The GoGlobal Blog

Category: China

The First Two Weeks In Beijing

The First Two Weeks In Beijing

When I left Chicago a lot was going through my mind. I was going to a country that I had never been to before, and one that not very many American students wanted to study abroad in, at least compared to places in Western Europe. After the fourteen hour long flight was finally over the plane landed at about 4 PM Beijing time. After a long taxiing to the gate I got off and walked to customs, and then baggage, and then out to meet the kind people who would be taking me and the twelve other students who arrived that evening to the University of International Business and Economics, the University where The Beijing Center was located. It was only a twenty-five minute drive and finally we had arrived to the school we had up until now only seen photos and videos of.

The campus is massive, the size of a small town in fact. We were all given maps along with instructions on how to use WiFi and other utilities that would be necessary for daily life. After everyone finally got to their rooms and settled in a bit, we woke up bright and early for orientation. Orientation lasted for a full four days and covered topics that ranged from how the classes would be structured to how to live life and get necessities in Beijing. During those four days there were also optional excursions one could go on with the group. For example, the third night virtually everyone went to downtown Beijing to see an acrobatics show and stop by a very nice mall along the way. The trip was also a good chance for anyone who was unfamiliar with using the Beijing subway system to learn how to use it. The experiences that were afforded to all TBC students were very effective at getting everyone accustomed to life in Beijing.

After we went on one last trip as a group to Tienanmen square and the forbidden city, our classes began. Classes at TBC are much like classes at Loyola, except they typically contain about a fifth of the regular amount of students. My entrepreneurship course consisted only of me, two Colombian women, the professor, and his wife for the first class. The experience is a lot more intimate than classes that have fifty or more people. These amazingly small class sizes make you feel like you’re at a small private school rather than a large school like Loyola. After the first week of class was finally over it was nice to have what felt like an actual break. The first two weeks of my time in Beijing were filled with fun, new experiences, trying new foods, and an interesting bathroom in which the shower, toilet, and sink share the same space, which is nice because it’s now very easy for me to clean the bathroom. I’m excited for what’s to come  and will keep everyone who reads this blog posted.

If anybody reading this has any questions about The Beijing Center, please feel free to leave a comment down below, or email me at fzigic@luc.edu.

 

See you all again soon!

A Brew of Emotions: The Final Stretch (Last Week in Beijing)

A Brew of Emotions: The Final Stretch (Last Week in Beijing)

There is one week left of my study abroad adventure in Beijing, and I am feeling a brew of emotions.

The first, excitement. For the past two weeks, I’ve felt really homesick, more homesick than I have ever felt before during this semester. It’s probably because the power of the holidays is on full blast back in the States. Missing the Thanksgiving celebration with all my friends and family was already hard enough, and seeing all the Christmas-related stuff on people’s social media hasn’t made it any less easier. So the thought of coming back to the U.S. and being bombarded with that holiday cheer is very exciting to me. I’m excited to just exist in my house again. I’m excited to see all of my friends again and catch up. I’m excited to eat Vietnamese food again. I’m excited to continue developing the relationships and the projects that I left behind all those months ago. I’m just excited, and I can hardly wait to jump on that plane back!

A picture of my family’s Christmas tree that my mom sent to me recently. I think this is the first year that I have not helped put up this tree.

The second, procrastination. As you probably already know, this last week is finals week, and instead of studying for my Chinese language finals or working on final presentations/essays, I am writing this blog post.

So that basically sums up that emotion.

The third, sadness. For the past four months, I’ve created countless numbers of memories, and I’ve taken an equal amount, if not more, pictures while I’ve been here. Scrolling through the pictures I’ve taken so far, I cannot help but feel sad to leave China. Here is where I’ve grown spiritually. Here is where I’ve conquered fears time and time again. Here is where I’ve seen a rich and beautiful culture and discovered that this country has dimensions that I’ve never thought even existed. To leave something so profound in my life makes me feel… empty? I don’t think that’s quite the right word, but it’s the best I’ve got. It makes me quite sad to leave behind this life that has challenged me in ways that I didn’t think would challenge me. It makes me even sadder to think about the friends that I’m parting ways with. The friendships that I’ve established here are some of the most enjoyable friendships I’ve ever had in my collegiate career. The people here are so vibrant, and being surrounded by them has allowed for me to grow into a better version of me. I’ll be leaving all of that behind, soon.

The Fall 2018 TBC Family

At our monthly (the last one for the semester) community meeting last week, TBC Student Development Director Ryan briefly talked about the possibility of going through reverse culture shock once we returned home. At the time of the meeting, I didn’t think much of it (mostly because I was distracted with the idea that they were serving us pizza after the meeting), but now that I’ve sat down to write this blog and to reflect upon what this past semester has meant to me, all of the things he talked about on the topic of reverse culture shock seems to be entirely plausible for me. Maybe the pace of life back at home will be so alien to me that it’ll seem… I don’t know, boring in comparison to the life here? Maybe I’ll be so overwhelmed with the go-go-go pace of back home that I’ll shut down? Who honestly knows how reverse culture shock will affect me, if it’ll affect me at all.

That leads to the fourth emotion that I’m marinating in, and it is perhaps the most profound one.

Anxiousness.

I call this emotion the most profound because I never thought that I would feel a little anxious to go home. I mean, I’m homesick. I’ve been longing to snuggle my dog, to goof around with my brother, to chatter with my family at the dinner table, to play hours upon hours of video games on my Nintendo Switch, to laugh with my friends, and yet I feel this tiny nagging sense of dread to return home even before I’ve come home.

The truth is, around the middle of the semester, I had a little bit of a crisis. One of the Chinese roommates for TBC whom I’m pretty good friends with was in the middle of applying for graduate school and studying for the GRE. Talking to him and watching him go through this process made me realize something: I only have three semesters left as a undergraduate student. Suddenly, the entire world seemed to have laid its entire weight on my shoulders. Horrible thoughts and feelings of falling behind on my studies because I’ve studied abroad creeped in, and a sense of paranoia flooded my senses. What if my studying abroad set me so far back that I wouldn’t be able to prepare for applying to graduate school on time? I still hadn’t looked at what graduate programs I wanted to even apply for. I didn’t even know what kind of programs I wanted to apply for. I had a plan for after graduation, but that was only a vague thought, not even a game plan. And here I was, in China.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t regret going abroad, and I won’t ever regret my time here. I just suffered a little from this realization that life seemed to have kept going without me back at home.

Well, this is where all of my friends and family would remind me: slow down, Justine. Remembering that advice allowed for me to jump off of that Paranoia Rocket off to Planet Anxiety and continue to enjoy my time here in Beijing while I still could. I knew that my fears were blown a little out of proportion, and I technically still had plenty of time, I just needed to use it well once I returned. But, to be completely honest with you, I might be strapped in to ride that rocket again now that my study abroad semester is coming to an end. It is the final stretch.

I know now that what I felt in the middle of this semester was like culture shock part two, and it was completely normal for me to have gone through that. As I get ready for finals this week and continue to swim around in this brew of jumbled emotions, I realize that I just need to take a deep breath. I need to remember that while it feels like life zoomed ahead of me back at home, I’ve also zoomed ahead in many other aspects. I’ve gained a new skill in speaking some Chinese. I’ve gained a spiritual understanding of myself.  I’ve gained knowledge on China and Chinese culture, something that I’ll admit I misunderstood before I came. I’ve gained stories that I can share with everyone back at home. There are so many positive things that have come out of this amazing opportunity, and I have to keep them in mind as I come to terms with the experience ending.

Anxiousness doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. I can be anxious about a whole lot of different things in my life, and I figure that worrying about what the future has in store for me doesn’t do much good. It’s better to just sit back and enjoy the rocket ride rather than screaming the entire time.

I guess, what I’m try to say is that I’ll just have to see what’s in store for me when I return. I may not know what reverse culture shock will do to me, but I do know that I’ll treasure the least few days I have with TBC in Beijing and that I’ll return to the States ready to face the scary future more ready than ever.

Thanks for reading my blog this semester.

-Justine

Sleepy, Sleepy Pandas! (Weekend Trip to Chengdu)

Sleepy, Sleepy Pandas! (Weekend Trip to Chengdu)

As a last huzzah before Finals Week, last weekend my friends and I hopped onto a 3 hour plane to Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province of China and also known as the Home of the Giant Panda. We ended up staying there for two days and three nights, and by the end of the short-lived trip, we were very glad that we were able to squeeze it in before the end of the semester. It provided a last push for us to wrap up our study abroad semester in China.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. We must address probably the most important, and definitely the most cutest, part of the trip. The first day we spent in Chengdu was spent squealing over the cute, sleepy, and amusingly clumsy pandas in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which was about an hour shuttle bus ride from our Airbnb. We had met up with an old friend of my friend, who was her exchange student many years ago and generously served as our navigator for the day, as he was a student of a relatively nearby university in Chengdu. 

Our panda-watching group!

The park was filled with lush greenery that was mostly made up of tall bamboo stalks that at times towered over us and beautiful ponds and small lakes, where ducks and geese would literally swim up to you to greet you. It was magnificent to see all of that green. None of the zoos that I had been to before looked anything like the inside of this park, and the pictures don’t do it much justice.

Of course, it had endless amounts of designated panda enclosures, most of which were all outside. The pandas had plenty of room to roam around and to just… be pandas: all the enclosures had some sort of wooden playground structure that they could either nap on or lounge about and some trees that they could climb up and get stuck in should they please. It was just endless amounts of entertainment watching the pandas. For example, we watched one who was quite obviously stuck up high in a tree try his hardest to climb down but ultimately decided to just accept his fate for the time being. We also watched some adorable baby pandas stumble around, trying out their new paws. Whenever any one of us spotted a panda, it was instantly the greatest new thing we had ever seen. It’s a given that I bought a lot, and I mean a lot, of panda goodies at the various souvenir shops around the vast park.

Baby pandas!!!

After we had seen our fill of pandas (we probably spent a close to five hours or so at the park), we took the shuttle bus back to the area around our Airbnb, which happened to be near a huge shopping district filled with shopping malls. For an early dinner, we sat down and had the famous Sichuan spicy hotpot, where we ate a bunch of interesting meats, like stomach lining, duck blood, and liver, much to the insistence of our local friend. We were also served drinkable cold yogurt, in case we needed it to calm the fiery burn of that Sichuan spicy hot broth. Needless to say, we had quite the adventurous dinner that night!

Hotpot is a shared dish where there is a center pot with boiling broth. You are served raw meats and vegetables, and you basically cook the food in the broth. In the middle of this pot is the really spicy Sichuan broth, while the outside was the non-spicy broth. Yum!

To aid in digestion, we wandered into a random shopping mall and waddled around there for awhile with soup bellies. That was when my friend spotted a Vietnamese restaurant, and it was all over. We quickly made the decision to have tomorrow’s lunch there before we had dinner with my friend’s old math professor. It was a pretty easy decision, considering two out of the three of us were craving Vietnamese food and the third friend had been wanting to try Vietnamese food. Once night fell, we parted ways with my friend’s old exchange student, and we headed back to our Airbnb, where we played card games and talked for hours into the night.

