Escaping China

I officially moved out of China July 28, 2009 — how weird! In some ways I’ll really miss China, but my last day ensured that I wouldn’t be too heart-broken to leave.

In short, my landlord tried to stiff me on returning the deposit since he figured I was an easy target, and it took several hours, a Chinese friend, and eight menacing foreigners cornering him in my apartment to get the deposit back.

And then I zoomed off to the airport with not a minute to spare and just made my flight to Japan.

I’d give you the details, but I’d rather not dwell on it. I don’t understand how some people can treat others so meanly just for money. So instead, I’ll post this picture of a kitten.

The Visitors

Since July 8 there have been a series of visitors to our little neck of the woods. Jeff’s mom, dad, brother, sister and brother-in-law all came to China for a week. We all had a packed week filled with Peking duck, tourist attractions and a very competitive photo scavenger hunt.

At the end of their time here, my brothers Devin and Kieran and their respective girlfriends Kate and Beth came to China. Then Jayna, Shane, Kieran, Beth, Devin, Kate, Jeff and I went on an adventure to southern China. A few days after we got back I began to move out of my apartment and bid goodbye to the city that’s been my home for over a year. A few tears have been shed this week over leaving good old BJ.

Today I’m getting on a plane to Japan. I’m not sure when or how I’ll be getting home. Oh boy 🙂 this should lessen the sting of leaving China!


In what I can only assume to be a response to the riots in Xinjiang, China blocked Facebook at around 7 p.m. tonight. Even during the Tian’anmen anniversary, while Youtube, Twitter and Hotmail were blocked, Facebook survived. I wonder what changed.

I guess I’ll have to start being a lot more productive now. You’ve crossed a line, China!

Oink oink, I’m in jail

So China is a little bit freaked out about swine flu, and I’m under quarantine. I don’t have a flu, or a fever, nor did I have any contact with someone who did, but just the same, I’m not supposed to leave my apartment for seven days. Apparently anyone coming from a country with swine flu faces the same inconvenience. I get called at least once a day by an official who asks if I have a fever or other symptoms. Sometimes he says he’ll come over but he hasn’t actually come over yet. I feel like a criminal, which is how I often feel here as a foreigner.

Reportedly if you sit next to someone with a fever or swine flu on the plane here, you’re whisked away to a seedy hotel and kept for seven days.

I dislike the government right now.

The Ming Tombs

One of the main things to do in Beijing is to visit the Ming Tombs, so I went for the first time this weekend. Although there are 13 tombs, only three are open to the public as attractions, and the rest are relatively undisturbed. We visited all 13 tombs, plus some tombs of famous concubines, with a local man who has been researching the history of the tombs and visiting them for 30 years. Thirteen tombs is a lot for one day, but the history was really interesting and it was worth the visit.

The Ming Tombs are located about 50 kilometers north of Beijing, and are the final resting places of thirteen of the Ming dynasty emperors, plus a handful of concubines and eunuchs. The valley where the tombs are located was chosen for its excellent fengshui — it’s surrounded on all sides by mountains, and also has a river running through it.

The Chinese believe in ancestor worship, and respecting deceased relatives is very important to them. Accordingly, very few of the tombs have been opened to researchers and the public, as this would be a show of disrespect for the dead. The contents of ten of the tombs are a complete mystery — nobody except a few elderly caretakers are allowed inside the tombs.

But you can take a peek through the gates!

Today, the Ming Tombs are surrounded by small villages, and have even lent building materials to the villagers. Many villagers’ homes and gardens are situated in the middle of what was once a large tomb complex. Each tomb was built like a Chinese palace, with exterior walls for protection, gardens and several buildings, so in the intervening years villagers have actually settled within the walls of tombs.

Below is the outer most wall of the tomb of the emperor with the second-longest reign in the Ming dynasty. He was very concerned with safety, and commissioned his tomb to have two walls built around it. When the builders finished construction on the tomb, they didn’t dare tell the emperor, for fear that he would take it as a sign that they were just waiting for him to die. Instead, they built a third wall, the remnants of which you can see below.

It’s funny how Chinese people take the presence of such incredible history in stride. In order to see some of the tombs, we literally had to go into people’s backyards, where there would be 12-foot-tall marble tablets and the remains of tombs.

While on the tour, we learned about each emperor when we visited his tomb. The emperor with the longest reign (48 years) had a son whose reign was shortest in the dynasty (28 days). This particularly unfortunate emperor survived several attempts on his life, but died from a mysterious illness after swimming, just 28 days into his rule. Other accounts blame his early death on “too many women.” His grandfather had the second longest reign (45 years); I guess he just didn’t inherit longevity.

We also visited the site where several concubines and female servants were buried in a humble grave. They had died during the period in which all the emperor’s women were put to death when he died so that they could join him in the afterlife.

