September 13, Baotou
Finally, another letter from China. I've been meaning to write for several weeks but I had some problems updating my website. What happened was that the trial period of one of my programs ran out and it rudely started to demand money. A bad excuse you say? Maybe. But I'm a creature of habit; one habit is to use Thumbnail Express Creator to update my websites and another habit is not to pay for it! :)
But enough of that. The website is now updated with a lot of pictures from Beijing, Xi'an and other places of varying interest. Browse them at your pleasure.
So what has been going on since I last wrote... Well, as you know Lisa and I took a small vacation at the end of July. Lisa has been studying to be a Yoga instructor and had to follow a two week program in Beijing to get her diploma. I tagged along for the ride and spend some time exploring Beijing. Let me start by saying I'm not really a big fan of that city. It seems big for the sake of being big - most people in the city seems like they would be a lot happier elsewhere. The city is suffering from overpopulation, unemployment, massive pollution and bad weather! It does have some interesting sights of historical value but they are usually so overcrowded that the experience suffers. Still, there are places of serenity, it just takes a little effort to find them.
Something you immediately notice when walking around Beijing these days is that everything seems to be about the Olympics 2008. All major tourist attractions are under renovation, the souvenir hawkers are selling Olympic memorabilia, and all the old city blocks (including the famous hutong alleys) are being demolished to be replaced by crispy new high-risers. Beijing is definitely changing, something that the city has been doing a lot in the past two decades I guess but the change seems to accelerate the closer we get to the opening ceremony.
I spent some time scoping out the sites, some more time buying a new suit and some new shoes (buying size 45 shoes is impossible in Baotou), and a LOT of time looking for the foreign language bookstore (hidden in plane sight as it turned out). I also got acquainted with the Beijing subway system. The system is quite simple (just 3 lines) but each train can only accommodate "X" passengers. Unfortunately the amount of people waiting on the platform typically equals "X" plus 10%... In the ensuing chaos it is advisable to be either armed and ready to shoot or at the very least familiar with some basic kung-fu so you can hold your own against the locals. Failing in both of those areas I found it best to position myself in front of someone looking particularly determined. He would them push me ahead of him into the train while administering lethal martial justice to those trying to skip the line. I'm guessing the whole situation is based in the fact that in China, excuses like "the train was late" are just not accepted by employers, making rush hour a battle of life and death - litterally :)
After Beijing, Lisa went home to Baotou to take care of her business, while I went on to check out the sights at Xi'an - the old imperial city. Most of you will have heard descriptions of the city itself and its terracotta warriors so I'll just refer you to the pictures and move on to what is (in my opinion) the REAL attraction of the area.
Hua Shan is one of the five sacred mountains in China, important in Chinese mythology as well as in Buddhism in general. The climb to the top is along a steep stairway similar to those of Yellow Mountains in the Anhui province (though steeper, and harder). This mountain however, is much less touristed and consequently much more beautiful in my humble opinion. On the advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook I decided to be adventurous and climb the mountain at night, starting around 11 PM. This promised the advantage of getting to the top of the eastern peak at sunrise. Getting to the base of the mountain was a little difficult as there are no tour buses from Xi'an to Hua Shan at night, so I had to get a ride in one of the small minibuses with the locals. Unfortunately no one speaks a word of English on those and I had to rely a lot on body language and my VERY sparse Chinese vocabulary. Still, it was definately worth the trouble. Climbing the mountain in darkness is a somewhat surreal experience. There is no light on the pathway up the mountain so you have to bring a flashlight and hope your batteries last. From time to time there are hawkers selling tea, chocolate and other necessities but most of the time you’re alone in the darkness of nature. When I got to the top I rented a surplus military jacket (nice and warm) and took a nap on the cliff wall, waiting for the sunrise. And yeah, even on a cloudy day the sight is definately worth it... On the way down I got a better idea of the path I had been climbing in the dark and I was actually glad I hadn't been able to see before. Some of the stairs are almost vertical and it's by no means everywhere that you can expect things like a hand rail or a safety net. I heard later that Hua Shan is the place in China where the most tourists die every year (a piece of information curiously absent from the advertisements).
All in all I can recommend Xi'an and in particularly Hua Shan. Xi’an is NOT an "ancient" capital anymore but rather a sprawling city. Still, if you are interested in history and traditional Chinese architecture it is definately worth a visit and Hua Shan is just spectacular.
I'm back in Baotou now, spending most of my time planning for the fall semester and also for life in Denmark when I get back home. I've been mulling over some business opportunities in Denmark involving Chinese imports but unfortunately EU regulations are restricting imports in most areas so that's still a matter under consideration. I'm glad I'm gonna be here for one more semester as I feel I have a good chance to use the experiences I got last semester to improve my teaching but at the same time I have to admit that the idea of going home in February is not altogether repulsive :) I expect time will fly by quickly in this semester; in a week I get the first in a series of visits from Denmark and in October Lisa and I take a week in Hong Kong and Macao (provided the red tape can be cut).
So yeah, I guess that's it... Well, apart from one thing... As a select few of you already know Lisa and me are getting married in December! :)
If you read this and if you are in Baotou on December 2nd you may consider yourself invited for our Chinese wedding. If you're not, then never fear, we will have another Danish one once we get back home.
On that happy note, goodbye for now