Adventures of Life in Beijing

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.

 

Comments (16):

  1. Adele

    February 15, 2020 at 5:30 pm

    So grateful you and the boys are healthy and in a safe and relaxing environment. Praying for your husband and that your family will be reunited soon. Also praying for China, wisdom for the authorities , healing for all those who are ill, protection for the healthy, and peace in all their hearts.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 15, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      Thanks for the prayers – an interesting time for sure!

      Reply
  2. Jackie Lewis

    February 15, 2020 at 6:45 pm

    So happy you guys r safe. I will continue to pray for all of you.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 15, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      Thank you very much.

      Reply
  3. Paula Kasnitz

    February 15, 2020 at 10:08 pm

    Kirsten,
    Your writing reaches my soul. I am overjoyed you are in Seattle. The separation is difficult, but
    will add to your strength as a couple and a family. You have always made the most of every situation
    and continue to do so. Please, keep writing.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 15, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      Thanks Paula for your concern and kind words about my writing:)

      Reply
  4. Jeannie

    February 16, 2020 at 3:15 am

    I am glad to hear you are all safe and disease-free. I think being in Seattle with the boys is a wise move and will give you an opportunity to relax and recharge your batteries for your return. Praying for Mike’s safety and for those in China and around the world who have been affected by this coronavirus outbreak.

    Reply
  5. Mary

    February 16, 2020 at 3:55 am

    Thank you for sharing. Have been thinking of you all, what a choice you had to make. Prayers and blessings to Mike. You wrote from the heart of all this and from your heart ❤️

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 5:56 am

      Thanks very much Mary, really appreciate it.

      Reply
  6. Angelika Sorrow

    February 16, 2020 at 4:41 am

    Wow. What incredible pictures you created with words. I felt like I was there experiencing it myself. You’ve captured a piece of history. I am glad you’re getting a little “breather”. Wow.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 5:54 am

      Thank you Angelika- so nice to hear from you and to know you are following along.

      Reply
  7. Carolina Henry

    February 16, 2020 at 9:21 am

    There is absolutely no way I can describe how powerful your writing is and how deep it touches me and I know many others that have been following along. It always leaves us waiting anxiously for the next chapter! You are blessed with a wonderful gift and so wonderful to see that you are using it in such a positive way like in this specific sad circumstances. So nice to hear that you and the boys are doing so well praying for Mike as well. Because you and I know that This Too Shall Pass my sweet friend! … Till then carry on with much much more writing I am in love with it !!!! 🙏🤗😊

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 4:17 pm

      Thank you Carolina for your sweet words and your friendship. We are sharing a unique time in history together. So thankful God placed us on the same path.

      Reply
  8. June

    February 16, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    Wow Kirsten! I have to admit I was relieved to read that your safe and in Seattle with the boys. Thank you for taking us on this journey through your amazing storytelling. It has given me a much truer perspective on what is happening and how everyday life really is. We continually pray for God’s protection and peace for you and your precious family and all of China. We know He is in control! Love you girl!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 16, 2020 at 4:15 pm

      Thank you so much June. I miss you guys and BSF. Doing my questions at home:)

      Reply
  9. Alison

    February 18, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    I’m so relieved that you’re in Seattle! How are Mike and his co-workers holding up? Is Universal giving them an option to come back to the states?

    Reply

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Taishan

Last Sunday, three friends and I hopped on a high speed train from Beijing to Tai’an City in Shandong Province. We came to climb Taishan, China’s most sacred peak. For more than 3,000 years, religious pilgrims, philosophers, and emperors have come to trek up 7,000 stone stairs to offer sacrifices to the gods and obtain spiritual favor.

We came seeking adventure and an escape from big city Beijing. Personally, I dedicated my efforts to raising money for New Day Foster Home, hoping to make a positive impact on the lives of some very special orphans. You can read more about my fundraiser on my previous blog post Climbing for Kids

Our Chinese guide met us as we exited the train. With a buzz cut, glasses and a button down oxford shirt, Asher looked more like he was dressed for the office than for hiking. His miniature backpack was barely large enough to hold a toothbrush. Does he remember we are planning to spend the night at the top in sub-freezing temperatures?

