Beijing Photo Walk With Trey Ratcliff

A few weeks back, I noticed an open invitation to attend a group photo outing hosted by Trey Ratcliff, owner of the photo-blog ‘Stuck in Customs’.  I was lucky enough to be able to go out last night and attend the event, which turned out to be a very cool experience.  Trey specializes in a form of digital photography known as HDR, a method by which you can transform photographs into pictures ranging from surreal to otherworldly.  To get a better idea of what I mean  (and a great description of how it is done), check out his site, Stuck in Customs.

While I have no background in HDR, I had a great time at the event, and the weather could not have been better.  I believe it was the first true blue-skied day that I have seen in about three weeks, and we were provided with an excellent sunset, a rare thing around these part.  We were asked to meet at the Beijing National Theater, a massive building that has been aptly nicknamed “the Egg”, for obvious reasons.  Trey gave a quick talk on the goals for the evening, and off we went.

I won’t say that I learned a huge amount over the course of two hours that I stayed with the group, but I will say that it was one of the best photo sessions that I have had in quite a while.  I have not had much drive to get out and shoot anything recently, but being with a large group of enthusiasts, especially those that know what they are talking about, was very refreshing, and I woke this morning with a renewed desire to see the world.

There was some speculation on whether or not we would receive any bad attention from the Man, as the location happens to be directly across the street from the Chinese equivalent of the White House and Pentagon.  A large, quickly amassed group of foreigners with cameras can raise flags in the eyes of the law.  Trey was the first to hop over the chain that runs the entire perimeter to the water around the theater, setting up his tripod right on the edge of the water.  Soon enough others were joining in, but eventually we would be asked to step back over the line.  In either case, this was no major violation, and any number of Chinese tourists were doing the same.  All in all, I think the pictures say more than I can for this post.

The weather is very nice today as well, and though I am exhausted, I have been considering going out this evening to see about getting some more shots while the light is so nice.

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Chuandixia Village

We were going incredibly fast, but I was still able to make out the distinct character for ‘Slow’ painted on the road.  Our driver seemed to ignore it’s presence as we barreled past, another turn that had me holding the door frame.  Poor planning had caused myself and some friends to miss the bus that would take us to Chuandixia village, about 90 kilometers outside of Beijing.  As we stood waiting for a bus that had already left, multiple Chinese men approached and repeatedly offered to drive us to our destination.  If you are standing at this particular stop and are not Chinese, chances are fair that you are headed to this small village.  The result is that a large crowd of illegitimate cab drivers stand and wait for a quick hire.  We had missed our bus and the drivers knew it, making us easy targets.

An hour had already been spent riding the subway, and we were in no mood to head all the way back home.  One particular driver was especially intent on taking us to our destination, and despite some misgivings on my part, he offered a good price and had a nice car (the importance of which I will explain in a moment).  I tried to haggle him down in price, but he was not having it.  “It’s 90 Kilometers”, he shouted, using his key to draw a picture for me in the cement wall to our side.  There were three of us, and the price was ultimately negligible, so we decided it was better than nothing.

I mentioned that a nice car was an important factor, and this is true for two reasons.  The first is that a nice car will keep you a bit safer and handle a bit better, but more important is that a nice car tends to have a driver who is more concerned about keeping his car in good shape, thus driving slower.  Wrong.  Immediately and irreconcilably wrong.  As we left the city, it became apparent quite quickly that it would be a wide-eyed experience.  The road to Chuandixia heads directly through a number of small mountains to the west of Beijing, a ribbon of pavement not dissimilar to many of the mountain passes in Colorado or parts of Europe.  Back to back switchbacks and s-turns aplenty.  We traveled a distance of almost 30 miles, and the driver managed to stay in the middle of fifth gear the entire time.  Next time you are in your car, count the gears as you speed up, and once you are in fifth take a look at how fast you are going.  Picture yourself on a narrow road laden with all forms of traffic, and then start driving in the wrong lane.  Welcome to China.

Despite the partial to full terror that came and went, the road on which we were traveling was unlike anything I have ever seen.  Enormous limestone peaks surrounded us on both sides, rising 300 feet straight up.  At times there were green hills, and at times there were tan and blue pillars of raw rock.  What appeared to be cement mines flew past as.  As China grows, I worry about the future of these beautiful formations.  If they are, indeed, completely limestone, they provide a much needed ingredient for a form of cement.  In some areas, it was already apparent that strip mining had done irreparable damage to the valleys.

