Breaking the Cycle: Henan
My normal life here in Beijing has been somewhat different these past few weeks–I went on a trip to Henan province from 11/6-11/9–the so–called 所谓 ‘cradle of Chinese civilization’, where the remains of China’s first dynasty, the Shang dynasty, were discovered. The Shang was not a dynasty in the sense of the Han or the Qing–back then China was primitive, with different societies in different river valleys with virtually no contact. But what do you expect from life in 3-2000BCE? Anyway, Luoyang, the capital of Henan, was one of the four ancient capitals of China (中国四大古都, the other three being Xi’an (then called Chang’an), Nanjing, and of course Beijing. Luoyang is now a mid-sized city, but its history is still very very rich. Originally, I was not too excited about going to Henan–there are so many other places in China that I would rather see–but given the EAP travel budget, Henan was as far as they could take us. Turns out it was a lot of fun. It was the first time that I got to meet the other UC EAP students, which was nice–the more friends the better it seems like, and despite my seemingly iron resolve when I arrived in China to not speak to any white people, it gets very tiring very quickly constantly having to think in Chinese. Having some fellow AmUHRicans to hang out with is a nice respite from the asian-ness of Asia.
Hold on tight, this one’s a long one…
We left one of Beijing’s four train stations (I forget which one, they’re all so big and look so similar) on Friday night, and boarded our hard sleeper car for the nine hour schlep to Luoyang, the capital city of Henan. I’ve never taken a train overnight before (upper-middle class FTW), but it didn’t end up being nearly as bad as I was positive it was going to be.
EAP set us up with one of those stereotypical asian tours, where every minute from 6:00AM to 10:00PM is planned out in specific increments. Wake up call at 6AM, brush teeth by 6:05, breakfast from 6:23-6:54, checkout by 6:55, on the bus and heading to the first of ten destinations by 7AM. You gotta hand it to them, they can really squeeze in everything that’s worth seeing, even if you only get to see it as you pass it on the bus.
Our first stop on the tour was the hotel, where we had enough time to get our room assignments and drop off our bags before heading to Long-Men (龍 门) Grottos. The pinyin doesn’t translate too well here–don’t be too immature. Longmen is located a few miles south of Luoyang, and is filled with thousands upon thousands of depictions of Buddhas, all carved into the mountain faces that bank the Yi River, which flows through the grottoes. There are evidently more than 100,000 depictions of Buddhist images, mostly carved during the Tang Dynasty, although construction began in 493CE. The grottoes are one of China’s most treasured historical sites, and although that epithet is used on virtually every piece of history in China, it is only because China’s history is so vast, unique, and turbulent that many historical sites indeed provide a lot of insight into how the culture developed throughout its long history. Speaking of turbulent, the majority of the carvings’ heads were destroyed during the Communist Revolution, as Buddhism, along with all other religion (except the religion of Communist labor, obviously) were made illegal. It is very unfortunate–despite there being more than 100,000 carvings of Buddhist figures, one is hard-pressed to find more than a handful with heads.
This is Emma, and this photo gives some definite insight into her personality.
The above two pictures do not provide scale, but those two Bodhisattva are HUGE. If you look up Longmen Grottoes on Wikipedia, you will see what I mean. Overall, the grottoes were crowded but very intriguing. So many 1500 year-old works of art so wholly destroyed 60 years ago by the same people who now are in charge of protecting them is quite a thought. Although I guess that is a fairly commonplace phenomenon throughout history–the winners do their best to erase the work and accomplishments of the losers, in this case the (attempted) destruction of Imperial Chinese culture’s legacy by the Communist Chinese. Still, the grottoes are a sight to see, and the defacement (haha!) of them only adds to the story of China’s past.
After leaving the grottoes we toured the obligatory surrounding gift shops, surely owned by the tour guides’ friends and family, and chock-full of the same generic Chinese junk that is sold everywhere, for the same exorbitant 外国 (wai-guo) prices. They did, however, have some delectable pomegranates.
In addition, I was able to capture a rare image of the director of the Beijing EAP Program, K.K. Cheung, in her natural habitat, practicing tai chi (太极拳).
