Thursday, July 22, 2010 0 comments

July 22nd: The overadvertised EXPO

After all of the hype and advertising and talk, I still wasn't quite sure what to expect from the expo.  I had seen online some of the fantastic architecture that showed each country's creativity, but I didn't have any idea what was inside, really, or what else there was.  I did know that there are normally long lines to find out what's inside. 
Common logic might suggest that I should have gotten up early and arrived as it opened to beat the crowd, but I didn't.  I stayed up late last night fighting with the piece of junk computers at the hostel, and then this morning I needed to do laundry (really--couldn't wait, unless I want to wear these pants for the fourth or so time tomorrow).  I just wasn't in the mood to be rushed.  I finally made it out of the hostel just in time for lunch, and wandered next door to an Italian restaurant.  I'll write about my memory trip to Italy in another post.  I really only had a vague idea as to wear the expo even was; I had glanced at a map yesterday, and it seemed that line 8 of the metro might get me close.  Line 8 crossed People's Square; I could walk halfway and then take a metro one stop to there and change, or I could just walk the whole way, which probably wouldn't be any further by the time you take into account all of the stairs and passageways in the cavernous metro stations. 
I did get distracted a bit on the way, but it was a distraction of the best kind.  I knew that somewhere along the road there was an international bookstore, and I stumbled upon it on my way.  I couldn't resist spending awhile just browsing and reading the back covers, and feasting my eyes on all of the old favorites and future reads and's the little things in life that matter sometimes, and it's been a long time since I've seen an English bookstore.  The only way to get English books in Jingzhou is to order them off of Ebay out of Hong Kong or abroad.  They had a whole section of discount books for 15-18 yuan each--about two and a half dollars.  Coincidentally, I finished the one book I brought with me this morning, and I have several long bus rides, train rides, quiet evenings in hostels, etc. to go, so I bought a few that seemed fairly lightweight: a book of ancient  Chinese poetry that is part of the basis of Taoism (I might as well learn more about Chinese culture as I'm experiencing it; that was the topic of my last book, too), Pilgrim's Progress (one of those classics that, as an English major, I shouldn't admit that I've never read--I find that long trips such as this are a wonderful catalyst to reading those rather ponderous works that I get distracted from normally), Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (same principle as the second book; also, the title seems appropriate in light of the daily frustration of being one of 1.3 billion), and one just for the pleasure of it, Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.  My enjoyment of nineteenth century British literature comes through again!
Finally I proceeded to the expo.  It turns out my instincts are quite good; the metro station I guessed as being in the general vicinity turned me out right next to a ticket booth.  I bought a ticket (no lines, walked right up--so far, not the madhouse I was envisioning) and entered.  There weren't too many people in this part of the expo.  I think I had the right idea, coming at three in the afternoon: it doesn't close until midnight, so I've still got hours to explore, but the eager beavers who showed up early have gotten overheated and wandered off by now.  And it was hot--the beautiful clear weather continues, rather miraculously for China, but the sun beats down with an undiluted intensity.  So bright, and my sunglasses are broken. 
I was in the boring part of the expo, the pavilions run by various corporations.  The best part was across the river, so I had to make my way to one of the ferries to go across.  It was a long hard walk--not unreasonably far, really, and I shouldn't have been tired, just starting out--but my heel spur has been getting progressively worse the past few days.  It had improved a lot, but today I wondered if I was really going to be able to walk around this thing--just getting to the ferry felt like walking on knives. 
Anyhow, I did make to the ferry, and across the Huangpo river, and the first pavilion I came to (I planned this) was Italy.  There was quite a line, but this was one I didn't want to miss, so I joined the queue.  Good thing I didn't realize just how long it was at that point, but it moved fairly quickly, although I probably waited for forty minutes or so.  Don't get me started on waiting in lines with Chinese people; I might say something unkind.  Speaking of Chinese, there were a lot fewer foreigners than I had imagined; I often found myself surrounded by only Chinese people.  I finally made it inside, and there were displays of things Made in Italy: a ferrari, a vespa, high-fashion shoes, fancy dresses, super modern chairs and lamps (a mobile of each was hanging from the ceililng).  Above the escalator, there was a cross section model of the Florence duomo.  On the second floor there was a restaurant, but it was a bit expensive and besides I'd already eaten Italian today.  I did get a small glass of limoncello, though, for old time's sake.  I sat down to rest while I drank it; there was no where else to sit in there, and the pain in my foot was to the point that I nearly felt sick.
The late afternoon light was perfect as I left, so I decided to stay outside for a bit and take pictures of the amazing pavilions each country had constructed--really, the adventurous architecture was the highlight.  I know you'll agree once you see the pictures.  Across the way was Russia, Croatia, Slovenia.  I went into Croatia because the line was short, but even a short line was a bit of a waste of time as there were mostly just pictures being flashed around, which I could have seen from the door. 
To be continued...
 *The pictures are of one of the main buildings, which looked like a flying saucer; the UK pavilion; and obviously, the Croatia pavilion
Tuesday, July 20, 2010 0 comments

