Plans and Theroux

The process of transition is one that can hang in suspension over a period seemingly absent of end.  Times of change and movement (or rather, the planning stages, in which one has the mindset to change) can become protracted to the greatest lengths.  What I mean to say is that I am stuck in my China quest.  Yes, stuck.
But stuck is not exactly a reality that I want to acknowledge, namely because I am stubborn.  In my opinion, three years time spent in pursuit of this goal should be followed by however many more it will take in order to reach the end; at this point it would be all waste to throw the plans to the wind.  With that in mind, I continue my plotting and forming.  Should all come to naught with my camp contact in Beijing, I intend to just say screw it, buy a ticket and hop on a plane with what funds I have.  At the very least it would be a few months of travel and a chance to work something out on that end once I have found a good spot to stop.  I think Beijing would be a bit too expensive to start out, and I’m not sure that it’s where I want to be, that is if I am without job.  Great for learning the language, abysmal to those without much of a budget.
I have been reading Paul Theroux’s “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, a bit of a memoir in which the author revisit’s a journey he made three decades prior.  Mr. Theroux, if you are reading, I salute you.  For a book with potentially the dullest first 100 pages I have encountered in a long time, the following two hundred are absolutely amazing.  I can’t put it down, and it has given me wanderlust of the severest level.  All I can think about are trains, travel and the appeal of movement.  Theroux, and man well into his sixties, describes his process of entering and exiting numerous nations that I would never set foot in, namely Turkmenistan.  Though I do not have the slightest desire to enter any nation that is actively labeled a police state, there is something very appealing in Theroux’s dry, sharp demeanor; he acknowledges the sketchy nature of the places he ventures, discusses the risk and fear, and continues on as planned.  Brutal war and social unrest in Sri Lanka? No problem, just make sure you head far enough south!
It is not so much a question of asking how I find this nature within myself, as I am more than content to travel.  Instead, it is more about figuring out how to make it happen.  Theroux is a well published (and, I can assume, financially established) individual.  I am an amateur outdoor educator/writer/coffee junky with no bank account to speak of.  Winging it in terms of your day to day plans while on a trip is one thing.  To hell with the itinerary, go where you like.  Winging it without any financial backup plan, however, is quite a different matter.  Bouncing from country to country feels just a little bit safer when you have a few Benjamin’s urging you forward (That is unless you are in Turkmenistan, of course.  Then you just have to be outright ballsy).  At this point, playing it safe is just looking a bit too expensive.

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Balsam Mountain

Mushroom Toadstool New York CatskillsIt has been noted by a number of historians that the 19th century tourism boom that occurred in the Catskill mountains was strongly supported by a desire to seek the true wilderness.  Painters such as Thomas Cole and others of the Hudson River School were essential in drawing in the masses, painting landscapes that expressed (and frequently embellished) the yet untamed nature that survived in the mountains just north of New York City.  The mountains provided New York’s more privileged residents an escape from the cramped and dismal confines of the quickly expanding city.
Eastern Hemlock Catskill Mountains New York Balsam

Having found nothing in the way of China to write about over the last few weeks, I had begun to grow a bit stir crazy, and with the limitless natural surrounding I decided to document a hike that I took with my girlfriend to the top of Balsam mountain, situated just north of Slide, the highest peak in the Catskills.  Although Balsam, considered to be one of the Catskill high peaks, lies south of the region made famous during the pre-civil war era, its inaccessibility has helped it to retain some of the true wilderness feel that was lost to the timber and fur industries during the 1840s.

Berries Catskill Moutains New York

Almost every acre of the Catskills were once covered with the great Eastern Hemlock, a large coniferous tree.  The bark of this particular pine contains tannic acid, an chemical that was used to release the fur from animal skins that were harvested in the region.  With such a high demand for the pre-war production of leather products, the region was completely clear-cut, resulting in a collapse of the tanning industry.  Despite the near deforestation, certain landscapes were too difficult to negotiate for the loggers to bother cutting.  Deep cloves and the ravines created by rivers were too steep to harvest, thus protecting small areas.  While hiking through these mountains, one periodically comes upon dark, dense stands of these wonderful trees and can still feel a bit of the famed wilderness that inspired so many stories among early travelers.

