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.

 

 

 

Christmas in the Orient

“‘Maybe Christmas,’ thought the Grinch, ‘doesn’t come from a store.'” – Dr. Seuss

In this short post, I want to share my experiences with the Winter holidays in China. I had originally thought that the western holidays, especially those religious holidays, would not be observed in China. I presumed that the Chinese would not share the festivities or music or decorations or food. In fact, Christmas does take place in China, if maybe not quite the same as here.

The first thing I experienced during the Christmas season was a cooking lesson. To be more specific, it was my wife’s and my fourth baking master class. These classes are taught once a month in the Kempenski Hotel Restaurant by the world renowned Chef Joachim, a Swiss Master Chef and Baker. We had the honor of taking his Christmas cooking class, where we learned to make trifle, Christmas pudding, and spice meringue.

Beginning in early December, many prominent sites in Beijing began to aire their Christmas décor and lights. We were able to see some really great light displays. There were Christmas trees and lightings, parties, choirs singing carols, and many other festivities. One of my favorite was the grand Christmas dinner at the Sofitel Wanda resorts. It was an eleven course Christmas dinner, featuring sea slug, duck heart, and nine-layer tripe. There were two other nice banquets – one at Langham Place and another at Novitel Xingquio Hotel. The food and music at both were quite enjoyable.

The month culminated in me celebrating a private Yuletide feast with a group of my friends. Although the apartment was small, we were not stopped from having a large gathering with a Winter goose and other dishes from around the world – like mushroom lasagna and chicken curry. We exchanged gifts playing Dirty Santa, a game that involves stealing presents from each other.

It was a terrific holiday season, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time sharing the holidays with such wonderful friends!

Frozen Dragons

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –  Marcel Proust

I landed in China in January. It was a New Year. I had new hopes, new dreams. I was on a new adventure. China was this wide new world, waiting for me to see whatever I could see. The problem was that it was cold. Did I say cold? I mean frigid. Did I say frigid? I mean FROZEN! I had landed in Beijing expecting a winter, but what awaited me outside was a polar region that had somehow developed over a metropolitan city. The temperatures were the lowest I ever remember experiencing for any period of time. For a little longer than a month, the average temperature was about 0F°. The high during the month of January was 12F° and it got down to a staggering -22F°. All of this was before the wind chill! It did not snow very often, however, only a few times – maybe a total of four separate times in January. The wind was terrible at times, though. There were times of constant wind, and gusts could reach 50-60mph. It felt COLD. It was so cold that many establishments had low smoke coal stoves to warm their guests, as the normal heating was just not enough to heat a business.

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Regardless of these nasty weather conditions, Cassey (my wife) and I managed to view the city that was new to both of us. The first places we managed to explore were Beihai Park (The White Pagoda) and Jingshan Park (The Beijing Mountain). These were both very cool places to visit. These were not places that were popular to foreigners. In fact, few people in general showed, due to the cold weather and wind. Beihai was a Buddhist temple built above the Forbidden City. It was the temple that the emperor would sometimes visit to pray for the empire. Jingshan Park was a peaceful place, also overlooking the Forbidden City, that was for the emperor to think peacefully and write poetry.

We climbed to the top of Beihai, which was a tall hill with the temple on top. It was very beautiful – you could almost see the entire city of Beijing from the top. The temple was split into different layers, each layer at a different height up the hill. Each place had a place for prayers and incense. Prayers could be written on small wooden prayer tokens and placed at any of the tiers. At the top, there was a café. Cassey and I had hot cocoa and sausages. Jingshan was a beautiful park, even in the terrible winter. There were frozen lakes covered in snow, temples, and pagodas throughout the park. There were also several tall hills. One was the tallest point inside of Beijing. We yet again climbed up in the icy cold wind to see our new city.

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Cassey and I tried several times to enter the Forbidden City, only to learn there was a reason it was called forbidden. Instead, we visited the Lama Temple and the Burial Palace during that time. The Lama Temple was where the Dali Lama, the head of the Lama Buddhism, comes to pray and meditate. It was a very interesting place to visit. Of course the Lama himself was not there when we went, but there were thousands of people braving the cold to say their prayers and offer incense. The temple also had prayer wheels, which were cylinders with prayers carved into them. It was said that if you spin the wheel, you were praying whatever prayer was written on the cylinder.

The Burial Palace was the palace adjacent to the Forbidden City. It was where the emperors and empresses went to be prepared to die. It was also a place where the emperor could gain wisdom from past emperors. There were several gardens and ponds, rock formations and buildings. Most of the garden and water areas were frozen, but it was a beautiful visit nonetheless.

Cassey and I also saw Houhai, a large lake, and Wangfujing Hutong, an alleyway with many shops and stands selling foods and trinkets. Houhai had many hutongs (alleys) that went off to different sides. The lake itself was frozen very solid. In fact, many people – adults and children alike – enjoyed various games, sports, and activities on the ice. It was quite fun to be out on the ice, watching people skate and play. The hutong in Wangfujing was amazing. There were so many different foods and small things to buy. I quite enjoyed myself with all the new food to try.

Eventually, Cassey and I were able to go to the Forbidden City. I got to see it the way few people – Chinese or foreigners – get to see it. There were hardly any people in the Forbidden City when we went. I was able to take pictures of everything, even the empty roads and alleys within the city. All of the museums inside the buildings were easily accessed, and the windows used to view the preserved interior were not crowded. I was told that is a rare thing in China, especially in Beijing. Either way, I enjoyed my time where only royalty walked in the ancient times. The rivers in the city were frozen, as were the statues throughout the city. It was an amazing view, though, and I was glad I had a chance to see it.