The next morning, after sleeping in comfortably, we hurried over to that Vietnamese restaurant for lunch, stopping by to get $2 (you heard me) large brown sugar coffee lattes. I could barely contain my excitement as I flipped through the menu, feelings of nostalgia and homesickness and longing for home flooding my senses all at once. My friends were equally excited to have some Vietnamese food with me, sensing my eagerness, so we quickly ordered our food: two orders of pho (one chicken and the other beef), one order of bun, which is basically a cold noodle salad dish, one order of spring rolls, and one order of eggrolls.

The dish that brought me to tears.

Let me tell you, tears were shed all around that day. My friend, who for the first time ate eggrolls the Vietnamese way (wrapped up in lettuce and mint leaves), was also brought to tears at how good they were. But I cried for a different reason. The food genuinely tasted so similar to my mom’s home cooking, and the longing for home hit me harder than ever before. The sauce, nuoc mam, in particular was almost dead on similar. Just a drop of that garlicky, salty, sweet, and sour sauce by itself was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and it was a testament to how good the food was going to be. The refreshing bun dish perked up my taste buds, which, over the course of the semester, had slowly developed an unbearable craving of the fresh, floral, and bright flavors of Vietnamese cooking. It had taken me a trip to Chengdu to finally find some Vietnamese food in China, and the discovery of this restaurant made me that much more glad to have gone on this trip. Eating here was what gave me some energy to last for the rest of the semester. We were almost done, and I knew that I would be able to have that familiar and comforting Vietnamese food again.

We walked around the shopping mall until it was time to have dinner with my friend’s math teacher. He generously fed us a delicious Filipino dinner, and it was a pleasure to spend time at his wonderful apartment with his family. Before long, though, we had to go back to our Airbnb, pack our stuff, and then pull an all-nighter by playing cards and snacking on foods until it was time for us to leave for the airport. Our flight was at 6am, so we figured that it would be better to just stay up. We were back on campus by 9am, and after an emotionally and physically adventurous weekend, you know I passed out for a good while, dreaming of cute and cuddly pandas.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

-Justine

A TBC Thanksgiving

A TBC Thanksgiving

So this past Thursday was actual Thanksgiving Day, and to be honest with you all, it didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving. In the days leading up to Turkey Day, I was feeling less homesick than I thought, most likely because I wasn’t being bombarded with the fact that Thanksgiving was quickly coming up (I made it a point not to check social media for awhile, knowing full well that seeing Thanksgiving food videos and ads would make the homesickness worse).

The actual day was just like any other normal day here in Beijing, China. I went to class and then back to the dorms to sit in the lounge and do miscellaneous things.

But fear not, I still was able to partake in some Thanksgiving tradition here.

Friday night was designated to be TBC’s annual Thanksgiving potluck in the basement of our dormitory building. I got together with two of my good friends and together we planned to bring a huge serving of guacamole to the potluck. The day before the potluck, my friend and I went to a small supermarket on campus to find something to contain our guac. Unfortunately, the supermarket didn’t have much in terms of kitchen container supplies, so we decided to get a green wash basin to use as our container for the guac (no, I’m not kidding). We then got the ingredients to actually make the guac: the vendor who sold us the produce gave us an amused look when we put a plastic bag filled with 11 avocados, 4 tomatoes, 2 onions, and 2 lemons on his counter. The actual day of the potluck, my friend who was an intern at the U.S. embassy was able to get her hands on three bags of Tostitos (which, I never realized I would miss until I ate one tear-inducing scoops Tostito chip). Once we all were able to get together on Friday evening, we rolled up our sleeves and after about an hour, we churned out 11 avocados worth of guacamole (spoiler alert: all of it was eaten by the end of the night).

11 avocados worth of guacamole in a wash-basin

After we reveled in our success in making amazingly delicious guacamole, we went downstairs and were warmly greeted by the Chinese roommates and TBC Student Development staff. Seeing all of the food already laid out on two long tables filled me with the joy and excitement that I feel on Thanksgiving. There was food ranging from Chinese dishes to traditional Thanksgiving foods like turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing.

My mood was lifted higher and higher as more people in the program came downstairs with their food items. As I enjoyed everyone’s company and ate some wonderful food, I smiled to myself, knowing that even though I was far away from my home in America, the home that I’ve found here in Beijing, among my TBC and Chinese friends, was quite enough for me to feel the Thanksgiving spirit.

I’m so, so thankful for the opportunity to study abroad at TBC, the time that I’ve spend abroad, the people that I’ve met while I’ve been abroad, and the people back at home eagerly waiting for me to return.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I know I did 🙂

From all of us at TBC, Happy Thanksgiving!

-Justine

Buddhism and I

Buddhism and I

I grew up in a Buddhist Vietnamese family. As a child, I went to the closest Buddhist temple to my house every Sunday to sit and listen to the morning chants and teachings alongside my family before attending Vietnamese school for a few hours. I grew up wearing necklaces with little Buddha carvings and prayer beads around my wrist. I was raised with Buddhist traditions, and I was told that whenever I felt unsafe, unsettled, or just not right, I should pray to the Buddha. Doing so would calm my rapid heartbeats and my noisy mind. So it was natural for Buddhism to become the belief that I would call my religion for a good part of my childhood.

But, as I grew older, I questioned what Buddhism meant to me and if it had a place in my life that was more than something I grew up with. I didn’t know if belief in the Buddha would help me achieve my goals — I came to strongly believe that my accomplishments were because of my efforts and my efforts alone. I also didn’t think that praying to the Buddha would do anything for me. I unfortunately found that whenever I did pray to Buddha, when my head would spin and my emotions would reel out of control, I found no calm, no real peace within those prayers. And so, I put Buddhism on the back burner and saw it as just part of my Vietnamese heritage. It was nothing more, nothing less.

Moving forward in my life, I labeled myself as “agnostic,” although I would often clarify to others, “But if I had to identify with a religion, it would be Buddhism. My family’s Buddhist.” I knew that I was spiritual. I knew that there were forces and miracles out there that just couldn’t be chalked up to pure coincidence. I also knew that Buddhism held a piece of my life that I could not just give up. It was huge part of my culture, after all. But I didn’t know if Buddhism itself, let alone any other religion, was right for me, and so for years, I considered myself to be agnostic.

Flash forward to my time here in Beijing, China.

Coming to China, I never expected that something like my spirituality and my relationship with Buddhism, naked and confused, would be brought out into the open. I knew that I would see Buddhism more in my surroundings, more than I saw it back in the United States, but nothing could prepare me for what I would spiritually experience here. The prevalence of Buddhist temples and motifs all over China forced me to confront what I had been neglecting to address for years.

It all started on the Silk Road in the Buddhist monastery town of Xia’he. If you’ve read my blog about our time in Xia’he, you already know that story of my hike around the Labrang Monastery early in the morning. I want to reiterate the significance of that morning to me yet again. What I felt is still something, even after a few months after that morning happened, that I cannot explain. It was a sensation that I just could not begin to understand. For awhile, it only made me really giddy to know that something that significant had happened to me that morning. It was something that I told people close to me because all I thought of it at the time was that it was important to me. After some time, though, I finally was able to bring myself to analyze and reflect on why exactly that feeling was important to me. It was too remarkable for me to just ignore. However, I wasn’t able to come up with an explanation for what it could have been on my own, so I decided to bring this conundrum before a Buddhist monk.

Sunset in the beautiful Buddhist temple.

This monk I met during a field trip my Introduction to Buddhism class took to a famous Buddhist temple in Beijing. After a tour of the temple grounds and a delicious vegetarian dinner, we all sat down inside of a prayer room that looked very similar to the prayer room that I sat in for so many Sundays of my childhood. We then had a Q&A session with one of the monks of the temple, with my professor acting as a translator. I timidly raised my hand to ask the first question of the night. I remember my voice shook as I tried to explain my family background and what had happened to me in Xia’he. I asked him what he thought of my story. I remember my friend, who sat next to me, pat my back in quiet support, hearing the emotion in my voice and knowing that the moment had meant something personal. The monk listened intently as I told my story, shifting his weight on the cushion he sat upon as my professor translated what I said into Chinese. Then, he gave me his explanation.

The Buddhist monk told me that what I had felt could have been a reaction of my soul to the circumstances of that moment. In the Buddhist tradition, the soul is reborn a number of times in a never-ending cycle. He proposed that I could have been a Buddhist in my past life, and my soul, in that moment, could have remembered that it was Buddhist in the past life. I was brought to tears because I unconsciously remembered that. He also said that if that particular explanation was a little far-fetched to me, I could have reacted the way that I did because what I had prayed for was very deep and personal, and because my prayers had come from the bottom of my heart, I was moved to tears as those prayers meant a lot to me.

After the field trip, the first thing I did was tell my parents about the monk’s words to me. My mom smiled with excitement on my phone screen as I told her and my father about the Q&A session. “Maybe it was meant to be for you to go to China and learn more about Buddha,” she said as a passing comment. But I took note of her words, and I held them in the back of my mind as I continued about my days in China.

Since I received that explanation, my heart felt a little lighter. My mom was certainly right that China was becoming a classroom for me to learn about Buddhism in a surprisingly subtle way. I felt like I could look at Buddhism in the eye, sit down, and have a proper dialogue with it instead of ignoring it like I had done for all of those years. I could see it in action in the lives of the people here. I knew, knew, that deep down it held a very dear place in my heart. It was undoubtedly part of my cultural heritage, after all. I believed in many of its morals, and I had extensive knowledge about the religion. Yet I still had this weird complicated relationship with it, unable to call it my own because I still questioned it. Now that I had gotten to this point with it where I could comfortably reflect, I felt that I could search for an answer to the question I had been asking Buddhism for quite some time: “What role do you play in my life?”

One of the things that puzzled me about the religion was that it seemed contradictory as a result of its material culture. Buddhism is a religion that attacks the material world with such a vigor no other religion can compare. Yet material culture still exists within it. I didn’t understand why it is necessary for us to pray with prayer beads, to burn incense, and to read sutras as we chant. It disturbed me to see so many tourist sites along the Silk Road sell prayer beads and other Buddhist ritual items as souvenirs. So, what did I do to try and understand this phenomenon?

I wrote an extensive 13-page research paper about material culture within Buddhism for a class.

While researching information for that paper, my Buddhism class took another field trip to another different Buddhist temple, sitting down in a monk’s living quarters and having a very casual talk with him. The monk was named Yuan Liu. He spoke extremely good English and was very hospitable, constantly offering us more tea and more snacks to eat. As we enjoyed each other’s company, we were allowed to ask him any questions that we had about Buddhism. Obviously, I had to ask him about the role of material culture within Buddhism, both for my paper and for my own sake.

The answer that he gave me became an answer that I had been looking for.

He said that the items, like prayer beads, are a way to guide the mind, which by its nature is uncontrollable and easily distracted. Whenever anyone starts practicing the Buddhist belief, their minds start out as wild and uncontrollable. The rituals, the chanting, everything, serves as a reminder to practitioners of their belief and the path that they walk on. Perhaps most importantly, he reminded me that what really matters in Buddhism is the tempering of the mind and the discovery of inner peace and happiness through a simple life.