Orange Mushroom Catskill Mountains New York

I have heard a number of hikers say that the Catskills do not offer much challenge nor much scenery.  If you are looking for a great challenge, you are probably in the wrong region, try heading west.  As for the scenery,  I can think of no place more amazing.  The beauty in the Catskills comes from their stubborn nature.  They are hard to navigate, due to a lack of visibility or distinct features within most mountains.  Beyond this, the plant life, at first glance, tends to look featureless.   As far as I am concerned, however, these only exist as a quick first image.

Tree Mushroom Fungus New York CatskillsAfter spending some time in these mountains, you begin to look for the subtle differences.  A change in altitude provides an amazing shift in the plant life.  Spend time looking at the base of trees and under other plants, and a world of fungus and creatures await.  Unlike the expansive and well established vistas found in the Adirondacks and the Rockies, the Catskills ask a bit more from visitors before divulging any such reward.  It is the tiny differences between one region and the next that give this place its magical nature.

Berry Cluster Catskill Mountains New York Balsam

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Change of Seasons

I’m not going to lie, I have no material to write about, at least not anything pertaining to China.  It is the change of seasons in the Catskills.  Even in these late summer months, some of the trees are already beginning to get an orange tinge to their leaves, indicating the inevitable arrival of colder months.  The sky is glowing both gold and purple, the remains of a very hot and humid day in the mountains.

As I said, not a whole lot to write about.  There is an Indian restaurant and Buddhist temple down the road that I am hoping to get a chance to photograph and write about, but given the way that things have been going, I’m not sure when that will actually happen.  Tonight I am going to be spending some time looking at the stars (we have a pretty awesomely large telescope, though I know little of how to use it).  Should I ever move to Beijing, I suspect I will not be able to see the sky I love.  I wonder how anyone could live without seeing these stars.

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Recent Readings

I’ve been finding more time to read in the last few weeks, namely Peter Hessler’s ‘Country Driving‘, Zhang Lijia’s ‘Socialism is Great‘, and I am currently working on Leslie Chang’s ‘Factory Girls‘. I know I’ve said it before, at some point I will write a summary on each, but at the moment time (and interest) are putting some constraints on my ability to do this. I will say, however, that reading these three books in conjunction with one another has proven to be a very nice combination, one which I recommend to anyone interested in gaining some insight into the workings of a large portion of current China. If you want a better summary than I will probably write, go here for Hessler. I couldn’t find anything that I felt really conveyed the concepts behind Zhangs work, so for an average review, check this out.
Country Driving Peter HesslerI have said it in the past, I will say it again, but Mr. Hessler is perhaps the most astute of any of the multitude of writers in the current China field. His works tend to ramble over a wide array of thoughts, usually following a main story line while simultaneously adding background history and finer details. It is almost a novelized history, but he keeps the facts relevant and is very good at presenting things in a straightforward manner. The end result is a very compelling read that allows the audience to draw many of their own interpretations in addition to those presented by the author. ‘Country Driving’ is certainly not in the same league as his first work, ‘River Town’, but is amazing nonetheless. The book is broken up into three major sections, each of which hold their own distinct story. It would be entirely possible to read one of the sections separate from the others and still have the section hold its value. Of these three divisions, I found the last to be my favorite. The final section focuses on China’s Zhejiang province, the epicenter of industry and private manufacturing within China. Hessler follows the life of a particular factory, starting at its inception and examining important points over the course of about half a year. As he shows, half a year in the life of a Chinese factory is on par with a decade anywhere else.

