Pedaling Through Xi’an



This past weekend we traveled as a group to Xi’an.  Xi’an is not only a vibrant modern city, but also has thousands of years of history.  Xi’an was the capital of the first Chinese dynasty and served the same purpose for 9 other dynasties.  One of the biggest cultural and historical sites in Xi’an is the Terracotta Warriors.  While we were there we not only visited the Terracotta Warrior museum, but also had the opportunity to see and tour all three pits where the warriors have been found.

Seeing the warriors was an interesting experience.  They were buried underground, in battle formation, to stand guard and protect the body of the emperor.  A few years after the emperor’s death, however, people unhappy with the way things were being handled in China, broke into the area where the warriors were and smashed them into little tiny pieces.  They then set the wooden roof on fire so that it would collapse and destroy any warriors they had missed.  Following this incident, the warriors were forgotten about and not discovered again until the 1970s when a few farmers were digging a well and found broken pieces of the warriors.  The men were not sure what they had found but believed it to be a body of a god and were scared that they may have angered him.  When the news of the warriors was finally passed on to a higher official, the hole was expanded and the warriors were uncovered.

The intact warriors on display today have all been meticulously put back together. Although today the warriors are all brown and a little dull in color, they were once colorfully painted and decorated.  Pieces of warriors have been found with red, yellow, green, blue, and even purple coloring.  Unfortunately, when the colored pieces have been exposed to open air the color begins to fade and very few pieces have retained their color after being removed from the ground.  Scientists are working on developing a way to preserve the color but, thus far, nothing has worked.  It is estimated that between the three separate pits there are over 8,000 Terracotta Warriors.  Despite the large number of warriors though, there are no “twins” as our tour guide called them – each warriors is unique.

After visiting the warriors we all went to the Old City Wall.  While the view from the top of the wall was pretty good, the real attraction of the wall was the ability to bike on top of the wall.  While our entire group did not want to bike, a group of us happily rented bikes and set off to explore a portion of the 8-mile city wall loop.  With a mix of both tandem and single bikes we knew we were in for a wild ride.  After a bit we stopped to snap photos of each other on the bikes and chat about how this semester has flown by.  We all had a great time riding on the wall and remembering childhood afternoons and family vacations filled with bike rides.

There are so many things in China that are different from the US, but some things are universal.  Riding a bike on the Old City Wall in Xi’an was one of those moments where it hit me again that no matter how different we think that China and the US may be, there are ways in which they are exactly the same.  The feeling of freedom and joy I get from the wind whipping past me on a bike is universal in any country!

Language Lessons

On Thursday afternoon I set out with a group of students from my Chinese Marketplace class to try and find Chinese high school students we could interview for our group project for Pan Laoshi.  Our project focuses on Chinese high school and college students who want to study abroad in the US for undergraduate or graduate school.  As the number of students wanting to pursue education abroad increases, agencies have emerged all over China to help guide and assist students through the US application process.  These agencies help students with essays, provide mock interviews, and try to advise students as to the differences between the Chinese and American higher education systems. Many students who study abroad will use, or at least consult, one of these agencies during their application process.

Our goal on Thursday was to speak with some high school students and get their thoughts on both traveling abroad to study and if they planned on using an agency to assist them with their applications.  For the interviews our group consisted of Ray, a Fudan student native to China, Nallely, a Boston University student from Texas, and me.  The questions themselves were not very difficult and ranged in topic from how old the students were, to if they were planning on studying abroad, and if so were they going to use an agency.  The whole thing would take no more than five minutes, if that. We had written the questions as a group, but decided since we were in China interviewing Chinese high school students, that we should let Ray ask the questions in Chinese so as to make the process easier on the students. We set off towards the high school with this in mind hoping to find lots of people to talk to.

When we got to the school a good number of students were leaving – with Ray asking the questions, Nallely holding the microphone, and me running the camera – we dove right in to try and speak with some of them.  One mother and daughter pair spoke openly with Ray about their plans and we were feeling pretty good about our prospects.  Over the next few minutes, however, every student that Ray approached turned him down.  Ray would say hi to them in Chinese, mention that he was a local college student studying at Fudan, and wanted to ask them a few questions about college.  Without fail every one of them turned him down.  At this point we began to get worried.