Again, the first person I called to tell this experience was my mom. She basically reiterated what the monk had told me. Perhaps the most significant thing she told me was that wearing prayer beads meant that one was always praying to Buddha, reflecting the dedication to the Buddhist way, even if one didn’t go to temple every Sunday or prayed all the time.

I contemplated on Yuan Liu’s and my mom’s words long after I turned in that essay. I slowly came to understand that all that stupid questioning I did was a result of me blatantly veering off of the path that my parents put me on during my times of turmoil. They had put me on that path because they believe that the teachings of the Buddha would allow for me to grow up into a responsible, strong, polite woman. They believe that the teachings could help me redirect myself when in times of difficulty. I’ve come to better understand that Buddhism isn’t a religion in which I have to do all these rituals to call myself a true Buddhist, but it is a guidance. Buddhism, at its core, is the nurturing of the heart and the spirit, and by passing down its traditions to me, my parents were nurturing my heart and my spirit, long before I’ve realized it. It’s taken me a trip to China to finally, truly, understand that. And that’s a powerful realization that brings me to tears.

My prayer beads.

The prayer beads that I bought in Xia’he as a reminder of that morning now serve as a reminder for the Buddhist teachings embedded in me as part of my Vietnamese identity. I don’t claim that I’ve had a sudden spiritual awakening during this study abroad experience in China. But I think the critical self reflection that I’ve done while I’ve been here is more than enough to say that my perspective on what Buddhism means to me has changed. I wouldn’t have been able to do this self-reflection if I didn’t hop on that plane to come here. I wouldn’t have come to terms with a part of me that I’ve ignored. Buddhism and I still have a lot to work on, together. It isn’t collecting dust behind me anymore as I walk forward in my life; it’s back to walking besides me, acting as a nurturing guide whose presence I am still getting used to.

Maybe my mom was right. Maybe fate meant for it to be this way for me after all.

Thanks for reading~ 🙂

-Justine

Our Days in Beijing

Our Days in Beijing

Hello, everyone! It’s been quite awhile 🙂

Since coming back from both the Silk Road and from whatever adventures we planned for ourselves during the Chinese National Holiday, all of us have been quite busy with schoolwork. We’ve come to the middle of the semester now. I’d be lying if I said that the semester hasn’t been flying by since the National Holiday. Midterms are this coming week, and many of us are spending this weekend preparing for them. As for me, I am a chronic procrastinator, so here I am writing this blog while my to-do list for this weekend stares mockingly at me.

With the help of finally having an academic class schedule, life living in Beijing, China has smoothed out to a fairly rhythmic routine. I had thought that adjusting to the new environment around me was going to be more difficult than it has been. Every day has many thoroughly enjoyable moments that I share with my fellow TBC students and the TBC staff, and it makes life here in Beijing that much more interesting. The days seem to all blur together because they’re all so fun, and you know what they say about when time flies.

As for my own academic schedule, I am currently taking 18 credit hours, so I’ve got a pretty full plate.  Originally, I had planned on taking only 15 credits, but my sudden decision to switch into the intensive beginner Chinese language class has bumped those credits to 18. This hasn’t prevented me from going out and exploring Beijing or laughing with my friends in the TBC dormitory lounge, however. I love all of my classes because they provide a certain insight into Chinese culture and history that I couldn’t have gotten just by walking around Beijing. For example, I learned about the usage of Wade-Giles in my Modern Chinese Fiction class, a writing system that was used in China before the adoption of Pinyin. In Wade-Giles, if there was a “t” written, it was actually pronounced as a “d.” So, the original word for “tofu” in Chinese is actually pronounced and correctly written in Pinyin as “dofu,” but because people didn’t know about the difference between Wade-Giles and Pinyin when tofu was brought over to the West, it is now pronounced in the Western world with a “t.” How fascinating is that?

It also isn’t hard to stay on top of all the schoolwork, so long as you make the effort to stay on top of it. A bonus is that all of the classes for TBC students are located in one building, so that significantly reduced the difficulty of university life here, much to all of our gratitude.

In particular, I love, lovelove, my Chinese language class. In the TBC program, everyone, regardless of their Chinese language level, are required to take a Chinese language class. I have never spoken a word of Mandarin before coming to Beijing, and I was very eager to start learning it formally in a classroom setting. Like I mentioned before, I switched over to the beginner Chinese intensive class, which basically means that the class covers Chinese 101 and Chinese 102, or two semesters of Chinese, in one semester. The pace that we’ve been going at is perfect for me, and I feel like I’ve been making leaps and bounds with my Chinese. Just the other day, during pair work in class, I was able to make a pretty good conversation with my Chinese professor, and it was so rewarding to know that I’ve come so far in my studies when I had no background in the language before coming to China. In fact, I’ve picked up a Chinese language minor!

我很喜欢学中文!I love learning Chinese! 🙂

My Chinese classmates and I! 我的中文同学和我!

In addition to having all of our classes in one building, they’re all located on the same floor, the 4th floor of the Ning Yuan Building, otherwise known to us students as the TBC Building. This is because the 4th floor houses the actual TBC center, with all the staff offices and the extensive TBC library as well as the classrooms that we students have class in. I can’t express enough how amazing it is for us students to have our own facilities and our own staff dedicated to helping us throughout our time here. Everyone is so, so friendly, and the friendly, welcoming, and warm atmosphere of the program has no doubt helped all the students, not just me, to settle into our lives here. I can pop my head into the Student Development Office at any time just to have a quick chat with the Student Development people. I’m so grateful for the support system here, through the staff members as well as my fellow students. My entire TBC experience would not be the same without any of the people I’ve made good friends with here, studying together, laughing together, stressing out together, eating together, and more.

But finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about living with the pollution here in China.

It really isn’t anything that is completely life-changing or life-altering. During orientation, we were advised to download an AQI (Air Quality Index) app in order to monitor each day’s air pollution rating, and I check this app every morning like I check the weather every morning. The app will give me a number index as well as a color to symbolize how bad the pollution is, with green representing pretty clean air (the number index ranges from about 0-90) and purple representing pretty bad pollution (an index of about 250-300). Basically, the higher the index, the more pollution there is for that day.

A screenshot from the Air Quality app that I use. You can also see the color coordination that they give the different ranges of indexes.

We’ve only had a handful of days where the air pollution has reached the nasty “purple” rating (I remember the rating reaching around 290 those days). The great majority of days, however, are “orange,” or an AQI of around 100-150. The difference between these two air qualities are quite jarring, as you can see in the pictures I took just a day apart below.

A “purple” AQI day.
An “orange” AQI day.

I include these pictures to show that beautiful blue skies are still prevalent in China, and that the air pollution is getting much, much better than where it was in the past. Before coming to China, my assumption was that the pollution was just plain bad, and that was an assumption created by ridiculous media coverage. I’m here to tell you that the pollution really isn’t all that bad to deal with, and my health is completely okay — the effects that one might get from directly breathing the air of a bad AQI day are only very temporary and manifest in like runny noses and sometimes headaches. I will wear a face mask whenever there’s a “red”  or higher AQI. But the locals here, regardless if it’s a purple AQI day or not, don’t really wear masks: this is just what life is for them. As one of the Chinese roommates for TBC put it, “I’m used to it.”

In terms of the water pollution, people just buy bottled water. Water here (including literally everything else) is really cheap (we’re talking maybe 30 U.S. cents for a 550 mL bottle of water and 40 cents for a 1.5 L bottle of water), so access to clean water is not a problem here.

I will dedicate an entire blog post about the food I’ve been stuffing my face with while I’ve been in China — you will have to wait until then to hear about the details of the amazing food here in China! Trust me, it’s quite different from the Chinese takeout back in the States. What I will say that food, along with water, is really cheap as well. Most of my meals are around $2, and I usually won’t spend more than about $7 on food per day. Plus, because of UIBE’s amazing restaurants and street food vendors around off campus, I rarely get bored of Chinese food. But more on that later.

So yeah, in conclusion, life is good! Homesickness is definitely a feeling that I get from time to time, I won’t lie, but I know that my time here will be over within a moment’s time, so I gotta enjoy it while it still lasts!

That’s about it in terms of how my days in China are going so far. I apologize for the lack of pictures for this blog; I promise the next one will have more. But I have to get back to studying for midterms now, so see you next time! 🙂

-Justine

Golden Week in Shanghai!

Golden Week in Shanghai!

Hello, everybody! Welcome back to my blog~! ^_^

This past week was the Chinese National Holiday, so everyone had a week-long break from school and work (from October 1st to October 5th). Almost everyone within my program went somewhere outside of Beijing for the long holiday, nicknamed the “Golden Week,” traveling in planned groups that were decided way beforehand.

As for my friends and I, we decided to spend our Golden Week in Shanghai! We were a group of five people, which I thought was a perfect size. We five left for Shanghai on the Monday of the break at around 6pm. We took a bullet train to get to Shanghai because train tickets were way cheaper than airplane tickets. The train station was ridiculously crowded since quite literally everyone was going somewhere for the National Holiday, but we were able to plan accordingly and got to the station early enough to obtain our tickets, get some dinner, and then wait around for a bit before boarding our train. The actual train ride was very pleasant: it was a smooth ride (quite different from the overnight trains we took on the Silk Road!) and the inside of the train was very clean. We were very pleased to find that everyone had plenty of leg space, which was one of the reasons we were glad that we decided to take a bullet train inside of a plane to Shanghai. We traveled an average of around 350 km/hr for about four hours before we arrived to our destination at around 10pm at night.

Our ticket to Shanghai!
The inside of the bullet train was very clean, and everyone had plenty of leg space to stretch out and relax during the ride, must different from an airplane ride!
On our way to Shanghai!

Once we arrived to Shanghai, we split into two groups and got into taxis that drove us to our Airbnb. I remember that taxi ride being ridiculously, and I mean ridiculously fast, almost hilariously fast. If there’s one thing I was impressed with, it was the speed at which our taxi driver drove in order to get us to our Airbnb. After we were dropped off, we were able to settle down for the night in our cute home for the next week.

This is the bedroom that I slept in. I shared the really cute bed with one of my friends.
The dining table!
We were provided a TV with an HTMI cable and free Wifi, which is how we were able to put on Moana that first night. The table pictured is where we would play many rounds of countless card games at night when we returned from our daytime activities.
The living room area!

That first night, even though we were all tired from the travel, we decided to put on Moana on Netflix and stayed up a little later than we probably should have before retiring to bed.

From here, I’ll divide our three full days in Shanghai into three parts by the day and talk about each day separately!

Tuesday

The morning after we arrived in Shanghai, we woke up and walked to breakfast, enjoying the blue skies and the tall buildings of Shanghai. Walking around, I noticed that compared to the area around the UIBE’s campus in Beijing, Shanghai had more tall buildings. Looking at all the skyscrapers and tall apartment complexes reminded me of downtown Chicago, but the buildings were more spaced out from each other rather than being clustered together.

