“Hmm, that black speck moving across the horizon is much bigger than the other specks” we thought to ourselves, lazily gazing out at the animals moving around the giant, man-made lake sitting outside the Sri Lankan town of Polonnaruwa. The small specks were unmistakably cows, aimlessly grazing on the tall grass surrounding the lake, but what was the big one? Its movements, unlike the cows, were purposeful as it strode out of the surrounding forest and towards the lake. Slowly, the word popped into our heads, “Elephant!” Distracted by the familiarity of lakes and cows, we forgot that we were in a place where you could look out at any point and see a wild elephant wandering across the landscape. For us, this was Sri Lanka, never quite what we expected it to be, but always surprising us in the best of ways.
If we were to describe to you a town surrounded by fields, filled with friendly, English-speaking locals, with a couple of local diners on its main street along with one good grocery store, you could be mistaken for picturing a small, midwestern town in the U.S.A. If we added in a bit about a local guesthouse owner, upon our arrival, giving us directions to one of those diners by saying, “Take a right, then another right and when you get to the clock tower, keep going and you’ll find some restaurants past there,” you may be sure of your suspicion. It wouldn’t be until we got to the part about roaming wild elephants, troops of monkeys, locals bathing in rivers, and UNESCO-recognized ancient ruins sitting within the town limits that you would begin to think otherwise. So was the allure of Polonnaruwa, with all of the charm you could want from a small town and all of the experiences you could expect from a world-renowned tourist destination.
Following the directions given to us by our guesthouse owner, we peddled into the town, past fields so green they appeared artificial as they swayed in the gentle breeze pushing in off the lake. Fruit vendors dotted the side of the road, their stalls decorated by a colorful arrangement of tropical fruits, some of which we had never seen before. Slowly along the route, guesthouses and hotels started becoming more frequent sights and finally the clock tower came into view. Heeding the advice given to us, we rode past it and pulled our bikes off to the side of the road, continuing our search for lunch on foot. There was no need to lock our bikes, we were told, as no one in the town would bother to steal them, a theory that held true for the entirety of our time there. In fact, on one occasion we returned to our bikes to find that someone had even moved them off the side of the road to a shady patch under the awning of a convenience store. We were never at a loss to find examples of the warmness of locals in Polonnaruwa.
The first shop we passed resembling a restaurant was what looked like an oversized closet with pictures of fruit smoothies plastering its exterior. Having had nothing to eat that day besides the variety of treats paraded down the aisle on our train from Colombo to Polonnaruwa that were fried to a degree suitable for a state fair, our bodies were craving nutrients and a place advertising fresh fruit smoothies seemed like a good place to start. As we entered the shop though, we found that smoothies were the only thing on the menu and the owner, aware that we were looking for a bit more than a glass of fruit juice, pointed us to a restaurant across the street that his friend owned.
If ever there was place that truly embodied the phrase hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the establishment that we were crossing the street and walking towards would certainly have been it. The roof consisted of several crooked sheets of rusted tin, the outside walls were faded and tattered, and the interior a collection of old and worn furniture that lined the stained and peeling walls. As we sat down, the owner pointed us in the direction of a large bowl of rice and four earthen pots sitting buffet style on a table near the entrance. We filled our plates with the rice along with the lentil curry, minced jackfruit, and a couple of other things we couldn’t identify that filled the bowls along with a handful of baked pita bread crisps. An ice cold Pepsi served in an opaque and chipped glass waited for us back at our table.
While on vacation, the little voice in the back of our head meant to warn us against the possibility of food poisoning at sketchy-looking restaurants always gets a bit louder, as if our mind has given it a higher pedestal to shout from just to be safe. In this instance though, the voice was silent. Despite the less than ideal conditions for a place preparing our food, we had an overwhelming feeling that the restaurant was well-taken care of, a feeling that was justified by our meal, which was one of the best we would have during our time in the country. As we left the restaurant, a man in shabby business clothes took a momentary break from eating his lunch with his fingers, as most in the country do, to look up at us and, in a delightful but fleeting way, say in perfect English, “Best buffet in town!” before returning to his meal. As we said, always being surprised in the best of ways.
After leaving the restaurant, and with little time left in the day, our agenda for the afternoon was limited to a bike ride through the town to familiarize ourselves with its layout before the next day’s more thorough exploration. Our ride took us to the entrance of the ancient city, past the lake where we saw the elephant emerge from the forest in pursuit of an early-evening bath, and to a small outpost of ruins that were aptly named as there wasn’t much left of them apart from crumbling heaps of brick, crooked columns whose ceilings had long since disappeared, and one pristinely preserved statue carved out of a rockface.
Arriving back at our guesthouse at dusk and with time to spare before dinner, we went on a short walk towards the last remnants of the day’s sunset, an orange glow emanating from the distant mountains. As we watched the glow become slowly overtaken by the veil of night, we could see what looked to be a flock of birds steadily flowing out of the horizon. Their methodical movements across the sky left us hypnotized, a state that was only broken when one flew overhead. Its size astounded us. In the distance, the flying creatures had appeared like small dots but overhead, they were more the size of a hawk. “Surely, they can’t be hawks though,” we thought to ourselves as there were hundreds of them streaming across the sky. We watched as another darted by, then another, then another until finally one flew by slow enough for us to notice that it had webbed wings, after which we made the horrifying but exciting connection that these weren’t birds at all, rather bats! We watched, entranced by their graceful flock, for as long as we could until the night grew to a degree that made the mammals nearly invisible to the eye. As we entered back into the gate of our guesthouse, we were told that dinner was ready, a delicious home-cooked affair prepared by the owner and his mother that we unashamedly devoured before retiring to our room for the night.
