Mount Tai and Qufu

October 1st marks the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  China celebrates by giving a seven-day national holiday from October 1-7, known colloquially as “Golden Week,” when an estimated 589 million Chinese hit the road to vacation in China’s various tourist destinations.

In 2014, I headed to Xi’an with some friends to check out the Terracotta Warriors, and ended up with this photo: IMG_4791.JPG

Yep, that’s what we had to deal with at the Warriors.  I vowed to never again travel over National Day.

…until a Chinese family invited me to join them on their vacation.  Their daughter, Belle, is my student.  The only hiccup was that my passport is currently at the immigration bureau getting a residence permit, meaning my only methods of travel were by bus, car, bike, and foot.  Surprisingly, the Lü family was not enthused by the idea of a 300-kilometer walk (I’m joking).

So we all hopped in the car headed for Mount Tai, a 6-hour drive that quickly turned into an 8-hour drive thanks to classic National Day traffic.  We arrived in Tai’an in the evening, ate some dinner, and prepared for our hike up the mountain the next day.

Mount Tai is one of the five sacred mountains in China: atop its 1532-meter peak Emperor Qin Shi Huang proclaimed his unified kingdom in 289 BC.  It was here that Mao Zedong proclaimed, “The East is red.”  Emperors, Buddhists and Taoists alike have come here to pay their respects, been inspired to write poetry and songs, and carve into the cliffs.  And then they pretty much took all of the natural beauty of the peak away by building shops and tourist-trap temples, selling “local delicacies,” souvenirs from the international crap factory, and ridiculous pictures.

It was a hard walk up.  There were many, many stairs and we often had to take breaks between the other thousands of people to catch our breath.

I’ll admit that this makes it sound as though it wasn’t enjoyable.  I absolutely did enjoy myself, though I wish I had gone at any other time of year (direct quote from my Lonely Planet guide about Taishan: “Definitely avoid holidays”).  The view completely obscured by heavy fog was also a bit of a shame.

We descended the mountain by cable car (after waiting over an hour in line – no one was willing to face all those stairs again).  Mr. Lü kept going on and on about some kind of fish he really wanted to eat and later asked our taxi driver for recommendations.  Our driver dutifully obliged, and when I saw the character for the fish that Mr.Lü had been on about I was confused.  I had completely misheard: partially due to his heavy Qingdao accent (but mostly because my Chinese is 不太好, not very good), I thought he had been saying was “zha yu,” which I took to mean “deep-fried fish.” He had actually been saying “jia yu.” Yu means fish, and unfamiliar with the meaning of jia in this context, I checked my handy-dandy dictionary app.  The result left me stunned: soft-shelled turtle.  Fantastic.  A recovering vegetarian about to sit down to eat soft-shelled turtle.

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Luckily Mrs. Lü was more sensitive to my western diet, and I got away with trying only some of the shell, which had been stir-fried in alcohol and then boiled in goose stock. “Americans don’t eat this stuff, do they?” she asked, to which I responded by shaking my head. “That’s ok, just eat the goose meat!”  I’ll admit, the goose stock was rather good (though very salty), but the goose didn’t seem to have much of a distinctive flavor.  Never would I have expected to be grateful to be eating goose meat.  Mr. Lü and Belle absolutely raved about the turtle, though, and proclaimed its health benefits.

The next day, we got back in the car and drove south to Qufu (choo-foo), Confucius’s hometown.  It was a mere 90-minute drive and we (shockingly) didn’t hit any traffic.  After getting settled at the hotel, we had a late lunch and headed to see the Confucius Temple and the Kong family mansion (note: “Confucius” in Chinese is “Kongzi,” where his family name is Kong).  Despite the masses of people, it was beautiful and somehow still peaceful.  There was a lovely garden where we took a break (and made friends with a family from Tianjin, who raved about Yu Zhengsheng’s success as Qingdao’s mayor back in the early 1990s).  Since Confucius was known for his teaching philosophy, Belle took the opportunity to (pay money in order to) pay her respects:

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We ate dinner at the hotel and prepared for our return to Qingdao the next morning.

The biggest complaint of our few days of travel?  “China has too many people!”  Honestly, I was surprised that the Lüs were surprised by the amount of tourists.  Despite the crowds, though, it was a wonderful trip.  I’m so grateful to the Lüs for taking me along as part of their family.

High-speed train.

Sitting on his grandmother’s lap, the Kid in the Spiderman Shirt stares. His dark pupils fill his eyes, leaving only white corners to contrast with his tanned skin. He looks away, but his grandmother encourages him to watch my screen from across the aisle. I am a zoo animal.

His grandmother doesn’t look old, but too old to be Spiderman Shirt’s mother. Her back hunches slightly, caused in my imagination by years of hard labor during and after the Cultural Revolution (maybe she isn’t old enough to have been ‘sent down’ in the 60s). They got on the train over an hour outside of Qingdao — the country. “Real China”. Maybe they have only in the last ten years felt the benefits of Opening and Reform. Maybe Grandma’s kid never had to work in a field, or eat in a common kitchen. Maybe Grandma didn’t, either.

I glance over. Spiderman Shirt remains unchanged, unafraid to make eye contact. Is he curious? In awe? Unbothered? I can’t read into the depths of his black eyes. Grandma smiles, and nudges Spiderman Shirt, who raises his arms, smiling, as if to celebrate that I’ve noticed them. Now that I’ve started to feel the zoo analogy, I can’t shake it. I did the same as a kid at the zoo, nose pressed up on the glass, keenly watching the animals go about their lives, aching for their acknowledgement.

Just as families tire of the seals, penguins, and even lions and elephants, Spidey Shirt has moved on to better things as we cruise along at 300 km/hr: his father’s smart phone.

***

This weekend, I spent a lovely couple of days in Beijing seeing some friends.  The weather was gorgeous: blue skies and not unbearably hot.  As I sat on the bus sputtering through traffic, it came to me that I had until that moment been taking the blue sky for granted.  Qingdao’s pollution is just nowhere near that of Beijing, and I had grown to expect blue skies.  Having said that, I’ve had to cancel today’s afternoon run due to pollution.  This Thursday, it is mid-Autumn festival, and I will be doing my best to avoid eating mooncakes.

Reflection on Summer 2016 (in photos)

After graduating in late June, I was living and interning in Beijing.  Hover over the picture for descriptions (or click for slideshow).

Here we are again.

How things have changed.

Last time I was starting a blog, it was August 2014.  I was getting ready to spend a year in Beijing, studying Chinese at Peking University.  “I’ll post as often as I can,” I had written, which quickly turned out to be a lie.  Though I’m reluctant to make the same promise, I’m hoping that the different situation of this year means that I actually will post a bit more, and perhaps not even limited to my experiences here in China.

I graduated from Durham University with a degree in International Relations and Chinese in June 2016, and then immediately flew out to Beijing for a summer internship.  After a visa run to Hong Kong, I arrived in Qingdao for a year of study on Tuesday evening, and today jumped straight into classes.  Different place, different motivations, different understanding, different mindset, different haircut…

What has not changed is that I’m still learning Mandarin.  Still.  Four years later.  It never ends, but in a good way (also sometimes in a confidence-smashing kind of way).  Kerouac’s On the Road is still in its usual place on my bedside table.

For now, I’ll say ‘Welcome to Qingdao!’ and get back to my studying/blog planning/job searching.

(for reference, the blog in Beijing was bignewbeijing.wordpress.com.  I’m going to try to do some blog-consolidation and put highlights of my previous travel blogs onto this site, but one thing at a time, ok?)