July 20th: Trains and Time

I woke up a bit before my alarm went off at seven thirty to brilliant sunlight streaming in the window.  It promised to be a beautiful day.  I showered, repacked my bag, checked my email, and checked out of the hostel about nine; my train was at 11:05 and I wanted to be sure to have enough time. 

I had slept well (not always the case for a backpacking traveler in trains and hostels), and my bags didn't seem to weigh me down at all, although I was carrying my hiking backpacking, my (large day pack) purse, as well as a small shopping sack with some squishable souvenirs and food for the trip.  I stopped by the little convenience shop at the corner that had become my favorite during my days in Beijing--the motherly lady who runs it is fair; everything has a reasonable set price; she doesn't tell foreigners an inflated price as many do in touristy areas.  I bought some cookies, crackers, and drinks for the trip.  I was a bit disappointed in the weather, but not for the usual reasons.  It was clear with a bright blue sky--an incredibly rare occurrence with the smog of Beijing--and it wasn't even too hot.  In fact, and this is something to celebrate on this trip--I don't think I've broken a sweat all day (and it's already dark now).  The disappointment was that this was the best weather I'd seen so far, and I would be spending this glorious day on the train, where it wouldn't have mattered if it had rained buckets or been so humid you can't breathe.  Oh well, that's the chance you take.  I did wish just a bit that I could go poking around the Great Wall again to see it writhe across the mountains in this clear light. 

On the main street just off the hutong where the hostel is nestled, I flagged down a taxi. "Beijing nan zhan." "Beijing South Station."  We drove through Tiananmen Square (pictured), by both new and old high rises, ancient gates and temples, clusters of apartment complexes in various states of repair and decay.  Everything seemed to sparkle in the sun; even the dismal side roads with their laundry and rust and piles of trash at the end seemed cheerful. 
The south station sparkled brighter than nearly all of the rest--a soaring modern building of steel and glass.  The expansive canopy  and the entrance ramp framed a cross section of distant building, so colorful and varied against the chrome outline of the station.  Inside, it seemed even more massive.  Twenty-something waiting areas stretched out in an area that must have been two or maybe even three football field wide.  I bought some food for the trip--there was a French bakery near my assigned waiting area (19) where I bought a pizza stick and a chocolate-chip pastry like I haven't seen since I was in Italy.  I had left myself more than enough time after all, so I sat in the waiting area and basked in the sun pouring in the skylights that made up half the roof. 
Chinese train stations are run like airports--you must arrive at least an hour before your departure time; in fact, if you arrive less than ten minutes before, they may not let you board the train.  You must go through security, including putting all of your bags and luggage through the x-ray machine, and you go to a gate instead of the the platform.  They call boarding, at which point you present your ticket the same way you would present a boarding pass, and are then allowed to the platform to board.  Train tickets go on sale ten days ahead of time, and often sell out quickly; you can never just show up at the train station and expect to get a ticket.  Even though it seems a bit much to me, being used to the easy-going European system, I have to admit it's very efficient. I suppose it's a necessity in a country with as much traffic as China. 