The next morning we headed to another of Henan’s famous tourist sites–Yuntai Mountain (云台山), near the city of Jiaozuo (焦作). If you read my Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) post with the gorgeous pictures of the lakes, then you know how most of China’s more famous natural tourist spots are not left very natural. Just like Jiuzhaigou’s boardwalks are reminiscent of the Indiana Jones queue at Disneyland, so does Yuntai Mountain feel like an extended wait in the Thunder Mountain queue, albeit in both cases much more visually appealing.
For example, please explain to me how this rock is naturally shaped like the Borg ship. No seriously, if you can explain it, I will pay for your Yuntai Entrance ticket.
We started at the Red Stone Gorge (红石峡). The Gorge is gorgeous (the puns are everywhere–deal with it), with a river cutting through the steep rock faces, fed by the numerous waterfalls throughout the pathway through.
There is a saying about Red Stone Gorge, that every three steps is a spring and every five is a waterfall. This is not far from the truth–there is water everywhere, with a lot of it coming to rest on the rock floor of the pathway cut through one of the cliff faces, necessitating a very sure-footed tourist in order to enjoy the sites without twisting an ankle or falling into the river. One of my EAP friends Kyle, was not one of those sure-footed tourists. He ended up falling off of the bridge in the middle of this picture
just after passing the Borg ship. This is him just after being pulled out of the water, which, before you ask, was evidently very very warm and comfortable. He actually contemplated hopping back in because he hadn’t showered in a while, but we thought that it would pollute the fragile ecosystem too much.
Here is some more photos of Yuntai water.
After finishing up in the Red Stone Gorge, we grabbed a quick lunch before heading to the other side of Yuntai to climb the Cornel Peak (茱萸峰). The Peak is the main peak of Yuntai, and is high as hell. There were somewhere between five and six thousand steps–I lost count. On the way up are shrines built into the mountain to the various legendary folk heroes of Henan, as well as various other Chinese gods. The real treat, however, is only realized upon besting the steep stone steps and reaching the temple at the peak.
After scaling those last painful steps, I was greeted by a huge incense burner filled with offerings to the gods.
Honestly, I was too winded to remember asking who or what the temple was dedicated to, but it really doesn’t matter. It is cut right from the cloth of the Chinese temple stereotype–atop a a mountain, almost inaccessible, inhabited by grouchy monk-looking monks who live up there and guard it from evil spirits and even more evil tourists. The monks do not allow pictures to be taken of themselves, but do allow you to buy the ice cream they sell. It’s a good thing I honed my street photography skills in Beijing’s streets; I managed to capture a nice photo of one of the monks while shooting from the hip.
In classic Chinese fashion, the serene, majestic atmosphere of enjoying the view from a temple atop a mountain peak was interrupted by the sounds of construction. Evidently they were building a new wing for the monks to live in, as evidenced by this worker carrying a toilet on his head.
It became painfully apparent just how high we had climbed when we started the trek down to the base of the mountain. Between the steep, rickety, and uneven wooden stairs down, coupled with our jello legs from climbing to the top, it’s no wonder Emma has a deathgrip on that railing.
After finally getting down all of those steps, with no casualties I might add, we were able to stumble back into the bus and make it back to the hotel. I am really glad that I was hitting the gym so often back then, because although I was tired by the end of the day, Scott and I were the only two people who could walk un-aided the next morning. Lazy Americans.
After spending the day at Yuntai, we piled back into the tourbus and began the drive to Kaifeng, another major city in Henan province. Kaifeng is famous not only for being one of the seven Ancient Capitals of China, but also (get ready for it Grandma and Grandpa) for having the oldest community of Chinese Jews in China. Kyle, in case you couldn’t tell, is Jewish, and he and I, being the only 1.5 Jews on the whole trip, were pretty excited to visit Kaifeng. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore Kaifeng too much, as we had virtually every minute of our stay in Henan pre-scheduled, and as such were unable to visit the Jewish community in Kaifeng.
I digress, though. Back to the Henan recap. After spending the night in Kaifeng, we went to Millenium City Park, also called Qingming Riverside Landscape Garden (清明上河园). The park is a folklore-themed culture park depicting the culture and customs of the Northern Song Dynasty. Evidently the Northern Song people knew how to get down, as these pots decorated the park. This is a big jug of alcohol. The drinking kind, not the medical kind.
