Xi’an Series Part 1: Traveling to Xi’an

When traveling in China, there are many options to fit every budget and level of comfort.  To get to Xi’an, which is south of Beijing and known for the Terracotta Warriors, we opted to take an overnight train, which would be about an 11 hour journey.

Riding on the overnight train was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and despite not being incredibly comfortable at first, I actually grew to enjoy it.  On board the train, there are rooms no bigger than a couple yards wide, each hosting 6 single beds, with three bunks stacked on top of each other on each side.  Each bed is barely big enough to sleep one person.  At the end of each train is a communal bathroom, fully furnished with a traditional “squatty potty”.

Riding the overnight train is one of the most cost effective but least comfortable ways to travel, however we made the best of this new experience.  There’s nothing like the excitement of being with close friends on the way to a new place, drinking beers, playing card games and talking for hours even after the lights go out.  Finally, exhausted, we climbed up into our narrow bunks for the night.

I lay on my back the entire night, unable to even fully sit up in bed, but the gentle rock of the train felt nice.  We arrived in Xi’an between 7 and 8 and the next morning, and it felt great to get up right away and go take on our first day in Xi’an!

Sushi on Thanksgiving ?

As my first semester in China is coming to an end, I have been reflecting on how much I have learned here, the amazing relationships I have made, how much I have learned about myself and what makes me happy; I truly am the happiest I’ve ever been living here in Beijing, challenging myself and growing every day.  It has been an experience and opportunity that I’m so happy I chose to take.  I am so thankful to have two more months in Beijing before I move to Shanghai!

Carve that turkey up!

Celebrating Thanksgiving here in Beijing was bittersweet – while I missed my mom’s amazing Thanksgiving stuffing, seeing family and friends from back home, and participating in some of our most cherished American Thanksgiving traditions, celebrating Thanksgiving in Beijing made me appreciate all of that so much more, while also making me so grateful for the amazing people I’ve met in Beijing and our memories together.

My two best friends in Beijing, Alex and Jason. Beijing wouldn’t be the same without them!

My program organized a great event in which we were all able to come together and share a Thanksgiving meal.  We had two turkeys, and some of my classmates helped prepare some fantastic traditional (and nontraditional) dishes such as stuffing, mashed potatoes…and spring rolls and sushi.  Who knew you could eat sushi on Thanksgiving??

Two seconds before our Thanksgiving feast got demolished

Overall it was really moving to see how much we have all bonded since the start of our time abroad together, and while I stay here in Beijing during the holidays, it is going to be really sad to watch some of my favorite people go back to the States…

Quick Update and Beihai Park

Hi guys!  I am excited to be putting together a mini series on my weekend in Xi’an!  In the meantime I wanted to share with you all some pictures from my recent trip to Beihai Park…I hope you enjoy and keep an eye out for my coming posts on my experience in Xi’an!

[SPOILER ALERT] The Lama Temple doesn’t have lamas…

Hi all – sorry it’s been a while!  Undergoing some internet access issues abroad, but that’s all part of the experience right?

I want to share with you all part of my experience at the Lama Temple in Beijing, or Yong He Gong.  Sadly there were not actually lamas there…but the experience of walking through the temple leaves me with a feeling I will never forget.

My initial impression of the Lama Temple was its vast beauty – the architecture, the way the bright saturated colors pop, the intricate details – it was almost a sensory overload, yet uniquely beautiful.  Throughout the air you can see waves of smoke, and the strong scent of incense envelops you.  I decided to burn incense and take a moment for prayer and reflection.

A little background on the temple was that it was built during the Qing Dynasty in 1694 as a palace, but later became a lamasery for Tibetan monks after emperors started living in Beijing’s arguably most famous historic spot, the Forbidden City.

Each building hosts rooms celebrating various Buddha where visitors can pray.  Entering the largest building, I was shocked at the sight of this Great Buddha.  Standing tall at about 85 feet, this beautiful, glowing golden Buddha was absolutely breathtaking…

Walking through the temple, I felt an almost indescribable wave of peacefulness and tranquility wash over me.  I have never felt anything quite like it in my life, this feeling of being content and more in touch with myself.

As the season quickly begins to change to winter, I am looking forward to hopefully going back to the Lama Temple to see it in winter time.  I feel that this temple is so special, it would require multiple visits to even begin to brush the surface of its history as a Beijing landmark of Chinese culture, as well as Buddhism in China.

7 Foods That Have Surprised Me in Beijing

Here are the 7 foods that have surprised me most so far:

I took this picture during my first trip to Pizzahut in China.  Pizzahut is really popular in China, along with KFC.  The menu was surprising to me – almost completely different from the American menu, and specializing in black crust pizza that I have never seen back in the States.  Needless to say, the pizza was delicious, and the matcha green tea cheesecake was to die for!

