Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Hey all,

Writing now from an internet bar in Wuhu (Woohoo!), in central Anhui province. I’m here for the afternoon, waiting to change trains on my way to the Taoist holy mountain, Wudangshan.

First things first, I’ve finally got some pictures up! I have hundreds more, but I’ve found that uploading images to American servers from Chinese internet cafes is extremely slow, so I have to pick and choose the best to upload. Once I get back to Beijing, I’ll get every one of them stored on my Facebook page and link back to them here.

My time in Huangshan was interesting. I made a couple mistakes early on that limited my experience a bit, but learned a good deal in return. First, I decided to go up and down the mountain in one day. Biggest mistake of the trip so far. I only got a few hours up on the summit and didn’t see half of the things I wanted to. Regardless, the hike was beautiful; everything people say about Huangshan’s otherworldy terrain is totally true. I’ve posted a couple pictures to give you the idea, but the experience of being surrounded on all sides by totally vertical, razor sharp ridges that descend into mist, and climbing up pathways bordered by bamboo forests on both sides is a really special thing; one that pictures can’t do justice to.

It was a good time to do some personal reflection as well, once I got away from the throngs of gawking Chinese tourists (I love them, I really do. It’s just that by the 30th time you hear “Laowai! Hellooooo!” yelled at you, it’s started to get old). If you get off the beaten path a bit, you can go for an hour and not see a soul. That got me thinking about some things, which I’ll cover in a bit.

Second mistake I made was a good learning experience. Once I got off the mountain and exhausted my main goal for this leg of the trip, I found myself feeling listless and irritable. I couldn’t explain why. Sure, the hostel was frigid and the city I was staying in was kind of a drag, but that certainly wasn’t enough to stomp down my high from climbing the mountain.

What I found though, was that I didn’t have a group of friends to rely on in the hostel this time. Most people came to the hostel, stayed only long enough to get a bus to the mountain, and left. I couldn’t rely on a group of Chinese buddies to haul me along to some great scenic spot or bar. I had to remind myself that this trip I’m on is totally up to me to craft. Do I stay another day or not? Go to such-and-such village, or not? The initiative is on me at all times. That’s a kind of freedom I’m not used to, and it’s taken a bit of time to acclimate to.

I mentioned that I got to thinking about some deep stuff up on the mountain, and in reflection now, I see that my thoughts on the hill and my struggles of this feeling of freedom are interconnected: I’ve probably mentioned it before, but the idea that has led my life up until now is that our lives, for the most part, are what we make of them. Each of us is given a certain set of tools to work with; our education, family, and ultimately, a certain period of time before we croak. How we use what has been given to us is entirely our choice. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rice farmer in Anhui or a cube farmer in L.A., the way you rule your life is your choice. And in my mind, the key to life’s greatest goal, happiness, is found in employing those tools we’ve been given pursue what we want.

But therein lies the real kicker, huh? By and large, we have no clue what we want. Such a simple question, but so often difficult to answer. But I’ve found that once you know that you want something, you subconsciously move towards achieving that end. Just wish for it, and lo!, it is there!

Christ… and there I go waxing philosophical again. The point is: I’ve been thinking about what I want lately, and am starting to get answers. I hope that my time on Wudangshan will serve the same purpose. And at the risk of sounding totally arrogant, I hope that everyone back home has an opportunity to take some time and ask themselves the same question I’m grappling with. The results can only be good.

Sending much love back home! I’ll write again when I decide where I’m headed next.


Hope everyone’s New Year has begun well! I’m writing from my hostel in the hills of southern Anhui Province, having arrived just this morning on a night train from Suzhou. I loved Suzhou, and I can’t wait to go back once I have an opportunity. It’s a unique little city, with some of the best people I’ve met in China.

