Cultural relics are fragile things. Even the most formidable ones, the temples and palaces and castles of the world, were most likely at one point or another in a state of disrepair; crumbling edifices robbed of their allure and lying on the brink of irrelevance. Nowhere was this fragility more evident than in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of the Indonesian island of Java. Lying just outside its city limits is Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in world which, barely over a century ago, was buried under the jungle, vines and roots being the only things roaming its once revered corridors. Despite its past troubles though, Borobudur, and the other tangible aspects of our history and culture, are mostly restored now and kept up meticulously in the spirit of the modern tourism industry.
Inside the city limits of Jogja, the colloquial name for the city, where the more intangible aspects of the island’s culture – music, art and tradition – resided, a different story was playing out. For, while the maintenance of temples and the like rely on the services of bountiful and steady professions like construction workers and engineers, the arts require a much more specialized and often unrewarded profession, the artisan, to maintain their upkeep. As we experienced the making of the region’s famous shadow puppet and batik, a traditional style of clothing, and took in musical performances and puppet shows, we couldn’t help but notice that all of their purveyors were middle-aged or beyond. While we thoroughly enjoyed our experiences with the ancient art forms, we wondered what would happen to them within generations. Like languages without anyone left to speak them, would they simply just disappear?
To get around the city, we would use another cultural relic, this one unwavering in the face of time: public transportation. In Jogja, this came in the form of the endearing becak, a bicycle-powered rickshaw so omnipresent on the streets of the city that they could be found simply by opening one’s eyes and looking in any direction. For us, we didn’t even have to step foot outside of our hotel to spot one as two were parked just outside its front door.
Inside one of the becak’s colorful carriages, under the shade of a tattered awning hanging overhead, sat a gangly man lazily rifling through a newspaper. As we approached him to inquire about taking us around the city, he seemed almost hesitant to oblige, not wanting to abandon his relative comfort to peddle two strangers around the sweltering streets of the city. Over the course of the next several days, as he took us from site to site around Jogja, we would learn his name, Adi, as well as other various tidbits about his life and personality. For example, he was a father of two, had learned his impressive level of English simply by listening to client’s conversations and communicating with them what he could, and had witnessed the eruption of a nearby volcano in 2010, the accounts of which he told with such a casual nonchalance that you could have mistaken his tone for describing the process of drying paint. He would also end up being one of the most genuinely kind people we would come across for the entirety of our time in Indonesia, which made us quite happy to have him as our guide.
For our first two days in Jogja, the services of Adi and his becak would only be needed to take us to nearby bus stops where we would take various buses to the nearby ruins of Borobudur and Prambanan. For our third day in the city, Adi took us to see two of the region’s other claims to fame: the processes behind making batik, a kind of dyed fabric, and wayang, or shadow puppets.
To understand the cultural importance of batik to Indonesia and especially the island of Java, one has to look no further than the fact that the country has an airline named after it, Batik Air, a National Batik Day, and its own version of casual Friday in which workers are encouraged to wear batik to work. After witnessing the process of batik making at a small factory near our hotel and seeing the end result, it was easy to see why it had such fanfare.
While the free tour was enjoyable, the free part of it weighed heavily on our minds throughout and our worst nightmares came to fruition as the tour ended in a gift shop where every glance of our eye was pounced upon by a slew of shop assistants who assured us with suspicious frequency that whatever item we had happened to take an interest in was handmade by the artisans we had just seen on our tour. While we were no batik experts, we were fairly certain that the multitude of shirts and tapestries were not made in house as the shop reeked of mass-production, an idea furthered by the fact that every item in it was encased in plastic and had dozens of identical replicas. Before starting the tour, Adi had warned us not to buy anything, advice we had no problem heeding.
From one process to another, our next stop was to see how the wayang was made. Much like the batik factory, we were issued a guide upon arriving who explained each step in the making of the shadow puppets.
As we watched the various artisans meticulously and flawlessly perform the intricate tasks behind the making of each puppet, we were reminded by our guide that he too was an artist. While some of the others used paintbrushes and chisels as their tools, he wielded his mouth, which he used masterfully to create a kind of verbal art that we found just as fascinating as the making of the wayang.
Our last stop of the day was Taman Sari, a once sprawling palace complex used for relaxation and retreat by the Javanese sultans in the 18th century. There, we braved the debilitating heat to explore one of the only remaining parts of the original structure: the baths. Once used as a place for the sultan to observe concubines before choosing one as his companion for the day, the grounds were now filled with revelers of a different kind, tourists. As we walked around the compound, we found ourselves staring longingly at the baths, whose cool waters and bubbling fountains served as a different kind of temptation: an escape from the midday sun that, unlike the concubines, would remain forbidden.
The next day, our last in Jogja, would be highlighted by our trip to the Kraton Palace. While the palace itself wasn’t very impressive, the cultural performances put on there were. Not having been able to see a wayang performance the night before due to it being a national holiday, we were pleased to find that the show being put on at the palace that day was a puppet show. Sadly, it wouldn’t feature the shadow puppets we were so hoping to see in action, but another kind endemic to the island, the wooden puppet.
As we watched the telling of the Ramayana story, our inability to understand the words being spoken in no way diminished our enjoyment of the show. Colorful beings danced and floated effortlessly on the stage to the beat of the smooth and sure voice of the dalang. Behind the scenes, a gamelan orchestra played a hypnotically soothing melody that made us wonder how anyone could possibly stay awake for an eight hour show, let alone one that took place overnight.
Because Javanese puppet shows, both shadow and wooden, can be enjoyed from either in front of the stage or behind it, we decided to go behind the dalang to see the source of the music. There, an ensemble of musicians gently tapped away at their instruments which seemed far too large to be making such a gentle sound. The hands making that sound, which, as frequently as the music allowed, would replace the grip of their mallets with that of a cigarette, were noticeably aged. As we trailed the plumes of smoke up to the faces of the musicians, many of them looked as if this was more of a retirement gig than a career which made us wonder anew what the culture of Jogja would look like in another decade or two. Sure the palace would still be standing, as would the other structures we had seen, but would music still be filling its halls and puppets still dancing to the enjoyment of others?