We had breakfast at a dim sum place, and the food was delicious. We ordered things like chicken feet, shrimp dumplings, egg custards, and BBQ pork buns. The BBQ pork buns were so soft and fluffy and filling, so they were my favorite part. The breakfast did well to fill us up for the day ahead of us!

Them yummy BBQ pork buns!

After breakfast, we took the train to our first activity of the day: the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium.

The aquarium was so busy. And I mean, really, really busy. It was a kind of busy that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before in an aquarium of all places. Think of Black Friday and then combine that amount of people with the amount of people in an amusement park on a given summer day. Then, shove all of those people into a relatively small aquarium. What you should get is people literally pressed up against each other as they shuffle along trying to get from one place to another. It was very difficult to get to the front of any exhibit or tank to see the organisms, and whenever we did, we were quick to leave the front on our own accord before we were pushed to the side by the crowd. Going to the aquarium very quickly reminded us that we had come to Shanghai during Golden Week, where a lot of people come to Shanghai for vacation.

But, aside from the really crowded part of the aquarium, I enjoyed it. Aquariums are one of my favorite places on Earth, so I was very glad that I was able to experience one here in China. My favorite exhibit would have to be the jellyfish, since the aquarium had multiple very large tanks just filled with them. Seeing the different types of jellyfish float around aimlessly provided a temporary relief for little introverted me from the bustling loud crowd of the aquarium.

After leaving the craziness of the aquarium, we still had half of the day leftover, so we decided to hang out inside of a large shopping mall nearby for awhile until night time. Walking over to the shopping mall, we enjoyed the sights of the buildings yet again, the most interesting one of them being the Oriental Pearl Tower which seemingly looked to be the centerpiece of the area we were in.

The Oriental Pearl Tower in the daytime.
Inside the shopping mall!

While inside the shopping mall, we wandered into many stores and looked at many clothes and goods to pass the time. The mall reminded me vaguely of Woodfield Mall in the suburbs of Illinois, only it had a ton of more floors and a lot more food places. It was in this shopping mall that I tried the trendy “cheese tea” that blew up on the internet for awhile. I can confidently say that it isn’t as bad as it sounds or looks! Cheese here in China seems to be more on the sweeter side and is commonly used in pastries. Because it’s sweeter, it paired well with the slight bitterness of the tea that was underneath the cheese layer on top. So I guess there was a reason why the cheese tea became viral for awhile!

Once we had exhausted our time in the shopping mall, we decided next to go to a roof top bar in a fancy hotel. It was a relatively short walk from the shopping mall, and once we were inside the hotel, it was quite obvious that we stood out with our relatively casual clothes from the many dressed up guests. Despite this, however, we were able to get a really good table right next to the window, 58 floors high (I know, our ears were popping when we rode the elevator up to this floor), with a breathtaking night view of Shanghai. It’s self-explanatory that we spent most of the time taking classy photos with all the mood lighting and the gorgeous window view. I sat back and breathed a relaxed sigh as I enjoyed the company of my friends and the lit up view from below.

The little table lamp was used in many pictures to provide just the right lighting to many of our pictures. I thought it was hilarious to watch my friends manipulate this thing in order to get the right lighting. Do it for the Insta post, right?
Come on, you can’t blame me for taking a selfie with that amazing view! 😉

Once time was up for us at our table, we headed back to our Airbnb, where we listened to music and played card games well into the night before retiring to bed.

The lit up Oriental Pearl Tower on our way back to our Airbnb! The characters on the tower said “I love you, China.”

Wednesday

The next day, we woke up more on the early side to get to our next destination in Shanghai, which was this “Old Town” area that had rivers running through the town. It was a neat place that had many street food stands on the sides of the small cramped roads that winded through the little town. Like in the aquarium, the location was quite crowded, and it was common that we were right up against people trying to get anywhere in the town. Regardless, though, we were able to enjoy ourselves and the nice weather, as well as the beautiful water-town-like views that we saw when we crossed bridges to get to another side of town.

At some point, we got tickets to board one of those passenger boats pictured above and enjoy more scenery from the river’s point of view. The boat ride was an experience in on itself: there were many times where our boat bumped into other boats, just because of the sheer number of boats filled with tourists on the river and the small width of some of the areas that we were taken into by our boatman. The boat also rocked from side to side to match the rhythm of the man who rowed us with a giant oar, so it was fun just to see the boatmen of all of the boats laugh at us nervous tourists.

On our boat!

Once we had seen enough of that town and evening was approaching, we traveled all the way back to “downtown” Shanghai to see the famous Shanghai skyline at night time. It was breath-taking, to say the least. To see all of the buildings lit up brilliantly at night made me stare in awe. Of course, the area where you could see the skyline was, again, ridiculously crowded, but once we moved down a little bit, it wasn’t so bad. We were able to take some nice photos of that beautiful skyline and enjoy it while the night was still young.

This photo doesn’t really do the actual view justice.

Thursday (a.k.a., the greatest day of this trip to Shanghai, in my opinion)

At 5:30am the following morning, all of us rolled out of bed and got ready for perhaps our best day of the trip. Why in the world did we wake up at 5:30am, you ask? That’s because we were going to Shanghai Disney, and because it was Golden Week, we were all prepared to fight even more ridiculous crowds while walking around inside the park. My expectation was a kind of crowded that was even worse than the crowds we had already encountered in the Shanghai Aquarium, so I braced myself.

But, even before we could worry that, we had to somehow get inside the park in a timely manner.

To do so, we woke up that early and got onto the train to the park pretty early. The park opened at around 8am, and our strategy was to get through right when Disney opened in order to avoid the early-afternoon crowd when we thought most people would be coming into the park. By the time we actually got off of the train, it was around 7:00 or 7:15, and that was when I witnessed the closet thing to a zombie-apocalypse.

Literally, after we got off of the designated “Shanghai Disney” stop on the train, we saw the people around us either fast walk, jog, or sprint towards the entrance, trying to get ahead of everyone else by zig-zagging around them or even through them. Of course, we also ran as fast as we could to get as far ahead in the already long line for the security check as possible. I had forgotten of the amount of people who had the same mindset as us. One of my friends had said, “For every person who passes you, that’s another person who’s in front of you!” I’m pretty sure everyone who was at the park that early in the morning had the same idea because almost everyone rushed to get in line. I’ve never went to any amusement park, let alone Disney, that early in the morning before, so maybe I’m biased, but I had never seen anything like that before. To say it was crazy would be putting it quite lightly!

But after waiting in the cramped line for security for about half an hour or so and getting through the ticket entrance, we finally made it in!

Excitement and pure childhood giddiness washed over me as we quickly walked out and into the actual park. Complete joy filled my chest as I looked around at the Halloween-themed Shanghai Disney around me.

We walked down to that beautiful, giant, iconic Disney castle at the center of the park and proceeded to take just a handful of the countless numbers of pictures that we took that entire day. The moment was perfect — the amount of people who had already made it into the park had spread out so it looked like barely anyone was around.

We were able to fit in about three rides or so before lunchtime, using the Shanghai Disney Resort App that we downloaded in order to best plan when to get in line for rides. That app was the best thing that we downloaded for that day because it allowed for us to finesse the lines and maximize our time at the park. By the time we were done for the day, we had crammed in about 8 or so rides, the majority of them being large major rides. Surprisingly, as the day went by, the park didn’t get any more crowded than any old regular amusement park. I had braced myself for something worse than the crowd that we had experienced in the aquarium, and pleasantly, we just got the usual Disney park crowd.

But after lunch, before we went on any more rides, we saw that the parade was about to start, so we stuck around for that, getting a spot right in the front. Because we were in the front, and because all of us girls were wearing these cute pink rabbit ear headbands that we had purchased the night before, a lot of the parade characters interacted with us! It was so much fun saying hello to the characters and for them to come up right to us and interact with us. You could say that it was a magical time!

Once night fell and the park was nearly empty, we walked back over to that magical castle again and took some more photos of that magical view.

Our 16+ hours at Shanghai Disney was well worth the price that we paid for the tickets (and the sleep that we lost waking up that early!). Being able to ride on as many rides as we did and just have a grand old time in Disney of all places was a perfect way to end our time in Shanghai and our vacation for Golden Week. I was ridiculously happy to have gone to Shanghai Disney and have had a really great time there.

That’s about it for now!

Until next time~

-Justine

The Silk Road Excursion (END): Last Stop in the Xinjiang Province

The Silk Road Excursion (END): Last Stop in the Xinjiang Province

After braving a sandstorm and riding on the backs of camels out in the desert in Dunhuang, our group traveled Turpan in the Xinjiang province for our last leg of the Silk Road excursion. I know, when we realized that we were coming up on the last few days of the trip, all of us were feeling pretty bittersweet. As you guys can probably attest from my tales in this blog, so, so much had happened to us, and we had crammed as many activities and sightseeing as we could in our short time. Two weeks had just flown by, and reflecting back upon it now makes it seem like it went by even faster than it really did.

I’ll tell you about our times in Xinjiang now, and at the end of this post, I’ll let you know some of my closing thoughts and feelings about the trip. Disclaimer: I won’t be able to summarize all of my emotions into just some words on a screen in a blog — if I claimed that I did, then I wouldn’t be doing the trip any kind of justice.

Our activities in the two cities that we visited in Xinjiang would mainly consist of having loads of free time for us students to explore. Since it was around the end of the trip, trip leaders had planned it so that our schedule wouldn’t be as jammed packed as it was during the meat of the trip. Regardless, we still had some group activities, so I’ll be talking about those mostly.

First, a tiny encouragement to you guys who are reading this blog.

Please take a moment to Google some of the events that are happening in the Xinjiang province. I think it will put our trip to this province a little bit more into perspective, and I think it will help you to understand my closing thoughts about this Silk Road excursion at the end of this post. Regardless, I am advocating it to be something that is important for you to know.

But moving on!

Turpan: Encounter with Uyghur Culture and an Ancient City

Unlike most of our previous train rides, our train to the city of Turpan in the Xinjiang province was a bullet train, not an overnight train. Bullet trains are wicked fast and incredibly smooth because they run on magnetism, so the ride was only 3 hours long compared to the 5+ hours of previous trains. The inside of the train looked very similar to the inside of an airplane, with compartments where you could put your luggage and bags in overhead. I think spent the time trying to take a nap since I was exhausted from the day’s activities (we got onto the bullet train after we came back from riding camels in the morning in Dunhuang), but the inside of the train ended up being so noisy that I couldn’t get much rest before we arrived in Turpan.

The Xinjiang province is China’s largest province to the west; its name literally translates to “new frontier.” Around 50% of its population consists of ethnic minorities, one of the largest of which are the Uyghur people, and its mostly an isolated region with deserts and grassland. In both Turpan and later in Kashgar, we experienced Uyghur culture the most, through the food, the language, as well as the types of items that we would see being sold in the marketplaces and the bazaars, like beautiful intricate and handmade rugs and scarves. The Uyghur people are a Turkic-speaking people, among the oldest Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia, and their culture is more related to that of the Middle East, which is why, once we got off of our bullet train in Turpan, many of us students noticed differences between the Xinjiang province and other places we visited on the Silk Road, like in the clothing of the local people and the architecture. There were many times where I forgot that I was still technically within China’s borders.

