Chengdu

The slogan for the whole of Sichuan province is “more than just pandas” in a clear nod to the area’s most famous resident and biggest draw for tourists. Wanting to put that slogan to the test, we decided to spend our first day in the province’s capital, Chengdu, seeing what else it had to offer.

To our delight, it had many, and, conveniently enough, most of those places fell within walking distance of our hostel: Chengdu Mix Hostel Backpackers. So, after a very modest breakfast of toast and instant coffee, we grabbed our umbrellas and headed out into the city, our first destination being Wenshu Monastery.

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The main hall of the monastery
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Lion faces on one of the building’s roofs
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Finding our way through the grounds

Just coming from one of the most beautiful national parks in all of China, if not the world, it was a bit disheartening being in a city again, which is why the monastery was a perfect starting point for our time in Chengdu. Upon stepping into its grounds, the noise and bustling environment of the streets and shopping districts surrounding it all but vanished into a perfectly peaceful balance of gardens and temples, offering us a much needed middle ground in our transition from the natural world to the industrial one. There were people there of course, but we seemed to be more of a bother to them than they were to us. Nothing ruins an 8 a.m. tai chi session like a couple of camera wielding tourists idly wandering in circles around you.

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A scene in the monastery’s gardens
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One of the many statues encased throughout the grounds
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An elegant pagoda

As we worked our way further into the grounds, we were met with familiar sights from countless other temples we have visited during our time in China. The gardens, buildings, and statues don’t vary drastically from one to the next, but, somehow, each temple still finds a way to distinguish itself from its peers, offering at least one thing that’s unique to that particular one. In the case of Wenshu Monastery, this came in two forms: one, a hall atop the main building where thousands of Buddha figurines sat encased in individual glass boxes, each one placed there as an offering from a congenial congregant (or so we guessed); and two, the fact that we had gotten there during prayer time and were able to see monks leading processions and prayers around the temple. As the latter began, the sound of gongs echoed off the walls of the closely clustered buildings, underscored by the uniformed murmuring of prayers. It was all very calming, but, not wanting to intrude too much on their time of worship, we didn’t stick around for very long, instead opting to begin our search for the exit.

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Some of the many Buddha figurines we saw in the main hall
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Monks leading prayers
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A monk heading towards the light

By the time we found it, late morning had arrived and we headed to the nearby Aidao nunnery for their daily vegetarian lunch. We wouldn’t have known about the lunch had our hostel not recommended it to us as one of the more unique experiences one could have in Chengdu. Eager to see why, we cluelessly strolled into the nunnery, hoping that the location and details of the lunch would be evident…they weren’t. So, through a series of simple questions (literally “where is lunch?”) aimed at anyone who would listen, we eventually found our way to the dining hall where one of the regulars took us under her wing and explained the process to us through a series of powerful jabbing points to her gaping mouth, then her stomach, then to the dining hall. If we hadn’t known lunch was available before meeting her, we most definitely would have afterwards.

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The main hall of Aidao Nunnery
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A man waiting for lunch to begin

The lunch, as we found out rather quickly, was a process as mechanical as it was charming. First, as communicated to us by our pantomiming new pal, we had to go to a little building at the far end of the grounds to get two bowls and a pair of chopsticks. Once we had those in hand, we could take a seat on the long, wooden benches of the dining hall, where we would wait for the nuns to come in and dish out our lunch. While we sat there, others trickled in, most of them with their own set of bowls and chopsticks in tow. This seemed to be a daily occurrence for them as made evident by their clear understanding of the intricate process of the lunch and the friendly nods and polite chitter chatter they exchanged with each other much in the same way that people do at Sunday mass.

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Bowls at the ready as everyone waits for the nuns to enter the dining hall

Once the nuns, barely distinguishable from their male counterparts with their bald heads and baggy robes, came in though, the room fell silent. The atmosphere turned meditative as the nuns rang a bell several times, sang a short hymn, and collected rice to be offered to one of the shrines outside the hall. Shortly after, one of the younger looking nuns who couldn’t have been much older than 16, began winding up and down the rows of tables, a cart with a large pot of vegetables trailing behind. One by one, each person received a steaming heap of oily greens slopped in their bowl and then immediately began shoveling the contents into their mouths. Being barely past 11:00 a.m. at that point, we knew hunger certainly wasn’t the reason, but we would soon find out what was. After the nun finished scooping out the first pot she went back and got another…and another…and another. Eventually we lost track of how many it added up to, all of our energy being dedicated to making sure we ate fast enough to make room for the next round of vegetables. Our chopstick skills have never been more vital.

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Nuns preparing rice for the offering

By the time it was all said and done, we must have eaten at least three bowls of food, which then made us wonder how much all of it would cost. Somehow, despite having zero experience with vegetarian lunches at Buddhist nunneries, we settled on the price of 30 RMB. We looked over to our friend to see how much she was pulling out and she held up a friendly three fingers. “Ah! We were right!,” we thought, only soon to find out that her gesture didn’t represent thirty as we had presumed but, quite literally, 3 RMB. For those who don’t know the conversion rate, that’s equivalent to about 50 cents for an entire day’s worth of food. This was a place that could have transformed itself into a tourist attraction and charged whatever price it wanted under the headline of a “unique experience,” but it didn’t. There were no signs outside the nunnery or people herding us to the dining hall and snatching our money as soon as we set foot inside in a desperate money grab that so many other places we’ve visited have fallen victim to. No, it seemed that the lunch was simply meant to benefit the public, whether it be spiritually or nutritionally. After the bells were rung again and everyone sang a closing hymn, we humbly walked back to wash our bowls and chopsticks before leaving.