We arrived in Chuandixia unharmed, though I dreaded the return trip.  The driver spent some time arguing with us about how much time we needed to spend walking around, as the sooner he got back, the sooner he could return with another load of passengers.  The village is several hundred years old, and though it had been hailed as a very authentic day trip to ‘ancient China’, it was quickly apparent that tourism had taken it’s grip.  A meal in this far rural bit of Beijing cost more than it would directly outside of my apartment.  I did not mind, however, as it was great to be away from the constant shuffle of the inner city.  I have missed the mountains greatly, and I found myself completely at ease sitting in the depths of this valley.  Somewhere deep inside, the desire to hike the distant ridgelines began to come forward.

I had initially desired to come to Chuandixia as it has a number of old slogans remaining from China’s cultural revolution.  These eerie bits of propaganda were, at one time, visible on the sides of hundreds of buildings all over China, but the three decades following the death of Mao have brought about much change.  While most of these slogans have long since been painted over, Chuandixia still has a good number that remain, painful reminders of the twisted decade that ravaged China and it’s people.  Looking around, it was possible to see small reminders of the thinking that once prevailed.  “Use Maoist ideology” and “Students should study the ideas of Mao”, were the clear ideas set forward in most of the slogans that could be made out.  It was a strange duality.  This village had obviously embraced the ways of capitalism, but was doing so by marketing the very slogans that once criticized anyone who sought personal gain.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the much older residents of the village, all of whom had undoubtedly lived here during the time in which these slogans were painted.  How must it feel to survive between two times that so greatly contradict one another, and yet remain so intrinsically tied together.

We spent some time hiking in the upper reaches of the village, staring off into the vast mountains and cliffs that lay in the distance.  The hills were on a scale that made them seem fake, with so much open space that it could be nothing but a picture.  My friends were talking about how they could not possibly live here.  What would you do to keep yourself entertained?  I wonder how you could pass an entire life and never live in such a place; I think that I could spend days sitting within these hills and find myself completely happy.  Terraced hills climbed outward from the village, giving much needed extensions of farmland in an area that has very little.  Gates made from small sticks made it clear where we were not meant to walk, but they represented only a small portion in this town that has opened almost every part to curious tourists.  Each house that we passed had signs advertising food and overnight lodging.  Winding lanes and cliff-side pathways made this seem like some Oceanside town in Greece or Sicily, with a blue ocean horizon replaced by an equally infinite set of hills.  It was an emptiness that completely filled my mind.

This was meant to be a story about a village in China, but I find that the experience was so colored by the physical travel portion that it has become something else.  We made it back home unharmed, but not without experiencing any variety of terrifying moments and bizarre detours, courtesy of our lovely chauffer.  It is unfortunate that riding in a car in China comes with such risk, as the remote places are often the most amazing.  I have great desire to ride a bike through these valleys, yet I will never do so simply because of the danger presented by careless Chinese drivers.  There were moments in which I found myself exhilarated by the terror, and moments in which I wanted to hit our driver for the arrogance he displayed in his disregard for the road.  Cars, despite being prolific in number, are a very new thing for the Chinese, and road regulation and training are inconsistent and generally nonexistent.  I learned to drive largely by observing how others did so.  If this is how we learn, how will China ever overcome the hell that is a roadway?

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Zhongguancun Electronics Market

I haven’t written anything in what seems to be a longer than anticipated time.  In part, I haven’t been feeling great, and I’ve also been in the process of getting into a new apartment, a great step forward from life within the hostel.

I did, however, get the chance to go to Beijing’s electronics district, Zhongguancun, a mind-numbingly large complex with every kind of digital device you can possibly imagine.  I had dropped my phone the night before, and the touch screen was no longer recognizing my movements.  Having heard that it would not cost very much to get fixed, this seemed like an interesting afternoon trip.

