Breaking Through the Smog

Blog post one of vacation!  Only two days in technically and it’s been packed.  Midterms went well, I prepped as much as I needed to, felt better about my performance than I expected too, so I call that a win.  After my last one at 9am on Friday I got on a high speed train to Beijing.  Had an end-of-midterms beer, wrote and read a bit, and got into Beijing at around 6:30.  From the station I went to pick up my friend Pabs from work (one of my classmates from Xi’an, currently interning in Beijing), and we boarded a midnight train to Datong with Lydia, my very good friend from my first time in Harbin and basically the reason I’m doing this Fulbright, along with her coworker from China Dialogue (an environmentally-focused news agency for lack of a better description).

So Datong, as far as I can gather, was the capital of Northern Wei Dynasty.  It’s about six hours from Beijing in the province of Shanxi, and in recent times it’s been a huge coal town, less so recently as the mines have shut down and one of them has turned into a tourist attraction of some sort.  Go figure.  The air was amazingly clear for it being a coal town as well, I was impressed.

We weren’t there for the coal or even the lack of smoggy air though, we were there for the Yungang grottoes, a site that my mom dearly wanted to see when she came and is one of the four great grottoes of China according to my friend.  They’re quite a sight to behold.  Originally completed in roughly 494 AD as a Buddhist paradise, they’re a bunch of caves in a hillside, some carved, some natural, that house some massive Buddha statues and stunningly beautiful murals and carving work.  I don’t have any personal pictures of the amazing painted grottoes, as I, unlike many Chinese tourists, pay attention to the “no pictures please” signs.  They’re still in pretty good shape despite the cultural revolution, and we celebrated with some fresh toffee and these cute walnut cakes, which are dough filled with syrup and walnut chunks.

Despite the cold, we had a blast, took the bus back to town, and went to our Airbnb which was the cuuuuuutest apartment evar.  See pictures.  A steal for $30 a night.  Amazingly comfortable bed too, wish I could have spent more time there.  We then set out in search of 刀削面 (dao xiao mian, dao she-ow mien)  or knife-shaved noodles which are a specialty of Shanxi and one of my favorite dishes ever.  The name just refers to how the noodles themselves are made, i.e. taking a big hunk of dough and shaving off the noodles into the pot with a knife.  The product is thick and somewhat irregular which leads to a wonderful consistency, then you add whatever other ingredients you like.  On the way there though we passed by a bunch of street stalls selling cookies, veggies, fruit, flour, and even milk, which gave Lydia a huge nerd kick.

Why? Shameless plug for her awesome project.  So a little over a year ago, Lydia got into the zero-waste movement, which is exactly what it sounds like, and with her brother and some other help she’s set up a website that I recommend you all checkout.  While I’ve not pledge to go trash-free yet, I’ve adopted a lot of tips to help reduce my trash footprint and I think anyone can get something out of it.

Live Zero Waste

As a result, anytime she sees things being sold wholesale where she can use her own containers, she gets really excited.  After dinner we found even MORE stalls at this several block-long night market so we picked up some cake, chestnuts, sunflower seeds, apples, basically whatever we had the space to carry.

We took it all to a karaoke place and sang and danced for about three hours.  First time I’ve been to karaoke (or KTV as it’s known here) in a while, and first time in a loooooong while I’ve had that much fun.  Although they were missing some of my favorite songs.  For those that don’t know, Chinese, and Asian karaoke in general is much different from what you might be used to in the west.  In America, karaoke is usually something your local bar runs to give people a chance to perform and attract clientele, or perhaps drive them away if too many tone-deaf drunk singers get onstage.  When you go to Asian karaoke though, you pay for x hours, and then get your own room with a TV, mikes, and a panel to pick songs, which are then played on said TV while you sing along with said mikes.  This is usually accompanied by cheap beer (that is not sold as such), snacks, perhaps dice games, and dancing.  Some places add novelties like the ability to draw on the TV screen, themes, disco lights, and even prostitutes apparently.  It’s a much more intimate experience that way I feel (singing with just your friends, not the prostitutes).

The next day we woke up at 5am at my (later justified) behest to be out the door to the hanging monastery known as Xuankongsi.  Built around the same time as the grottoes, it’s a relatively small monastery built straight out of the cliff face here, not into it as much as you might expect, which is what makes it so architecturally significant.  Apparently it’s quite well known in the architecture community.  It’s got a cool TARDIS effect going on where due to the separate stories and winding walkways it feels much bigger on the inside.  Said pathways though are pretty narrow and the railings are pretty low, so I even though we were the first ones there practically I found myself a little nervous.  The 5am wakeup paid off as we were leaving and saw huge groups of tourists heading up.  And this is the light season, I can’t imagine what it’s like on national week.

Next came the great surprise.  In researching the monastery, I saw that it was near Mt. Heng, one of the five holy Yue Mountains of Daoism.  I had previously climbed Mt. Hua in Xi’an which is the western Yue, with Heng being the northern, and thought “damn, I wish I had allotted more time for the trip, that would have been cool to see”.  For reference, Mt. Hua took about 12 hours to climb, which was not time we had, and I assumed would require another drive from where we were.  Our driver said though that not only was Mt. Heng super close to the monastery, but that we could be up and down in two and a half hours.  I didn’t really believe him, and was nervous about getting our 4:15 train back to Beijing, but he was absolutely right, and within three hours I had conquered another of the Yue’s (funnily enough you can “conquer” a mountain in Chinese as well with the same meaning, great little thing I learned). All stairs all the way, and we were climbing through a huge cloud that was probably 60% fog and 40% pollution, but just before we hit the top, we broke though the cloud and could see it hanging below us.  So damn cool.  The rest of the cloud seemed to have moved on by the time we headed down too, so we go a better idea of the scale of things.  Didn’t take too many pictures, but hope they capture some of the feeling.

Wow, long post, hope it makes up for the dead week.  I’ll keep ‘em coming, hope you keep reading ‘em.

 

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