The cheaper overnight trains were sold out when my friend's sister went to buy a ticket for me, so I had to take the faster, fancier day train--Shanghai in only ten hours.  Eurostar level, at least, if you're familiar with the European rail system.  Quite a bit of leg room; wide aisles, bathrooms fairly clean (although still no western toilets, of course, but I'm used to that by now).  Like an airplane, they even played in-route movies: "Fearless," a movie about a legendary Chinese martial arts hero that turned out the be quite good even though I didn't understand much of the dialog, and Rush Hour 3 (in English with Chinese subtitles, although the volume wasn't very high so I didn't understand much more of the dialog than in the first one) featuring Jackie Chan and that-black-guy-who's-not-Will-Smith who always plays the doofball sidekick in cop movies.  Chris something, maybe.  Chinese people are very proud of their own--the most famous Hollywood actors here are of course Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.  Other than movies, the tv played an endless array of advertisements and documentaries about the ongoing Shanghai World Expo 2010.  I plan to go to see it just to say I did, but I'm nearly tired of hearing about it.  It's everywhere--China seems to be wallpapered with expo propaganda.  It's a national obsession.  You can't even say the word Shanghai anymore without launching immediately into a discussion of the expo.
The only discomfort on this train is that there are no armrests on the seats--I feel like I can't completely relax because there is nothing to lean against; if I fell asleep I think I'd fall out in the aisle. I have an aisle seat, so I feel like I'm sitting a bit on the edge of my seat to avoid being too close to the person next to me. 
I enjoyed a daytime trip to see a bit of the countryside on the way--we've passed through cities, farms, mountains, crossed rivers--most of the trip was sunny as I'd left Beijing, but also we passed through periods of clouds, and now that it's dark I rather think it's raining.
All the corn fields and rice fields are lush and green this time of year.  I especially enjoyed passing through Nanjing just at sunset.  The silver skyscrapers contrasted nicely with the pale purple evening sky, and the most distinctive tower among them caught and reflected the last golden reflection of the sun.  The lights were just beginning to come on.
And now, we're coming into Shanghai.  All I see so far is the irregular pattern of lights in windows in the high rise apartments that fill the windows on every side; I'm looking forward to spending a few days in a huge modern city--I've seen history in Beijing; now I'm ready to see the future in Shanghai. 
Friday, July 16, 2010 0 comments

July 16th: Love, Hutongs, and Students

Well, I thought that spending the night sitting in a train seat instead of in bed would only make my cough and head cold worse, but instead, it seemed to help.  Come to think of it, it might be a good idea to sit up all night instead of lying down when I'm sick—it seems to have kept the congestion from settling in my head and I'm feeling decidedly better this morning.  Surprisingly, I slept fairly well on the train; I don't feel groggy at all. 
The train was a bit late getting into Beijing, but, as promised, Zhou Lingxia was waiting as I stepped off with paper with my name scrawled along the top.  Yet again the work of Li: his sister had reserved my next train ticket for me, but her English is not too good, so she enlisted her friend Dr. Zhou to deliver it to me.  Now, all I really needed was to have the ticket handed over and to give her the money, which wouldn't have required much English, but as usual my Chinese friends just can't imagine that I could show up in a city I've never been to before and not be overwhelmed and in need of help.  Zhou Lingxia had offered to help me find a hotel, but I had already booked a hostel on the internet (good thing, too, because her hotel suggestions showed that she had quite a different idea of the sort of place an American would be looking for than what I had in mind). 

Zhou Lingxia said she hadn't minded the delay; it gave her the chance to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and read the paper in one of the shops in the train station.  As a friend of Li's sister (who must be around my age), I was expecting a recent college grad in her twenties, but Dr. Zhou turned out to be a friendly woman in her late forties or early fifties, I suppose; she is a professor and researcher at one of the major universities in the city, with a doctorate in paleontology.  She has a daughter nearly my age. 

I got to know her a bit as we waited in the interminably long line for a taxi; although it took awhile, I am glad at least that there is a system in place. I'd rather wait in line that stand on the curb forever shuffling further and further into the road to stick out from among all of the dozens of others also trying to flag down a taxi.  Once we were in the taxi, she and the driver got into an animated discussion as we made our way across town.  I had basic directions to my hostel; the driver of course hadn't heard of it (one of so many small hostels), but I knew the neighborhood and the street names, so it didn't take too much looking about to find it.  Dr. Zhou came in with me and watched over to see that I could actually check in (hostels are used to foreigners; most receptionists have pretty good English—even if not, a hostel check in is not complicated).  Once I was settled, I thanked her for her help and she went on with her day after giving me her card with her personal cell phone number written on, with an admonition to call her if I needed help with anything. 

