11.24.2013

The Zephyr Song



Fly away on my zephyr
I feel it more than ever
And in this perfect weather
We’ll find a place together
Fly on my wind
-Red Hot Chili Peppers

Beijing experienced a pleasant autumn this year. Every few days, the breezes would blow through the streets, along the hutongs, polluted canals, and up into the sky chasing the grey smog away. Sometimes the breeze was gentle and soothing. Sometimes the wind was fierce and unpleasant. But Beijingers do not mind a few days of blustery weather. That blustery weather augured at least a few days of crisp air and blue skies.

This time last year, winter had already arrived with an early November snow storm (see Winter Wooskie). The heavy snow choked the glory of the newly turned yellow leaves. The fragile leaves heaved under the weight and fell too early, leaving the trees naked.

But this year, thankfully, winter slept in and let autumn enter and exit with grace.

Chinese idiom of the blog: 五彩斑斓Wǔcǎi bānlán (five colors, multi-colored)
English translation: colorful

Example Sentence:  秋天的树是五彩斑斓的!Qiūtiān de shùmù shì wǔcǎi bānlán de!
English translation: Autumn trees are colorful!

Blue skies do occur occasionally in Beijing. Saw it with my own eyes!
 

A Fashion do: dress your dog a fall sweater
All these bright leaves! I feel like I found the end of the rainbow. You know, where Skittles are made.
 

Park poem stone

Xialian - a gal for all seasons
 




11.12.2013

The Distance

No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine,
He's haunted by something he cannot define.
The sun has gone down and the moon has come up,
And long ago somebody left with the cup.
But he's striving and driving and hugging the turns.
And thinking of someone for whom he still burns
He's going the distance.
He's going for speed.
-Cake




Early on October 20, my girl LK and I along with some 30,000 runners gathered in Tiananmen Square under Chairman Mao’s smug mug. We came decked in bright yellow Adidas jerseys, spandex shorts, and IPods. Some wore neon running shoes. Some were barefoot. Some dressed as storm troopers. We came from China, the States, Europe, Africa and other distant places. We were ready no matter what— come rain, come sun, come smog. Yes, October 20 was race day. It was the Beijing Marathon.

Thanks to the armies of police and strategically placed safety tape, twenty-six miles of Beijing roads were clear of the normal congestion of buses, taxis, automobiles, and honking horns.  The prior day’s breeze had blown Beijing’s notorious smog out of sight and out of mind. The sun warmed the air and gentle breeze boosted the runners’ energy.  It was as though Nike, the Greek goddess of victory and speed, spread her wings and bid heaven and earth into submission.

In our excitement, we scarcely noticed the time or that we were standing in the wrong place. Oops. After a slow start, we hit a steady rhythm. En route, LK and I talked about our families, our teenage years, marriage—you know— girl stuff. Before we knew it, we had gone 13.37 miles in 2 hours, 22 minutes. (Did you think we were going to run 26 miles? We opted for the half-marathon distance and we are proud of it!)

Not enough smog here-- need a smoke

We didn’t break any records. We left that to Tadese Tola of Ethiopia. He blasted through 26.2 miles in two hours, seven minutes and 16 seconds. That’s less than a five minutes per mile pace, folks. For 26.2 miles. Yep, 26.2 miles.

The run course was very organized and amazingly managed. Seeing the eight lanes around Tiananmen Square devoid of traffic was incredible. Plenty of water and Gatorade were provided along the course. No food was provided for the half-marathon course. According to the Beijing Marathon guide, food was available to marathon runners.

This run, however, was very crowded. Near the finish, runners slowed to a turtle pace. LK and I sped up slightly at the end and had to dodge around the slowing runners. I even felt good enough to semi-sprint to the bright yellow banner that read “FINISH.” LK felt more awesome and left me in the dust.  To my chagrin, a wall of people that had stopped 10 to 20 feet in front of the “FINISH” banner to take pictures stopped me in my tracks. Navigating through the crowd like I was in rush-hour subway traffic was a rather anti-climactic end to a triumphant run. Oh well. China just has so many people-- people that that like to stop and take pictures right before finishing a run.

