Land of Enlightenment

“It is better to travel than to arrive.” – Buddha

At the beginning of my second year in China, I had the opportunity to travel to the mystical regions of Yunnan and Tibet. They hold the heart of modern Buddhism, and I was not disappointed in my exposure to unique culture. We were able to visit Lijiang and Shangri-La. Both mountain cities were beautiful, full of wonderful people and traditions, and hosted many activities and different types of foods.

We began our journey in Lijiang, in the heart of the mountains in Yunnan. The hotel was in Lijiang Old Town. It was a beautiful traditional Yunnan building, and because we went in the low season, we had the hotel to ourselves. Old Town itself was a large labyrinthian village filled with quaint homes and lovely shops. The smell of flowers and baked goods wafted through the streets. The runoff from the mountains run through the streets.

We spent the first day exploring Lijiang and trying local food. The next day, we were able to climb the local tall peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. They were breath-taking. We walked to the middle level of the mountains, then the lifts took us to the peaks. From there, we were able to climb to the top. We were able to see across all of Yunnan from that height – 5200m (16000ft). The wind and clouds played across the top, and I felt exhilarated to have climbed to the top with my wife.

After the peaks, we were able to explore to springs created by the runoff from the mountain ice and snow. The pools were gorgeous. The streams and rivers collect and serve an entire area of Yunnan around the mountains. The locals gather have held these pools and streams in high esteem for centuries. They have a tradition of hanging prayer bells and prayer flags (flags and bells with prayers on them) – the idea being they will pray on your behalf. These are always hung in sacred places, such as the peaks and pools of the mountains.

I was able to see many mountain traditions while in Yunnan. Traditional dance was something that many locals know. Many of the locals display these dances in shows for tourists. Another tradition is sending candles in lotus flowers down the rivers as prayers. Today, locals and tourists alike send paper lotuses down the streams as both prayers and a tradition of those prayers. We also discovered a wonderful small Irish pub hidden in the rock walls, called Stone the Crows. It is run by an Irishman, and sells traditional pub-fare with Guinness on tap.

Our next stop on this trip was Shangri-La, the mystical mountain village nestled between Yunnan and Tibet. Shangri-La was exactly what I expected and exactly not what I expected. It was both ancient and modern, mystical and practical, sacred and ordinary. The old village of Shangri-La was dozens of miles from the temples that most people know. The old village was also ghostly, as it was off-season, and frigid even in daytime. We were able to see one of the largest prayer wheels in world. A prayer wheel is similar to the prayer bells and prayer flags, it has prayers that are sent when you spin the wheel. We also sampled Tibetan food that made me love the highlands even more. We had barley bread, butter tea, and an assortment of other dishes and soups.

The temples of Shangri-La were a sacred marvel. There are 108 separate buildings in the temple complex on the hilltop. We walked through all of the open temples. We lit a prayer candle. We were even blessed by a monk and given prayer beads. It was an enlightening experience. I felt that I had felt one more part of the world, one more part of humanity.

Although I have enjoyed all of my trips through China, I loved my trip to Lijiang and Shangri-La. The food, the sights, the people, and the traditions that we were able to see and take part were wholly awesome and life-changing. I fully intend on us returning sometime with our son.

 

 

 

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Spine of the Dragon

“But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Great Wall. It is one thing to call it great, to see it in pictures, to hear about it from travelers. It is quite another thing to see it for yourself. The Great Wall is well and truly great. I was able to go there, to see it, smell it, run my hand along millennia of powerful history. I was in awe of its magnitude.

In October, my wife and I had the second part of our honeymoon. We left Beijing and travelled north to Badaling, an area rich in history, including still standing sections of the Great Wall. We stayed at The Commune, a lodging village in the mountains, nestled among the broken edges of the preserved wall.

There were many sections of the Great Wall. The place we were able to see first was a private wall behind the village. There were only a handful of people visiting, and we were able to take great pictures of ourselves there. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In addition to the wall, the village had a wildlife area and forest enveloping it. It gave it a very remote feeling, which is not something you get China. The village featured large buildings with several rooms sharing common rooms and kitchens. The lodge had a very nice restaurant.

Badaling has many historical sites. Another famous spot, however, is the Badaling Safari. There are many wild animals, such as lions, bears, monkeys that can roam freely in large areas in which visitors drive through. It is a unique twist to the normal zoo experience. For once, the humans are the ones in cages. Caged buses take patrons through the safari, allowing them to see the animals up and close. There is also a larger section with less dangerous animals. Tourists can walk through that area.