I knew I only had four days in Beijing, but it was still cloudy and gray outside, and I felt a bit grubby after an overly warm night on the train. I took a shower, and then I realized that the computers at this particular hostel (the Tian-an-men Sunrise Hostel, if you were wondering) actually had headphones with speakers—and skype worked!  After skype had stubbornly refused to work in Xi'an (due to censorship and various other hassles, you will see that internet service will be a continuing theme of frustration throughout the trip), I was really really ready to be able to talk to BW.  It had been a whole five days since I'd heard his voice! I know, I know—it's only a few days, but I've gotten pretty used to boring him with the trivia of my everyday life on a daily basis.  Anyhow, it was wonderful to catch up.  We talked until I was starving for lunch and was beginning to feel guilty about being still in the hostel when I knew I didn't have enough time in Beijing as it was—but it was worth it to spend some time together. 

I finally set out, and I stopped for lunch and one of the touristy little restaurants along the street towards the Forbidden City—the food was good (sweet and sour pork, always one of my favorites), but not surprisingly a bit overpriced.  It was already past two in the afternoon, edging towards three by the time I'd eaten, so it seemed too late in the day to hit any of the major sites, all of which the guide book promised were worth the better part of a day.  Besides, I just really wasn't in the mood to fight the throngs at the famous historical sights. Well, one thing the books all say is that you can't miss the hutong in Beijing.  The hutong are the old winding little alleys that run between courtyard style houses at the heart of the old city of Beijing. Up until about fifty years ago, there were thousands of these little streets, but in the modernization of recent decades most have been destroyed to make way for high-rises, banks, supermarkets, and new offices.  Still, there are supposedly about 800 left, and they are supposed to be quite picturesque. 

Wandering on foot or bicycle through the hutongs is on every to-do list for Beijing.  So, I decided do just that (on foot). Reportedly, a good place to find some is around the old Bell Tower and Drum Tower.  I took a subway that seemed to go fairly close to the Drum Tower—my first lesson that, in Beijing, the map is deceiving. I walked for a good while in its general direction.  I passed various alleys clearly posted as hutong, but they just seemed to be filled with parked motorcycles and people's trashcans set out (if, in fact, the trash was actually contained in a can; more often, it's just a heap).  Nothing too romantic so far. 

Finally, as the sun finally mellowed a bit in the late afternoon, I came upon one that's called South Luogo Lane in English.  It's a little street off of which twelve hutongs, with the normal maze of old courtyard houses, radiate. This one had taken advantage of the tourists and transformed itself to be adorable.  Now the narrow old street was stuffed to the gills with trendy little shops and restaurants with a western flair and plenty of dark coffee shop type atmosphere. I turned down the street, and discovered what I was really in the mood for: shopping.  I enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours browsing through the little shops along the way—I saw a mug shop that had a predominantly displayed cup featuring the face of Obama (really, you don't realize how much the rest of the world interests itself in the U.S. until you live abroad), and paper shops with cute little journals with Chinese scenes or kitschy communist saying on them, an amazing shop with prints of photography of Beijing that were really eye-catching—black and white capturing the texture of the stone roof tiles or wooden beams or cobbled roads of ancient places, with the bobbing umbrellas or clothes swinging on the line left in vibrant color to give life. There were also shops selling Chinese paper-cutting—designs cut into paper that are so intricate that it seems impossible that people do this by hand.  I won't tell you what all I bought, as I might use some of it as gifts. 

I made it to the other end, which had an old entrance arch in the traditional style, that is, painted mostly blue with bright red, green, white, and yellow designs, but opened out into a nondescript busy street.  By this time, I had been text-messaging with Lynn, one of my students from Jingzhou.  She and her classmate, May, were studying in Beijing for a few weeks out of their summer vacation, and we had discovered while talking after class one day that we would be in Beijing at the same time.  We decided to meet up, and she suggested a particular sight. She insisted it was very famous, but she didn't know the name in English.  I had never heard the name in Chinese, even though she gave it to me in pinyin (pinyin in Chinese written in our letters instead of symbols); it didn't turn out to matter because although it was 'famous' I had never heard of it in English, either.  Anyhow, I managed to find it on a map.  I could easily take the subway there to meet them.

