Adventures of Life in Beijing

China

Quarantine Prep

“Yes. No. Maybe.” Those are the answers to whether we will be quarantined when we fly back to Beijing tomorrow.

The government policy has changed several times in the three weeks since we left, trying to keep pace with the fluid nature of COVID-19.

At first the Chinese government announced that all incoming foreigners would face a 14-day quarantine; mere days later they retracted that statement, perhaps thinking that quarantining someone from a country without the virus was too restrictive.

Last week, as the virus flared up around the globe, the quarantine was reinstated for travelers coming to Beijing from South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy and “other severely affected countries,” which leaves room for interpretation.

 

Spread of the virus means stricter quarantines in Beijing.

 

What qualifies as a “severely affected country?” An acquaintance came back from Thailand yesterday, where there are a total of 43 cases, and yet his compound required him to stay confined to his apartment.

I’ve known others who were initially told they didn’t have to quarantine only to find out a day later they did.

Living in such a shifting landscape is like living with a toddler again; what was true yesterday isn’t necessarily true today.

The bottom line seems to be it’s up to management office of individual apartment compounds to decide. That’s the first place we will stop when we arrive.

With that in mind, I’m preparing for the probability that we will have to spend the next two weeks in “voluntary” self-quarantine at home in Beijing. What I’m really hoping doesn’t happen is any kind of mandatory quarantine at a government facility, which could happen if there is a suspected case of the virus on the airplane.

 

Photo by Bian Jingjing, taken on a flight recently arriving in Beijing. Numerous passengers were quarantined directly.

 

I’ve prepared for hurricanes, earthquakes and snow storms, but never quarantine. I’m heading into uncharted territory, kind of like setting off into the jungle without a map. What dangers await? Will I etch tally marks into the walls to count the days as my sanity starts to crack? Or will I find beauty in slowing down, enjoying times of quiet reflection?

 

How will my sanity hold up?

Quarantine. It even sounds exotic. Coming from the mid-17th century Italian for “quaranta,” it conjures images of the bubonic plague, scarlet fever and small pox. I think of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and Mary Mallon (aka Typhoid Mary) who spent nearly three decades forcibly quarantined on New York’s  Brother Island for spreading typhoid Fever.

Being ordered to stay in my apartment with my Nespresso machine and Kindle full of books sounds like a luxury staycation in comparison (that reminds me, I need more Nespresso pods).

But still, I’d like to be prepared, just to make things easier.  So here’s my quarantine packing list:

BRAIN FOOD 

A good book is a powerful escape from reality, so I grabbed a few at Barnes & Noble.

Armchair travel is the next best thing.

 

I also have crossword and jigsaw puzzles, a set of photography classes on disks and plenty of Chinese language study materials.

 

This should keep me busy for awhile.

 

SOUL CARE 

I always travel with my Bible and devotional; it’s critical to stay grounded in something unchangeable during such uncertainty. I also keep my writing journal nearby, because getting my thoughts on paper helps me manage stress.

Additionally, I purchased a few coloring books and a fancy set of colored pencils. I’m hoping I can channel the first-day-of school excitement with my new supplies.

 

I’ve purchased some new skin care products so I can pretend I’m at the spa.

 

They smell like a tropical vacation

 

And I think junk food counts as soul care doesn’t it?

 

I’m trying to add some Girl Scout cookies, but no luck so far.

I decided to pick up a some seed packets because watching plants spring to life has to be more exciting than watching my hair grow.

 

I’m kind of excited!

 

TECHNOLOGY

This is a biggie. Of course I’ll make sure my phone and battery pack are charged, and I have my laptop in my backpack. I’ll  get some new books on my iPad, download some uplifting music from Spotify and try to find some binge-worthy episodes on Netflix (suggestions?).

Acess to the Internet has been problematic in Beijing lately, so I’m arming myself with a few new VPNs also.

I’m not sure what will happen when we touch down in China, but it feels good to be prepared.

What would you bring if you were packing for quarantine? Drop me a note, I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fear in the Air

This post is a continuation in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus epidemic. You can read my most recent post here:

 Stay or Go

 

We board the flight from Tokyo to Beijing, bellies sated from last night’s Waygu beef dinner and pockets stuffed with Kit Kats (orange and raspberry are my favorites).

I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, kind of like the first day of school. I’m excited to be going home to Beijing after two weeks of vacation in Japan, but nervous about how the spread of the Coronavirus has impacted daily life. Depending on what things look like, the boys and I will decide to stay in Beijing or leave for awhile.

Everyone in Asia is on high alert now; a fellow traveler coughs and we all take two steps back. As we fill out health questionnaires on the airplane, I can’t help but glance at the guy across the aisle in 35C. Like a guilty school girl, I sneak a look at his paper to see his answers: Have you traveled to Wuhan recently? Do you have a fever? Are you having trouble breathing?

We pass uneventfully through immigrations and baggage claim. The airport is empty, and roads are bare on the drive home. It’s an eerie feeling when life just seems to stop in such a vibrant city. It reminds me of the freeways in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, when curfews were enacted to keep people off the streets.

Near my apartment, most restaurants and shops are closed and the streets are deserted. It feels like a ghost town. It’s so quiet.  I never thought I’d miss the sounds of the city: traffic, people talking too loudly and believe it or not, even the spitting.

