Adventures of Life in Beijing

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.

 

 

Comments (2):

  1. Paula

    September 12, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    As always Kirsten, I love your adventures.
    i do not know anyone who deserves
    this experience more.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 13, 2019 at 3:11 am

      Thank you Paula! I appreciate your kind words. Just trying to soak up as many experiences as I can.

      Reply

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The Beer-Drinking Orchid Lady

 

“Let’s ask her the price, then wait til she finishes her beer and ask again,” my friend Josie said.

“Yeah, I remember last time. First she said they were 25 kuai, then she went down to 20 and we didn’t even bargain,” I said.

I press the button in the elevator to go down to the basement of the office building where my favorite orchid vendor has set up shop. The flower vendors used to be across the street in the Lai Tai Flower Market, not far from the U.S. Embassy. For some reason last spring the Beijing government decided to close the place down, and now the vendors are scattered across the city.

Orchids are my guilty pleasure. I don’t smoke, I’m not hooked on chips or donuts and I prefer strong coffee to strong liquor.

But lead me to a display of orchids? I can’t help myself. I’m like an addict.

Buttery yellow, deep lusty purple, pale pink, warm tangerine – I just go weak in the knees when I see all of the choices.

 

In the U.S. I kept my orchid habit in check because they were kinda pricey. But at $3-5 a pop in China, I can afford to treat myself once a week if I want to. It’s cheaper than Starbucks, and they last longer than a latte and have fewer calories.

We step out of the elevator and head down the hall, following the tropical smell.

 

The cut flowers are beautiful, but I’m here for the orchids.

 

We breeze pass the cut flowers and head to main attraction, the orchids. They’re right next to the frog, turtle and fish vendor (the kind for aquariums, not the dinner table).

For some reason, in Beijing it’s common for aquatic pet purveyors and flower vendors to share space. I guess both living creatures  bring color and happiness to their owners, and require the same finicky degree of care.

“Eh, Ni hao,” says the orchid seller, turning to say hello as we approach.

 

The Orchid Lady at work

 

So many choices

 

Her easygoing greeting can either be interpreted as friendly recognition (I come here often), or a result of her morning beverage: the tall can of beer that’s sitting on her desk between a watermelon and a bag of peanuts.

 

 

She has a tea kettle,  but I think it’s mostly for decoration. Every time I visit – sometimes as early as 9 a.m. – she has a can or bottle of suds open. It’s 11 a.m. and there are more than a few empties beneath the counter.

“Women keyi kan kan ma?” I ask. I want to look at all of my choices before deciding on which ones to take home. I’ve bought orchids from other places, but these just seem to thrive. Maybe she feeds them the same liquid diet she enjoys.

“Keyi, kan ba.” She nods her approval and takes a long swig of Harbin, China’s oldest beer. She goes back to snacking on peanuts between sips while we admire her flowers.

“What do you think of this one?” Josie asks me, picking up a deep burgundy orchid accented with white and yellow in the center. It’s darker than all the others, almost inky.

“I like it. It looks like it has a little face in the middle.”

 

Black Cat Orchid

 

“Zhe ge shi  hei mao,” the orchid lady tells us.

Josie and I process what she’s telling us for a second, then we both smile.

Hei Mao. It’s called Black cat,” Josie says.

“Dui, hei mao,” the orchid lady confirms, prancing around softly like a cat, as her jet black braids swing back and forth.

Hei mao. Hei mao,” she laughs as she dances, garnering a few smirks from the neighboring vendors.

I notice that she has a stem of orchids clipped to her blouse.

“Ni chuan zhe hua. Piaoliang,” I say, trying out some newly acquired Chinese vocabulary.

I think I told her she was wearing beautiful flowers, but I might have called her a lamb skewer by mistake. That’s the problem with Chinese, so many words sound the same.

I guess I said it right, because she took the flowers off and pinned them on me. What an unexpected gift.

Thankfully, we really do speak the same language: a love of orchids.

 

Do you like my new corsage?

 

With their intricate patterns, heart-shaped faces and lush colors, orchids transport me to another world. They make me feel like I’m on a tropical vacation even when I’m living on the 15th floor looking out my window at a concrete jungle. I don’t actually talk to them, but I jokingly refer to them as my “Friends.”

After about 30 minutes of basking in the sea of orchids, I choose three lovely flowers to take home.

 

 

“Yigong 75 kuai, dui?” I check the price with the Orchid Lady, doing the quick math in my head. That’s just over 10 bucks for all three.

She takes a sip of beer, pulls out her calculator, and takes a quick look around, as if we’re making a black market transaction.

She punches the numbers in the display and shows us the total: 70 Kuai.  We lingered long enough to receive the “I’m on beer number two and feeling happy” discount.

We settle the bill with our unasked for discount and leave with our new friends, touched by the Orchid Lady’s kindness.

 

“If you are in the company of good people, it’s like entering a room full of orchids. After awhile,  you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice.”       —Confucius

 

 

 

 

Back to School

In early February when the virus flared up in China forcing schools to close, I held my breath and wondered how long online school would last. How long would I last?

