I just had a chance to briefly video chat with my family in D.C., and it made me realize that I haven’t been updating this blog much at all! I’ve had a couple of drafts queued up that I didn’t publish, so I’m going to share some of these things that I’ve been saving.
I know that it might be ambitious, but I’ve also decided to get back into blogging regularly by doing a daily writing challenge during the month of November. Though I might not be publishing something every day, I’m trying to do a better job in staying connected to friends and family by updating a few times a week.
National Day (国庆节, or Guóqìng jie) is celebrated on October 1st, commemorating the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Yenching Scholars from last year’s cohort began a tradition that they dubbed “The Long March”, where students walked from PKU’s campus to Tiananmen Square in order to watch the flag raising ceremony at dawn. I participated this year and had a ton of fun – some of the girls in the group had a casual ladies night and drank coffee together, and then we headed out from our dorm around 2 AM to begin our walk. We all went at a leisurely pace (there was about 20 of us in total) and we walked about 15 km to reach the city center. I liked how it gave us a chance to talk – I feel like I am getting a close group of girlfriends here, which I really appreciate.
We got to the square in about four hours, just enough time to see the flag raising. (Though, to be perfectly honest, it was hard to spot behind the ocean of people and all of the selfie sticks.) Afterwards, I went out to a 24-hour dim sum restaurant to grab breakfast, before taking the subway back to PKU and completely passing out in my bed for the rest of the morning. Thus began my Golden Week!
Following National Day on the 1st of October, there are several days of extended holiday referred to as Golden Week (黄金周, or Huángjīn zhōu). Many students in my program decided to take advantage of the week-long break to travel to other provinces and see more of China. I took a trip with 10 other people (7 Yenching scholars from my cohort, and 3 friends!) to Shanxi Province, located about 700 km away from Beijing.
In Chinese, there is a phrase called “人山人海”, or rénshānrénhǎi, literally translating to “person mountain person sea”, which is used to refer to huge crowds. Traveling during Golden Week is very much about the 人山人海 experience. Big cities and tourist attractions tend to become overcrowded because of the huge amount of domestic tourism taking place, and travel costs skyrocket for the week. So, instead of going to one of the bigger cities in China and being subjected to Ren Shan Ren Hai, I decided to become a 山人 (Shān rén) (lit. Mountain Person, or hermit) by escaping to Shanxi Province (山西省) and visiting a couple of smaller historic cities.
The first stop in the trip was Datong (大同) – where we arrived on Monday evening after a 7-hour train ride. For our first full day, we originally planned to see the Yungang Grottoes in the morning, and the Hanging Temples in the afternoon. Thanks to the traffic, the 40-minute bus ride out to the Grottoes ended up taking closer to 2 hours (and we eventually got off the bus and walked for another hour!), so we chose to spend more time at the grottoes and skip the Hanging Temples. Saving something for the next time I go out to Shanxi, I suppose!
The Grottoes were really stunning – and I don’t think that I can adequately describe them, so I’ll leave it to UNESCO’s description of the site & share a couple of photos.
While influenced by Buddhist cave art from South and Central Asia, Yungang Grottoes have also interpreted the Buddhist cave art with distinctive Chinese character and local spirit. As a result, Yungang Grottoes have played a vitally important role among early Oriental Buddhist grottoes and had a far-reaching impact on Buddhist cave art in China and East Asia.
Our second day in Datong was a bit more relaxed – the weather took a turn for the colder, so we saw the Nine Dragon Screen and then spent some time just sitting in a café sharing a pot of tea and conversation. Overall, I find Datong to be a really interesting city, because it has somewhat recently been reimagined as a historic city in a drive to fuel its tourism industry. There’s a documentary about this development and the mayor of the city that has initiated this push, called The Mayor, that I want to watch soon.
After Datong, we traveled by bus to Wutaishan (五台山). Wutaishan (or Mount Wutai) is one of five sacred Buddhist mountains in China, and is recognized as a protected national landmark and UNESCO world heritage site. Scattered throughout the mountain were 40+ temples, each with distinctive Tibetan Buddhist characteristics and influences. I really loved the diversity in architectural styles and the amount of built heritage that this area had to offer. Again, I’m going to let UNESCO do the work in describing some of the nitty-gritty details of why this site has immense global historical significance, by quoting their description of Mount What:
Overall, the buildings on the site catalogue the way in which Buddhist architecture developed and influenced palace building in China for over a millennium. Mount Wutai, literally, ‘the five terrace mountain’, is the highest in Northern China and is remarkable for its morphology of precipitous slopes with five open treeless peaks. Temples have been built on this site from the 1st century AD to the early 20th century.
