Chinese Hiking at Emei Shan

Written~ two weeks ago

After hearing that hiking was most treasured hobby, my generous host fam set off this weekend to Emei Mountain, a sacred Buddhist mountain where the bodhisattva Pu Xian became enlightened.

With no time to prepare and thunderstorms in the forecast, I threw a raincoat, my Give n Gobble shirt, hiking pants, and my Merrells into my pack. Though grateful for a chance to get out of the city, my stomach simmered a slow anxiety about going on a strenuous hiking trip after one of the most exhausting weeks I’ve ever experienced.

Nevertheless on Friday night, I shuffled into a the back of a massive black Mercedes Benz and fought the urge to fall asleep as we tore past the Sichuan countryside under a blood orange sun and the melancholy melodies of Chinese pop ballads.

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The Chinese built the Great Wall, but they sure weren’t concerned about the breadth of the Emei mountain road. After a torturous trek we arrived at our hotel and I quickly realized this was not the hiking excursion I’d anticipated. I envisioned spare rooms tucked away into green hillsides, with plain vegetarian canteens located a small distance away in a nearby town. In essence, an Oregon hiking trip with some Buddhist flavor. I was really looking forward it.

My host parents, however, booked several rooms at Qi Li Ping, a massive and luxurious resort filled with various hotels: think a Neuschwanstein-inspired princess castle, a Panda forest hotel, and ours, a normal-inspired (???) hotel, all with access to the facility’s hot springs.

I’m pretty sure I woke the half the guests up when I saw my room–a massive loft, complete with a King-size bed and walls papered with brush paintings of the mountain. The bathroom was completely floored in marble and the centerpiece was a bath the size of a jacuzzi. #poshcorps

I slept better than I ever had in China and awoke to shovel a few bowls of congee into my mouth. My mom encouraged me to eat more because “today, we’re climbing the mountain.” We piled back into the Benz and to my amusement, went to a bus station that took us up to the mountain.

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We finally got to the “hiking” portion. Tourists occupied every inch of the wide, stone stair path. Well-fed Tibetan Macaques deigned to descend from their canopies to accept the attention, and food, of gawking city folk.  On our left, vendors beckoned us to purchase snacks, jackets, and rainbow plushie monkeys.

I pushed ahead, hoping to eventually escape the tourist laden area I entered, but to my surprise, it never let up. The entire way was filled with sellers who ensured your every discomfort along the path could be assuaged. For those who didn’t wish to walk up the path, you could even purchase a trip on a huagan, where two extraordinarily hardy old men would carry you up the mountain. Hiking indeed.

 

After maybe a 3/4 mile, we arrived at a cable car station. My host mother and sister asked me if I felt tired. Their legs had begun to waver and they were grateful to enter the cable car that delivered us to the peak. While waiting for the car, they admitted they didn’t like hiking. I felt bad they went so much out of their way so that we could share this hiking experience.

The peak of Emei Shan is known as the Jin Ding 金顶, the golden peak. Above a sea of clouds, the devout mix with the tourists to visit a giant golden statue of Pu Xian and his elephants. It’s spectacular and gaudy. We burned candles, incense, and 拜一拜’d, kowtowing in the temples and making wishes.

Afterwards, we ate a remarkably bad lunch of instant noodles, and for gluten-free and special me, a flavorless boiled cob of corn.  My host sister, Le Le remarked that the noodles were awful and her father replied to her that she should just be glad the noodles were not American instant noodles. He said Chinese noodles were highly sought after in American prisons and the American noodles are certainly worst tasting than these ones. I quickly agreed and we then headed back to the bus to take us to the station. After arriving back, we luxuriated in a giant feast and hot springs.

The whole affair on the mountain was a bizarre but uniquely Chinese experience. I laughed, thinking of my Merrells that I thankfully left in my bag, along with the rest of slovenly clothes I brought along with me to this glorious resort.