I paid a steep fee of $65 USD to participate. If I were Chinese, I would only pay 80 RMB ($13 USD). Besides wishing the run were cheaper, I regret nothing. I love having a goal for which to sweat and train. After the race, I walk – I mean, run— away with the following:
  1. I got a really cool Adidas yellow running shirt and bag
  2. I ran under Mao’s portrait.
  3. I stayed fit (Some might argue that training in Beijing’s severe pollution actually destroys the lungs because 10 miles of breathing “severe” pollution is like smoking five packs a day, right? Just kidding. I don't know if breathing pollution is like smoking.)
  4. Afterward, I ate a cheeseburger and fries with zero regrets.
  5. My Chinese friends (who would never dream of running, much less walking at a rapid pace) think I am awesome. One university student said, “You are such a cow!” Believe me, that is a compliment.

Chinese Phrase of the Blog: 太牛了! Tài niú le (literally, so cow)
                English Translation: You are awesome!
 
Quick Facts
Number of Marathon Runners: 15,000
Number of Half-Marathon Runners: 7,000
Number of Mini-Marathon Runners: 8,000
Marathon Participant Fee:
China Citizen: 120 RMB (20 USD)
Foreigners: 80 USD
Half and Mini Marathon Participant Fee:
China Citizen: 80 RMB (13 USD)
Foreigners: 65 USD

Marathon
Male Winner: Tadese Tola, Ethiopia, 2:07:16
Female Winner: Zhang Yingying, China, 2:31:19

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I think we need more people in this tunnel
 
Let's GO!
LK, me, and Mao
May the force be with you
When you gotta go, you gotta go

My #1 Fan - I love him!
We totally deserve this! Thank you Home Plate!



11.05.2013

Misty Mountain Hop 黄山


If you go down in the streets today, Baby, you better,
You better open your eyes.
Folk down there really don't care, really don't care, don't care, really don't
Which, which way the pressure lies,
So I've decided what I'm gonna do now.
So I'm packing my bags for the Misty Mountains
-Led Zeppelin



Early September, we escaped the concrete jungle with an easy two hour flight south to Anhui Province. Our goal was to see one of China’s national treasures: Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain 黄山).  The dramatic scenery has inspired legends, poetry, and the backdrop for James Cameron’s Avatar.

Huang Shan did not disappoint. The pines precariously lodged within the chiseled cliffs and the clouds mysteriously slinking through the crevasses like a silent mountain song overwhelmed us, inspired us, and revived us. Our awe was only interrupted with the sounds of rambunctious tourists chatting, talking, yelling, and spitting. Yes, like any spot in China, the place was covered with people.

The following is a detailed description of our 4-day excursion south to a warmer clime. Information on travel to Huang Shan is scant, so I hope the following may help backpackers planning to experience one of China’s natural wonders. Skip to the pictures if you don’t like to read (you know who you are).

This blog entry includes the following main points:
  • Day 1 – Beijing (北京) to Tunxi (屯溪)
  • Day 2 – Tunxi (屯溪) to Huang Shan (黄山)
  • Day 3 – Huang Shan (黄山) to Tunxi (屯溪)
  • Day 4 – Hongcun (宏村) Ancient Village to Beijing (北京)
  •  Cost
Read enough? Click here and just look at pictures
Day 1 – Beijing (北京) to Tunxi (屯溪)

After landing in Tunxi late Sunday night, Steven from Huang Shan Bed and Breakfast picked us up from the airport. That evening we chatted with Steven and sipped tea. The accommodations were extremely clean, comfortable, and came with a fried rice breakfast. Our one night stay in a private room and bath was a deal for 150 RMB ($25 USD).