This picture is from my local supermarket down the street.  I had to double take when I saw this gigantic cucumber(?) – my friend and fellow Crusader, Jason, is in the background for a size comparison.  I have never seen one this size!

Another food item I was surprised to find here in Beijing?  Fantastic Mexican food! If you know me, you know I LOVE anything with avocado, but especially guacamole.  This guac at Taco Bar has been my favorite so far, and surprisingly authentic tasting.  After chips and guac, my friends and I love to grab tacos here on a night out and treat ourselves.

My absolute favorite snack: Lay’s Wasabi flavored potato chips.  Incredible!  China’s potato chip selection is completely different from the US – it can often be impossible to find favorites from home like sour cream and onion, sea salt and vinegar, or BBQ.  More common flavors here include cucumber, Italian red meat, tomato, etc.  However, while you can sometimes find American Classic, my new favorite is Wasabi, which has the perfect amount of spice and mouthwatering flavor.  Will definitely be sneaking a bag home with me!

This is a picture of the mooncake I ate in celebration of the Mid Autumn festival in October.  I love the designs on top of the mooncake, and I especially love the story behind why we eat mooncakes (check out https://vimeo.com/236684413 to learn more, it’s a great story!) Nowadays you can get mooncakes with almost any flavor, from red bean or green tea, to chocolate or ice cream.  It was really exciting being able to try a mooncake for the first time and participate in this Chinese cultural festival!

Still mustering up the courage to try one of these Chinese beef floss pastries.  The outside seems to be covered in something with a texture that looks like fur…update to come!

This particular green tea matcha ice cream comes from a traditional neighborhood in Beijing called HouHai.  If you like green tea, you will love the strong, almost bittersweet flavor of this ice cream.  It was the perfect way to end the day after walking through the busy streets of the hutong and enjoying the sunset on the lake.

Thanks for reading! 再见!

My Top 7 Foods in China…so far

Here is a look at 7 of my favorite meals in Beijing so far:

Chinese hotpot!  Simply one of the best ways to bond with new friends in China, which you can see in this pic from my first week in Beijing.  Collectively, the table orders a variety of uncooked meats, vegetables, mushrooms, potatoes, dumplings, etc and cooks them in a large pot at the center of the table.  The experience makes for great conversation and gives the opportunity to sample lots of different delicious foods.  After cooking my meats, I love to dip them in the brown colored sauce (seen in the white bowl) which has a peanut butter-like flavor.  So delicious!

My favorite breakfast food (honestly, anytime food) – Baozi! At almost any convenience store you can easily find baozi, which are these delicious white buns filled with meat or vegetables.  I typically like to order mine with Zhu Rou, or Da Rou, which are various ways of preparing pork.  Eating a nice warm and moist baozi can be a great (and cheap) way to start your day or have a snack.  I will 100% have to import these to the US when I return home.

Beijingers are generally known to eat a lot of noodles with their food, which I absolutely love!  These soupy noodles have a fantastic combination of greens with a spicy, peppery sauce.  I could be happy eating these noodles for days.

Because Beijing food delivery closes so early (usually before midnight), and because of the Chinese inclination toward family style eating, it is not surprising that my friends and I have already explored McDonalds in China, which is open late and where you can conveniently order your own food.  This is the Chinese Big Mac, which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the same as the Big Macs we are used to in the States (although I’m convinced the special sauce has been tweaked slightly).  It is not uncommon for fast food restaurants to alter their recipes and meals to cater to the Chinese consumer, but this is one distinctly American treat I can count on to be the same as back home.

This is a bowl of spicy noodles in broth offered at the dining hall across the street from my dorm.  On a cold day, I love ordering these noodles that make me feel nice and warm.  For a great price, these noodles taste great and will leave you feeling full.

While you can purchase egg waffle ice cream in the States, my first time having this Asian-style treat was here in Beijing in an traditional style neighborhood called Nan Luo Gu Xiang.  This particular vanilla ice cream was topped with mango and an Oreo and was absolutely delicious.  10/10 would recommend!

One of my favorite parts about studying with CET is that every Friday after class, our professors take the class out for lunch to a different restaurant each week.  This picture is from our class lunch at a restaurant that specializes in Sichuan style food, which is a style of Chinese food that is known to be very spicy.  This was my absolute favorite class lunch because the food was incredible – from spicy tofu to salty green beans to sweet glazed pork, every dish was mouth wateringly good.

 

Coming next – 7 of the most intriguing foods I’ve seen in China!

My First Trip to 798 Art District!

This past week I was lucky enough to get a couple much needed days off in celebration of China’s National Day, which is an annual public holiday marking the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Because almost everyone is off from school and work, this mini vacation was not a good time to travel or visit some of Beijing’s most famous sites; instead, my friends and I decided to check out a slightly more secluded part of Beijing called 798 Art District.  Before going, I was super excited about this opportunity because I am currently conducting a research project on contemporary/young adult art in China and its impact on Chinese culture.  It was so awesome to be able to see some contemporary Chinese art in person!