Though entirely not what I was expecting, I felt extremely relieved to be able to rest, take in the sights, and see what enjoyable tourism looks like for many Chinese. Thanks to a cushy hotel room and my family’s thoughtfulness, I feel refreshed and ready for one more slavish week of teaching. 加油,昭君!

Pandas and not-pandas

BEST DAY! On Sunday, the Peace Corps treated the China 23’s by visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The Peace Corps assured us that departing from the hotel by 7:00 AM would allow us to see the pandas at their most active, so my fellow trainees and I zombie-walked onto buses and spent 30 minutes in transit before arriving at the large square in front of the research center.

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PC trainees swamp the park

We made our way up blessedly empty paths under dense bamboo forests and were surprised to see large spaces full of Pandas. I had anticipated waiting in long lines to see pandas behind glass windows, but the experience was much more like what you’d experience at the Oregon Zoo. The densely forested park had pockets of spaces for the pandas to lounge around and play, encircled by paths for tourists to enjoy the bears.

The stars of the park seemed to be group of four young cubs, who spent the entire morning climbing and falling off trees and bamboo structures. The cubs wrestled each other off, the pairs ending up toppling upside down, short legs flailing in the air.

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While descending the tree, these two pandas ended up colliding and falling into the pivot
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Adoring fans enjoy the spectacle
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The top panda didn’t want to share and stood so the other one couldn’t get on the tree

I spent most of my time looking at the animals play and didn’t get the chance to read or visit most of the educational buildings. Though I did learn that Panda breeding is pretty complicated.

Female pandas are only in heat 72 hours each year, so the staff at the research center collect urine samples from the pandas and measure the hormones to determine when is a good time to introduce a couple. Pandas are very particular about their partners so the researchers give the females scent samples of the males to see whom they might be interested in. But pandas don’t always get along and captive pandas are less physically capable than their wild counterparts, so sometimes mating introductions go poorly and no pandas will be born from that couple that year.

My favorite part of the park wasn’t actually the pandas – it was the red pandas, who are still somehow called red pandas but aren’t related to pandas. While most of the adult real pandas were sedentary and were only inclined to move when their meals arrived, the furry, auburn red pandas ran about a dense forest, or navigated tangled networks of branches at the canopy.

The red pandas seemed extremely clever, and one of them clearly anticipated feeding time and stood up to make sure her meal was on its way.

Going to the center costs about 60¥ or $8.80, which is more than a day’s budget for a Peace Corps Trainee, so it felt luxurious to enjoy such a beautiful park. We only had 3 hours so I missed out on the swan lake, the tiny baby pandas, and the other red panda enclosure (it was closed). It is definitely worth visiting several times and if I get the chance to go again, I’d be stoked. The park spans over several km, and we ended up doing about 9 km of walking. When we entered our buses to return to our hotels, I promptly fell asleep.

 

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Fellow trainees rest; the red capped water bottles are the brand of water PCMO advises us to buy

 

Wenshu Monastery 文殊园

On Saturday, the PC fam went to Wenshu Monastery, one of the best preserved Buddhist temples in Chengdu. The place was mostly overrun by tourists so I didn’t end up taking many photos of the actual temple and courtyard. I was surprised there weren’t many vegetarian restaurants around the temple.

Week one

It’s been a whirlwind of a week. We’ve had sessions for 8 days in a row, but I’ve still had some time to explore the city.

When we’re not learning TEFL, Chinese, PC policy, or ways to keep safe and healthy, we spend a lot of time eating out with members of our cohort.

Chengdu is one of the larger cities that Peace Corps works in, and we’re fortunate to be a block away from a vegan restaurant that has a couple dishes I can eat. I’d wager that 30% of our 72-large cohort eat mostly vegetarian or completely vegetarian and as soon as 12:15 hits, we’ve occupied every seat in the tiny restaurant. The cashier and cooks are exceedingly kind to us and have started to bring us a spicy pickled vegetable as a side with our meals.