Soon after we got off of the bullet train, we met our tour guide for our time in Xinjiang, who was named Kevin. He was another one of our favorite tour guides because he was such an amusing character. He was this towering, lanky man who wore this hat that looked like a fishing boat hat and usually was swinging around a giant water bottle. He preferred to not say much, but his expressive facial expressions usually gave away what he was thinking. He was the type to make a face after someone said something rather than reply to it, which is why we students were amused to look back at him once in awhile to see what his reactions were to certain things in our environment. Kevin’s English was also had the most clearest accent out of all of our tour guides, which really surprised us, since he had only been studying the language for a few months. We praised his language abilities, since he knew how to speak Uyghur, Mandarin, and English very well. He was also just great company to have, and he himself acted like a TBC flag because he was so tall.

Kevin led us through the security of the train station, and we got onto our bus to go to have dinner at a Uyghur family’s house, a family that Kevin knew very well. On the bus, tuckered out from our bullet train ride and our early morning activities in Dunhuang, I watched as we drove along Turpan’s dusty and eerily empty streets.

By the time we got to our dinner location, it was still pretty light outside. We were invited into the venue, which was outside but was surrounded by tall wooden structures covered by grape vines and leaves. There were enough that it basically created a ceiling for us.

Wait, grape vines?

Look at all them grapes!

Yup! Nearly every household in the Xinjiang region is involved in grape production, so having your own homegrown grapes was pretty common there! Kevin said that the grapes in the venue were free for the picking, and so while we waited for dinner to be cooked, a bunch of us wandered around the area, picking grapes straight off of their vines. They were very sweet and crisp, and they were a nice treat before dinner.

After awhile, we were summoned back to the main room that had a few white circle tables set up with a turntable in the middle. For the next hour or so, we were served absolutely delicious Uyghur food, which included grilled lamb skewers (which was probably my favorite part of the dinner) and fried rice, noodles, a tomato and onion salad, and more. My mouth is just watering as I think about it. In addition, we were also given some warm tea, but it was served in a bowl rather than a cup!

Grilled lamb kebobs. Yum!
Some of that delicious tea served in a bowl. It had no hint of bitterness, which I thought was really nice.

Once we were finished with dinner, the family played some traditional Uyghur music for us, and they also performed some Uyghur dances for us as well. The woman was dressed in a beautiful red and black dress, and the man was wearing a red and black man’s dress with trousers and boots. It brought smiles to all of our faces to see a mesmerizing performance, filled with quick spins and twists of the wrist. At one point, the woman balanced a couple of bowls on her head while she kept dancing and spinning! In fact, we had no idea that those bowls had been filled with water until she took them off of her head and poured the water into a different bowl! It was ridiculous!

You can just barely see the bowls she was balancing on her head as she danced, with one of the instrumentalists in the background playing music.

It wasn’t long until we were invited up to the stage to dance with many members of the family. We made a circle, and music played while we laughed and cheered as some of us students, one by one, were invited to dance with them in the middle of the circle. The way how they were invited were usually really cute — one man offered a bouquet of flowers to a student. It filled me with joy that night to interact with a culture that so warmly welcomed us to have fun with them. The dancing and singing only lasted for a short while before we had to say our goodbyes to get back onto the bus and check into our hotel for the night.

The next day, we had a quick breakfast at the hotel before we got back onto the bus and headed to the Jiaohe Ancient City Ruins.

Entrance to the ruins.

The city is located at the top of a plateau-like geological structure, with cliffs that are around 98 feet above ground, which gave the city a natural defense. Its buildings were built using what was available in the arid environment — clay. It dates before the 8th century, existing during the time of the Han Dynasty, before it was destroyed by the Mongols and subsequently abandoned. Turpan has a dry atmosphere and extremely minimal rainfall, which is why the structures were so well preserved. Kevin gave us a tour of the city, leading us through old roads that winded like a snake through the city, as we stared in awe at the strangely beautiful, still-standing buildings made out of clay and mud, literally thousands of years old. To think that we were walking along the same paths as people from thousands of years ago was quite unimaginable. 

Kevin taking us through the Jiaohe City Ruins
One of the ancient gates to the city, sealed for thousands of years since the city was abandoned.

At some point, Kevin lead us downstairs into an actual ancient house for us to explore. Not a replica of the house, but the actual house. We were able to touch its rough clay walls, still standing strong due to Turpan’s dry climate, and we rested for a little bit on the step before we moved on.

A cool panorama of the inside of one of the houses of the ruins!

The weather that day was really cool, with a nice breeze. It was a cloudy day, but the clouds were kind of just scattered in the sky with flickers of sunlight shining through them, creating a really cool sight with the ancient city ruins in the horizon. Actually, while we were there, there was a tiny bit of a rainfall, which Kevin thought to be peculiar, since it had not rained for months. We thought it to be a lucky sign to welcome us to the region.

Look at them clouds! (and of course, them ruins!)

Most of the rest of our time there was spent taking… you guessed it, some really neat photos!

Another cool panorama of a part of the ruins! (…plus me haha).
TBC at the Jiaohe City Ruins!

After seeing all of the city ruins, we received some great news (not being sarcastic, there). So original plan was for us to take a 3 hour drive to a train station in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, in order to take our last overnight train get to Kashgar, our last stop on the Silk Road. However, one of our trip leaders was able to get us train tickets from Turpan to Kashgar directly, cutting down at least 6 hours off of our travel time. The original train was going to be 18 hours, so you know that we all rejoiced when 2 hours of that ride was removed. 

Kashgar

We arrived in Kashgar the following day around 10am. Because we were so far out west, the time zone seemed to be different than usual since it didn’t turn dark outside until around 8pm, but because there are no time zones like how there is in America, the time was the same as it was in Beijing. This caused some confusion for our circadian rhythms — it would be 8pm at night, but it would be perfectly light outside, so many of us would fall into the trap of going to bed really late at night.

The population of Kashgar, like many cities in the Xinjiang province, is dominated by the Uyghur minority. The city, like how it was during the days of the Silk Road, is still a busy market town despite rapid modernization. Close by was what was called “Old City,” which is a long street that was lined with buildings that had market stands selling all kinds of trinkets. Most noticeably, Kashgar is known for selling its fuzzy soft rugs and its colorful patterned scarves in its markets, as well as its Uyghur-style street food. 

Our hotel was quite extravagant and would be our home for at least two days while we explored Kashgar. What I found the most amusing about our Kashgar hotel was that every time anyone from our group would come back to the hotel and went through security, the security guards would cheerfully greet us in English. I thought it was a friendly touch and allowed for us to calm our nerves a little bit from the day.

The lobby of our Kashgar hotel.

Kashgar was where we got most of our exploration freedom, so the days spent in Kashgar blur together. You’ll have to forgive my fuzzy memory!

Once we checked into our hotel, we walked over to the nearby mosque and was given a tour. Unfortunately, and understandably, we were not allowed to take pictures while inside the mosque, but I can tell you that it was gorgeous and quite different from the Chinese-styled mosque that we visited in Xi’an. This mosque had no remnants of any kind of Chinese architecture.

Afterwards, we took a bus to visit the Aba Khoja Mausoleum, which is a perfect example of Islamic architecture in China.

It is the burial place of Aba Khoja, who was a local ruler, and it is also said to be the burial place of Ikparhan. Ikparhan, as we learned, was known to be the “fragrant concubine,” because of her distinctive, lovely scent. She was taken from her home by an emperor and kept refusing him until her death. Her scent is thought to be the result of a certain sap from a certain tree that Uyghur women use in their hair in order to prevent balding and to make their hair soft. There was such a tree around the mausoleum, where we were told the story of Ikparhan.

Once we got back to around the area by our hotel, we were released for free time for food and for any exploration we wanted to do.

The street that our hotel was on was ridiculously close to cute shops that my friends and I went into multiple times to buy stationary amongst other things. There were also delicious foods and beverages sold in the area as well. My personal favorite beverage that we got multiple times was this sour yogurt-y drink that was sold in what looked like a tiny mini bar outside.

The drink was served these really cute cups!

The bartender would chip off some ice from a literal block of ice into a bowl and then put some kind of syrup into the bowl before mixing it by tossing the liquid contents all together. He would do tricks by tossing the liquid really high into the air before catching it all cleanly into the bowl again, doing this multiple times before he poured it into a cup and handed it to us. For less than a dollar we got a delicious refreshing drink and some entertainment!

During another one of the days, we visited that “Old City” that I had mentioned.

This was basically a very long street that sold trinkets and street food galore. You were allowed to bargain for the things being sold, making your purchase feel a lot more… meaningful, than usual. Now that I’m back in Beijing, where everything is a set price again, I’ve been sad that I can’t bargain for a better price.

That’s besides the point, haha.

The buildings were different from all of the Chinese architecture that we had seen before on the Silk Road, taking more of a Middle-Eastern style of buildings.

And the streets like the one pictured above continued for what seemed like forever. It always smelled like something being grilled, whether it was fresh naan bread or some sort of meat. My favorite street food was definitely the kebobs, or this empanada-type dough package of meat that was crispy and filled with meat and onions. Well, I’ve discovered that any kind of street food is my favorite type of street food (mostly because it was ridiculously good, and it was really cheap!)

I’ve found that I love anything that’s a dough-package. One of these things only cost about 30 cents!

Another day, we visited one of the largest bazaars in Kashgar: the Sunday Great Bazaar. It’s usually at its busiest on Sundays, which is exactly why we didn’t go on a Sunday. We were basically set loose for a few hours to browse all that each of the stands had to offer and to bargain, bargain, and, you guessed it, bargain. My friend group all were successfully able to bargain our prices to at least 50% cheaper than the original price, much to our delight. I unfortunately didn’t get much pictures of this bazaar since I was too busy shopping around (oops!).

A bunch of street food and a lot of bargaining later, it was soon time for us to travel all the way back to Beijing. We had gone over 2,000 miles west from our campus in Beijing, and there was no way we were going to travel all of those miles back home in a single day by train. So, we took the next best form of transportation. An airplane!

Our plane ride was about 6 hours, and we, thoroughly exhausted from our adventures on this Silk Road trip, settled in as we readied ourselves for a more routine schedule back in Beijing.

During those 6 hours, I personally reflected on the trip (while I doodled some pictures, which is one of the ways how I tend to decompress and just absorb things that are happening to me and around me. I had bought a sketch book and a nice pencil in one of those cute shops in Kashgar), and here is where I discuss my overall final thoughts.

Some Final Thoughts

First, about a year ago, I would have never, ever, thought that in my lifetime I would take selfies with the Terracota Warriors and get buried in the desert in the middle of a mini sandstorm. I never thought that I would see the landscapes that I saw and feel the spiritual power of some of the locations. I didn’t think that I would be able to tell these tales about traveling along something as historic as the Silk Road, and yet…

I’m telling them now, to you all.