At 32, he told us he’s been guiding for 10 years and has been up to the summit more times than he can remember. We forgot to ask him whether he actually hiked up, or took the cable car.

 

Our guide Asher

After dinner of Spicy Rice Noodle Soup with Lamb, it was back to the hotel for an early bed time. Explorers need their beauty sleep.

 

Dinner for less than $3.

 

The breakfast buffet was heavy on beer, baijiu and baozi. I decided to stick with the Pop Tart and instant Starbucks I brought along.

 

Booze for breakfast? Where’s the coffee?

 

We drove 15 minutes to the foot of the mountain. “Everybody, follow me, follow me,” Asher said waving his hiking pole as he led us through the parking lot toward the Red Gate where we will start the day. It’s about 10 kilometers to the top with 1,400 meters of elevation gain.

 

We will pass through 9 gates on the way to the summit (the Red Gate is farther up the hill). L to R: Curtis, me, Mil, Andrew.

 

The pavement path leads us past bamboo forests, temples, stone tablets, and ancient cypress trees.

“Can you see the signs on the trees?” Asher asked. “Some of them are between 500 to 1,000 years old.”  In places, the trees curve and bend over the path, forming a tunnel. It’s a cool, fragrant forest, a welcome respite from the recent heavy pollution and sandstorms in Beijing.

 

And because it’s China, there’s no shortage of souvenir shops and snack vendors on the lower mountain. I’ve never thought of bringing a whole cucumber or radish on a hike, but they’re popular here.

 

Asher pointed out historical markers along the way, but I confess I was more interested in listening to the birds sing and the river rush by. I’ve never been very good at keeping the Qing and Ming dynasties straight.

But even with my embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese history, knowing that I was walking in the steps of Confucius was heady. Did he hike in straw shoes and a flowing robe? I was thankful for my Gortex-lined boots and practical hiking pants.

 

“Whether a man thinks he can or cannot, he is right.”
—Confucius

I pondered this as the path became steeper. The breathing around me got louder, punctuated by the occasional “jia you!” as the Chinese shouted encouragement to each other. It translates as “add oil (to the fire)” but it means something like “you can do it!”

“Woo-woo-woo-woo,” Asher started belting out the occasional primal shout that shattered my quiet thoughts.

“Why is he doing that? What is that noise?” I asked my hiking buddy Andrew, not wanting to offend Asher in case he’s engaged in some sort of religious ritual.

“It’s bloody irritating, is what it is,” replied Andrew. “It sounds like a mutant monkey in mating season.”

Maybe Asher thinks we’re getting tired, and he’s trying to revive the esprit de corps, or he’s sounding an alarm to the souvenir shops around the bend to tell them the gullible foreigners are coming. I added it to my “It’s China, don’t try to understand” list.

After about two hours we arrived at the Middle Gate, where hikers normally rest before starting the steeper second half to the top. There’s a small restaurant and vendors selling instant noodles, roasted sweet potatoes and cold beer.

 

Snacks for sale at the middle gate

 

Resting before the steep part

 

“Here, have some drinks,” Asher offered as he pulled out some pouches of milk that have likely been sitting in his backpack next to his toothbrush since yesterday. I’m sure he didn’t want to carry them any further, and I felt bad rejecting his hospitality but I just couldn’t stomach warm milk. I drank some water and ate some crackers I brought, along with a piece of cheese, which actually had been sitting in my backpack since yesterday.

We set off again, and got the first glimpse of what lay ahead.

 

Only a few thousand more steps to go!

 

We arrived at the section called the 18 bends, where the slope of the stairs is close to a 70 degree angle. I’m thankful for the railing. The steps are small and steeply pitched, almost like a ladder.

 

It’s steeper than it looks. Really. And there are 18 of these.

 

Near the top, the steps are uneven and some are loose, making it difficult to find sturdy footing. I kept going, knowing something beautiful was waiting at the summit. I hope the same will be true for the orphans on their difficult journey through life.

