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Datong

Asia, Destinations

Last stop…Beijing

December 3, 2014 • By

It’s Tea Time in Beijing and I am thrilled to be a part of it. If anyone ever doubted, I am a city girl. I like traffic and subways, people pounding the pavement, stores in every color, Starbucks, and most importantly the English language. I prefer action and fine wine and that’s certainly what I found in Beijing. A little aggression never hurt anyone, right?

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – Temple of Heaven

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – Temple of Heaven

How did I get here? I checked out of the Datong HoJo at 6:20 AM to arrive in plenty of time for my 8:06 AM departure but I hit a few snags along the way. The front desk woman on the night watch spoke a whopping three words of English so I somehow agreed to be overcharged for my dinner. I whole heartedly believe she intended to subtract the cost of my dinner from the initial hotel deposit but in the end I suspect I paid an extra $16 USD on top of the $83 USD required deposit. Tired and aware the clock was ticking, I signed whatever form she put in front of me and asked for a taxi. Low and behold she busts out a few words of English, “You call taxi.” Um no and the New Yorker in me showed her true colors as I stuck up my hand as if to say, you wait a minute but “NO! YOU,” came out of my mouth. I think she understood by the tone of my voice I was not messing around because she ran for the door, abandoning the front desk and hailed this princess a cab.

The taxi driver dropped me off with very little effort but at 7:15 AM it’s dark in China and I didn’t know where I was going (throw in a little night blindness issue and it’s a perfect storm). I entered the first waiting room filled with a cloud of smoke and surveyed the board. Realizing quickly that I needed to be elsewhere, I lugged my crap outside into another line where I waited for several minutes. Finally, I presented my ticket and the security guard firmly stated, “passport.” Why on earth did she want my passport when the other passengers showed nothing? UGH! My hands numbing in the cold I could not dig into my purse to find my passport and I mildly freaked. It was clear I would not win this battle and I started yelling, “I am so cold I cannot feel my hands.” She showed no compassion and waved me off. When I turned around to get out of the line, 15 Chinese people desired noting less than for me to disappear. At this point, I lost my composure (cold will do that to me) and screamed MOVE! MOVE! MOVE! and then I literally steamrolled the people in line to clear a path. Mildly panicked, I ran back to the first holding room, located my passport, defrosted a bit and then headed back to the bitch. She let me through after leafing through my passport (ha I just got a new one so you couldn’t pick on me), and once through the metal detectors and the obligatory pat down I could relax a few minutes before boarding.

I decided the previous night that I would not eat or drink to make the train travel experience a smooth one and to my delight it worked. My compartment consisted of two older women traveling together and a mother-daughter (4 year old). I climbed to the top bunk bed (penthouse suite of course) and cocooned myself into the duvet and since conversation consisted of smiles and hand movements I tuned out the Mandarin chatter and wrote for a few hours. It took me that long to physically and mentally defrost from the morning’s frenzy. A mere six hours later through mountain tunnels, countryside, poverty and beauty, I reached Beijing and a city alive with the sound of 21.2 Million people – Many of whom I’m convinced greeted me at the main train station as if to say, “welcome to the jungle.”

I checked into my hotel, the mighty Peninsula, dropped my bags and powered through to check out the neighborhood. With only a hard-boiled egg and a protein bar in my stomach, hunger pains controlled my agenda and I veered beyond the beckoning malls and luxurious stores to the sights and smells of the Dong Hua Men Night Market, the main street food in Beijing. Each vendor called out in English and my mouth salivated at the thought of tasting everything. I settled for vegetable dumplings and some vegetable noodle dish that I shoveled down my throat as I headed to the mall to defrost. Feeling more beer than Gucci, I settled for Dairy Queen and then retreated to my hotel for an early night.

When I got back to my room and flipped through my guidebook in preparation for the next day’s sightseeing and I read the following (about the food market): “We’ll admit this is more of a place to look at and perhaps photograph food rather than devour it. In addition to standard street foods, hawkers here also serve up deep-fried starfish, plus a variety of insects and other hard to identify food items.”  That review likely would have scared me away from a delicious meal costing me a total of $10. Proceed with caution yes but don’t be afraid to try new things just make sure to skip pig tail, rabbit head and chicken feet. Let’s be clear I am only dismissing the guidebook because I didn’t get sick.

Today, I layered up like the kid from a Christmas Story and made my way to the Temple of Heaven. This was one of my favorite sites to date. It’s a little different because it’s not an isolated tourist spot. It’s a massive functioning park that happens to contain a slice of history in it. As I wandered the grounds, I noticed an area set aside with exercise equipment, a section with locals playing cards and chess and others congreating for the daily gossip session. The Temple of Heaven is a combination of architectural styles from the Ming (1369-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most prominent building. It reminded me a great deal of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem especially its style, height and color. This design shows that the heaven is high and the earth is low. This reflects an ancient Chinese belief that “the heaven is round and the earth is square.” Nearly 500-year-old Cypress trees decorate the park making it worth a trip to walk amongst nature alone.