It was with great relief then that, while writing this blog, we discovered that UNESCO, which famously designates certain tangible sites like temples as integral parts of culture, began designating the intangible aspects of it as well. They did so out of a fear that things like batik making and wayang shows could very well disappear as the world became more and more globalized, social structures changed, and younger generations began seeking careers outside that of the unstable one of artisan. To get designated, a country must provide a detailed plan of how they will preserve the art form they want to protect and, in return, get funding and support from UNESCO. For a city as rich with culture as Jogja, it was reassuring to know that both the tangible and intangible aspects of its heritage would continue to be interwoven into the fabric of the city for generations to come.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
What we cannot faithfully communicate,
Art alludes to what words elude.
in art, as in speech,
it still may not convey
You must search for the meaning,
Take the wayang.
Every inch is a symbol.
Each burst of color
is a burst of meaning,
about the nature of humans.
Yet, it hides
behind a screen.
Displaying its truth
To wander into a restaurant in Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, is to find a scene not too unlike one you might find in a ski lodge. Red faces appear frozen in their last expression, hands cling desperately to hot beverages, mounds of clothes lay piled on any available furniture, and, perhaps most notably, the warm interior air is filled with a murmured excitement.For, while the restaurant offers a necessary respite from the freezing temperatures outside of it, the weather itself, no matter how cold, is exhilarating, and the experiences that can be had in it, whether it be exploring the dusty backstreets of a Russian city left from a bygone era or marveling at the towering ice sculptures that give the city its fame, are so unique that you want to duck into a warm place not out of a want to escape the cold but out of a reluctant necessity to avoid frostbite. And so was our dilemma for the duration of our time in Harbin, balancing our desire to see as much as we could with our desire to feel our limbs.
If there was any part of us that thought that growing up in the frigid winters of Ohio and Iowa meant that we would be better equipped to handle the cold of Harbin, it was laughed out of the room the second we stepped off the plane and felt the arctic air gripping our body as we scampered to the shuttle bus. We would later find that the average January temperature in Ohio and Iowa sits somewhere around 30 degrees Fahrenheit while Harbin’s is down in the single digits. With those figures in mind, we applied layers to our body with reckless abandon the next morning before heading out to Zhongyang (or Central) Street, whose name implied an apt place to start our exploration of Harbin.
The street, and Harbin itself, got its start at the turn of the 20th century when Russian railroad builders chose the site as the terminus station for one of their cross-continent lines. In the ensuing decades, Russia’s influence on Harbin was unparalleled, even among the Chinese, as they essentially erected a city from scratch and filled its streets with its people and culture. After World War II though, with the Russian army in firm control of the city after wrestling it out of the hands of the Japanese, the city was hallowed out when its Russian population, which numbered into the hundreds of thousands, was forcibly deported back to Russia, leaving just 450 left by the early 1960’s. While the people who gave the city its unmistakably Russian character were no longer there, the skeleton of their influence remained in the form of buildings and a culture that were still very much visible during our visit to the city over half a century later; nowhere was this more noticeable than on Zhongyang Street.
Entering the street, we became a bit disoriented as surrounding us were Baroque and Byzantine-style buildings, cobbled streets, Russian cafes and bakeries, and fellow revelers so bundled that it was difficult to make out their species let alone their nationality; in other words, scenery that in no way hinted that we were in China. Pulling us back to reality though was the overly cheerful face of a Chinese girl etched into a block of snow that rose well above the reach of our heads. Surrounding her was an array of less eye-grabbing designs celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year and that, we decided, placed us firmly, and perhaps a bit harshly, back into the context of China.
As we wandered further down the street, the view of buildings and trees that had dominated our surroundings up to that point gave way to the more open scenery of the Songhua River where an army of amateur snowmen shot off in either direction along the waterfront. If army gives the impression of uniformity and seriousness, the snowmen were anything but, being similar only in number. Rather, they were decorated mostly with an absurd array of googly eyes, cartoon mouths contorted in a variety of exaggerated expressions, and colorful tinsel draped around their bodies like a scarf. Apart from their faces, their size also varied from one to the next from those that barely topped off at our chests to others that stretched well beyond the reach of the tallest tree.
Having taken in our fair share of snowmen, we ventured down to the river which was completely frozen over, so much so that trucks were able to move across it to load and haul away the two ton ice bricks used to build the city’s famous ice sculptures. Along with the trucks were crowds of people partaking in different ice-themed activities that ranged from the familiar skating to a game that involved whipping a spinning top to prevent it from toppling over. With no skates and our whipping skills rusty, we decided to partake instead in the timeless and all age-inclusive fun of running up to a patch of ice and seeing how far we could slide across it.
After doing this several times we walked on, though our ability to stay atop the ice was fleeting for, however cold we thought it was while not walking over a mass of frozen water, it couldn’t compare with the arctic chill invading our bodies not only from the ice below but also from the steady, numbing breeze blowing over top of it. No longer able to enjoy our surroundings, we headed back up towards Zhongyang Street, which seemed comparatively cozy, a feeling we would continue to pursue by stopping in a small Russian restaurant where we basked in its warmth like a lizard under a heat lamp.
Once feeling returned to our fingertips and toes, we ordered an array of hot dishes and tea to aid in the thawing process. As we sat, we watched as others sought the same warm refuge as us. Through the fog of their own breath, layer-laden bodies whose rotundness would make even the Michelin Man blush, made their way to open tables, peeling off coat after coat until a heap of winter wear lay piled up behind them, nearly pushing them off the front of their chair. Like a greedy baron stashing away his money, we kept our layers on, building up as much warmth in our bodies as we could in the fruitless hope that it would serve to keep us warm once we left the restaurant.
We would need all the warmth we could get for a visit to the Ice Festival was in our near future and we expected that, whatever chill we had felt while atop the frozen Songhua River, the one we would be experiencing amidst a city of ice after nightfall would be even more. The sun set at a surprisingly early 3:56 p.m. (perhaps Harbin was a bit too chilly for even the sun to hang around longer than it needed to) and we arrived not long after with any traces of the sun, whether it be light or warmth, long gone.