Keeping the factories in mind, I jumped to Zhang Lijia’s work, ‘Socialism is Great’. A memoir of the author’s experience as a young factory worker during the period following opening and reform, this work presents great insight into the difficulty experienced by a young, ambitious Chinese coming of age during the 80s. Zhang lijia socialism is great It builds very well on the work of Hessler, placing more emphasis directly on life within a factory, as well as showing how the power of the work unit extended far beyond factory walls. While the events of ‘Country Driving’ take place nearly two decades after the time which Zhang recounts, ‘Socialism is Great’ helps to develop a backdrop for the atmosphere of frantic development that Hessler observes in Zhejiang years later.

‘Factory Girls’, what can I say? It’s good, but I feel like it was written too closely to ‘Country Driving’ (Leslie Chang is married to Peter Hessler). I haven’t completely finished it, though, so I will refrain from fully commenting on it just yet. I like it, but it doesn’t have the edge that I thought it would, at least not yet. It does, however, add a new perspective to the lives of China’s migrants. Of the many groupings that exist within China, the migrants have received huge amounts of attention. The backbone of every construction job within the PRC, migrant labor is an essential factor in the explosion of China’s economy. In opposition to the theme of repression and mistreatment that many authors exemplify when portraying this group, Chang focuses on migrants from a different direction, putting emphasis on their interest in being away from home and the opportunity that a factory can afford. She does not deny the hardships, but rather takes a very different viewpoint in addressing these difficulties. In relation to the above readings, ’Factory Girls’ adds a nice touch in giving greater detail and personality to the migrants, showing them not just as a large group, but as a culture unto their own.

If you were to pick just one of the above books, pick ‘Country Driving’. It is the most well rounded of the three, and by far the most readable. After that, read the other two. They are all good, they all have nicely framed narratives and for the most part give good insight into important elements of Chinese culture. Go out and buy them. Do it.

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Camp in China

If I edit anything else in the way of html or css, I am going to toss the computer over the edge of the table, so it’s time to call it a day.  The site is coming together quickly, and now its just a matter of finding some things to write about

As I had mentioned a few posts back, I have been speaking with an individual who is interesting in bringing summer camp to China, an idea that has my full attention.  Having very little knowledge about any such organization within China, I decided to make a post on Chinese-forums, asking if anyone had any knowledge about a Chinese tradition similar to that of American summer camp.  The responses that I received fell right into line with what I had expected;  there is not a lot that can be directly compared.  Some of the answers gave me a good laugh.  I posed the question “Is there any equivalent in China to the American sleep-away camp?”, and received one particular response from the forum moderator

‘I guess so, but they’re more likely to be staying in school dormitories      than tents or lodges, and the activities will still be more educational than physical. I’ll wager the number of Chinese kids learning archery this summer are so close to nil as to make no difference.’

In short, there is a more modern trend of sending children away to academically focused summer programs, with the hope that children will develop in ways allowing them an advantage against the competition that they face in making it to higher education.  The battle for the right to attend a prestigious university is unimaginable, and those who can afford it (and believe in it) push their children as much as possible.  As opposed to the more all-encompassing American summer camp, what can be labeled as the Chinese equivalents tend to be more focused, allowing the participants to improve their abilities in a given area.  Whether that area is math, music or a sport does not seem to make as much difference as whether or not the result are quantifiable; parents want to know that the program has aided in the development of their child.

With this in mind, I will say that bringing American summer camp to China will be a very challenging process.  Not impossible, but certainly not without great challenges.  I believe that with such a massive market, in particular one with a quickly developing middle class such as that within China, there is huge potential to market just about anything, summer camp included.  I also think that much consideration will have to be taken in regard to how the idea is presented.  American summer camp is just as the name suggest; American.  The structure is transferable, but there are many elements that are, at heart, built straight from our own culture.  Bringing camp to China will require an evaluation of the basic values of camp, followed by the creation of a new breed with strong Chinese characteristics added.  The overall concept for the program is that it will be one in which Children from different cultures will be able to come together and interact with one another, without absolute guidelines in terms of teaching certain things or asking the children to reach for certain goals.  It is meant to be more open-ended, and to allow these children to gain their own understanding through immersion.  This is something that I am very interested in.

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Emei Shan

As you will see, things are quite different from the previous theme that I was using.  The changeover hasn’t been nearly as complicated as I thought that it would be, though I have been having some trouble getting a good header in place.  Its next on the to do list.