Day 2 – Tunxi (屯溪) to Huang Shan (黄山)

Steven drove us to the train station and arranged for us to take a bus to Huang Shan’s front gate. The 2 hour ride cost 17 RMB ($3 USD) per person. After arriving at the main gate and paying another 19 RMB ($3 USD) per person, we boarded another bus bound for Yungu (云谷) Temple Station located on the east side of the park. There we paid the steep Huang Shan entrance fee of 230 RMB ($38 USD) per person.

From Yungu Temple Station, tourists can ride a gondola for 80 RMB ($13 USD) per person, or climb 6 km of stairs. As self-proclaimed hikers and frugal travelers, we opted for the stairs. After about an hour of stairs (and only stairs), I felt like my 13-pound backpack was 50-pounds. I was literally from-head-to-toe drenched with sweat and wishing we had forked over the 80 RMB to ride the gondola.

I am so sweaty
We climbed the stairs alongside a parade of porters-- the unsung heroes of mountain tourism. They were work oxen, their lean bodies balancing heavy loads across their shoulders as they carefully took each ascending step. They rested their loads on a bamboo stake as they sipped water, wiped their brows, or smoked a cigarette. Their calves bulged- the result of thousands of uphill treks with 100 to 200 pounds of supplies. The porters were both young and old. Despite laboring under the load, they willingly offered a smile or asked what country from whence we came. Ok, maybe my 13-pound backpack was not so bad after all.


 As a side note: I have added Huang Shan porter to my list of jobs in China I would hate (another example is bathroom lady: she sits in a stinky public bathroom but I don’t know if she actually does anything because the floors are dirty and the wastebasket is spilling over with used toilet paper).

These porters probably carried up the drywall, paint, concrete, and other supplies to construct the large hotels perched at the top of the mountain. The hotels are not quaint structures that blend in with the mountain scape. The purple carpets and purple velvet sofas, the gold chandeliers, and fake marble paneling reminded me of Reno’s casinos which saw their heyday 20 years ago. Despite clashing with the environment, the hotels are a construction marvel.

We lodged one night at the Paiyunlou Hotel. We chose the cheapest option at 150 RMB ($25 USD) for single-sex dorms. The rooms were small and crammed with three bunk beds. Each dorm room has a bathroom.  I roomed with 5 other Chinese tourists. Bedding is provided, but no toilet paper or towels. The rooms are definitely not luxurious, but they start out reasonably clean. After one night of sweaty tourists, a perpetually unflushed toilet, and used toilet paper accumulated in the waste bin, the place reeked. My roommates were nice—and I hate to nit-pick— but they just didn’t flush the toilet and they smelled like body odor. Fortunately, perfect mountain weather beckoned us outside and we spent little time in the dorm.

Our dorms were conveniently located at the edge of the West Sea (西海). The “sea” refers to the layer of clouds that hover above the canyon and below the mountain peaks. Our legs on fire after the morning’s tough climb, we spent the rest of the day hiking the well-maintained paths that descend into the canyon. The scenery was amazing.



Feel the love! Lovers inscribe their names on locks, lock them up and throw away the keys to symbolize everlasting love



Day 3 – Huang Shan (黄山) to Tunxi (屯溪)

Early in the morning, a parade of tourists fumbled through the dark and up the steep stairs to claim a spot at the edge of the rim and watch the sunrise. We fumbled along with them, and thinking ourselves smart, perched at an outlook that connected to the main trail and a bit below Red Cloud Peak (丹霞峰). We hoped that the procession of tourists would continue onto the peak and leave us alone. But that hope was in vain. This mountain was just simply covered with tourists. We soon found ourselves elbow to elbow with chatting, snacking, and spitting tourists. Come on people! The sun gently rising above the misty clouds should be enjoyed in silence.

Watching the sunrise along with everyone else
After a pretty anti-climactic sunrise (the clouds blocked the rise and the tourists blocked the silence), we beat the crowds and took a relatively solitary hike. Even though our legs ached from the previous day’s climb, we persevered and climbed up to Flying Over Rock (飞来石) and Brightness Top (光明顶) to take in more amazing scenery.