Lama Temple

Lama Temple

A little bit of history under my wing, I decided to spend a few minutes testing my will in the market. I left my ATM card in the safe and with only $100 USD in I provided myself with little opportunity to shop—on purpose. Fighting through the “real cashmere, real pashmina” women past the electronics and up to the jewelry section. I arrived at the famous pearl place, Fanghua. In my head, I repeated, “you have no money and you don’t need any pearls” but that did not stop Sandra from giving me the hard sell and even doling out a few prices. I think I had her down from $650 to $300 before I kindly decline and exited out the side stairs to get some fresh air and pat myself on the back for the heroic escape.

Next up, the Beijing subway – a test of patience and strength. Once I figured out the machine calls for 5RB and not singles (an Italian tourist actually told me), I breezed through the security check and right to the platform. I shouldn’t admit this but sadly for Americans, it’s easier and much cleaner than either the New York subway or the Chicago “L.”

I took the subway about 10 stops to the “Lama” Temple or the Yonghe Temple, a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. Construction started in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty and the temple originally served as both an imperial palace and a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. It survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution as a result of Premier Zhou Enlai who apparently intervened. It’s an incredible complex with a series of temples and even in the cold I recognized its spiritual significance. Hundreds of people lit incense and bowed in careful prayer to the Buddha. Aware of the importance of this visit for many, I stepped to the side not wanting to take a prominent spot away from a practioner.

I tried to absorb all I could visually as people threw their hands in the air and kneeled to pay homage to the Buddha. Pictures prohibited it allowed me to focus on the depth and history of this religion and the beauty and magnitude of each hall representing decades and decades of treasures and architecture. I’ve now experienced Buddhism in Thailand, India and China and it was’t lost on me the people of China suppressed their beliefs from public to private worship for many generations.

Buddhism is a religion primarily practiced in Asia. Founded by Siddartha Gautama in northeast India in the 5th century BC, it has no creator and believes heavily in the doctrine of karma. The ‘four noble truths’ of Buddhism state that all existence is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire, that freedom from suffering is nirvana, and that this is attained through the ‘eightfold’ path of ethical conduct, wisdom, and mental discipline (including meditation). There are two major traditions, Theravada and Mahayana.

For more on Buddhism, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism

I wanted to call it a day after visiting the Lama Temple but the Confucius Temple made the must see list and since it was across the street, I pushed my aching feet a few more blocks. Built in 1302, it includes four courtyards and 198 stone tablets with the names of Jinshi, advanced scholars, of the Yuan, Ming and Quin dynasties and 14 stone stele pavilions of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Basically, the area contains stone carvings, more temples and a statue of Confucius greeting guests. It’s worth a visit for the less tired and the less traveled. And for those who learned this information years ago but need a refresher (like me), Confucianism is a way of life taught by Confucius in the 6th and 5th Century BC. It’s a system of philosophical and ethical teachings and believes that “human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics.”

—–The Forbidden City awaits —–

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Asia, Destinations

I need warm pants

December 2, 2014 • By

Let me begin this entry with saying my mother doesn’t always know best. The long underwear that I carefully put aside in New York to ensure accessibility in Chicago for the final packing to China are now sitting comfortably in a warm drawer in another country because my mother said I would not need them. I’ve now spent $200 (because everything in China is ridiculous) on a pair of long underwear. You might think that is excessive and that I should suck it up and weather through but I’m a wimp and 2 degrees Fahrenheit is exceptionally cold especially in a dry climate at 3,400 feet in the mountains. Keep in mind I am sightseeing outside in the crisp air not comfy museums. It’s probably worth sharing that other than the occasional sweater and short shorts (I still don’t understand), the stores are pretty much only selling coats and thick cashmere pants in various shapes and sizes.

I left Pingyao trying to escape the pollution but Datong has a reputation as one of China’s most polluted cities. Coal mining is the leading industry in Datong and China’s third largest company, Datong Coal Mining, is headquartered here.  In fact, the pollution is so bad in this area that experts estimate life expectancy is 10 years shorter as a result. The government aims to diversify business by focusing on tourism and machinery but coal is king. There are numerous trucks on the road transporting coal from the mountains to other parts of the country and several coal plants sit on the outskirts of the city. The pollution didn’t impact me since it flurried on and off clearing the air and bringing blue skies and sunshine.

Yungang Grottoes and Carvings

Yungang Grottoes and Carvings

Datong is known as a prefectural city or regional level city, which means it ranks below a province and country. Its population is about 3.5 million people and it’s located in the Shanxi province sandwiched between Inner Mongolia and Hebei provinces. It was founded in 200 BC during the Han dynasty. My guide informed me that much of the city’s ancient ruins were destroyed during the cultural revolution of the 70s when leadership pushed to rid the country of the past—of history. Built during the 14th century, locals razed the ancient city wall in an attempt to erase the past and create a new identity in Datong. That obviously backfired as the city just finished re-building the city wall at an estimated cost of 4 billion RB (about $166 Million USD). On the flip side, Pingyao’s ancient city wall is a leading tourism destination because locals at the time did not have enough money to demolish their wall. Live and learn I always say.