What I felt traveling across China to experience everything that we had experienced are still hard to put into words. I can only say “happy,” “joyful,” “amazing,” and other similar adjectives so many times before those words just cannot describe what I remember about those emotions anymore. So I won’t bore you with such words and phrases.

But at least I can say that, inside of my memories and myself as a person, I can carry the true meaning of my memories and my emotions with me. Even if I can’t perfectly describe it, that’s perfectly fine. Perhaps one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned on this trip is that you don’t need to put words to a feeling all the time, especially if they’re all jumbled and complex. What matters more is what those emotions mean to you, what you will gain from them, and what you can give to others as a result of them.

Many of the trip leaders had said that even though we all were taking the same trip together, all of us would have a unique personal experience on the Silk Road. I can kind of better understand what they meant by that, now. What we’ve gained from the experience is unique to each of us, and I think that’s such an impactful thing. I’ve been given this an amazing life experience, and that’s priceless. For the gift of exploring my own self while being submerged in various cultures and histories, I want to express how grateful I am to have had this incredible opportunity. There was no way I could have prepared myself for such an experience, but it would be an understatement to say that I’m glad that I, and my peers, took the dive.

One of the trip leaders, a professor who was a brilliant resource to us during the trip (I have the pleasure to have him as a professor this semester), said something to us on our way to our very first overnight train to Xi’an. It has continued to resonate with me, even now when it’s been a few weeks since we’ve returned to Beijing. I think it summarizes the trip very nicely and captures the essence of what I’ve been trying to say in this jumble of final thoughts.

“Travelers don’t always know where they’re going, but tourists don’t know where they’ve been.”

And boy, do I remember where I’ve been.

I want to thank everyone on the Silk Road excursion for giving me such rich and beautiful memories that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The sites of our trip were amazing, yes, but honestly, it was the people that I traveled with and shared the experience with that made the trip that much more incredible. The friendships that we forged together and the travel that we embarked on together in this rich and amazing country are precious times that we would have never been able to do if it weren’t for this program, The Beijing Center. So thank you, everyone at TBC!

I also would like to thank the Travel Bible (aka the Silk Road Trip Itinerary) for providing such detailed information about all of the places we traveled to for us while we were on the trip and for this blog so that I could best share my tales with everyone back at home.

I hope you all enjoyed reading about the Silk Road excursion. I apologize for my rambling near the end there, but I definitely enjoyed reflecting back on the trip and locking those beautiful memories away in my heart. I’m glad that I pushed myself and took the time to write about it. I won’t ever stop talking about it, even well after I’ve returned to America. Because of the trip and because of the people on the trip, I’ve grown and developed yet again, and I can never express enough thanks for that.

But the end of this Silk Road series doesn’t mark the end of my blog! We still got the rest of the semester to go, so stay tuned for some future blogs about life in here in China! I got lots to say! 🙂

Until next time~

-Justine

The Silk Road Excursion (Part 3): Buried in the Sand Dunes of Dunhuang

The Silk Road Excursion (Part 3): Buried in the Sand Dunes of Dunhuang

Hello, hello, again! I’ve been itching to post about our time in the desert town of Dunhuang for awhile because of camels and a sandstorm.

You might be saying, “Wait. Sandstorms?”

Just keep reading!

Some good news, our third overnight train to Dunhuang was a huge improvement from our train to Lanzhou. “I’m so glad this train ride isn’t as bad as last time,” was a common phrase that night. I noticed that the landscape outside quickly changed from common greenery like trees and grass to sand for as far as the eye can see.

Amongst the Dunes of Dunhuang

Dunhuang is a desert city that once was the last stop on the Silk Road before the route split off to the north and the south around the Taklamakan Desert. It served as an oasis for travelers before they journeyed into the harsh environment of the desert. The air in Dunhuang, and in the next two cities that we would visit in the west, was way drier, and one could notice the many signs that said “please save water!” in all of these towns. It was also hard to not notice the giant sand dunes in the distance, like mountains, and since it was particularly windy that first day in Dunhuang, you could see the clouds of sand being blown off the top of them. Seeing sand dunes in the horizon half of the time I looked around was bewildering. I’m used to seeing the concrete jungle of Chicago, and I’ve only seen sand dunes a handful of times on a beach. It was something else to see sand dunes constantly looming over the horizon.

Upon our arrival to Dunhuang, we hopped onto a bus and had breakfast at a hotel. The breakfast lounge had an outside patio where you could enjoy your breakfast while gazing out into the dunes in the horizon.

Our view during breakfast. Look at them sand dunes!

After breakfast, we took a bus to visit the breath-taking and ancient Mogao Caves.

“The Timeless Mogao Caves – The World’s Dunhuang”

The Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, are the world’s largest collection of grotto Buddhist caves, filled with many relics and statues. Dunhuang had been a great centre of Buddhism, and after the founding of the Mogao Caves, the town was a major place of pilgrimage. The caves have Buddhist murals that are beautifully intricate and detailed, even though the paint has faded over the thousands of years. The oldest cave is from the 4th century! How could these caves stay so well preserved, you ask? It’s mostly because the location of these caves was so isolated that they stayed untouched after the caves were abandoned. They only resurfaced thanks to an explorer, Sir Aurel Stein, who stumbled upon the caves and discovered the “library cave,” which had an insanely rich collection of 60,000 paper manuscripts, documents, and more, the oldest of which dating from the 5th century. As a result of the age of the caves as well as the significance of these caves, we were not allowed to take pictures inside of the caves in order to prolong the further preservation of these murals.

The doors pictured led to the inside of each cave.

We only saw a handful of caves, and every single one of them had paintings that I could only imagine how they looked like when they were fresh. We even saw a gigantic Buddha statue that was carved into cliff, a Buddha so big that you had to strain your neck to look up in order to see the entire statue.

A beautiful snapshot I got of this iconic structure at the Mogao Caves.

Once we our tour of some of the caves ended, we checked into our hotel and were given a free afternoon to eat lunch and pack our overnight bag. The plan was that we would go to a camping site out to the edge of the desert on a bus, and then we would spend the night there in tents. The hotel that we checked into would just serve as a place to store our bags and to wash up after our time in the desert. Many of us excitedly talked amongst ourselves about our upcoming activities during our free time. Camping in the desert would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us!

Getting to the campsite, though, was an experience in on itself. The original intention was that our bus driver would drop us off at the gate entrance to the campsite and then we would walk in. The gate entrance was separated from the main road by a tiny, tiny, metal bridge. When I say tiny, I mean we all thought that there was no way a bus could fit on it, let alone drive across it. But our bus driver decided that he would drive our bus across this tiny bridge and then past the gate entrance.

He drove us across a TINY bridge that was just barely the width of the bus just so we wouldn’t have to walk as far!

It’s obvious when I say that we were mad stressed when he slowly inched the bus across the bridge, and we shouted whenever we hit bumps. But, somehow, we got across that bridge and were driven further in.

Getting off of the bus, we were greeted by the campsite’s owners. The campsite had a small metal building that had a tall roof coming off and over the side of it to provide shelter. There were benches and tables arranged around the side of the building, and we set our stuff down here. The wind, which had been blowing pretty hard all day, had picked up even more, and sand was whipping around everywhere.

This picture perfectly captures the sand billowing off of the top of those dunes.

That didn’t stop any of us from kicking off our shoes and running out into the sand, dragging plastic sleds that the owners provided to us.

We shrieked and laughed as the sand unforgivingly blew against us, the grains uncomfortably hitting any of our exposed skin. If you opened your mouth, you were guaranteed to get mouthful of sand, and those of us who didn’t have sunglasses or any protective wear for your head had a rougher time than others. Trying to drag our feet through the slippery sinking sand was another story. But, determined to have a good time regardless of the weather, many of my peers and I hiked up the giant sand dune nearby

.

Trudging up the sand dune!
Some people chose to stay down on ground-level to avoid the whipping sand at the top of the sand dune. Those people were smart.
Made it to the top!!!
The wind was absolutely terrible at the top of the dunes. 0/10 would not recommend, but it was pretty worth it!

At the top of the dune, those of us brave enough to endure the sandstorm enjoyed the breathtaking view as we took careful hard breaths from the climb up. The sun was bright, and the horizon was just blurred out from all of the sand.

The view at the top of the dunes. I somehow managed to still take pictures at the top.

Sliding down the dune on those plastic sleds was another story. For those who haven’t been sledding before, you basically sit on a piece of hard plastic, scoot forward a little bit, and hope to gosh that you don’t wipe out as you speed down the hill. I managed to somehow slide down the dune without wiping out, but some of my other peers weren’t so lucky. Good thing that sand is relatively soft!

Once we had our fun in the sand, we trudged back underneath the safety of the roofed benched area. That is where we got some unfortunate news: because of the winds, camping out in the desert would be unsafe, lest one our tents with students in it gets carried off somewhere. Our plan was thus changed: we would get up at 5am the next morning in an attempt to ride the camels in the desert, weather permitting. We were disappointed, but we shrugged off the bad news quite easily. Me personally, I was glad to have experienced the desert sands (even if it was in the context of a literal sandstorm) and share some laughs with my fellow TBC peers. I was just really happy to be a part of a group that would fearlessly try to conquer a sandstorm, regardless of how much sand we got in our clothes, and would carry a positive attitude regardless of the outcome.

So, with our pockets full with sand, we hopped back onto the bus. At our hotel, we dumped sand out from our clothes, and spent the night at our hotel instead.

5am the next day, we all sleepily dragged ourselves out of bed and downstairs in our hotel lobby, bundled up for the cold weather out in the desert. We hoped that the weather that wasn’t as bad as the day before, just so we could at least ride the camels. Most of us, between camping and riding the camels, looked forward to the camel riding to see the sunrise the most. To our delight, the wind was basically gone, and the weather was determined safe for us and the camels to be outside. The moon was still out that early in the morning, and it was full and shone very brightly.

When we got to the location that offered camel rides into the desert, we were given tickets with a number on it. The number we were given matched with a number on a camel, and that camel would be the one we would ride.

My number!
Me and my camel! (I almost lost my balance taking this photo)

We were then divided into groups of five, and my group was lead to our camels. When we got to the place where all the camels patiently sat waiting, I was taken aback just at how many camels there were. I didn’t know what I was thinking, but I didn’t think that there were going to be that many camels all sitting there in the dark!

Wow, all the camels!

I hauled myself in-between the two humps of my camel where there was a saddle, gripping onto a metal bar in front of me. At the command of the camel leader, the camels got up onto their feet, and they followed him in a single file line on a specific route that would take us to yet another breath-taking scenery on this trip. Riding a camel is very similar to riding a horse, except there’s a more pronounce “sway” from side to side. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, and you just have to go with the flow or else you felt like you could fall off at any moment. 

On our way to watch the beautiful sunrise!

Perched on our camels and definitely awake at this point, we gazed around in awe as the morning sky turned from a dark navy blue to a light blue to a faint orange and right of the sunrise. The sand dunes were just as majestic as the mountains of Xia’he, if not more prettier because of the foreign landscape.

Me and my camel!

