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china Travel

THE “ENGLISH CORNER”

The weather was bad and I had no hot water. Flavio and I went to take a shower at Jade’s house. And at night I went to the English Corner with Regiane. The “English Corner” takes place every Thursday night in the square of XISU (Xian International Study University). Hundreds of Chinese students gather there to practice English or simply to have a contact with some foreigner, others wanted to show off before colleagues. I was glad that Regiane was with me, so she attracted a lot of Chinese, although I wanted to practice my Chinese not English, it was fun. It is was possible to contact a Chinese who worked in the auto parts industry and wanted to expand operations to Brazil.

When the Chinese saw Regiane, a foreign women, they soon began to coalesce around her, like moths vying for their space around a lighted lamp. So, Regiane had attracted enough people not to be able to answer the hundreds of questions and they saw that I was next to her not facing her, and every now and then I talked to her in Portuguese. Then they started talking to me, because I also answered the questions addressed to her to realize that I was from the outside. Then another circle was formed around me, which expanded a little more, like cells in division during mitosis, I no longer could see Regiane in the crowd.

The students were mostly girls, students of foreign language or simply people graduated from another course who wanted to learn English. Sometimes even a child would show up to practice or just to see a foreigner. We arrived between seven and eight o’clock at night, Regiane was tired and left before, I stayed until about 11pm. Next Thursday I would go again to have fun!

Written by Traveler Ni

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china Travel

NO LIGHT AND NO WATER

Today I had no electricity. Since the water heater was solar, all I had to do was hope for the sun to shine, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to shower or would have to take a cold bath or go to someone’s house with a gas heater.

In the afternoon I went to the post office downtown to send some postcards.

Since it was dark, we suspended the private class at night and went for a walk on Kang’s campus, I hitchhiked on her bike. Kang and I always had good conversations about religion and politics, but because my Chinese vocabulary was limited, we always talked in English. I loved provoking her by criticizing communism, Chinese habits and the controversial issue of Taiwan. She had a friend who wanted to play soccer with me, just because I was Brazilian, but I didn’t play football. The Chinese think that all Brazilians play soccer, just as Brazilians think all Chinese practice kung-fu. I didn’t practice either, much to everyone’s frustration.

The next day it had no water! So in the morning I went to the KFC’s toilet, about fifteen minutes walk from home, it was very clean but it had to squat. I took the opportunity to study right there, at the KFC table (not in the toilet). In the afternoon I slept at home and then studied, now I knew a hundred Chinese ideograms. I had class last night. I remember when I was a child and in São Paulo sometimes lacked either water or electricity.

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THE IMMORTALS

I went to Ba Xian An Si or Taoist Temple of the Eight Immortals, by the way they were all dead, it was at east of the East Gate (of the City Wall). Being the only Taoist temple of Xian, it was built in the Song dynasty (960AD–1279AD), but restored several times in successive subsequent dynasties, the main structures today were built in the Qing dynasty (1644AD–1911AD). There was no attraction in this temple, I’d say the visit was a waste of time. Outside there was a market with shops and stalls selling antiques or common objects in ancient eras, such as fans, bronze mirrors, porcelain, coins, brushes for Chinese calligraphy. I also passed through a park, the Yingqing Park, equally monotonous.

I had dinner with Linda and Susan (English), Regiane and Flavio, at Susan’s house, the owner of the pizzeria where we ate on August 2. Linda’s food was good, pasta in funghi sauce, but the English don’t seem to have the habit of repeating the dish.

The next day I took a Mandarin conversation class for the first time with Kang Li. I asked her to buy Lonely Planet from Southeast Asia over the Internet because I couldn’t find it in major import bookstores and it was getting worried about my next part of the trip.

The dinner was at a Japanese restaurant with Alexandre in a mall in Xian, who wanted to import Brazilian coffee. It also dined with us Daniela, the girlfriend of the soccer player Vicente (I can not remember which Brazilian team) and Flávio. Alexandre was annoyed when the waitresses held the beer bottle by the body, instead of holding it by the neck of the bottle, and I got angry when there was no cold soda. The Chinese didn’t mind drinking hot beer or soda.