Well, 'easily' for Beijing.  I started walking in the direction of the nearest subway station, which of course didn't look so far on the map, but ended up taking about forty-five minutes of walking fairly quickly.  Beijing is simply huge—so much distance to cover, and the subway just can't keep up; besides, the subway wouldn't be very fast if it had to make forty stops on the way across town.  Along the way I passed the drum tower (closed for the evening, but I took a picture of the outside), and through a neighborhood that looked like a good place for restaurants. 

They had to wait just a few minutes for me, as it took longer than I had estimated to get to the subway.  Once I arrived at the subway, I texted Lynn to ask where they were so I could find them, but she said they'd find me (probably didn't want to risk me wandering off in the wrong direction and take even longer). We went to a park, which has an entrance fee during the day, but in the evening is free (although some parts are closed then).  We meandered around, enjoying the large ponds filled with lotus flowers and lily pads, although the part of the park with some ancient ruins was closed off.  It was evening and therefore not terribly hot, but still so humid that we found ourselves exploring the gift shop just to enjoy the air conditioning.  It was nice to spend some time with them; Lynn especially is one of the students I've gotten to know a bit even outside of class. 
Thursday, July 15, 2010 0 comments

July 15th: Moving On

Rolling on down the tracks again—on my way to Beijing this time.  The train is crowded—every seat is filled, and then there are plenty of people standing in the aisles or sitting on little stools (which they brought for the occasion, or else you can buy one from a woman who came around yelling with a stack of them a few times early in the trip).  Really, this train and the European trains I'm used to are fairly similar; if it weren't for the people, I suppose this could pass for a second-class car in Austria. However, it's the differences that stand out now, of course. 

First of all, I was expecting something like the six-person compartments that seem to be the standard for the cheap trains throughout Europe. That would not be enough togetherness for the Chinese, though, I suppose—only six friends? Why contain people when you can all enjoy the closeness of a car of 100?  This train that I'm on is more like a Eurostar—I wrote 'thankfully' in my journal, although I can't remember just now why; being in a compartment with only six people is sounding better and better by now.  This carriage is the seats facing each other with a table between configuration. However on one side, the seats are two by two, but on the other (mine) they are three by three. I was overjoyed to find that I have a window seat, and thus some chance of sleeping as I can lean against the wall, but it is the window seat on the inside of the three seat section. That doesn't really bother me, except I'll have to annoy a lot of people if I ever need to get up to go to the bathroom. 

It seems like a party on here.  In Europe, people usually travel by themselves or with only a small group on the Eurostar—mostly for business. Everyone reads the paper or sleeps.  There is not a lot of chatter; those that do talk keep their voices low. Here, everyone's talking and laughing, and there are TVs, with slapstick comedy shows on. There's so much physical humor that they're even a bit entertaining for someone like me who has a hard time following the dialog. 

It's more crowded, for sure, than European trains—not quite so much leg room, and it seems the seats are a bit closer.  I don't know where all these standing people will go or what they will do when people start to go to sleep. Surely they can't stand all night long—it's a thirteen-hour trip.  If they sit in the aisle, they are constantly popping up and down as people tap them, wanting by. Another difference, I'm getting hot.  Usually on a Eurostar I needed a jacket in July. 

It got dark a bit quickly tonight, after raining all day, followed by a foggy damp twilight.  It made me think of late November, if I could ignore the clothes we're all wearing. As I sit here fanning myself, November sounds better and better. 
Tuesday, July 13, 2010 0 comments

July 13th: Stairs and Survival

Hua Shan (Mount Hua in English) is one of the five sacred mountains of Taoism.  It has five peaks, with the south being the highest at 2160 meters. It is in the Qin Ling mountains, about 120 kilometers from the ancient city of Xi'an.  It is also famous for being the steepest mountain in China--the south face is a sheer rock cliff plunging 2000 meters.  The other sides aren't much better.  It also has a dangerous reputation: on one section, called the Soldier's Path, there are sections that are made up of three 2x4s nailed together and attached to the side of a sheer cliff.  There is a chain to hold on to, but no rails of any sort.  You slip, and you will die.  Another section, the 1000 foot precipice, involved one long steep staircase--if that doesn't give you a heart attack, I don't know what will.  And the old Chinese tradition (that fortunately most people choose not to do today) is to climb it at night with flashlights, timing it so as to arrive at the peak in time for the sunrise. 