After awhile, the camel leader stopped and told the camels to lay back down (a process that’s pretty jarring, since it’s a sudden drop in height when the camel lays back down on its legs). We got off of our camels and trudged up a sand dune to watch the sunrise at the top and to take loads of pictures. That morning sunrise is probably one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The sun was a distinct orange color, and the shadows of the sand dunes cast a mysterious feeling inside of me.

The beautiful desert sunrise.
Big happy smiles that morning! 🙂
The sun peeking out over the sand dunes.

Our camel leaders ushered us back onto our camels after the sun climbed high in the sky, and we rode back down and then to Crescent Lake.

On our way to Crescent Lake with the early morning sun bathing us.

Crescent Lake is a precious source of water for thousands of years in Dunhuang. It is a small, and getting smaller, lake which lies just next to the towering sand dunes. Without this lake, it is debatable how human life could have survived in Dunhuang.

At Crescent Lake, we said goodbye to our camels and were given a small amount of free time to explore the area around the lake. My friends and I spent most of our time taking pictures near the lake and enjoying the scenery. You know, the usual stuff! 🙂

Crescent Lake

Once our time was up, we hopped onto a shuttle that took us back to the parking lot where our bus was. After all, we had to hurry and pack our bags to hop onto… you guessed it, another overnight train to get to our next destination, Turpan!

That’s it for our time in Dunhuang! Come back next time to hear about our explorations of some ancient city ruins in Turpan!

Until then~

-Justine

The Silk Road Excursion (Part 2): In the Mountains of Xia’he

The Silk Road Excursion (Part 2): In the Mountains of Xia’he

Welcome back to the Silk Road, everyone! In my last blog about our amazing excursion, I described our adventures in the ancient capital city of Xi’an, where I had a personal encounter with the Terracotta Warriors and some mouth-watering yummy crispy meat buns. Now, let’s dive back in with the second destination of our trip: Xia’he, a Tibetan monastery town tucked away in a mountain valley at the edge of the Tibetan plateau. If I had to choose a favorite out of all of the places we went to, I would choose Xia’he, and I’m about to tell you why.

But First, Some Lanzhou Beef Noodles

So, our second overnight train ride was a little rough. We got on the train to Lanzhou around 11pm after spending our second day in Xi’an, exhausted from our day activities. Actually, we had to tip-toe onto our train since most people on the train were sound asleep. We all were spread out amongst three different train carts instead of being in one cart. Granted, this train ride had only been about 9 hours and was during the late night hours (a.k.a. prime recharge-your-battery hours), but it was harder to sleep soundly since most of us were surrounded by strangers. Nevertheless, most of us managed to tuck ourselves away into bed and get some rest.

We arrived in Lanzhou the following morning around 8am and were met by our next local tour guide, Peter. Peter was a very kind and soft-spoken man. He was very knowledgeable about both Lanzhou and Xia’he, and he taught us many things about Tibetan culture as well as Buddhism. I fondly remember Peter running off of our bus multiple times to buy us all packs of water, and I remember him joking around with us students throughout the time we spent with him as our tour guide. Many of us consider him to be one of our favorite tour guides on the trip because of his calm demeanor and easy-going attitude.

Lanzhou was, for centuries, a major stop on the Silk Road because it was essentially a crossroads in the route: the southwest had Xia’he and the northwest had the desert landscapes of Dunhuang and Jiayuguan. The fact that Lanzhou literally had the Yellow River flowing through it made it a perfect rest stop for weary travelers. We didn’t stay in Lanzhou for long, however: we only briefly stopped in town for breakfast. On the menu was Lanzhou’s famous hand-pulled beef noodles. The broth was rich and the noodles were delectably chewy, and we were able to customize what we wanted to put into our soup, like a choice of various slices of meats and veggies. Noodles for breakfast gave all of us some much needed fuel after that rough overnight train ride.

Delicious Lanzhou beef noodles.

Once we finished our breakfast, we hopped onto our bus for the 4 hour ride up into the mountains to get to Xia’he. I don’t remember much of that 4 hour bus ride since I slept most of the time (I personally had not gotten much rest on that overnight train). But when I did wake up, I was met by bewildering and majestic sights: mountains and valleys covered by various greenery and kissed by beautiful blue skies that were dotted by fluffy white clouds. It was like the weather was welcoming us as we drew closer to our destination.

A view from my bus window.
Beautiful valleys outside my window.
Blue skies and fluffy clouds at a pit stop.

Welcome to Xia’he

Finally, after 4 hours, we arrived in Xia’he. The city, in comparison, was much cooler than Xi’an because of its elevated location in the mountains. I believe Peter said that the city was perched at around 8,000 feet above sea level.

I’ll repeat that.

8,000 feet above sea level.

The air wasn’t noticeably thinner unless you were exercising (later on, we would hike even higher up into the mountains to get to the sky burial site, and all of us definitely noticed the missing oxygen in the air). But we were warned to not strain ourselves while in Xia’he as a precaution against altitude sickness.

Xi’an was consistently in the high 80s and even 90s, but Xia’he’s temperature hung out around the low 70s. Most of us were thriving in long pants and jackets and sweaters. The air was noticeably more cleaner, more fresher, and somehow, more crisper. Well, it was when we got away from the area around our hotel since Xia’he’s streets were underneath construction during our visit. The people also preferred to speak Tibetan than Mandarin (remember, Xia’he is on the edge of the Tibetan plateau), and it was one of the first times where those of us who spoke some Mandarin ran into situations where they could not directly communicate with the locals. Luckily for us, most people were able to understand and speak some Mandarin, and hand gestures and smiles are part of the universal language.

To welcome us to their hotel, the hotel owners draped a long white silk scarf, called a “khata,” around each of our necks, generous gifts of hospitality. The hotel was very colorful, with large lanterns and leaf-covered “vines” hanging down from the ceiling and the walls and pillars were decorated with Buddhist motifs and flowers. There were even Buddhist prayer flags hung up almost everywhere. The doors to our hotel rooms were covered by a thin colorful curtain that you had to part in order to get to your actual door. It was very whimsical, and because of that, I think that hotel was my favorite. It had a really warm sense of hospitality and because its interiors were just so fun to look at. After checking in, we were given free time to rest up in our rooms before we got back onto our bus to go to a Tibetan-style dinner out on the Tibetan plains.

A beautiful view of the decorations in our Xia’he hotel. Picture taken on the second floor, over the balcony.

On our way there, Peter explained that to greet us, our dinner hosts would offer us a small glass of Tibetan wine, made from barley. He said that the correct way to accept the wine was to dip a finger into the wine and then flick the finger away from you, repeating this for a total of three times. These three gestures symbolized heaven, Buddha, and people. Only after you did this, you could drink it. If you didn’t do this, it would be considered impolite.

And sure enough, when we got off of the bus at the site, there was a man who cheered for our arrival and offered tray with shot-glass sized silver cups filled with what I figured was the wine. I remember asking Peter if we were supposed to drink it all in one go, to which he said yes, so I drank the entire thing in one go. I remember the Tibetan wine being very strong yet smooth, and it warmed my belly up quite pleasantly. Both Peter and the man who gave us the wine were very impressed by my ability to drink it all. It’s safe to say that we all loosened up a little after drinking that small shot of Tibetan wine.

Walking onto the site, we noticed a lot of colorful tents and fluttering prayer flags everywhere. Somewhere around the middle of the site was a tall pole with even more prayer flags. There were other tourists visiting the area, some trying on vibrant traditional Tibetan clothes to take pictures with, others just taking pictures out in the grass plain with the mountains and the setting sun in the background. Our group was lead inside probably the largest tent, where there were many round tables scattered around with a stage that had the Tibetan grassland horizon as a backdrop at the front. After seating ourselves, we were served various dishes with Tibetan noodles, meats, and veggies, and we enjoyed each other’s company, joking around and laughing away the day spent mostly traveling. Once we had finished our meal, our hosts entertained us with a traditional Tibetan Guozhuang dance and some Tibetan singing as well.

All of those little flag-like cloths are actually prayer flags.
Once we had finished our meal, our hosts entertained us with a traditional Tibetan Guozhuang dance and some Tibetan singing.

After the performance on the stage, we were invited outside into the cold night, where the bright full moon greeted us. Our hosts lit up a warm bonfire, and just when we all gathered around it to warm ourselves up, they put on some loud dance music on speakers. All of the guests were encouraged to dance around the bonfire and enjoy themselves. My friends and I jumped right in, joining the circle of people holding hands and just dancing however they saw fit. Fireworks lit up the sky as we laughed and danced together and with other tourists who were there.. The fireworks were bigger than any fireworks I’ve seen in the U.S. — in fact, they were so big and seemingly close to the ground that my friends and I got a little worried!

We sang and danced around this bonfire for what felt like hours.

Eventually, our trip leaders ushered us back to the bus. We were still hyped up from our enjoyable time at the Tibetan dinner, as shown by our chattering on the way back to the hotel even though it was around 10pm. That was when Peter came up to the front of the bus and sang us a love song in Chinese. His voice was just as soft and soothing as his regular voice, and we all broke into applause when he finished. Then, he told us that since he sang a song for us, we should sing a song for him. Hilarity ensued as some of us walked all the way up to the front of the bus and took turns singing all different kinds of songs. We have some Columbian students on the program, so some of them sang some Spanish songs. Someone came up and sang a High School Musical song, and you know that we all joined in on that!

Once we got back to the hotel, in the darkness of the hotel lobby, before we retired to our rooms, a group of us, half-asleep and tired from the day, planned to go circle the 1.5 mile long Labrang Monastery wall and spin the Buddhist prayer wheels early in the morning. It was a rather smaller group, about maybe 6 or 7 of us. Little did I know that I would come out of that morning with an experience that I now hold precious to me.

Labrang Monastery and Sky-Burial Site: A Day I’ll Never Forget

I woke up around 5:30am and quietly put on layers of clothing to protect myself from the cold morning. As I got ready, I remember thinking that I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into, but I knew that I just wanted to experience it. I knew that I wouldn’t get another chance like this again, so I figured I would sacrifice some precious hours of sleep to go experience this morning hike. I met the other students downstairs in the lobby, and then we headed out into the cold early morning to the Labrang monastery, a very important Tibetan-style Buddhist temple grounds to the Tibetan people. Many people make pilgrimages to this temple to pray at it.

We walked over to the Labrang monastery, which was a short distance away from our hotel. We were unsure what we were supposed to be doing for this hike. Most of the information we were given about this optional activity was pretty minimal (in the Travel Bible, it only said “Suggestion: Early morning walk to the Labrang Monastery to join the local pilgrimage by circling the 1.5 mile long Monastery wall and turning the thousand of prayer wheel”), so we decided to rely on watching what the locals did. We followed as some locals walked up to what I figured was that 1.5-mile long wall, which was covered with endless amounts of prayer wheels, and started to spin each of them as they walked past them.

Let me explain what prayer wheels are, since I’ve thrown the word around a couple of times now without saying what they were. They are vertical wooden structures that have very colorful Buddhist motif paintings on them, and inside of them are prayers written on a scroll of paper. The belief is when these wheels are spun, the prayers inside of those wheels are “spoken” and then carried off into the wind.

