Lama Temple

Lama Temple

My return to the Beijing hutongs was bittersweet. This summer, I spent most of my free time after my internship getting lost in the chaotic grey-brick mazes that enclave the Lama Temple and Confucius Temple. It was remarkable to see that in the span of a few months, the hutongs that I’d become so familiar with had completely changed. My favorite coffee shop on Yonghegong? Gone. Now just a brick wall with a tiny window that used to be the glass door entrance to this popular specialty coffee shop. That one cement table with four plastic chairs always occupied by 老北京人 (Old Beijingers) playing Mahjong? Gone. Now a state-of-the-art public bathroom with Western toilets.

I appreciate the preservation efforts of Xi and the mayor of Beijing to “carefully polish every historical cultural block.” Even though less than 1/3 of the hutongs remain, they still remain an integral part of Beijing’s OG identity– one step into the hutongs instantly transports you back to the old days. This summer, most of the hutongs around the Lama temple were barricaded by piles

of bricks and construction workers. This time round, there was much less construction happening, but it seems as if the more the government touches the hutongs, the less preserved it feels. According to a recent article by the New York Times, The government is hellbent on clearing out all unregistered settlements and private businesses.

Construction in Wudaoying Hutong

Installation of the public bathroom

Even though a lot of small businesses are being replaced by traditional grey-brick walls, the relentless preservation efforts seem to also be driving out the soul of hutongs. It saddens me to see the hutongs lose their exciting unpredictability. As long as Xi doesn’t knock down my favorite 炸酱面 (Beijing fermented bean noodles) or 面茶 (peanut porridge) place I can’t complain too much.

 

After spending a few nights reacclimatizing to the hutongs, I joined our group on a tour the Lama Temple. We lit up some incense and pretended to know what we were doing in front of the first shrine.

Visitor in prayer

After about the 5th buddha statue I decided to take a few pictures of the architecture and colorful artworks. The last shrine was home to an impressively large Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of the future). With a clear emphasis on the future, I hope the Lama Temple and its surrounding hutongs continue to be cultural strongholds of Old Beijing– despite the questionable renovations.

炸酱面 (Fermented bean noodles)

面茶 (Peanut Porridge)

 

Yuhu

Up until now our travels were comfortable. Suspiciously comfortable. Although we were warned about the altitude, few of us have experienced the effects that nearly two miles of elevation can bring out, and like most, I was honestly pretty curious to see how this one would turn out. The constant warnings of altitude sickness bred a sense of alertness before we took our first steps. Knowing the altitude may be too strong for some, our group took on a silent sense of comradery. True to the spirit of the adventurer, together we walked, onwards, but mostly upwards.

As we made our way into Yuhu I couldn’t help but notice the pace of life. Not just human-to-human interaction, but the serenity that made up most of the village. I first remember observing the slowness of the mosquitos living at such great heights. After watching a man taking his work break slowly swat at an even slower mosquito, I caught a glimpse of the tranquility so many of the villagers enjoyed. For a moment, I thought this coolness came withouts some of the luxuries we appreciate today. However, what I saw next offered a new perspective: A local woman riding a horse and using an iPhone to pay for street food. I was surprised. To see such a modern thing seamlessly make its way into everyday life was interesting for me. So many little things went into that brief moment to create a mixture of the past and present. Before our trip to Yuhu we discussed how all cultures have a right to pick and choose how they’d like to change – that moment was the perfect picture to better my understanding.

It was also interesting to imagine what Joseph Rock would’ve seen. The dedication to preserve his old house was telling, as well. It was cool to learn that some older members of the village still have memories of him from their youth.  At the town museum, I was able to see a picture of Rock. He really looked like he owned the place. I immediately thought, “This probably isn’t a good thing”, but apparently some elderly villagers had happy memories of the 外国King. Our visit was short, I left without fully grasping his impact on the village, why he looks kingly in all of his existing photos, and why he’s immortalized in Lijiang. Thinking about this puts me somewhere between a rock and a hard place (I had to), but from the local people’s perspective there was nothing to worry about. That aside, although our journey into Yuhu marked the beginning of our upward adventures, in many ways it was the first time we could smash our preconceptions of rural China, and see China from a new perspective.

