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Journals from China-Studies Institute, Beijing

2011-12-14 China Adventures

December 15

Happy December, readers! Christmas is approaching and this year there is no better way to spend this happy season than traveling through China, collecting baubles from local markets and shopping streets along the way. In the past few days I’ve been to Luoyang, Xi’an, Leshan, Chengdu, Guilin, Longji, and now, Yangshuo. These words may or may not mean anything to you, but to our group of 31, it has been our life for the past two weeks.

We took a sleeper train from Beijing to Luoyang, and on the way I had a nice conversation with a Chinese man who told me that the air in Luoyang is worse than in Beijing because there are fewer foreigners, so there is less pressure on the local government to keep the air clean. The bed on the sleeper train was more comfortable than the one in our dorms, by the way, and we all started the trip fairly well rested.

Luoyang itself is lovely, although the air was certainly a mix of fog and pollution. It is known for the Shaolin Temple, where martial arts started, and White Horse Temple (Bai Ma), which is the first Buddhist temple in China. Within the Shaolin Temple there is a pagoda forest which serves as the burial grounds for monks. They are cremated, so pay attention to the blocks of stone in each pagoda, since that is where they rest. Also, be sure to see the newest pagoda, criticized for being too “shallow” due to the airplanes and laptops carved into it instead of the traditional Buddhist symbols. We also visited the Longmen Grottoes, where thousands of Buddha are carved into the mountain itself, creating an eerie and majestic mix of art and religion.

Xi’an is debatably where the oldest history of China lies, with its Terracotta Warriors and City Wall (the last fully intact city wall in the world). The Terracotta Warriors are almost sobering in their vastness. Only a third of the soldiers are on display, yet that is enough to draw crowds and awe. No two soldiers have the same face, as each is modeled after a real soldier in the emperor’s army. It’s strange to see them lined up and think about the amount of time that has passed since they were crafted by human hands. Also in Xi’an lies The Great Mosque, located in the Muslim District, and near our hotel. The street is a row of good food and interesting trinkets that go on forever, and I am glad we got two nights there.

After Xi’an came Leshan and the largest Buddha in the world. A person is only the size of its little toe, and surrounding the area is a number of other interesting and peaceful places to relax and explore. There are pagodas and lakes, as well as a fishing village where you can pick something to eat from live fish swimming in buckets, caught that morning or the day before.

Chengdu is wonderful, but our group only had one night there. Jinli Street was the highlight of the trip, perhaps even more so than the pandas. (Of course, this comes to you from the perspective of a shopper.) Jinli has an array of artwork such as blown sugar candies that take the shape of anything you would like. It has paintings and a section of local Chinese street food. It has shops with nightlights that look like Chinese lanterns, and anything else you can think of. If you ever go to Chengdu, do yourself a favor and stay for two or three nights to give yourself enough time to explore. Jingli also has a Starbucks, to the delight of some of my friends.

Guilin truly is beautiful, with the river winding through the city. Around the river are various streets that are a mix of local street food in the day, and bars and clubs at night. We paid homage to one of the local clubs for a friend’s birthday, and the day after I spent lunch getting street food and exploring the shops. I had something that consisted of rice put into a tiny metal bowl, spread with a sort of potato mix, some sauce, meat, then topped off with more rice to make a ball shape—all placed conveniently in a plastic bag so I could eat as I walked. I also got some baozi (buns), a piece of chuan (meat on a stick) that I’m almost positive was intestine, and sugar coated strawberries on a stick. I also got grapes and strawberries for next to nothing, and left Guilin very satisfied.

Our next stop was Longji, which itself is breathtaking, but insanely difficult to get to. We took a bus, then we took another bus, then we hiked up a mountain of stairs, and then essentially collapsed at the hotel. I cannot emphasize how rigorous the hike was, especially with our bags. Travelers who want to come here; pack light, but there are some women who offer to carry your things for 20 to 40 yuan. They are about three times my age and half my size, and I have no doubt they can carry me up the mountain on their back if they wanted. The drive up is wonderful, though; there is a crystal turquoise river that crisscrossed our path as we went higher into the clouds, and up to the (rightfully) famous rice terraces. The terraces go on forever, and it looks like the mountains all around are made of steps (which they kind of are, as anyone who climbed up this high can tell you). It’s breathtaking and indescribable, so I’ll stop trying because I won’t do the terraces justice.

Last on our itinerary is Yangshuo, where I am now. Yangshuo is a mix of bars and good food, and it's only a short bike ride away from incomparable natural beauty. We haven’t explored too much yet, but I can say that I learned how to ride a bike in Yangshuo, among the mountains and Lijing River. I can also say that their fresh squeezed orange juice, readily available all over West Street, is perfect for a cold.

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