The next day was beautiful, I took more pictures of Tang Paradise Park where I went to study. In relation to my studies I used the Flavio’s books, I was self-taught. I went to the TV tower near Flavio’s house but unfortunately it was not open to visitation.

I slept late every day. I kept updating my late blog day and night. On Vicente’s birthday, the Brazilians went to his flat. There was coxinha, pastel, chicken and meat pie, “brigadeiros” and “beijinhos”, all made by Daniela. Among the guests, in addition to the Brazilians, the were a Croatian blond soccer player and his family, and another black player from some country in Africa, all of them playing in teams from China.

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THE PAGODAS

Today I have updated my blog, it was another beautiful day. I met Kang Li, a graduate student in automation engineering, she was 26 years old and smart, a bit plump and wore glasses. She was going to give me some private Chinese lessons, just conversational. It was Flavio who introduced me, she taught him too. I was looking forward to starting studying right away.

I had lunch at the cafeteria of the college where Flavio was studying with him and Aaron, an Australian guy. I found it a little messy, like any cafeteria of any college, there was only Chinese food as expected and had to eat with chopsticks, the food was good as well as Flavio’s dinner, the fried noodles.

The next day would be the independence holiday in Brazil (September 7th). I had lunch with Flavio, Regiane, Jade (the chubby Korean-English), Jeff (the obese American) and Caroline (the beautiful Sino-Filipino-Canadian), all of which were studying Chinese here.

I went to visit the Dayan Ta (the Great Wild Goose Pagoda), the area was very beautiful and well maintained, I almost felt in Japan. The pagoda was built in 652 AD, in the Tang dynasty, no one knows why it has that name. Pagoda is a type of Buddhist or Taoist tower, and this was 64m high, you could get a good view of the city from the top.

In the huge block north of the pagoda there was the show at the water fountain, the largest in the world, which took place every day, day and night and it was crowded with many local Chinese. The show synchronized music and splashes of water, while some people had fun running and trying to escape the water jets, it was occupying a block divided into four or five blocks. Next to the Dayan Ta, there were two well-wooded parks, the eastern one attracting attention for being themed, possessing giant theater masks, sculptures and artistic statues.

Xiaoyan Ta (the Little Wild Goose Pagoda) was built in 709 AD, with 45m high, it was 2km from the big pagoda, also south of the city wall south gate, but I was not interested in visiting this one.

Later in the afternoon I went to Tang Paradise Park, a theme park and very beautiful. Opened in April 2005, the park was intended to showcase culture during the Tang dynasty (617 AD to 907 AD). It has several pavilions and buildings in the style of that time and a large lake with thousands of colorful and hungry carps, as well as statues, music, dance, souvenirs, food and smell of incense, all to convey to our five senses the essence of the grandeur and prosperity of the Tang dynasty.

I bought the annual pass for 150yuan (USD 20), since the entry was 50Y (very expensive!). I stayed until the evening, at 20:30 there was the exhibition of the water film, but before it began with a parade, a staging with the costumes dressed the old-fashioned way. The aquatic film was fantastic, it was projected in the waters of the fountain, giving the impression of holographic or three-dimensional projection. It was a story with the legendary monkey Sun Wu Kong as a hero, there was the dance of the waters, laser beams, fireworks and music.

Here in Xian the student card is well accepted, unlike other cities, I used my graduate student card to get into the pagoda and the wall with discount.

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THE HISTORIC CENTER OF XIAN

Xian (Shaanxi Province) is a very old and planned city with more than 3,100 years of history and culture. It is also one of the ancient capitals of China.

The center is surrounded by a huge wall, forming a rectangle of 12km of perimeter surrounded by a moat, is the most preserved wall in China, with its proper repairs. In the center is located the “Bell Tower” and the “Drum Tower”. The city wall separating the center of the suburb was originally built in 1370 in the Ming Dynasty, but only took the current form with bricks in 1568. It has 12m high and its base 18m wide, as well as several watchtowers.

The “Bell Tower” is the heart of the city although it is not at the epicenter of the wall, it was built in 1384, rebuilt in 1582 and restored in 1739, obviously has a large bell, made of bronze. The architecture is typical Chinese and its green roof forms the largest and best preserved “Bell Tower” of all China.