I really think that Wutaishan was the highlight of the trip for me. I loved having the chance to be surrounded by fresh air and nature. We arrived as the sun was setting over Wutaishan, and then spent a full day hiking and visiting temples close to our hotel. It was really magnificent to be looking out into the landscape and seeing these unending waves of golden pine trees, and the layers of mountains in varying shades of paling blue. You can’t see nature like this in the Northeast U.S., and I find this type of view is a humbling reminder of the grandeur of nature, and how different life really is here in China (and how lucky I am to be here right now).
Forecasts of afternoon rain for our second day in Wutaishan meant that we spent the morning seeing a few more local temples and sites, before retiring back to our hotel for the afternoon to read, and nap, and eat together. Of the sites that we visited was Dailou Ding (黛螺顶), which we reached after ascending 1,088 steps. We encountered many religious pilgrims on our walk up, who kowtowed on every stair or crawled up to the temple on their knees. Though I’ve been interested in learning more about religious traditions recently, this was one of the first times that I felt like I was sharing a physical space with such devout worship practices. After exploring Wutaishan, I feel really inspired to learn more about Buddhist architecture and traditions surrounding rites of worship, so that I can better understand and appreciate these sacred spaces next time I visit.
We took a bus to Pingyao (平遥) next, and again arrived in the early afternoon in time to watch the sun set over the city. The walled city was really interesting – parts of it were very geared towards the tourism industry, but there were also side streets that were interesting to walk through just to see the layout of the ancient city. It provided a lot of opportunities to consider how urban planning had taken place within the walls, and how recent adjustments and adaptations may have changed the urban form. I’m really curious about how historic designation and the tourism industry has driven new historic construction and how conservation/preservation/adaptation is conducted in the city.
Pingyao was at one time the banking center of Imperial China, and the city’s wealth led to the construction of some really beautiful courtyard homes and temple buildings that still stand today. The entirety of the Ancient City, as well as several buildings outside of the city’s walls, are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here’s the description from the UNESCO Website for the Ancient City of Ping Yao:
Founded in the 14th century and covering an area of 225 hectares, the Ancient City of Ping Yao is a complete building complex including ancient walls, streets and lanes, shops, dwellings and temples. Its layout reflects perfectly the developments in architectural style and urban planning of the Han cities over more than five centuries. Particularly, from the 19th century to the early 20th century, the Ancient City of Ping Yao was a financial center for the whole of China. The nearly 4,000 existing shops and traditional dwellings in the town which are grand in form and exquisite in ornament bear witness to Ping Yao’s economic prosperity over a century.
Parts of Pingyao definitely catered to tourists – there was a commercial corridor with lots of souvenir shops, a number of restaurants and massage parlors, and (somewhat randomly) a man who walked through the streets with an adorable tiny llama. I woke up early one day to walk around on my own before the shops set up, and found things to be really quiet, private, and lovely. We were able to buy local museum passes at a student discount, and explored a number of the historic houses. For our last evening in the city, we went up to the top of the historic city wall and watched the sunset as a group, before having a final group dinner to celebrate my friend Lili’s birthday.
What a perfect way to spend a vacation, and a super memorable Golden Week!
All in all, Shanxi Province is a place with so much historic value, and I was absolutely spoiled for the week for getting to see so many significant heritage sites. This vacation was the first time that I had wandered outside of Beijing since I arrived here in August – and I’ve really gotten excited for the possibility of traveling further in China and elsewhere in Asia for future vacations! When I think about what I’m learning here, I think that a huge portion of my education is happening outside of the classroom. That’s not to say that exploring is somehow completely separate from the readings that I’m doing – instead, I think that it means that I get chances to connect these readings and classroom discussions to a world I couldn’t have imagined seeing. So, again, I’m feeling really fortunate to be here and lucky to be making so many memories and friends through this process.
I’m going to be traveling to Xi’an with the rest of my class in early November, and will later have a month-long break in January-February. (Don’t tell my program administrators, but I’m also taking a long weekend & skipping a class so that I can travel to Hangzhou and Nanjing as well!) I haven’t figured out exactly what I’ll be doing for the long winter break, but I’m excited to start that planning process in the coming weeks.
So, I’ve taken up enough of your time! Thanks for sticking through and reading everything. I’ll be updating more hopefully soon, and especially picking up the pace in November with these writing efforts.
P.S. I’m realizing that I haven’t updated much about my academic life here at Yenching, which was originally one of my purposes for this blog. In my defense, I was experiencing some serious technical difficulties for the past few weeks and mostly relying on my phone as my laptop was increasingly erratic. I finally caved and bought a new laptop right before vacation, so I’m setting that up now and liking how smoothly it’s running. I’m finally getting reconnected to everything, though I’m playing a little bit of catch-up with the homework and readings that were assigned while my computer was out of commission! I’m hoping to give a more thorough update about everything soon, I hope!