Saturday, August 26, 2017

Six Months In, Six To Go

Time is a funny thing. I was recently thinking about my time here and I suddenly realized that August is almost over and there is still so much I want to do. I decided to take full advantage of things being a slow at school because I have been a bit lazy exploring my road trip options, mostly because it has been so damn hot. We had temperatures over 40 every day for 4 weeks in July and early August moving about was exhausting.

Now the temperatures have cooled and I started reorganizing my days off and took leave for a couple more giving me 6 days off next week. What does someone do with six days off while in China? You look at the map and review all the research you have done then you pick a place that excites you. Then you buy a plane/train ticket and GO! With that I am heading to the city of Jiayuguan, the western-most fortress on the Great Wall. After 3 days I will take 4 hour train into the Gobi Desert to the Oasis town of Dunhuang. I will go all touristy and climb aboard a camel but more exciting are the treks into the desert to sit atop huge dunes and enjoy the vastness.

September 12th with be the midway point of my year in China. I have a few other trips planned including Tibet (Sept 30 - Oct 9) and Beijing sometime in November. There are quite a few one and two day trips I want to take and that should fill my China experience. I am 90% sure I will not stay on for a second year with the richness and diversity of Asia is calling.  My contract ends in Mid March and with hiring season in most countries starting in August/September the universe has smiled on me giving me the opportunity for 6 months of travel...and I desire. The truth is I will probably wander for 3 months then find a quiet place near the Indian Ocean in a country that will give me a 90 day visa. From there I can relax and explore, tutor online to keep earning, learn the basics of a new language and prepare for my next teaching assignment.

Nanjing City Wall
My friend Caitlyn Tran, who has traveled and done amazing things has finished up a trek up Kilimanjaro. Reinvigorate after some "soul searching" she has decided next up for her in Nepal and the 15 day trek to the Everest Base Camp. Her motivation is part "bucket list" and part "pissed off at the old white dude" because he is going to the Everest Base Camp in Tibet with her. Although constantly harassing me about being here "white father" I have decided  to join her. The universe is smiling because as I mentioned my contract ends mid March so we have decided to meet in Nepal in late March and do the trek together. If for whatever reason to I stay in China (most likely because of a girl or a huge pay increase) part of my new contract will stipulate time off for this trek. That being said, job or not job in China I am off to fulfill one of my personal goals, hiking and trekking in Nepal. Doing it with a friend, who I know will be awesome on the trail, is an added bonus. We are now just deciding who to guide us. To view Mount Everest from both Tibet and Nepal in a span of 6 months, I will tell you how I feel when it is accomplished.

As for Nepal that kicks open the door wide open to big, bold, and colourful India and mysterious, mystical Sri Lanka. Currently, of the 7 man-made wonders of the world, plus the honorary 8th I have been to Petra in Jordan, The Great Pyramids in Egypt, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Piccu in Peru and the Colosseum in Italy . That leaves the Great Wall of China which I will walk on next week, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil and Taj Mahal in India. Going to India and the Taj Mahal will put Brazil in my cross hairs when I leave Asia. In my head I see Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, Suriname and Cuba as apart of that trip but let's reign it in a bit. I get giddy looking at maps.

Finally back to China. I sometimes find myself thinking about the comfort level here in China and how easy it would be to stay for an extended period of time. There is nothing wrong with that but I have a desire to see and experience so much more all the while challenging myself to go farther. I have 6 months more to go and I am fully aware that anything can happen. However, soon I will have to make a deposit on a trek in Nepal and thus commit to it. When I do that China will be in the rear view mirror (yes I know that small chance I can stay exists). I am going to continue to embrace the contradictions that exist here. One day I can visit a temple that is 2000 years old and get lost in the rich history and culture of the Middle Kingdom. The next day I can see a 5 year old girl lift up her dress, squat and take a shit like a dog on a very busy sidewalk and nobody flinches...except me.