The “Drum Tower”, a few meters from the Bell Tower, is a larger building and contains dozens of huge drums. Behind the Drum Tower was the famous Muslim Quarter of Hui minority. They are said to be descendants of 8th-century Arab soldiers. The streets were narrow and the grocery stores, restaurants and stalls sold typical Muslim things, such as sheep’s head to eat the brain.

I walked from the south gate of the wall (it is the main entrance) to the west gate and then to the north gate. The day was cloudy, better than fog, because visibility is better without that opaque sky that was bad for photos.

Xian also have its department stores with the famous brands in the center.

The next day, despite being Tuesday, I went to do a biking, for me it was a “Sunday”. And the day was sunny and clear skies, good for photos! The biking was on the top of the city wall, from the south gate I followed clockwise to the west and then to the north, where the railway is, passing through several watchtowers. I paid an expensive bike renting, considering local standards, $2.50 for a hundred minutes. From the north gate I walked to the “Bell Tower”, I would still pass dozens of times through the center.

Biking on the wall.

Xian soldiers in the city center. Bell Tower in the background.

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BACK TO XIAN

My trip from Lanzhou to Xian was a string of delays, the bus delayed an hour, stopped to be repaired for another hour, had a detour on the way and a lot of traffic, and the road was stopped because of works, there were many trucks on the single narrow lane between the mountains. In the middle of the road appeared a lady selling food in styrofoam marmites brought in an aluminum tray, I do not know where it came from, but I ended up buying one and it was warm.

The forecast to arrive at 7pm was totally wrong and I arrived at 1:30 am at Flávio’s house, without remembering which condominium or floor it was. I was lucky to find a resident coming in and borrowed his cell phone to call. I was obviously fooled as to the length of the route, Chinese likes to cheat!

In the next two months I would devote myself to the studies of Mandarin and Cantonese in Xian. It was September 1st. 2006, my day of gravy, rest day and lots of rain. At least it was fresh, Xian is usually very hot, but the season was over. It was also the day to do my accounting, edit photos and update my blog.

The next day I met Regiane, a Brazilian from Ceará who was studying Chinese in Xian, she lived in the same condominium as Flávio. We had lunch all together.

The dinner was with American students at a supposed to be a Brazilian steakhouse. I was anxious, but it was a mistake, only the way of preparation was Brazilian, but the meats and other things had nothing to do with it. No picanha, fraldinha, contrafilé or filet mignon. I’d have to wait until the next year to kill the longing.

On Sunday I went to a Sunday service with the foreigners at Anita’s house, an American who grew up in Brazil, she loved Brazil and had a northeastern accent. The whole day was “smog”, glad it does not exist in Brazil, it was a sunny day but the sky was covered by a fog, taking all the liveliness of a clear sky.

I noticed that in China there is no squeegee and it is difficult to find beverage machines as in Japan or Taiwan.

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CLIMBING TO LANSHAN

Today the weather was good and I have walked a lot! I hiked from the hotel to the top of Lan Shan mountain here in Lanzhou, at an altitude of 500m, the mountain was behind the train station as in Xining. I was going to take the cable car to the top but it was packed and the hike didn’t seem to difficult so I have decided to climb the mountain – it must have taken about 2 hs. I expected it to be more difficul, but it was a lot easier than Grouse Mountain in Canada or Villarrica Volcano in Chile, perhaps because I was already in better physical shape compared to my first few weeks of travel. From below, the mountain looked very high, and from the top it looked even higher! The buildings seemed low and small, the city looked like a mock-up and the tiny cars and trains seemed like toys.

At the top there was an amusement playground and restaurants, all empty. It also had a nine-hole golf course and a drive range to practice the shots, where I played fifty balls.

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china Travel

THE GIANT BUDDHA OF BINGLING SI

Today was a rainy and cold day in Xiahe. I was going to Lanzhou and then to Bingling Si, but as Bingling Si was before Lanzhou I decided to change my route. I actually had to go to the city of Linxia, I was hoping to sleep there or in Bingling Si, or even in Liujiaxia.

The bus left early, I was talking to Vanessa on the bus, she was going to Lanzhou, after spending 8 months in India and now she was at the end of her trip. She was in doubt whether she was going to Xinjiang or Beijing with the little time she had left. The big bus was empty, had only five people and no one else went up, rare thing in China, I thought it could be full on the way, but it didn’t happen. The trip lasted about 5 hours.

