Thursday, June 29, 2017

Observations From The Middle Kingdom

On July 12 I will have been in China for 4 months. With 8 months to go and the initial overwhelming excitement now a thing of the past I thought it was a good time to review my time and what the future may hold for me here in the Middle Kingdom.

Make no mistake coming to China to live for a year was a great decision. It's China! That being said I have made the choice to only stay for the length of my contract. Initially you think this place is easy and I could settle in nicely, maybe spend a few years here. The longer I am here the more I am happy to experience all China has to offer then pack up and move along. Asia is big, exciting and diverse and I was to drink it all in.

I have met quite a few long term expats that live here. One of things I hear constantly is "I need to leave China every 6 months or so", " If you do not leave China to regroup you will hate it here" or something to that effect. I was of that mindset after a few months. China is a great adventure and as easy a country to live in as you can find. We are treated well and there is so much to see and do but if I was to describe this country in one sentence it would be "This country has no soul".

Please do not take that as me hating it here because nothing could be further from the truth. Let me give you my thoughts which when talking to other foreign teachers it is amazing how similar our observations are. So here goes.

1. This is country of  robots without the ability to have a creative or critical thought. They smile and go through their daily routine. However 5000 years of repressive history plus 80 years of hard line communist government rule telling you what do to and how to do it and the culture is inbred with obedience. If you speak with anyone educated in the West they will say the same but when you ask them why they came back to China if it is so restrictive the answer usually falls along the lines of  "it is an easy life here". 

2. Fear. For all the good things that have evolved in recent times the Chinese still live in abject fear of the police and the government. Mention to anyone that you are going to call #120, (our #911) a look of sheer horror crosses their face. "Ken, do not even make jokes about doing that!"

3. Pollution is an accepted way of life. Don't get me wrong nobody likes "the winter fog" but "it does not matter because what can you do?" "It does not matter" is something I hear every day. Basically it means we can handle anything (as it was explained to me). Why worry about it because nothing will change. Breathing masks have become both a necessity and a fashion statement. Designer face masks are as common as new running shoes.

4. Conformity. Everyone does the same thing, wears the same clothes and goes through the same motions. Most girls leave the house dressed quite nice and not sporting "active wear" but everyone under the age of 30 wears the exact same thing. Freaks me out really.

5. Disrespect for woman is not something from your evening news. It is real and the results are dramatic. Young woman have zero confidence. They are not pretty enough, smart enough, skinny or beautiful enough. They need constant reassurance and I mean constant. Again this is 5000 years of woman being treated less than dogs. I know a teacher who just had her second child, another girl. When the child was 4 months old here husband divorced here because she did not give him a son. The government accepted this he has no obligation to the family. Men will leave their families if they are not given an heir. With that being said you will find many woman over the age of 30 who are indigent of men for all the obvious reasons but will cower and succumb to them at a moments notice.
 Secondarily you will find that most woman under 35 act like they are 16. I can not explain it but once you are here you can experience it for yourself. It is an agreed upon observation by most western guys.

I will stop at 5 but you can add "lack of personal space", "drivers that will run your ass over", "cars that drive on the sidewalk (yes you read that right) and lay on the horn when you do not get out of the way. Parents who scream and embarrass their children in public and people shitting in the street. The Chinese also take the obsession with cell phones to a whole new level.

Now before you thinking I am becoming unhinged, don't. Moving to a different county is all about learning and exploring their culture and society. The Chinese as a people are kind, giving and generous. The society is efficient (almost Orwellian like) and historically they are second to none. There are fantastic experiences to be had here and I am taking advantage of everything that I can.  Life in China is very easy for me and any Western person that comes here.

Now all that being said there is a reason people who live here for any length of time feel the need to leave every 6 months.You must never forget that the society is a bastion of Communism and repressive thought. When you visit it as a tourist you can brush it off. When you live it and see it every day with the locals it can wear you down. That is about the easiest way to explain it. A great example of this is the Great Chinese Firewall. The Internet is restricted and may of the sites from the West are blocked, including this blogging site. Free VPNs are everywhere are an easy work around but that is exactly what Chinese life is. An easy work around.

Finally, this is Asia and China is only one country in this vast expanse. Live Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador during my Latin American adventure I constantly remind myself what is possible and where I can go. There are so many other options and China is just a stop on this journey. Do I hate China, Fu** No, China is fantastic. Would I live here for an extended period of time, FU** No.