The group in front of Joseph Rock’s old home

 

 

Lijiang: Old Town and Party at Nongjiale!

After spending two days at Dali we hopped onto another bus and made our way over to Lijiang. Once the three-hour bus ride was over, we arrived at a hotel that was 7,874 feet high in elevation. When entering the hotel it had a small wooden bridge that led us into a beautiful courtyard (see below). It reminded me of the openness and nature-like aura of the Linden Center in Dali.

 

Once we were settled into our new rooms the group ventured out into the old town to explore Lijiang. Our tour guide was Lilly, a friend of Dr. Bullock, and we followed her down the small mountain into the main part of town. While there the group parted into two groups, one that went to a Western-style restaurant and the other that was more of a traditional Lijiang meal. After dinner, we were given time to explore the old town. While walking around the old town it felt like we were in a completely different time that was not modern and industrialized like Shanghai. The buildings looked new but had an ancient architecture to them while the mom and pop shops were welcoming and intriguing. During our time there we honed our skills in bargaining (讨价还价) and immersed ourselves into the Lijiang community. Below are some pictures that help to capture what walking around the old town felt and looked like. On the left shows the beautiful river that runs through the whole town and on the right is an alley that took me to a cafe that had live music being played by local artists. I remember that while the woman was singing our assistant director could not help but sing along and connect deeply with the song. Apparently, the woman was singing a really old Chinese song that spoke about true love and the aching feeling of loving something very deeply.

 

At night Lijiang’s old town turned into a city full of lights. A couple of the group members and I made our way down the mountain and into an underground mall that had stores similar to the ones you would find in Shanghai. To make it feel even more like a modern city there was a huge club that was playing techno music that had many people dressed up like they were going to a cocktail party.

Before we left for our next stop in Yunnan Province some of Dr. Bullock’s friends invited us to a dinner that gave us a taste of the Nashi culture. We ate some hot pot that included potatoes, chicken feet, beef, pork, corn and much more! At the end of the meal, the Nashi people sang one of their traditional songs and then we had a dance party. Once the folk music went on we all got into a macarena line and kicked out our legs from side to side (shown in the pictures below). The party ended when it began to pour so we said our final goodbyes and headed back to our hotel.

Reflecting back on Lijiang now, I really enjoyed the old town and how it felt like it was taking me back in time. However, it is worth mentioning that tourism is a double-edged sword for the people that live there. While all the tourism gives them a steady flow of income it also enables the government to start demolishing pieces of the old city to make Lijiang more modernized. I spoke with some of the local people and they said that the present Lijiang is completely different because the new developments in the city are taking away some of the old town’s natural attractions. I hope Lijiang can still maintain its beautiful aspects as more and more people go to visit. This was one of my favorite places to explore while in Yunnan Province.

Cui Hu Park: A Jade in Kunming

As we approached the end of our trip, we came full circle and spent our final night in Kunming, in the very same place we stayed our first night. Upon landing at the airport, we split into groups and found our way to the hotel; it was a familiar route and I was feeling more comfortable using my Chinese and getting around than I had when we’d first arrived the week before. The area surrounding the hotel was vibrant and full of people; we hadn’t had much time to explore our neighborhood the first time, but we got time to walk around and see the stores, restaurants, and of course, all the bubble tea shops in the area. We split up for dinner: some people went to have the traditional ‘over-the-bridge noodles’ and some people went in search of other types of cuisine. We walked through the Cui Hu Park in our search for dinner, and it was so pretty to see the lake at night. The walkways next to the water were full of people: couples strolling, people walking their dogs, and kids chasing one another. The bridges that connected the various parts of the lake were lit up, and the lights illuminated the lilies floating on the water surface; it was quite a sight.