Ray suggested that I take the questions and try to ask the students to speak with me.  I was sure it was not going to work because I didn’t think any Chinese students would want to talk to some random American girl asking all these questions in English and not even trying to communicate in their native tongue – I was sure I was just going to make them mad.  But as every good researcher does, despite my doubts I set off to try it anyway.  I started by just going up to a group of girls and asking in English, “Hi, can I ask you a few questions about colleges?” To my surprise they said yes and seemed very excited to speak with me.  We made sure that it was ok with them that we recorded the interview and then started with the questions.  By the end of the first interview Ray was smiling from behind the camera and content that he had been correct in thinking that the students would rather talk to the random foreigner than him.  I on the other hand, was not so convinced that I would have as much success as he thought.  Nevertheless we charged on with me cornering more Chinese high school students and all but two of the eight agreeing to speak with me.

Most of the students we spoke with had actually given some thought to the idea about studying abroad.  Even the ones who said they were choosing to stay in China had reasons why they felt that it would serve them better to stay here rather than go abroad for their education.  Of the ones who were interested in going abroad, most wanted to go to the US and sited the excellent college system and freedom of expression as big reasons they wanted to study in the US.  Not only did we have a fun time interviewing the students, but we learned an interesting life lesson as well.  We were so convinced that the students would rather speak to Ray in Chinese than speak to us in English that we did not even try to speak with them until Ray forced us to.  He told us from the beginning that we were going to end up doing the interviews and we thought he was crazy.  Our thinking, however, stemmed from our asking the questions in Chinese out of courtesy.  I can converse some in Chinese but there was no way I was going to be able to do the interview in Chinese.  Neither Nallely, nor I ever though that we would end up conducting the interviews in English with such success.  It just goes to show you no matter what you expect to find when you walk into any given situation, you must always be ready to adapt and try a different approach, if not you may miss out on a wonderful opportunity. Language lessons have come in many varieties here in China, but this is not one I expected to encounter.

Wall Walking: Adventures on The Great Wall

On Friday the 2nd, the second day of our Beijing trip, our fearless guide Erik led us on a hike of the Great Wall.  We were in a bit of a rush as we had to hike up to, along, and down the Great Wall in less than two hours because we were racing the setting sun.  We had all seen the Wall from the bus as we drove in and were excited and ready to start the hike.  The trek up to the Great Wall was a hike in-and-of itself, but nothing compared to the actual wall.  I am sure that at one time the wall was pristine and beautiful, but after thousands of years of erosion, wear, and exposure to the elements, it was not so pretty anymore. Don’t get me wrong, the views were stunning and the sheer size of the wall took my breath away, but the immaculate pictures you find in books are not what the “real” wall looks like.

As Fuji said “we hiked the authentic wall.”  What he meant by that was that the wall was not in the best shape and had not been kept up well over the years. For example at times the stairs had been so worn away that we were climbing stairs that were 2-3 feet tall in one step.  At other points there were sections of the stairs that had been eroded so much so that the remaining stone resembled piano keys.   At times there simply were no stairs – just bare rock face.  Still other stones had turned into gravel so you clawed your way up.  In other spots there was no wall beside you, you were merely walking on a stone slab with nothing to stop you from slipping off the edge.  Needless to say we were all on edge during the walk (pun fully intended).

At the posts along the wall you generally had to either climb down or up steps to continue on out the other side, for some of them you even had to go down and then back up the other side.  A few of the double stair ones had narrow ledges of rock running along the edge of the outer wall that you could shimmy across if you felt brave enough.  In the beginning we all went down and back up the stairs, but towards the end we were all tired of the stairs and began to brave the ledges more often.  At points along the wall instead of creating stairs the builders simply made the path very steep and then at the last possible moment would introduce the steps.  We all decided that we actually preferred the stairs to the steep graded path.  After walking the Great Wall I will never look at stairs the same again.

