Friday, May 23, 2008

CD 274: Journey to the Center of the (Chinese) Universe

I have returned victorious.

The Center of the Universe is of course Beijing. No, I did not run with the torch. No, I did not participate in the Olympics. Chinese people are supposed to be wise in all things Chinese, but yet they ask me these questions - even the teachers who should really know better. What I did do, not that it's as great as participating in the Olympic torch relay or in the Olympics themselves, but I participated in Adventure Marathon's Great Wall Marathon 2008. <the crowd goes wild in cheers and applause> Thank you, thank you! You are too kind.

I got to Beijing after a relatively quick 17 hour over-night train ride Friday (the day before the race). I knew I shouldn't be too busy so I didn't have much planned. I picked a hostel that my Lonely Planet said was next to the race day pick up - Beijing International Hotel, but made no real other plans.The city itself is huge and everything is totally spread out. There is a subway and an intricate bus system but neither seem to work to well - and I am really terrible with buses. I went by taxi to get my race day stuff then used my trusty map to discover I was "close" to the Beijing Zoo. (I will use "close" as in "close here means in totally relative terms and not very close at all") The zoo is supposed to be terrible but their new aquarium fantastic, so I decided to give it a go. The zoo was indeed miserable. The place stunk of fresh paint and miserable animals. For how terrible the zoo was, I really spent too much time there and not enough time at the aquarium but I just HAD to find the Giant Panda house which proved to be slightly allusive. There were workers everywhere frantically building and painting and apparently totally neglecting the animals in general who were mostly in filthy, tiny cages and all looked desperately distraught at their predicament.

Like I said, the aquarium was supposed to be all the rage, and it deserves every syllable! It's the largest inland aquarium in the world and absolutely stunning. The whole first part is set up like an Amazon rain forest and the fish are in these fun open tanks set into faux rock formations. If I come back as a fish, I will ask to be a fish in this aquarium. The coral reef exhibit was similarly spectacular with a huge aquarium with all the fishes living together in harmony with rays and corals and sea turtles (oh my!). There was also the obligatory giant shark tank and a great looking shark that literally had teeth so big it couldn't shut its mouth. It was so comical I took about a million pictures. Sadly I ran out of time to see the mammal exhibit or find the sweet piranha tank. They also had one of those penny machines (where it makes the flat penny with the picture on it) but the booth was closed to get the necessary tokens. If you know me well enough, you know this is like throwing salt in a wound for me.

I wandered back into the city center and stopped to have a look at Tian'an Men Square. I got there when they take the flag down at night and it's quite the to do. I wouldn't have really cared but it is one of the major things all of my students say they'd want to do if they could go to Beijing so I managed the crowds and the long wait to watch the military boys march out in formation, cross the street, take down the flag, and then go back. It was just about that exciting. I then got back to my hostel after some crazy bus/subway maneuvers to find that a person was in my room - and snoring loudly. I had hoped I'd be lucky and be solo. No such luck. It's at this point my story takes a turn for the worse. I had wandered all around my hostel looking for the Beijing International Hotel to no avail so I ask the girls at the front desk. They innocently tell me that this hostel use to be a hotel - The FeiYing Beijing International  Hotel but there is another BIH on the other side of town. Craptastic! As pick up is at 245 I just accept I will have to take an expensive taxi there in the am, get up earlier than expected, and deal with these damn lemons life keeps chucking at my head. So I head back to my room and the snoring man - its like 8pm... and I have no idea how I am going to get my stuff ready. I have to check out in the am and leave my bag to pick up later and I have to be up at like 2am so I don't have much time to do anything in the morning. I drag my stuff into the bathroom thinking I can work without disturbing Snoring Man - though if he doesn't wake himself, God only knows what will. SM has managed to get the ENTIRE bathroom wet and his jumbo sized pants have apparently/maybe been washed and are hanging on the curtain rod. His shaving stuff is all over the's just terrible. I do what I can and just decide to leave my stuff in the bathroom so I can get ready quickly in the morning. It's about 10 by the time I get to bed, he is still snoring and I notice that his jumbo sized underwear has apparently/maybe been washed as is draped all over his chosen bed. Thank god he wasn't on my bed. I am busy trying to force myself to sleep and thinking about how the hours between then and when I have to get up are slowing dwindling, when a worker comes in to make up another bed and wakes me up. It's 11 by then. He finally leaves and I just get to sleep when another roommate joins us. It's now 12. This guy was dragging in a drum set or something and then setting it up - in and out for God only knows how long. He finally feel asleep about 130 but my sleep time was up so I just got up and got ready. So much for the good night's sleep the night before the big race.

