Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Golden Week

Most of the holidays, vacations, and breaks that my schools have given me in the past six years have been filled by trips to other places. And I mean filled; at least 75% of the days off were spent on the road, outside of Seoul or Beijing, in some other place. Chinese New Year, for example, was spent on massive three-week journeys to Turkey and New Zealand the past two years; I had maybe one or two days in Beijing at the end of the break, and those days were spent recuperating, grading, and usually writing a blog post. The same can be said for Christmas breaks, National Holiday in China, Chuseok in South Korea, and various spring break trips.

Last week - September 27 through October 6 - was the 2014 National Holiday break. Before the break, I wrote a blog post lamenting the fact that I was not going to go on any big trip during those days off. And I was, at that time, sort of bummed out about it.

However, the nine days were still spent doing things. Lots of things. Lots of different things. There was incredible variety in those nine days, variety that perhaps would not have been found on an eight- or nine-day trek through Mongolia, Qinghai, or Japan. And it was fun.

Of course, I didn't stay in Beijing the whole time; Mr. Sam Hopper and I went on an exploratory excursion to Datong. So the thirst to go somewhere new was satiated. But that trip was not the only trek out of Beijing; Ellen and I twice drove southeast of the big city to a smaller one called Langfang. This town is situated right between Beijing and Tianjin and has a larger population than Seattle, Denver, Detroit, Boston, or Washington D.C.

Ellen's uncle and aunt live there, in a big apartment complex full of other aunts and uncles. We had gone there before, and each visit is characterized by delicious home-cooked food, relaxing afternoons playing games (Spot It! and mahjong), and my inability to communicate with much accuracy or clarity to any of Ellen's family. But, her people are super nice and very hospitable; last time we busted out some baijiu. It got crazy.

The reason we went out there two times was to bring Ellen's mom to Langfang and then to go get her and bring her back to Beijing. Before hauling her out there, we all spent an evening making dumplings. It was a massive undertaking, one that I'd never experienced before. A million different foods had to be cut up and mashed together; I spent at least an hour breaking the heads off shrimp - some of which were not quite dead, but I put a quick end to that - and ridding them of their exoskeletons. Then Ellen's mom and I put the fillings into the dough, and Ellen cooked them. And we ate. Oh, how we ate.

While her mom was in Langfang, Ellen and I took a day and went into the city center, to Nanluoguxiang for some snackie snacks, and then over to Jingshan Park to see the sun go down. Despite it being a holiday for the majority of Chinese citizens, the hill at the center of the park was not completely jam-packed, although there was a good crowd there. And there dang well should have been; the colors were sick, since the weather had been great that day.

No, the whole break was not spent with Ellen and Ellen alone. I also met a girl named Ellie, but she doesn't have relatives in Langfang, was not that tall, and was not really able to keep all of her carrot-flavored smoothie in her mouth yet, like Ellen does and is. But those times are on their way. D-Haysom and I grabbed lunch and coffee with one of the cooler dudes in the world - Alan - and his lady and child, Skye and the aforementioned Ellie, respectively. I'd never met their daughter before and hadn't seen Alan or Skye in nearly a year, so it was good good good to catch up and laugh with them a bit.

Other time was spent at a massive birthday party for one of the world's more dangerous people, a guy who has spent at least a month in total living at my house, maybe around two weeks sharing a bed with me, and many hours littering my home with sheets of paper that said "Thanks for letting us stay!" in pink letters. The first beautiful day of the break was spent eating at Feast - the world's most scrumptious all-you-can-eat brunch - and then hanging out in a park and then playing games at the apartment of the birthday boy himself: Ali.

I also played bass at church one of the Sundays. And it was good. Even though the worship team's commander, Ben, was not at its head. Suitable replacement leadership was provided, and it was a good Sunday of worship.

And I graded a bunch of papers and assessments.

Lastly, the first Monday after the break was not even a school day: it was Sports Day. And the weather, as it often was during the National Holidays, was pretty sublime. I was in charge of supervising dodge ball games all morning, and although it was hectic and stress at times, the competitions were fun to watch and officiate. The powers that be assigned a couple kids to help run the game: I had a particularly good time with this senior Russian student who was probably stricter than I was. We made a good time and laughed often, especially when I got jacked by a wayward ball or mistook a female student for a male one. These things happen.

There were lots of other games and competitive activities that involved all four of the different houses - Water, Fire, Air, and Earth. For years, I have been on the green Earth team, and last year our team won. And even this year, I thought we had a good chance at grabbing the trophy; Earth won many a dodge ball game. But maybe they fared differently in the other games, the races, tail hunters, the tug of war, snowball fight, and the rest station, because in the end, Earth came in at second place. Oh, well.

The break was solid. A lot went on, and additional hours were spent hanging out, chatting or studying or grading. Good variety, busy enough days, good sleep at night. Variety. The spice of life.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar Go to Datong

They drove there, to Datong, 350 kilometers or 220 miles, from Beijing. It took several hours. But, they knew it was the right thing to do, since their school had given them plenty of time in which to do it. Staying put in Beijing would have been foolish, especially since they had days off of work that the rest of the Chinese populace did not have. So they - Misters Hopper and Haggar - went off to Datong.

