Beijing

In the final days of my time in China (July 2018), I was able to take a quick trip to Beijing. I only had a few days, which left me quite rushed, though I made the best of it. Here are some photos.

What Beijing trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Tiananmen square? The square itself is big and empty; one feels small standing out in the open, the large buildings at it’s borders seem far away. Tiananmen’s significance, however, cannot be understated. At it’s borders are the Forbidden City, National Museum, Great Hall of the People, and Mao’s mausoleum–all central monoliths of Beijing and China. Each of those places has it’s own security to get in and out of them as is normal across China, but what stands out is the strict security even to enter Tiananmen Square’s vast empty space. Foreigners must present their passports, Chinese their national ID. One must pass through a metal detector and place any bags through scanners. The police looked at my ID much in the way any security would, and then waved me through. As I walked on, a policewoman was flipping through a notebook of a Chinese woman who stood next to her– to enter Tiananmen, Chinese nationals are given more scrutiny.

As I walked around, I imagined the thousands of students who filled the space in 1989 and the chaos and blood that filled the streets after the government soldiers and tanks rolled through. The 1989 student protest and subsequent massacre is a forbidden topic within China. Had I breached and publicly talked about it when I lived and worked there, I could have been expelled from the country.

Here is a photo from exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from a series called Study of Perspective in which he photographs a middle finger in front of many of the world’s significant landmarks.

Ai-Weiwei-Study-of-Perspective-–-Tiananmen“-1995-2010-C-Print-325-x-435-cm
From Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective, Tiananmen

Lijiang

Last week I wrote about the wonder I experienced when I visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Yunnan Province last April. During that trip I also visited nearby Lijiang, though I had less than a day to spend there before I had to be back in Mianyang. Here are some photos from that quick late afternoon to morning jaunt through the old town.

 

Witness to Creation

The gorge is a magnificent sight. Jagged peaks rise straight from the ground below, a stunning contrast in front of the white clouds and blue sky. Formed  by techtonic plates pushing up rock and millenia of wear from water and wind, the sheer faces of the peaks are unparalleled. Deep in the valley below water flows over rock emitting a constant roar, while small homes like tiny specks are swallowed by the towering mountains above. One road cut by machinery into the side of the rocks offers human visitors a fantastic and terrifying route through the gorge.

Some years ago I read writings of naturalist John Muir. One quote that stuck with me:

“One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.”

I was reminded of this when I stood in front of Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) in China’s Yunnan province this past April. The mountains formed over time are still being formed.

The two nights I spent at the gorge were among the most peaceful during the two years I lived in China. I hiked with a friend, our view of the gorge and conversations still rining in my ears though months have since passed.

“Do I have to go back to Mianyang?” I wrote at the time, referencing my home in Sichuan, and normal life of teaching. Every moment at the gorge I soaked up like a sponge, alive in the moment, yet anticipating the stress awaiting my return.

It is still the morning of creation–and for that I am ever grateful to be alive and witness to this ancient process.

 

Long Overdue Post

Apologies for the long silence on this blog. Since the last post, I have completed the last semester at Mianyang Teachers’ College and closed my service in the Peace Corps in mid-July. After a few weeks of travel, I returned to Seattle and started work at the end of August. I never intended such a long break, as there were many noteworthy happenings in the Spring and Summer. Now is the time to pick up that slack.

I last left off recounting my experience in Xi’an during the Spring Festival holiday. Below are a few photos of what Mianyang looked like during the holiday this past February. A characteristic of so many Chinese cities are LED-lit buildings that light up the night sky and accentuate drab buildings into colorful panoramas. During the Spring festival, lanterns are hung everywhere, adorning the city with red. Combined it provided a wonderful place to walk in the evening.

Traveling to Xi’an and Huashan

Xi’an(西安) is an ancient city spanning thousands of years, and was once the capital of China. Emperor Qin Shi Huang had his Terracotta Army built near Xi’an, and dates back to 246 BCE. The warriors were not found until 1974, and excavation and restoration is an ongoing project to continue for decades. Today Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi Province and a blend of ancient and modern. Since last December, the high speed rail now operates in Xi’an, thus greatly reducing the travel time from my home from 14+ hours to between 3 and 3.5 hours. I used the national holiday over the Lunar New Year to travel there (as did many thousands of others).

People Mountain People Sea

After living in China for more than a year and a half, I’m used to dealing with crowds of people, but there’s nothing like traveling when a billion people have the same holiday. The best decision was visiting the Terracotta Army on the actual New Years day, since most Chinese people will spend it with family. The crowds were noticeably lighter in the city, at least just for that one day. There’s an expression in Chinese, 人山人海, which when translated literally has become the Chinglish phrase, “People mountain people sea.” Meaning, a huge crowd of people. That sums up a lot of the experience living in China. One of the most crowded areas in Xi’an was the Muslim Quarter, because while most restaurants remained closed during the week of holiday for New Year, they were open for business. But man, was it worth it to eat some amazing food.

Nearby Xi’an, and also connected on the high speed rail, is Huashan (华山) or, Mt. Hua, one of China’s 5 sacred mountains. The panorama of its peaks are stunning, even in a bit of haze. I hiked up the trail from the west gate, a 6km path of many stone steps with a stretch of steep climbing. Because of the crowds and my two companions, we only ascended to the North Peak and then took the cable car back down. But I plan to go back–there are trails around the peaks and a dangerous side-of-the-mountain trail called the plank walk. Stay tuned, hopefully in Spring or early Summer I’ll have another shot to hike around Huashan.