The sun had barely risen on our second day in Polonnaruwa before we were on our bikes and heading towards the ruins of the ancient garden city that drew tourists to the small town by the thousands. Our tickets, large and thick enough to make one expect to find bark on their outer edges, were purchased at the site’s museum which we toured for a brief briefing on the ruins before peddling through the gates and beginning our exploration of the city.
Before going to the ruins, we were told they they were relatively compact, accessible by bike and seeable in an afternoon. While the first two held true, we began to question the authenticity of the latter piece of advice as soon as we pulled up to our first site: the Royal Palace. As we got off our bikes, we found ourselves taking in a scene that looked like it had been plucked from the pages of a storybook. Paths shot off in every direction, running past various ancient buildings and out of sight over the meager hills of the landscape. The trees that filled the grounds had bark that appeared like a collection of bulging veins that wove through each other down the trunk of the tree before slithering menacingly into the ground below. The palace itself, which once stood seven stories high, was now a jagged heap of bricks whose magnificence had long since faded but whose allure was still very much intact. An otherworldly light was cast over the scenery from the sporadic canopy hanging overhead. We wandered around the grounds aimlessly, as no direction seemed like the right one to go in, eventually settling on a nice place to sit and take in all that was laid out before us.
Very aware of the extent of sights that still awaited us, we decided to leave the Royal Palace ruins behind and head to the next main sight in the city: the Quadrangle. Inciting flashbacks to the horrors of elementary geometry, we were relieved to find that the sight had nothing to do with math and everything to do with ancient ruins. The Quadrangle got its name from the four walls surrounding it, whose short and thin nature made us believe that they served more as boundary markers than to hinder anyone from entering. Inside the walls, a trove of religious buildings lay spread across the grounds, each one in a varying state of ruin. What caught our eye the most, apart from the buildings themselves or the statues that filled them, were the semi-circle slabs of stone that sat at the foot of many of the doorways. The name for them, moonstones, was as beautiful as the stones themselves.
Named so because of their semi-circular cut, the moonstones feature various animals chasing each other in a ringed fashion across their borders. While debated, the animals are said to represent the four noble truths of life recognized in Buddhism, which are – prepare yourself – birth, decay, disease and death, which most seem to be antonyms of life, but, when thought about, sadly make sense. Beneath the animals ran a band of leaves said to represent desire, below which a lotus flower sat. It is said that once one can master the four noble truths of life and learn to suppress desire, they can reach Nirvana, represented by the lotus flower. A lot of meaning packed into a stone and a constant reminder of one’s beliefs as they passed over it to enter the Buddhist temples and structures that the moonstones sat outside of.
As we walked around the grounds of the Quadrangle, we began to notice that our ability to tour the temples barefoot was becoming increasingly hindered due to the sun beating down on the bare floors of the roofless structures. Like grabbing a plate that a waiter tells you is very hot only to find that it is indeed very hot, we tested our ability to walk on the scorched stones over and over again, burning our feet as a result and leaving us to dash pathetically towards any shade in sight. Faced with this inability to tour the temples, we decided to leave the Quadrangle, and the rest of Polonnaruwa, for later viewing once the sun was a bit lower on the horizon.
The second half of our day in the ancient city began with us being captivated not by the ruins but rather by the monkeys that called them home. As we pulled up to Gal Vihara, the first sight on our agenda for the afternoon, we noticed a rather large gathering of macaques huddled around a collection of waste bins sitting outside the souvenir shops of the area. We had seen a monkey or two scampering about the grounds earlier, but this was a full-fledged village and well worth a closer look. Inch by inch, we made our way up to the outskirts of their micro-community, watching in wonder as everyday monkey life unfolded before our eyes. There were toddlers testing their limits as they leapt from one branch to another, usually failing to come close to their intended target, adolescents chasing each other around and causing havoc that an irritated adult would sometimes speak up about, and mothers, sitting idly by and watching nervously as their children played, sometimes swooping in to stop a kid they had decided was being too dangerous or inappropriate. We watched on, our unfailing interest in the monkeys being matched only by their complete uninterest in us. Eventually, a voice in the back of our heads reminded us of the plethora of sights awaiting us and we bid farewell to the macaques and began making our way towards Gal Vihara.
While ancient, to call Gal Vihara ruins would be a drastic overstatement. The humble collection of four Buddha statues, etched into the swirling, marbled granite of the site, looked as if they could have been carved yesterday, their features smooth and unblemished as they ran across the stone’s surface. The rules of erosion and time that existed in such perfect unity throughout the rest of Polonnaruwa didn’t seem to apply here.
After leaving Gal Vihara, I would have another encounter with the primates of Polonnaruwa, this time with the resident langur, the macaques less intelligent cousin, which was evident in their blank gaze that was broken only for the occasional itch. Separated from Kate at this point as we had split off to pursue our own interests at the current site we were at, I came across a couple of slouched langurs sitting on a crumbling wall. Mistaking their vacant expression and idle state for a creature unwilling to move, I crept closer as there was was no sign that they were even aware of my presence. After taking several pictures and pulling the camera lens away from my eyes, I was startled to see that the monkey I was snapping a photo of had moved. My surprise quickly turned to pure terror as I realized that the monkey had moved to begin its pursuit of me. No experience in my life has ever quite prepared me for an angry monkey, only a few feet away, sprinting towards me with malintent, so I relied on my primal instincts and ran madly until the monkey gave up its pursuit. I was thankful that the langur had the attention span of, well, a langur and doubly thankful that there were no other people around to witness my desperate dash.