Not all women in the Ming dynasty were so helpless. One of the most interesting stories was of Wan Gui Fei. Wan Gui Fei, although never made empress, was probably the most powerful and feared woman of the Ming dynasty. She raised the emperor from when he was a child, later becoming his lover (paging Dr. Freud!). It is said that all the court feared Wan Gui Fei because of her incredible influence over the emperor. During his reign, she systematically aborted the children of all other concubines, ensuring that she would be the only bearer of his heirs. Although many knew of this, none dared to defy her. When the emperor turned 30, he was desperate for an heir, and loudly bemoaned his fate to the court. Risking death, a eunuch threw himself on the ground before the emperor, revealing that indeed, he did have a son, who had been kept secret for fear of Wan Gui Fei. From then on, the son was personally protected by the empress, and later took the throne at age 18.

Despite her little murderous character flaws, the emperor loved Wan Gui Fei until death, and erected a tomb for her in the same valley with the emperors’ tombs, bestowing great honor on her. We took a little peek at her tomb over the wall.

Here’s what we saw!

We had lunch at a village inn, which consisted of Chinese burritos. mmmm! The inn also had a caged squirrel, which is sadly the first squirrel I’ve ever seen in China.

After a long day of tomb visiting, we stopped by a nearby reservoir, where we inexplicably saw a bunch of cute animals!

It’s hard to get the kind of experience we did without a really good tour guide, but the tombs are definitely worth visiting if you bring along a little history book and check them out at a leisurely pace. It’s a good spot for an all-day, relatively easy hike, and many villages offer cheap and filling meals in country homes.

The Ming Tombs are easily accessible from Beijing by public bus (919 takes you to the tourist tombs, 345 takes you to the reservoir) and tour company.

He swept me off my feet…

Today, while I was in the kitchen, Jeff filled up a bowl with water and without a word took it into my bedroom. Following him in bewilderment, I said, “What are you doing?”

He proceeded to dump out the bowl in several places on my floor, each time loudly yelling “Ah-hooooh! Aw-huh! Agh-uaaaah!” with great flourish.

As I stared at my wet floor, I wondered where I ever found such a weird boyfriend who’s so prone to inconveniencing me.

Then, from the corner of the room, he pulled out a Swiffer he had secretly acquired from a friend who’s moving out of Beijing, and began to sweep it grandly about the room, meanwhile still making his “aha!” noises.

I think he may need more socialization and stimuli.

Wild Wall

Everyone who comes to China has to visit the Great Wall, but few visitors get to see the real deal — the Wild Wall. 野城, as it’s called in Chinese, literally translates to “wild wall,” meaning sections of the Great Wall that have yet to be restored and commercialized for profit. The outskirts of Beijing have tons of wild wall sections accessible by moderately to extremely challenging and dangerous hikes, but the climb is worth it for sure.

It’s important for tourists to realize that unlike other tourist sites, you can’t just visit one part of the Great Wall and check it off your list. There are thousands of kilometers of the wall, and each section has something special to offer. I’ve been hiking to the Great Wall many times, visiting the most wild of the wilds and the most commercial of the commercial sites. Badaling is the easiest section to get to from Beijing, and also one of the most commercial sections. Jinshanling, though commercially opened, is a lovely hike, and features some wild sections. The Shanhaiguan (山海关) section is neat because it extends into the ocean. Gubeikou (古北口) is probably the most wild section I’ve been to, with perilous rubble-covered tracks over staggering cliff sides, and it’s located above a small, remote village. This weekend I visited the Changyu Cheng (长裕城)section in Changping.

The drive to the wall took about two-and-a-half hours due to traffic, and wound through gorgeous green mountains. The hike started from a small village and rose to 1400 meters above sea level, about a 700 vertical-meter hike. The tower we hiked to is the highest Great Wall tower in Beijing.

From the top we could see the wall extending out for miles around us:

In addition, this area has a round tower, which are quite rare:

This section was not only beautiful, but it also has an interesting history. During World War II, this section of the wall was the site of a battle against the Japanese, which China lost with a great number of casualties. Though there aren’t any placards proclaiming this history, the locals still remember it, and the wall still bears the bullet holes from that era.

There is so much to gain from hiking the wild wall sections. They are harder to get to, but most wild wall areas in the outskirts of Beijing are accessible by public bus. Alternatively, go with a tour group, or rent a small mini-bus for the day. Tours usually range from 150 to 200 kuai per person, including a guide, transportation and a meal. We went with our friend Heidi, who takes folks just about every weekend to see the wild wall. Heidi has made hiking her life, and has personal relationships with people at every site she goes to. She always manages to find remote and lovely hikes, and rewards her hikers with mouth-watering country-style meals in traditional village inns. Another hiking group that’s recieved praise is Beijing Hikers, though I haven’t gone with them yet.

Beijing’s “biggest” waterfall

This weekend I went with Jeff’s work to see Beijing’s biggest waterfall in Cool Valley (清凉谷), in the suburbs about two hours from Beijing. It was nice to get out of the city, but the waterfalls were hardly impressive.