What really made my trip to Suzhou so great was not necessarily that the city is so cool (although it does have it’s charms), but that I met the most fantastic people while I was there. It all started with my hostel. I was the only Westerner in my room, but I got very close with my roommates: a late-20’s woman named Phoebe, a mid-30’s computer technician named Lao Zhang, a recent college graduate from Shandong named Wan Zhen, an International Journalism major from Guangzhou named Irene, and a Korean exchange student named Ji Young. In our few days together, I really became very close friends with them. The experience I had was what it was because of them, so the following are stories that both reflects my time in Suzhou, but who they are as well

Wan Zhen: He was practically the first person I met when I came to Suzhou, and quickly turned out to be a loyal friend despite our short time together. He’s a recent college graduate from a finance school in Shandong. He came to Suzhou to look for work, and so was staying at the hostel while looking for a job. Having been around for a while, he graciously accompanied me, Ji Young, and a friendly pair of Texan girls also staying in the hostel (on a break from teaching in Korea!) to lunch. He took us to a beautiful, two-tiered wooden restaurant ten minutes walk from our hostel where we got piping hot bowls of duck noodle soup (that’s a bowl of noodle soup with duck, not noodled duck) and hot tea, all for under $2 American.

From there, he showed us to an opera museum on a well-preserved alley that runs parallel to Suzhou’s pastoral canals. The ‘museum’ was really more of a music bar, where patrons were given tea and sat at tables before a stage where two opera performers sang pingtan opera for two hours. The best way that I can describe pingtan is a combination of Beijing Opera and ‘Prairie Home Companion’. It involves two people on stage, a man and a woman, who exchange witty, slightly combative remarks back and forth, and then break into song every once in a while. Or, at least, that’s what I picked up from it. It’s not performed in standard Mandarin, but in Suzhou’s local dialect. While beautiful, it’s almost completely undecipherable to a Mandarin-speaker, let alone a student like me. That didn’t take any of the fun away from it, though. They put on a really good show, and the atmosphere was really pleasant.

My experience with Wan Zhen made me realize, too, how loyal and generous Chinese friends can become in such a short period of time. He spent a pretty big portion of his day showing us around, despite having other chores to do that day. Good guy.

Ji Young: She’s a Korean exchange student studying in Shandong Province, a linguist prodigy, and a good friend. We actually met in Nanjing by pure happenstance. We struck up a conversation at Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum, and learned that we were both headed to Suzhou, albeit on different days. She is really a fascinating character; she’s learned English in Australia, has come to China to learn Chinese, and plans on picking up Spanish in the near future. When I asked her why she wanted to learn so many languages, her answer was only, “because I like them!” And she’s damn good at them, too. She’s learned in three months of Chinese study what I have in a year-and-a-half. We had a lot of fun strolling through some of Suzhou’s world-famous parks together, speaking Chinese. We laughed a good deal at our own conversations; we shared that language that only foreign-language students know. It’s a language that isn’t quite right, since our grammar still has so many problems, and it’s one that gleans humor from the little turns of phrase that are natural to the native speaker, but sound so strange when they roll of off foreign tongues. We’re planning on meeting once again this spring and to go to Qingdao together. She’s a good friend, and it will be nice to travel with her again.

Lao Zhang: My friend Phoebe described him aptly when she called him the RA of our dorm. He’s an older guy, a computer technician in Shanghai, but had a great, dry sense of humor. He’s the kind of guy that was quite willing to go to bed at 9pm, and laze around the hostel all day without a tinge of melancholy. Despite being so seemingly lazy and cloistered, he’s really well traveled, and gave me some great advice on where to travel once I get down south a bit. In accordance with his advice, I think I’m going to go slightly farther west than originally planned, making a brief sojourn into the minority province of Guizhou.

Irene: A pretty, stylish college senior from Guangzhou, but studying in Hong Kong, she was where the party was at. On New Year’s Eve, she took us to a fantastic bar north of the old town. It’s a refurbished, late-Qing era home, now carefully converted into a music bar. It still maintains the tall ceilings and dark, intricate woodwork characteristic of the architecture of the time, making it a real treat to visit. They also had great music, hosting a Filipino rock band to play rock classics to sound in the New Year. One of the strangest experiences I’ve had so far in China was a bar full of drunken Chinese locals and Westerners singing “Hey Jude” at the top of their ever-so-inebriated lungs in the last minutes of 2009. Irene was the source of great drama, too, telling off the band’s guitarist for dancing with another girl, and chipping in on a keg of Tsingdao for our table.