Emei Shan Buddhist Monastery Sichuan

China is a land with a strong Buddhist tradition, originally brought over from India and morphed into a form that sits strongly with Chinese characteristics.  Though the country is officially an atheist state, there is a longstanding Buddhist tradition.  About an hour outside of Leshan stands Emei Shan, the tallest of China’s four sacred mountains.  These legendary peaks are major points of interest and attract visitors from around the world, Buddhist and others alike.  Emei Shan Mountain Buddhist monestary

Emei Shan stands over ten thousand feet in elevation, making it more than a simple day trek to get to the summit.  The peak of the mountain is frequently called the Golden Summit, in reference to an ancient structure close to the highest point.  The hike to the top is considerable, and many hikers opt to spend the night on the mountain at one of a multitude of monasteries that dot the sides.  The peak is also revered for remarkable sunsets and peculiar cloud formations.

Emei Shan Buddhist Monastery

This said, I was disappointed that we did not have the time to make it to the top or, for that matter, even onto the mountain itself.  I love hiking and the mountains, and had been looking forward to this destination.  Instead, we spent some time at the base, viewing one of the older, more fixed up temples, as well as a museum with specimens of the variety of life that exists on the mountain itself (they were particular proud of the wide array of butterflies).  I will also note that the mountain is home to a species of monkey, known to attack hikers who do not feed them.  It is a convenient bit of luck for those down below who sell the so called ‘Monkey food’.  There was a large, stuffed Panda Bear inside of a re-creation of their natural habitat.  I explained to our guide that many of the students on our trip had wanted to visit the Panda reserve near Chengdu and have their picture taken while petting one of China’s sacred creatures.  The man let a huge laugh and pointed at the panda, grinning.

“A picture with that?  Most tourists probably don’t know about out Pandas.  Very slow and sleepy, but very dangerous and vicious if it wants to be”.

After we left, we briefly stopped at the worlds largest school for Buddhist monks.  It was still under construction, but it was absolutely massive.

Words largest Buddhist Monestary School College

Emei Buddhist Monestary School College Sichuan

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A New Look

I finally grew tired of looking at the Ipod and Chinese food container.  It was a good look at first, but I have been feeling that it didn’t line up with the material and things I write.  As a result, I have taken the plunge and put this new theme into the works.  Its going to look like crap for a few days (probably weeks, at least until the busy season is over), but once it is established I think it will look much better and be quite a bit easier to read.  I do realize, however, that I now need to reformat a whole mess of pictures so that they don’t conflict with the sidebar.  Joy.

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8.9.2010

I don’t have anything particularly interesting to write about, but its been a little while, and I figured I would get something on here simply for the sake of keeping things consistent.  Summer camp days have been long, hot and all around pretty bizarre.  We called in a helicopter today to airlift someone out for an injury.  Nothing life threatening, but a helicopter is no small order, especially when it requires bringing a program for nearly 600 people to a complete halt.  Good times.  I’ve finished reading a few books on the side, and I plan on writing some thoughts on these in the near future.  Many thoughts to come, many thoughts.  Until then, dream of summer camp in China.

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The Mao Museum

I’m sure that I’ve written about this already, but a search for such an article has revealed nothing, so here ya go.   Sorry for the terrible pictures, this was one of the few places that actually enforced the prohibitive policy.

I had a strong sense that we were in a place we were not supposed to be.  Our day trip had taken us to visit a local attraction dubbed the ebony museum, a large building containing hundreds of incredibly elaborate carvings made out of dense, black wood (potentially ebony).  This was a great visit, but it is not the focus of this story.  Lets start at the top.
We left the ebony museum, and our guide informed us that we happened to be right next to another museum containing the worlds largest collection of Mao memorabilia.  The validity of this statement has yet to be determined, but I will say that it was pretty damn huge.  I had a good laugh to myself, having a little moment similar to many of those in the work of Peter Hessler; on a random highway in China where there just happened to be a massive Maoabilia exhibit.