I was planning to go to Xi'an already, and I love mountains, so when I heard that it was within a reachable distance, I decided I had to see it.  On July 13th, I set out.  I left everything nonessential to hiking at the hostel in the city.  I carried my faithful backpack--I've drug it around the world for five, no, six years, and it's never let me down. I knew it would be better for hiking than my smaller day bag, because I could strap it to myself and it wouldn't swing around or hang unevenly.  I caught a bus from the Xi'an train station.  I had hoped for good weather, but it was gray and cloudy when we left.

After a couple hours of driving, we finally arrived at the small town at the edge of the mountains.  I bought my tickets from the visitors center and got on the bus heading to the base of the mountain.  Still it was cloudy and hazy, and I feared that the views wouldn't be worth all the time to get there.  However, as the bus wound into the mountains, the clouds began to clear and the sun shone brilliantly through patches of blue.  As we rounded the first hill, we passed a rocky mountain spring sparkling in the sunlight, and then the windows were filled with a wall of rocky cliffs, soaring above us higher and higher.  I couldn't help but have a huge smile on my face--mountains bring me so much joy.  I tried to snap a few pictures out the window.

Finally we wound our way to the base where the cable car was located.  Now, I know I'm no athlete.  I knew I was in no shape to climb this mountain, but I had to see it for myself.  I didn't take the soldier's path--I'm not crazy, after all.  Most people don't, these days; it's just not worth the risk.  So, I took the cable car up to near the north peak. 

However, the north peak is the lowest of the peaks, and is isolated at one end of the mountain.  My goal for the day was the reach the east peak by dark, which meant crossing the mountain while winding higher and higher.  I thought by taking the cable car up that I would avoid the worst of the trail.  I suppose I had, but it was still a hard and long climb. 

I suppose it was a good thing that when I set out, I had only a hazy idea of how far I had to go.  If I had realized, there are some times I might have decided to turn back.  One thing in my favor was that I wasn't in too big of a hurry--my only deadline was to get to the peak before dark.  It was a little after three when I got to the top of the cable car, so I had a few hours.  So, I set off.  Quite a few stairs to the next viewing platform, but then I could rest there and take pictures along with the hordes of Chinese tourists.  Then quite a few stairs on to the next, and the next, and the next, and then the way stations grew further and further apart.  At about the point where I started to get tired, I passed another foreigner heading the opposite direction.  "Keep going!" he encouraged me. I asked him how much further it was, and he said probably another couple of hours.  Goodness, I was already getting tired.  It's a good thing I didn't know then that I had really only come about a quarter of the way. 

At that point, there was a choice of paths.  There was the shorter but steeper (one long stairway), or the longer but not quite so steep.  I went for the longer, hoping for places to stop and rest along the way.  Stairway after stairway after stairway.  I would push myself up one and then stop and breathe.  I took plenty of pictures just for the excuse to stop.  Luckily, the further I went, the less crowded it was.  I just kept telling myself--just make it up this one and then you can rest.  Just make it up this one...just make it up this one...
I finally reached a point where I started wondering if I could really do this.  I was so tired, my leg muscles were burning.  I'm just not in good enough shape to keep going.  And I know there's still a good ways to go (I thought I was further along, but I was only a bit over half at this point).  Should I turn back?  I've come too far to turn around now.  So, as I've done before when I have gotten myself into one of these situations, I began to pray as I walked.  "I can't do this.  I don't have any strength left.  If I'm going to make it up this mountain, I'm going to have to use YOUR strength."  I kept praying as I took the next staircase and the next: it's not my strength, but yours.  And it seemed to help--I made it up another and another.  Now, after that burst of sunlight when I first arrived in the mountains, it had clouded over again and been cloudy all afternoon.  But now the sun broke through just a bit, lighting up the mountains and giving a soft glow through the trees.  I wanted to reach that sunlight.  I began praying, giving thanks to God for that sunlight that was encouragement to me to remind me of the beauty ahead if I could just keep going.  Not long after I began praying, I felt like I got a second wind.  Yes, it still hurt, but I could do a few more.  And the views only got better the higher I got. 