 

It feels like a ghost town in Beijing these days. Even the bone setter / Chinese medicine office is closed.

 

Where did everyone go? Familiar faces are missing, like my favorite security guard outside my building who always greets me with a smile and a song. And where is the ruddy-faced chef at the corner restaurant who makes my fresh, pork-filled baozi every morning? His place is closed, with an official sign on the door I can’t read.

 

Oh how I miss my baozi for breakfast. I hope the restaurant owners are OK.

 

With around 10 million people leaving Beijing in last two weeks for the Spring Festival, I worry that some of my local friends might have traveled to virus-infected provinces and fallen ill, or ended up in quarantine somewhere. Are they OK? Are they coming back?

Many of my ex-pat friends have left as well, either out of safety concerns or by the order of their home country’s government.

With hiking trips, hot pot lunches and outings with friends, the pieces of my life in Beijing were just starting to fit together nicely, like a puzzle taking shape to reveal something beautiful.

 

Hot pot lunch with friends earlier this year

 

In the past two weeks as the virus spread, the puzzle has started to crumble with closures, quarantines and restrictions.

As I walk around the city, I feel an uneasy sadness I can’t articulate, like an achy tooth or favorite necklace gone missing. The suffering and loss for China is profound, and we all feel it. We do the best we can, settling into school online and working from home.

Chat groups share the latest statistics, where to find groceries and hygiene supplies and how to find the closest infection sites to our home. There’s even an app to check our last flight to see if we traveled with a suspected carrier. Sometimes too much information is not a good thing.

I make chocolate chip cookies to keep everyone’s spirits up, and share some with the guy at the desk downstairs, who seems to be working 24/7 right now.

Adding to my feeling of depression, there’s fear in the air in Beijing. It feels as heavy as the pollution right now, which sways between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.”

 

View from my apartment. Recent pollution adds to the oppressive feeling in Beijing.

 

People stay inside as much as possible, and when they do go out, they move quickly, minimizing social interaction. Masks cover their faces, but I can see the stress in their furrowed brows and eyes that dart quickly, as if the disease could jump from one human to another by making eye contact. Some wear goggles or heavy glasses, just in case.

If I felt like an outsider as a foreigner before, the anonymity of wearing a mask and the weariness of being sequestered to our apartment (we aren’t allowed visitors at the moment) has added to the feeling of isolation.

The atmosphere is emotionally charged, with rumors fueling the fire as they circulated on social media and news reports. One day we heard that the government would be spraying disinfectant from above, using drones and we should all stay inside after 4 p.m. That didn’t happen, but drones have been deployed to give public service messages in some provinces.

When masks became mandatory, it was announced that lack of compliance would be met with reprimands or possible arrests. Instructions came down from the top that anyone hiding the illness from authorities would be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame” and neighbors and colleaugues were encouraged (sometimes with monetary rewards) to report anyone who might being trying to cover up an illness.

Videos in Western media soon went viral of the authority’s efforts to squelch the virus: people being dragged from their apartments into quarantine, one man being chased by police as he tried to avoid being sent to the hospital, and an infected passenger being wheeled from the airport in an isolation tent. Others showed residents being quarantined in their home, effectively  being held hostage with police tape over their front door. (Of course these can only be viewed with a working VPN).

The images are powerful enough to make us feel uneasy. On a recent trip to meet friends for lunch (a rare treat) I encountered 6 temperature checks along the way. I am perfectly healthy, but each stop heightened my anxiety, like the feeling you get seeing a police car in your rear view mirror even though you know you are not speeding. What if a thermometer malfunctions? Will I be hauled away on the spot? It was worth it though, to linger over lunch with friends. I savored the freedom from my mask and the company more than the spicy shredded potatoes and pork with chilies that I was eating. I wanted to linger.

I asked several Chinese friends why everyone is so afraid and I heard a common refrain. “The government takes this very seriously.” While I was keeping up with the news to the best of my ability, my lack of Chinese language skill acted as a filter from the incessant reminders that we were living in a global health crisis.

My Chinese friends, on the other hand, were being bombarded all day long with We Chat notifications, public announcements, banners, and e-mails instructing them to stay inside, pay close attention to hygiene, not get too hot or too cold, monitor their health, avoid social gatherings and not to panic. I’m sure I would be much more jittery if I consumed as much information about the current situation as they did. Here are a few examples of slogans from banners appearing around China:

If you hang out in public today, grass will grow on your grave next year.

Everone you encounter on the streets now is a wild ghost seeking to take your life.

A bite of wild animal today, see you in hell tomorrow.

A surgical mask, or breathing tube, your choice.

Some of the signs simply remind us to wear a mask, wash hands, avoid crowds and encourage ventilation

 

Who wouldn’t be scared!

Equally disturbing is having a front row seat to watch the spread of fear as it slithers around the globe, morphing into something more evil: xenophobia. From Italy to Singapore, Chinese are being banned from restaurants and hotels. In the U.S., ugly remarks are flung at Asians on the metro, a high schooler is bullied by virus-fearing classmates and a woman is attacked in New York for wearing a mask. Asian restaurants are hurting because people are afraid that they are unclean. Unless they they are serving pangolin as the daily special, I think you’re pretty safe.