There were many things that they did there. Because there are plenty of things to do there, in Datong, a city of about 1.6 million people, in Shanxi Province, west of Beijing and west of Hebei. And they - Misters Hopper and Haggar - wanted to do them.

One of the things that they went and peered at was the Nine Dragon Screen, well within the limits of the city proper. They wanted to see it, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar did, because it was colorful and lovely and because there wasn't a massive abundance of things to see within Datong itself. The beast was built for the first emperor of China's Ming Dynasty, dates back some 600 hundred years, and is colorful beyond belief. Behold:

Another of things that Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar saw - truth be told, Mr. Haggar wanted to explore it and made Mr. Hopper come with him - was the wall surrounding old Datong. It was, truth be told, not worth the 30 RMB admission price, nor was it that awesome when they discovered, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar did, that the functions held within the old city's gates and walls didn't really fit with the seemingly-ancient structure.

More importantly, though, was the Hanging Temple, 悬空寺, near Hunyuan, some sixty kilometers southeast of D-Town. This was their main target; Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar wanted to see it badly. So they went to it. Because it is a temple built into the side of a cliff, seventy-five meters above the ground, 1500 years old, all that.

They liked it, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar did. The dudes' arrival was nice and early, before the scads of other tourists and their gassy buses arrived, and they explored the temple high and low, inside and out.

The ol' place wasn't that dissimilar from other temples that a person would encounter in China. It was just sweet because it was hanging off the side of a cliff. Could it fall at any moment, bringing not only hundreds of years of history but also screaming photographers and tourists of all shapes and sizes down with it? Presumably. That did not, however, happen on the morning on which Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar visited the temple. No, it did not.

A mere u-turn away from the Hanging Temple was Mount Heng. In truth, neither Mr. Hopper nor Mr. Haggar had heard of this large hill before randomly reading a sign on the side of the road about it. Thus, having completed their exploration of the cliff temple extravaganza by 10:00 a.m., Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar made an executive decision to ascend to the peak of Mount Heng.

In truth...the two stately gentlemen took a cable car halfway up. Then a quick scamper to the top - up a million stairs - provided fairly nice views of the surrounding countryside. There were many other peak-seekers on their way up as well, plodding up to the summit of the 2016 meter-high mountain.

Then Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar took a leisurely stroll down, past temples, cliffs, bells, statues, much greenery, bored temple-keepers, and bathrooms, back to the car. It was a nice but surprisingly taxing jaunt, Mount Heng was. And now it isn't the same anymore, since Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar stomped all over it.

The other thing that Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar were bent on seeing were the Yungang Grottoes. Yes, that was also on their agenda. Somehow this UNESCO World Heritage Site came in second on their list of things to do, second to the Hanging Temple, but the grottoes were still - what's the right word? - neat. Statues numbering around 51,000, all of the Buddhist persuasion, all carved into cliffs sixteen kilometers west of the city many hundreds of years ago.

The promenade leading out there, to the actual caves, was extravagant and impressive, although much newer than all the carvings on which Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar feasted their eyes and cameras later.

The carvings are housed in fifty-one caves in the side of some sandstone hills and were done between 460-525 A.D., which makes them slightly more elderly than the founding of the first Swedish state, the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and the original version of Mr. Haggar's current haircut.

As such, some of the carvings were in awful disrepair from exposure to the elements. Lots of restoration had been done on certain carvings, and none had been done on others. Variety, variety.

So those two well-behaved teachers checked all the caves that were open, which appeared to be most of them, and then Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar investigated - briefly - a museum. And then they drove back to Beijing.

And that was that. Short and sweet. Mr. Hopper may have contrary feelings, or maybe he didn't think about these things at all, and in all likelihood he had other thoughts, but Mr. Haggar thought:

a) that Mr. Hopper was a good dude to travel with. Laid-back, flexible, similar interests, fun. They'll have to do it again sometime.

b) that going around with a car was a new and convenient way to check out the sights. So many small inconveniences were eliminated, but so were many small adventures that come with using public transportation in China. Pros and cons. Mostly pros.

c) that the tourist attraction scene in Datong was strikingly similar to the tourist attraction scene in most other Chinese cities: the geographic layout is square-like and easily navigable; there is an old wall in the city; there are a few typical attractions within the city itself (temples, a drum tower, an old town) that are worth checking out; the real cool stuff, however, lies outside of the city, within striking distance; there was at least one cool hostel that caters in some way, shape, or form to foreign tourists.

d) that he was super lucky to get out of Beijing on a trip during his nine-day vacation, and super lucky to find someone up for going with him on a random trip. The Chinese national holiday dates this year are from October 1-7, but BWYA - where Mr. Hopper and Mr. Haggar work - didn't have classes between September 27 and October 5, so taking advantage of the few days (September 27-30) on which the other 1.35 billion residents of China were still stuck at work was imperative. But these teachers whose last names both start with "H" (What did you do those days, Mr. Haysom? Were you too busy with jellyfish, Mr. Hogan?) made it happen.