As we approached the festival, we felt as if we had bought a ticket to another world. The uniform black of the night sky served as the perfect backdrop for the glowing brilliance of the ice sculptures which rose up from the snow-covered ground in every way imaginable. There were walls, bridges, towering buildings, churches, temples, and castles. The Roman Colisseum was even on display. As if the size and scope of the structures wasn’t enough, each one emanated a different color that, when looked at together with the buildings around it, created a rainbow of glowing ice across the landscape. Some of the colors remained unchanged within their given structure, while others faded in and out of each other, purples turning to blues turning to greens as they rose up through the ice, making the buildings they illuminated appear alive as they coursed into the night sky. Funnily enough, the way the ice blocks looked reminded us of embers in a fire, emanating a calm and steady glow. Far removed from the contemplative coziness of a fireside, the ice blocks drew our attention in all the same.
Standing in contrast to the radiance of the buildings were the people moving around them. If the buildings were the definition of light, the figures were the complete absence of it. Always in the form of a silhouette, they seemed an extension of the nighttime sky above them; an unwavering black. You would think that one would pay little attention to the comparative dullness of black when surrounded by a gigantic, illuminated ice city, but the crowd of shadows served as the perfect accompaniment to the buildings, always reminding us of just how bright and monumental they were.
While standing outside of one particular ice sculpture that resembled a church, we were approached by a reporter from a news channel who wanted to interview us about our experiences in Harbin (you can find the videos here and here). However exciting it was to do the interview, it meant standing still for an extended period of time which spelt doom for our waning ability to feel our fingers and feet. After the interview ended, out of sight of the reporter and cameraman of course, we danced and shook our bodies wildly to restore as much circulation to our limbs as possible (sorry, no videos of that one) before continuing our exploration of the festival. Not wanting to lose what little warmth we had managed to restore to our bodies, we would spend the rest of our time there in a constant state of motion, pausing only to snap a quick picture. When finally, the cold became too much to bear, we left the festival to head back to our hotel.
The next day would see us return to Zhongyang Street where, this time, we would be heading away from the river and towards the city’s most iconic permanent structure: St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Wanting to get off the crowded confines of the pedestrian street, we made our way through the Russian quarter’s less-trafficked alleyways which, unlike the restored and admired Zhongyang Street, were full of crumbling edifices whose influence had seemingly been lost along with the population that built them; a fate that the cathedral almost suffered itself.
Built in the early 20th Century to help restore confidence to Russian troops who had just lost a war to the Japanese, the cathedral stood as the center and symbol of the city until the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Like so many other cultural sights within the country, the communist takeover of it spelt doom for the cathedral. While it withstood its intended destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it would endure an equally miserable fate as it became nearly forgotten as concrete apartment buildings and factories were erected within inches of its walls, making the cathedral completely invisible from the street. It wouldn’t be until several decades later, in 1997 to be precise, that it would regain its visibility after wealthy donors pooled together their money to tear down the surrounding buildings and return the cathedral to its former glory.
As we approached the cathedral, the idea that it could have remained unseen and forgotten for nearly half a century became even more absurd as we were met with, what was to us, a work of art. While the buildings of Zhongyang Street looked far from Chinese, the Chinese signs and brands that filled them were steady reminders that they were indeed, made in China. St. Sophia’s on the other hand, looked as if it were ripped from the pages of a Russian travel book and plopped down in the middle of the large ornate square that held it. Apart from the faces moving around it, one would never guess by looking at the cathedral alone that it would belong anywhere but in Russia.
As we looked upon the cathedral, our attention couldn’t help but first go to its green, bulbous roof which crowned the rest of the structure in ceremonious fashion. Trickling down from the roof was row after row of patterned brickwork, whose intricate designs would look far more at home within the pages of quilting book than on the facade of a large cathedral. Pigeons flocked from ledges, swooping back around to their perches almost immediately in a way that could only befit a pigeon. Being smaller than other cathedrals we’ve seen, we were able to make several trips around it, with each one offering a new angle or detail that we hadn’t seen before. Once there was nothing new for it to offer, we headed back to Zhongyang Street for a late lunch and dark beer at Madieer Brewery before retiring to our hotel.
For our last day in Harbin, we would head to Sun Island to take in the other headliner of the Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. While their icier counterparts across the river were best viewed at night, these, we had read, were at their best during the day. So, after a hearty hotel breakfast, we layered up and got in a taxi bound for the Snow Festival. We’re not really sure how Sun Island got its name, but, upon arrival we could venture some guesses for the midday sun was shining off of the snow to a degree that nearly blinded us in our attempt to view the different sculptures. Once our eyes adjusted, we were able to see that the park was full of the most elaborate snow creations we had ever seen. If the Ice Festival was impressive due to the size of its buildings, then the Snow Festival was so due to the intricacy of the designs on display. There were massive ones of course, but even the smaller ones were able to hold our interest due to their details and ability to tell stories in a way that the ice simply could not.
As we made our way further into the park, the sculptures grew bigger and we even were able to find intrigue in the unfinished projects and the monumental efforts being taken to bring them to completion. In the back of the park, and the grand finale of the festival itself, was a several story high sculpture that dwarfed anything we had seen up to that point and was the clear focal point of the festival as evidenced by the crowds of people staring awe struck at its base as well as the numerous activities set up in the large expanse of snow in front of it. After admiring it for a short while, we decided to escape the cold one last time in the form of a cafeteria and souvenir shop overlooking the massive sculpture. As we sipped our Harbin beers, we reveled in the joys and sights we had seen as well as the fact that, for the first time, we were finally able to enjoy the fruits of Harbin’s winter without having to experience the winter itself.
For those who have made it this far, firstly, God Bless You!, and secondly, there were a few snow sculpture pictures that didn’t make it into the blog that I though were still worth sharing. If you care to go on, here they are:
Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.
Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes.From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.
Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.
After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.
As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.
Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones.Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one.
Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two.In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.
As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.
There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.
Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills.In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day.
To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night.He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.
