Beijing: Day 8 and 9 – Tianjin and Homeward Bound

Saturday, August 2, 2014

On Saturday we took the bullet train to Tianjin. Unfortunately, even though we got to the train station in the morning, there were not any tickets until the afternoon. Once we did get on the train it only took 30 minutes and was quite comfortable.

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After an “awesome” adventure finding our hotel (we trekked around for awhile carrying our backpacks in the hot sun. Note to all travelers in China- be sure to have the hotel address in Chinese  so you can get a taxi. We eventually went to another hotel, had them write it in Chinese, then took a short taxi ride there).

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Here you can see the Tianjin eye – about five min from our hotel.

We took only enough time to drop of our backpacks and were off again. It was already late afternoon so we walked to Ancient Culture Street to see if anything was still open. Ancient Culture Street is a souvenir street with Chinese architecture and plenty of vendors to shop at. Unfortunately, the shops were mostly closing up by the time we arrived. We looked in a few shops, but if I am ever in Tianjin again it would be fun to check it out when everything is open.

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“Oh Great Stone Dragon! Wakey wakey!”

The best part of our time in Tianjin was walking along the river that night. The buildings along the river were lit up. There was a bridge with kite vendors selling kites of all shapes and sizes with lights along the edges and sometimes running along the kite’s tail. Locals and tourists alike flew their kites above the peaceful river. People gathered to watch the kites drift in the sky- dragons, birds, and stars lit against the darkness.

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Then the lanterns began to rise along the banks of the river. At first only a few red lanterns floated up, but more and more followed until the sky along the river was filled. Light illumining the darkness. Sparks of beauty.  I looked up and was filled with awe and wonder. Carissa and I each bought one, lit it, and sent it into the sky (which is actually much harder to do than in Tangled because the hot air has to build up enough to keep it up). This was definitely my favorite part of the evening.

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Fly, lantern. Fly!

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There goes Becca’s lantern

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And at last I see the light…

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We walked along the river toward a huge, lighted ferris wheel called the Tianjin Eye. Unfortunately, there were not any more tickets available for that night, so we went on a boat ride instead. The boat went down the river under ornate bridges and past the buildings along the river that were lit with lights. It was fun to see them from the water.

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French and Italian architecture lined the shore.

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

The next morning we traveled back to Beijing and flew back to Seoul. It was an uneventful trip, which we were both thankful for. We arrived around 3:00pm and decided to eat bibimbap watch How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the theater. It was a great way to relax after the trip.

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Mmmmm… Bibimbap and Bingsu. :)

Now we are back to our regular lives in Korea. I am thankful that I was able to visit such an interesting city and for all of the ways God provided safety, comfort, and enjoyable experiences. Going to Beijing was an adventure I never imagined I would experience, but am grateful that I did. I enjoyed the sights, the interesting architecture, the people, the food, and seeing a small part of a county, a government, and a culture that I had studied in college but knew nothing of first hand. I still have a hard time believing that I went to China. Yet, I did go to Beijing, and I am thankful. It was a great trip!

Beijing: Day 7 – Summer Palace

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday morning (okay, more like Friday mid-morning edging into lunchtime…) we took a long subway ride to the Summer Palace. This was one of the two days that I especially wished the air of Beijing was clear (the other was the day we went to the Great Wall). The area was beautiful, with a large lake and paths that wound up hills and through forested areas. There was a richly painted, outdoor corridor called The Long Corridor that ran along the lake which was fun to walk through. We also visited the impressive Buhdist incense temple. Pictures can tell this story best, so here they are:

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There were miles upon miles of garden pathways.

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China is full of details – like this beautiful door. And this dragon. I (Carissa) named him Mushu.

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The focal point of the summer palace is, well, the palace. It’s built on the top of the mountain, with an amazing view. I regret that the pollution and haze was so bad and we couldn’t see farther.

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The view from the top.

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China’s favorite color scheme seems to be red with gold accent. And look at the detailed paintings!

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Here’s an anecdote to close out this post: Remember how Rebecca mentioned  being celebrities in China? Here was a prime example. I *may* have climbed over a fence to take a pic in these bright flowers. As Becca snapped a photo, a few people hung around to watch. As soon as they were done, they asked to take a picture with us. More people gather, and as soon as one person takes a shot another person steps into the frame. At least four different groups. Felt like a paparazzi moment.