At the park we witnessed horse shows, stilt-dancing, a fake sea battle, which was lackluster except for three of the actors getting ‘killed’ and falling into the 36 degree water. I neglected to mention that Kaifeng was horribly cold and had this cutting windchill that was second only to the windchill in Haerbin. If nothing else, the sea battle was entertaining for its schadenfreude appeal. There were many things to see at the park, many including audience participation. One of my first friends from the EAP Kevin, got ‘married’ in the traditional Northern Song tradition to the mayor’s daughter. Allegedly, the bride-to-be would stand on her balcony and throw down a ball of silk to the sea of suitors below. Whoever caught the ball got to marry her. Kevin did not catch the silk ball. He did, however, fight off three other Chinese people and rip the ball out of the catcher’s hands. His reasoning was that he “always catches the bouquet at weddings”.
The Chinese loved the notion that a foreigner caught the ball, and were laughing out loud and snapping pictures throughout the whole ceremony. Add to the fact that Kevin is an open gay, this added an extra level of humor for us.
Aside from the marriage ceremony, there were a bunch of different Chinese sideshows. The first one we saw consisted of a group that performed various things such as throwing up heavy lead balls and catching them in cups on their heads. It doesn’t seem that bad, but if they had missed, they could have easily broken their skulls. There was also a little boy who jumped up a set of stairs on his head, and various Chinese people holding various pieces of paper and cigarettes in their mouths which were broken by a 20-foot whip. There was also the obligatory throw-axes-at-the-untalented-member-of-the-troupe act.
Most impressive in the whole troupe, however, was a little girl. This is what the Chinese seem to be traditionally known for in American sideshows, and this little girl did not disappoint. She tied herself in all sorts of knots, and her big finale was this:
Yes, she’s holding herself up with her teeth. The Chinese emcee was quick to tell the audience that, due to the girl’s chosen (compulsory?) profession, she will never grow taller than she currently is, and after her performance she grabbed a tray and began working the audience.
He was a fire eater. He literally drank the kerosene, however, which is not something that you usually see in America. He downed a bowl of it before he started the act, and then proceeded to speak a two minute introduction before starting his performance. I haven’t seen fire eating in the States in a long time, but I am pretty sure they don’t keep the kerosene in their stomach. His first act was to light a man’s cigarette.
The fire you see touching is about a quarter of a second from igniting the kerosene residue on his nose, which, given his quick move to extinguish it, was decidedly not part of the entertainment. Nonetheless, his skills and complete disregard for personal health and safety made for some great photos and better memories.
Our next stop was to the cockfighting ring. This is what we had all been waiting for–some good old bloodsport that is so hard to find in America, complete with a bookie to place bets at. Unfortunately, we soon learned that it was PG-13 cockfighting, as the winning rooster only had to push the loser out of a square. It was still cool to watch, and I only lost 5 kuai on the betting, so no big deal.
Our last stop was to a tea house to enjoy some traditional Northern Song dance and music. Typical Chinese stuff, but I will give you a picture just on principle because if you have read this far then one more picture won’t bore you too much more.
This picture was taken in front of a urinal in Yuntai shortly before I threw it in my backpack. It now hangs above our toilet at home, although evidently most of the people who use our toilet cannot read English or Chinese, because our white tile is still yellow.
After leaving the park, we got some dinner and boarded the nine hour train home. All in all, the three day trip to Henan was a lot of fun. I am glad that it was only three days, because I don’t think I could handle much more of the intense Chinese-style touring. We managed to squeeze into three days what most Americans would spend five or six seeing, and yet I didn’t feel overly rushed. I do not think I would visit Henan again, but that is more a testament to the countless beautiful and historical sites to see in China than Henan’s shortcomings as a tourist destination.
Hold on to your computer screens–photos and a recap from my trip to Haerbin is up next. I will try to make that one a little bit more concise. If you got this far, thanks for reading, and say hello in the comment box so I know that I am not writing this blog completely for myself.