I was nothing short of impressed as I watched the guy at one of the stalls pull my phone apart, spend about 10 minutes ungluing and reconnecting the inner workings, and then handing me a perfectly repaired device.  I was very nervous about having such a repair done, in part because it involved taking the phone apart, but also because I only cost about twenty American dollars total.  Back in the US, I think I would have been hard pressed to find someone who could repair the phone so readily.  In China, I was surrounded by a dozen individuals, all of whom were able to repair any model of phone handed to them.  I asked if I could take a picture as the man worked his magic, and he simply grinned, and responded, “It would be better if you didn’t”.

I did not go through the entire market, but I spent quite a bit of time cruising through the level that sells phones.  I’m guessing that there were two or three acres of floor space entirely given to mobile devices, the vast majority of which being iPhones and Androids.  This article is sparse on pictures, as I quickly discovered that people here were not okay with the sight of a camera.  A few people offered to help me fix the thing, and everyone else quickly put their hand up.  In a market that sells no small amount of black and grey market goods, it is sometimes best to keep the pictures that live in your mind.

If you ever have need of a phone repair, need to purchase any kind of digital device, or simply want an entertaining afternoon, Zhongguancun is a good time.  Just take subway 4 to the Zhongguancun stop, and you will be in the heart of electronics heaven.

That all for now, potentially going on an interesting day trip tomorrow, but I’ll let you know how that goes.

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Public Bathrooms

Anyone who complains about the cleanliness of an American public bathroom needs to spend a bit of time hanging out in China.  I’m not saying that the facilities back at home are clean, I’m just pointing out that there are many shades of gray when it comes to filth.  So many people abhor the general lack of cleanliness;  they cannot handle the smells, the piles of misplaced garbage and the distance that Chinese place between themselves and responsibility for keeping public spaces clean.  There is something about this grime that I find particularly attractive, a level of character that you don’t often see in the United States.  The overall cleanliness within a society has such a direct tie to the experience that you have while traveling.  This is especially true among westerners making their way through developing and recently developed nations.  It is an ever-present sensation, the knowledge that the places you travel are (for the most part) anything but sanitary.  If you value your self preservation, you will disregard the five second rule while eating in public places.

But back to the bathroom.  I have a very sensitive stomach on a good day, and it seems that I have been living one extended bit of discomfort since I arrived nearly a month ago.  I don’t believe that there has been a single day where I have not found myself doing an expedited search for a bathroom at least once.  Go ahead, sit there in front of your computer screen and chuckle a little bit.  I think everyone, on some level, can relate to that feeling, the knowledge that you really really need a bathroom and can’t find one.  In China, public bathrooms are far more common a sight than in New York, but are almost always guaranteed to be a frightening experience.  In some cases, I would go as far as saying mind-altering.  I put much blame on the lighting.  Florescent lights can make any room look dirtier.

I found myself in a bathroom this afternoon, shortly after drinking an espresso.  This particular stall was at the end of a subway platform, and these tend to be some of the worst and most abused locations.  Two thirds of the wall had been excrementified at some point in time, and the other third was still covered in hard evidence.  Toilets in China do not seem to do a good job at flushing toilet paper, and many places provide a basket to toss the stuff once it is used.  This tends to become a veritable pile in the corner, only adding to the atmosphere.  Strangely enough, I almost never find anything that I could compare to graffiti.  No crude remarks, no numbers that say ‘For a good time’.  At most I see the occasional scribble, almost all of which are related to housing and searches for room-mates, a strange sort of bathroom classifieds.  They are inevitably written at (squatting) eye level, indicative of multitasking.  I’m always tempted to call one up.  ‘Hey, I saw your add while I was on the toilet, is the room still available?’.  Then again, perhaps it is a joke that I have yet to recognize.

And yet it does not seem to phase anyone.  The filth is the anticipated norm, and, as such, it is not an issue.  While there are any number of travelers who detest the Asian style squatting toilet, there are benefits to not touching a seat, the greatest of which being that you are not exposing yourself to the massive number of awesome bacteria that eagerly await your arrival.  In fact, don’t touch anything.  Not the walls, not the door handle, and certainly not the floor.  Don’t even wash you hands in the bathroom, find some sanitizer and tote it along during trips.  Believe me, it’s for your own good.

