Words can not describe how breathtaking many of the things were that I saw this weekend. We left on Friday at 6:30am to depart to the Tianjin airport for Shanxi 山西 (literally meaning "Mountain West") province. We departed on our flight early in the morning for the capital of the province, Taiyuan (太原). It was a long process to get the tickets, so we actually almost missed our flight! In the process, one of our teachers and the head of the tour agency both accidentally had their seat tickets cancelled, so they had to separately travel to the city to meet us.
After we arrived in Taiyuan, we were greeted by our tour guide, Michael. He studied English and Tourism in Beijing, so his English was especially good! I would say he had to be my second favorite tour guide of the trip, after Xiao Xin of course (our first tour guide). Once we arrived, we visited the Ancient Market in the city and got to visit the oldest part of the city. Next, we visited a scenic area and had dinner in the old city walls of this market. Inside of the market, there were performances going on of ancient re-enactments. These were quite interesting to watch, and I had a good time in the market. I also learned an awesome character that contains four different characters written together, meaning "Let riches and treasures come into the house" (招财进宝). At first, I looked at the character and had no idea what it was, so I took a picture of it. Later, when I showed my teacher, she told me that it was actually four characters that were put together. I was amazed at how intricate the character was in the first place, and have since learned how to write it/say it myself!
After we finished dinner, we drove about an hour outside of the center of Taiyuan to Mian Shan (绵山), a gorgeous mountain that contains both Daoist and Buddhist temples that are built high into the cliffs of the mountain. We stayed over 2500 meters above sea level in the mountain, and we climbed another 1000 or so meters to visit the others places on the mountain. When we first arrived to the "gate of the mountain", there was a 50 meter high statue of an old folk lore story that had taken place at the mountain. The gate was overwhelmingly huge, and I was totally awestruck at its elaborance, with gate doors that were nearly 100 meters high. As we made it to our hotel, I realized we had been driving on a steep, narrow road for over a half hour. We were now nearly level with the clouds, and our hotel was brilliantly lit and beautiful. We settled down for a late meal and prepared for a mountain climb the next morning at 8am.
That night, my friend Keegan and I went for an evening walk. There, we climbed up the side of a Chinese temple (the stairs were blocked off) and went into the temple and explored for about an hour. It was beautiful and sort of creepy as well to walk around this ancient Taoism temple at night. We had to sneak up and down so as to not disturb the guards who were nearby in their guardhouse, so we were sure to be extremely quiet. It was certainly an awesome start to our stay at Mian Shan!
The next morning was the Dragonboat Festival in China (端午节). We ate a lot of zongzi, the traditional festival food, that night. Here is a brief Wikipedia explanation of the Dragonboat festival:
"The festival occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunisolar Chinese calendar. This is the source of the alternative name of Double Fifth. The date varies from year to year on the Gregorian calendar. In 2011, this fell on June 6 and in 2012 on June 23. The focus of the celebrations includes eating rice dumplings zongzi (粽子), drinking realgar wine xionghuangjiu (雄黃酒), and racing dragon boats.
The sun is considered to be at its strongest around the time of summer solstice ("mid-summer" in traditional East Asia, but "beginning" of summer elsewhere) when the daylight in the northern hemisphere is the longest. The sun, like the Chinese dragon, traditionally represents masculine energy, whereas the moon, like the phoenix, traditionally represents feminine energy. The summer solstice is considered the peak annual moment of male energy while the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, represents the peak annual moment of feminine energy. The masculine image of the dragon is thus naturally associated with Duanwu."
The mountain was extremely crowded with people because of the holiday. We first visited a series of lakes, streams, and waterfalls that had many traditional Chinese statues mixed in. While there, we had lots of fun posing with the statues and involving many of the younger Chinese people in the fun. They all got quite the kick out of Ben and I posing in such funny ways, but it was such a good and worthwhile experience--especially when we could garner large crowds of Chinese people, laughing with us (I hope not at us...ha).