What would my new role be? Cheerleader? Truant officer? Hall monitor? Janitor? Lunch lady? Would I have to wear a hairnet? I tried not to panic.

Eighteen weeks later, as I vacuum up crumbs from under the breakfast counter, a wave of sadness sneaks over me. Western Academy Beijing (WAB) opened to high school students again on Monday.

Entering campus under the “new normal”

 

Entering campus when school started last August

Instead of feeling relief, I’m replaying the 90 weekdays my sons and I shared without the harried early mornings and traffic-snarled evenings slicing into our days.

I can’t say this loudly enough: I’m so proud of how they’ve handled this challenge. They got up, got to work and never complained. From math assignments to indoor P.E. classes to filming art and cooking projects, they’ve completed everything asked of them.

No one ended up in detention and as far as I can tell we’re all still speaking to each other (at least as much as we were before this whole mess. Some days, more).

 

Taking a break from school. I love these guys.

 

I’m not saying it was easy for any of us. For me, these were some of the loneliest days of our time in China, as I tried to figure out how to support two teenagers who spent the better part of the day behind their bedroom doors doing school work alone.

And for them? They left their friends behind, moved to a strange land where they were just starting to make new friends and then their lives were up ended by a deadly virus. Many of their classmates won’t be returning. I can’t even imagine.

These past four months haven’t been what any of us expected, but like I mentioned in my last post, every cloud has a silver lining (You can read about it here Silver Linings)

Instead of nervously watching the clock every morning, I made blueberry pancakes or breakfast sandwiches.

 

We even grew our own micro greens.

 

Often the boys cooked for themselves and actually had time to eat.

Who knew having them home would increase our food consumption so drastically? I found a grocery store that delivered American-style bagels, milk, avocados, orange juice and bananas within an hour with free delivery. I ordered so often they started bringing me free gifts, like a dozen eggs or a frozen fish.

 

We are spoiled with fast, free delivery.

 

What mom can say she had lunch with her teenagers everyday for 90 days? Some days it was lunch at home, with fried rice and dumplings or barbecue pork sandwiches.

Other days, when restaurants opened again, we took advantage of the extra time to treat ourselves to Red Lobster (sadly, the cheddar biscuits just aren’t the same), or kebabs from the Turkish restaurant near the park.

 

Lunch anyone ?

 

As the days turned into weeks, I pressed the boys into kitchen duty at dinnertime. Unhindered by the usual “get dinner on the table as quickly as possible” time constraints, we discovered that homemade enchilada sauce is so much better than canned, a proper roux is worth the effort for a satisfying gumbo, and that shepherd’s pie is one of our new favorites, even without Worcestershire sauce which we can’t find here.

Online school meant freedom to travel (we made a trip to Seattle to see family and friends before the virus hit the US), go to the gym or take a Starbucks break for a Black Tea Latte.

Laptops were propped up on bedroom pillows instead school desks, eliminating the hour-long commute. I’m happy to say that showering and getting dressed remained part of the routine.

Returning to school after the pandemic requires almost as much paper work as enrolling in the first place. The Beijing Education Committee has a strict protocol in place for returning to campus, and inspects every aspect of the school, from air flow in the class rooms to social distancing markers.

 

Directional arrows on campus.

 

New hand washing stations

Students are required to keep a daily temperature log for 14 days prior to returning, and complete a survey listing the date and flight number of any trips made outside of China since January 23rd. We have to sign a “Letter of Commitment” verifying that we haven’t been to Wuhan recently or left Beijing in the last three weeks (there goes the impromptu trip to Shanghai Disney). Failure to comply would require proof of a negative virus test.

 

Lots of paper work to return to school.

 

Then there’s proof we have the “Health Kit App” which records our travel history and health status by tracking information on our cell phones (yes, Big Brother is watching) just in case we decided to sneak off for a quick meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse or paid a visit to the fever clinic without reporting it.

 

This app tracks our travels, health status and ID. It’s required for entry into most public spaces.

I turned in the paperwork, prepared a supply of masks (mandatory for students and teachers), verified funds in the lunch account, checked the revised bus schedule, re-read the six pages of “back to school” instructions and laid down for a nap. I’ll have two weeks to recover before school is out for the summer.

“How was school today?” I asked my soon-to-be junior when he came home after Day 1.

“It was OK,” Daniel said. “But I don’t think I really want to go back tomorrow. We didn’t really do anything except work on our online assessments.”

Going back to school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re met by a guy in a hazmat suit, have your temperature taken three times and spend an hour commuting to do what you could do at home in your pajamas. Except you’re not in your pajamas.

To avoid crowding students stay in the same classroom all day and have to sign up for a designated lunch spot and choose free-time activities in advance.

“They’re really strict about enforcing the social distancing and making us keep our masks on,” my son told me. “Apparently the government can show up anytime to check and they can also ask to see the security tapes.”

With the high-surveillance atmosphere and the fact that over half of the students and teachers are still outside China, it’s easy to understand why some kids are less than enthusiastic about returning.

While the opportunities at school are still limited, we’re grateful that the campus re-opened. It’s a sign of hope, that at least for the time being, the virus is under control in Beijing.