Phoebe: She was my closest friend on this trip. She was on a brief vacation from her job working HR at Microsoft in Shanghai, and came to Suzhou to see the sights. She and I went to a small town outside of Suzhou together called Tongli. It’s a very well preserved canal-town with a good number of museums and pretty scenes to relax over. One of the best parts of this day trip, however, had to be the Chinese Sex Culture Museum housed in the town. It used to be in Shanghai, but the authorities found it too risqué, and booted it a few towns over. I took few pictures within, but there is one that absolutely has to be seen to be believed. (Picture forthcoming).

We also went to the Suzhou Museum together, and she helped me realize how great classic Chinese culture really is. We strolled through the scrolls of centuries-old master calligraphy masters, and looked at the ancient jade work from the ancient state of Wu (whose capital was Suzhou). This museum was really modern, the translations were well done and accurate, and their exhibitions were very complete. It helped, too, that Phoebe acted as my “cultural interpreter” when we ran across something I didn’t get or needed elaboration. She was a valuable, loyal, fun-loving friend that I won’t forget soon.

Eh. Another really long post. Sorry to keep sending these without any pictures, but I have yet to find a computer in Huangshan that has the processing power to upload hundreds of pictures. Hopefully I’ll hit a gaming internet café tonight. I’m off to climb China’s most famous mountain, Huangshan, early tomorrow morning, so wish me luck and leg strength!


Hello from Nanjing!

I’m writing from my second day in my solo trip through China, and I couldn’t be better. It’s amazing how easy and cheap it is to do what I’m doing; my room last night was $5 American, shared with four other students from the States and Israel. The staff has been friendly and helpful, and Nanjing is an incredibly navigable city.

I think I’ve found an excellent way of traveling about. The things I’ve seen already have made the wait for my passport so very worth it. A few highlights so far:

1) Strolling through the pedestrian area around my hostel. A renovated Confucian temple sits in the middle of a bright, pretty commercialized zone in the middle of the city. Though a bit on the kitschy side, it’s really lively at night, with snack shops abound. At just one such snack shop, in fact, I had my first pig’s foot. Not bad, really, though I’m honestly not sure how much I ate is actually digestible. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Along this same strain, while walking about last night, I found a long line of twenty or so Chinese behind a soft serve ice cream machine. I asked what they were queueing up for, and, praise be!, it was FREE. Apparently some local TV station needed footage of young people eating ice cream. Kind of funny though; they were taking special care to film a certain type of person (read: adorable Chinese toddler or foreigner) and the amount of ice cream you got depended on whether you were or weren’t that kind. So I got a lot of ice cream. They practically gave me a script, too. “Now, when we give you the ice cream, you say, ‘Oh YEAH! That’s GOOD!’” I did my best to deliver. They seemed satisfied. I hope this is the first step in my long career as the token foreigner on Chinese television.

2) The Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Not as fun as getting free ice cream by any means, but certainly worth the trip. This place is really fascinating. They have a standard walk-through museum with artifacts and pictures (all of which are heart-crushingly tragic), but they’ve also built a programatic walking path that takes this visitor through a dug-up mass grave, a meditation hall, an eternal prayer flame hall, and finally out into a new “Peace Park”. This park has a 100 meter-long reflection pool, at the end of which is a 20 meter-tall pedestral with an angel of peace holding a baby and a dove. At her feet are the enormous characters 和平, and below it, the translation: PEACE.

Anyone who goes to Nanjing really needs to see this place. Though deeply depressing, it tells an oft-forgetten chapter in world history. Over 300,000 innocent civilians lost their lives in one the most brutal acts of murder and rape mankind has ever borne witness to. It tells us an uncomfortable, no, horrifying truth we ought to remember; that humankind is capable of cruelty in the extreme, regardless of who they are or when they live.