For the rest of the afternoon, we spent our time hopping on and off buses to visit different shopping and historical districts in hopes of finding a worthy souvenir to take back to Shanghai with us. Eventually, our rambling took us to the city’s Tibetan district, a series of tree-encased lanes, bookended by stores selling everything a Buddhism-enthusiast’s heart could desire. From clothing stores selling monks’ robes and attire to jewelry shops selling prayer beads to ones filled with Buddha statues of every imaginable size, including monumental ones that looked like they belonged in a temple, the district seemingly had it all. Everything, that is, except what we were looking for unfortunately, so we left the area for the nearby Jinli Street, where we spent an hour or so squeezing our way around its crowded alleyways before calling it a day and heading back to our hostel in anticipation of seeing the pandas the next day.

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One of the shops in the Tibetan quarter
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One of the larger Buddhas that were on display wrapped up and ready to ship
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Lanterns hung along Jinli Street

Believe it or not, there’s such a thing as panda diplomacy, which is when China, in hopes of bolstering their relationship with certain countries, sends them a panda or two. Sure, they’re a bit less grand than shipping the Statue of Liberty across the ocean, but what better animal to link your national identity to than probably the most beloved one on the planet. Since the practice started in the 1970s with the opening of China to the world, the giant panda (or “big bear cat” in Chinese) has become an international icon. Whether it be their symbol for the whole of wildlife per their place on the WWF logo or fighting villains in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, everyone seems to want a piece of the cuddly quadruped.

Wanting to see the cause of all of the (forgive us) panda-monium, we decided to spend our second day in Chengdu visiting its world-famous Panda Breeding Research Center. We had read articles about it in National Geographic before, highlighting their unique methods for taking care of the pandas (most notably workers dressing in panda costumes and spraying themselves with panda urine so that the cubs they hope to reintroduce into the wild never get accustomed to a human presence), but we had no idea what the actual park would be like for a tourist.

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Outside the Panda Breeding Research Center

After walking through the front gate, which was fittingly shaped like a giant contemporary-looking panda, we found ourselves on a path stretching into the bamboo forest ahead and immediately began walking down it. At convenient intervals along the way were wooden posts with arrows pointing us in different directions, which we would find out later in the day weren’t all that helpful as the park was a labyrinth, but they got us going in the right direction. The particular sign we were following at that time was pointing towards one of the several adult panda exhibits. Soon enough, we could see a crowd of people, and as we tiptoed our line of vision above their heads, we got our first glimpse of the main attraction.

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Walking through the thick bamboo groves that filled the park
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The park also had some beautiful tropical trees on display
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Getting ready to see some pandas

Rotund and munching away at some bamboo (we had gotten there during breakfast time), the panda had its audience captivated. Each grab for another bamboo shoot was cause to hold one’s breath in anticipation of watching it peel the skin off with its teeth and chomp a few inches off before reaching for some more. Anything outside of this routine was cause for a deep communal sigh of admiration from the crowd, whose bottled up excitement at seeing a panda was waiting to explode at the sight of something truly amazing like, perhaps a sneeze, or, cross your fingers, the panda walking. While our tone may sound exaggerated, it really isn’t. People absolutely adore pandas, us included, and a chance to see them so close with no glass in between was incredibly exciting.

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Breakfast time!
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Shelling a bamboo shoot
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Reaping the rewards

We must have sat and watched that first panda for at least half an hour, completely entranced (and a bit judgmental) at its endless eating, before moving on. As we bounced from one enclosure to the next, we quickly discovered that the only thing that rivaled the panda’s capacity to eat was its unparalleled capacity to sleep. Outside of these two basic components of existence, they didn’t seem to do much else, which made us wonder how exactly they made it in the wild for there are a number of other factors, outside of their infatuation with laziness, that make a strong case against their survival.

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Taking a much-deserved break from the labors of breakfast
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This particular panda has mastered the craft of existing somewhere between taking a nap and eating bamboo

For starters, the female panda can only be impregnated two or sometimes three days out of the entire year. If she and a male counterpart manage to mate in that time frame, there is about a fifty percent chance that the pregnancy will result in twins, which would be great for the panda population if it weren’t for the fact that they have very little energy. Despite eating lots and lots of bamboo (so much that they can defecate up to forty times a day), the panda’s stomach is still carnivorous in nature and, because of that, doesn’t absorb very much energy or nutrients from the bamboo, hence the eating and the sleeping. So, without enough energy to take care of both cubs, the mother must choose one to nurture and let the other die.

Mother Nature, it seems, has been trying to nudge the yin and yang patterned bear towards extinction for some time and yet they are still here and have been for 8 million years. Something we were very happy for as we walked around the park some more, catching a rare glimpse into the bears lively nature:

Seeing them at their cuddliest:

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A baby panda putting up absolutely no resistance to gravity
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A caretaker who we were envious of
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Baby pandas cuddling
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Figuring out how to walk

And even spotting a few red pandas (or as they’re know in the Shanghai Zoo: “lesser pandas”):

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The red pandas shared both a name with Giant Pandas and an affinity for napping
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Waking up a friend
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Contemplating life

By our third time around the park, we had seen everything we were able to and, after exiting through the belly of the giant panda gate that had welcomed us, we boarded a bus back to Chengdu to catch one of Sichuan’s famous mask-changing ceremonies.

