Monday, July 26, 2010

Adventures in China - part 3

"You want to change the world. Travel the world and it will change you." Palmer Chinchen

The remainder of my China visit ran quite smooth. We had a day of workshops with the staff of EF and we heard from several teachers who have led many trips to various locations over the years. It was very helpful to hear details from teachers who organized and ran successful tours in their schools. I came away with a lot of great ideas and I finally feel equipped to take kids and parents to Europe and have the confidence that, even though organizing travel abroad is way more complex than it sounds, my trips with our school will be all I am hoping for.

(Here is a picture of our group - other teachers who are running programs for the first time at their schools and many of the EF staff. )

I must applaud China for their many helpful signs. Here are just a few:

If you visit Beijing you too can enjoy a little snack in the park. In America we might find signs for corn dogs or nachos, but not here.

After my exciting day at the Forbidden City, I rejoined my group for some shopping and dinner. The shopping was quite interesting.

This is Bruce. Bruce is a wild and crazy guy. He is a professor at Liberty University and one of the experienced group leaders who spoke to us during the training time. I appreciated Bruce a lot on this trip. We searched for mugs with pictures of China for Bruce to take back home. While we looked for mugs we got distracted by the local culinary treats.

Unidentified food for sale.

Identified food for sale. Several teachers on our group tried these. I was not one them.

Teachers are fun people:

We attended a very impressive Kung Fu show.

I don't really know Kung Fu.
Sometimes we weren't really sure what we were eating.

Welcome to the Temple of Heaven Park. This park is located in the heart of Beijing. It is 4 times the size of the Forbidden City - which is staggering to consider. You better be sure I kept my eyes on my guide the whole time we were here.
This park was recently featured in The Amazing Race. It was really fun to be at the same place!

We enjoyed more shopping. I know this shirt is in poor taste. But it is my story.

This is a squatty potty in China. If you ever visit China it is helpful to know in advance that this is what you will need to familiarize yourself with. Consider this a public service announcement. You're welcome.

There is a Disneyfied version of Chinese shopping. It was pretty and clean. And very expensive and caters to foreigners, primarily American.

One street down I came across this. This is where I'd rather shop any day. It was full of mostly locals and felt more authentic than the touristy version.Starbucks is truly everywhere. I'm not complaining. I was thankful for a carmel machiato. I actually bought a mug and am now officially starting a Starbucks mug collection from all over the world. Don't ask me why. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

More shopping. One of the things I really love about China is the color of their buildings.

I think this kitty is on life #9.

Here I am on the last evening with our local guide, Daniel.

The air quality is so poor. I know I mentioned this in an earlier post but I did a little research and learned that China leads the world in carbon emissions and that more than one third of the air pollution affecting California originates in China. That's shocking when you consider China is 4,000 miles from California. Part of the problem is what lies 50 miles from Beijing: the Gobi Desert. Every year the dust storms dump more than a million tons of sand on Beijing. One report I recently read claimed 700,000 people die each year in China, from simply breathing the air.
The author made a point of noting that this is roughly the population of San Francisco. I think we'd take notice if the population of San Francisco disappeared, but in China air pollution statistics are not made public.

Also, and this is just my observation, everyone smokes. Our taxi cab driver smoked, people in elevators smoke, and clearly whoever stayed in our room before we arrived, smoked.

Which brings to my next observation. You must be careful where you walk if you visit China. It appears kleenex is missing a market share here. Maybe the company should set up shop and introduce themselves. A morning in China is routinely greeted by residents purging mucus from their bodies onto the sidewalks. Some might call this spitting.

I wouldn't.

Young children do not wear diapers in China. It is common to observe them piddling or more in the street. This certainly saves landfills, but unfortunately creates other problems, mainly for tourists wishing to avoid SARS.

Truly you have to watch where you walk because between dodging the traffic, rogue cyclists, toilet training toddlers and the flying phlegm you've got your work cut out for you.

The real thrill (other than my Forbidden City experience) came when we traveled to the Great Wall.