I was able to try traditional mountain food. This included black chicken, spicy beans, and flat bread. The food had a wild taste that I loved. The spice, as always, is one of my favorite parts of Chinese cuisine.

Later in October, we were able to celebrate our annual Halloween fright night in Beijing. In the far south of Beijing is a theme park called Happy Valley Park. They have their own version of Horror Nights that was actually fun and enjoyable, complete with their own haunted houses. The park included a traditional form of drama acting that told history in a satirical way. It is another must if you are in Beijing!

In Novemember, we flew across the small pond to South Korea. More specifically, we visited Jeju Island. It was surprisingly modern and westernized. I enjoyed the mix of Korean food and western business fronts. The island was built around a long dormant volcano that now serves as a wildlife park. The park was beautiful and holds its own treasures, including fairly tame animals and ancient burial mounds.

As my year was closing, I was contented that I had already visited three countries in Southeast Asia, along with several parts of China. I enjoy traveling, and I hope that through this blog I can share my travels and stoke a fire of your own.

Celebrating Autumn

“There is not enough celebration of companionship.” – Franscesca Annis

In September, I once again traveled to Xi’an. This time, I was able to partake in the Mid-Autumn Festival. In China, the Mid-Autumn Festival marks the end of Summer and the beginning of harvest. There are sets of traditions and rites as with the Chinese formal holidays. The main needs for this festival were moon cakes. Moon cakes are small, thick pastries filled with mixtures of fruits, nuts, and beans along with eggs and cream for some.

The other focus of this holiday is eating fruits and nuts harvested in Autumn. There were several types of nuts, along with apples, dates, and pears. I spent time with my wife’s family, which is another necessity for Chinese holidays. We spent our holiday in the Wild Goose Pagoda park. The park is beautiful, with monuments commemorating times and people in China’s history.

Later, I was able to visit the Li Mountain outside of Xi’an. It was once a mountainside spa resort for the emperor’s concubines. It was also the place of retreat for Jiang Jieshi, the leader of the main political parties. He fled from Mao Tsedong during the Chinese revolution with money and artifacts. Eventually, he left the mountain for Taiwan. Now the mountain is a tourist spot and a reminder of the struggle of early modern China.

The resort still contains the old stone baths from the ancient times, as well as many fruit and nut trees used by the consorts. The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. There were also many temple spots and political memorials along the mountainside.

The other focus of that trip to Xi’an was the Muslim Street. I mentioned the street before, but I do not believe I did it justice. It is definitely one of the main attractions within the city of Xi’an. There were all kinds of food and crafts sold and made right there in the street. I was amazed most by the foods. Taffees and other wonderful candies are made fresh daily and sold along the street. Breads, meats, tofus, drinks, desserts, and soups can also be found, especially if you know where to look.

The last stop for me during this trip was to the Bell Tower and Drum Tower of Xi’an. These towers are traditional buildings in most large cities in China. Xi’an, once Changan, holds one of the oldest sets of towers in China. The towers were used in ceremonies throughout the year, signaling the changes in season. Today, they are still used in their traditional manner.

As I have mentioned before, Xi’an is a wonderful city, full of rich history, bright culture and beautiful sites.

Thai Honeymoon

“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” – Marthe Troly-Curtin

My wife and I decide that since we did not have the opportunity to have a honeymoon when we married, we would take a late on during the summer. We decided to go to the tropics and visit Thailand. Thailand was amazingly beautiful. Our trip went through Bangkok, then south into the jungles to the islands at Krabi.

Bangkok was larger than I had expected it to be. There were several temples and many interesting areas that showed local culture, like the night markets and the river cruises. The city as a whole gave the false first impression of being like any other large western city. While there were high rises, large shops, and chain restaurants, there were also many local places to eat and shop, not to mention the cultural shows (yes we were propositioned to see Ladyboys and Ping Pong shows).

We stayed in the Clover Hotel, overlooking a local park and part of the city. The Hotel had a bit of a mad wonderland feel, which was really cool. The pool was on the roof, and hung from the edge. The bottom on the outside was glass, which let you see the street several hundred feet below. Being afraid of heights, that took some time to swim.