The rest of the day would see us stop off at other various sights within the grounds, each as inspiring as the one that came before it. While walking past half missing statues that towered into the barren sky or past trees as timeless as the buildings that they were crawling over, you couldn’t help but feel small, like an ant crawling over a piece of gold, completely unaware of the true value of it.
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.
“Mei you hua,” the fruit vendor shouted in a bemused tone as we hiked past her stall perched on the hillside. We were making our way through the mountainous countryside of Wuyuan in hopes of seeing the region’s valleys flooded by the seasonal rapeseed flower and were just told that there weren’t any. The bright yellow sea of flowers that had enticed our imaginations for weeks leading up to the trip would instead be a sea of familiar green. After a cramped 8-hour bus ride to get to Wuyuan and the headaches that came with navigating an entire county using a map the size of our palms, we were considerably disappointed. Over the course of the next few days in the area though, we would find that the yellow bloom of the rapeseed wasn’t the only cause to explore the southern Chinese county, merely just another draw among the long list of beautiful scenes it had to offer.
Our starting point for the trip was Xiaolu Hostel, a sleepy three-story building tucked away down a dusty alleyway in the county’s capital city. After arriving at the hostel, travel weary and ready for sleep, we were informed that the beds we were so looking forward to crawling into weren’t available. It turned out that the hostel had forgotten about our booking, citing that we had made it too far in advance, and given our beds to some less proactive individuals. After telling us this, the woman working the front desk began nervously rifling through the pages of the book in front of her in search of a solution. The one she eventually came to was that Kate would stay in the hostel’s family room whose two other inhabitants were under the impression that the private room they booked would actually stay private…enter Kate. And Ryan would be relegated to the storage room, where they would put together a makeshift bed for him to sleep on. At least there would be no snoring!
After a surprisingly solid night’s sleep we were ready to start exploring the county’s ancient villages and famed countryside. To get around the county you basically have three routes to choose from: the pragmatically named North Route, West Route, and East Route. The latter, which wound through several villages before ending in a hill-encompassed valley filled with terraced fields of rapeseed flowers, seemed the most enticing to us so we hailed a taxi and made our way to the first stop along it: the village of Small Likeng.
There’s something eternally alluring about ancient Chinese villages. No matter how many we visit, they always seem to capture our imaginations despite the fact that most of them are relatively the same. They are usually built around a stream, sometimes several, which meander through the village before emptying out into the surrounding countryside. Across the streams stretch bridges and alongside them run the village’s paths, which are bookended by whitewashed buildings whose namesake color has been slowly overtaken by the creeping, black march of mildew across their walls. Ornate wooden carvings hang from the building’s uppermost floors, and cavernous rooms fill their interiors, both tellers of the village’s past glories. The present state of the wood however, worn and faded, tell of the current lack of it. And while many of these villages have the air of a repurposed tourist attraction, there are still pockets within them that give you a glimpse into what life there was like when their purpose was being lived in rather than visited. Down alleyways not meant to be looked down, through doors mistakenly left open, if you look in the right places, a picture of life in the village still exists and is essential to the appreciation of it.
Another trait all of the village’s that we’ve been to share, quite obviously, is their title of “village,” which means that no matter how interesting they may be, their capacity for exploration is limited. So, after exploring all the corners of Small Likeng, those both hidden and in plain sight, we soon found ourselves nearing it’s outer limits. As we drew closer to the end of the path we were walking along, there seemed to be a perfect balance between the dissipation of foot traffic on it and the buildup of dust in the storefronts alongside it, a testament to their limited visitors and even more limited sales. Fully aware of this situation, we kept our eyes fixated on the scenery straight ahead for we knew that any glance, however brief, at a given item would undoubtedly elicit a desperate “hello” from the shop owner in an attempt to startle us into eye contact and, as a result, lure us into their shop for a look.
Just before reaching the edge of town, our unflinching gaze was broken as we peeked over to an antique shop that had caught the interest of our peripheral vision. The shop was owned by a kindly old woman who seemed very proud of the different trinkets she had on display, which were barely visible beneath the thick layer of dust sitting on top of them. As we looked around, one particular item caught our eye: a tiny vase yellowed by time with a traditional Chinese painting covering its body. We had never seen anything like it before and enthusiastically told the shop owner that we’d like to purchase it. As we handed over our money, questions about the vase’s past coursed through our minds. Was it a family heirloom handed down from generation to generation? Was it found buried in a field while a farmer was digging a well? Was it painted during the village’s heyday by one of the many artists that called its streets home? We couldn’t be for sure, but one thing we did know: it was special.
As we began making our way out of the village though, in a cruel blow to the contentedness we had with our purchase, we passed shop after shop selling the exact vase we had just bought. With each one we convinced ourselves that that must be the only other one in existence in a desperate attempt to maintain the mystery that our vase had held just moments before. By the fifth shop though, our mysterious antique vase had completed its sad and all too quick descent into a common souvenir. Still clinging to some hope of its uniqueness, we told ourselves that the vases are only from that particular village and are really hoping we don’t see it anywhere in Shanghai.