It was the thought of weeks or possibly months of living this fearful, monastic lifestyle that swung the balance in favor of leaving China for a bit, more so than the fear of actually contracting the virus. It’s not a breakup, it’s more of a cooling off period.

The boys and I are visiting family and friends in Seattle now, where the coffee is strong, the air is fresh and the pussy willows are blooming. The signs of spring with new life soothe my soul.

 

Pussy willows blooming

I miss my husband, but I feel lighter here. Freedom of movement, clean air and good food will recharge us. The boys continue school online, while I write and keep up with my Chinese studies because I know we will be going home soon.

Beijing is home, because that’s what I call the place where all four of us are gathered safely under one roof, no matter what kind of craziness is happening outside our front door.

 

Stay or Go

This is the second post in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus outbreak. You can read the first one here:

Going Viral

 

News alerts, emails, text messages, and We Chat notifications came fast and furious:

All employees are being offered voluntary evacuation…….The U.S. bans travelers from China….mandatory quarantine…..United Airlines ceases operation from mainland China starting February 5…..death toll rises…..Wuhan under lockdown…….countries close borders to visitors from China……WHO declares global health emergency…..

 

 

Texts reminding us to practice good hygiene, not to panic and don’t spread rumors lit up my phone.

 

It was early February and we had a big decision to make, in a very short amount of time. We were wrapping up our ski vacation in Niseko, Japan and about to part ways, with Mike going back to Beijing and the boys and I planning to extend our holiday by flying on to Tokyo for a few days since schools were closed.

Suddenly, splitting up as a family didn’t seem like such a good idea. What if Mike makes it back to Beijing and 5 days later our flight from Tokyo is cancelled?

Do we stay in Japan as a family, with Mike setting up shop in Osaka, the closest Universal Park? Do the boys and I ditch our plans for Tokyo and head back to Beijing?  Return to safety in Orlando?

Do we stay or do we go now? The Clash’s 80s punk rock song spins around and around in my head like a record on a turntable.

 

Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double.

Lead singer Mick Jones was perhaps singing about the torment of an indecisive lover, rather than fleeing a global health crisis, but our angst was the same.

We hurry to pack our bags two hours before our airport shuttle arrives, tossing around the pros and cons along with ski helmets and snow boots as we try make a decision.

 

If I go there will be trouble

If we decide to leave China, where will we go? Beijing is our home. We rented out our house in Orlando. Technically we’d be homeless. Friends and colleagues were quickly skattering around the globe, like cockroaches when the light is turned on. No one wants to be exposed to the virus. But I’m not a quitter. Pulling the plug less than halfway through our China adventure seems like giving up, like taking the cake out of the oven before it’s finished.

We could stay in Japan, but then I’d have to learn a new language, just when my Chinese was advancing from “Ni hao” to “can you please take me to the grocery store so I can stock up on toilet paper before the apocalypse?”

Plus, although I’m trying to like it, I’ll confess sushi’s really not my favorite and I’ve had enough pork cutlets in the last week to sink a ship. I miss Chinese food.

I really want to like you, sushi, yes I do.

 

No more pork cutlets please.

 

If we decide to fly to the US, we’d be stuck with only ski clothes and bathing suits we brought for the onsen (hot springs), which turned out to be unnecessary since Japanese bathe au naturel.  We’d also be without all of the laptops we needed to keep up with work and school.

We called the airlines to discuss our options. Getting a seat back to the US on one of the major airlines was a bit like musical chairs at this point, with more players than seats. I always felt sorry for the kid who got left out, trying to wedge himself onto the edge of a seat as the music faded.

Even if we could get a seat, signing up for 14 hours on a flying Petri dish might not be the smartest move.

We also face unknown quarantines upon arrival, with information changing and rumors flying.

Leaving China means facing health checks and possible quarantines along the way

 

Two weeks in isolation? I didn’t download enough episodes of The Big Bang Theory or pack enough chocolate to survive that. And what will happen to my orchids if I don’t come back?

And if I stay it will be double 

Returning to Beijing and riding out the virus presented challenges as well. We’d already heard about a shortage of face masks and other hygiene supplies. What if there’s run on rice, meat or vegetables? (Don’t worry – I got the toilet paper). Finding food and cooking a decent meal is always a challenge for me in China. Would it be even harder now in the wake of the epidemic?

Then there’s the thought of weeks of inactivity, with schools, restaurants, museums, shops and even ski resorts and hiking trails being closed indefinitely in and around Beijing. And of course, there’s the unlikely chance that we could catch the virus (although in all honesty I think I was more worried about being trapped at home).

 

Beijing is a ghost town. Should I go?

 

So come on and let me know. Should I cool it or should I blow?

With the Clash still spinning in my head, we zipped up the duffel bags with a week’s worth of slightly damp ski clothes (which will probably smell as bad as stinky tofu when we finally unpack) and grabbed a box of Ritz crackers from the vending machine down the hall in case we get stuck somewhere.