Buses were supposed to leave the (correct) Beijing International Hotel at 2:45 but by 3:15 we were still standing in the parking lot waiting for them to get enough buses there for all of the participants. Once we all finally get piled into buses and headed on the road to the wall, I start talking with the woman next to me. She too is from the US, living in China (Hong Kong) and doing the race solo so instead of getting the sleep we need, we chat the whole ride up. There were 17,000 participants in 4 races (5K, 10K, 1/2 marathon, full marathon)

Over 100 people ran the full marathon. I decided to run with my new friend, Missy, since the companionship would be nice and I am sure encouragement would be needed. The start was fine enough - we went straight up a hill and on to the wall. The stairs were steep, narrow and tall...everything we'd been warned about. Coming out of the final tower and heading to the main part of the race, I got stung by literally the biggest bee in the world. I'm not sure if it was the bee itself or the combination of the sting and my running, but the inside of my arm where I got stung became pretty swollen and I could swear that I could feel the toxins curing through my body. (Note: I still have a mark from this sting that is literally 6 inches long.) The majority of the race was through countryside villages though we did run along a fair patch of road. The weather was good. It was clear and moderate but not really sunny. The air was okay, but the section along the road was difficult because of some tree stuff floating in the air (possibly cotton wood trees) and the big truck exhaust. Most of the people in the villages came out to cheer us on or to just stare but it was encouraging none the less. I am sure they were all saying - "Look at all the stupid foreigners. There's more than last year..."

Perhaps around kilometer 26 I drank some supposed "Gatorade" that made me crazy sick so Missy went on ahead and I attempted to not die. I feel no shame in admitting that I did walk here and there but probably for less than 10 minutes of the whole race - not counting the actual part on the wall. True torture came around kilometer 37 when we come out of the back pastures of the villages after dodging rocks and uneven ground for kms and then we run right by the finish line and back onto the wall to do it again backwards. By that time, people were literally crawling up the stairs and cursing the heavens for having ever though that this race would be a good idea. I am pretty sure I died there on the wall at some point. I had the goal of trying to catch up with Missy until then and then I just had the goal of not lying on the ground in the fetal position and giving up all hope.  Once I saw that we were at the end of the wall and I reminded myself that the whole way to the finish line was downhill, I caught some divine 3rd wind and just went for it. It also helped that I mistakenly thought I was running for 40km instead of 42km.  For the last bit I was passing people like a woman possessed coming down the hill (who walks down a hill towards the finish line?) and then another woman had caught up with me and we pushed each other to the finish line. It was very high-school track-esque and in my mind I was definitely thinking "Like hell I am going to let you beat me now old lady!" I finished at 4:59:42. My only goal was to finish so that was good enough for me. Missy was there waiting at the finish line too so that was great! We then scarfed down some Subway sandwiches and swapped race stories.

Missy then becomes my guardian angel because after hearing my stories of Captain Underpants and my hostel, she insists  I come and stay with her at her 5 star hotel suite she is supposed to be sharing with her girlfriends who couldn't come. Gee...twist my arm. We also got foot massages and had dinner and wine to celebrate her birthday which was the next day. My body was aching in places and ways I never knew it could and we were both pretty hilarious trying to walk up and down the stairs. Sleeping in a huge, comfy bed was exactly what I needed. Missy left early the next day but worked it with the hotel that I could check out and I got to enjoy her free fancy breakfast in the private club with a view of Beijing so that wasn't too bad either.