After leaving Small Likeng we decided to make our next and last stop of the day be the village of Jiangling. It was there that we expected to see the scenery depicted in all of the faded tourist posters hung throughout the county: white-washed villages floating in a sea of yellow rapeseed flowers that climbed up the surrounding mountains on the stair-like terraces carved out of their slopes. It wasn’t until our unfortunate meeting with the fruit vendor that we began to expect anything else. Suddenly, we stopped focusing on the yellow flowers that had already bloomed and instead began focusing on those that hadn’t with the latter outweighing the former dramatically. We anxiously climbed up the terraces and, as we reached the top of one of the hills, our pessimism became justified as we stared out over the overwhelmingly green landscape. Don’t get us wrong, it was still beautiful, but when we came expecting this:
And instead were met with this:
We couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, especially after reaching the painful conclusion that probably within a week of our departure from Wuyuan, the flowers would be in full bloom. Not wanting to dwell too much on what could have been though, we enjoyed the scenery for what it was: patternless patches of fields that fit together like puzzle pieces as they rolled off into the distance, outposts of civilization in the form of tiny, clustered villages laying scattered across them and a humble spread of mountains sitting formidably overtop. It was an almost perfect springtime scene and we sat taking it in for nearly an hour before finally calling it a day and catching a bus back to our hostel.
After spending most of our first day either in a village or on the road, we decided to begin our second day with a dose of nature by going to the northernmost point of the North Route to explore Wolong Valley, home of one of the region’s best hiking opportunities as well as China’s tallest waterfall.
As our bus came to a stop in front of the entrance to the valley, we spilled out of it’s claustrophobic interior and almost immediately found ourselves on the main hiking path, which our legs, eager to stretch out, began carrying us down. The path, as we would find out rather quickly, was perfect: not too steep so as to exhaust us to the point of not being able to appreciate our surroundings, but also not too flat so as to rob us of a feeling of accomplishment once we reached its end. The entire way through the valley it stayed fastened to the river that ran alongside it, which always seemed to be in a state of motion. In some places it trickled and in others it roared as it ran over rocks and boulders of every shape and size, wearing them down to an uncanny smoothness.
Entranced by the river, we continued following it until the hills and trees that had hovered over us for so long came to an abrupt end and the path opened up to a view of the 2,935 foot-tall waterfall and the vast valley that accommodated it. Everything there seemed exaggerated when compared with the scenery that had surrounded us just moments before. Hills became mountains. Small patches of sky poking through the canopy of trees became a bright blue expanse. And the river, whose rumblings had seemed impressive all throughout our hike up, now paled in comparison to the towering waterfall before us, which stretched so far up the mountainside that at times it seemed to disappear as it fell, only becoming visible again as it crashed into the rocks below.
We wandered around the valley as much as it would allow before before finding a good spot to rest and stare out at the waterfall. As we did this, we found it to be ironic that, as we watched the water in it’s most turbulent state, we were at our calmest, taking in the scenery for as long as our agenda would allow before deciding to leave our peaceful perch to go back down through the valley and enter a turbulent stretch ourselves as we headed to the village of Huangling where we would finally experience the force that is a Chinese tourist attraction during a holiday weekend.
For two and a half years we have craftily avoided traveling in China during a holiday whether it be getting out of the country entirely or simply hunkering down in our apartment in Shanghai. To give you an idea of what traveling in China is like, if just .0001 percent of the population decides to go to a certain place on any given weekend, you’re still looking at 137,000 people. Typically, Chinese tourists will wait to travel during one of the country’s six major public holidays throughout the year, undoubtedly bumping that incremental percentage up a few points and turning already crowded tourist spots into a nightmarish mob of people all jostling for sight lines and pictures. Not only had we soberly decided to pursue this situation by traveling during Tomb Sweeping Festival, one of the major holidays, we had also chosen to go to one of the most popular springtime destinations in China being the rapeseed blooms of Wuyuan. Understandably, we were very nervous as to what awaited us on the trip.
To our surprise though, for the first day and a half the crowds we encountered were no different than our other trips in China: big but bearable. It wasn’t until Huangling, our last stop during our time in Wuyuan, that we saw the ugly face of Chinese holiday crowds. As we got off the the bus, we found the outside of it to be more cramped than the inside had been. To keep our sanity, we immediately disregarded the crowd as a collection of individuals and instead viewed it as a single entity, forcefully pushing through it until we reached the tourist office where we got our tickets and joined the line for the cable cars that would carry us up to the mountaintop village.
The line, long enough to warrant snack and water vendors sitting intermittently alongside it, was a source of entertainment for the workers guiding those waiting in it to the cable car station. With smiles of amazement, they snapped pictures of the line, shaking their head in disbelief as they reexamined the images on their phone so as to make sure that what they were seeing was real. Despite its near endless nature though, the line moved along rather quickly (so much so that we didn’t have time to stop and get a snack from one of those vendors) and we found ourselves on a cable car heading up the mountain far sooner than we ever had imagined we would be.
Once back on solid ground, we made our way to Huangling which we found to be about as close to its original purpose as a hipster shopping scene set in an old factory district. Wanting to escape the crowds and find a bit more authentic place to take everything in, we got off the beaten path and began wandering through the back lanes of the village, which were eerie in their emptiness. Eventually we came upon a former residence open to the public, and climbed up its wooden stairways and out onto a patio overlooking everything.