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A Storm, as Seen From Afar

As the world moves on from the name that was Irene, it is strange to follow emotions that exist, to me, only as a status on Facebook.  So many feelings, so many voices, and far away as I might be, the thoughts of those at home sank in sometime around 8am this morning, when I woke up to news that you don’t like to hear.  Though Irene seems to have spared most of New York City, it was not so kind to Frost Valley, a place that I have called home for two years, and second home for many years before that.  To quote Jerry Huncosky, CEO of the Frost Valley YMCA;

“We have weathered a significant storm at my YMCA. Our camp has damage that will likely be in excess of a million dollars. We lost a lovely old building, called Pigeon Lodge, lost several bridges and most of our roads are destroyed. No one was injured and our magnificent staff came together and took care of guests and each other. I may be reaching out to you to help with clean up. In the meantime keep us in your thoughts.”

I have weathered a few very large storms in the Valley, but nothing has compared to this.  An entire lodge gone, taken by the river that had risen higher than banks could contain.  Buildings can be replaced, roads can be rebuilt, and very fortunately no one was injured during this great storm.  I can only imagine what clean up there will be, but this is a place with some of the strongest staff I that I have ever met, and I’m sure that they will pull through.  This is not directly a China post, but there are very few places that I love so much as this one, and I spent the entire day feeling that it would be wrong not to send these feelings back to the other side of the world.  I would love to be there helping to clean up, but these small feelings are all that I can give tonight.  When a plan for volunteers and repair appears, I will post it on here so that any of you FV lovers can join in support of this wonderful place.

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Fragrant Hills Park

There is a well known park on the Western edge of Beijing called the Fragrant Hills.  It is quite old, and revered for the color of red that the leaves turn in the fall.  Ever time I asked for directions to the park, I was informed that it wasn’t a good time of the year to go, and that I should wait until the fall when the leaves will be the right color.  I was far less interested in the leaves, and more inclined to find a place that had some terrain to climb around.  Beijing is nothing if not flat, and I have been feeling a need to get out and go for a hike.  I wanted to see some change in the terrain, some countryside, anything other than traffic.  Fragrant hills seemed like the perfect choice.

I had tried a few days prior to get to the same spot, but incorrect directions led to a disastrous attempt, and I got nowhere near my destination.  This time, I got a much earlier start with the hope that it would give me room to correct any navigational errors that might occur.  To date, I have taken very few days trips that did not involve an obscene amount of walking and a good bit of guesswork, but as long as I have enough time, this tends to add to the overall experience.  I enjoy that short-lived disorientation that occurs when you get off at the wrong stop, or find that the bus you were meant to get on no longer exists.  These are strange moment in which to world looks just a little bit different.

It was not so difficult to get to the park once I found directions that were accurate.  I got off the subway, and shortly thereafter hopped on a bus that would take me the final distance.  It was strange knowing that I was some 10 miles from where I began my trip, and still very much within the city of Beijing.  This section looked and acted nothing like the area that I am staying, and it was nice to see some places that were not purely tourist.  Long rows of small shops lined the sides of the streets, selling all variety of things.  Dismal looking five and six story apartments ran past as, showing their age in the discoloration of once white tiles.  This was much more what I was after.  We were still in Beijing, but I felt transported.

Arriving in the section of city at the base of the park, I wasn’t quite sure where to head.  There were plenty of signs saying “Fragrant Hills”, but they all pointed into oblivion.  I find that the greatest problem with street navigation in China is that every bit of signage is meant for someone driving a car.  If you are on foot, this is little to no help and frequently forces you to walk a much greater distance than may be reasonable.  I have given up on asking Chinese for directions for two reasons.  One is that they tend to be very hard to understand in the way that they provide landmarks, and the other is that if they aren’t sure, they will either say that they don’t know (the appropriate answer), or make something up.  Sometimes this comes close to the right answer, and other times it just sends you in circles.  I prefer to just take my chances in guessing.  In the case of Fragrant Hills, I was able to see the summit in the distance, and that helped quite a bit in determining if I was headed at all in the right direction.

I do not remember the exact size of the park, but I have no doubt that you could spend the entire day there and still have things to see.  The land and some of the structures date back almost a thousand years, and though most of the original structures were destroyed, you can still see a significant number of remaining foundations and brickwork.  The bricks that were set 500 years ago were done with much greater care and skill than anything I have seen from the last 30 years, and I have no doubt that what remains of the old will outlive the new.