Despite my aches and pains, I knew my time in Beijing was limited so I hobbled through the next couple days seeing what there was to be seen. I would have to say my overall feeling of Beijing is that the city completely lacks character, which is a shame. The city is geographically large but empty. It is old but new. It is clean but still dirty. The city is a tourist destination but not tourist friendly. Its population is nearing 18 million but there is no one out and about. In my 5 days in the city I mastered the subway but failed miserably with the buses at every opportunity.

As this is turning into quite the novel and I spent a total of 6 days in Beijing I will recap the rest and suggest you check out the INSANE number of pics I took.

The Summer Palace is an immense park northwest of the city and is where royalty would come during the summer to escape the insufferable heat of the Imperial Palace. There I saw a large lake, many pavilions, numerous gardens, a deserted pagoda, a very long corridor along the water's edge, a marble boat, the stunning Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion and Cloud Dispensing Hall, and a big Buddha.

The Peking Man Site is outside of the city about 60km to the SW and totally off the beaten path. For good reason - its boring as all get out. This is the location of Dragon Bone Hill in the Zhongkou village were the remains of the human ancestors from some 500,000 years ago were first found in the 1920's. I am a sucker for science, but other than being a historic site, there isn't much there. I saw where they found some of the first fossils and toured the rather small museum but left feeling like it verged on a waste of time.

The Temple of Heaven is quite possibly the symbol of Beijing. And it is quite spectacular. The Round Altar is what people think of when the Temple of Heaven is mentioned. It was originally the stage for solemn rites and is known now as "the most perfect example of Ming architecture".

Tian'an Men Square is technically the large area that runs from the Forbidden City in the north through the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, and all the way down to the 2 ancient city's Front Gates. It is the world's largest public square after all. The square as we know it today is a modern creation because it ancient times, part of the Imperial Palace went far into the square area.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'an Men...go figure) is hung with the vast likeness of Mao who looks out at his own mausoleum. It was formerly the largest of the four gates of the Imperial Wall that enclosed the imperial grounds. It was from this gate that Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of on October 1st of '49. Passing through this gate, you can get to the Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City.

Forbidden City/Imperial Palace: The palace was given its more popular name because it was off-limits to use commoners for some 500 years. It is the largest and best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings in all of China. It was the location for 2 dynasties, the Ming and the Qing - the people of both eras not leaving the palace walls unless they really had to. It was quite spectacular. I wandered around trying to see every last inch of it that I could and tried to imagine the imperial life. There is a museum woven into the remaining buildings so you get a healthy dose of history while you wander as well.

Zhongshan Park is immediately to the west of the palace and doesn't offer much other than views of the palace walls and the palace moat.

Ming City Wall Ruins Park has been guessed it, around the ruins of the Ming inner city wall. The watch tower is supposed to be the best part but its covered and under construction and I got there too late for tickets. This wall section is about 2km long and was just restored in '02. A sign at the site says restoration came from bricks donated by local people. The area was all apartments so that might explain why the restoration isn't too impressive. The park, however, is stunning.

Zhengyang Men and Qian Men are the two "Front Gates" at the southern end of Tian'an Men Square. Qian Men is the southern most structure and the technical front gate. It  was once open only to the Emperor himself on his way to and from the winter solstice ceremony at the Temple of Heaven or his inspection tours of the southern regions. Qian Men is one of the only  gates to survive with its gatehouse (Zhengyang Men) and  arrow tower (Jian Lou) in tact.

Jingshan Park is just north of the Forbidden City and was created from the earth excavated to make the moat around the palace. Its views were amazing and the park itself was beyond beautiful. It is believed to protect the palace from evil spirits and was the chosen spot for the last Ming emperor to hang himself.

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower weren't much to look at and the originals were burnt down many times and the last rebuilding is from the 18th century or so.

The strongest feeling I got from Beijing was really while I was at Jingshan Park and I will end with that: I want to grow old like the Chinese I was to get up before sunrise to climb to the top of the tallest hill and yell at the sun and then peacefully stretch as the day slowly wakes up. I want to go to the park to walk around and enjoy time with my grandchildren. I want to play an aggressive game of badminton with my husband - us both egging the other on as to who will be the victor. I want to stand in the shade with my girlfriends and play hackysack while we gossip about the young people. In the afternoon I want to ride my bicycle to the market to by fresh food for dinner. And at night I want to go to the center square and dance in a big group under the lights of a fountain.