If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain.
As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.
Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.
Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings.
After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.
Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal.
Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.
Pictures can only prepare you so much for the reality that they depict. Just as watching your favorite actor in your favorite movie can never dull the feeling of fluster and starstruckedness upon seeing them walking past you on the street, so a photograph of a beautiful place can never fully prepare you for the feeling of wonder that will accompany seeing it in real life as was the case with the ancient Myanmar city of Bagan. Over the years we had seen countless depictions of the city on websites and in magazines, but it wasn’t until we climbed up our first temple and were staring out at the vast plains of the city and the countless ancient temples and pagodas that filled them that we were truly in awe, a feeling that would never really go away during our time there.
If we could have had it our way, we would have explored every temple that we could see after looking out from that first one, but, as we had three days and not three months in the city, we would regrettably have to pick and choose which ones we would visit. As we rode our bikes down the dirt paths that wove through the ancient city, it seemed as if we were passing temples as frequently as we were souvenir shops, or people, or even trees for that matter. Some laid right alongside the road with life in the forms of restaurants and dogs roaming around their bases, and others sat off in the distance, looking as if no life had existed in their vicinity in centuries. Some were bell-shaped and others resembled castles with their towering tiers and toothed roofs. There were ones that stretched high into the blinding blue sky, blocking out the sun and offering a nice shady refuge from the midday heat, and others that struggled to stretch up two floors. There were fat ones and skinny ones, brick ones and whitewashed ones, restored ones and crumbling ones. In fact, with so many choices as to which temple to stop off at, choosing one wasn’t so much a matter of intention as it was one of feeling. “Ooh, that one has a lion outside of it” or, “The stupa on this one has a unique shape” or rather simply, “I’m tired of this bike and the sun, let’s stop off at the next temple we come across,” were all thoughts that dictated where we would go. And, although some buildings were more impressive than others, we were never disappointed by what we were seeing for each one offered something different from the next which is what made the place so incredible. With over 2,000 temples and pagodas, we never once came across one that completely resembled any other we had seen prior.
After finally giving up the view from that first temple, we clambered down it and hopped on our bikes to head across the road to Gawdawpalin Temple, one of the largest of its kind in the city. Before we could make it through its front gate though, we had other business to tend to: that of purchasing a longyi, the ankle-hugging skirt that men and women alike wear throughout the country. Besides allowing us to fit in, if only slightly, with the locals, its light and loose fabric also offered us an airy alternative to the constricting jeans and shorts we had been wearing up to that point, a difference that would be much appreciated as the day heated up. Later, we would find biking with them to be a nuisance as evidenced by our longyis coming unknotted several times while riding, causing us to nearly flash school groups and other tourists passing by. Apart from that minor downfall though, they were extremely fun and convenient to wear.
So, with our longyis now firmly wrapped around our waists, we made our way into the temple. Shortly after passing through the front gate though, our attention was caught, rather hijacked, by a large group of Burmese tourists who had elected one individual to shyly approach us and ask if we would take our picture with them. “Sure!” we thought, “what harm can a picture do?” After all, we have lived in China for nearly four years and having our picture taken, whether by request or not, had become routine. Expecting one group photo, we were surprised instead to find ourselves getting a picture with just one individual, then another, then another until the entire group of 20 or so had snapped a photo with us as if we were statues in a public square. However odd it was (what do they do with those pictures?) we found the situation more amusing than frustrating.
In fact, before that experience we had had others exhibiting the forthcomingness of the Burmese when it came to foreign tourists. For example, while waiting at a bus station in Mandalay the day before, a handful of people approached us to casually ask where we were from. After we told them the USA they would nod thoughtfully for a moment before quizzically saying, “Trump?” or sometimes “Obama?” in a manner that demanded an opinion from us about the president in question. One person, after opening with the aforementioned dialogue, proceeded to ask probing questions that delved deep into our beliefs about religion and politics. Nestled in the heart of the tourism industry, it became easy to forget that Myanmar used to be, and in many parts, still is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Experiences like these served as welcome reminders of this.
After snapping our last picture with the tour group, our tightly coiled smiles unfurled and we were finally able to make it into the grounds. As we stared up at the towering temple and the deep blue sky that it stood in front of, only one word came to mind: magnificent. We were paralyzed by the grandeur of it; the carvings that lined every window and door and ran along every roof, the sense of timelessness that existed as we walked through its corridors past the lifelike gaze of the Buddha statues that lined them, and the fact that thousands more temples (and at one time ten thousand), many as breathtaking as this one, sat within a few miles radius.
As we moved from the cool inside to the significantly less cool outside to take in the exterior of Gawdawpalin, we found that our steps had to be taken much more carefully as the pavement was scorching hot. As we moved around the temple, we maintained the fragile balance between our desire to see every inch of it with the more urgent desire to avoid burning our bare feet (shoes had to be removed before entering a temple). Tiptoeing from one shady patch to the next, in a manner that channeled our inner Fred Flintstone, we were eventually able to make it around the entire temple before finally making it back to our bikes where we slipped on our sandals and began cycling in search of another temple to explore.
The next one we came to was Ananda Temple, one of the most revered sites in all of Bagan. Legend has it that the temple was designed by eight monks who had shared with the king at the time their experiences living in a cave temple in India. Eager for both the magnificence of the temple being described to him as well as the cool interiors (a novelty in the hot and arid Bagan plains), the king conscripted the monks to build him a temple of equal attributes. Upon completion, the monks were executed so that no other building like it could ever be built again. It is always a surreal experience to be in a place that has lasted as long as the legends that describe it.
Walking up to the temple, our eyes were naturally drawn to the golden stupa sitting atop it like a crown, the midday sun beating off of it at a degree that even made our sunglass-shielded eyes squint. Partially obscuring the stupa was a web of bamboo poles that wrapped around it, a reminder of the ongoing reconstruction efforts that had been taking place following the earthquake that shook the plains not even a year earlier. Even with such a blemish, the stupa was incredible and the rest of the temple followed suit as it expanded out from the central stupa tier by tier before abruptly ending in a two-story wall that shot down into the ground. Intricate carvings of mythical beasts ran menacingly along the eaves while their larger brethren sat formidably on the ground at each corner, dwarfing us as we scampered by in search of the next patch of shade to stand on.