If only because one day a Hello Kitty Smog Mask would be an accepted accessory.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Xi'an City Wall

The Xi'an City Wall is my late night go to spot when I am bored, can not sleep or just want to walk after work. Historically it is older than the Great Wall. Physically it is imposing when you stop, look at it and allow your mind to wander back a few thousand years. It is beautifully light up at night and surrounded by gardens, parks and walking paths. When the sun sets the people come out and take advantage of these green spaces. They sit in groups and sing, they play badminton or dance in large and small groups. They walk, run or practice various exercises usually in a group environment. You will find gatherings of men playing cards or Chinese Dominos or májiàng. Needless to say the Xi'an City Wall is more than just a historical artifact to be visited by tourists. It is the central point for a way of life for hundreds of thousands of people every day and night. I have evolved into that segment as no more than 3 or 4 days pass when I feel the "need" to go and hang out at the wall.

I have walked around, beside, and on top of the wall both day and night. I rode a bike on top which is a "must do" while you are here.  The 12.4 km is not far but the Wall is uneven regardless of it's high maintenance and the bikes have seen better days but the trip it was well worth it. I will certainly do it again a few more times before I leave. You can rent a bike from any of the entrances at each main gate. You need a 200Y (C$40) deposit and the cost for 2 hours, which is all you need, was 46Y (C$9). There is no issue with getting your deposit back. Just do not loose your payment slip.

I went to the East Gate as it the closest gate to my house, about a 20 minute walk. I paid my 54Y (C$11) entrance and up I went. The East Gate entrance is a bit tricky to find. It is "inside the wall" but you have to make sure you  cross at the crosswalks if you do not want to get killed. There is quite a bit of traffic and if you decide to cross and walk along the inside Island because it is quicker you have to be well aware that you will constantly be in a blind spot to on coming traffic. The second thing to remember is that Chinese drivers do NOT follow the rules of the road so if hugging the curb in what you think is the safety of the 12 inch white line think again. If you get hit YOU will be the one at fault. There is NO arguing that point. The driver could have been drunk, speeding, texting and eating a sandwich while driving with his feet but you will be to blame because of where you walked.

An important note. At the South Gate, which is the main tourist gate, you will be asked to get off your bike. You give your bike to an attendant who in return gives you a bracelet. You then walk for 20 minutes or so along the wall in this busy area. A great safety feature if you ask me. I was initially confused by what they were asking but a nice Dutch couple told me what was going on. They had the same misunderstanding that I was having and decided to "pay it forward".  You pick up a new bike on the other side of the busiest area of the wall and you continue your journey. My new bike was worse than my previous but I only had a short trip to make back to the East Gate. It was slow and steady as I was in no rush.

I have walked around the outside of the City Wall numerous times both day and night. The wall is surrounded by a moat as all ancient cities were. All along the wall are walking trails, exercise equipment including Ping Pong Tables and lush greenery. You can also find people singing, dancing, playing badminton, doing Tai Chi or just hanging about chatting and enjoying themselves.

Although it may seems similar each section of the City Wall is a bit different. The South Gate is the main tourist and celebration gate. It is surrounded by walking streets with bars, restaurants, sides streets and artisan markets. The North Gate is where you can find the main train station and onward buses. It is here where I took the bus to Lishan and the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum. It is always a beehive of activity with travelers coming and going and is the place that if you were to be robbed or pick pocketed this would be the place. That being said the police presence is very strong and quite intimidating. The West Gate moves into a newer residential and business district. You can find a few historical sites here along with a marvelous temple in the inside of the walls north west corner. The Eastern Gate which is the closet to me is considered a "local area". It is busier than the South Gate but with zero tourists, well except for me. There are local restaurants, the parks and plentiful but if you are to get killed by a car this is your spot. There is a shop here that is my "go to" for a cold beer after hanging out at the wall.

My suggestion is for you pick an area and explore it. Go slow and take a look around you. Stop, take a few photos but do not spend the entire time looking through a tiny screen. Watch what people are doing. Look at how they are embracing the joy of the situation they are a part of. It is a great example of  people "living in the moment". Walking around the wall gives me a sense of calm so I embrace it when ever I can.

It is at night when the wall takes on a whole new dimension. The lighting on the wall is perfect. The ramparts and towers are given just the right balance of color and luminosity. The trails below have soft lights on the paths and the physical walls have spot lights running up giving it a perfect balance. To say it is imposing is an understatement.  When you are on the wall at night there are dark areas where you walk and with many people around the atmosphere seems to create a silent mood. You find yourself surrounded by people all walking in general silence enjoying the experience. I was expecting someone to jump out of the shadows and start killing us like a great horror movie.