Pictures will soon be too many in number at

Monday, May 12, 2008


As many of you know, there was a huge quake in China yesterday. While the epicenter was 3 provinces away from where I live  we did not feel it here in Pingxiang. The magnitude of the quake changes depending on what source you are reading from, but it was in the high 7's at least. The death tolls are also incredibly high - 10,000 and growing steadily. The quake hit during work and school so many people were trapped in or killed by falling buildings. I have no idea what China's earthquake codes are, but I know most people build their own houses of brick so they can't be that structurally sound. My thoughts now only go to the victims, their families, and the people attempting relief efforts. I hope that China accepts the foreign help it is offered and that foreign disaster relief is offered freely and quickly.

Friday, May 9, 2008

CD 262: Two Months 'Til American Soil

In 2 months (minus 2 days) I will be returning to the good ol' U.S of A. I'm ready. Things here are definitely winding down. There are only 6 more weeks of school and most likely 2 of those weeks will be mostly spent doing final exams. I find that my students are desperately sad at the prospect of my departure and this puzzles me. Many don't understand why I am not wanting to stay here forever. I have simplified things by saying I want to go back to America to find a husband and start a family - this is something they can understand. By their standards, I am quite past my prime for marriage and the such. My classes are going so-so. I am pretty sure all my juniors all cheated on their midterms. The most blatant cheaters threw temper tantrums saying they weren't the only ones cheating, just the only ones caught so now I have to retest all of them. This is also apparently incredibly unfair. They then proceeded to tell me that it was partially my fault they cheated because I didn't take away their books/bags/papers/etc. My bad. Cheating is widely accepted here in China but if you ask any teachers or department heads, they say to the contrary. All of my high school students cheated on their exam and their head teacher said, "Maybe they were too busy studying for their other exams to study for yours." Oh, yes. Well then, let's just let them cheat. Not. The Oral English classes are so much easier - you can't cheat when you are just talking. Thank God for that.

The weather here in Pingxiang is quite miserable and reminiscent of Seattle, which is slightly comforting, all at the same time. It rains almost every day and when it storms the rain comes from all directions and floods the roads. The skies are often gray but the rain clouds  make it the most dreary. After the rain it often turns into a sauna and I am sure we are breeding half of the most dangerous/annoying bugs in the pools of water outside our doors. Despite being wet, sticky, and generally uncomfortable, the weather also makes me quite lazy as the idea of running in torrential rain inside a steam bath isn't high on my list. Speaking of running, my marathon is next weekend. I am excited to go but at the same time think I am perhaps not fulling realizing the incredible physical toll this will take on my body. I mean, its only 26.2 miles, how hard can it be? The Great Wall is only super steep in some places, not the whole route. I'll be fine...

Last week we had a 3 day holiday, which Andreana and I turned into 4 days and took a little trip. I mean, we're American - we don't work on Sundays! We went to the last real "top" destination in China - Guilin. Its views are written about in poems and its scenery is famous among painters. The beautiful Li River that runs though the city is surrounded by strange limestone karsts that are all mostly covered in trees. The whole city was covered with trees of all kinds - it reminded me of Seattle - the Emerald City of China perhaps.Most of everything there was to do was climbing to the top of the peaks and seeing the river or going to the river and looking at the peaks. We did do a pretty cool night tour along the rivers and lakes through the city. The next day we took a 4 hour cruise down the river to a small town called Yangshuo. The scenery along the way was amazing. It was pretty touristy but the only real thing to do was nothing. So we did a lot of that...and some shopping too. We stayed there for one night then went back to Guilin. Part of what makes the scenes of Guililn so nice is that it's so wet. Our last day it poured but that didn't stop us from visiting out last places of interest - a cave full of stalactites. Apparently it was once used as a air-raid shelter but now its just full of pretty lights and ancient rock formations. All in all the trip was pretty relaxing and a nice break in scenery from PX. I put new pictures up at:

The next adventure is of course this silly marathon and Beijing next weekend. Fingers crossed...