We traveled to Mutianyu, approximately 90 minutes from Beijing, to see the Great Wall. This wall winds across China like an earthen serpent, twisting and uncoiling over rugged terrain. Impervious to mountains, it is a symbol of China's strength and isolation.
I read somewhere in a guidebook that you should avoid using a mobile phone in a thunderstorm if you're on the Great wall.

Guidebooks are helpful that way.

We took a gondola up to the Great wall.

I am so happy right now! I can't believe I am standing on this wonder of the world.
Yep - that's me. I'm happy!
Bruce is also happy! A little sweaty, but none the less happy!

There are some more of our group waving to us. This is a picture of me with my roomie - Yolanda.
I learned (after the fact) that you can take a luge down from the top of the Great wall. All I can say is I was thoroughly disappointed to not have this information when I was at the top- I would have loved to toboggan down the mountain. If you travel to the Great Wall - take the sled down - for me. Please!

One of the very interesting things I learned as I climbed several of the steps to the structures on the wall is that the steps are very uneven. Some steps are one or two feet in height and another next to it might be 4 inches. It was very strange. Our guide told us that it was a strategic move when the wall was constructed. It made it much more difficult for invaders to attack when they couldn't move quickly or determine the distance from a far. I thought that was pretty ingenious.
The Great Wall was built in the sixteenth century during the Ming Dynasty. It is believed to have been 4,500 miles long - but no one knows for certain how long it was. That is because sections of this wall are still being found today. Designed to keep the Mongols at bay, the wall was constructed by over 2 million peasants, many of whom were buried inside the wall when they happened to die during their labors. China is fond of walls. It makes sense that they would construct the greatest wall known to man. Over time the wall fell into disrepair. Neighboring villages noticed the stash of unused bricks and figured why waste something that's just sitting around and they took the bricks and used them to build shops and homes. China is not a country to waste anything.

China is an ancient, backward, and yet, often modern country.
(The Bird's Nest)

It is a land of mystery. I find the people of China to be almost as much a mystery as the land itself. Our tour guide mentioned something that I've thought about quite a bit. He said that people in China just want small lives. I have been reflecting on this for a few days now. I think what he meant was that people in China are content with their lot. And yet, the idea of wanting a small life seems so foreign. I can honestly say I would never want a small life. I want to tip my glass back and drink in all that this journey called life has to offer. Because it is a shorter journey than we realize.

And yet, I wonder at Daniel's words. Does a desire for a large life indicate a discontent spirit - one that seeks to be filled with that which can only be satisfied in something greater? or is it a desire to embrace all that God has allowed us to experience while we can? I suppose each traveler has to answer that question for himself. Maybe the answer is in where we find our contentment. Is it in the doing or the Being?

Sometimes the two are blurred and that can be a very dangerous thing.

My trip to China was amazing! I honestly wouldn't change a thing. I've mentioned the good, the bad and the ugly, but I would go back in a heartbeat. And even the uncomfortable situations taught me much about myself and reminded me to trust in the One who watches over me.

That never changes no matter where I am.

It is a marvelous thing to experience a culture so entirely different from one's own. I am left with an appreciation for China and her people that I did not have before, but I am also very appreciative of my own culture. That, I think is a remarkable gift. So for now I say good-bye to China. I hope to one day return.


Adventures in China - part 2

If you are just joining the adventure I must warn you that this is the second part of a no doubt made for t.v. miniseries - so I must insist you first read part one before venturing to this next section.

Hopefully you took my advice and are now oh so thankful you did. Fantastic edge of your seat kind of reading huh?

This section of my story picks up at the end of the Summer Palace tour and on to our next destination: Tinanmen Square.
It was 1989 and in an Orwellian scene I will never forget, I watched the tanks roll toward the student protesters gathered in Tinanmen Square to peacefully protest their government's policies. I was profoundly moved by the courage of the students. Shortly after those initial images were broadcast across the world, all reporters were escorted out of Beijing and we were left to guess the fates of those gathered in that square that day.

Tinanmen Square is the largest city square in the world. Over 1 million people could easily assemble here - if such an assembly were legal - which it is not and I would suggest against it. Also no vehicles are allowed in Tinanmen Square - tanks are okay.

Here I am standing in Tinanmen Square and if you look closely you can see the gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong hanging, oddly enough, on the Gate of Heavenly Peace - just another weird juxtaposition you'll find if you visit.