The driver dropped me off in the middle of the road in Linxia, about 2:30hs from Xiahe, glad there were taxi and bus. I took a bus to the old bus station, but it was disabled, I then went to a terminal where I took another bus to Lianhwa. The bus was climbing a mountain passing through inland villages, dirt road, something unusual around here, the streets and roads are almost all paved, there were more beautiful landscapes such as canyon, mountains and finally the Yellow River, which this time was green.

In Lianhwa, I negotiated a motorized boat for USD 14.80 one way to Bingling Si and back to Matou, where there was nowhere to stay, so only Liujiaxia or Lanzhou left to sleep.

Typical landscape on the way to Bingling Si.

Bingling Si is where there is a statue of giant sitting buddha of 27m carved on the slope of the mountain, it means “Ten Thousand Buddhas” in Tibetan. The boat ride along the Yellow River to the buddha is fantastic, the formation of the mountains was beautiful and unique. The place with the big buddha also had hundreds of other smaller buddhas, carved or painted on the walls of the mountain, was impressive for its beauty, it has 183 caves. The place located in a canyon has access only by boat during the months of June to October, when the river allows navigation. It was built over dynasties for over 1000 years, having begun around 420 AD in the Jin dynasty. In the region there were also some temples, I entered one that there was a buddha lying down.

The driver of Matou van, which was on the other side of the river, wanted to extort me charging RMB 4 to take me to Liujiaxia, it was about R$ 1 (USD 0.50), it was not expensive for me, but also it was not fair, because the other passengers were paying only RMB 1, after the discussion and another passenger intermediary in my favor, he charged me the fair price. When he left me in Liujiaxia, I was going to give an extra RMB 1, but the driver refused, we will never understand!

In Liujiaxia there was a hydroelectric power plant, after a half hour ride I was in doubt if I would sleep here but I decided to go to Lanzhou 2 hours drive away. On the bus to Lanzhou, the guy next to me was a high or middle school English teacher and he had a poor English, but at least he spoke some and wanted to practice, he was so excited. He praised me for the physical aspect. The first time I was praised by a man I found it strange then I got used to it, the Chinese had no intention or malice, it was part of their culture. It was also common to see heterosexual men walking down the street hugging, this would be inadmissible to Latin people. In that sense I was Latino, I don’t really like masculine touches or physical approximations.

The itinerary of the day was like this: bus in Xiahe, bus in Linxia, boat in Lianhwa, boat in Bingling Si, bus in Matou and bus in Liujiaxia to Lanzhou. Later I came to find out that “matou” means “pier” in Chinese, it was not a town’s name. The weather was good in Lianhwa, Bingling Si and Liujiaxia, unlike Xiahe. At night in Lanzhou looking for a hotel to stay I ve found that foreigner could not stay at anyone, I was turned down in some. The chinese-only hotels are pretty dirty. But what I stayed in, I don’t think they could have hosted me either. Since I was disguised as a Chinese man, I think they let me stay. Perhaps these hotels are of such low class that in order not to make a bad impression on foreigners, they were simply forbidden to non-Chinese.

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china Travel

LABRANG, THE MONASTERY TOWN

Today Laetitia, Vanessa and I returned to the monastery of Labrang, since yesterday we could not know everything.

Labrang is a true monastery city, smaller only than Llasa, one of the six largest monasteries of the Yellow Hat Sect, larger than Xining’s Kumbum, with several Tibetan temples and full of monks in red robes and some with yellow hats. It was founded in 1709 by monk E’Ang Zongzhe, who became the first generation of the “Living Buddha” or “Jiemuyang”. It was the scene of battles and atrocities between Tibetans and Muslims in the 1920s, later with the Cultural Revolution, monks were persecuted and the monastery closed, re-opened only in 1980. It’s a city within another city.

A tour around here is certainly something worthwhile, especially when you don’t have Tibet on the script. There is no separation or wall between the monastery and the city, the place is very beautiful with its architecture and typical colors. There was a large white stupa, a pagoda, several red-earth brick buildings, some with a golden roof, but what caught my attention most was the first building early in the monastery. In fact it was as if it were a giant rosary, while the monks prayed, walked clockwise around the building and spinning a kind of drum called “prayer wheels”, there were hundreds of these drums lined up around the building, I had no patience to count how many there were.