Before being shown to our seats, we were taken to a waiting area and given a complimentary cup of tea to sip on until shortly before the beginning of the show. As we looked around the room, one sight stood out among the otherwise uninteresting spread of tables and people: that of a man bouncing from one person to the next to, to our bewilderment, clean their ears. Of all the things people want to do while they are waiting for something (read a magazine, browse the Internet, etc.), having your ears cleaned must certainly be at the bottom of most of those lists. Yet this man had somehow tapped into that niche market and seemed to be doing very well for himself in the process for at least one person from each table desired his services.

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Digging in!

With tools that looked more equipped to mine a mountain than an ear (including a head lamp!), the man was Edward Scissorhandian with all of his long and sharp utensils, picking and prodding each client’s ears for a minute or so before moving on to the next. As intriguing as it was to watch, there was no way we were letting him get anywhere near our ears, which wasn’t an issue as, before he made it to our side of the room, the theatre doors were opened and we filed in to our seats.

From the moment the show started to its conclusion, we were completely clueless as to what was happening on stage despite a loose storyline that was explained in English on giant screens hung around the theatre. Through all of the confusion and strangeness though, it was still incredibly entertaining and had plenty of other things to hold our interest, including outlandish costumes, percussion-heavy music and even a random rap about the city of Chengdu that was haphazardly thrown into the middle of the show and made us lose all hope of being able to follow what was going on.

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A scene from the opera

As the show came to a close, the headlining act began as different masked men scurried out onto the stage and, one by one, changed one colorful mask for the next, which doesn’t sound all that spectacular, but the speed at which they did it left us gap-jawed and clueless just as in the best magician’s trick. If you put your hand above your head and wave it across your face as fast as you can, the incremental amount of time your hand is over your face is how long it took them to change from one mask to another, with no sign of the former in sight. There were ones that blew fire, one with multiple masks that changed simultaneously, and even a marionette whose puppet, through a level of skill we will never know, was able to change it’s masks as flawlessly as the rest.

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The mask-changing ceremony

After wowing the audience for a half hour or so the ceremony ended and with it the show. Supremely satisfied, we exited the theatre and found our way back to the hostel. A day trip to see the Grand Buddha at Leshan would follow the next day and our last day in Chengdu was so uneventful that the highlight of it came in the evening when we saw a movie at the mall cinema. Safe to say we were ready to head back to Shanghai. Chengdu, and the whole of Sichuan was, as its slogan promised, much more than just pandas…but pandas always help.

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Leshan

Imagine something you really want. Now ask yourself the question, “Would I cut my own eye out to get it?” If your answer is yes, and hopefully it isn’t, then you are in the company of an 8th Century Chinese monk named Hai Tong.

Over 1,000 years ago he and some others made their living in the present-day city of Leshan, which happened to sit next to the confluence of three rivers. The rivers, tumultuous and unpredictable, wreaked havoc on the villagers and, as it was decided, a water spirit was to blame. So, Hai Tong took matters into his own hands and began raising funds to carve a Giant Buddha into the cliff face to help calm the waters. When asked by government officials to show his sincerity for completing the project, he opted to do another carving, that of his aforementioned body part, in a manner that surely must have convinced them of his dedication. Ninety years later, long after the death of Hai Tong, the statue was completed and 1,000 years later it’s still standing and remains one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world.

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The Grand Buddha staring out at the rivers that brought about his making

Wanting to see (with both of our eyes) the colossal carving in person, we set our sights on a day trip to Leshan from Chengdu. The bus ride was quick and in no time at all we were buying a ticket and heading through the main gate. As we entered, the atmosphere turned to that of a jungle, or at least what we would imagine a jungle to be. Bamboo shoots shot up from either side of the path we walked down, their thick foliage casting a uniform shadow across the scenery ahead. Below the bamboo canopy hung thin and wiry vines and standing formidably above it was stone wall whose rusty orange exterior was segmented by running streaks of grass and weeds. Deep and dark crevasses, some big enough to be caves, covered the wall.

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A Taoist shrine inside one of the caves

After a short while on the path, the jungle-like atmosphere turned to that of a mountain as our path tilted upwards before leveling off once more at the foot of our first site: a stone stupa as old as the Grand Buddha himself. After straining our necks to look up at it for a short while, we noticed we were sharing the site with a red-clad monk who, to our surprise, walked up to us and asked in perfect English, “Would you mind taking a picture of me in front of the stupa?” We nodded obligingly and followed him as he slowly walked in a circle around its base, counting his prayer beads in a manner that made us wonder whether he remembered that we were following him. After making a full circle, he stopped in the front, gave a quick smile for the picture, took his smartphone back, and began circling the stupa again.

 

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The stupa we stopped off at on our way to the Grand Buddha
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The monk we took a picture of on one of his trips around the stupa

It’s amazing how different an experience you can have of a place depending on which walk of life you come from. For us, we were there solely for touristic purposes while he was there for spiritual ones. We, to marvel at the work of man, he, at the work of God. Despite our different intentions though, the result of our experience was the same: that of pure awe and admiration.