I began my hike uphill, headed toward the are known as Incense Burner Park, all the way at summit. The highest point is just over 500 meters high, which runs in great contrast to the dead flat plains just to the east.  I was happy to be moving and in the woods, which I have missed greatly since leaving the mountains in New York.  The paths in the park are laid entirely with stone and concrete, which, although nice looking, can be very hard on the knees and feet.  As I moved further into the grounds, I began to notice that there were large number of older couples in the park, walking around listening to small radios that hung from their necks or sat in their bags.  I would usually hear them coming before I could see them, the high notes of Chinese music drifted through the trees giving away their otherwise silent presence.  I would  never have thought to bring a radio as an addition to my time on a hike, but in most respects this was more of a park with large hills, and just like every other park, the elderly could be found relaxing in the shade and enjoying a day of quiet.

Everywhere I went, the air buzzed with the sounds of birds and the deafening hiss of cicadas (or perhaps large crickets?) that characterize a Beijing summer.  I know many people that hate the sounds of these little creatures, but I cannot picture the place without them.  They are a part of the greater whole.  As I walked, I would periodically see a Chinese men standing in the bushes, staring off into nothing, as though searching for the source of the bodiless sound within the trees.

Nearing the top, I found myself sweating and unusually out of breath.  I can’t but wonder if the Beijing air is already taking a toll, but I hope not.  Hundreds upon hundreds of steps lead to the top, and at times they can get very steep.  I can imagine that during the busy season I would be a bit scary to climb some of these sections within a large crowd.  I arrived at an overlook and was completely taken by the view of the hills that sat all around us.  It was a very smoggy day, but the haze added to the appeal, giving definition to the hills in the distance.  I wanted to climb far out into those unknown valleys to see the small places that sit in the horizon.  I have always felt this way near the tops of mountains, when everything below you suddenly seems to be much more coherent.  The world looks small down below, and for some reason I always find that it seems to be a different place, a mystery that needs to be explored.  Once I arrive back at the bottom, however, it is hard to take hold of those feelings in quite the same way.  I could hike forever, and I don’t think I would feel the same way while closer to the ground.

The top of the hill was not particularly thrilling, but after the long hike it was nice to feel the wind moving past, and I got a bit of that cold tinge that results from an overheated body cooling off too fast.  I watched as Chinese men puffed up the hill, many of them business men with their shirts tucked in and their feet clad in leather loafers, drenched in sweat.  I was surprised to see so few people that appeared to be hiking on their own, and over the course of the day I saw only one other westerner.  There is a chairlift that runs from the base of the hill to the top, but due to my fear of in-house Chinese engineering I decided I would rather walk back down.  It was a nice day for a walk, and soon enough I was back at the bottom looking up.

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Board Games

It is the small details that really make one country stand out from another.  I had attempted to go to a park in the western edge of Beijing, as it was suggested by the Lonely Planet guide.  Arriving at the last stop on the Subway, I was informed that the bus I was looking for did not actually stop there, nor was I anywhere near the park in question.  Thank you, lonely planet, that was two hours well spent in the solitude of the subway.

I was not really in a bad mood following this failed attempt, but it had put quite a dent in my plans for the day, and I wasn’t sure what else I would be able to see with the few hours that I had left (I tend to spend the morning writing, and then go out in the afternoon.  If ever in a bad mood, or feeling overwhelmed, a walk through the small neighborhoods is always a good remedy.

There is a game that I frequently see being played along the streets in Beijing, and, as far as I can tell, it is played exclusively by men.  I do not understand the rules, nor do I know the name, and yet I enjoy watching, as it is a communal activity.  More often than not, I see one or two people standing to the side watching as the game progresses, and, on some occasions, a very large crowd can form.  As I do not understand the workings of the board, I am left with a number of questions.  Does the crowd depend on the skill of the players, or perhaps an unusual level of excitement or personality?  Or instead, does the crowd gather simply because there are other people watching?

