Oasis

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I have discovered an oasis. Huangdao is a far cry the hectic chaos of Beijing, but it is still urban urban urban. Grey concrete dominates the landscape everywhere you look. It stretches into the sky with half built skyscrapers, looming cold and empty. Other complexes packed to bursting. One complex after the other. Somebody in the government or development offices has, fortunately realized this and most complexes have some sort of park in them with trees and some lovely landscaping, and always a large empty space for the older local women (and a few men) to dance every evening. However lovely these little places are for the soul, they are not quite enough for me since its’ still the stress of dealing with Chinese language, people often staring, the smells of the sewers, air pollution, and other stressors that typically come with living in a very foreign culture.

Finding a place to hibernate and rejuvenate is important when living abroad. In Kenya I joined the British country club for its gym. I hated everything about it culturally but being able to escape all of the noise and hassle kept me sane. Here I have also joined a gym for the same purpose, also to try to be able to eventually fit into any clothes they sell here (a futile effort.) But while it is certainly entertaining to attend a Zumba class in Chinese – I’ve never seen so much affect on a single Chinese face– the gym has failed to replenish my soul. Staying healthy in body and mind are top priorities for the Chinese so even the gym is packed. And because I am an object of fascination, avoiding trainers trying to explain to me (in Chinese) the “correct” ways of doing things is nearly impossible. Thus I have still been searching for my oasis. And last week I finally found it. A large gourmet coffee shop right on the bay.

So now here I sit, surrounded by muted shades of blue, comfortable chairs, relaxed wooden furniture, and outstanding coffee. I could almost forget that I’m living in China.  Ella Fitzgerald’s throaty tones add to the illusion. Today there is even a wood burning stove combating the chilly November air with both its warmth and cozy smell of smoky pine. Added bonus: watching the whitecaps dance in the bay against a stormy sky and city skyline. If only the coffee weren’t the equivalent of $8 a cup. But I have decided it is definitely worth it. While I fully support immersion into a culture when living abroad, every once in a while you need to remove yourself and recover.

Next week is Thanksgiving and I will be fully immersing myself into China. My office mate who has become very dear to me has invited me to her hometown – a smaller city apparently 7 hours away by train and not even mentioned in Lonely Planet. I’m dreadfully excited to visit her uncle’s tea house, go to the hot springs, and spend four days with a local family. (I’m less excited about sleeping on my camping mattress during that time.) Wish me luck, dear reader.

 

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Last weekend we took all nineteen of our students to the town (city) of Qufu whose claim to fame is the hometown of Confucius. Perhaps the single most influential person in Chinese history, Confucius has inspired the closest thing to a pilgrimage that the Chinese seem to have. His temple is also an oasis, full of cedar trees and a sense of peace. Somehow you can feel it, even as you push through the metal detectors and gates with hundreds of other people. His temple has been added to by every emperor since his death and so it has become almost a park. Gates, statues, and trees pervade the landscape and everything is hushed. That might be due to the rule against megaphones for tour guides too. (This is the only place I have found so far that does not have multiple tour guides competing with megaphones all in the same cramped place for who can be the loudest.) One of my favorite things about the Chinese is their reverence for trees and growing things. Some of the cedar trees in the temple area are hundreds of years old and are starting to fall over. Engineers have created supporting braces to keep them propped up, and these props have been designed and made to exactly resemble other cedar trees, so the effect is completely unobtrusive and pleasant. A short walk past the required tourist shops full of sacred calligraphy items, polished balls of jade, ink stones, sculpted marble stamps, and lots and lots of local street food. We nearly lost some of our students along the way as we all paused to sample ginger sugar, glutinous rice confections, delicate wraps full of delicious sweet vinegar and peanuts. And we arrive at the graveyard that contains Confucius’ tomb.   Everything hushed; pine and cedar blanket the ground muffling even footsteps, and a person can breathe. A sense of age and history pervades, and I am impressed by its simplicity. The trunk of a cedar tree supposed planted by Confucius 2100 years ago stands off to one side, a protective gate surrounding it. I’m not sure if I believe it, but here I think almost anything could be.

His gravestone is simple – tall, rounded, with a tall hill behind it. Clearly the stone has been replaced fairly recently and I peer behind it to see a smaller, older grave stone still standing. Even that one is surely not the original, but I had to chuckle that they keep replacing them with bigger and more respectable stones. You can also leave a monetary offering for good luck in a box right in front. I remark to one of my students, “Who gets the money?” Her eyes widen at the suggestion. I have no idea, but I would love to know.

Despite the emphasis on money for good luck, I am pleasantly inspired and cheered by the visit. A brutal five hour bus ride back to Huangdao gets us home and gets me a migraine (exacerbated by sleeping one night on a Chinese non-mattress in our smoke-filled hotel.) But I feel like I have seen another important part of China. Just a quick trip to my local massage therapist (#3) and I’m right as rain and ready for another week of teaching in Huangdao.

Next week, Liaocheng.   If I don’t get a chance, Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

PS There are also photos of a Buddhist temple we visited, if you’re wondering where all the shiny comes from.

Exploring China!

Finally! I managed to make it out of the city a few weeks ago. This trip to Huangshan was one in a lifetime and it deserves a much longer blog. But since I am way behind in my blogging, right now I will just add a few notes and let the photos do the talking.
This was seriously one of the most amazing hikes I have ever done. And about halfway through you start quoting John Grisham – “God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers” as you peer over the sides of sheer mountain cliffs into cloud-filled abysses. And then you think, “God help us, we’re in the hands of CHINESE engineers!” and you start to lose your nerve.  Then you hit the truly scary parts where the steps at an 85 degree angle are merely cemented to the sides of these cliffs. That’s when you start to lose your lunch. But at that point it’s too late and you can’t turn around – and whose thighs could take that climb of thousands of steps at that steep grade anyway? – and so you keep going and witness some of the most breathtaking scenery ever known to man. No wonder Ang Lee shot here – every photograph is perfect.  It really does look like the Chinese ink paintings of the mountains I have always seen and wondered about.  Now I wonder how the ancients climbed those mountains without the help of cement stairs!  And I kept imagining pterodactyls flying UP at me from the misty valleys below. (I have a thing for dinosaurs.) So, enjoy the photos! It was great to get out of the city and enjoy, as one fellow traveler said, “actual Chinese nature.” Awesome, in the truest meaning of the word. IMG_1088

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