After coming back to the bottom of this scenic part of the mountain, we proceeded to climb to the peak of Mianshan. This process took about four hours, and it was one of the most exhilarating, dangerous, and daring hikes of my life. Something like this would likely never fly in the United States, because the climbing was like nothing I had experienced before. In the beginning, you had to climb straight up for a few hundred meters over a waterfall. What you could use to climb the waterfall was a rickety wood and chain ladder, or metal individual planks that were drilled into the side of the cliff for you to walk in. If you missed in between steps, or your foot slipped off the wet plank over the waterfall, your chances of survival didn't look too good. After we made it to the top of this epic climb, we walked past statues of each of the Zodiac symbols. After getting a picture with the monkey (my symbol), we moved up to the final section of the climb--a long set of stairs that rivaled the climb of the Great Wall.
After climbing for another 2 hours, we had reached the top. There, the spectacular views only continued to get better. I have about 600 pictures to show when I get back, but they do no justice in showing how awesome the scenery was. After we reached the top of the mountain, there was a tomb of an ancient king that was buried at the top. The second most fun part of this experience after climbing up was going down in a chairlift. While on it, you could see over the entire mountain and take plenty of beautiful pictures. This experience was one of my favorite thus far in China.
That night, we ate more of the traditional zongzi with other assorted plates for dinner. We had a lot of free time, so we sat around, learned how to play Chinese checkers from one of our professors, Song Laoshi, and our tour guide. Then, we talked to Michael all about culture, his job, his aspirations, and what was most important to him. Interestingly, he answered family, and then money as most imporant. Food for thought!
The next morning, we were supposed to climb another mountain and then visit the Buddhist temple. However, it was raining quite hard, so we had to cancel the mountain climb due to conditions. This was actually not surprising, because Michael told us the local Chinese expression in Shanxi province, that if clouds were in the Southwest in the afternoon, one could expect rain tomorrow. He was right. That night, we played tons of Euchre (as we do every day) and talked until we went to bed around midnight. It was fun to also explore the valley in between to cliffs from our hotel with Kristin and Amber, where I found heaps of trash and a cave that had a small stream running from it. Oddly, there was also a gas line running inside. I didn't want to peek inside, though.
That morning after the rain cleared up and we had all finished eating our breakfast, we visited the final Buddhist temple that was built into the mountain. It was cool to visit, especially with the chain of keys and each of the different shrines that belonged to all of the different Buddhas. It was quite the architectural marvel, being built into a cave and high in the sky again. The final task we decided to do was climb up an extremely steep and long flight of zig-zagging stairs that went up to the highest tower of the temple. We finally made it, and we were up higher than the clouds! It was a terrifying climb for me as I don't enjoy heights, but this, along with much of our other climbing, wasn't going to simply be missed because I dislike looking down--and I'm so glad I did it! The picture attached is me at the top of the other side of the mountain, at the highest point in the temple. In Buddhism and Taoism both, this place had special significance, as it was the closest a human could get to the mountains. Thus, shrines to their deities or gods were built as high in the mountains as possible.
After climbing down, we concluded our stay with another great lunch filled with great company. We took a bus back for three and a half hours to the airport in Taiyuan, and soon enough we would fly. However, going through security this time was extremely annoying. My sunscreen was taken, even though I was telling the security guards what it was and why I needed it. Then, Keegan had accidentally brought a knife in his backpack that he had bought. The Chinese instantly asked him to search his bag and had him detained. My teacher Song Laoshi went with him, and thankfully 20 minutes later he was let off with a pink warning slip and a passport that was entered in their system. Apparently they had wanted to arrest him for 5 to 10 days, but Song Laoshi talked them out of this. It was a crazy ending to the trip, but something we can all laugh at looking back, I suppose.
We finally arrived back to Tianjin, and got back to Nankai at around 9pm. We were supposed to have a test today (Monday), but thankfully it was cancelled. We had our fourth or fifth student also visit the hospital today, and have officially set a record! It seems that everyone is falling apart at the seams, but it is also kind of entertaining to see what will happen next!
The home stretch feels like it is here. We only have about 6 official class sections left, and our final exam is already next Thursday--how crazy. Our Japanese friends, Aska and Yuki, are also leaving tomorrow, which makes us sad. New people have moved in to the old French rooms on our floor, and everything appears to be changing. My final tutor sessions are beginning, and we plan on doing something cool for our tutors. They've all been so awesome to us, and I really appreciate all of their passion for teaching.
I also have a story about the Wednesday night before leaving to Taiyuan at Scarlett's, but that is definitely a story for in-person, as it is too long for here.
Only a few more weeks to go! Thanks to all who continue to read my blog! Much love and best of wishes.