After leaving the stupa, our path would take us through a couple of new and beautifully decorated temples before finally emptying out into a large plaza where we would get our first glimpse of the Grand Buddha. It was one of those moments where you see something so incredibly different from anything you have ever experienced before that, for a brief moment, your mind struggles to grasp what it’s taking in. And then, in an explosion of consciousness, you scramble to take in every bit of detail that you can, wonder trumping disbelief. That is what we experienced upon seeing the Grand Buddha for the first time, its giant eye peering over the encompassing railing, dwarfing the silhouettes of the people standing before it.

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A statue inside one of the temples
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A smaller Buddha in comparison to the one we were about to see
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Candles burning outside the temples
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Our first view of the Grand Buddha

After walking up to the railing ourselves and squinting down to the Buddha’s feet, we got our first idea of just how big the statue actually was. His ears were big enough for a grown adult to climb into comfortably and nestle in for a nap. His lap big enough to play a half-court basketball game on with room to spare. And his toenails, almost too far away for us to see clearly, were bigger than the people walking around them. It was absolutely gargantuan and the spectacle of it meant heavy crowds nearly everywhere we turned. Although we desperately wanted to descend to the Buddha’s feet, our desire to avoid the long and raucous line to do so was stronger so we decided to leave the descent for later in the day, when, as we hoped, the line would be much shorter.

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Getting a closer look
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Zooming down to his feet

We opted instead to explore the rest of the park’s grounds, which as we found out after coming up on our first map of them, were vast and the perfect place to waste time away until we were ready to head back to the Grand Buddha. As we began making our way through the grounds, we were taken down an endless array of paths that wound in and out of each other, up and down hills, through temples and shrines, around a tiny koi fish pond, and past plenty of Chinglish gems.

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Many of the buildings in the grounds were stained red
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Making our way through the grounds
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A faint waterfall we passed during our meandering
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We still have no idea what this means
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A sign of encouragement above one of the park’s urinals

Eventually though, the path led us back to the Grand Buddha where we discovered that our brilliant plan of waiting for a shorter line had backfired rather dramatically as the line was now much longer than it had been before. Suddenly we had to use the restroom again, a cheap ploy to avoid getting into the line for as long as we could, knowing what awaited us, which was an inescapable fate of pushing and jostling for line position, pictures being taken of us against our will, and jeers of “foreigner” shouted in our direction. The wait, as we expected, was all of this and more, but luckily it was fairly ignorable as there were bigger things demanding our attention, mainly, the Grand Buddha.

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The lines leading down to the Buddha’s feet
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Stopping off of one of the nine turns for a picture

To get down to its feet, we would have to take the nine-turn cliff road, which was exactly what it’s name implies, a jagged path hanging off the cliff side as it descended to the feet. The staircase, which offered incredible views of the Buddha when you you weren’t staring at your feet to prevent a stumble down its steep steps, was an attraction in and of itself. All along the descent, there were statues and figures carved into the rock face, their extremely worn and weathered condition a testament to their age.

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Aging carvings on the cliffside
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Some less weathered ones
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And probably the most elaborate carving we saw on our way down

With each of the nine turns, we made our way further and further down the Buddha, body part by body part, an anatomical descent of sorts. First we started at the neck, then, with the next turn were at the chest, then the torso, then the lap, and on it went until we finally found ourselves standing at its feet.

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View of the nine-turn cliff road from the bottom

Standing at his toes (which were taller then we were) our eyes naturally trailed up the Buddha’s body and around the two cliffs that bookended it, one of which we had just zigzagged down. Trees, which stretched out from every crack and fissure offered by the cliff side, appeared to be small shrubs in comparison to the size of the Buddha. The people hanging over the railing near his head, like ants. Our minds bounced back and forth from appreciation of the enormity of the statue to speculation of the enormity of the task that made it.

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Looking up at the Grand Buddha
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It was difficult to fit both us and the entire statue in the frame

No matter where our wandering gaze took us around the the Buddha, we always ended up back at his eyes, which appeared almost human in their contemplative stare out into the three converging rivers. It was the one part of the statue that was attainable. The rest of the body, while human in form, was anything but. With its cracks and crumbling edifice, it appeared to be blending back in to the cliff from which it was carved.

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Peering over his lap
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Blending in to the cliffside

After what must have been an hour of looking up at the statue, we decided to give our necks a rest and start heading back up towards the Buddha’s head. By that time of the day, most of the crowd had cleared out and we figured it would be best to follow suit as the park was nearing closing time and the sun creeping ever closer to the horizon. By the time we made it back to Chengdu it was dark and, hungry from a full day of exploration, we stopped off at a restaurant on the way back to our hostel to try one of Sichuan’s most famous exports: hot pot.

The process of eating hot pot is as enticing as the food itself. First you order an array of ingredients, which range from things as simple as raw potatoes or beef to “do-people-really-eat-that?” things like congealed blood or the lining of a cow’s stomach (we opted for the former). Then you order a soup for the ingredients to be cooked in which varies in degrees of spiciness. Since Sichuan is known for the face-reddening, sweat-inducing nature of its food, we chose one of the spicier varieties.

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Enjoying hot pot

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After our waitress had brought out our pot of soup, placed it in the middle of the table, and turned on the stove beneath it, the water boiled red due to the heaping amounts of peppers dwelling beneath the surface. Soon after, plate after plate of the ingredients we ordered were brought out and we began dumping the contents of them into the soup to cook. As we pulled the first bits of meat and vegetables out with our chopsticks and drew them towards our mouth, we worried about just how much of the spice had soaked in.