What made the temple truly unique from the other ones we had seen though was its facade, which once had been whitewashed but now took on the color of sand due to what we imagined to be a bleaching process during its restoration. This detail gave the temple an otherworldly dimension as did the four Buddha statues standing as erect and timeless as an old tree inside its cool and dark corridors. As we stared at these and other features of Ananda, we couldn’t help but question the authenticity of them for they looked like an elaborate set for a Hollywood blockbuster or what you would imagine to appear out of the haze in a desert mirage. These things however, are often reflections of reality and not the other way around.
As the afternoon wore on, we became reminded that, while temples and statues can feed the mind, they can’t exactly feed the stomach and, with that thought, we left Ananda in search of lunch. After getting on the main road, there were choices abound and we pulled off at a restaurant called The Moon, where we enjoyed some curry so spicy that workers, upon seeing our red and profusely sweating faces, hurried back to the kitchen to bring us tamarind candies, a Myanmar remedy for spice. The waiters watched in amusement as we unwrapped the candies with the fervor of a Christmas-morning toddler, flinging them into our mouths and effectively extinguishing the fire.
After finishing our meal, which, in spite of its spiciness, was one of the best we would have in Bagan, we set off to find more temples. Unlike the more frequented ones that we had seen in the first part of the day, our post-lunch explorations would see us stopping off at random smaller ones scattered about before finally ending the day back at the temple we had started at. As we sat atop it, we watched intently as the sun slowly descended in subsequent slivers of light bursting through the clouded sky before finally disappearing beneath a silhouette of temple tops and mountain ridges.
Our second day began where the first had left off, sitting atop a temple, this time waiting for the sun to rise. We were warned by countless blogs and articles to not miss a Bagan sunrise or sunset while in the city, advice which we heeded and for good reason as there was something transcendent about the whole experience. Precariously perched on a ledge, we watched as the the features of the plains and the temples that filled them became slowly illuminated, their features emerging bit by bit from the deep blackness that had characterized them just moments before. What made the moment surreal though wasn’t what we could sense but rather what we couldn’t: sound. Apart from the chatter of birds, the soft, distant hum of a motorbike engine, or the subtle shutter of a camera inevitably failing to capture the moment, there was nothing to be heard. A noticeable void that was made moot, or rather mute, only by the overwhelming scenery unfolding before us. As the sun rose higher and higher, the scenery changed less and less and we decided to head back to our hotel, Bagan Thande Hotel, for some breakfast along the banks of the Irrawaddy River before getting back on our bikes to begin another day of exploration.
After riding on the main road for a short while we veered off it in favor of a bumpy path that we vibrated down before pulling off at a cluster of brick buildings sitting outside the gates of Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Before exploring the latter, we decided to check out the smaller ones surrounding it, a decision that was met with enthusiasm by one of the vendors sitting on the steps outside who warmly approached us and began taking us around the buildings and telling us about each one; a nonverbal understanding that we’d be receiving information in exchange for business, an agreement we were happy to make as she was very nice and the things she was selling very cheap. And, as for the information, it was priceless (cue eye roll).
One of the more surprising things we learned from her was that the temple we were walking around had been looted by German soldiers in the 19th century (a fact we weren’t able to confirm in our own research). Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that German soldiers, before both world wars, would have been wandering around Bagan on the very ground where we stood cutting statues out of a temple we were staring at. What else had happened there that we were completely unaware of? The answer is unfathomable, but the search for it, whether factual or imagined, can give any place life and context where legends and stories fall short.
Another interesting fact that was shared with us was that the three unassuming brick buildings lying across the dirt path from the temple were built in subsequent centuries. One from the 9th, one from the 10th, and one from the 11th, all sitting side by side and, as far as we were concerned, looking as if they had all been finished in the same day. Their architects may have begged to differ though for, for them, the structures probably couldn’t have been more different. After finishing our impromptu tour, we bought a longyi from our guide and climbed up the 11th century pagoda for a great panoramic view of Bagan before heading to Thatbyinnyu.
Not being able to explore the temple’s signature feature—its height—due to the staircases leading to its top being closed off, we opted instead to just meander around its base, which perhaps was the best way to appreciate the towering nature of it. Unlike the brick pagoda that we had climbed up just moments before, Thatbyinnyu had whitewashed walls which always seem to add to the antiquity of a building. The black mildew lines that ran in streaks across the walls made the intricate features of its exterior seem to bleed together like the age lines on a carved piece of wood. It was nearly impossible to imagine it having the sandy brown exterior of Ananda that we had seen the day before.
After making the full circle around the temple we boarded our bikes and began heading to Shwesandaw Pagoda to scope out where we would be watching the sunset that night. The pagoda consisted of a series of toothed tiers stacked on top of each other with the smallest and uppermost one being capped by a bamboo-encased stupa. Compared to other sites we had seen in Bagan prior, the building itself wasn’t that incredible (which for a 1,000 year old free-standing structure was still pretty incredible), but the views offered from it were unlike any we had seen in Bagan up to that point. As far as the eye could see stretched a forest whose trees, with their different shades of green, gave the landscape the camouflaged look of a soldier’s uniform. It was the perfect backdrop for the sharply contrasting brick temples and pagodas that rose out of it in uncountable numbers. Some were big and thick and seemingly rooted into the ground while others were thin and spindly, sticking out of the forest in a pointed fashion like stalagmites rising up from a cave floor. If you weren’t too lost taking in the magnitude of it all and the details of each individual temple, you would also notice the ring of mountains circling around the landscape or the silver streak of the Irrawaddy River shooting across the mountain’s base or even the bright blue sky shining over head.