We stayed at a resort, of which there seemed to be a few. The resort was nestled in a small town in the mountains, but apparently Jeff wasn’t impressed:

The hotel boasted a (very dirty) pool, billiards, ping pong, shuffle board, a children’s play area with a ball pit, karaoke, barbecues and banquet-style meals. It seemed fairly new and aside from the pool it was quite clean. If you’re planning a trip, here’s a thorough Chinese website with resorts (left) and country homes (right). Prices for resorts are usually a little above 100 kuai, often with meals, scenic area tickets and a driver included. Country homes have fewer amenities, more authenticity and cheaper prices.

The scenic area where the waterfalls are features many of the typical gimmicks of Chinese tourist sites. This was really fun for the Chinese tourists, who haven’t grown up river rafting, hiking and fishing, but for those of us who generally spent summers outdoors it was kind of lame.

A man-made, stocked fish pond, which we got to help stock:

Several rickety rafts floating by Styrofoam bottoms (note: life vests were not actually buoyant):

Ropes course-style challenges over the small fish pond:

The waterfalls and hiking were decent, but not amazing — although the trail was state-of-the-art.

The climate is dry and warm here, somewhat like the Sierra Nevada mountains, so the waterfalls were mostly pretty small. The summer is much wetter, so folks said it’s better to visit in summer when the waterfalls are apparently more impressive.

But a hike is a hike, and it’s always nice to get away from the city, breathe some fresh air and admire the mountains.

The deserted city

In the run up to the Olympics, the Beijing government did a whole lot of “restoration” of historic tourist sites. In the case of Qianmen (前门), this meant razing a large swath of historic hutong, building a large, historic-looking shopping street, and raking in large sums of tourist money.

Except that the money never rolled in.

Saturday I visited Qianmen for the first time since I was in the area visiting a museum. Of over 100 large, beautifully built shops and restaurant spaces, eight were open. Of course, there were still crowds of tourists, because if the government deems something a tourist spot, the tours companies are pretty much obligated to go. The result: hundreds of tourists wandering down a completely desolate street, all wondering “why am I here?”

Although some businesses had signed on to open up in Qianmen, almost all have pulled out and moved to other areas.

So, what was once a vibrant neighborhood with local homes, shops and historically significant buildings, is now a no-businessman’s land of empty buildings. Though these buildings are quite pretty, it doesn’t really justify the incredible waste and reckless prospecting by the government.

The only exception to the lack of notable businesses is the newly opened H&M store. H&M is pretty much my favorite store, but it doesn’t redeem Qianmen.

As I said earlier, the question on everyone’s minds was “why am I here?” A few years ago, the answer would have been that Qianmen is the historic business district of imperial times. Because it was located just south of the gates to the Forbidden City, it was the place where members of the court went to unwind, do some shopping, visit bars and frequent brothels. In later years, it housed some of the oldest stores in Beijing.

These days, the answer to that ever-pressing question: To witness yet another prospecting failure of Beijing. Cheers!

The best museum in Beijing

I’m aware that Beijing is famous for its history, and yes, I know that most people would list one of Beijing’s art museums, 798 or perhaps the Forbidden City as the best museum in Beijing.

But they’re wrong.

Against all expectation and probability, the best museum in Beijing is the Exhibition Center for Urban Planning.

And here’s why:

1. On a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Spring, the centrally located museum had less than a dozen visitors.

The four-story museum was opened in 2004, but it’s gorgeous main entrance, seen above, is not in use. I’d hate to be the official who has to explain the surely astronomical building price to higher-ups for the technologically advanced museum with no visitors. But it’s great for the few people who do go! No crowds!

2. Interactive exhibits with flashy lights and little buildings

This shows a five square-foot, scale map of Beijing and the surrounding mountains. The different lights referred to different, no doubt educational features of Beijing. Mostly, it makes it look like I live in some kind of evil mastermind’s volcano lair!

3. The future

An entire floor of the museum is devoted to models and concept drawings depicting the future of Beijing. It’s actually really cool, and you don’t really need to read the accompanying placards to enjoy it.

The creepiest part of the museum has to be it’s future house:

On the incredibly large bed rests a very corpse-like, life-sized little girl doll. Nuff said on that.

However, no matter how futuristic China gets, the Chinese will always have a penchant for doilies and covering their household appliances.

4. 4-D movies

Ok, so I don’t have a picture of this, but it was like the ride at Disneyland where your seats tilt around and you fly through the city. Except that the employees, not realizing I spoke Chinese, had a nervous and protracted argument in front of us about whether to show the English or the Chinese version. It seems that although the English version was supposed to be shown at four, they had sold tickets to a Chinese group for the 4 pm showing, creating a conflict when two foreigners also bought tickets. I kept quiet and enjoyed the little panic attack they were having. Eventually they hustled us into the theater early, and we were out a little after four to let the Chinese group in for their Chinese showing.

5. Did I mention a scale model of the entire city of Beijing?

There’s my school, with the track.

Here’s where I intern at The Beijing! It’s the relatively short building in the lower center of the photo. In real life it’s 28 stories tall.

Mostly it’s fun for pretending to be Godzilla!

Even the things that are kind of sad about the museum are funny at the same time. Our favorite joke: Holding onto XYZ as hard as Beijing’s holding onto the Olympics.

Yes, that’s a countdown timer to the Olympics start date.