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This will probably be my last post about China as I am back in Seattle, and have no intention to return in the near future. I had an incredible time and met many amazingly wonderful Chinese people, some I will dearly miss. The past few months have been rather busy for me, bringing all manner of things and connections to a close in China, making arrangements for my time in Seattle, and preparing for my next live/work destination: Chiang Mai, Thailand. I did manage to visit a few interesting places prior to leaving.

Pingyao is an ancient town in Shanxi province, known for ancient original architecture and walls, tight alleyways and cobbled streets, as well as some interesting historical sites nearby.

 

Outside Pingyao I visited the Wang family mansion, which was a collection of tightly packed buildings so huge as to be more like a small town, and of course, surrounded by a wall. First built back in the mid-1600’s, the Wang Family Compound is one of the largest ancient residential complexes, representing Chinese architectural style distinctive of Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Wang family’s wealth came mainly from land farming, later expanded into trading, they eventually became local officials.

       

Later that same day, our little group of westerners from the same hostel went to the Zhangbi village and underground fortress. The ‘castle’ was built in 617 AD, at an altitude of 3412 feet above sea level. It is most famous for its underground tunnels, which have three layers connected by crisscrossing tunnels as long as 3 miles. From above ground it doesn’t really look like a fortress, more like a small, walled farming village, and that’s the way they wanted it to look. A strategic location for the ancient Chinese military, it could store large quantities of weapons and food for resupplying troops. One entrance was located in a courtyard between two temples, another in a farmer’s home set into the wall of a cliff. It was a lot like being in a labyrinth, its passages once hiding mangers, kilns, living quarters, wells, grain silos, flood-prevention facilities, wall-hole communication facilities and assassination devices, all lending the castle a lot of mystery.

The next day a group of us went to Mianshan, a beautiful mountainous area near Pingyao with colorful Buddhist temples set into caves and, of course, lots of tourists–despite the heavy clouds and cold rain.

All of the temples could be reached by elevator or gondola ride, but one in particular could also be reached by a steep walkway that followed a stream and series of waterfalls flowing down a slot canyon. Although more than a little dismayed by several hundred stepping platforms drilled into the living rock, this was the closest I had been to raw, real nature in many months. Umbrella in one hand while the other hovered near the chain, I was invigorated by the waterfalls and the ‘balance act’ as old climbing instincts reawakened along these slippery metal steps…

   

…finally reaching this spectacular cave temple, rebuilt after being destroyed during the People’s Revolution. Inside was quite large and lavish, pictures were not allowed inside but I managed to sneak a few.

It was here at Mianshan that a pattern began to clarify for me and I “discovered” the secret, ancient Chinese formula for wealth:

+ + +

+ =

Beautiful mountains + colorful and/or ancient temples + hotels +

gondola rides + cheap tourist trinkets = BIG MONEY

In this fashion, every sacred, accessible mountain in China is the same.

From Pingyao I traveled by overnight sleeper bus (btw, not an experience I’d like to repeat) to the ancient city of Xi’an. Up until around 500 years ago, Xi’an was the center of China and all things Chinese. It was recommended by a Chinese friend to visit the Terracotta Army early in the morning, so a fellow traveler from Holland and I went together by bus after dropping our bags at the hostel. The Museum lies 2 km east of The Tomb of Qin Shihuang, known as the First Emperor, who unified China 2,200 years ago. The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shihuang, buried near the emperor in 210–209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife, and to make sure that he had people to rule over. We hired an English-speaking tour guide and had an excellent time, exploring the entire collection before crowds of tourists arrived. We saw many thousands of terracotta warriors, and yes, the face of each and every one is unique.