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Beijing: Day 5 – The Bookworm, Panjiayuan Market, and Walfugjing Food Street

Wednesday, July 30, 3014

Wednesday was a more leisurely day in a our travels. We spent the first half of the day at an English bookstore called the Bookworm. It is a cafe that serves coffee, tea, smoothies, and Western food. One of the dining rooms has walls lined with bookshelves full of used books, both fiction and non-fiction, that you can read during your visit. Another dining area has bookshelves with books you can purchase. Carissa and I spent the morning and part of the afternoon sitting at a window table, sipping smoothies and coffee, eating an appetizer or two, and reading (for those book lovers out there who are interested, I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring and Carissa was reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett).  It was lovely. Also, the menus were designed to look like a book. There was even a table of contents. I was delighted. :)

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 As we walked away from the Bookworm, we found a book-lending vending machine. Brilliant!

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Hey y’all, Carissa here. After the bookworm, we visited the Panjiayuan market. Basically, it’s a huge, outdoor flea market. Some vendors have stalls under the large awning; some have a marked-out plot; many have a blanket spread out on the ground with their wares spread out. The vendors in stalls sell something specific – beads in every color, glass, boxes, polished walnut jewelry. The other vendors have anything they can cram onto their blanket spread out to catch tourist’s eye and convince them something is a great find and must-have souvenir.

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Being a tourist, something did catch my eye, and the hawker was quite eager to convince me that I needed it. He pointed out every detail that made this chess set special, irreplaceable. Finally, he put in a price on the calculator.

Now, we had been warned to NEVER pay the first price. In fact, in this particular market, we’d been told to begin by offering perhaps 10% of the asked of price.

So I did.

This sparked a long, animated bargaining process. Now, I don’t speak any Chinese beyond “Thank you” or “hello.” He didn’t speak anything beyond “okay.” Somehow, it didn’t stop either of us. I put in a low price, and he threw a fit and slightly lowered his price. I did it again, and he exclaimed to the other vendors, making a scene and basically accusing me of driving his family, children, and grandparents to starvation. And I did it again. A small crowd gathered where I sat on the man’s tiny stool (which he chivalrously offered while he squatted) and went back-and-forth. For all his production, I could tell he was enjoying this. And so was I. So eventually, I got a good price on my chess set, AND I got a pocket watch I had expressed interest in for a lower price than I had originally offered. As I walked away and the crowd started to disperse, I saw the Chinese men nod to each other, gesture to me, and give a thumbs-up. I choose to believe that they were impressed and that I got a good price :).

 

Finally, on our way back we stopped by the Walfugjing food street. It was recommended in the tour guides. We found it to be ridiculously crowded, overpriced, and dirty. The draw is definitely the interesting foods you can try.

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By interesting, I refer to the scorpions, starfish, seahorses, etc. No, this is not standard Chinese fare. It’s a tourist draw.

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Beijing: Day 4 – Confucius and Llama Temple, Pearl Market, Temple of Heaven Park, Peking Opera

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

We started the day by visiting the Confucius Temple and the Llama Temple. We both enjoyed the Confucius temple. We saw large, ancient tablets with the names of those who passed the Imperial Exam inscribed on the surface. It was also interesting to learn how Confucianism has had influence outside of China.

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Confucius – the man himself “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.”

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Becca learning wisdom

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The Lama Temple

Next, we visited the Pearl Market. The first couple of floors are filled with vendors selling everything from purses, clothes, scarves and bags to electronics and souvenirs. On the fourth floor we found the pearl vendors. We enjoyed looking at all the pearls and settings and haggling to get a good deal on our purchases. We were both a little tentative about haggling at first, but we knew it is a must in China, so we went for it and got a little better each time. It was even a bit fun by the end.

After visiting the Pearl Market, we went across the street and entered the Temple of Heaven Park. It is a large park with ancient temple buildings and old structures nestled throughout. There are winding pathways that lead through forests, gardens, and groves of cypress trees hundreds of years old. Like Central Park in New York City, this park is a place of peace and beauty away from the bustling city atmosphere of Beijing. Although there were many tourists around the sights, Carissa and I enjoyed strolling into the more remote areas of the park. Along the way we encountered a few locals practicing kung fu, dancing, and exercising.

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We eventually made it to some of the sights in the park. The Echo Wall was both of our favorites. It is a large, circular wall with a temple of some sort inside. We had heard that if you stand on one end, you can have a conversation with a person at the other end because of the echo that travels around the circle. Carissa and I separated to give it a try. I leaned into the wall and suddenly I heard her voice. It actually worked! We carried on a nice conversation for a bit until others, encouraged by our success, started trying, too. We had a lot of fun at the Echo Wall!