To our relief, it was the perfect amount and for the next hour or so we sought out the rest of the bobbing pieces of meat and vegetables, plucking them out of the water until there were none left. After paying our bill and with a full day now behind us, we walked contentedly back to our hostel to rest up before our last day in Chengdu.

Jiuzhaigou

If the beauty of a place is measured by the amount of wows muttered and gasps taken while witnessing it, then China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park may very well be the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen. With lakes so blue they practically glowed through the damp browns and greens of the forest surrounding them to mountains capped with mist-blanketed evergreens, the park was never at a lack of sights to keep us in awe.

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The surreal blue water of the park
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Foggy evergreens high in the mountains

The beauty of the park and the area surrounding it was even evident in the taxi ride from the airport to our homestay, that is when we weren’t closing our eyes, wincing in anticipation of death as our driver swerved from lane to lane dodging oncoming traffic and the occasional yak. After about an hour of this we pulled up to our accommodation for the trip: Zhou Ma’s Jiuzhaigou Homestay, a two-story house situated in a small Tibetan village clinging to the mountainside.

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The outside of our homestay

After spilling out of the death trap that had brought us there, we were greeted by the unfailingly charismatic Ama (Tibetan for “mom”) who had a small arsenal of English that she used more as a means of her own amusement than of communicating, made evident by the deep and hearty laugh that followed the small phrases she would utter to us as she gave us a tour of the house. Immediately upon stepping through the heavily ornamented front door, we were met with an elaborately painted and decorated interior, where not an inch of ceiling or wall was spared the stroke of a brush. Everywhere we looked was a work of art.

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The front door
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Our bedroom

The tour of the house eventually led to our room where we dropped our things and headed out into the village to do some exploring since the waning nature of the day made going to the park out of the question. However ambitious our intentions were though, they were quickly trumped by our weariness from travel and we were soon back in the house, waiting in the common room for our much anticipated home-cooked dinner. As we were the only ones staying there that night, it was a VIP affair with Ama cooking for us and sticking around to chat with us in an unpredictable blend of English and Chinese. This continued for about an hour or so until our mental capacity to continue a conversation in a language we barely grasped failed us and we bid goodnight to Ama and headed up to our room.

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Waiting for dinner in the common room

Our second day started early as we wanted to get to the park as close to opening time as possible due to the forums we had read before the trip telling tale after tale of people having to wait in long and chaotic lines just to get a ticket let alone get into the park. Having lived in China for over two years, our imaginations ran wild with apocalyptic images of mobs of people shoving and shouting and complete mayhem unfolding and ruining what we had hoped would be an escape from the headaches of Shanghai. The reality of it, luckily for us, was far from this. The amount of people there was in typical Chinese fashion, but the scene was nowhere near the one we had pessimistically dreamt up.

After maneuvering through the clusters of tour groups, we found ourselves at the ticket counter where we had decided that we would try to pull a fast one on the ticket attendant by pretending we were university students in hopes of cutting the steep $50 entrance fee per person in half. So, we confidently handed over Kate’s long expired college ID and Ryan’s Ohio driver’s license, hoping they would pass as valid student IDs as they have before. Unfortunately for us, the woman spoke fluent English and it only took her a matter of seconds to see through our facade and hand our cards back to us one by one, saying in a scolding tone, “This is past due and this is a driver’s card…620 RMB.”

Dignity gone, but tickets in hand, we headed towards the main gate and shortly after entering found ourself in the long lines promised by the various guidebooks and forums. It didn’t take us long though to realize that the lines led to the buses that ran from site to site in the park. Wanting to see what was in between (isn’t that the point?), we hopped the railing and within minutes went from something akin to a death metal mosh pit to a secluded wooden plank road winding through the wilderness.

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Starting down the path

The first thing that caught our eyes (and ears) after getting on the path was the river running alongside of it. Not only was the roar of the violently rumbling water just a few feet away something to behold, but also the clarity of it was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It would set the tone for the rest of our time in the park, a constant state of awe and bewilderment at nature the way it was intended to be: vast and void of the trace of human touch.

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Typical scenery along our hike
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There were of birds hopping about near the river

Eventually the path would take us away from the river and towards the park’s resident Buddhist temple. From a distance, the temple seemed rather routine, a white building capped in a golden dome, but as we drew closer, the temple took on the characteristics of the park that inhabited it. Colors exploded from its exterior in the form of Buddhist prayer flags hung all about and the paintings that, much like our homestay, seemed to occupy every square inch of the walls surrounding the temple.

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Zharu Temple
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The main door to the temple
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Prayer flags hanging down from the temple’s first floor
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Kate peeking in

The sun, which had just miraculously burst through the rainy skies we had grown accustomed to during our hike, shone off of the temple’s golden roof, illuminating the valley in which it sat. If we had been Buddhist, we might have described the experience as spiritual, but as far as we were concerned, we were just happy that the rain had finally stopped.