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Mao memorabelia museum posters propoganda Lishan Sichuanββββ


As we took a photo outside of the building, I started to have an uneasy feeling, probably the only  ‘bad feeling’ that I had for the duration of our time in China.  As we passed through the turnstile, I happened to notice a decent sized group of Chinese men sitting on the porch, observing our passage.  More on this later.

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Mao Memorabelia Museum Leshan Sichuanββββ

The inside of the building was extremely poorly lit, but then again it was a roadside museum.  Almost as soon as we had entered I felt the urge to leave, but at the same time felt a full fascination with the glimmer of stuff.  Everywhere I looked, there was the face of Mao.  Buttons, pins, badges, posters, banners, all staring back with the likeness of the chairman.  The museum itself was nothing less than a maze, with long winding hallways that seemed to lead into nothing, twisting back on themselves and going further into the building.  As far as I could tell, the passage was meant to follow a course of time, with years of history passing along with the distance we moved.  The further back we went, the more menacing it seemed the faces on the badges became.  Overwhelming doesn’t quite describe it.

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Mao Memorabelia Pins Buttons

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And then there was a shift.  Instead of just finding buttons on their own, we began to encounter huge pieces of artwork, each portraying a classic Chinese image, all made out of variations of these Mao buttons.  The face of the Chairman, used to depict cliché pieces of Chinese culture.  Thousands upon thousands, different shapes, colors and sizes, but all bearing the same face.  I later found out that this collection was the work of one man, and that in addition to collecting, he had also created these bizarre mosaics.  Weird, to say the least.

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Mao memorabelia Buttons pins propogandaββββ

After taking some time looking at a number of these huge boards,  I realized that the group was no longer with me.  On most occasions, this isn’t something that bothers me in the least, but this was not most occasions.  Something about the sheer number of buttons, many having survived the darkest days of the cultural revolution, spooked the life out of me.  Even with those dark years long passed, these little medallions oozed oppression.ββββ

Back to the Chinese men on the porch.  A group of American students in rural China is not a subtle event. We drew attention to ourselves.  Something as simple as taking a picture in front of a tourist attraction was enough to draw over at least one or two Chinese, eager to be a part of the event.  But the men on the porch hadn’t shown the slightest interest, hadn’t even moved from their seats.  As far as I could tell, they didn’t even speak to each other about our arrival, and that never happened.  Although this was a tourist attraction, I’m guessing that the frequency of visits from non-Chinese was pretty low. As I walked through the hallways (still without my group), I became aware that a few of the gentleman from the porch were drifting behind me, not really paying much attention to what I was doing, but definitely keeping an eye on me.  Having found the entrance, I stood outside and waited for the remainder of the group.
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I do not think these individuals had any malicious intent, but on the same point feel that they didn’t quite value our presence.  There was an undeniable air about the building, something bordering on sacred.  The cultural revolution is twisted time in Chinese history, and though that time has passed, there is a generation for whom the memories and emotions are still quite fresh.  It would not surprise me to find that we were an intrusion upon a location that preserved these memories.  I can understand the happenings of that time period, but by no means can I feel that level of suffering. Many of the mosaics depicted happy scenes, pictures of people fishing and of the sun rising over the mountains.  One in particular, the largest that I found, was a long image of a dragon, twisting in and out of itself.  Standing from a distance, they were images showing the heart of Chinese culture, beautifully done in many colors. Viewing them from a few feet away, however, all you could see was the face of Mao, a haunting reminder embedded within the beauty.  The statement that this created gave me the creeps, and left me thinking for a long time.

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Older Pictures

China Beijing Forbidden City gateβββββ

I haven’t had much time recently, nor much material to write about.  I do, however, have a bunch of pictures that I have never posted.  Here are a few that I found in the folder

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Beijing Forbidden City Courtyard Lionβββββ

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Chinese Calligraphy Leshan Sichuanβββββ

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Leshan Sichuan Giant Buddha Monkβββββ

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Leshan Sichuan Giant Buddha inscription

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