As we sat on one of the tiers taking it all in, we wondered what the designers of the buildings would think of their works of art (for that’s what each one was) being climbed upon by civilians, some of them unaffiliated with Buddhism. Or, for that matter, that their creations had been reduced to crumbling brick, worn statues and faded paintings. Our first thought was that they would be disappointed, but upon further contemplation we imagined that they would be very proud. Proud that, not only had their work lasted a millennium, but that people traveled from around the world to see it. Imagine creating something that could captivate even one person 1,000 years from now. In that amount of time would it be the work itself or the age of it that would captivate? In Bagan, it was both.
Knowing we would be returning for a second round at Shwesandaw made it easier to leave the sweeping scenery behind in search of our next stop: Dhammayangyi Temple. To get to the temple we had two choices, take the well-labeled main path or the winding stony back roads that we weren’t entirely sure even led there. Naturally, we chose the latter and it didn’t take the wisdom of hindsight long to tell us that we had chosen poorly. For starters, we were venturing out on an empty stomach (it was well past lunch time at this point) as well as an empty water bottle, which is a recipe for disaster for any experience really as the desire to survive drowns out the desire to enjoy. What’s more, not long after starting down the path we realized that it was impassable by bicycle due to huge patches of sand that made our bikes swerve uncontrollably each time we hit them, which was frequent. So, walking it was, with our bikes in tow and practically no shade to shield us from the sweltering midday heat as the temples and trees that had appeared endless while sitting atop Shwesandaw all seemed to stop well short of the path, which is perhaps why it was there. As we slugged on, each step felt slower and less productive towards reaching an end, but, as tragic as our travails seemed, Dhammayangyi would eventually come.
For as long as the path to the temple had been, it did make our coming across it more meaningful and it almost felt like we were the first ones to have seen it for centuries. While on the path, we hadn’t seen another soul in the hour and a half we were on it and, as we looked at the temple in the distance, all we could see was its ruined state sitting atop an empty plain. There were no noises, no people, not even the sound of wind as the air was heavy and stagnant, just us and the temple. As magical as the moment was, it was short lived as our thirst sent us racing towards it in hopes of finding some water before heading off to find lunch, both of which we did before circling back around to the temple to begin exploring it.
If a building could ever be described as sinister, Dhammayangyi would be it. From the legends that accompanied it to its current state, everything about the temple oozed with a mysteriousness that incited both curiosity and unease. As the story goes, the king who commissioned its building, King Narathu, was not a good man in the slightest. To give you a measure of his character, it is said that he murdered his own father to ascend the throne and become king. Sadly, his intolerance didn’t stop with more powerful family members. When it came to the temple, whose construction he oversaw, he was notorious for being a perfectionist. According to the legend, he would occasionally conduct a test that involved attempting to push a needle between two bricks. If the needle could be pushed through, the mason who laid it was executed. His downfall though, came in his intolerance of other religions. He was known to execute practicers of the Hindu faith, the main competing religion with Buddhism at the time, with one notable example being an Indian princess. Angered by the loss of his daughter, the princess’s father sent eight disguised men to Dhammayangyi where they assassinated the king in its halls before the temple had even been completed. A fitting end for an unfit king.
If the legends that filled the temple’s halls weren’t enough cause for wary treading, the temple itself was. In a completely appropriate use of the term, the interior was cavernous. Darkness crept down from the ceilings and out from holes in the wall for there were places in the temple too deep and ominous for the dim, outmatched light, making its way in from the occasional window, to conquer. The unmistakable squeaks of bats echoed out of the darkness which wasn’t the only trace of their presence as the temple walls were covered in their feces, filling the halls with a subtle, but putrid smell. If the hushed voices and footsteps of other temples were out of veneration, the ones here bore the aura of caution.
The atmosphere though, however repulsive, was unlike any we had ever experienced before and, like a good horror movie, we became addicted to the unease it created. As we made loop after loop, we couldn’t help but think how the late King Narathu would feel about his temple now: a crumbling exterior, an interior more noticeably painted by bats than the work of human hands, non-Buddhists roaming through its halls, and locals taking naps inside to escape the summer heat. The conclusion we came to: not favorably.
With our feet now caked in a range of filth we dared not ponder, we left Dhammayangyi and and rode a few minutes down the road to Sulamani Temple, the last site we would be seeing that day before taking in the sunset. Outwardly, the temple didn’t appear all that unique from others we had seen, which bode well for our sunset viewing as we thought we would be in and out, leaving us plenty of time to get back to Shwesandaw and get a good seat before the masses descended on it. Once inside the temple though, we found ourselves surrounded by paintings, covering the walls and ceilings and anywhere else we cared to look. Some were too big to see in their entirety, as in the reclining Buddhas that stretched from one end of a hallway to the other, while others were small and intricate, as in the paintings of countless palm-sized people depicting different religious scenes. The elaborateness of it caught us completely off guard, as if walking into an old, abandoned warehouse and flicking on a light to find not a room full of dust and spider webs but rather one lined with marble and adorned with gold. We marveled at every square inch, our heads straining up and down, from side to side in an unblinking attempt to not miss a single inch. However incredible it was in the present, we couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have looked like upon completion, a thought we would have to ponder as we regretfully left the temple to speed back to Shwesandaw (on the main road this time!) to catch the sunset.
Sandals off, we ascended the pagoda and perched ourselves on the uppermost tier and watched as the tour buses and bicycles rolled in, one after the other, until the entire pagoda was full of people watching as the sun took a bow and disappeared behind temple tops and mountain ridges.
Most of our last day in Bagan was spent atop a bike as we peddled to more far off places than the closely clustered sites we had seen the previous two days. After a sunrise at Shwegugyi Temple, and a breakfast on the Irrawaddy, we headed off towards Nyuang U, the city that many of those who work in Old Bagan call home, in hopes of seeing Shwezigon Pagoda. While the pagoda was a bust – it’s signature gold exterior was instead covered with mats due to construction efforts – the ride through the city was not, offering a glimpse into the culture of present day Myanmar in a way that touring the old town could not. Women toting oversized baskets around on their heads, street vendors tucked down forgotten alleys, monks that looked barely out of primary school, and the genuine friendliness of locals that exists once one escapes the bubble of the tourism industry were all on display as we wound through the city streets. As tempting as it may be to spend the entirety of one’s time in Old Bagan, and one could easily be forgiven for doing so, a trip to Nyaung U for a taste of local life should always be considered.