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The sun shining off of the temple’s golden adornments

After the temple, we found our way back to the familiar wooden plank road and walked…and walked…and walked…and, well, you get the point. There were of course breaks every now and then, most notably for a yak meat sandwich prepared for us by Ama, but, most of our time was spent upright, moving further and further into the park. Despite spending nearly ten hours that day on our feet, the fact that we were walking always seemed to be an afterthought. Our focus was never on the path and our striding feet directly below us but rather what that path stretched into. We walked past villages, over rivers, under the shadow of a mountain, past waterfalls and, no matter how hard we tried, there was never the sound of an engine to be heard or a sign of modernity to be seen. You could get lost in it, and we did, for hours. That is until we hit one of the major waterfalls in the park: Shuzheng Waterfall, which sadly meant reentering civilization or at least representatives of it. In what felt like a blink, we went from the seclusion of our beloved plank road to having to wait in line just to advance further along it.

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Eating our yak sandwiches
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The wooden plank road

The slowing of pace was welcomed though as it allowed us a significant amount of time to take in the falls, which were unlike any we had ever seen before. Our experience with waterfalls is a river falling over the edge of a cliff in a few, steady streams to the rocks below, but this was more like a lake sliding down a mountain. The water shot in countless different directions, following the grooves laid out by the eroding effects of time. As we climbed upward alongside the falls, deafened by its incessant roar, we began to wonder when exactly we would reach the top of it. Up and up we climbed and still no sign of an end. When we finally did reach the top it was sort of anticlimactic as the source of all that violently tumbling water was not a tumultuous river or lake but instead a relatively shallow and calm pond, which was amazing to us. Perhaps even more amazing yet was the fact that it never stopped. Hour after hour, day after day, the water goes through a Hulkian transformation, falling down the mountainside. Even as you read this it is happening.

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Shuzheng Waterfall
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The water sliding down the mountainside
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Us in front of the falls

The path followed the water for the next hour or so and we watched it turn from a calm and shallow pond to a body consumed by reeds and trees to the point of the water being barely visible, to a rolling river to, finally, another waterfall: Nuorilang Waterfall. While it shared the same natural name as Shuzheng Falls, Nuorilang was more of a distant cousin than of immediate relation as the differences between the two were many. For starters, this one didn’t slide down the mountainside like Shuzheng appeared to have done but rather thrust itself off of the cliff side, crashing into the rocks below and creating a white and foamy mess that fizzled off into the distance. The cliff, to our delight, stretched off across our line of vision as far as the tall evergreens scattered about would allow. It was truly spectacular and we might have enjoyed it more had another waterfall provided by the clouds overhead not picked up dramatically, making the decision to call it a day and head back to the homestay all the easier.

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Nuorilang Waterfall
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It was much bigger than the last one
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A close-up of the water as it falls over the cliffside
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The raincoats are back on as Nuorilang wasn’t the only thing producing falling water
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As we left the park we saw this: the point where the river from inside the park met with the one from outside of it.  Can you guess which one is which?

If you look at a map of Jiuzhaigou, you’d unmistakably see the letter Y stretched across it, with each line of the letter’s body representing a different valley in the park. From the bottom of the Y to the top is around 30km and, despite hiking from dawn to dusk the day before, we had barely made it to the point where the three valleys connect. Walking Jiuzhaigou in its entirety was out of the question. Instead, for our sday there, we would have to use the shuttle buses if we wanted to see the extremities of the park that our legs couldn’t take us to. This was a difficult decision to come to because we’d much rather hike the park as opposed to ride through it and, as we had experienced the day before, the bus scene was nightmarish. If you’ve ever seen a movie about the apocalypse where hordes of people are trying to push past a line of soldiers, you might have an idea of what the lines leading up to the buses were like, only this scenario, a seat on a bus, was far less dramatic. But, as our experience in China has taught us, an open seat on public transportation is about as dramatic as it gets for the Chinese.

So, bit by bit, we pushed and squeezed and cursed our way to the front, the experience transforming us into rabid animals as we fell victim to mob mentality. As the next bus pulled up, chaos ensued (the video below, taken further inside the park, is a much tamer version of what we experienced at the entrance). Despite being the first in line for it, we were somehow not the first people in. As we finally made it to the door, a little old woman (a bowling ball as we call them due to their ferocity and crashing nature towards an open seat on the subway) came barreling through. We dared not interfere with her and instead followed the open path she created to finally get on the bus and have a seat. It was about the worst possible way to begin a park experience.

Our first stop was Shuzheng Village, which shared the same name as one of the waterfalls we had seen the day before. Jiuzhaigou literally means “valley of nine villages” so we figured it would be in our best interest to see at least one of the park’s nine namesakes. So, after getting off the bus we ditched the crowds as best we could and made our way into the village. Like the valley itself, the village, at least from the outside, seemed not to belong to this time. Colors, much like everything else we had seen in the park up to this point, were the theme. From the peeling paint of the buildings’ exteriors to the souvenirs being sold inside of them to the colorful flowers shooting up from fields surrounding it, the village was never at a lack of dullness. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for its atmosphere as there was an air of unwelcomeness as we walked through the streets. Their lifestyles had been exploited for a profit and we represented the reason why. We felt like we were intruding on something we weren’t meant to. As we found out there and in many other places, people’s lives aren’t meant to be an attraction, no matter how different they may be.