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Echo wall

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As Becca and I were taking jumping pictures, there were these guys watching (I know it seems like these pics are a piece of cake, but it takes careful practice to get the perfect jumping picture). Anyways, I figured they were waiting to copy our brilliant idea. But no, they were waiting to take pictures with us. Really, I swear there are other foreigners in China. Maybe they’re all celebrities.

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That evening we attended a Peking Opera performance. Getting there was an adventure in itself. I have never been on a bus that crowded before. It was a squeeze getting onto the bus in the first place, and at each stop after getting on it seemed impossible for any more people to push their way onto the bus. But push they did. People were shouting angry words at each other as some pushed and those on the bus resisted. I thought the children on the bus would have to be picked up to avoid being suffocated. I have never been that close to strangers in my life- and I had thought the subway in Seoul got crowded. Eventually some people got off and we had more breathing room, but it took awhile.

Also in the midst of this, a man standing in front of this swiped out his cell phone and started to take a selfie with us. He apparently thought better of taking a picture without asking, so he made eye contact and gestured to the phone. What could we do? We smiled for the picture. This was actually just one of many instances of people taking pictures with us. We were practically celebrities in Beijing. Every other day there, at least, someone asked (usually with hand gestures, not words) to take a picture with us. The most comical time was when we visited the Summer Palace. Carissa was posing in front of a small garden of lovely, yellow flowers for me to take a picture, and suddenly a mother gestured to her camera, asking if her daughter could take a picture with both of us. As this happened, other people gathered and wanted pictures, too. I felt like a celebrity. We should have started charging. Unfortunately, since coming back to Korea, our stardom has ceased. Fame is a fickle thing.

We eventually made it to the opera, which was in a theater on the first floor of a hotel. The actors traditionally put on their face makeup (they all have painted faces, like masks) on stage, so we were able to watch one actor do this before the show. The singing in Peking opera is different from Western operas; it is shrill. There is also an incessant drum beat throughout the entire performance, along with other instruments at times. The characters do a lot of acrobatics and tumbling, too, which was a lot of fun to see. This opera performance was actually a performance of pieces of a few different stories.  Two included fighting. The sword fighting was almost in slow motion, graceful and fluid. The actors jumped and tumbled as well, performing acrobatic moves across the stage. The graceful sword fighting and acrobatics were the best part of the show! I had never seen acrobatics in opera, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Our adventures for the day weren’t *quite* over. On the (blessedly less-crowded) bus-ride back, it starts to rain. Pitter patter, nothing to worry about. However, Becca urges haste. Sure enough, before we reach our hostel there is a TORRENT of water. It rushes down the street and instantly soaks EVERYTHING! Well, nothing for it but to laugh and take pictures.

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Beijing: Day 3 – The Great Wall of China

Monday, July, 28, 2014

We got up early Monday morning and joined a van of around 10 other people (most of them European and only two from our hostel) heading for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. Sometimes called “The Garden Wall”, this section is located about 2 hours outside of Beijing, in a lush, forested area. It is 1.4 miles long with 22 watchtowers. It was built by the Ming emperors between 1368 and 1644 and most of it has also been restored a bit by the Chinese government.

Once we got to the Wall (it was a good climb to get to the top of the mountain), we spent 3 hours climbing stairs to the watchtowers and walking along the Wall. It was surreal. The stairs were often steep and quite the climb, especially in the heat, but we were actually standing ON THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA! I never imagined that I would stand on its stones, seeing it perched on the mountain ridges to my right and my left, rising and falling with the mountain. I never thought I would climb its steep stairs and gaze out at the surrounding countryside from an ancient watchtower. Pictures will do more here than words can, so I will let them share the experience of the Great Wall.

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It’s your two favorite Asia travelers!

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After climbing even MORE steps (steep without handrails of course) we found this flag at the top.

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Of course, could you actually complain about views like this?

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Do you see that tiny little patch of red at the top?

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And… those are the step we came up.

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Wow. These views were unbelievable.

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Look at this lovely lady, in the window of the watchtower.

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And, when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we got to take a toboggan down from the Wall. Yep. We could have walked, taken a cable car, or rode a toboggan down. How could we pass it up? I was a little nervous before, not sure how fast I wanted to go and worried about getting rammed from behind (safety precautions are not a big thing in Asia), but once I started I just wanted to go faster! I zipped around the corners, through the forest, and could only think in my head (and say out loud), “This. Is. AWESOME!” To my great dismay and long-lasting disappointment, there were some foreigners in front of me that I had to slow down for multiple times. Alas. Carissa and I both had so much fun we wanted to take the cable car up and go again, but we were already late for our group lunch so we decided to be sensible and not risk missing our ride back. We also got a Subway sandwich on our walk back to the van. Yep.