I was thankful for all of the subway stairs I did in preparation, but still my legs started to shake.

I started counting steps to keep myself going, and pictured the orphans with their leg braces, walkers and wheel chairs. Ten steps for Freddy, ten steps for James, ten steps for Titus…..this became my meditation that carried me to the top.

Asher propelled himself up the mountain with his battle cry vocalizations; one elderly woman held a small red recording device that played the ancient Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.”

Seven hours after we started, we reached the South Heavenly Gate, where Taoist followers feel a sense of Nirvana, believing they would become immortal. We just felt tired and hungry, and celebrated with chocolate chip cookies and Snickers.

 

Views from the top

The true summit lies at 1,545 meters, which meant we still had a bit more climbing to do to reach Jade Emperor Peak.

 

Jade Emperor Peak

 

We decided to drop our backpacks at the hotel and rest for a few minutes before continuing. We had been told that the accommodations on the top of the mountain would be very basic, so we were pleasantly surprised at how nice our hotel was. I wonder where Confucius slept on his journey.

 

Our mountain hotel. We even had hot water.

 

Hotel lobby ceiling was gorgeous!

It was late afternoon by then, so we headed to top, stopping at the Bixia temple (built 1009 AD) on the way. Every year thousands of Chinese couples make the trip to the top of the mountain to pray for the blessings of a child from the Goddess Bixia Yuanjun. I love my boys, but I kept a respectful distance from Yuanjun’s statue lest any utterances on my part might get lost in translation on the way to fertility goddess.

 

Can you see the bit of snow on the ground ?

 

We take a few obligatory photos at the summit marker, and head back down the hill.

 

We have a few minutes rest at the hotel before a short walk to see the sunset.

Evening glow

 

After dinner at the hotel it was time for bed. We’d scaled 1,441 meters of vertical by climbing over 380 flights of stairs. It was time for a rest.

DAY TWO

We got up at 4:30 (that’s a.m.) to hike to the best spot to view the sunrise.

It was below freezing with a brisk wind, and I was thankful for my down jacket. For those who came unprepared, long military-style coats were available to rent.

 

We had a quick breakfast at the hotel (which was not served with alcohol this time) and started down the mountain.

 

Breakfast of steamed bread, noodle soup, a hard boiled egg and pickles. It was bland but filling.

Instead of retracing our steps, we took an alternate route down through a pine forest, with more steps of course. There are very few dirt hiking paths in China; most trails are cement stairs or paved paths. It takes a bit of “nature” out of the experience, but the Chinese believe that a more stable path is safer.

 

 

As one of the world’s most climbed mountains in a country with over a billion people, having the forest to ourselves was a delightful surprise. Our plan of coming during a weekday in low season was paying off.

I’m savoring the views and tranquility of the pine forest when Asher starts again with the strange noises. Is he yodeling? Listening for an echo?

“Why are you making that noise?”

“I’m calling the monkeys,” he said.

Asher had been slowing down and limping visibly. Maybe he was calling out in pain.

“You guys, let’s wait up. I’m getting a little concerned about Asher. He’s falling further and further behind,” my friend Mil said.

“What happens when your guide can’t continue?” I ask.

“You call the tour company and tell them you want a new guide, because the old one is broken,” Andrew responded practically.

We can’t just leave him behind. Maybe we could run back up the hill and get the sedan chair I saw at the summit and carry him down.

 

“I think I underestimated you,” Asher said to me at one of our rest breaks, which had become more frequent as he rested his knee.

“I think you underestimated all of us,” I said. Did he think we were a bunch of middle-aged out of shape tourists? We hike together regularly in Beijing, and the rough unrestored section of the Great Wall had been excellent training ground.

“I think it will only take 2-3 hours to get down, not 4,” he said.

We make our way down  through the forest dotted with the occasional spray of wildflowers, punctuated with Asher’s caterwauling. It’s really annoying, but I don’t have the heart to ask him to stop. I think his shrill howls are his way of giving himself a pep talk.

 

 

The path is steep, and curves at such an angle it disappears into the horizon like an infinity pool.