Let's talk about the Chairman for just a bit. Mao emerged on the scene in 1949. He was nothing if not ambitious and set his sites on China's global domination. One of Mao's more bizarre ideas was to order the death of every sparrow in China. Since sparrows ate grain, and Mao was big on exporting grain, this must have seemed like a fail-safe plan. Unfortunately the sudden demise of the insignificant sparrow would have catastrophic results for China. Over the course of the next three years a famine unparalleled would strike China. The nation starved like no other nation before.

Mao is perhaps most famous for his Cultural Revolution during the sixties. This sounds like an innocuous title. The cultural revolution was a revolution against the "Four Olds" - old customs, old ideas, old habits and old culture. Mao and his posse encouraged bands of teenagers to carry out his mayhem throughout China. The youths were given free reign to kill and torture anyone suspected of having the four olds. Teachers were particularly targeted. In one month alone, over 2,000 people in the city of Beijing were killed and the sadist red guard youths not only killed their teachers but ate them - in the school cafeteria. Paintings, buildings and historical monuments were destroyed throughout China.Mao is believed to be responsible for the death of over 70 million people during his reign. Hitler and Stalin look like schoolyard bullies compared to the Chairman. And yet one of the most striking things about China is that Mao is everywhere. He is on every piece of money. His picture is revered all over the city. He is probably one of history's greatest villains who attempted to destroy his own culture and yet he is still honored across the country.

(Pictures of Mao for sale in Beijing market.)

Our group headed over to the Forbidden city, conveniently located directly across the street from Tinanmen Square.

Now - there is no way to appropriately capture the scope of this compound. This is the first courtyard - there are several (not sure how many) others exactly the same. This is important information later. Remember this. In order to get to this first courtyard we walked a good ten minutes journey from the entrance. It really is a vast city.

I found the details around the city so beautiful. I had to document them.

I made my way up the stairs and got in line to view inside the palace. Personal space, a wholly unfamiliar concept in China, is one of those luxuries I quickly learned I would need to shed here. The queue is also an endangered species in this country. I thought this was isolated to waiting for transportation. But it is not. Waiting in line should be considered a contact sport in China. I was elbowed, stepped on, and muscled around all by four foot two Chinese grandmothers. I lost my waterbottle and was shoved out of position. I was not deterred, however. I decided to adopt the new country's standards and flung my elbows and shoulders out and somehow managed to move forward, although I was bypassed for awhile by some dozens of people in the melee. Lining up in China is not for the faint of heart. I managed to get to the front and snapped a very unremarkable picture of the inside of the emperor's home.

It's not really worth a mention - but after what I'd been through to get the picture - you better believe I'm posting it.

There are many side rooms throughout the Forbidden City. The Hall of Military Prowess was one of my favorite. I also thought the name was impressive.

It was approaching the time I was to gather up with my group. In the jostle to view the Emperor's throne I lost the others from my group. No worries because I knew we would all be meeting up soon.

I began walking to the meeting spot. Earlier, our local guide had pointed to an area up ahead on the left as our point of assembly. I reached the spot he pointed to but no one from my group had arrived yet. No problem, I thought. I like to be a few minutes early - and I was so I decided to wait. After about 10 minutes I began to get concerned. No one from my group was anywhere around. This was not a good sign. I decided to walk back across the courtyard and stand over near our point of entry. After standing there for several minutes I again walked back across the courtyard to the place I thought our guide had pointed to. I did this five times. Here is a picture of the courtyard:
I also neglected to mention that the heat in July in Beijing is like nothing I've ever experienced in my life - and as a kid I used to spend entire summers in Phoenix. Jim and I once traveled to Georgia to be in a wedding in August - that didn't even come close to what it was like in China.

I waited for an hour at the exit for my group. It is a remarkable thing to be completely lost in China. I would not recommend it.

When I first realized I was lost, I was mortified. How could I, a responsible teacher, learning to lead groups of students in foreign countries become lost? I was also feeling so awful for my group. I didn't want to be responsible for messing up anyone's plans or for worry on the part of my group. That was my concern the first 45 min. After that, I started to become a mite worried. By hour 3 I was pretty sure I would be sleeping out on the streets in Beijing.