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Flowers outside of Shuzheng Village
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One of the souvenir shops
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Looking our from inside the village

Once out of the village, we decided to hike for a little while before getting back on a bus to head to the farthest reach of the park, the Primeval Forest. Located at a higher altitude than what our previous explorations had allowed, the forest was much colder than the comparatively warmer confines of the lower valley. After getting out of the bus we were met with one of the more beautiful scenes we would witness in the whole of our time in Jiuzhaigou. At our backs, the deep and dense forest stretched off into the distance and, in front of us, a purposeful distribution of mountains were strewn across the horizon, each one covered with evergreens that appeared black in the dim morning light. A thin veil of fog covered the entire scene, appearing motionless as it sat in the vacant spaces between the trees. And, to cap it all off, as we looked out at the scene the snowy peak of a mountain slowly began to materialize from behind the fog. It was as if the scene was scripted, a show put on by nature for its admirers.

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The fog, which seemed frozen in place, hanging over the scenery
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The ice-capped mountain after it materialized from behind the fog
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Getting ready to head into the forest

After the fog had dissipated and the show was over, we turned our backs on the scene and headed into the forest. Deep and dark and motionless, there’s a good reason why forests are always depicted in stories as being mysterious places full of danger. Their empty spaces allow for one’s imagination to fill them with all kinds of fantastical and terrible things. Luckily for us, this particular forest had a familiar wooden plank road winding through it. Familiarity, it seems, is the best antidote for fear.

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The Primeval Forest
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Stopping for a quick picture inside the forest

With the plank road, there was also no need to worry about losing our way. Instead, we occupied our minds with the stillness and complete tranquility that stretched as far we could see in any direction we cared to look in. Even the people seemed quieter and calmer than in other areas of the park. Perhaps we imitate the environment around us. Near the hectic and noisy waterfalls, people were rambunctious, but in the forest, those same people barely made a sound.

After leaving the forest, we hopped back on a bus en route to our next destination: Five Flower Lake, one of the sites we were most looking forward to seeing. The lake got its name because the different colors it takes on makes it resemble a flower garden. The color we were seeing that day was an icy blue, as clear and as crisp as one could imagine water being. The lake sunk to a depth of about sixteen feet and every inch of it was as visible as the fiery leaves floating on the surface.

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People admiring the lake, whose surface is blemished by the ripples of raindrops in this picture
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A bird seemingly unbothered by the rain
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The lake was one of the more popular places to see as evidenced by this crowded bridge running across it

If the water wasn’t enough to incite one’s sense of awe, the trees, laying jumbled like a game of pick-up-sticks beneath the surface, would certainly do the trick. As we looked down it felt like we were gazing upon an ancient shipwreck, whose demise was violent but now sat peacefully preserved in the water. The scene didn’t move or change, but we couldn’t look away. So, as the rain stopped and the crowds moved around us, our eyes stayed fixated upon the lake while our minds struggled to grasp the beauty of it. Sadly, we had other corners of the park to explore and, after leaving Five Flower Lake and enjoying another yak meat sandwich, we were back on a bus and heading to the pragmatically named Long Lake.

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Fallen trees paralyzed below the surface of the lake

The lake couldn’t have been more different from the one we had just seen. Whereas Five Flower Lake was shallow and small, Long Lake was deep and, well, long. So long in fact that we couldn’t even see the end of it as it winded around the corner of a mountain and out of sight. It’s said that when someone experiences the grandeur of nature, they are humbled and inclined to be more empathetic towards others as they are reminded that there are things much bigger and eternal than themselves in this world. Long Lake seemed to have had that effect on the people looking out at it. Much like the forest earlier in the day, everyone there was in a state of quiet contemplation.

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Long Lake
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A fallen tree that hasn’t yet sunk
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Us in front of the lake

With our day now nearing its end, we wanted to see one more lake before calling it quits and decided to hike to the Five Colored Pond, which laid a little further down the valley from Long Lake. The hike there, to our delight, was secluded and, after about a half hour or so we were alerted to our arrival at the pond by the bright blue we saw filling the spaces in between the trees ahead. We giddily descended to the lakeshore, which, like Five Flower Lake, was shallow and small and crystal clear.

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People gathering around the Five Colored Pond
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Our last picture inside the park

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine natural water as being blue. Sure, when you’re a child and coloring an ocean, you make it blue, but rarely does reality reflect that. Rivers run brown, lakes become murky and almost greenish, but this water was truly blue. Not knowing when we would get to see anything like that again, we stuck around, looking out at it all before finally convincing ourselves to head back to our homestay.

That night for dinner, a final home-cooked meal capped off our experience of Jiuzhaigou and the next morning we boarded a bus for Chengdu, the next leg of our trip. It was hard to leave the park and homestay behind us and, even as we write this now, our hearts ache knowing that, most likely, we will never get to experience it again. It will forever be a memory, and what a memory it will be.

A Day in the Life

Jackhammers rattling. Car horns blaring. Dogs yipping. These are the noises that await us as we open our eyes to start our day. Back home in small town Tiffin or Marshalltown, one of these sounds alone would be enough to drive us mad, but, after nearly three years of living in Shanghai, they’ve become white noise, hardly distinguishable from the sound of the breeze rustling through the trees, a testament to our time served in one of the biggest cities in the world.

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Our apartment complex.

After rolling out of bed and opening the windows to gaze out at the scenery for a minute or two, the rest of our morning plays out rather predictably with plates of toast eaten and cups of coffee sipped in front of the computer as we check in on the world, scrolling through news stories and baby photos so as not to grow too distant from the home we’ll inevitably return to.

