Updated usually on Mondays and/or Thursdays!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Travel Diary #6: China, Again

Travel Diary #6: China, again
Guiyang night scene
Hi everyone! Letrendary will be going through some major changes in the next few months, but that's another post for another time. I just got back from two weeks in China, and though I recently wrote about my Chinese heritage on The Odyssey here, I figured I'd do a specific post reflecting on the trip.

Stop #1: Wuhan
We were on a whirlwind schedule of almost a city a day, so we only stayed in Wuhan for one day. Mainly, we went to visit family and to burn zhiqian (joss paper/fake money) on my grandpa's grave, since all the family members on his side of the family lives near Wuhan.
Here are some pictures of my family, including my adorable nephew.

Wuhan was so hot that I felt like I was back in Singapore again. Thank goodness there was a room in my great-uncle's house that had an air conditioner. Hallelujah for technology.

I had just finished reading The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley, and she had talked about how as a culture we have to respect education first if we want to ever advance in it. As I noticed the academic certificates decorating the dirt-stained walls of my great-uncle's house, I couldn't help but agree. It is the way that China, like Finland and South Korea, cultivate a devotion and appreciation for education from toddlers to old men that has helped foster a drive in those countries' students that allowed them to score among the highest test scores in the world. 

We were treated to wonderful Wuhan food, both home-cooked (above) and at the restaurants where we had dinner and breakfast the next morning.

The noodles here, called 炸酱面, are one of the most famous dishes of Wuhan.

The next day, we were scheduled to leave for Guiyang to drop off the bulk of our luggage at my grandma's house. That morning, we went to a huge park bordering a nearby river. Wuhan had suffered from severe floods in the beginning of July, and you can see in the picture below just how much of the city succumbed to the waters. Even with sidewalks buried and lampposts half-drenched, people still swam in the river--understandable, given how excruciatingly hot the city is.

Stop #2: Xi'an
Technically, we went to Guiyang before we went to Xi'an, but since it was only to drop things off (and we returned to Guizhou later), I'm counting Xi'an as our next stop.

We stayed in Xi'an for three days, mainly to finally embark on a grand exploration of Chinese history. Xi'an is home to the famous terracotta soldiers.

I won't say too much here, as my head is still pounding from jetlag, but the basic story of the terracotta soldiers is this: Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, was so drunk on power that he ordered the creation of an entire underground city with officials, magistrates, and, most importantly, an army. To defend the city from invasion. He'd wanted to achieve immortality, and some people say that he drank toxic materials to do so, ironically dying in the process. Most of the tomb is actually not excavated because 1) much of the city was built was materials like wood, which rot as soon as they come in contact with air after 2,000+ years suffocated by dirt, and 2) there is a mercury river slithering through the city, and it could be poisonous, toxic, however you want to call it. The story of Qin Shi Huang is a violent, thunderous one, echoed by the corpses of workers who bled on the terracotta soldiers they so frightfully crafted. No terracotta soldier is the same, and our tour guide said that all Chinese men have faces matched by a soldier. It's a bit unsettling, isn't it, to know that who you are was engraved with peasants' blood over 2,000 years ago, and left to rot in an underground city dug in with the remnants of psychopathic dreams?

Archaeologists work at the site every day, assembling limbs together and unmasking colors. Yes, once upon a time, the soldiers were dusted with vibrancy. Soon, the hope is that we'll be able to restore those colors for not just the soldiers but also the horses and chariots.

At Xi'an, we stayed in 华清宫, a palace where a concubine of a Tang dynasty emperor spent her days. Legend has it that Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, the lover, were so enamored that the emperor neglected his country until An Lushan attacked, ripping apart the grandeur of the Tang Dynasty so that the most glorious days of Chinese history became nothing more just that: history. In fact, there was a famous dance performance telling this legend at the palace every night. We got free tickets as hotel guests, and I'm not going to lie, I was not very impressed. The technical aspects were incredible, with fantastic waterworks and one scene where the entire Li Mountain in the back was projected with stars, but the story itself was poorly told, with two huge dance numbers spent on things like Yang Guifei taking a bath...

