Mutianyu Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is an architectural masterpiece, coming into creation as early as 220 BC through the leadership of Qin Shi Huang. The wall was originally created in order to protect China from foreign invaders along the northern borders in an east to west direction. Despite this seemingly unbreakable wall, the original wall has eroded over the centuries as it was originally made with earth, stones, and wood, and thus was restructured during the Ming Dynasty. The wall stems 13,171 miles in total and is still one of the world’s major wonders.

Although I had previously visited the Great Wall, my second visit did not fail to astound me – especially since we visited the Mutianyu section, which I had previously not been to. There was just so much history and culture embedded within those stones, and you could still feel the resolute and unwavering power of the Chinese. China is known for having one of the most detailed and longest histories, and through our visit it was very clear that the sheer force of China’s history was embedded within the millions of bricks and stones.

We took a cable car up towards a higher elevated part of the wall, and once we arrived at the top, we had two hours to explore the entire section (figure 1, 2). While initially I believed two hours was far too long, it was just the right amount of time. The sky was clear of any clouds, and the temperature was absolutely perfect (warm enough to traverse around without a coat). Traversing the wall itself was quite a challenge – numerous stones were out of place, other tourists were everywhere trying to get through the small entryways, and there were thousands upon thousands of stairs. While I was completely out of breath (due to the stairs), I was able to take a moment to appreciate the sheer force of history that I was climbing across – the amount of physical labor with limited technology, the planning, the execution, the representation of China as a solitary unit standing strong after centuries – it’s all quite incredible to think about. Once I had made it to the top, all the hard work paid off with the incredible view of the wall, the mountains, and the scenery (figure 3).

Though most of us had already visited the Great Wall, I think we were all still in awe by how incredible it was. There is really nothing that can compare to it, and it was one of the few times where I could look past the extreme modernization in the cities and actually see how China has become a leading force in today’s society.

 

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)

 

Zhongdian / Shangri-La

After visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge, we traveled to Zhongdian – better known as Shangri-La since 2002. Thanks to the guidance of our amazing Tibetan tour guide, we were able to indulge in delicious Tibetan cuisine, take part in local dances and explore the old town of Zhongdian all at an altitude of 10,000 feet!

When first arriving in Zhongdian, this high altitude was most apparent. It seemed the sky and the horizon were in much closer proximity than in the Shanghai or Kunming skyline; Pine trees of deep green and lush mountain tops lined the blue sky in stark contrast. But with the air so thin, at our arrival, many of us preferred the relaxing scenery of our hotel rooms than the outdoors. Prior resting after our long bus ride to Zhongdian, we were greeted in the lobby of the Le Fu Ge Dan Hotel with steaming cups of sweet ginger tea. “It tastes like Christmas!” one of us exclaims, inspiring us to start playing holiday spirited music while waiting for our room keys.

At last, settled in our respective rooms, we collectively sighed. Having been so busy the last week with back to back travel plans, it felt wonderful to rest, even if just for an hour or two. As the sun began to dip below the ever-closer horizon, we prepared ourselves for dinner at a local Tibetan restaurant. A feast including yak’s milk tea, potato pancakes, and yak

Blue skies in Zhongdian – Fall 2018

meat dumplings, everything tasted so foreign yet so delicious! Our meal gave us the energy to traverse Zhongdian’s old town, a winding maze of shops and cafes, restaurants and hotels while at the center of it all, a swirling mass of people dancing under the darkened sky.

 

Similar to the local dancing we encountered in Liming, this dancing circle was just as vibrant, just as inviting, and just as difficult to follow! The accompanying music rippled through the crowd, guiding them through a leg crossing, arm waving, graceful choreography that everyone seemed to know except the scattering of foreigners. It seemed we were just as satisfied stepping back to watch the swirling patterns of traditional dress, smiling faces, and stars in the                                                                                               Zhongdian sky.

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.

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