I am fascinated by the workings of crowds in China, the way in which people observe one another and are observed.  Privacy as an idea is quite different here than it is at home.  I have written in the past about the lives that people live on the street, particularly within the older neighborhoods and hutong.  The street is, in many ways, an extension of the home, and a vital element of the community.  It is interesting to observe the interactions that people have with one another, as some things on the street are a part of private life, while others are inherently public.  This particular game seems to come with an unconditional invitation to watch and, in many cases, to offer comment and suggestion.  Members of the crowd often look down at the board and make judgment on a move that has been made.  Others just stand by and smoke.  In all conditions, this is a form of entertainment within the older populations of the community.  It is a small detail, but one that adds very rich culture to this part of the world.

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The Long Post: Dongyue Temple, Beijing

A while back, I was reading a copy of the lonely planet guide to China, and noticed a temple in Beijing that caught my attention.  It was saying something about soothsayers, and it seemed like an interesting thing to go and experience.  The problem with this, however, was that I simply could not remember the name of the park, or even the general region in which it stands, making it very difficult to relocate.  In my quest to find this lost entity, I came across another temple in Beijing, called Dongyue.  The lonely planet gives this description for the attraction:

“Stepping through the entrance pops you into a Taosit hades, where tormented spirits reflect on their wrongdoing and elusive atonement.  You can muse on life’s finalities in the Life and Death Department or the Final Indictment Department.  Otherwise get spooked at the Department for Wandering Ghosts or the Department for Inflicting 15 Kinds of Violent Death.”

With a description like that, how could you not want to go?  I was, more than anything, curious as to what a “Department” referred to.  The guide was nothing if not limited in it’s information on the temple, and did little more than list a number of these so called departments.  I really enjoy heading to places that I know little to nothing about, and this seemed to be the perfect spot.  Taoist corporate offices, here I come.  I did some research on the temple, and found that it was constructed during the 14th century, making portions of it pretty darn old.  Like many temples in China, it has been burned down, rebuilt, damaged and fixed on multiple occasions.  According to the ever reliable Wikipedia, there were homeless people sleeping in it on a regular basis up until the 90s, when it was restored.

The temple itself is located in the middle of the Chaoyang Business district of Beijing.  For those of you who have not been, I want you to picture yourself standing in the most developed and commercial area that you know.  Hundreds of corporate high-rises all around, logo’s to major companies and brands, and in the middle of it all stands this little piece of the ancient world, a pilgrimage spot for so many Taoist believers.  When I left the subway station, there was a moment when I was sure that the guide must be wrong;  An ancient temple couldn’t possibly exist within this level of development, this world of glass and excess.  And yet, here before me stood the entrance to a small temple, older and less refined than any of that others that I have yet visited.

I have said, on several occasions, that once you have seen a certain number of classic tourist attractions in China you have seen them all.  It is now time for me to retract that statement, as this place is like nothing that I have seen before, and a site that I will forever recommend to all who visit the city of Beijing.  Arriving at the ticket window, I saw that the price was four times higher than what I had expected.  I asked why it was so much, and quickly discovered that this price was for the private tour guide.  I couldn’t possibly take such an option, as I think I would feel uncomfortable having someone tag along for the whole tour.  I like to take things slow, sitting here and there to simply watch and listen to the world around me.  Sure, a tour guide could have given me a great history, but in the end, I think it would have limited the connection to the space.  And hey, the plain ticket was really cheap.

I went to the ticket window opposite where I had entered, but the windows where closed and blocked by a cloth of some sort.  As I approached, a window slid open, and a hand came out, motioning for the money that I had yet to produce.  It was a creepy and appropriate effect for my entrance into the temple.  As soon as I was inside, the noise of the traffic and the hustle of the world quickly fell back behind me, a mere hum within the walls of an ancient world.

I was a bit put off by the lack of visitors within the temple, as I usually set out with the hopes of observing people, but this feeling was quickly replaced by a feeling of contentment.  It can be difficult to find places in Beijing where you are on your own, and private moments are a thing to be greatly valued.  This, more than anything else, enhanced the otherworldly feeling that I had while walking the grounds.  For the first time in three weeks, I had found a place where I saw no one else.

The main entrance to the temple consisted of an elevated walkway, probably some 200 feet in length. I saw that the rails along the sides where completely laden with red tablets, each with a different set of characters written on top.  I suspect that these talismans where some sort of request or tribute left by those who had visited the  temple, as I saw a few different people hanging new ones along the fence.  Thousand upon thousands of these blocks hung along the way, moments in time remaining from the hundreds of faithful that had visited this spot.  I continued to cross the bridge and went down a set of steps to one side, finding myself in a courtyard filled with rows of tall marble tablets.