After waiting for over an hour at the exit, I decided to try and walk out to the very front of the complex to see if I could think of what to do next. Oh, I should point out that I tried to talk to a security guard but they spoke no English, and I only learned a few phrases, like "thank you" in Mandarin or "Excuse me. I am not proficient in squatting, is there another toilet option?"so it was not a helpful exchange.

As I walked I considered my options. My phones (I brought two, just to be safe) would not call out. I did, thank the Lord in heaven, happen to pick up a hotel card the night before. I figured I might stand a chance of catching a taxi.

I stood under the gigantic picture of Mao. I reasoned if I were lost in New York it would make sense to make my way to a national landmark - like the Empire State Building - and wait. And I recently watched Sleepless in Seattle. I figured the picture of Mao was probably as nationalistic as you could get - maybe someone would follow my logic and find me. I was also positioned directly across from Tinanmen Square and at the entrance to the Forbidden City. While waiting I snapped this photo of China's red guards (don't know if they're still called this) marching and I was again reminded that teachers have not faired well in China in the past.

While I waited at the entrance I searched every face that passed by, hoping to see someone familiar. I was approached by a smiling Chinese man who asked in broken English if I needed something. Oh joy! Someone who shared my mother tongue! Relief poured over me and I felt a kindred affection for this kind man.

"I'm lost." I began. "I was with my group and I can't find them - we got separated, and it's been over 3 hours and I don't know what to do next. My phones won't work - stupid Verizon - and I am thinking of trying to hail a taxi but I haven't seen a single one pass by and..."

"So sorry." he interrupted. "We take picture."

I stared at him blankly for awhile. "You don't understand me?"

"Take picture?"

"No problem." I said. I mean it wasn't as if I was going anywhere.

Just then, when I thought things couldn't get any weirder, he turned to me and said,

"Thank you for visiting China."

Sure. My pleasure. Glad to do what I can.

I continued to wait with Mao for my group.

Another group of Chinese people approached me wanting a photo with the lost American. The same phrase of thanks was offered after the photo shoot.

I tried to imagine myself thanking people for visiting Wenatchee.

I decided Mao was not going to be able to assist me. I once again trudged back to the Forbidden City courtyard.

After waiting inside the courtyard by the exit, I was approached by a vendor. Vendors are everywhere. He tried to sell me a book about the Forbidden city. I declined. I was feeling a bit anxious and didn't really want a souvenir reminder of my horrific day. I also figured I might need to hang on to my money in case I never made it out of Beijing.

I must have been an oddity to him, because he came back to talk to me several minutes later. I quickly realized he had a good grasp of English. I told him my story as succinctly as possible. I showed him my hotel card and explained I needed to get back and could he help me find a taxi. There were no taxis near our area.

Then, what happened next was truly the kindness of God. The Chinese vendor got out his cell phone and let me use it - he even dialed the hotel for me. He spoke to someone at the hotel in Chinese and explained what happened to me. I got on the phone and left a message for the Ef people I was traveling with and I handed the phone to my new friend. I was patched through to my local guide who I was never so happy to hear from. He talked to my rescuer for a long time. I had no idea what they were saying. My Chinese angel hung up the phone and motioned for me to get on the back of his motorbike.

So I rode on the back of some Chinese stranger's motorcycle, weaving in and out of the Forbidden City and down back alleys. No helmets, mind you. No real seat to speak of either. The ride was thrilling. We passed a moat of some type and traveled on for a good 10 minutes.

I contemplated my bizarre situation. I can honestly say there is no circumstance I can think of in which I would jump on the back of a stranger's motorcycle in America. I also briefly considered the possibility that the man driving the bike was part of an international human smuggling ring and might hold me for ransom.

To my great relief, and I cannot stress this enough, I noticed two of my EF guides working their way over to our motorbike.

I thanked my Chinese friend and paid him some money for his kindness and his time and then I did the weirdest thing. I guess the Chinese greeting of thanks was still banging around in my head, because I heard myself say,

"America thanks you."


I blame it on the stress and heat rash.