Located near Sichuan University, our locale of Chengdu is quite cosmopolitan. There are sandwich restaurants, Malaysian, Thai, and Indian restaurants, a Walmart (沃尔玛 wo4er3ma3) complete with some Western imports like Hunt’s Tomato sauce and Barilla Spaghetti, and of course, hundreds of Chinese restaurants with local specialties like dandan noodles (担担面 dan4dan4mian4), numbingly spicy hot pot (麻辣火锅 ma2la4huo3guo1), spicy rabbit head, and more I can’t possibly describe here 等等什么的。

Here are a few new things I’m getting used to:

  • Drinking and buying bottled water (at Walmart, none the less. My environment-loving soul is dying a bit)
  • The time zone (15 hours ahead of the West Coast)
  • Not putting toilet paper in the toilet (I think have this one down)
  • Squatty potties (still trying to figure these ones out, tbh)
  • Being a pedestrian in a place with, shall we say, liberal and creative traffic patterns

We also live next to an extraordinary bamboo park, which has hundreds of species of bamboo there. I had no clue so many types existed! The greenery here reminds me a bit more of home and beside the weeping willows, the ponds are lined with Cannas and Bougainvillea!

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I should probably start exercising at the park in the mornings when the air quality is best. That’ll be the goal for next week. Tomorrow we visit the Panda Research Center so if I take any decent photos, they’ll be up in next week’s post.

San Francisco! 旧金山

I go on a hike in San Francisco

On June 14th, I arrived in San Francisco ( for staging, where I met my fellow 72 China trainees by playing dozens of ice breaker games, sharing identity maps, and spending a few hours reviewing the Peace Corps goals and expectations.

But before getting down to all that business, I had about five hours on my hands and decided to hike out to the Golden Gate Bridge. After scarfing down a quick lunch at Punjab, I filled up my water bottle with San Francisco’s surprising tasty tap water, pulled out my laminated map of the city, courtesy of my California Grandma Nancy, and headed off toward the bay!

The day was glorious–blue skies galore, a balmy 68F, punctuated with the cool ocean breeze. I found it funny to see wealthy ladies returning from yoga sporting Columbia down jackets over their leggings during such a beautifully warm day, and then remembered I’d probably soon be sporting linen and sweating profusely in the Chengdu heat, much to the curiosity and amusement of the 四川人.

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Walking toward the bay, I saw 70 year old grandmas steadily trek up and down the steep hills, Pride flags festoon multi-million dollar condos, and young XC students huff and puff their way along the sidewalks.

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Probably my dream house

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A cool looking shop that I unfortunately didn’t enter

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It took a good, long while, but I finally made it to the bridge. The Golden Gate was a lot smaller than I had imagined, though I didn’t get the chance to walk across it. After a few snaps and a cursory look at the visitor center, I rushed back to registration at the hotel by way of Van Ness and Eddy, passing through the Tenderloin. No longer did I share the road with tourists and yoga ladies. The sidewalks were filled with people  smoking, chatting, making various transactions, some which seemed pretty sketchy in nature. The disparate journeys out and in of the city were jarring and it felt weird to be situated in a place where Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf and Goodman’s were blocks away from people begging for an evening meal.

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I didn’t have much time to make the trek to the Bridge and had almost stopped and decided to return after being halfway along that dirt path that cuts through the grass and intersects with the tree

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#worthit

The remainder of evening was filled with official registration activities, 1,000 different ice breakers to meet my cohort, and the promise of a full day of basic training and more icebreakers the subsequent day.   

Trainings went off without a hitch. I fell into the group of people surnamed M–Z, and together, we read workbooks, performed skits, and burned the Peace Corps mission and Core expectations into our minds.

That evening, a new friend from Portland and I hiked out to catch the San Francisco sunset on the beach at the end of the Golden Gate Park. Walking an odd 8 miles out reminded me how lovely America’s public spaces and people can be.

The next day, we left for SFO by 8:00 for a 2:00 flight. We played cards and ate average airport fare until boarding, where I sat by the window and two Chinese and their Shiba Inu named Ariel, who somehow managed to make the entire 14 hour flight with no bathroom breaks while sitting under the seats beneath us. Pretty dope.