Stone Dreams and Castles


A couple weekends back, students told a city mate there was a /castle/ in our city called Yelang Valley (夜郎谷), so we determined to visit.

On a drizzly Saturday morning, we hopped on a bus to find this mysterious castle. Baidu Maps promised an hour and 45 minute journey. I thought this meant a long ride through unfamiliar territory but was shocked to recognize the route as the way to Huaxi’s University Town, where I teach writing each week.

Turns out, I’ve been riding past the forest where the castle is every single week for the last three months. 😑


The stone structures and castle are the realization of a man named Song Peilun, an architect who was inspired by South Dakota’s Crazy Horse Memorial and wanted to build his own monument to the YeLang civilization that lived in the forested area 2,000 years ago.


As we reached the entrance to YeLang, I pointed out a man walking toward us who looked like the most Chinese-looking dude I’ve ever seen. His long grey hair spilled down his shoulders, onto a linen Tang suit. He carried a plastic umbrella and greeted our awkward group of foreigners with a jovial “ni hao.”

We passed a stone arch and then saw a giant photo of the man who just greeted us, realizing the man who had just said hello was the architect of YeLang.

If there’s one thing that’s abundant in Guizhou, it’s rocks. Everything’s a mountain and a hill. So mountains and hills are what the YeLang castles and monuments are made of.

The complex is a sprawling monument of stone and terra-cotta faces, wooden houses, with a radioactively colored algae-laden river running through it.

Guiyang’s Finance and Economics University has popped up by it and so the ancient-looking valley is directly neighbored by a sports stadium and several dormitories. The juxtaposition is weird and my site-mates and I wondered what Song Peilun feels about the school colliding into his dream.

Like many places in modernizing China, YeLang is still under construction, and the sounds of moving earth and cranes occasionally broke the peaceful morning air. Beside the impressive stone structures and sculptures, were large piles of construction materials and rubbish. YeLang is really an amalgamation of styles, a remix of traditional and modern. It is both impressive and baffling. I still don’t know what I think about it.


Qingcheng Mountain 青城山

Host sister
Walking through Qingcheng Mountain

Another late post; sorry, friends

As a last hurrah, my Chengdu host family took me on another excursion to UNESCO World Heritage Site and famed Daoist mountain, Qingcheng. It’s somewhat ironic I finally get to posting these. 都江堰 Dūjiāngyàn, just outside of Chengdu, has a spectacular gorge, much like the one currently experiencing an Armegeddon-level blaze in my homeland.

The dam, called Dujiangyan, defines Sichuan’s modernity and is largely responsible for allowing its agricultural prosperity and the relaxed culture that arose from its food stability.  Built in 256 BC (a long time ago) under the leadership of municipal governor Li Bing , the dam is a revolutionary marvel of hydraulic engineering.

The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, occupies a plain between several mountains. In old times, torrential rain and floods plagued the region, destroying cities and crops. Li Bing was tasked with stabilizing the area to support military and civilian goals in the area, and discovered the flooding was caused by the silty build up once the waters arrived to the flat terrain. Sediment-laden mountain flows streamed into rivers, which then erupted over the plain.

To prevent flooding, Li Bing’s workers constructed a massive levee to part the rivers, redirecting some of the river to irrigate the land and the other half to drain the excess water to flow away from the populated plain. The dam is remarkable for several reasons: Instead of blocking the river and harming the wildlife in it, the Min river still freely flows, just in several tributaries. Secondly, to alter the course of the river, Li Bing had to channel the flow through the mountain. 

In a period where gunpowder was not invented yet, Li Bing bore a 66 foot wide path through the mountain. Alternating with scalding water and freezing water, the rocks slowly fractured and made way. The process took eight years, and during that time, Li Bing was isolated and prohibited from having any contact with his family. Makes me pretty glad Peace Corps service is only 27 months. Dujiangyan is still used today, a wonder that is extremely fascinating to me.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit the actual levee, but we did spend a lot of time around the mountains. Here are some photos.


The front of the mountain is famed for its Daoist temples, but the backside of the mountain is famous for the waterfalls and its hiking opportunities.

Of course, as with all Chinese hiking, refreshments are readily available on the trail
Playing in the river near the base of the back mountain
Walking through a bamboo forest on the way to a temple, featuring host family and host cousins
One of the many waterfalls in the Qingcheng Gorge
One of the many waterfalls in the Qingcheng Gorge

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.


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.


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.

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.

While descending the tree, these two pandas ended up colliding and falling into the pivot
Adoring fans enjoy the spectacle
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.


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