After leaving Nyaung U, we made a stop at MBoutik, a shop selling handicrafts made by the area’s underprivileged women, and grabbed lunch at Sanon, a restaurant that trains area youth in the culinary arts; both being worthy causes to support if you ever find yourself in Bagan. Our last destination of the day, whose arrival was prolonged by the frequent and sporadic stop offs at interesting looking temples on the way back from Nyaung U, was Jasmine Lacquerware Shop.
Having seen lacquerware pretty much everywhere we went in Bagan, from the stalls outside nearly every temple whose prices, if inquired about, dropped by half with each step you took away from the vendor, to the more official looking shops lining the roads of Nyaung U, Bagan was seemingly full of places looking to capitalize off of one of the region’s more unique products. We even had people on motor bikes slow down beside us on our bicycles and, in an almost scripted fashion, ask us, “Where are you from?” followed by, “Ah, good country,” and lastly, “Do you want to buy some lacquerware?” before speeding off after our prompt “No!”
Wanting to find a more authentic place to get our souvenir, we went to a nearby village to visit the small, family run lacquerware shop we had read about online and were very glad we had. Upon arriving, we were given a detailed, step by step description of the lacquering process, which was so much more lengthy than we ever would have imagined. Some of the more interesting pieces of information we were able to dissect from our guide’s heavily accented, but much appreciated English was that most bowls were made from bamboo leaves and some even used woven horse hair as their base, the dyes used for the colors were all made from ground natural materials, and that the dazzling designs adorning each bowl and vase were all done by memory, with no grid to guide the artist’s hand as it made the intricate carvings.
After he finished telling us about the process, we were taken to the family’s shop and given time to choose an item from its vast array of bowls and vases and trays. Upon picking out our item, he told us how amused he was at the different ways that tourists plan to use the lacquerware. One story he told, which he still seemed to be trying to work out in his head as he told it to us, was of a customer who intended to use one of the bowls he purchased to, of all things, put his keys in! It turns out that the bowls and plates made there are usually used to hold food like the betel nuts that many men in the country enjoy chewing as evidenced by their brown teeth, or as a serving dish for tea leaf salad, a delicious local delicacy. We told him that the small bowl and dish that we had chosen would be used for decoration, deciding to withhold that using it for our own keys had been a thought!
After leaving the shop, we realized that the afternoon had slipped away from us much faster than we had expected it to. With precious little time left until sunset, we manically peddled back to Old Bagan just in time to catch the sun dipping below the horizon one last time. We stayed at the temple longer than we had with previous sunsets, being fully aware that this was the last time we would ever experience anything like this in our lifetimes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And even spotting a few red pandas (or as they’re know in the Shanghai Zoo: “lesser pandas”):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
When in a coastal town, the ocean, whether seen or not, can be felt. From the smell of the breeze coming in off the water to the rows of inner tubes and goggles stacked outside convenience stores to the lightness of the people ambling about, you’re always reminded that water is near. It’s a feeling we often crave, but hardly get to experience living in Shanghai, which, despite being a subway ride away from the Pacific, feels about as landlocked as Marshalltown, Iowa. So, with summer dwindling and with it our chances to enjoy the beach, we headed north to the city of Qingdao, which, we were pleased to find, was practically overflowing with the feeling of being on the ocean.
Wanting to make the most of the two days we had there, we booked the earliest flight we could find which served our itinerary well but required us to wake up at the unamusing time of 3:30 a.m. After sleepily staggering out of our apartment, we climbed into a miraculously free and waiting taxi, drove to the airport, boarded our plane, and were soon being greeted by our friends, Emmett and Olga at the arrivals gate. Unlike other trips of ours in the past, the purpose of this one wasn’t just to see the place, but also the people who lived there.
After saying our hellos, the first thing on the agenda, naturally, was breakfast. We went to a place near Emmett’s school and loaded up on the aptly named full English breakfast. Delicious as it was, the meal would have been best followed by a trip to the sofa, not to the beach as we had intended. In no mood to take our shirts off any time soon though, we decided to head to Qingdao’s Germantown instead to get a taste of the city’s historic side and walk off the gargantuan portion of food we had just devoured.
Like other coastal cities in China, Qingdao was the recipient of heavy Western influence at the turn of the 20th Century. While other ports like Shanghai or Hong Kong are best remembered for their French or British ties, Qingdao is remembered for its German ones. This influence has mostly disappeared over the course of the last hundred years but can still be seen today in the handful of centuries-old buildings scattered around the hillsides of the city, each one serving as a remnant of a bygone era.
As we began walking the streets of the Germantown, we found the most interesting thing to be not the buildings themselves, but rather the setting they were in. The two and three story structures would have looked perfectly normal lining the lanes of a European town, but they sat along the streets of a Chinese city which meant that the scenery and atmosphere that existed around them was a far cry from what one would expect to find in Europe. Shiny skyscrapers jutted up from behind their roofs, Chinese characters hung from their exteriors and souvenir shops selling stuffed anime dolls filled their interiors. Like an abandoned house reclaimed by the nature around it, so had the Germantown been overtaken by China.
All of this made the town rather enjoyable to walk through, which we did until our stroll carried us to within sight and smell of the ocean and we promptly left the curiously contrasting Germantown and headed towards the water.
With no beach in sight, we decided instead to explore the boardwalk and take in the scenery that accompanied it. There were pavilions and lighthouses poking up from the outcrops of land that dotted the water, the Qingdao skyline stretching out to sea until there was no more land left to accommodate it, amateur fisherman searching for clams and crabs in the crevasses left exposed by the low tide, and, of course, the people, who all seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.
While the sights were enticing, the thought of the beach loomed in our minds and we slowly made our way along the coast, winding through parks, both natural and industrial, before coming across the unimaginatively named “No. 2 Bathing Beach.” After arriving we filled up on ice-cold Tsingtao beer, our first of the trip, before tiptoeing out into the frigid water. If the beers had for some reason affected our ability to stay afloat, there was plenty of debris to grab onto whether it be the occasional bobbing chicken drumstick or the more unsettling unidentifiable floating objects that blocked our path to the open water straight ahead. After making it past the fleet of garbage, the ocean became much more enjoyable and we swam around in it for the rest of the afternoon.