The hotel in the palace was an unforgettable experience, though. The breakfast buffet had these cute buns:

The lobby was superbly decorated:

And by the way, the palace is famous for its hot springs, naturally warmed by an inactive volcano. AND EVERY ROOM HAD ITS OWN HOT SPRING. Okay, I think I burned myself in one, but still, what luck. 

The inside of our room. If you look closely, you can see the hot spring well in the back, past the door.
Oh yeah, and I got to wake up to this every morning:

The palace, being a historical site, also had some interesting landmarks:
The view atop Li Mountain, right behind the Palace
One of the pools that concubines bathed in. I don't remember if this one is Star Pool, but with the way the light glimmers in the water, it's clear why at least one of the pools was called "Star Pool."

Lovers and families alike would put up charms using red ribbons on this tree in the Palace.

We also had some awesome Qin Dynasty-themed food (the character on the food is "Qin"):

They had period costumes you could try on, so my mom and I both did :D

 Xi'an is also famous for its dumplings:
Squid dumplings!!

Dumpling shaped like an almond!
The last thing we did in Xi'an was climb Hua Mountain, a famously steep mountain. Unfortunately, my brother got sick, so he and my dad stayed at the visitor center while my mom and I embarked on a 2-hour long hike between cliffs.

People tied locks with red ribbons to the rails of the trail for protection

We were lucky--our hike was mostly downhill. If we'd been going the other way... I might not have made it back. xD Also, parts of the trail kind of reeked of urine.... *sighs* It was still epic, though.
So many tourists = so many vendors, including two for absurdly long kites!
Stop #3: Guizhou
Then we returned to our home province, where most of my family is! I hung out with the son of my dad's friend and as I talked with him and his friends, I began to realize for the first time how thoroughly the West has shaped my mindset. Not in a "I AM FREE AND YOU ARE NOT!!!" way, but in a more subtle way, like how sometimes I longed for the type of close-knit communities that Chinese high schools fostered (students lived at the school), or how I had become so dependent on things like Google that without it I felt stuck, rooted to quicksand that I wasn't sure I should escape from.

We went to the rural village where my paternal grandparents still live and met up with my cousins.

On the right: my brother and two cousins
I uh... did a stupid thing. I was chasing my brother and two of my cousins so that I could get a good photo of those three, roughly the same age and height, with brother-like faces, so that when they're older they can have something to look back on. Being the teenagers that they are, they evaded me by running across the rice paddies. To catch up, I decided to take a shortcut, but I chose an extremely thin path so that one moment I was looking through my camera's viewfinder and the next I'd fallen waist-deep into rice paddy mud. So my camera took a long time to recover, meaning that this is the last picture I have:
My cousin, 10, running to catch up with my brother and two of the male cousins (see if you can spot them)
So we went to many more places, like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, but I don't have any pictures. I could have taken photos with my phone, yes, but at that point I realized I just wanted to live in the moment. Special shout out to Cynthia for being our awesome guide in Hong Kong.

That's it, then. Another two weeks gone. This time, coming back felt a bit different than before. I'm leaving for college next year, and my parents said that we probably won't be going back to China again until four years later, when my brother graduates high school. But it's not that I'm feeling nostalgic, heart already scooped out by the memories I left behind. It's more that... this time, I felt a sort of lingering loneliness that I hadn't felt before. My parents and my brother and I, we're the only ones in our family living here in the States, and while that's hardly an atypical immigrant experience, it's something I never really thought about before. But this time, so embraced by family members, so cared for by friends, I've begun to feel sadness creep into my veins like I had been breathing it in all along and only just now noticed. I guess now that I'm finally out of high school and have time to think, I'm realizing the weight of emptiness here, glued to the hallways of our house, the empty backseats of the car, the apple trees in the backyard bearing too many apples for us to ever eat.

But though it feels empty here, sometimes, that feeling at least reassures me that I am not empty. And that's all I could really ask for, I guess. A heart so crammed full of stories and people that the emptiness around me is all the more despairing. Because it reminds me of my own mortality, in a gentle way, so that I take for granted nothing.

Warmly, quietly, proudly,

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