As cold, tired, and exhausted as we were, we could not get enough of the view and just the mere fact that we were standing on the Great Wall.  A structure built thousands of years ago, by hand, reaching over 13,000 miles long.  It was an awe-inspiring journey.   When we first made it to the Wall we just stood and took photos for a solid five minutes. We were all overwhelmed by the view and the sheer history of the place.  Simply standing on the Wall and seeing the amount of work and time that must have gone into creating and building it was enough to take you feel very small in the big scope if things.

During a sunrise hike the next morning a few of us took the once in a lifetime chance to call loved ones to say hi from atop the Great Wall.  Everyone’s parents, grandparents, and siblings thought it was really cool to get a phone call not only from China but from the Great Wall.  Wall walking, if it happens to be on the Great Wall, is not only physically taxing but emotionally charged.  For countless reasons it took my breath away.  I know the term “journey” is typically reserved for trips that take more than two hours, but the emotional and personal strength needed to complete this hike counts as a journey to me, even if just a personal one.


Cruising Through Nanjing



On Friday morning ten Davidson students set out on a whirlwind tour of Nanjing.  The trip was organized by The School of Social Development and Public Policy of Fudan University, the school that is sponsoring the Davidson College group and a few others during their study in Shanghai.  We were told to meet at the main gate of Fudan University at 7am to catch the bus at 7:30.  Thanks to a concerned call from Chai Lu at 6:50 wondering where we were, after both of our alarms failed to go off Friday morning, Ali and I managed to make it to the bus stop by 7:27!  Despite racing to get to the bus on time, the busses were late and we did not leave campus until well past 8.  Once all 62 of us were in the buses and on the road, however, we were told that we had a 3 and a half hour bus ride to Nanjing, so just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.


Upon reaching Nanjing we had lunch, yet another banquet style set-up with about ten preordered dishes and a lazy-Susan in the middle.  While all the Davidson kids complain endlessly about the banquet style meals we have to take part in, I was actually thankful to Fuji for making us endure them as we knew what most of the food was and the proper etiquette for operating a lazy-Susan.  Our other SSDPP classmates, however, were much more hesitant of the Chinese food and did not fully comprehend the notion that you had to make sure that no one else was trying to serve themselves when you decided to spin the lazy-Susan.  We did manage to avoid any spills, but there were some “exciting” moments in the midst.


Our first real stop on the Nanjing trip was the XuanWu Lake Park.  As we reached the gate to the park and gathered for the mandatory group picture we were swarmed by a group of Chinese tourists all dressed in black suits, most wielding professional looking cameras, who all believed that the large group of foreign tourists was the “real” attraction.  Our two groups then got in to what I can only describe as a “photo war,” with their group furiously taking pictures of us and our side taking pictures of them taking pictures of us.  The whole thing was simultaneously mildly unsettling and hilariously funny.  After we finally assembled for our official group photo we were released into the park to wander and explore.  In the park we again ran into Chinese people who unabashedly stared at us.  We had all dealt with similar situations before, however, in previous encounters when the people realized we had caught them staring they looked away, but here they just kept staring.  We were all joking about it and Ali finally said, “They can stare all they want but I am going to acknowledge them, wave and say hi and hopefully they will respond.”  Others even joked that they were going to start charging 5元 for a picture.  The park itself was pretty with a nice lake and pleasant architecture, but the thick mix of fog and smog really put a damper on its beauty.

From the park we went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum.  For those unaware of the history of the Nanjing Massacre, it is in loose terms the Chinese version of the Holocaust.   When the Japanese invaded China they took Nanjing as a stronghold and slaughtered 300,000 people in a matter of months.  The Japanese troops pillaged, raped, and murdered the people of Nanjing, this horrific event is often referred to as the Rape of Nanjing.  Needles to say, this was a tough museum to walk through, but a good thing to experience and acknowledge none the less.  Unfortunately we only had an hour in the museum and had to move quickly; but I am glad that we had the chance to think about that facet of Nanjing history and, therefore, how Nanjing fits more into the overall history of China.  It also shed more light on the complicated relationship between China and Japan.  It was definitely a place I would like to visit again and explore more.