As I got closer and closer to the peak, the path leveled out a bit and ran through some peaceful wooded areas.  I was praising God in my mind for these, such a beautiful rest from the stairs.  And then there was one final challenge of my faith and of my strength: I came to a part of the trail where, to get to the East peak, you have to climb a vertical section of cliff.  It's probably about one hundred feet tall, maybe a bit more.  There are two ways: one, toe holds carved into the rock, with a chain to help pull yourself up.  The other, a ladder of sorts against the cliff, with handrails, but still higher and further than any ladder I've ever climbed.  I took the second choice; I know I don't have the upper arm strength for the first.  Still, this was not something for someone afraid of heights (good thing I'm not); but, I am human, and I do have the normal fear of falling.  And I was so tired already--my legs already were a bit rubbery--what if I slipped? What if I couldn't go on in the middle?  Standing around considering it wouldn't help.  After I gave a last incredulous look at the park employee who was grinning at the climbers' expressions upon seeing their latest obstacle, I strode over and started climbed.  Just hold on tight to the handrails, take one step at a time.  Don't look down, don't look up to see how far to go.  Just keep a tight hold, go one step higher.  One step higher.  And finally I made it to the top.  There was still a tricky section of letting go of the ladder and reaching out for the toe holds and chain for the last twenty feet or so of not-quite-vertical but steep enough you couldn't stand up part.  But I had to keep going. 

After that, I knew I would make it.  I was tired yes, the stairs still hurt, but I could do it.  I was almost there.  Every stair case I thought, this could be it, this could be it.  And finally I was there.  And it was sunset--I had made it before dark.  I quickly checked into a hostel at the peak.  I was the only foreigner in my room; a couple of Chinese families took up the rest of the beds.  Oooh, meiguoren!  I heard as I was showed in.  Wow, and American in here with us!  It turned out to be a fairly rough place--no running water (but there was a big jug off hot water in each room to be used), and the beds were a thin pallet on top of hard wood bunks, so I didn't sleep too well.  Also, I wasn't quite sure what time I should get up.  The thing to do on the East peak is to get up before dawn and climb on top of the huge rock behind the  hostel to see the sunrise.  I woke up hourly through the night, trying to find a way to get comfortable.  I changed my alarm a few times.  Around four I woke up and listened to the wind outside.  It sounded like it was raining to me--maybe I should just turn the alarm off--there would be no sunrise to see in the rain.  But it turned out to be just the wind.  I needn't have worried about when to wake up--everyone else in the room knew.  The lights went on at 4:45.  I scrambled into warm clothes (cool at that elevation early in the morning, and a strong wind blowing): I had brought a sweater and a scarf.  I was one of the first to clamber up the rock (not as easy as it looked, and my muscles still not recovered from the day before) and I took my place at the rail. The wind was blowing hard in the first light.  Small clouds scudded by in a hurry.  I was afraid that clouds would obscure the sunrise, but each cloud banks was blown by so quickly that there was soon a clear view again.  Many of us huddled against the rail to see the beautiful light as the sky turned orange and the sun began to rise.  However difficult the climb had been, it was worth it.  I knew it would be, if I could only keep going. 

I was rewarded with a beautiful morning.  I got back on the trail by a little after six, and hiked on to the west peak (more beautiful views) before starting the trek back down the mountain.  This time it was down hill, but still my legs turned to rubber during the steepest section.  I wondered how in the world I had ever made it up the same trail the day before.  It was a long hard hike, but I made it.  My legs were sore for a few days afterward (today is the first day they aren't, actually--it's Saturday; the hike was Tuesday-Wednesday).  It was worth it all for the euphoria of reaching the summit, of knowing that I had done it.  I survived.
Sunday, July 11, 2010 0 comments

July 11th: And so it begins... (copied from notes I wrote in my journal)

I'm riding shotgun in a van, still here in Jingzhou.  Several of us will take the van together to Jingmen, a town a couple of hours north of here that has the luxury of a train station, where we will catch our trains. Monica, one of the new waibans (foreign affairs office workers who keep track of and help us foreigners), is also going to Xi'an.  We didn't realize we were on the same train until we saw each other waiting for the van.  However, we are in different carriages.  We exchanged phone numbers; it's nice to know that I'll know someone who speaks Chinese just in case anything goes wrong on the trip up.