Sometimes in a relationship you just need time to clear your mind, to figure out what to do next. It’s the same facing a voluntary evacuation. We decided to buy ourselves time, so we headed on to Tokyo as a family to find the best ramen, sample Waygu beef and gorge on Kit Kats. Everything’s clearer on a full stomach, right?

 

Ramen: the ultimate comfort food.

 

Matcha, cassis, Yuzu and passion fruit are just a few of the Japanese Kit Kat flavors.

Stay tuned to hear what happens next. You can sign up for updates delivered by email by hitting the subscribe menu at the top. Thanks for joining our adventure.

Skiing with Chinese Characteristics

“How long until we start eating each other?” one traveling companion asked. I turned my head toward the back of the bus to see the words “HELP” scratched in the frost on one of the windows.

“Maybe we’ll see a yeti,” the ice carver quipped, sipping a Jack and Coke for warmth. I wondered if anyone would know where to find our frozen bodies on the edge of the Gobi desert if we failed to return.

It was three degrees above zero outside and only slightly warmer inside our 17 passenger bus. We left Beijing in the early afternoon, headed on our weekend ski trip to Chongli District, an up-and-coming international destination and host to the Beijing 2022 Olympics.

I was accompanied by my husband, two teenage sons and a group of fellow ex-pats who, like us, had also relocated to China to work for Universal Studios, set to open in Beijing in 2021.

Somewhere around nightfall, our renegade driver decided to take a “shortcut” subjecting us to an hour-long wild goose chase on a windy gravel road filled with potholes. We were close to mutiny. No amount of Google translating or charades could convince our Chinese-speaking driver to turn back.

Finally, after a phone call to the driver of the other bus (our group split into two) and lots of loud, angry protesting, our driver reluctantly made a u-turn and eventually delivered us to our destination, Wanlong Ski Resort.

Located about 250 kilometers northeast of Beijng, Wanlong and other neighboring resorts are the hub of China’s quickly growing ski industry. The government is actively promoting this new tourism sector, seeking to encourage 300 million new ski and snowboard enthusiasts leading up to the Olympics by building 800 ski resorts and offering free lessons in schools.

 

 

Wanlong Ski Resort, China

 

For us, a weekend at Wanlong offered a chance to escape the frenzy of Beijing, trading pollution and traffic jams for clear blue skies and wide open slopes.

Just like most adventures in China, skiing offered pleasant surprises wrapped in a layer of challenges that required an open mind – kind of like biting into a steamed bun without knowing what’s inside.

The first task (after surviving the 5-hour drive) was renting equipment, a bit daunting considering my Mandarin vocabulary is  better suited to ordering food than for explaining that I don’t need to rent a helmet or those silly looking butt pillows that cushion falls.

 

Protective butt pillows and matching knee pads are popular for beginners.

 

Turtles, bears and rabbits are among cushioning choices.

 

As we stand in the gear rental line, I’m trying to simultaneously remember our various ski lengths ( for four of us) and boot sizes (in centimeters), translate them into Chinese and sternly practice my new phrase “wo zai paidui,” – which means “I’m in line.”  I press myself up against the skier in front of me to show I’m serious.

Success! We gather our gear, swipe a card that keeps track of our rental information and carefully zip it away. We had to leave our passports as a deposit and will need this card to retrieve them. I try not to think of the time years ago when I fell skiing, burying  the contents of my pocket deep in the snow, including my car keys.

Now on to the next challenge: navigating a squat toilet in ski boots and multiple layers of clothing without peeing on myself. If you can imagine trying to urinate into a cup while ice skating, you get the picture.

Thankfully no injuries occurred because if I’m going to slip and fall at a ski resort, it certainly has to be a better story than that. (I learned later that the lodge at the top had heated Western toilets and slippers included in the cost of the $12 lunch buffet. Who knew such luxury existed? The food wasn’t great, but I’d go back just for the slippers).

 

Slippers during lunch? Yes please.

 

Bladder empty, parka zipped and helmet on, I’m ready to hit the slopes. Shocker: no lift lines and wide-open, uncrowded terrain. In China, if there’s someplace worth seeing, chances are that I’ll be joined by a million or two of my closest friends, so this was surprising.

 

Where is everyone ?

 

The first run out we took the gondola to the top. Multiple chairlifts and gondolas serve the same mountain-top destination, so we never waited more than a few minutes to ride up the peak, which meant lots of skiing with little waiting. For roughly $60 a ticket, we definitely got our money’s worth.

 

Several chairlifts and gondolas make lift-lines move quickly.

 

I was also pleasantly surprised by the lack of smokers. (Thankfully it’s against the rules on the hill due to the danger of forest fires, but I did catch one snowboarder taking a quick smoke-break mid-slope).

At a little over 6,000 feet, the top of the mountain offered spectacular panoramic views. Being in Beijing surrounded by tall buildings had given me tunnel vision of sorts; standing at the top taking in the views reminded me of the enormity of this country. Unbroken landscape filled the horizon.

 

 

Wanlong ski runs don’t have catchy names like “Happy Trails” or “Body Bag” giving skiers some idea of what lies ahead. There are some numbers, a few symbols and characters (partially snow-covered) but like most things here, much is left to guessing.

So we take turns choosing the runs, our 14- and 16-year old sons leading the way. Here we are in China, thousands of miles from home, and they fearlessly navigate unfamiliar terrain without a trail map and beckon me to follow.

