world... For those who are interested, I've been on a Simon and Garfunkel kick, lately. Those guys were good.