The next morning, we had time before our flight to walk through the Cui Hu Park, the Green Lake Park conveniently located right across the street from our hotel. After breakfast, Dr. Bullock, Caroline, and I strolled through the park and saw a great deal of different activities taking place. We saw people of all ages participating in Taichi (and Dr. Bullock joined in for a bit!), women dancing in large groups, kids playing badminton, and many joggers running through the park… it was quite an active area.

In addition to all the physical activity, there were food stalls and small shops scattered around the park. It was quickly evident why the park was called the “Green Park”: the area was covered in enormous trees with branches that sagged so low that they brushed the top of the water. The water itself was also an emerald color, as a result of the many lilies and the green moss that covered the entire surface of the lake… it looked like you could stand right on top of it! Caroline stuck her hand in, but when she removed it, the green moss clumped back together, blocking any view of the water.

Although our trip was only one week, it felt as though our group had come a long way since the first day. We came to Kunming (the first time) after only having been in China for a few days: some of us knew one another but many of us were still getting to know each other. Additionally, speaking from personal experience, I was tentative to speak Chinese because I hadn’t practiced in so long. But upon our return to Kunming at the end, I felt as though we had grown as a group, and I felt more at ease to practice my Chinese. I thought that our return to Kunming helped center us after all the incredible places and sites we’d seen over the week: the trip was an incredible experience, and I felt lucky that we should end on such a high note in such a beautiful city.

Dali: A Marbleous City

After spending the previous night in Kunming, we caught a late-morning bullet train to Dali. The installation of this high-speed train last year cut the travel time between the two cities by a staggering 9 hours– it took a mere 2 hours to arrive. Our guide from the Linden Center in Xizhou, Jiajia, greeted us at the Dali station and led us by bus to the iconic gate of Dali Old Town.

Entrance to Dali Old Town

The sudden change of elevation and the food from the previous night launched a powerful attack on me, but it was nothing an Imodium couldn’t handle… for now. We then had our first culinary taste of Yunnan on the second floor of a restaurant that overlooked the plateau of single-story buildings with tiled roofs and white plastered walls.

Alex feeling the sudden wrath of an unwashed Rambutan

The roofs are laced with intricate patterns that feature mystical creatures that represent old tales that are almost believable because of how mystically beautiful the town is; it seemed as if some sort of sleepy curse was cast upon the grey buildings, the animals, the water, and even the trees. Or maybe I was just delirious from the high elevation (6,500ft.)  Dali is also renowned globally for its marble, with designs so abstract that even the Spanish Dali had nuthin’ on.

Jiajia gave a brief introduction on the Linden Center, run by an eccentric American named Brian, and its efforts to work in tandem with the Chinese government to preserve the local culture and architecture of the region, as well as the Erhai lake from the increased pollution that resulted from the recent increase in tourism.

Crowded streets of Dali

As we strolled down the rain-washed, slanted roads of Dali Old Town, oft-times I caught an unpleasant whiff and wondered if it came from nearby durian or from one of us with 拉肚子 (traveller’s diarrhea.)

Crowded Streets of Dali pt. 2

It was only day two in Yunnan province, and unfortunately I spent most of my time rushing in and out of the various McDonalds toilets of Dali, mastering the art of the squat. Jiajia guided us through the crowded streets lined with charming Yunnan snack and trinket shops.

We were given a few hours of free-time to explore the shops and to practice our Chinese with the locals by asking them about their thoughts on the Erhai lake preservation efforts. Turns out that the latter was a hard task for two reasons:
1. Because most people were also tourists

2. All the McDonald’s toilets only had one stall so I didn’t really have any chance to communicate with the locals…

Catholic Church

We stopped for pictures at a Dali-style Catholic Church, erected in the 1930’s by a French missionary. Jiajia explained that in recent decades, the Chinese government became more and more tolerant of Christianity. However, very recently it has started to re-associated Christianity with subversive Western values and has cracked down on Christian institutions.

Dog hit by the sleepy curse of Dali

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the end of the day, it felt as if that spell had also been cast upon all of us, as we were really looking forward to kickin’ it back at the Linden Center. It was truly a marbleous day.

 

css.php