As the sun began to set, we were reminded of just how quickly the day had passed and decided to leave the comfort of the ocean and begin looking for a place for dinner. Our search took us back to Emmett and Olga’s apartment where we settled on a barbecue joint along the street. Instead of a menu, they had all of their dishes on display inside of a glass box. All we had to do was tell the waiter which things we wanted and they would gather it all up and cook it on the grill behind them. Worried that we might miss something delicious, we pointed to nearly everything behind the glass like eager children in a candy shop. If ever the phrase “eyes bigger than your stomach” was appropriate, it was here, a fact we soon realized as the slew of dishes that we had ordered began to be brought out to our table and, in a matter of minutes, there was no longer any room left to put things.
Bit by bit, we picked away at the mound of food before us, but our efforts were futile as more and more skewers of meat or tofu or dishes of fried eggplant were piled on top. By the end of the meal, we looked at the unfinished dishes before us not with delight but with disdain and the process of eating, a normally enjoyable endeavor, became a chore. As we picked away, we slowly began to realize that finishing the meal would be physically impossible so we hung up our chopsticks and called it a night.
Our agenda for our second day in Qingdao was beer-centric since the city is home to China’s oldest and most recognized beer brand, Tsingtao, as well as Asia’s biggest beer festival, which happened to be taking place during our visit. The night before we had excitedly looked up information about the festival in anticipation of going and were met with photos of packed beer gardens filled with smiling faces holding giant mugs of beer and testimonies of gleeful foreigners whose beer tabs had been covered by drunk Chinese businessmen. Eager to get in on the action, we hailed a taxi after eating breakfast, leaned in the window and told the driver the only word necessary to get us to where we were going: pijiu (Chinese for beer). To our delight, it was enough and we arrived at the festival without a hitch.
As we got out of the taxi, the scene before us was vastly different from the one we had seen in the pictures the night before. The shots of happy drunkards clinking their mugs together all had one thing in common: they were taken at night, which is usually when people go out for a beer. We were at the festival at 11:00 a.m., which is precisely not the time that people go out for a beer. After entering the festival grounds, we were met with the sight of endless rows of wooden tables sitting completely empty and, even though the festival opened at the alcoholic hour of 8:30, the workers seemed shocked and perhaps a bit judgmental as they watched us stroll through. The thought of getting a 1.5 liter mug of beer and sitting alone amidst the apocalyptic spread of empty tables was pondered briefly before being quickly abandoned and replaced instead with a trip to the beach. Beer festivals, as we now know, are not happening places before noon.
The beach, on the other hand, was much more populated. As we were in a different part of Qingdao than the day before, we decided to skip the numbered bathing beaches that lied on the other side of the city for the more creatively dubbed Stone Man Beach, whose name came from the large rock sitting on the horizon which is said to look like a fisherman at sea. We didn’t see the resemblance, but then, at times, it seems that the entire creative capacity of the Chinese mind is spent on deciding what rocks look like, kind of like China’s version of cloud watching.
Confusing stone comparisons aside, the beach itself was great. The water, cool and refreshing, was much cleaner than the beach we had gone to the day before and the views, temple-dotted hillsides and an expansive beach that beautifully reflected the sky and people standing above it, much more accommodating. As we waded out into the water the afternoon slipped away and we soon found ourselves up at the boardwalk, snacking on some fried squid to keep our grumbling stomachs at bay.
After finishing our squid, we had a choice to make: return to the beer festival to see if it had livened up or go to the Qingdao Beer Museum. With a bad taste in our mouths from our first experience with the festival (or was it the squid?), we decided to go to the brewery for a tour and what we hoped would be a thorough sampling of the beer that they made there.
We were not disappointed on either front as both the tour and the hour-long free beer binge at the end were equally enjoyable. Perhaps the coolest part about the brewery were the buildings that contained it. Like the parts of Qingdao we had seen the day before, the architecture was uniquely Western. Big brick buildings draped in ivy with currents of wind running through them stretched up several floors, with some being capped by what appeared to be giant beer cans.
The first building we went into introduced us to the brewery’s history which dated back to its founding in 1903 by homesick Germans stuck in Qingdao. As we entered, we passed giant vats and machinery that had been used by the brewery during its infancy at the turn of the 20th Century. As we wandered further inward, black and white and then colored photos filled us in on everything that had happened since and we even got a brief glimpse into the beer making process, which, to our surprise, dated all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia where the drink was discovered by accident.
While the tour was interesting, it was noticeably lacking in the important category of actual beer. All the pictures and information about Tsingtao without the real thing had made us thirsty so we began making our way through the museum at a more ambitious pace, passing through various rooms and exhibits before finally making it to the end of the tour where we descended a staircase into a huge, wooden-clad room and began our one hour of limitless beer.
The idea of all-you-can-eat or, in this case, drink, is always a tempting offer, but the reality of it is that, in one hour, you can’t really eat or drink all that much. This was true for everyone except Emmett, who, in the one hour allotted to him, managed to fill and finish four mugs of beer, prompting the bartender to declare that his fourth would be his last. Apparently the title of all you can drink is a courtesy and no one expects you to actually follow through with the offer.
After sitting and chatting for a couple of hours in the brewery, we headed across the street to grab a bite to eat. With bellies full of beer and feet wary of walking, we chose the nearest restaurant and ordered a spread of food in a similar fashion as the night before, though this tIme we were a bit more cautious as to how much we ordered. The warm atmosphere of the brewery carried over to the restaurant as did the conversation and, for the next couple of hours we sat and ate and talked until our plates and mugs were empty, upon which we hailed a taxi to take us back to their apartment.
After getting back, we said our goodbyes and retired for the night. The next morning, we tiptoed out of the apartment to catch our 6 a.m. flight back to Shanghai, leaving our friends and Qingdao’s wonderful ocean vibe behind us.