We continued to walk, and walk, along the wall of the monastery, all the while spinning those wheels. Some of them were visibly worn from all of the years they’ve been spun, with their vibrant red paint fading where the people pushed them. As they spun, they made a soft creaking noise. At first, we giggled at how some of our arms were getting tired pushing the wheels so that they would continue to spin. The wheels were surprisingly heavy to push! But after awhile, we fell silent, taking in the experience. What happened next was something that I’ll never forget.

We continued to walk, and walk, along the wall of the monastery, all the while spinning those wheels.

I come from a Buddhist family, and so I figured I would pray as we spun the wheels. At the time when I initially decided to pray, I didn’t think much of it. I had prayed before at temples back at home, and I figured that it would just be something nice to do My prayers were silent and internal, so no one really knew I was praying during our walk. But when I was praying, I started to feel something stir within me. It’s really, really difficult for me to find the right words to describe the sensation in a way that would make sense, and I apologize ahead of time if it doesn’t.

You know that feeling when you’re about to cry, but then you hold back your tears? That feeling that starts in your chest and spreads up to your eyes and your nose? What I felt was only similar to that feeling. I didn’t feel like I wanted to cry, nor did I feel like I was going to cry, but I became emotional, to say the least. Maybe I did feel like I was going to cry, but it feels a little weird to label it as so. My chest just tightened momentarily, and my gut felt strange. Walking against the walls of the monastery while spinning those worn, yet colorful and vibrant, prayer wheels, suddenly became something… magical. Something incredible. As the cold morning air blew while we pushed the prayer wheels to spin, I really did feel like… like my prayers were being heard carried off into the heavens by the wind. Because I had prayed for some personal things, feeling that way meant a lot to me.

After awhile of spinning the wheels, we followed the locals up into the mountains on a trail that still followed the walls of the monastery. It was quite the hike to walk along that dirt path, watching as some locals paused in certain areas to put their forehead against the monastery wall momentarily before moving on. As I paused every once in awhile to take everything in, the cold air stinging my lungs, I saw the beautiful sunrise kissing the valley with its warm light. I forgot about the strain of the hike. I forgot about how sleepy I was, how cold my nose was. I just focused on the amazing views right in front of me. We watched as the valley slowly woke up as the sun climbed higher and higher into the sky, greeting us early risers with its beauty. I remember I kept repeating to my friend who walked alongside me for most of that part of the hike, “This is amazing.”

In that morning, something stirred within me.
Walking along the trail in the mountains, with the monastery walls to the right.

Looking back on it, as I write this blog, “amazing” doesn’t wrap up the experience neatly. It doesn’t describe the experience in its entirety. It doesn’t describe the awe I felt when watching Tibetan Buddhists dutifully walking along the trail chanting and praying underneath their breaths while I huffed and puffed to keep up. It doesn’t describe the… the “spiritual intenseness” of my emotions as I prayed for personal and intimate things in my life. Before that morning, I had never thought that I was spiritual. I never thought that, after walking alongside my fellow students and the locals on the trail around the Labrang monastery, spinning thousands upon thousands of prayer wheels, I would hold those memories, those views, those feelings, dear. But ever since that morning, I’ve grown spiritually, and our visit to Xia’he became a lot more personal than I thought it would be.

We ended our morning walk once we stumbled upon the same area we had started at about 2 hours earlier. I felt strangely energized even though I was sleep deprived and a little tired from the long walk. I came back to my hotel room and instantly messaged my family and some of my friends back home to tell them what I went through. I had to tell my roommate for the Silk Road what I had experienced. My heart felt fuller, and I felt more calmer. A sense of peacefulness and reassurance filled me. These words that you’re reading on your screens can’t just describe the feeling of that morning well enough.

At around 8:30am, we had breakfast at the hotel. Breakfast consisted of delicious bread, a yogurt that tasted very similar to Greek yogurt, only more thicker and more sour, and a sweet jam, served with tea. Servers even brought us some fried eggs. I discovered a delicious way to incorporate all parts of the breakfast: I spread the yogurt on a slice of bread first before adding a layer of jam, and then I put my fried egg on top before prompting shoving it into my mouth. I think the breakfast at the Xia’he hotel was my favorite breakfast as well.

Our Xia’he breakfast space!

After breakfast, we all walked to the main area of the Labrang Monastery, led by Peter. There, we had a guided tour of the monastery by a monk, who spoke very good English and was very eager to talk to us tourists. He led us into certain rooms of the temple and explained the statues inside as well as the decorations inside. We were forbidden to take photos, since it’s considered to be disrespectful, so I unfortunately cannot show you what we saw inside the monastery buildings, but the statues were impressive statues of different Buddhas, and the decorations were usually original paintings. While he gave us a tour of the monastery, the monk casually gave us some Buddhist teachings. This is where I became emotional all over again, which, again, I didn’t expect at all. I’m not so sure what it was about what he told us, but his teachings were so similar to the lessons that I’ve learned from my parents and to the morals that I hold myself to that it just resonated with me. It would be safe to say that homesickness and a yearning for home almost washed over me as I listened to this monks’ teachings. With his smiles and his agreeing grunts, I felt that he really did give us a taste of Xia’he’s Buddhism.

One of the buildings within the walls of the Labrang monastery.
Sunny day, sunny faces 🙂

I’ll leave my favorite quote from the monk here for you to digest yourself. 

“One good person can change ten bad people, but ten bad people cannot change one good person.”

Once we finished our tour of the Labrang Monastery around 12pm, we were given free time for lunch. During the free time, my friends and I wandered around looking at many different prayer beads being sold on the side of the road and in various tourist shops. After awhile of looking, I finally bought my own prayer beads to wear around my wrist to symbolize the personal and spiritual moments I had in Xia’he. I wear these prayer beads almost all the time, now.

But our day wasn’t over yet. I know, it was only 12pm and I had already done so much!

After we got lunch, we took a bus to visit the nunnery. The bus only took us to another part of town before we got off and hiked after Peter further up a path that winded through the town to get to the nunnery. There, Peter gave us a detailed tour of the inside of the nunnery’s prayer hall, explaining the different paintings on the walls and the symbolism behind them (again, we were not allowed to take any photos inside — sorry guys!). I remember being really fascinated by Peter’s teachings, comparing them with what I already knew about Buddhist motifs and symbols.

The view outside the nunnery. You can see Xia’he in the distance.

Once Peter was done giving us our tour of the nunnery, we were given an option: we could either hike back down the path to the bus and go back to the hotel, or we could make the trek up to the Sky Burial site, which was located way up further into the mountains.

Of course, you know that I chose to do the hike up to this site in the mountains.

Sky burial is an ancient Buddhist-Tibetan burial tradition. Buddhists believe that the body is only a vessel to the soul, and once the soul leaves the body, it is no longer of use. As a result, bodies of the deceased are offered to vultures, who are revered and seen as a manifestation of a flesh-eating god, as a final act of generosity to the living world and provides a link in the cycle of life. Practically speaking, the practice is ecologically friendly and is a sound way to dispose of bodies in a scarce land.

The hike to get to the site, if you went nice and slow, wasn’t all too bad. It was the thin air and the steep climbs at certain parts of the trail that got to me. Every so often, I made sure to stop and turn around to admire the increasingly incredible view behind us (and to take a ton of pictures). The city of Xia’he got smaller and smaller as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. The blue skies speckled with white and grey clouds were just absolutely incredible to see. The weather was pleasantly cool, and the sun wasn’t shining down too harshly on us. That hike, as tiring as it was, was well worth the incredible views.

Getting higher up!

Once we got to the Sky Burial site, Peter graciously gave us some slips of paper, made to be thrown into the air as you made a wish on this little platform that looked over Xia’he. Each one of us took turns throwing our own stack of these little slips of paper into the air, cheering as we watched our wishes literally getting blown into the air by the wind.

TBC up in the mountains!

Once we were finished with our wishes at the Sky Burial site, we followed Peter even higher up into the mountains until we were over 10,000 feet above sea level (I know because I checked that elevation thing on Snapchat)! There, we took even more photos, including the cliche mid-air jumping photo. I’ll let our photos speak for themselves in terms of how gorgeous the views were.

See, I told y’all we were 10,000 feet above sea level. Snapchat said so.

When we were satisfied with the view and with our photos, we made the trek down, making sure we didn’t lose our footing. My friends and I in particular started to sing (more like shout) Disney songs, giggling and fooling around the entire way down. We warranted some amused looks from both Peter and some of the trip leaders who were tagging along our friend group.

Once we came all the way down the mountain, we were released for dinner time on our own. My friends wandered around a little bit before we found a “fast food” restaurant, where the majority of us end up ordering this spicy fried chicken wrap. We were amused by a family sitting behind us with two rowdy children, who were equally if not more amused by our presence. At one point, the girls gave us some candy as thanks for entertaining them as their moms gossiped a little bit and got some free time to themselves.

After spending our last night at Xia’he, we took another 4 hour bus ride all the way back to Lanzhou.

Lanzhou Part 2!

We stayed in Lanzhou for two nights and one day in a really fancy gilded-in-gold hotel. During our (much longer) time in the ancient “crossroads” city, we crossed the impressive bridge over the Yellow River and hiked to the hill-top temple that gave us a look over the city of Lanzhou.

I know. More hiking. But trust me, every single time we had to do some sort of hike, it was always worth it.

TBC next to the Yellow River and one of its bridges across.

On our way up to the hill-top temple, my hiking group stumbled across another Buddhist temple, in the middle of its prayer chants.

Entrance to the Buddhist temple.

Hearing the familiar-sounding chants coming from behind the gates, I, with the reassurance of Peter, wandered in, my peers curiously following me in. The temple smelled of burning incense, and the prayers being chanted were loud and rhythmic. It reminded me of home, when I would sit in with my parents at temple during prayer chants. Naturally, a lot of my peers asked me questions about the practice of Buddhism, and I was glad to share my cultural and religious upbringing with them. Peter even bought us giant incense sticks for us all to burn. I taught everyone who wasn’t familiar with the practice of praying with incense how to do so, and by the end of it, we had contributed our own prayers and our own incense sticks to the many already burning to the chorus of chanting inside the temple.

Burning incense.

At the very top, there was another temple-like structure which acted like more like a tourist shop that sold prayer beads and jade jewelry. I spent most of my time on the balcony, enjoying the horizon of Lanzhou and bathing in the bright sunlight.

The city of Lanzhou and the Yellow River.

Our time in Lanzhou was really fun, but I’m quite biased. That one day in Xia’he was one of the best days for me on the trip. Not only did it allow for me to explore myself spiritually, it gave me several experiences that I continue to reflect upon now. The next day, with my prayer beads wrapped snug around my wrist and my heart feeling a little fuller than it did before we came to Xia’he, we departed on our third overnight train of the trip to the deserts to the west.

That’s about it in Xia’he and Lanzhou! I hope you all enjoyed my tales. Come back to hear all about our sandy times in Dunhuang!

Until next time~

-Justine