The village, which plunged downward into the valley that it sat atop, seemed to mirror the rapeseed terraces sitting across from it as both rose up their respective mountain’s slopes in stair-like fashion. Stretching out from the houses, like a rack from a giant outdoor oven, were wooden rods of various widths and lengths on top of which sat the drying peppers and vegetables we were so eager to see. The village’s otherwise monochrome display of whitewashed buildings was made vibrant by the bright reds of the peppers.
As the sun slipped closer to the horizon, the baskets were pulled back into the houses and with little time left, we decided to explore the surrounding countryside as much as we could before catching the last cable car down the mountain. After making it out of the village, the crowds began to thin out the further along we walked and we found a nice spot to sit and take in the scenery. With the sun now entirely behind the mountains, we stared out at the terraces, taunted by the few patches of yellow scattered throughout them. We closed our eyes and pictured what the valley might have looked like if the other flowers had decided to join them in their blooming. When we opened our eyes, it wasn’t what we had expected but still beautiful all the same.
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.
Imagine something you really want. Now ask yourself the question, “Would I cut my own eye out to get it?” If your answer is yes, and hopefully it isn’t, then you are in the company of an 8th Century Chinese monk named Hai Tong.
Over 1,000 years ago he and some others made their living in the present-day city of Leshan, which happened to sit next to the confluence of three rivers. The rivers, tumultuous and unpredictable, wreaked havoc on the villagers and, as it was decided, a water spirit was to blame. So, Hai Tong took matters into his own hands and began raising funds to carve a Giant Buddha into the cliff face to help calm the waters. When asked by government officials to show his sincerity for completing the project, he opted to do another carving, that of his aforementioned body part, in a manner that surely must have convinced them of his dedication. Ninety years later, long after the death of Hai Tong, the statue was completed and 1,000 years later it’s still standing and remains one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world.
Wanting to see (with both of our eyes) the colossal carving in person, we set our sights on a day trip to Leshan from Chengdu. The bus ride was quick and in no time at all we were buying a ticket and heading through the main gate. As we entered, the atmosphere turned to that of a jungle, or at least what we would imagine a jungle to be. Bamboo shoots shot up from either side of the path we walked down, their thick foliage casting a uniform shadow across the scenery ahead. Below the bamboo canopy hung thin and wiry vines and standing formidably above it was stone wall whose rusty orange exterior was segmented by running streaks of grass and weeds. Deep and dark crevasses, some big enough to be caves, covered the wall.
After a short while on the path, the jungle-like atmosphere turned to that of a mountain as our path tilted upwards before leveling off once more at the foot of our first site: a stone stupa as old as the Grand Buddha himself. After straining our necks to look up at it for a short while, we noticed we were sharing the site with a red-clad monk who, to our surprise, walked up to us and asked in perfect English, “Would you mind taking a picture of me in front of the stupa?” We nodded obligingly and followed him as he slowly walked in a circle around its base, counting his prayer beads in a manner that made us wonder whether he remembered that we were following him. After making a full circle, he stopped in the front, gave a quick smile for the picture, took his smartphone back, and began circling the stupa again.
It’s amazing how different an experience you can have of a place depending on which walk of life you come from. For us, we were there solely for touristic purposes while he was there for spiritual ones. We, to marvel at the work of man, he, at the work of God. Despite our different intentions though, the result of our experience was the same: that of pure awe and admiration.
After leaving the stupa, our path would take us through a couple of new and beautifully decorated temples before finally emptying out into a large plaza where we would get our first glimpse of the Grand Buddha. It was one of those moments where you see something so incredibly different from anything you have ever experienced before that, for a brief moment, your mind struggles to grasp what it’s taking in. And then, in an explosion of consciousness, you scramble to take in every bit of detail that you can, wonder trumping disbelief. That is what we experienced upon seeing the Grand Buddha for the first time, its giant eye peering over the encompassing railing, dwarfing the silhouettes of the people standing before it.
After walking up to the railing ourselves and squinting down to the Buddha’s feet, we got our first idea of just how big the statue actually was. His ears were big enough for a grown adult to climb into comfortably and nestle in for a nap. His lap big enough to play a half-court basketball game on with room to spare. And his toenails, almost too far away for us to see clearly, were bigger than the people walking around them. It was absolutely gargantuan and the spectacle of it meant heavy crowds nearly everywhere we turned. Although we desperately wanted to descend to the Buddha’s feet, our desire to avoid the long and raucous line to do so was stronger so we decided to leave the descent for later in the day, when, as we hoped, the line would be much shorter.
We opted instead to explore the rest of the park’s grounds, which as we found out after coming up on our first map of them, were vast and the perfect place to waste time away until we were ready to head back to the Grand Buddha. As we began making our way through the grounds, we were taken down an endless array of paths that wound in and out of each other, up and down hills, through temples and shrines, around a tiny koi fish pond, and past plenty of Chinglish gems.
Eventually though, the path led us back to the Grand Buddha where we discovered that our brilliant plan of waiting for a shorter line had backfired rather dramatically as the line was now much longer than it had been before. Suddenly we had to use the restroom again, a cheap ploy to avoid getting into the line for as long as we could, knowing what awaited us, which was an inescapable fate of pushing and jostling for line position, pictures being taken of us against our will, and jeers of “foreigner” shouted in our direction. The wait, as we expected, was all of this and more, but luckily it was fairly ignorable as there were bigger things demanding our attention, mainly, the Grand Buddha.