Now, we're driving around trying to find someone who is supposed to ride with us, but having a bit of confusion.  The driver and Monica have been talking to the person ont he phone, and from what I understand of the conversation, I could have told them the problem quite a while ago.  I don't figure they want the input of a foreigner who might not even have understood correctly, so I've kept my mouth shut.  Like I thought, though, we were on the wrong campus. We were supposed to be at nan xiao chu, the south campus, but we were on the new technical campus which is just down the road from the south campus.  I've seen people make that mistake before--I remember especially one bitterly cold--so cold it made your skin burn and every breathe felt like a knife--not long after we arrived when a taxi driver made that mistake and dropped the Pratts and I off there to wander around confused for a bit. 

Anyhow, we finally made it out of Jingzhou and headed north.  Driving through the countryside felt more familiar somehow--China seemed a little less foreign then.  Rice field and corn patches, little barely paved roads wandering off into the trees, all in a flash-flood pouring rain.  The road was a mess--paved, but with gravel filler at regular intervals and potholes here and there that made even our professional driver cringe.  The driving rain with the wipers going full blast didn't help, either.  I was the only one who didn't fall asleep, so I would commiserate with him with a smile when we rattled our teeth on a particular deep rut, although I couldn't say much about it.  Here and there on the shoulder a single water buffalo would be tied--maybe to keep down the grass in the ditches, but it didn't seem to be an ideal spot to keep your water buffalo.  Old people hauled loads and baskets along the shoulder, or sat on their low wooden chairs in their doorways, watching the world go by. 

I was getting sleepy, as I only slept an hour and a half last night (okay, this morning--from six until seven-thirty) because I stayed up all night talking to BW.  It was worth it, though.  I don't know how easy communicatin will be over the next couple of months while I travel, although I hope it won't be too bad as I hope to find internet cafes.  He's had this week off of work, and I've enjoyed getting to spend some time just talking with neither of us being in a hurry to rush off to work or suffering from lack of sleep.  It was perfect timing, too, after all the stress he's had to deal with the last few weeks working third shift, and before I head out on the road. 

Anyhow, the rain had finally stopped by the time we got into Jingmen.  I liked the vibe of the town--smaller, but a more modern layout, not quite so flat and featureless as Jingzhou.  Thankfully, our driver, although a man, has no problem asking for directions.  We wandered around the general area of the station for a bit, asking various people for suggestions as to the correct direction to head, until finally Monica convinced him to turn the right direction.  It seemed obvious to me as to which direction it must be, and that something so major as a train station must be on a main road, but he hesitated and almost turned down a side street too soon.  But again I kept my mouth shut, being a foreigner who's never been there before.  We had to wait for over two hours for our train, anyhow, so driving around was more interesting than more time in the crowded waiting room. 

At long last, our train arrived, and so it begins...
Saturday, July 10, 2010 0 comments

July 10: The Wanderer Sets Out

Well, it's summer break at last.  This is one reason why I love working in education...the students go home for the summer, and I have some free time. :)  So, I'm setting out to do something I love to do: wander.  On the road, I feel alive.  I love getting into a new town, and feeling its vibe and learning its atmosphere.  I love taking pictures, I love hiking, I love choosing between two paths never taken before, and seeing how way leads on to way.  I enjoy flying, I feel like train stations are home, and I even don't hate buses.  I haven't been much of one for being settled the past few years, and now I'm setting out on my longest continuous backpacking travel time yet--I've got seven weeks.  Stay tuned to see if I survive it...I'll try to post updates and stories as often as possible, but I'm already experiencing various computer issues, so no promises.  I'll get it all caught up eventually...I already have a list of posts I'd like to write. 

My basic plan is Xi'an, then on to Beijing, then Shanghai, then one of the most famous mountains in China--Huang Shan, then down to see the karst mountains around the Li River in the south.  After that, I'll still have a few weeks in August; I'm still working out the logistics, but I hope to dip down into some combination of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  We'll see how that works out.  I hope to at least get to one or two of them.  Vietnam was my first choice, but it's also the most difficult to get a visa and such.  Of course, this is just a tentative plan; often life happens along the way.