After a night in Bangkok, we headed for Krabi. There we explored the jungles on elephant back, climbed to a high peak (2500m nearly straight up the mountain), and visited a few local markets. On the beaches, we visited the islands on a personal boat and went snorkeling to see reefs and tropical fish.

We ate only local Thai food while we were there. The food was much more sour than I expected. It was just as spicy as I expected. There were more noodle dishes than I had previously known, and the local diet (especially in Krabi) had more seafood than I had suspected.

What would be the first honeymoon of several we would have this year, Thailand was an unbelievably beautiful place with amazing things to do. It was unforgettable.

Hidden Army

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain

In May, I was able to visit the famed Terra Cotta Warriors. The Terra Cotta Army is a set of life-like, life-size clay warriors set to guard the tombs of ancient emperors. The sites are very well preserved. Each of the three digs of the Terra Cotta Army is now indoors with regulated atmosphere and security to keep people from disturbing the remains. There is a park built around the buildings and on the mountainside.

I was first mostly impressed by the size of the digs. I always knew about the Terra Cotta Army from books and movies, but to see it in person was awesome. The first building was the largest of the three, and it held mostly foot soldiers in long rows. The second building was the smallest, with small squadrons of archers. The third building had the cavalry and war chariots.

The recovery and preservation of these artifacts is amazing, considering everything these sites have been through. It is believed that each small chamber would have been supported with wooden wall and ceiling supports, many of which have since collapsed. Also, villagers who lived in the area before the rediscovery of the army had built many wells which had dug into some of the chambers. There are even some chambers were it is evident that small fires had helped weaken the supports which led to cave-ins.

Despite all this, there is a great collaboration to not only protect, but restore many of the pieces. There are specialists working to preserve each piece of the army. Many other specialists have been enlisted to recreate some of the broken warriors or horses. In the first building, there is a platform with a section of pieced together warriors.

Altogether, it was a wonderful experience. It was also the only thing worth mentioning about May with one exception. Toward the end of the month, I got to go to a world famous afternoon tea at the Legendale. It was another fun activity, even if I do not get to do it more often.

Rain of Cherry Blossoms

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” – Moorish proverb

While April showers bring May flowers where I originate, in China, Spring starts full force. I was shown what Springtime really means in Asia, and it means Cherry Blossoms. Everywhere I went there were cherry trees raining white and pink and purple flowers everywhere. It was beautiful and mystifying. Not only were the flowers falling from the sky, but there were flowers everywhere underneath, as well.

In the gardens and parks, flowers ruled – not even the grass could compete with the flowers everywhere. I am not entirely sure how this happens, nor do I truly want to know. I enjoyed the scenery everywhere. I was able to go to the very large and very spacious Olympic Forest Park. There were trees everywhere with multicolored flowers, and many types of flowers all through the park. Peach trees, cherry trees, pear trees all spread petals among tulips and roses and lilies. It was gorgeous.

Spring not only gave way to bright colors, but to warm weather, and with it, outdoor activities. The parks were loaded with performers and artists sharing their talents, some for free and some for sale. In the Temple of the Earth, there were several artists simply practicing there skills in painting. Kids were playing in the warmth, families were dancing and talking – everyone was enjoying the change from extreme cold to mild warm.

In addition to the local parks and gardens, I was also able to go to two very interesting cities – Dalian and Gubei. I visited Dalian on a business trip. There was a Biotech Convention there in which I was to take part. While I was only there for a few days, I was able to visit the city. It was beautiful, if a little colder than Beijing. It is a coastal city, with several harbors and shipwrights.

My coworkers and I had a great time, despite needing to work. We played cards on the eight hour train ride, we explored the coastline at night, and even found ourselves trying to open a really heavy door. It was a great time of bonding and fun.

Gubei is a city modelled after another mountain lake village in the south of China. It is very traditional, and even has on old Catholic mission on top of the mountain. Just like any traditional village, there were traditional Chinese arts and crafts, as well as traditional music and designs around the village. It was very cute and very nice to visit this place.

April was more than the beginning of the warm weather in Beijing, it was a new beginning of discovery for me. I started my adventures fresh with the fresh weather. I felt that anything was possible and the world can truly be explored.

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Dolly Sods, WV

It all began…

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving”  Terry Pratchett

I have been in China for a while now. I had yet to take the time to form a real catalogue of my journeys, while I am overseas. I decided that I should first tell of my love for traveling and where it all began.