We joined a group that had an English guide to enter to some temples. The monks dropped their black-skinned shoes at the entrance to the temples, which were piled up, I don’t know how they could distinguish their peers, for they were all the same, perhaps by smell. Inside the temples the guide gave some explanations about Buddha and the various incarnations and schools, while the monks practiced their prayers in a half-light environment.

I climbed one of the temples from where it had the view of Labrang, on the roof of the temple there was a golden stupa with a Buddha inside.

In the afternoon I went with Oriane to the mosque and the old part of town. The mosque was entirely made of Chinese architecture, only the crescent moon erected on the roof and the minaret demeaned the religion.

In the evening at the restaurant we found out there were two menus with different prices, one for locals and another for westerners. In fact I realized because yesterday I had eaten noodles in that same restaurant alone, and today I have found the price more expensive, the menu was differentiated by color. Yesterday I was confused with a local Chinese, but today I was with the foreigners and not to create confusion I ended up paying the price of the menu for foreigners. The Chinese are full of tricks to deceive tourists, this is one of the things that most annoy tourists, apart from the lack of hygiene and politeness.

I took a copy of Lanzhou’s missing pages from Laetitia’s Lonely Planet, although being in French helped a lot, after all I understood a little. This guide is the backpacker’s bible. Without knowing, I ended up not knowing the other part of town where there was the temple and sect of the Red Hats.

Tibetan monks of the Yellow Hats sect.

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china Travel

XIAHE, THE TIBETAN CITY

From Xining to Xiahe, I took a mini bus for 6h15m full of Tibetans and entitled to the burping show by the Tibetan lady who sat next to me. Halfway through the tight bus stopped to pick up passengers who were sitting on stools in the middle of the corridor.

The way to Xiahe was very beautiful, again between dry and green mountains, rivers and lakes. It may seem repetitive the description, but I guarantee that the scenery is not the same as the previous ones, each has a particular beauty.

Xiahe is an inland city in Gansu Province south of Lanzhou, tipycally Tibetan and population of 150,000 people. Here Tibetan is the spoken language and the writing is different as well. There were many westerners tourists around here, as well as other minorities, such as the Huis and Salars, who are Muslims, I could not see the difference between these two ethnic groups, which by the way are different from the Hans, despite being low and with “pulled” eyes. The Tibetans, on the other hand, are the majority, about 70% of the population, and very different from the Huis, Hans, Salars or Uighurs, they were taller, darker and well-protruded nose, in addition to “pulled” eyes.

The town was very small, the smallest I’ve been here in China so far, it was possible to know the city in an hour on foot. There was only one avenue that cut through the city along 4km, whose Daxia River ran parallel. It was surrounded by mountains too, but quite different from Lanzhou or Xining.

It was a tremendous cold, I had no clothes suitable for the weather, because I expected to travel only to Xinjiang, I spent a cold and I got a flu on this day. But since I was disguised as Chinese, without embarrassment, I was scarred anywhere.

I arranged to meet Laetitia and Oriane, the two French women I met in Xining. Laetitia was blonde and taller than me, I think she was 24, and she was going to Lao to do volunteer work. Oriane was also a blonde in her forties, she laughed at everything and would go to do volunteer work in Cambodia.

In the afternoon I went to Labrang Monastery with Laetitia, close to the hotel where I stayed, the Oversea Tibetan Hotel, which by the way I sneaked and used the bathroom of the private rooms, since the doors were open, instead of using the shared bathroom that belonged to the shared room. Remember that here some hotels reserve some rooms for backpackers, and the shared bathroom comes along with the package.

In the evening we went to have dinner, Laetitia, Oriane, Vanessa a french brunette and curly hair and an Englishman, I was bothered by their cigarettes, Europeans smoke as much as the Chinese. I ate “tsamba”, a typical Tibetan food, bad by the way, it was made of ground barley ground in flour, one can eat adding tea and/or sugar and butter, I did not finish this meal and alone I went to another restaurant to eat a good pasta. Tibetan tea is medium salty and oily. Feeling cold I borrowed Laetitia’s blanket.