”Let’s just go straight. It might have moguls, I’m not sure. But it will be OK, we’ll just go slow,” my 16-year old says.

How did this happen? Weren’t they just toddlers learning to ski? We used to run alongside them down the bunny hill yelling “tips together – make a wedge like a pizza! Arms out front, like you are holding a tray. Don’t spill the hot chocolate!”

Now they are bold, independent, capable teenagers. I’m proud, but a little bit sad. We raised them to fly, and they are spreading their wings, soaring down the ski hill in China, out of my sight. It’s been a year of letting go, and trusting in the unknown spaces. I blink back a few tears and chase after them.

Lots of skiing requires lots of eating. Who needs burgers and chili cheese fries? We refueled on grilled lamb skewers, handmade dumplings, made-to-order noodle dishes, fried rice and fresh tandoori baked naan. The variety was impressive and the quality was good, at a fraction of what food costs in U.S. ski resorts. This place takes pride in its food.

 

Muslim flatbread cooked in a tandoori oven – about $2.

 

The cafeteria atmosphere is festive with great views.

 

My lunch, for about $8, consists of made-to-order noodles with pork belly sauce, wok-fried cauliflower and naan.

 

On the bus trip home, I watched the landscape roll by: jagged mountains, luxury chateaux, old factories, abandoned towns, new mini-cities bathed in lights from neon signs, hot pot restaurants, KFC, pig farms and silos. Villagers warmed their hands over open fires in the fields, while drivers stopped at nearby electric vehicle charging stations. I was witnessing a living museum of China’s history as the kilometers sped by.

Getting away from Beijing reminded me of the enormity of this country, the diversity of its people, and the richness of the landscape. Sharing new adventures as a family lifted my spirits and made me feel grateful for the way this experience and all of the others during our time in China is shaping our family.

 

 

 

Becoming Chinese

Six months into my temporary stay in  Beijing, I feel like I’m becoming a little bit Chinese. Don’t panic. My hair is still blond and I haven’t changed my name, but living in China has definitely changed me.

I can eat chicken or frog and spit out the bones just like a local, and I can slurp soup with best of them.

Deep fried frog legs sprinkled with chili peppers

 

I feel annoyed when I walk into a restaurant and there are too many other waiguoren because clearly it’s not authentic. When the waiter warns that the ma po tofu I’m about to order is a little bit spicy, I wave him off with a quick mei wenti. 

Staying Flexible: Yoga in Beijing

 

So we finally took the plunge and joined a gym. Winter is coming and with it the promise of frigid temperatures and worsening pollution. I wanted a place to keep up my exercise routine despite the climate and was excited about getting back into yoga again.

Like every new endeavor here in Beijing, including simply crossing the stree, going to yoga made me a little bit nervous. There are language and cultural barriers at every turn.  “What do people wear to yoga class?” I wondered.  Should I bring my brightly colored pink yoga mat or use one from the gym?   Will I be able to understand the instructor?  I have a hard enough time keeping my chaturanga and savasana straight in English. How will I manage in Chinese?

But I gave myself a peptalk and headed to the gym. Lunchtime is busy and the yoga studio was already halfway full. (Yoga is called Yujia in Chinese in case you were wondering).  There were a lot of empty mats spread around the room so I grabbed a spot and started stretching.

Instructor Ken, with his tatooed shoulders peeping out from his muscle T-shirt, looked at me and wagged his finger. “Those are for people,” he said, indicating that I should find a different spot. Ok then. I grabbed a mat and staked out a spot in the back, hoping I could blend in with white walls. I was the only waiguoren (foreigner) in a room of 28 svelte Chinese ladies in black leggings and one lonely guy in the front near the door. “Smart,” I thought. He can make a quick exit if things get too intense.

We start with some basic moves:  cat and cow stretches, Downward Facing Dog and Cobra.  I do my best to follow along by watching the people around me. (I quit watching the lady in front of me because she was showing off and doing headstands  when everyone else was in forward fold.  I think she was the teacher’s pet).

I understand a few words here and there,  and there is a little bit of English sprinkled in, like In-Hall and Ex-Hall.  But then instructor Ken keeps saying something that sounds like “Mama Hoochie” and I just want to burst out laughing,  which made it hard for me to hold my Standing Tree upright. I found out later after consulting my dictionary he was saying “Man man hu qi” which means breath out slowly. That makes much more sense.

I am holding my own until  we start with the backbends.  I haven’t done a backbend in about four decades but as I look around, 2/3 of the class is in perfectly poised curves, navels to the ceiling.  Some started on the mat and pushed up into a wheel;  others started from the standing  position.  The instructor circled the room to help each one up, leaning his body over hers and rising to the standing position together like an exotic dance.

There’s a lot more touching going on here than I’m used to as Instructor Ken comes around to adjust our hips, straighten our shoulders and push our stretches deeper.  As he heads my way, I’m frantically trying to think of how to say “don’t touch me. I haven’t done yoga in six months and my white bones just don’t bend that way” in Chinese.

All I can think of is “Bu Yao”  which is the Chinese catchphrase for “don’t want”  which is a handy way to fend off aggressive sales people in the markets and to tell the street vendor not to add copious amounts of chili peppers to my lamb skewer.