Life Moves Fast. Make Sure You Don't Miss It.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Nanjing Memorial

Well here I was in Nanjing. I had survived my first solo train trip, found my hostel and the sun was shining. It was time to hit the subway and explore.

My first stop was the presidential palace and it was a nightmare of epic proportions. I have been to blundering tourist sites before but this was different in its chaos. You would thing the world was coming to an end with all the screaming, pushing, shoving and general mayhem, and that was just to buy a ticket. I had to deal with abrasive vendors, touts trying to sell bogus tickets, aggressive beggars, honking horns and screaming kids. This old white Western dude took it all in for 5 minutes and said "no freaking way" loud enough to scare the person beside me and off I went. There was a Buddhist temple that was a five minute walk away and I hoped that they would restore my good karma.

There are six Buddhist Temples in Nanjing and I was heading to Pilu which was built in 1522-1566. I know nothing about Buddhism traditions except for Monks in orange robes, Karma and the Fat Guy at the centre of it all. This temple is famous for a variety of reasons but the one that caught my attention was that it was visited by the 14th Dali Llama during his time. The courtyard was smallish compared to others I have visited and as with the others there is very little, if any, outside noise. Tranquil gardens surrounded by ponds of Koi and elderly worshipers added to the aura. There was a prayer ceremony in the main building that I was forbidden to enter at the time. So as payback I went around back and snapped a quick photo.

I then sat and listened and took it all in. Monks chanting and banging the large gong, the smell in incense, the large Buddha in the courtyard, the ponds, the worshipers and the feeling of tranquility. My mood was shattered when the praying stopped and I heard very aggressive speaking over over a crackling speaker. Not knowing what I was hearing I poked my head inside and watched as all the worshipers that had followed the monks into the temple were digging into their purses, wallets and pockets. Different religion, same game. The spell was broken and I was out of there.

I headed back to the subway and walked past the depravity that was probably a daily ritual at the Presidential Palace. It was time to go to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial which was the primary reason for my visit. I have been a "dark tourist" in the past. I did not know what to expect so I opened my mind wide ready to take it all in.

First, the memorial is Free. Get off the subway, go through security and enter. There was no huge entrance fee because you were going to enter anyways with the standard "all money goes to the maintenance of the site" bullshit. I found a guide who was eager to lead me through the initial courtyard. Maybe 19 years old she smiled knowingly at me and said "The Chinese Government and the City of Nanjing will not profit from the deaths of 300,000. We are here to honor them". 

I took this quote from a CNN Travel Article that captured the moment I entered the memorial.
"The memorials solemnity ensnares visitors as they walk through open courtyards to the main building.

Yes it was crowed with people as is everywhere in China. Yes many of them were taking smiling and peace sign flashing selfies unaware of where they were. Yes, I looked past all of it and wanted to take in the experience in my own personal way. What I did notice was after the initial "excitement" of being here the reality of the place started to slowly seep into the photo snap happy Chinese. As we reached the end of the long entrance pathway each statue brought a little more quiet into the masses. When we reached the entrance I stopped briefly to look back in the direction that I came from, a habit I picked up as a Volcano guide in Nicaragua. The mass of now quiet people were walking slowly with a bit of trepidation and with what looked like growing concern.

Dec 13, 1937
Began the inhuman massacre!
Unarmed and defenseless civilians
Flee,The only hope to survive

How wretched she was my poor wife !
The devil raped you, stabbed you..
We were together even though we died.
The devils aircraft bombed again..
The poor orphans,
Frightened by the vicious laugh of the brutal devils,
Terriefied by the corpses piling up in the alley,
Have lapsed into numbness

A Thirteen-year-old carrying his
grandmother who has died in the bombing

Flee - flee - flee

My dear mother in the eighties,

Hurry up! Run away from the devils blood-bath!
Never will a sacrificed soul bear the
humiliation of the devils!
Only to die! Only to die!
Only death can wipe off the stain!!
Simple in it's design, the long path into the memorial is a sobering display of monuments depicting various form of human suffering and distress. Each statue displaying a situational message giving a life like quality and a reality to their individual horrors.