“Ah, close your eyes, rest in peace!  You innocent soul!  You poor boy” – A monk fleeing on his way

“They rob and rape, they set fire and bury people alive… They even kill my three-month-old little grandson”

“Frigidity and horror have frozen this crying baby!  Poor thing not knowing mum has been killed, blood, milk and tears have frozen, never melting”

From the museum we went to yet another banquet style dinner and then on to a river cruise on the QinHuai River.  There was not really that much to see from the boat but we had a great time on the cruise.  Chai Lu, Benito, DJ, and I were all sitting together and we played word games and joked around the entire ride.  It was a very relaxing way to end a long day.  The next morning we went to the Presidential Palace and Sun-Yat Sen’s mausoleum.  The palace was not all that exciting but the mausoleum was definitely more than I was expecting.  Sun-Yat Sen requested to be buried in the side of a mountain, so his followers obliged.  They built a mausoleum in the side of the mountain atop 329 steps to represent the 329 million people in China at the time of his death.  The views from both the bottom and the top of the steps were impressive.  Most of our group of 62 made the trek up the steps and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the gate at the base of the mountain and the surrounding mountains.

Overall it was a good trip.  We did not spend that much time at each place, but we covered many important Nanjing landmarks in less then 36 hours.  For a city that was once the capital of China, I feel that we did it justice.  If we can do this much stuff in two days I wonder how many new things we will be able to explore and discover during our week long trip to Beijing.  The China adventure continues.

Time Out in Taiwan

Our trip to Taiwan began with a flourish.  After touching down Taipei we made our way through customs and immigration only to be told that Nicky could not come with us.  As a non-US passport holder, unbeknownest to us, he was required to have a visa to enter Taiwan.  He was taken off to immigration; he told us to go on and have a good trip and he would keep us updated.  With that we trudged on through the airport, got Taiwanese sim cards for our phones, and were on our way.  After checking into the hotel we were off to the Shilin night market to explore and get a sense of the Taiwanese atmosphere.

As a group we all shopped, wandered around, tasted the local street fair, and just relaxed after a long week.  At the market it was fun to see what each vendor was selling.  A shop that specialized in socks was nestled in between one that sold formal floor length dresses and one that sold various types of bags.  The sheer range of diversity we found in the night market was unbelievable.  There were even vendors with their products spread out on blankets on the street trying to catch people’s eyes as they went by.  The number of people who could fit into that size of an area was also overwhelming; stopping to look at something, without moving out of the way of the foot traffic, was dangerous to your wellbeing.  One of the best parts of the night market, however, was the food.  While there I tried some delicious cranberry iced tea and mouth-watering grilled chicken.  The dinner was definitely the best part of the night market.

The next day we visited an ancient temple and then made our way to 228 Memorial Park.  The park was not only a place full of history, but also a great place to relax and just have fun.  We were all enamored by the stone foot “massage” path we came across.  While a few brave souls ventured across, the rest of the group looked on with great amusement as we winced and cursed our way down the path.  Upon completing it though we all felt very proud and only mildly sore.  After that, one would assume that we would be on our way with more culturally and historically important ventures, but, when you put a bunch of 20 something’s in a park with a playground we must try the toys from our childhood.  We all scattered on the playground, some opting for the seesaw and remembering first hand why it is good to not only keep it balanced but also to hold on.  Others enjoyed the swing set, and still others of us climbed the metal structure to see what the park looked like from a higher vantage point.  We had a great time just goofing around and relaxing until Fuji finally asked if we could get on with the important parts of our trip.

Later that day we went to the top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan, and until a few years ago the tallest in the world.  To reach the observation deck on the 89th floor you take an elevator, which covers the entire distance in 37 seconds!  The ride was great; however, my ears were not too pleased, as they popped every 10 floors – not the most pleasant experience but well worth it.  From the top you could walk all the way around and see a 360-degree view of Taipei.  Looking down on the city reminded me of the view from the top of the Eifel Tower and how small everything looked from up there.  From the top of the tower we were able to watch the sun set over the mountains.  The sunset was a beautiful ending to a fantastic first full day in Taiwan.