Thankfully the instructor passes me by so I’ll save “Bu Yao” for another day.  I watch from my mat and I’m amazed by the collective flexibility of the ladies in the room (the dude in the front is pretty good too). Did I accidentally enter the Acrobat Training class instead of Universal Yoga?  I can’t help but wonder if thousands of years of tai chi and Kung Fu has somehow seeped into their genes, offering a natural flexibility that we waiguoren don’t have.  Or is it something in the food?  If so then there’s hope for me yet,  because I’m a big fan of the local cuisine, as you know if you’ve been reading along.  More than likely it’s their active lifestyle of walking and biking everywhere that plays a big part.

We moved from backbends to warrior poses and I’m back in the game again. “Yi. Er. San. Si. Wu,” instructor Ken counts as my legs start to quiver.  At least my Chinese is good enough to know how long I have to hold the pose.

Another 20 minutes and I need a rest. Focusing on balancing, breathing and translating in my head at the same time is exhausting. Kind of like trying to rub your tummy, pat your head and count in Spanish all at the same time. I take a quick break in child’s pose, dropping to my knees and tucking my head between my arms. I feel like a turtle that has momentarily retreated safely into its shell. I think of all the times I wish I could do this when I’m out running errands and frustrations arise.

 

I glance at the clock. We’re almost finished so I rejoin the group, looking forward to Savasana, the restful pose that comes at the end of the class. That’s the payoff right? Where you get to lie down, close your eyes and dream about your happy place before returning to the real world.

Except the Savasana never comes. Instead Instructor Ken gives a mini-lecture as we sit in lotus position.

He’s gesticulating with his hands (unusual for Chinese), making big circles with his arms and stretching his neck to a fro as he talks. Everyone listens attentively. I imagine he is explaining various relaxation techniques we could use throughout the day to keep our Zen, but he quite easily could have been talking about what he was going to make for dinner, illustrating with big stirring motions. Suddenly there is a short burst of clapping and the class is over.

Living in China has stretched and strengthened me in ways I never could have imagined. Muscles have been called into action that I didn’t even know I had. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even be able to do a back bend  before we move back to the U.S.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing Seasons

Wow, we’ve moved from summer into fall. Sometimes I feel that our time here in Beijing is flying by; others days the clock ticks slowly.

But we recently celebrated Halloween and fall is definitely in the air.

 

Pumpkin Frappuccino at Starbucks in Beijing

 

 

Trick-or-treaters near my apartment building.

 

The cooler temperatures at night and crisp sunny days have brought out vibrant colors in the autumn trees. After years of living in Florida,  I’m savoring every moment of fall.

 

 

 

The distinctive ginkgo leaves blanket the sidewalks.

 

Golden ginkgo biloba trees adorn the local parks and walkways. The trees are prized for their fruit which smells terrible but is collected by locals and used as a kidney tonic in traditional Chinese medicine.

The change in seasons also brings out new street vendors selling selling seasonal treats.

 

 

Fresh pomegranate juice is made on-the-spot from local fruit. This pomegranate tree grows in the Lama Temple courtyard.

 

Other treats include sunflower seeds and candied fruits and nuts.

 

Tanghulu, or candied fruits, include hawthorn fruit, strawberries, or nuts threaded on a skewer and coated with a crackly sugar glaze.

 

Winter vegetables are popping up in the produce market, like this beautiful specimen. I’m not sure what it is. It looks a little bit like lettuce at the top but the base looks like bok choy. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

 

 

If the hats, gloves and coats with fur-trimmed hoods for sale in clothing shops are any indication, it’s going to get cold this winter. Scooter riders are prepared, fitting their bikes with sleeping-bag like contraptions to shield riders on their commute.

 

Just tuck your arms under the blanket and go!

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and Christmas is not far behind. While these Western holidays are not traditionally celebrated in China, retailers here are taking full advantage of the shopping opportunities.

 

How long will it take for letters to get to the North Pole from China?

 

While it is possible to order a turkey from an international grocery store, I can barely squeeze a scrawny chicken in my tiny oven. I might try to bake a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving just to make the house smell good, but we will probably go out to eat even though it’s  a regular work and school day.

How are the seasons changing where you live? What holiday preparations are underway at your house? I’d love to hear from you.

Sacred Places & Friendly Faces

Last week a friend and I made a quick overnight trip to the city of Datong in Shanxi province, home to two famous Chinese landmarks, the Yungang Grottoes and Hengshan mountain scenic area.

Datong is less than one hour by air from Beijing, but the experience was a world apart. My head is still spinning from the dizzying mountain heights, spectacular scenery, friendly people and one insane Didi driver whom I’m still trying to forget.

We headed straight from the airport to the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating from 450 AD.

 

This series of ancient Buddhist temple caves is comprised of over 50 caves and some 50,000 plus statues.

 

 

The caves, some of which are several stories high, contain ornate carvings and  paintings, with golden Buddhas and colorful scenes of emperors and religious deities. Out of religious respect, photos are not allowed in some areas.

 

 

The largest statue is over 60 feet high, and the level of ingenuity required to construct these beautifully decorated sandstone caves is mind-boggling.