Indonesia: Going Home

When I finally set foot on Indonesian soil again this past August, after nearly three years, I knew I was home again. This post describes my short 10 days in Indonesia during the latter part of August, returning to the North Sumatran province.

My first destination was Bukit Lawang, a mountain village next to the Gunung Leuser National park. Here one can find the Orangutan, or in the Indonesian language Orang Hutan which literally means Person (orang) Forest (hutan). I hired a guide, as one must do in the park, and set off on a day-long hike through the jungle. Though it was not far in distance, I saw Orang Hutan and other wildlife and enjoyed the nature around me.

I also spent time in Pematang Siantar and Balige, the two towns in North Sumatra where I taught English from 2012-2014, and spent a few days relaxing at Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake.

My time was short, but I filled it with many things. I saw old friends and made new friends; I ate my share of the amazing Indonesian and ethnic Batak food I have missed so much; I visited former students, and even popped into visit the English course of one of my former students; and I once again dipped my feet in the waters of Lake Toba.

It was like another homecoming.

I used to balk when people asked me about my favorite place I’ve traveled. There are so many amazing places that I didn’t know how to choose one. I have, however, since decided it has to be Indonesia.

My heart still lingers there.

Lake Toba is the site of a supervolcano, and was formed some 70,000 years ago after a  eruption so massive, it caused a volcanic winter.

I will always find peace there, and I’m glad I had some time there this past summer.

Summer Travel: Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Hong Kong

Summer is drawing to a close, the night air no longer drenches me in sweat and rainy days and a blanket of haze have again settled in masking the blue skies (today is a sunny exception). The fall semester is a month on, and now September has past.

It’s time to catch up on posting.

I spent some considerable time traveling this summer. For now, a smattering of pictures, hopefully I can post more of the interesting ones later.

I also traveled to Indonesia, and that will get its own post.

 

 

Taipei, Idul Fitri, and the Indonesian Migrant Community

I was lost in a sea of people. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence after one year in China and two past years in Indonesia–but this time was different. This time my physical body was in Taipei Main Station–a sprawling transportation hub connected by passageways to an underground mall–but my eyes tricked me into thinking I was back in Indonesia.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri (Eid al-fitr). Sunday June 25th, 2017 marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world. Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous nation, also has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and I just happened to be in the midst of the Indonesian community in Taiwan on this great holiday.

Walking through the station and shopping area, I felt as if I was back in Indonesia. Indonesian women in their beautifully colored and stylish hijabs passed me by the hundreds. I heard Indonesian spoken in public for the first time in nearly three years since I left the country. I even ate Indonesian food that burned my mouth the only way Indonesian cuisine can. In fact, thousands of Indonesians–men and women–gathered at the Taipei Main Station that day eating, shopping, and sitting on the floor for lack of other places.

I sat among them and listened to their stories. A woman shared with me her own story and poetry she wrote.

My reason for traveling to Taipei during my semester break was to visit a former Indonesian student of mine. After university in Indonesia, she further studied in Taipei. It was great to see how she has matured in the past few years. She is not Muslim, nevertheless sees it as important to be with her fellow Indonesians, connecting to them and sharing in this important holiday. The fact that I visited during Idul Fitri was a coincidence, but it only felt natural to take part in festivities.

I was told there are more than 250,000 Indonesian migrants in Taiwan. On Idul Fitri I saw so many women; they come usually as domestic workers, taking care of elderly and children, leaving their own families behind. The men work in Taiwan, too, in factories and as fishermen.

The Indonesians I met were as welcoming and friendly as I remember from my time there. I had my fill of food and fellowship. Unfortunately, it is not always good for the migrants, and they work very hard to have a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes with little reward. I am, however, grateful for the new friends I met and the stories I heard.

The rest of my short time in Taipei was filled with a lot of good food and experiencing various sights around Taipei. I hope someday I can return.


Hiking Up the Mountain

Last month I went with a group of students to a nearby mountain. Mianyang is in a basin, but there are many mountains in the Sichuan province. The students arranged for early transportation for the hour and a half ride to Jiuhuang Mountain (九皇山). No one had told me the scale of this mountain before I arrived. I came prepared for a hike, but not quite for this. As is common here, the mountain itself has been made accessible to non-expert climbers with kilometers of stone stairs, much of it leading straight up the mountain. For those who aren’t keen on stair climbing, there are a series of cable cars leading the way, although it is quite expensive.

About halfway up, there is a suspension bridge (called Lovers bridge) spanning across a wide gap as well as stairs that go alongside the sheer rock face. It was cloudy, and even rainy, which made for some tricky climbing. I imagine the panorama would be even more spectacular had it not been so cloudy.

This mountain also features a cave with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites lit up in a rainbow of colors.

All in all, it was an amazing day that left me exhausted.

Winter Vacation

The dreary gray and smoggy days here in Mianyang persist into March, as the new semester continues. Forthcoming posts about recent activities in the works, however in this post I take a fond look back at the warm winter vacation I spent with two of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers in three sun-filled countries: Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I returned to places I’ve been as well as experienced the new. I’d been to Bangkok before, but nevertheless enjoyed the massive city; I took a new mode of transport between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia–a speedboat, which was definitely worth it; and ventured into Vietnam, all three of us for the first time.

Below are a few of the photos. I was especially enamored with Vietnam. My time there was short, on a few days, but from the sights of Ho Chi Minh City to the food to the beach at Vung Tau–I thoroughly enjoyed it all.