Stepping into the art district felt like being in a different world.  Most of the galleries seemed to be in abandoned industrial buildings and factories, but all of them seemed to have their own wonderland like twist, for example the giant panda statues and bright pink walls, or the Simpsons and Paul Frank characters outside of one shop.

One of my favorite pieces was a large outdoor mural with really intricate details of buildings and daily life, as well as a changing line of perspective.  It looked like a bird’s eye view of a futuristic city.  I am really looking forward to going back to 798 Art District very soon and continuing to explore – with so many twists and turns, I feel like I have barely cracked the surface of all it has to offer.

 

I just wanted coffee and then this happened…

If you know me, you know I cannot start my day without a piping hot cup of coffee.

In a country known for its amazing tea selection, finding a decently priced cup of coffee in Beijing is not an easy task.

My friends and I started on our way to find the perfect coffee shop to study at for our upcoming test; we were headed to a local place one of our roommates had recommended.  About 45 minutes of walking later, we still had not found the coffee shop we had set out for.  We were tempted to head back to campus, but decided to take the opportunity to continue checking out the area of 五棵松.  The area seemed relatively empty, with expansive parking lots and a couple fast food chains (KFC is HUGE here).  However, in search of the nearest train station, just slightly below street level we found a hidden area brimming with life.

As we entered it felt like we were suddenly entering an entirely different world from where we came from.  Our senses were completely overwhelmed from the live musicians on every corner, the video games being broadcasted on a huge electric screen high above us, the shiny and inviting luxury stores at every turn and the bars and restaurants that sent aromas of delicious noodles and pastries wafting through the air.  We were surrounded by dancing neon lights, bold contemporary art statues, and even a giant slide to move from one level of the development to the next.

While I was immediately struck by the modern, and even, to an extent, Western feel of this new wonderland, there were elements that felt, to me, so distinctly and traditionally Chinese – whether it be the locals singing karaoke and dancing on the sidewalk, the delicious smell of hot pot, or the market full of Chinese goods, with everything from jade to tea leaves.

I am even writing to you now from my new favorite coffee shop, Holly’s Coffee, which I came across in this mysterious new world.  I could not resist going back because I could not get this place out of my mind.  Despite all the beauty and history to be seen in some of Beijing’s most historical and well known sites, I could not help but feel that this new place gave me a vibe that distinctly represented the Beijing of the past and the future.

Today in class I learned a Chinese idiom “古今并存”, which means to exist as old and new simultaneously.  This idiom undeniably applies to Beijing, and even more so to this wonderful new location I found.  Part of the beauty of Beijing, and why it is so attractive to me, is its constant evolution toward what is new, but also its adaption and celebration of what is old.  It creates a truly original place that evokes a feeling I cannot liken to anything I have ever felt before.  I love this new feeling of being in Beijing!

Looking back, I am so glad that my classmates and I did not just go straight back to campus that day, otherwise we may have never found this special place at五棵松.  I think this experience really emphasizes why it is so important to be willing to explore the unfamiliar, as you never know what you will find or learn!

 

 

I am not a morning person but I woke up at 6:45 am for this…

It’s 8:00 am and I am standing on top of the Great Wall of China.

I’m looking out over the sunlight just beginning to graze over the tops of the trees, and I’m standing strong in the face of the wind that could literally knock me over.  In this moment, every difficulty I’ve faced since coming to Beijing doesn’t exist to me anymore, and I know it’s moments like these that I may never have again, and moments like these that inspired me to study abroad in the first place.  I feel so incredibly grateful to be standing here and for having the opportunity to study in China.

My classmates and I got up at 6:45 to start our climb.  Especially with the wind, it’s colder than you would expect for a September day, and we learned this pretty quickly as we began to hike up the steep trail that would eventually lead to the Great Wall.  We are hiking an unrestored section of the Great Wall, which means two things: 1) there will be no other people there besides us and 2) it is a more difficult and dangerous trek than that of other sections of the Great Wall.  When we finally reach the Great Wall, we continue to climb as the wind gets stronger and stronger, even climbing some sections of the Wall so steep that they almost feel vertical.

At the highest point, I stop and see water in the distance, and even buildings that look like specks, and I think about how people are probably just beginning to wake up down below, or how my friends on the other side of the world are probably finishing eating dinner or studying.  I think about how many people helped build this wall and wonder how many people before me have walked along these stones.  By now, my phone has died from the cold, and I am not able to take any more pictures to show to my friends and family back home; I try to soak everything in, from the invigorated feeling washing over me to the beautiful blue hue of the sky.  It’s moments like these that I want to remember for a long time.