These stones where enormous, some standing more than 10 feet in height and over a foot thick.  Looking around, this area reminded me of something that I have yet to place.  It was not a memory, but more a feeling.  There was a lot of feeling attached to these stones and the characters that still lay on top of them.  The field stones that paved the ground around me were incredibly slippery, covered in a moss that revealed what little traffic the place received.  For a moment, I was worried that I had entered an area that was not open to the public, but then saw another individual wandering just as I was.  The contrast between the mossy floor and the white marble gave me a morbid feeling, as though this was a cemetery.  I used to go hiking by myself in the Catskills of New York, and would periodically come across the remains of old buildings, long forgotten in the backwoods.  I found myself in China with the same feeling that I used to get from those old foundations, as though I was so close to the world in which they once existed, but couldn’t quite grasp it.  I can touch these stones, and they feel the same way that they did 500 years ago.  The place has stayed the same; it is the people around it that have changed. I found myself with a great desire to read the tablets, but they were written in the traditional form of the characters, and even if I didn’t have such a difficult time with that, I think my minimal knowledge of Taoism would have given me great trouble in understanding their meaning.

I continued to wander, and began to wonder what the guide book had meant when it spoke of the ‘departments’.  I stepped up along another platform that ran the perimeter of the temple, and quickly found my answer.  Directly in front of me was an open room that contained a number of strange looking figures, each appearing to be one of a kind.  It was obvious that they were significant, but I could not place any of them.  I looked for a description along the side of the room, and quickly found something like this;

Department of Life and Death

And finally, it made sense.  All around the perimeter of the temple were small cubicles of the same style, each containing a strange collection of figures that represented their respective department.  All told, there are 76 of them that comprise a sort of Taoist underworld.  Some of figures looked mostly human, while others where a mythical variety, sometimes even amphibian or bull-like in nature.  Many of the departments had to do with judgment and often depicted violent and unpleasant scenes (15 Kinds of Violent Death was excellent).  Many of the figures were missing their heads, or holding their organs.  Some just looked plain sick.

I walked slowly around the temple, taking a moment to look at each one of the spaces and the strange scene that it held.  Standing in front of some, I was washed over with the smell of very old decaying wood, and it reminded me of being inside parts of my grandparents house, perhaps their barn on very humid days.  Though it has been restored, this temple is rustic compared to so many of the other places that I have been.  It really allows you the feeling that you are in a place quite a bit older than the world around you.  I don’t know all that much about Taoism, but I was surprised to find that there was so much detail within the religion given to the idea of punishment, and organized punishment at that.  While Taoism does not have an underworld in the same sense as hell, this temple made it very clear that Taoists have a definite realm of punishment for failure to lead a life according to their beliefs.

I left Dongyue Temple with a great desire to learn more about the history of the region, as well as Taoism itself.  The religion was far more widespread within China prior to the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but has slowly begun to see a revival following the death of Mao.  Despite the decade of repression, Taoism remains heavily embedded in many aspect of Chinese life and culture, and it would be wise for anyone looking to learn more about China to take some time to look at Taoism.  This place had quite an effect on me, and I would be happy to go back again, even if just to sit an enjoy the solitude.

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Wangfujing Night Market, Part II

I declared in my previous post that I was off to find adventure in the far outskirts of Beijing. I went, I saw, and I realized that I would take more than one trip and quite a bit of time to write a story of that magnitude. It will happen, there is far too much happening out there to be ignored. I’m hoping to have it all put together by next weekend. In the meantime- Crap Internet Again, I think they should hunt down the guy who claimed he fixed the wifi, cause he’s full of it.

I went out to the Wangfujing night market a few days back while I was headed around the city. I have been to a portion of the night market in the past, but this section proved to have a very different selection of things to eat, and ultimately seemed to be a much better choice if you are looking for something other than insects. It also looked a whole lot cleaner, which must count for something.