I went up on the wall one day all excited about taking sunset photos. I wandered to the Western wall and my excitement disappeared. Of course there were going to be tall apartment buildings in the way dammit! I stayed positive, what else was I going to do. Thinking I could catch the sun in between building or some other natural vs man made miracle. It did not happen. I was chatting with a few tourists that happened along and we all came to the conclusion that most people in Xi'an have not seen a dramatic sunset let alone sun rise. You need moments like this to take stock at how lucky we are and can be.

Ultimately the Xi'an City Wall is just great spectacle. It gives credence to a spectacular history both culturally and militaristic. It should not be overlooked as a part of your trip to Xi'an. However riding a bike on the wall and visiting the South Gate will not do the experience justice. If you have the time take and extra day and walk around the entire wall. Take your time, stop for lunch and a beer and it may be the best 6 hours you spend in the city. Start late afternoon to experience the wall during the daylight and at night.

When you are just about done go and find a local shop. Buy a beer and find a quiet place to drink it all the while staring at the wall at night. It is a soothing and exhilarating experience at the same time. They buy another beer and snap out of your trance. Go and have some late night fun in the Middle Kingdom.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Daming Palace National Heritage Park

Daming Palace National Heritage Park was  a bit underwhelming if only because I made the mistake of looking at artist renditions of what the palace looked like and I took that as fact. It happens. With a bit of reading after my visit I discovered that it is actually referred to as  The Daming Palace Ruins of Tang Dynasty National Heritage Park.

It was easy enough to find the Park. From my apartment I entered at Tonghuamen Zhan and took Line 1 to Beidajie Zhan. There I changed to Line 2 and got off at Daminggongxi Zhan and walked East the 20 minutes or so to the park. This will take you to the entrance to the Old Ruins with the cost being 60 RMB to enter. The rest of the park is free. You can also get off at Anyuanan Zhan, go East and you will find yourself at the Palace Entrance.

As we walked toward the Ruins we stumbled upon this couple rocking the Chinese tunes. She was banging her wooding sticks and screeching her songs while the old guy just sat glum faced and focused. He was either scared to death of her or stoned. They were actually very sweet and I spoke with them briefly and understood very little of what they said. They did seem amused at my attempted Chinese. I have found couples and groups of people all over Xi'an rocking these tunes with this style. They cluster near the city wall and at night and many times I have seem what looks like Talent show. Young kids join in and the elderly sit back smile and appear very proud watching the culture being transferred to the next generation. All good feelings and nostalgia aside, it sounds like a screeching cats fighting each other.

The ruins section of the park was massive. I could not count the number of monument, statues and artifacts that were a part of the walking tour telling the story of the Tang Dynasty and it's history. Remember this bad boy was built in 600 AD and China was already over 2500 years old.  The first Dynasty was the Xia Dynasty in 2700 BC. That puts China at about 4717 years old, give or take. Canada is all excited as they are celebrating their 150th birthday this year. A little perspective is always a great thing.

Clean. This park is clean like all public spaces in Xi'an. The cherry blossoms were just starting to fade and they added an "Asian" feel to the place, which being China is not an Asian feel but Asia. I suppose cherry blossoms in Washington DC or elsewhere in the west give a place an Asian feel. We walked for hours and being the history nerd that I am I loved it. As I said there was information and the celebration of the Tang Dynasty however Xi'an and the Old Silk road was ever present, as it is everywhere in this town.

With "this is stupid" and "this is only for foreigners" and "I'm bored" ringing in my ears after about an hour (good times) it was time for a MoBike Adventure. The free section of the park was larger than the ruins section plus it was littered with many kilometers of bike paths and trails. Have MoBike will ride but not after a few pictures on top of the Palace Ruins.  We rode for about 2 hours stopping now and then to check out more monuments that are there "only for Western tourists"

After our bike ride I lost my guide as she had to go to work. It was not the worst thing on this day. I wandered and rode just taking it all in. I went crazy with my Canon playing with the settings, trying different angles and composition aspects of taking photos. I do not have great skills but I am learning and enjoying it.

There was a third section to the park that I never got to that included a huge lake, manicured gardens and walking paths. If there is one thing about Xi'an is presents so many parks and leisure areas that there is no reason to sit at home. That being said on any given night you will find every area we lit up at night for your enjoyment as well and the Chinese take advantage of this. You will find them singing, dancing, exercising or just hang about being a part of the experience.

Is Daming Palace National Heritage Park exciting? That depends on what you are looking for. If you want the Disney experience then you should stay home and stare at your phone. If you want to wander for hours and soak up almost 3000 years of a 5000 year old culture that has a user friendly interface then this is place for you. After you wandering you can easily find a beer and great food outside the park. I had Biang Biang Mian (large Noodle Stir Fry) and a cold Han for about 8 Yuan, less than C$2.

A Han with Biang Biang Mian is just fun to say.