"Frigidity and horror have frozen this crying baby!
Poor thing, Not knowing mum has been killed
Blood, milk and tears
Have frozen, never melting"

The memorial passes through a historical timeline of events that include pictures, videos, testimonials of survivors, war artifacts, art and poetry. Each display was in multiple languages allowed everyone who passes time to read and reflect.

Nearing the end you enter the Grave of 10,000.  The Memorial was built on an actual massacre site and with museum like precision you are given a viewing of skeletal remains of some of the victims. Included are their sage and how their died. Bayoneting in the ribs, large nails hammered into skulls, shot through the head. A brutal reminder that these were people who suffered not just stories from history.

I took my time to take it all in. When you leave there is a huge peace memorial surrounded by a park with walking trails. You can view other memorials or sit and take it all in. Most people I saw just filed past the Peace Memorial and sadly headed for the exit. When it was time to go there were two options. The first that most people were taking was to the left, over a bridge and out of the park. The second was to right and back in the direction of the entrance but you had to pass through the building. Ah ha! I said to no one but loud enough to be heard. Here is where they hit you with the "gift shop". Oh, my cynical Western mind. I enter what turned out to be a massive 3 story museum on the rise and fall of Fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan and China's experiences in the war.  Well designed and incredibly interesting I wandered the "gift shop" for a little over 3 hours.

I had predisposed that I would be mentally and emotionally exhausted once I visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. I was anything but that. I felt calm, informed and had gained a new level of respect for the Chinese by the entire experience. Everything was designed and planned perfectly, if I can use the adverb perfectly in a situation like this.

"Share with the world what you see here today Mr. Ken. Canada needs to learn more about our tragic history ".  The soft and quiet lilt of the voice from my young guide was the one thing that finally put a lump in my throat.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nanjing Travel Day

Train travel in China is the only way to go. It is inexpensive, reliable, safe and if you take the Bullet train it is a smooth 307km/h. I buy my tickets online and from my China "go to site" China Travel Guide. After your purchase you are emailed your ticket details in Chinese and English which you take to the train station, find the ticket window and hand over the printed document and your passport. No muss no fuss and off you go. I picked up my ticket a few days before as this was my first "solo" train trip in China I wanted on less thing to think about.

I was running a bit late from work but I still managed to get to the East train station with about an hour to spare. In any other persons life that would be plenty of time but we are talking about my world of wonder where the forces guiding it amuse themselves by constantly giving me little tests to keep me on my toes. There were 4 large tote boards displaying train information including gates and it was working overtime as this is a busy station, however  Z88 was not showing up. Stupid Z88. I was getting a bit frustrated to add to the kink that was starting to make itself comfortable in my neck. Through it I kept hearing a repeating message over the loudspeaker but it was white noise to me because it is always noisy in China. It was only after I took a break from my trance that I took the time to listen to "zi, ba shi ba.....zi, ba shi ba" . Shit, that's me! Time was now a priority so I went to security, which I should have done in the first place, they pointed me upstairs  where I found my departure gate, void of humans. The girl smiled and in broken English told me to run to track 5, so I did. I swooped down the stairs to track level, found coach 13, compartment 31 and bed 4. A long drink of water, bag stowed and a deep breath and the train was on its way giving me about 4 minutes to spare. If you travel for an extended period of time you understand that exhilarating feeling you experience which is born from frustration with a slow burn to anger. Well I had that.

Into the Subway
Ticket to Nanjing
Where is Z88 dammit!
That elated feeling of success
The train ride was uneventful. I shared a cabin with 3 young Chinese teenagers who were quiet and polite. There was a large group of Italian travelers in the train car who were not. They were kind and polite but wow could the group talk. I went to sleep around 11 and they were talking. I woke up at 6 and they were awake and talking. Who has that much to talk about? They were having a great time.
I arrived in Nanjing at 7:30, managed the subway to the Fuzimiao International Youth Hostel in the tourist district which I chose because it was a 10 minute walk from the subway. It was not my ideal situation sleeping in a 10 bed dorm but it was $9 a night and that included a hearty western breakfast. Nobody snored and there was air conditioning so content.