 

 

Almost as impressive as the scenery was the lack of crowds. We strolled leisurely, exploring the caves and stopping to enjoy an ice cream in the shade (My Chinese is just good enough to avoid the salted egg and red bean flavors in favor of a coffee one, thankfully).

 

 

Just like any good theme park, the exit from this attraction ended in an area filled with restaurants and gifts shops.

We took a break from sightseeing to sample the locally produced vinegar and admire the dried chilies from a safe distance (no sampling necessary).

 

 

Samples anyone ?

 

Lunch of freshly carved noodles with ground pork and a few stuffed buns set us back about $3 each, including water.

 

Knife-carved noodles are a Shanxi province specialty.

 

It’s pretty cheap to travel around China subsisting on some kind of noodle dish, fruit, yogurt,  bread or dumplings and tea, water or beer depending on how stressful the day has been. And these are all words I know how to say in Chinese, which makes things easier.

After a quick catnap at the hotel (our non-smoking room held strict warnings not to smoke in the bed), we explored Datong, which was once the beginning of the trade route headed to Mongolia.

We enountered some ghost town- like areas, with a shocking absence of crowds. After three months of living in China, I’m just used to wall-to-wall people. What a refreshing change.

 

Where is everyone?

 

Datong’s old city walls are beautiful at night.

 

We started out early the next morning, once again expecting large crowds. Our anticipated destination was the Hengshan hanging monastery, an ancient structure attached to the side of a cliff with spindly wooden poles. I had seen this feat of engineering in pictures, which is what lured me to Datong in the first place.

Does it count as getting lost if you don’t arrive at your intended destination but never actually lose track of where you are?

In our case I’ll just call it serendipitous that our crazy driver passed the turnoff to the hanging monastery and took us instead to Heng mountain scenic area. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but after three hours with Driver Wang we were just happy to get out of the car. Anywhere. Alive. The actual destination was of  secondary importance.

We looked up at all of the monasteries on the hillside and assumed we had arrived at our intended destination.

 

I thought this was the hanging monastery.

 

 

Fueled by chips and cookies from our backpacks and buying water along the way, we started out hiking. In China, at least everywhere I’ve been so far, hiking means stairs. And lots of them. I was thankful for all of the times I opted for the stairs over the escalator in the subway station.

 

Stairs, stairs, and more stairs.

 

Each set of  stairs brought us to another vista – a monastery, a rock outcropping, a small temple, or a man with a thermos of hot water selling instant noodles.

 

 

The farther we went, the farther we wanted to go. Where does this lead? What’s over the hill top? What’s around the bend? It was impossible to stop. The views got more spectacular as we ascended.

 

 

And there was only one way to go – up.  We climbed over 100 flights of stairs, gaining a few thousand feet in elevation.

 

The final push to the top.

 

The surrounding peaks, temples and valleys were our primary focus, but to our fellow Chinese hikers we were the center of attention. In this somewhat remote area away from Beijing, as a couple of foreigners we drew a lot of attention. I’m guessing for some, we might have been the first “weiguoren” they had laid eyes on. Everyone wanted pictures, wanted to know where we were from. It was a friendly curiosity, and we shared  a spirit of commaraderie as we urged eachother on.

 

Katie in the white hat is a local university student eager to practice her English.

 

 

 

What we didn’t realize until we reached the top was that we were sharing a pilgrimage; we had summitted one China’s five sacred peaks.

This was not the hanging monastery we had set out to see, but something much grander that we achieved with sweat, quivering muscles and smiles from strangers.

 

 

It was breezy at the top, and I twirled around in exhilaration, taking in 360 degree views that spanned mountain ranges and neighboring provinces, unobstructed by human development. I can almost imagine what it was like as caravans of traders traveled from here along the Silk Road centuries ago.

 

 

 

We kept an eye on the clock, realizing we needed to return to the parking lot before evening came unless we wanted to spend the night on the mountain. We headed down, making more friends along the way.

In the U.S. such strenuous hikes might lure outdoorsy types who spend half their paycheck at REI, or at least weekend warriors and fitness buffs. Not here. From a four year old girl carrying a pretty red purse to a hunched over octogenarian, they climbed up the mountain. Sporting dressy pants, parasols, flip flops, cozy slippers, sequined tops and warm sweaters despite the upper 70s heat, our fellow hikers looked more prepared for a shopping trip or lounging at home than an adventure in the wilderness.  They put us to shame with their level of fitness, earned from a car-less lifestyle where carrying groceries, cycling to town and climbing stairs in the subway were part of their routine.

Not wanting to chance it with another crazy driver, we took a public bus back to Datong, thanks to a friendly young couple who helped us buy tickets and find the right bus.

Not a bad bus ride. It even had AC.

 

We travelled on small country roads,  passing farms, stopping for passengers and taking our time. $3 and 2 hours later we arrived back in the city and caught a cab to the airport.

I’ve climbed high peaks in Mexico, trekked up hills in Nepal, visited Alpine mountain tops in Europe and seen some splendid wilderness in the United States. I found something special in each of those places. Being in nature (in the mountains especially) feeds my soul like nothing else. Maybe I feel closer to God because I’m high up on a mountain. Silly, I know.