3) To decompress after the Memorial, I went to a park by the biggest lake in Nanjing, and strolled through a bright, mustard-yellow Buddhist monastery up to a hill where I could look down onto the whole city on one side, and the lake and Ming-era city walls on the other. I learned at this point that the batteries I bought for my camera are total crap; they didn’t even have enough kick to turn the thing on. This has since been rectified, so expect pictures soon!

For those worrying about me traveling alone, know that I’ve found an independent but very safe system of travel. Buying train tickets and renting high-reputation rooms on the cheap all pose no issue anymore. I will continue to update this blog every few days and let you know what I’ve been up to.

Best wishes!

I'm Off

At 10:00am yesterday, I finally got my passport back from the Public Security Bureau. At 3:00pm, I went to a local ticket office and bought a hard sleeper ticket to Nanjing for 279 kuai. At 4:00pm today, I hop on a train, and I’m off!

It was a weird feeling buying this ticket. I thought that it would be a simple task, given that I’ve had this project in preparation for months now. But despite the fact that this trip has occupied my mind continuously for the last two weeks, I still got a shock when I handed over the cash and got a ticket for the day after in return.

A couple of thoughts streaked through my head when he told me that the first ticket was for 4pm the next day:

“ohmygod, tomorrow? too soon. i still have to take care of things.”

Then my rational self kicked in: “No. No more waiting. You’re ready for this. Go.” I bought the ticket and walked out of the office, a bit dazed. It sounds like such a simple thing, I know, but actually putting a firm departure deadline was a big thing.

So there you have it. Lili’s going to see me off from the train station, which is pretty nice of her. It’s gotta be an hour and a half from her school to the station. I’ll arrive in Nanjing early at 8am Sunday morning, check into my hostel, and hit the sights!

On a totally unrelated topic, a quick blurb about Christmas in China. Christmas has become a really popular holiday here. It doesn’t have the religious connotation as much (see below), but I think it strikes a couple chords in Chinese culture, particularly among young people.

First, it’s foreign, which always adds a little something to a holiday. It’s like us celebrating Chinese New Year (good comparison, Ma). But, naturally, with that comes a ton of Christmas kitsch and terrible music in the supermarkets.

Second, it’s all about gift giving, which the Chinese love. Last night, a Chinese teacher, three locals at BeiWai, some Chinese roommates in the dorms, and several my classmates all joined in a White Elephant. This was totally new to them, but they dug right in. While they didn’t go for the stealing aspect of the event so much, they picked out the best gifts; my favorite was an old pair of prescription glasses someone didn’t want anymore. They ended up in the hands of the drunkest among us (a middle-aged housewife), who demanded that I take several pictures. They will be posted soon.

Lastly, I think it’s so popular here because of Korea. There’s a really big Christian community in Korea, and Korea has an enormous cultural influence on China. Korean television and fashion are what’s really hot among young people here. I have to imagine that the intermediate step of ‘Western’ to Korea and then to China makes it much more palatable.

I mentioned earlier that Christmas was largely framed within a non-religious perspective. I encountered a major exception two weeks ago. Lili invited me to a Christmas party held by her friends. I tagged along and took a seat as several girls went up to the stage, microphones in hand. They started singing Christian youth music. I swear, it was just like a southern Christian revival session; people raised their hands in testament of their faith, and sang about “Yesu” (sinocized ‘Jesus’). After the singing was done, a small, shy Chinese fellow got up on stage and introduced himself. I wasn’t listening much at this point, just watching the crowd from the sidelines. Suddenly his demeanor changed from a hardly noticeable middle-aged man in a black button-up to an energetic, active, well-rehearsed orator. It hit me. He was preaching. He carried on for a full hour and a half about the meaning of Christmas from a Christan standpoint, and did it pretty well from what I could make out. It was really strange to see his personal transformation on stage, as well as a whole group of Chinese people listening intently to a lengthy Christian sermon. Interesting stuff.

On that note, I wish all of you a Merry Christmas (or winter holiday of whatever religion to which you ascribe!) Expect updates from me from me soon.