Even though I hate my hotel and I am freezing, I made up my mind that I will never again return to Datong so I must bundle up and get to the sightseeing. After a 40-minute conversation involving one-word translations and finally breaking down and texting my Xi’an guide (she probably regrets the day she gave me her cell number), I hired a taxi driver to drive me to an ATM and the Yungang Grottoes, wait for me while I toured and then bring me back to the hotel. The irony is that the taxi driver spoke about 100 words more than 10 people combined at the HoJo. My favorite thing about the Chinese is that they actually DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH yet when you ask they respond “yes” or “a little.”

Today, I was surely taped for an episode of bloopers. I asked the women at the front desk if they spoke English.  They both replied a little so I said I wanted to hire a car to see the Yungang Grottoes.  Lady Desk 1 and Lady Desk 2 had no idea what I was talking about so I said “tour” and “famous” nope –nothing. Then I asked for a map, blank stares again. I managed to translate “cave” in Mandarin and a light bulb went off. If the area is known for the grottoes, isn’t that maybe the one word in English that might be helpful.  I guess not.

The taxi driver proved to be my savior. He took me to a great ATM and off we went to the Yungang Grottoes. Created by the Wei Dynasty around 460-494, the grottoes contain more than 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddha and bodhisattva (enlightenment bodhi and being sattva).  The carvings are the only remaining connection to the Wei dynasty, a minority group mostly made up of Turks and Mongolians. They are also credited with bringing Buddhism to China.

I would have really loved to wander the caves and grounds for hours but I feared the lack of sensation in my legs meant I had limited time to retreat to the entrance gate. I decided to run. I am not a runner and while that alleviated the pain in my feet it did not help my upper thighs. Thankfully, the exit gave way to a few slightly heated souvenir shops and a bathroom. Once in the stall, I gently pulled down my pants and put my stomach on my thighs to regain feeling (I listened in Brownies – body heat). I know exposing the skin to the elements is not recommended but I was concerned. MOM, WHY DID YOU NOT LET ME PACK MY LONG UNDERWEAR?

The Yungang grottoes are definitely worth a stop but I would have preferred 1.)an English guide 2.) 50F+ temperatures. It was not lost on me that billows of smoke from the coal mines stood in the foreground of a place of great historical importance. The air cannot be good for the preservation of these relics.

After Google translation help from my friend Megan– a service that would make this entire Chinese adventure so much easier–I ventured to the mall to find warm pants. Armed with several ways to describe what I needed, “I need warm pants,” “ski pants”, “fleece pants” (Megan added, “I need to find a husband” and “I have hot pants” for fun), sales people jumped to my aid. One such lady hooked arms with me and led me up an escalator and through an entire floor to the most beautiful pair of cashmere lined ski pants for $680. When I pulled out my phone to calculate the price in dollars, I had three women peering at my phone intensely. The one lady was so close to me she could have rested her chin on my shoulder. It was maybe a bit awkward when I waved them off pointing to the number saying “too much.” I browsed on my own locating the hosiery section and finally purchased a Chinese designer pair of leggings, which will double as long underwear for the time being.

Datong, China Tourism, Tour China, Datong Tour

The temperature outside  to 20F and I figured I could sneak in one last attraction. I hailed a taxi and showed him a picture of the Huayan Monastery, the temple I wished to visit. The Huayan Monastery is located within the city of Datong – within the new city wall. It’s a massive complex with many different sections all containing various Buddha’s and guardians of the Buddha. It was built during the Liao Dynasty 907-1125 and is the largest and best-preserved monastery of the Liao Dynasty in China. The Emperors during this time period believed in Buddhism and it is thought that the Huayan Monastery was originally the ancestoral temple of the imperial family. During the Ming Dynastry (1368-1644), the temple was divided into two parts: the upper and lower monasteries and both remain today.

Suffering a mild migraine all day, I had been quietly in pursuit of a latte. Convinced a cafe must exist on tourist row of the Huayan Temple area, I pushed myself to suffer through the cold in order to ease the pounding in my head. First loop, I came up empty but after a stop at McDonalds and translating latte I learned I must have missed a cafe. Back on the tourst path, I located a cafe on the third floor of a building. The free wifi it claimed to offer only pertained to locals but I happily sipped my hot and chocolaty mocha with much joy.  Again, the little things matter.

One funny thing I forgot to add previously…..

The barista at the cafe offered me a glass of hot water and when I declined he said, “free.” I said no thank you but it reminded me of something John, my guide told me.  When he was a child, his mothered served him boiled coca-cola with ginger and dates. When I giggled, he said she would do the same for sprite. That all the Chinese serve drinks hot because it’s a superstition that cold is bad.  Mugs of hot water can be found everywhere in China and at every restaurant I’ve been poured a cup of hot water.  I thought they boiled water to kill off the bacteria (lots of metals in their water) but I’ll have to delve deeper.  Hot coca-cola — Go figure!

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