Flying Over Rock
Six kilometers of stairs, two bus rides and 4 hours later, we returned to Tunxi. Deprived of food, we ate at the first restaurant we could find in Tunxi Old Town.

Tunxi Old Town, the city’s historical center, now caters to tourists. The narrow alleys house charming calligraphy, knick-knack and garment shops as well as restaurants. birdMAN is not much of a shopper. He tends to briskly walk through merchant areas— especially if he is hungry. If you are not like my husband, Tunxi Old Town offers plenty for the curious shopper inclined to spend money.

Anybody want to buy this very uncomfortable bathtub? Just kidding, I have no idea what this thing is for.
We wandered up, down, and around the alleys for about 2 hours before we finally found the Hui Boutique Hotel. We had booked our room online for 350 RMB, a considerably steeper price than our stay outside of Old Town. However, the location was ideal—smack in the center of charming old town. The staff was friendly and the hotel was clean, neat, and reminiscent of ancient China. We spent the evening relaxing and watching Seven Pounds starring Will Smith (I give the movie a C) on the room’s flat screen television.

Courtyard at the Hui Boutique Hotel
Tunxi Old Town
Day 4 – Hongcun (宏村) Ancient Village to Beijing (北京)

We had the whole day to kill before our evening flight, so we took off to the countryside. Our destination was Hongcun (宏村) Ancient Village. Scenes for Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger were filmed there. After paying the 104 RMB entrance fee per person, we only had about 3 hours to eat and explore.

There we wandered the narrow passageways from ancient home to ancient home, from garden to garden, from craft shop to craft shop. At a family run restaurant, we bargained with a friendly young man for a 3 dish meal for 100 RMB. As we savored streaky pork, spicy tofu, and braised vegetables, we watched the clouds threaten rain, the tourists taking pictures in the alley below, and the family’s freshly-washed laundry dry in the gentle breeze.

The internet provides good direction on how to get to and from Hongcun. We could have opted to pay a private driver or taxi for a quicker (and more expensive) ride, but sitting among the locals and taking in a piece of their lives is far more interesting. Along the 2 hour route, we watched both old and young rural people get on and off at the small villages dotted along the highway. They carried pieces of their lives with them: plastic bags full of green veggies for that night’s dinner or pickling for a later meal, school bags with books and cellphones, a set of pots and pans and a large grey sack full of sundries. After feeding her children packaged stinky tofu, a mother nonchalantly chucking the plastic wrapping out the bus window. Two men speaking in the Anhui dialect as their cigarette poofs wafted through the bus and amongst fellow passengers. School children in white and blue jumpsuits heading home after a long day at distant schools.

That night we flew back to Beijing. And Beijing welcomed us with familiar sounds of the Beijing dialect and pollution.


Art students hone their skills in Hongcun
Where is a ninja when you need one?
Rice harvest

Cost

This trip was not cheap (especially if you are surviving on Chinese wages). For comparison, a typical plate of dumplings would cost 10-15 RMB ($1.60 -$2.40 USD). On the mountain, we forked over 40 RMB ($6.50 USD) for twelve dumplings, which scarcely sated our hunger. A liter of water cost 25 RMB ($4.00 USD), verses 3 RMB ($0.50 USD) off the mountain. Each person pays an entrance fee of 230 RMB ($37 USD); in contrast, a carload of people can enter California’s Yosemite National Park for $20 USD.

Including plane tickets from Beijing to Tunxi and back, we spent about $870 USD for 4 days. See Vacation Cost Table for a cost breakdown.


In sum, we spent a lot of money. We rubbed elbows with annoying tourists. We sweated a lot. The mountain climb left us with achy legs and insatiable appetites.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Huang Shan is spectacular. I want to go back next year—and ride the gondola up.

Chinese word of the blog: 壮观 zhuàng guān
English translation: magnificent
Example sentence:黄山的景色真壮观Huángshān de jǐngsè zhēn zhuàngguān
English translation: Yellow Mountain scenery is spectacular.

Chinese tourists are in the news! 
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