The night market is a huge attraction in Beijing, for foreign and domestic tourists alike. Every evening, crowds in the hundred gather along the side of the road to view and sample a strange variety of cuisine, ranging from octopus to insects and bubbling, smoking drinks. Although I have little interest in eating the vast majority of things that are offered at the night market, I have found it a great place to go and watch other people on a night out. It is, in many cases, a family event, and watching others is half of the draw. I would not be surprised to find that the better portion of people head to the market simply to watch others eat things for which they have no stomach.

One of the better novelties to be found comes in the form of neon colored drinks that billow steam, a mesmerizing effect created by dropping a few chunks of dry ice in the bottom. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the crowd of children that gathered in front of the stand, entranced by the potion that was standing before them. Large skewers of frozen fruit are also quite popular, and though they do not stay frozen for very long, if you come early enough you can still find a stick of fruit encased in a glassy layer of ice. Just don’t eat those strawberries!

There is something incredibly appealing about eating in the open air. It seems much more natural than sitting in the confines of a restaurant, and the atmosphere is completely different. There is a strange sense of community among the large crowd that stretches the length of the snack stands. Perhaps it is the knowledge that everyone is trying these bizarre foods, but I think it is more that everyone is out to have a good time, a collective of people enjoying the evening air and the simplicity of the event. Vendors yell out their wares, crowds gather in front of the particularly strange foods, and large clouds of steam push up through the air as you walk from one stop to the next. You might not be hungry in the least, but whether you go for the food or for the sights does not really matter, for this is an experience more than anything else.

To get to the market where these photos where taken, take the #1 subway to Wangfujing, and just ask the first vendor you see for directions to the night market. Happy snacking!

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Boredom

The wifi has not been working here for some time, and as a result many things have not gotten posted.  It’s alright, though, as I read back and realize that they weren’t quite up to par.  This post is nothing to rave about, but I wanted to update everyone on the past few days.  Here is where we stand-

I found myself wandering the streets in southern Beijing, taking a trip down the single most tourist pushed section I have seen to date.  This was not just a street, but a full blow avenue, closed to traffic and rebuilt to look like the old Beijing, the world that every tourist imagines.  Rows of shops, both western and Chinese, lined the sides of this fresh looking thoroughfare, a selection of places that I have no interest in entering.

(The pictures above and below are made out of some kind of sugar which is heated and blown into shape)

I was feeling at a lack of ideas to write about when I got up this morning. I found myself (even now) trying too hard to come up with something specific.  As past experience has shown, the best thing to do is to wander until an idea shows up.  There is too much in this city for one person to ever run out of material, but it can be troublesome to try and look for an idea, as you so often end up writing something that sounds contrived.  Try as I did, I could not come up with anything.

And so I showed up at Qianmen old street and decided to head west until I found something that caught my attention.  The trouble is that nothing did! I walked nearly two miles trough the alleys and found nothing of great interest.  The problem, as I found it, was that everything around me was contrived, a brand new place made to look old, made to look as it had before it was knocked down and rebuilt.  What kind of strange perversion is this?  It is as if I were to cut off my hand simply for the sake of getting a prosthetic variant.  I took a few pictures of things here and there, but I couldn’t handle it.  I was surrounded by a culture vacuum, a void in the community that once stood on this spot.  When the man comes and knocks down the old in order to bring in the new, all of the former community gets pushed out.  Gentrification, Beijing style.  The people are transplanted, but the community is lost forever.

I was feeling adrift, and got back on the subway with little direction.  I wanted to see how far out the subways actually went, and so I hopped on the 13, which, though not the furthest reaching, goes quite a ways out.  Because it is an above ground train, I was able to watch the landscape change around me.  As we moved away from the heart of Beijing, the buildings got larger and larger, until we reached the top of the line.  And there, though the buildings had reached a zenith in height, the population seemed to be nil.  Massive streets appeared all but empty, as though waiting for crowds that had yet to appear.  This alien world looks sterile, a framework for a time that has yet to come.  It is a world on the edge of the world, and I have every desire to explore it.  Many of the residents who have been pushed out of condemned hutong come to rest in one of these massive external sky rises, but I see no way that such a rich and deep culture could maintain in one of these far out districts, a place so divorced from the central city.  And so I plan on venturing further out on one of these subway lines, simply to find out what lies at the end.

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