A note about managing the subway in Nanjing or any city in China. The automatic ticket dispenser has an English option. It is touch screen and intuitive. English signage is everywhere and it is no harder than the TTC in Toronto. I printed off a Nanjing Metro map and kept it with me at all times but disintegrated after 3 days in my sweaty pocket.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Nanjing The Prelude

Sometimes when you least expect it human history can hit you square face. When you travel it tends to be magnified from the history you are taught to the history that exists.
To-days lesson in historical reality is the ancient capital of Nanjing (Nanking). I knew very little about the history of Nanjing until I  randomly bought a dogeared copy of The"Rape of Nanjing" by Iris Chang at a local book riot about 10 years ago. It was this intense read that the truth and reality of what the Japanese did to the Chinese in December of 1937 opened my eyes. Historically I knew the Japanese committed atrocities during WWII but my limited knowledge was solely about what happened to Western soldiers during events such as The Falls of Singapore, Hong Kong and The Bataan Death March.

Iris Changs' life story and her lead up to the book is engrossing that it has become a movie, Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking. Her grandparents escaped Nanjing just before the Japanese arrived. Growing up in America she heard small bits about Nanjing but her family did not discuss it. Once she started doing in depth research for the book including first hand account interviews she publishing it "with rage" to get the story out to the world. Sadly so traumatized by history and the burden she put upon herself, Iris Chang killed herself in Nov of 2004, seven years after she first published her story to the world.

In the West we recognize the Jewish Holocaust and it's 6 million dead as the symbol of the brutal atrocities that occurred in WWII.  In the East it is Nanjing and the 18 million people that the Japanese murdered starting in December of 1937. This is not a competition of who was worse but a situation where the West does not know what the Chinese endured at the hands of the Japanese. To this day, 80 years later, if you ask a Chinese about Japan the hate does not hide itself. It is immediate and intense in both the young and old. The story of Nanjing (Nanking is it's ancient name) is beyond horrifying and has scarred China well beyond what we in the West could imagine.

I have watch 3 movies about the Nanjing Massacre, along with countless hours of YouTube videos and documentaries. These movies, all different in their production, tell the same horrific story but with subtle and powerful differences. The Flowers of War is the most recent. Watch it last. and after you have read and understood a little about the Nanjing Massacre. The enormity of the ending will rip your heart out.

The Flowers of War (2011) A Westerner finds refuge with a group of women in a church during Japan's rape of Nanking in 1937. Posing as a priest, he attempts to lead the women to safety.

The City of Life and Death (2009) Chinese with subtitles. In 1937, Japan occupied Nanjing, the Chinese capital. There was a battle and subsequent atrocities against the inhabitants, especially those who took refuge in the International Security Zone.

Nanking (2007)  - Through readings of historical account by actors and the testimony of survivors, the events of the Nanjing Massacre are recounted.

Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking. (2007) A young Chinese-American author's journey into the darkest reaches of humanity as she researched and wrote her best selling book "The Rape of Nanking".

Iris Chang
This Nanjing Massacre happened 80 years ago this December. I will be traveling to Nanjing on my next few days off to visit with my Western tourist eyes and knowledge

As an ancient capital, like Xi'an, it is surrounded by an ancient city wall and home to many Temples. When I visit the Nanjing Massacre memorial I really do not know what to expect. Nor should I.

When I took this job in China, I can honestly say that the first thing that came into my mind was Nanjing. It was not The Great Wall or Panda Bears. I want to take this moment to say Thank you to Iris Chang. Thank you for opening my eyes to an time in history that we all need to know existed.

Please Take the time to read the book. I have a .pdf version that you can download. click this link