But there was something different about this trip, about these vistas, about this mountain top that will stay with me. Perhaps it was the sheer adventure of getting there, navigating everything on our own without a tour guide, or not realizing we had just summitted a sacred peak until we saw the marker. Or the strangers encouraging us on the way to the top, surprised to see two foreigners in their midst. Or the freedom of a  360 degree view after being hemmed in in Beijing.

I’m not sure, but I loved it, and I’m hooked. There are many peaks to climb in China. I’ll let you know which one is next.

If you enjoy following my adventures, would you consider subscribing to future posts if you haven’t already? You’ll find a “subscribe” button in the menu at the top. And feel free to share this blog with a friend. I’d love to have your company, and I promise not to make you eat any chili peppers along the way.

 

 

China Days

Remember when I told you life in Beijing wasn’t all pandas and dumplings? There are days when reality sets in and discouragement runs deep. We call those days “China Days.” Everything is just hard, and I feel completely incompetent. Today was one of those days.

Laundry is my nemesis. I have shed more tears over washing clothes here than I care to admit. I believe Chinese washing machines and dryers are designed for one or two articles of clothing at a time max  – Chinese-sized clothing. I’m an extra large in Chinese sizes and I’m a US size 4 if that tells you anything.

There are some cryptic well-worn labels on the machine settings, so it’s been trial and error in learning how to use them. Google Translate gives poetic-but-not-so-helpful translations likes “fast force,” and “flowing river” which I think is the rinse cycle.

Often the clothes come out of the washer dripping wet, or the dryer imparts a funky, sour smell. Sometimes the clothes refuse to come out at all, locking themselves in with a stubbornly shut door. Spending the night inside the damp washing machine does not make them cleaner than when I put them in.

This morning I checked the laundry room to see if I could pry the door open to the washing machine, as last night it wouldn’t open no matter how how hard I pulled or pounded on it. Sometimes it’s best just to walk away for awhile.

Not surprisingly, the clothes smelled terrible. I decided to wash them again, so I added some soap, pushed a button and said a little prayer.

When I checked a little later, soap bubbles were flowing out of the machine and onto the floor. I reached up above to empty the dryer, dropping some of precious clean, dry clothes into the soap bath. It would have been comical if it had been happening to someone else.

 

 

I don’t recall which words of frustration came from my mouth, but it was enough to draw my husband’s attention.

Surveying the laundry room and finding me standing in suds, he says “Wasn’t there an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode kind of like this?”

Yes, there was. Remember when Ricky and Lucy got a new washing machine and decided to sell the old one to Fred and Ethel? Well, after one load it erupted like a volcano with soap bubbles flowing everywhere.

 

A defunct washer causes a strain on Lucy and Ethel’s friendship.

 

It made for a funny episode but it almost ruined Lucy and Ethel’s friendship. Malfunctioning washing machines have been a source of tension in my family too.

“I can’t even figure out how to do laundry,” I complain to my husband.

“Why don’t you talk to the landlord?” He suggests.

“And what, tell her I’m too stupid to operate a washing machine?” No thanks. I push the “flowing river” button again, trying to rinse the soap out of this load. Going on eighteen hours later, these  are going to be the cleanest clothes ever.

I decide to go to gym to relieve some frustration, knowing full well I’m only contributing to the laundry problem with my sweaty gym clothes.

I hop on the only open treadmill but this one doesn’t speak my language.

 

 

I press a few buttons, but nothing happens. At this point, the tears are welling up in my eyes and I just want to go back to America. Or at least back to bed. I swallow my pride and ask one of the regulars (the friendly guy with the pony tail and really cool shoes) for help.

He pushes a button. “Zou,” he instructs. “Kuai! Kuai!” He urges, pushing another button causing the treadmill to take off under my feet. I’m sprinting to keep up, nodding and smiling thank you.

I find a comfortable pace and turn on my music. Why is everything that should be easy so hard? Tears are streaming down my face as I listen to  Mandissa sing ‘Stronger.’

When the waves are taking you under, hold on just a little bit longer. He knows this is gonna make you stronger, stronger.

The past eight weeks have stretched me and tested my patience in ways I never expected. It’s like raising toddlers all over again, and feeling like one myself at times. I’ve had  to count to ten often to control my temper and even given myself a timeout on occasion.

Most of the things that I find frustrating like laundry or trying to order online when I can’t type my address in Chinese and my name doesn’t fit in the space because it’s too long, are just minor inconveniences. I get that. But coupled with the stress of adapting to a new culture, trying to learn the language, missing friends from home and a shortage of warm chocolate chip cookies, they become supremely frustrating.

Revitalized from the gym, I returned to find the washer and dryer behaving themselves nicely. I folded the laundry and felt a little bit better about life.

I met some friends for lunch, which always lifts my spirits. I stopped at the store afterwards, still craving cookies. These minty ones caught my eye.

 

Chocolate always makes things better.

 

They taste kind of like Thin Mints, and that sweet reminder of home helped me make it through the afternoon.

This pain ain’t gonna last forever, it’s gonna make you stronger. Believe me this is gonna make you stronger, strongerGonna make you stronger, stronger, stronger.