To get down to its feet, we would have to take the nine-turn cliff road, which was exactly what it’s name implies, a jagged path hanging off the cliff side as it descended to the feet. The staircase, which offered incredible views of the Buddha when you you weren’t staring at your feet to prevent a stumble down its steep steps, was an attraction in and of itself. All along the descent, there were statues and figures carved into the rock face, their extremely worn and weathered condition a testament to their age.
With each of the nine turns, we made our way further and further down the Buddha, body part by body part, an anatomical descent of sorts. First we started at the neck, then, with the next turn were at the chest, then the torso, then the lap, and on it went until we finally found ourselves standing at its feet.
Standing at his toes (which were taller then we were) our eyes naturally trailed up the Buddha’s body and around the two cliffs that bookended it, one of which we had just zigzagged down. Trees, which stretched out from every crack and fissure offered by the cliff side, appeared to be small shrubs in comparison to the size of the Buddha. The people hanging over the railing near his head, like ants. Our minds bounced back and forth from appreciation of the enormity of the statue to speculation of the enormity of the task that made it.
No matter where our wandering gaze took us around the the Buddha, we always ended up back at his eyes, which appeared almost human in their contemplative stare out into the three converging rivers. It was the one part of the statue that was attainable. The rest of the body, while human in form, was anything but. With its cracks and crumbling edifice, it appeared to be blending back in to the cliff from which it was carved.
After what must have been an hour of looking up at the statue, we decided to give our necks a rest and start heading back up towards the Buddha’s head. By that time of the day, most of the crowd had cleared out and we figured it would be best to follow suit as the park was nearing closing time and the sun creeping ever closer to the horizon. By the time we made it back to Chengdu it was dark and, hungry from a full day of exploration, we stopped off at a restaurant on the way back to our hostel to try one of Sichuan’s most famous exports: hot pot.
The process of eating hot pot is as enticing as the food itself. First you order an array of ingredients, which range from things as simple as raw potatoes or beef to “do-people-really-eat-that?” things like congealed blood or the lining of a cow’s stomach (we opted for the former). Then you order a soup for the ingredients to be cooked in which varies in degrees of spiciness. Since Sichuan is known for the face-reddening, sweat-inducing nature of its food, we chose one of the spicier varieties.
After our waitress had brought out our pot of soup, placed it in the middle of the table, and turned on the stove beneath it, the water boiled red due to the heaping amounts of peppers dwelling beneath the surface. Soon after, plate after plate of the ingredients we ordered were brought out and we began dumping the contents of them into the soup to cook. As we pulled the first bits of meat and vegetables out with our chopsticks and drew them towards our mouth, we worried about just how much of the spice had soaked in.
To our relief, it was the perfect amount and for the next hour or so we sought out the rest of the bobbing pieces of meat and vegetables, plucking them out of the water until there were none left. After paying our bill and with a full day now behind us, we walked contentedly back to our hostel to rest up before our last day in Chengdu.
If the beauty of a place is measured by the amount of wows muttered and gasps taken while witnessing it, then China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park may very well be the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen. With lakes so blue they practically glowed through the damp browns and greens of the forest surrounding them to mountains capped with mist-blanketed evergreens, the park was never at a lack of sights to keep us in awe.
The beauty of the park and the area surrounding it was even evident in the taxi ride from the airport to our homestay, that is when we weren’t closing our eyes, wincing in anticipation of death as our driver swerved from lane to lane dodging oncoming traffic and the occasional yak. After about an hour of this we pulled up to our accommodation for the trip: Zhou Ma’s Jiuzhaigou Homestay, a two-story house situated in a small Tibetan village clinging to the mountainside.
After spilling out of the death trap that had brought us there, we were greeted by the unfailingly charismatic Ama (Tibetan for “mom”) who had a small arsenal of English that she used more as a means of her own amusement than of communicating, made evident by the deep and hearty laugh that followed the small phrases she would utter to us as she gave us a tour of the house. Immediately upon stepping through the heavily ornamented front door, we were met with an elaborately painted and decorated interior, where not an inch of ceiling or wall was spared the stroke of a brush. Everywhere we looked was a work of art.
The tour of the house eventually led to our room where we dropped our things and headed out into the village to do some exploring since the waning nature of the day made going to the park out of the question. However ambitious our intentions were though, they were quickly trumped by our weariness from travel and we were soon back in the house, waiting in the common room for our much anticipated home-cooked dinner. As we were the only ones staying there that night, it was a VIP affair with Ama cooking for us and sticking around to chat with us in an unpredictable blend of English and Chinese. This continued for about an hour or so until our mental capacity to continue a conversation in a language we barely grasped failed us and we bid goodnight to Ama and headed up to our room.
Our second day started early as we wanted to get to the park as close to opening time as possible due to the forums we had read before the trip telling tale after tale of people having to wait in long and chaotic lines just to get a ticket let alone get into the park. Having lived in China for over two years, our imaginations ran wild with apocalyptic images of mobs of people shoving and shouting and complete mayhem unfolding and ruining what we had hoped would be an escape from the headaches of Shanghai. The reality of it, luckily for us, was far from this. The amount of people there was in typical Chinese fashion, but the scene was nowhere near the one we had pessimistically dreamt up.