When I was young, my father was in the Marines. That meant that mom and I traveled a great deal between where we lived near the military base and our hometown. We made that trip several times before I was 4 years old. As a result, I was open to travel from a very young age. When my sister was born, my family settled down in my home town. This, however, did not thwart my wanderlust, nor slow our exploration.

My childhood was filled with trips, vacations, family reunions, and travels. I began to explore new regions of the world. My most memorable earlier journeys were into the mountains of West Virginia. My parents and grandparents took my sister and I to camp with a group that was partly family and partly friends that worked with my grandparents. We often played in the clearings and the streams. We hiked long trails over the moutains and looked out over the cliffs, exploring the woods. I visited Seneca Rocks, Dolly Sods, Blackwater Falls, and so many more scenic locations in West Virginia.

I loved the mountains. We went sometimes twice a year. I always looked forward to our trips into the wilderness. The dew in the grass, the wind in the trees, the smell of burning wood, the sound of flowing water. These things are magical – they hold the beginnings of my exploration as a child. I remember wandering off alone or in a group of children to explore the hills and forests. There was always good food, and the fire would almost always smell of firewood and something tasty.

Another fond set of vacations was my family’s yearly camping trips to the lakes in West Virginia. We alternated between Burnsville Lake and Summersville Lake. These trips always included boat rides, swimming, hiking, visiting the historical areas of the towns nearby, and good food. My grandfather would drive his boat and pull the kids (and the braver adults) behind the boat in innertubes. We would stay for a week at a time. It was usually the longest regular vacations we had.

We did not travel to West Virginia alone. We also took trips to other parts of the country. My great grandfather, Papooh, often took us kids to Forked Run Park in Ohio. There was a lake and waterfall, campground and beach area. It was always a fun place to visit. We usually only went for a day, returning in the evening, but it was something I remember looking forward to all the same. We would drive in the old station wagon, fighting over who would sit in the dummy seats in the rear of the car. It was also where I learned to swim. Despite my family taking my to the local YMCA to learn when I was young, I had not truly learned to swim until one of our trips to forked run, when Papooh taught me.

My family also took vacations to Tennessee, visiting the Great Smoky Mountains – Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. We also stayed with my Aunt Mysty, Zippy, who lived in Nashville. My grandparents also took us to visit Dollywood – the mountain area theme park, based loosely on the WV, KY, TN area and Dolly Parton’s life. We would go to North Carolina and visit my grandparents’ friends in the Outerbanks. Also, once a year, we had a “Pig Pickin'”, which was a friend and family weekend barbecue event with music and food. We would go to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. I even remember visiting family in Missouri and Arizona.

All of the places, all of the sights, smells, sounds, all of this was before I was even 13.

When I became a teenager, things changed. My sister, cousins, and I became more and more busy with school and other activities to do as much traveling. We still went to the mountains and the lakes each year, but our extra trips became far fewer. I had already been to many of the states around the country, almost all – except the farthest ones. I had seen so many things. During my teenage years, there were two bigger trips. This first was when a large part of my family went to Walt Disney World in Orlando. We drove, which allowed me to see a majority of the South that I had not already seen. It was a fun time together. The second was a trip with my church to the northern reaches of Canada for ministry and outreach work. We went into the Algonquin National Park in Northern Ontario, helping the villagers and preaching to them. It was a wonderful experience and my first trip out of the country.

Throughout the rest of my teenage years, I continued to travel when I could, with my family and friends. Before going to college, I managed to visit all of the states of the continental United States. I had been to one country outside of my own. I had traveled so much, I had seen and experienced so much, and yet I was so young.

My first year in college changed my traveling yet again. I got to spend time in Europe. I stayed in Belgium, while visiting Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. It was another wonderful opportunity in my life. I got to explore a whole new continent, seeing the ancient beauty of Western Europe. I stayed in a small village outside Brugge, Belgium. I took trips with my classmates to Amsterdam, Koln, Berlin, Paris, Luvern, and many other wonderful places.

I loved the culture and atmosphere in Europe. It was where most of the American culture originated, yet it felt so foreign, so old. I did not try to stay in heavy tourist areas, eating only familiar foods. I became a local – going places locals went, eating local foods. I grew as a human. I saw the world completely different from how I had as a child. I saw more people and more culture, and I began to understand people who were nothing like me.

I have traveled many places. I have seen many things. Throughout my journeys, my mountains call to me. No matter how far I go, West Virginia is still my home.