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View of the skyline from our 17th floor apartment.
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The view on a smoggy day…never a welcome sight.
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Breakfast time!

As the morning slips away our agenda becomes more lively. Pajamas get replaced by exercise clothes and we head across the street to the neighborhood park where we get in our daily dose of exercise alongside the community’s most senior of citizens. Because the equipment there is rarely graced by anyone born after World War II, our presence is usually met with some level of bewilderment made evident by long and confused stares shot in our direction as we sit down at our first machine. Their interest though, however intense it may initially be, is almost always short lived and we spend the rest of our half hour in the park relatively unnoticed. After finishing our workout, we go pick up a few groceries at various shops around our neighborhood before heading back to our apartment to shower and have lunch.

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The exercise park.
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Our local supermarket.
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The bakery.
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Fruit and veggie vendors.

At about noon, we get ready for work, throwing pants and shirts and ties on in a flurry before rushing out the door. To get to our schools we take the subway and, depending on how much energy and time our morning left us, our options of how to get there vary. The quickest route is a five minute walk along the street, an option that’s rarely resorted to as it sends our hearts racing and elbows flailing as we push and weave through cell phone zombies and motorbikes and dogs in a mad dash towards the station.

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The view along our street walk.

Our other options, while more time consuming, are immensely more enjoyable. One route takes us along the river that runs next to our apartment. There are seldom any people on the path and the ones we do pass are usually stationary, sitting on benches or along the river doing any number of odd things whether it be knitting a sweater or fishing. Outside of the people there is a pleasant array of trees and flower bushes to keep our eyes busy and, if our steps are light enough, we can even see the big water fowl that perch themselves on the path railing scoping out their next meal.

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The view along our river walk…significantly nicer.
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Just a couple of the many water fowl we see along the river.

The longest route, and least taken for that reason, winds through a park that sits on the other side of the river. In the twenty minutes we spend walking through it, there’s no telling what we’re going to see on any given day though the typical sights usually consist of old men playing instruments or Chinese chess on the park benches, people doing tai chi, a person walking backwards, badminton matches and the occasional person rubbing themselves up against a tree (supposedly a circulation exercise, but we have yet to try it).

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The entrance to the park by us.
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The scenery throughout the park.
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Community choir.
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A game of Chinese chess, which always draws a crowd.
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A tree rubber with a guy doing tai chi in the background.

Whichever route we take though, our destination is always the Zhongtan Road subway station where we crowd onto a train car bound for our our schools: Wall Street English for Ryan and Disney English for Kate. Like the park, you can’t really predict what you will see on the train. During our time here we’ve seen, to name a few, men shaving their face with an electric shaver, plenty of adult nose picking (and flicking), a man wiping his snot on a pole, children licking those same poles, children peeing in plastic bottles and, the granddaddy of them all, a grandmother holding her grandson over a plastic bag while he relieved himself over top of it, after which they both left the train leaving the plastic bag behind.

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Our subway station.
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A busy day, luckily we don’t experience this often.
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On the platform waiting for our train.

In fact, about the only thing we can predict upon getting on the train is the thick wall of warm, moist air that will undoubtedly welcome us and that our presence on the train will draw at least one gap-mouthed stare from one of the passengers, who are seemingly astonished by our existence. We’ve learned to ignore the latter unless, as it occasionally does, leads to a picture of us being taken, which usually leads to an exchange of words to express our annoyance and a nervous giggle to express their shame.

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Inside the train…yes, that’s a mother clipping her daughter’s nails.

Despite its hodgepodge of people and cringeworthy moments though, the subway is incredibly convenient and, at times, even enjoyable. The train we take to work is one of the few in the city that runs above ground, so, about halfway through our ride, we get a beautiful view of the Shanghai skyline, something that, in 2 1/2 years, hasn’t grown old once.

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View of the skyline along the ride.

After about 15 minutes on the train, we arrive at Ryan’s station and Kate gets off at the one after. Most days we teach from one to nine, unless it’s the weekend when our schedules, especially Kate’s, get exponentially busier. At work Ryan teaches adults (his oldest is 74 years old) and Kate children (her youngest is 3) and our days are exhausting in different ways. Teaching adults drains the mind of energy while children drain the body. In any case, after a long day of teaching, we return home and, despite our tiredness, walk back along the river to take in the beautiful nighttime scenery.

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The outside of Ryan’s school.
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Ryan in class. The sizes vary from one student like this picture to 30…
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…like this one.  This is from a Thanksgiving Day party.
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The outside of Kate’s school.
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Kate in class.
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Playing a game in class (Kate’s job is significantly more fun than Ryan’s).

Along the way we sometimes pick up a fried scallion pancake or barbecue skewer at the corner street food stand. With a snack in hand, we walk back past dancing women, couples sitting along the river taking in the beautifully-lit park across the water, chirping insects, and high-rise after high-rise, whose sporadically lit rooms look like stars in the night sky. However long of a day we have had, that walk always allows us to clear our minds and lighten our hearts before getting back to our apartment.

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Waiting for some street food.
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Dancing ladies along the river.

Once back, we heat up dinner, watch a TV show and call it a night. We can be sure that the next day will follow a similar trajectory. What we don’t know is what things we will see or people we will come across or cultural or linguistic difficulties we will encounter. While at times this can be frustrating, it is always exciting and new. Even doing the most mundane of things, there’s never a dull moment. In a city of 25 million, how could there be?