After maneuvering through the clusters of tour groups, we found ourselves at the ticket counter where we had decided that we would try to pull a fast one on the ticket attendant by pretending we were university students in hopes of cutting the steep $50 entrance fee per person in half. So, we confidently handed over Kate’s long expired college ID and Ryan’s Ohio driver’s license, hoping they would pass as valid student IDs as they have before. Unfortunately for us, the woman spoke fluent English and it only took her a matter of seconds to see through our facade and hand our cards back to us one by one, saying in a scolding tone, “This is past due and this is a driver’s card…620 RMB.”
Dignity gone, but tickets in hand, we headed towards the main gate and shortly after entering found ourself in the long lines promised by the various guidebooks and forums. It didn’t take us long though to realize that the lines led to the buses that ran from site to site in the park. Wanting to see what was in between (isn’t that the point?), we hopped the railing and within minutes went from something akin to a death metal mosh pit to a secluded wooden plank road winding through the wilderness.
The first thing that caught our eyes (and ears) after getting on the path was the river running alongside of it. Not only was the roar of the violently rumbling water just a few feet away something to behold, but also the clarity of it was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It would set the tone for the rest of our time in the park, a constant state of awe and bewilderment at nature the way it was intended to be: vast and void of the trace of human touch.
Eventually the path would take us away from the river and towards the park’s resident Buddhist temple. From a distance, the temple seemed rather routine, a white building capped in a golden dome, but as we drew closer, the temple took on the characteristics of the park that inhabited it. Colors exploded from its exterior in the form of Buddhist prayer flags hung all about and the paintings that, much like our homestay, seemed to occupy every square inch of the walls surrounding the temple.
The sun, which had just miraculously burst through the rainy skies we had grown accustomed to during our hike, shone off of the temple’s golden roof, illuminating the valley in which it sat. If we had been Buddhist, we might have described the experience as spiritual, but as far as we were concerned, we were just happy that the rain had finally stopped.
After the temple, we found our way back to the familiar wooden plank road and walked…and walked…and walked…and, well, you get the point. There were of course breaks every now and then, most notably for a yak meat sandwich prepared for us by Ama, but, most of our time was spent upright, moving further and further into the park. Despite spending nearly ten hours that day on our feet, the fact that we were walking always seemed to be an afterthought. Our focus was never on the path and our striding feet directly below us but rather what that path stretched into. We walked past villages, over rivers, under the shadow of a mountain, past waterfalls and, no matter how hard we tried, there was never the sound of an engine to be heard or a sign of modernity to be seen. You could get lost in it, and we did, for hours. That is until we hit one of the major waterfalls in the park: Shuzheng Waterfall, which sadly meant reentering civilization or at least representatives of it. In what felt like a blink, we went from the seclusion of our beloved plank road to having to wait in line just to advance further along it.
The slowing of pace was welcomed though as it allowed us a significant amount of time to take in the falls, which were unlike any we had ever seen before. Our experience with waterfalls is a river falling over the edge of a cliff in a few, steady streams to the rocks below, but this was more like a lake sliding down a mountain. The water shot in countless different directions, following the grooves laid out by the eroding effects of time. As we climbed upward alongside the falls, deafened by its incessant roar, we began to wonder when exactly we would reach the top of it. Up and up we climbed and still no sign of an end. When we finally did reach the top it was sort of anticlimactic as the source of all that violently tumbling water was not a tumultuous river or lake but instead a relatively shallow and calm pond, which was amazing to us. Perhaps even more amazing yet was the fact that it never stopped. Hour after hour, day after day, the water goes through a Hulkian transformation, falling down the mountainside. Even as you read this it is happening.
The path followed the water for the next hour or so and we watched it turn from a calm and shallow pond to a body consumed by reeds and trees to the point of the water being barely visible, to a rolling river to, finally, another waterfall: Nuorilang Waterfall. While it shared the same natural name as Shuzheng Falls, Nuorilang was more of a distant cousin than of immediate relation as the differences between the two were many. For starters, this one didn’t slide down the mountainside like Shuzheng appeared to have done but rather thrust itself off of the cliff side, crashing into the rocks below and creating a white and foamy mess that fizzled off into the distance. The cliff, to our delight, stretched off across our line of vision as far as the tall evergreens scattered about would allow. It was truly spectacular and we might have enjoyed it more had another waterfall provided by the clouds overhead not picked up dramatically, making the decision to call it a day and head back to the homestay all the easier.
If you look at a map of Jiuzhaigou, you’d unmistakably see the letter Y stretched across it, with each line of the letter’s body representing a different valley in the park. From the bottom of the Y to the top is around 30km and, despite hiking from dawn to dusk the day before, we had barely made it to the point where the three valleys connect. Walking Jiuzhaigou in its entirety was out of the question. Instead, for our sday there, we would have to use the shuttle buses if we wanted to see the extremities of the park that our legs couldn’t take us to. This was a difficult decision to come to because we’d much rather hike the park as opposed to ride through it and, as we had experienced the day before, the bus scene was nightmarish. If you’ve ever seen a movie about the apocalypse where hordes of people are trying to push past a line of soldiers, you might have an idea of what the lines leading up to the buses were like, only this scenario, a seat on a bus, was far less dramatic. But, as our experience in China has taught us, an open seat on public transportation is about as dramatic as it gets for the Chinese.