 

All of them are around 1.8 meters tall (about 6 feet), apparently they wouldn’t draft anyone smaller for their armies in that time. The thinnest ones, still tall, drove the chariots while the others marched and fought with all manner of weapons, mostly pole arms and spears but also crossbows, and swords that had a thin coating of chromium to prevent corrosion, a technique supposedly “invented” by the Germans in the 1930’s. Every single one of the bronze weapons had an engraving detailing which factory made it, in case it broke. Over 700,000 people were drafted to make and bury the Terracotta army, all of whom were killed to hide its secret.

Like thousands of puzzles, many are still awaiting pieces to be found and glued into place, a tedious and painstaking process.

All of them were carefully painted as well, however the natural dyes faded upon contact with the air just after being exhumed. This kneeling archer still has a bit of color on the back of his armor.

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The stone beads of the horse harness are baffling to modern-day archeologists due to the incredibly small size of the holes drilled into them, two per bead. They are strung with fine wire.

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More information about the Terracotta Army here.

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Some of the food I’ve experienced since my last post:

Dumplings
A friend taught me how to make dumplings. They’re really easy to make, as long as you have the right thickness of dough, that is. Too thin and they break apart in the boil, as my sister and I discovered the other day here in Seattle.

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Pig’s ear
Yeah, that’s right…sliced, slightly hairy, pig’s ears! They were…ahem…crunchy…

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Preserved egg
This visually unappealing black-n-grey glop is a preserved chicken egg mixed with soy sauce. I don’t know how long it was preserved. I didn’t ask. They actually tasted ok with the soy sauce…

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People of China

Not much goin’ on since my last post, beyond teaching and surviving a cold and brutally damp winter in Shanghai. I’m very grateful for Chuntian (Spring).

A dear friend gave me the idea to post pics of people, so here they are. Click on any one to see a larger view. Some I know, some I don’t, some I teach, some I work with, and some are just random. I thought them better left to the imagination and without comments.

Bai People at Shilin

Custodian

Haborui class

Kevin

Knife sharpener

At Kunming

May

May’s brother in law

Neighbors

School nurse

Guards

Student

Students

Student

Xingping kids

More Xingping kids

And last but not least, I caught these photos on my walk home yesterday. Net fishing in a polluted canal. Mmmm…

After taking you on an extended trip through Southern and Southwest China, I thought I’d give you a tour of something a little closer to home: my neighborhood.

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I moved out of downtown Shanghai into a suburb in the southwest area of this (massive, 23+ million population) city. My neighborhood is called Xinsong, it’s located in the bigger neighborhood of Xingzhuang, in the district of Minhang (see a map). Here is my apartment building:

I’m enjoying the change very much, not only for having my own space, but because the intensity, energy and constant noise of my former location was quite a challenge for someone who is more at home in the mountains. My apartment building faces a busy four-lane street, but overall the neighborhood is much more quiet than where I was before, and there is more greenery.

These photos are basically the “back street” behind my apartment building. It is lined with little shops, like most back streets in Shanghai.

A tall Westerner is much more of a rarity here, as evidenced by how often little children stare, point, and comment to their parents.

Look closely in the above photo, and you’ll see a black iron gate on the right. That’s the entrance to my neighborhood.

There’s more I could photograph when I have the time and interest, like… a dirty canal, a stinky indoor meat market, a fruit stand where the workers always gawk at me, a variety of ugly buildings…etc. etc.  🙂

Xinzhuang park is my closest nature escape. It’s very nice to have something like this nearby, after my first half year in the heart of downtown Shanghai. This first photo (above) shows a bit of a canal or river (really hard to tell the difference here).

In the above photo, a few musicians were just finishing up evening practice using traditional instruments. Hopefully I’ll catch them in the middle of it sometime.

Above is one of the many interestingly shaped trees in the park. There are also some fairly large trees too, thankfully.

No blog post would be complete without some food adventures. Maodu (pictured above) and baimoudu (pictured below) are two types of cow stomach. Apparently cows have two stomachs and you can eat them! Some Chinese friends and I tried both as a hot pot. It didn’t have much flavor, but it did have an unusual, cat-tongue-like texture, even when cooked. Hungry yet?