 

It’s hard to trust the unknown road, but like life, the path is filled with surprises. There’s an unexpected waterfall around one corner and a gazebo around another.

 

At one rest break, I tied a traditional prayer flag on tree. It fluttered in the wind, sending out my prayers for the orphans that “forever families” would come soon.

 

Climbing Taishan brings peace to the family.

 

As we got closer to the end of the trail we saw local villagers collecting plants on the hillside.

“In ancient time people in China were very poor, so they had to eat whatever they could find. This is the reason they like to collect plants, for medicine and to eat,” explained Asher. “But we don’t eat snakes or rats and most people don’t eat dogs,” he said.

I think about the dog meat hanging at the markets we visited in Yangshuo, and Peter Hessler’s article in the New Yorker “A Rat in my Soup,” about the specialty rodent restaurants in Guandong province.

Some things are best left unmentioned.

We finished the hike uneventfully and headed to a local restaurant for lunch, which thankfully, served neither rat nor dog. Instead we celebrated our accomplishment with a few local specialties: braised pork with chestnuts and scallion pancakes.

As we travelled back to Beijing, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I was grateful and humbled by the opportunity to do something that I love – hiking in the mountains – while raising money for some very special kids. If you didn’t have a chance to donate to my fundraiser, there’s still time. You can donate by Clicking Here

Just write “Mt. Tai” where it says “add a note.”

Thank you for coming alongside me on this journey. I hope your calves aren’t as sore as mine.

 

 

Climbing for Kids


(I apologize in advance if you’ve already received this from me. Please enjoy the pictures.)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since we moved to China. We are winding down our time here and heading back to the States in June.

I’ve been so fortunate to hike through bamboo forests,

along scenic rivers, up Karst peaks, through chestnut tree orchards, in the Rainbow Mountains and past remote villages.

 

I’ve been to the Great Wall more times than I can count, from the beginning of the Ming-era Great Wall in Gansu province

 

 

to Laolongtou the “Old Dragon’s Head” where the wall finishes by dipping down into the sea.

 

 

Not everything turned out the way we had hoped, however. When I came to Beijing, one of my biggest wishes was to spend time with a group of kids from New Day Foster Home.

 

We have supported their work with Chinese orphans for years, sponsoring children, visiting and donating supplies. We’ve had the privilege of choosing names for Thomas and Lydia when they arrived at the orphanage, and have been praying that each one would find a forever family. Many of you have helped along the way.

 

Shortly before we arrived in Beijing, the government ordered all the kids to return to their home orphanages and foreign visitors are no longer allowed. Fortunately, New Day has been able to continue to support some of these kids with ongoing medical care, trained nannies, and therapy inside the Chinese government run orphanages.

 

Knowing that I will be leaving soon, I want to give something back by helping these kids.

So, here’s where you come in. On March 21, I’m headed to Shandong province to hike up Mt. Tai, revered as China’s most sacred peak. I’ll be following in the footsteps of Confucius, 72 emperors, Chairman Mao and millions of Taoists who have scaled this peak as a spiritual journey.

 

 

I’m asking you to sponsor me by donating to New Day Foster Home. The daylong hike involves 7,000 steep, stone stairs twisting and turning to the top with 1,500 meters of elevation gain over 10 kilometers. It’s grueling, but I’ll be thinking of the kids with their leg braces, walkers and wheelchairs when I get tired.

 

 

I’d love to raise a dollar for each step. Seven thousand dollars would provide hours of therapy, medical procedures and field trips for the kids in the orphanage. Think of it this way: how much would you be willing to donate to NOT have to climb 7,000 steps? Here’s a link for donation:

www.paypal.com/donate/?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=FM9SEMPBQYYPL

OR visit their website to learn more: www.newdayfosterhome.com

Please make the notation “Mt. Tai” on your donation so I can keep track of my goal.

You can also follow me on Facebook or Instagram @ Harringtonsinorlando for updates on my trip.

Thank you for your love and support. I’m so thankful to have you on this China adventure. I’m looking forward to coming home, but part of my heart will stay behind, in the mountains, with the kids and with friends I’ve made from all over the world.