So, bit by bit, we pushed and squeezed and cursed our way to the front, the experience transforming us into rabid animals as we fell victim to mob mentality. As the next bus pulled up, chaos ensued (the video below, taken further inside the park, is a much tamer version of what we experienced at the entrance). Despite being the first in line for it, we were somehow not the first people in. As we finally made it to the door, a little old woman (a bowling ball as we call them due to their ferocity and crashing nature towards an open seat on the subway) came barreling through. We dared not interfere with her and instead followed the open path she created to finally get on the bus and have a seat. It was about the worst possible way to begin a park experience.
Our first stop was Shuzheng Village, which shared the same name as one of the waterfalls we had seen the day before. Jiuzhaigou literally means “valley of nine villages” so we figured it would be in our best interest to see at least one of the park’s nine namesakes. So, after getting off the bus we ditched the crowds as best we could and made our way into the village. Like the valley itself, the village, at least from the outside, seemed not to belong to this time. Colors, much like everything else we had seen in the park up to this point, were the theme. From the peeling paint of the buildings’ exteriors to the souvenirs being sold inside of them to the colorful flowers shooting up from fields surrounding it, the village was never at a lack of dullness. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for its atmosphere as there was an air of unwelcomeness as we walked through the streets. Their lifestyles had been exploited for a profit and we represented the reason why. We felt like we were intruding on something we weren’t meant to. As we found out there and in many other places, people’s lives aren’t meant to be an attraction, no matter how different they may be.
Once out of the village, we decided to hike for a little while before getting back on a bus to head to the farthest reach of the park, the Primeval Forest. Located at a higher altitude than what our previous explorations had allowed, the forest was much colder than the comparatively warmer confines of the lower valley. After getting out of the bus we were met with one of the more beautiful scenes we would witness in the whole of our time in Jiuzhaigou. At our backs, the deep and dense forest stretched off into the distance and, in front of us, a purposeful distribution of mountains were strewn across the horizon, each one covered with evergreens that appeared black in the dim morning light. A thin veil of fog covered the entire scene, appearing motionless as it sat in the vacant spaces between the trees. And, to cap it all off, as we looked out at the scene the snowy peak of a mountain slowly began to materialize from behind the fog. It was as if the scene was scripted, a show put on by nature for its admirers.
After the fog had dissipated and the show was over, we turned our backs on the scene and headed into the forest. Deep and dark and motionless, there’s a good reason why forests are always depicted in stories as being mysterious places full of danger. Their empty spaces allow for one’s imagination to fill them with all kinds of fantastical and terrible things. Luckily for us, this particular forest had a familiar wooden plank road winding through it. Familiarity, it seems, is the best antidote for fear.
With the plank road, there was also no need to worry about losing our way. Instead, we occupied our minds with the stillness and complete tranquility that stretched as far we could see in any direction we cared to look in. Even the people seemed quieter and calmer than in other areas of the park. Perhaps we imitate the environment around us. Near the hectic and noisy waterfalls, people were rambunctious, but in the forest, those same people barely made a sound.
After leaving the forest, we hopped back on a bus en route to our next destination: Five Flower Lake, one of the sites we were most looking forward to seeing. The lake got its name because the different colors it takes on makes it resemble a flower garden. The color we were seeing that day was an icy blue, as clear and as crisp as one could imagine water being. The lake sunk to a depth of about sixteen feet and every inch of it was as visible as the fiery leaves floating on the surface.
If the water wasn’t enough to incite one’s sense of awe, the trees, laying jumbled like a game of pick-up-sticks beneath the surface, would certainly do the trick. As we looked down it felt like we were gazing upon an ancient shipwreck, whose demise was violent but now sat peacefully preserved in the water. The scene didn’t move or change, but we couldn’t look away. So, as the rain stopped and the crowds moved around us, our eyes stayed fixated upon the lake while our minds struggled to grasp the beauty of it. Sadly, we had other corners of the park to explore and, after leaving Five Flower Lake and enjoying another yak meat sandwich, we were back on a bus and heading to the pragmatically named Long Lake.
The lake couldn’t have been more different from the one we had just seen. Whereas Five Flower Lake was shallow and small, Long Lake was deep and, well, long. So long in fact that we couldn’t even see the end of it as it winded around the corner of a mountain and out of sight. It’s said that when someone experiences the grandeur of nature, they are humbled and inclined to be more empathetic towards others as they are reminded that there are things much bigger and eternal than themselves in this world. Long Lake seemed to have had that effect on the people looking out at it. Much like the forest earlier in the day, everyone there was in a state of quiet contemplation.
With our day now nearing its end, we wanted to see one more lake before calling it quits and decided to hike to the Five Colored Pond, which laid a little further down the valley from Long Lake. The hike there, to our delight, was secluded and, after about a half hour or so we were alerted to our arrival at the pond by the bright blue we saw filling the spaces in between the trees ahead. We giddily descended to the lakeshore, which, like Five Flower Lake, was shallow and small and crystal clear.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine natural water as being blue. Sure, when you’re a child and coloring an ocean, you make it blue, but rarely does reality reflect that. Rivers run brown, lakes become murky and almost greenish, but this water was truly blue. Not knowing when we would get to see anything like that again, we stuck around, looking out at it all before finally convincing ourselves to head back to our homestay.
That night for dinner, a final home-cooked meal capped off our experience of Jiuzhaigou and the next morning we boarded a bus for Chengdu, the next leg of our trip. It was hard to leave the park and homestay behind us and, even as we write this now, our hearts ache knowing that, most likely, we will never get to experience it again. It will forever be a memory, and what a memory it will be.
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?