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And what Great Wall experience would be authentic without a toboggan and Subway?!

All in all, the Great Wall was a highlight of the trip. Both of us would love to go back again and explore more, especially different parts of the wall that are not restored. At the end of the day, I was still in awe that I had stood on the Great Wall of China. What a life. What blessings from the Lord. He truly gives good gifts abundantly.

Beijing Day 2 – Church, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden Palace, and Acrobatics show

Sunday, July 27

Church, Tiananmen, Forbidden Palace, Acrobatics show

wpid-IMG1145.jpgSunday had a full itinerary! We woke up ready to go – here we were in China, and we were ready to see what this ancient city had to offer.

We actually started off our vacation by going to church. I thought it would be interesting to see church in China. For some background information, Christianity is legal in China, in a sense. All churches have to be registered with the communist party under the “Three Self” movement. Since communism builds success and stability on ideological unity, dissenting philosophies are dangerous to communism. Christianity, which demands allegiance to God before allegiance to worldly leaders, is particularly dangerous to the party. Therefore, the party carefully selects the leaders of all the major faiths in an attempt to maintain some ideological control. As a result, of course, the Protestant principles of sola scriptura, sola Christos, and sola fides may be questionable in these registered churches. There are estimated between 3-5 underground house churches for every registered Three-Self church in China, so the number of Christians in China is unknown. For a succinct overview, you can check out some statistics here http://www.billionbibles.org/china/how-many-christians-in-china.html.

For all of that, the church we visited was fairly… normal. We were given headphones for translation and seated in a special “foreigner’s section” in the back. I recognized the hymns, and the service followed a traditional Presbyterian order. The prayers acknowledged Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, and the message was quite evangelical. I noticed most of the Chinese in my line of sight had their own Chinese Bibles. The pastor was a woman (which seems typical in China – I’m not sure how much of that can be attributed to the Three-Self doctrines and/or the strong role women seem to play in leading the home, businesses, and families). People were friendly, but no one seemed particularly interested in talking to us, so we left pretty soon after the service. My first-hand view of Christianity in China is consequentially vague (I would love to visit a house church! But how does one find one? ;P). Yet I was encouraged that regardless of how the government attempts to control and use Christianity for its own ends, the gospel is being preached. The Word of God goes forth, and it will not return void. And the government cannot anticipate, control, or contain God’s Spirit in people.

Speaking of government control…

What’s the first thing to come to your mind when you think about Beijing? The Great Wall? Oh, well, you’ll have to skip to tomorrow (Monday) to see that ;). Of course, Tiananmen Square!  (Not what you thought of? Leave a comment! I’d be interested to hear what you thought of when you think “China”). We’d been in China for 24-hours and were eager to see the sights. Tiananmen was about a mile from our hostel, and we walked there – starving as usual, because we get so caught up in seeing and doing that we often neglect eating and sleeping on our vacations. We did find some steamed dumpling along the way, which were stuffed with olive oil, herbs, pickled substances, and meat – absolutely delicious.

We had a little bit of difficulty actually finding the square, simply because it’s not marked. There are no tourist signs directing you to Tiananmen Square, and it’s not listed as a destination on the handy tourist maps. According to the government, Tiananmen is nothing more than a large public square in the middle of the museums and official buildings – comparable to the National Mall in DC. The massacre is sort of a rumor in China – officially it didn’t happen, the Chinese people are forbidden to speak of it, and very few know the whole story even if they suspect something. Therefore, we stood right across the street and yet missed it at first as “the” Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen as seen from the Forbidden City

Tiananmen as seen from the Forbidden City

It is quite large – officially the 4th largest public square in the world. The square itself is unremarkable, but with a little imagination I could see it all. The square turned into a mini-city, full of tents and college students, a million people packed in at its height, all hoping for change. The student leaders Chai Ling and Li Lu shouting in megaphones, challenging the government leaders, rallying the students and hoping against hope. Then the tanks, which 25 years ago rolled down these streets and brutally dispersed the crowds. The manhunt and slaughter that occurred in the side streets, from which we will never know the true death toll. And yet the square sits there, cars and buses go to and fro, and no sign, monument or placard tells what happened there.

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Tiananmen Square

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Right across from the square is Tiananmen gate, which means “Heavenly Peace” and from which the square derives its name. On the gate hangs a huge statue of Mao, and is the only entrance into the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was built in 1420 (read: 72 years before Columbus discovered America). It was the seat of power for the Ming and Qing dynasties, two of the most influential dynasties for present-day China. The entrance was restricted to the king and his retinue all the way up to the last emperor Puyi in the 1920’s. The palace complex is huge, it may be the largest palace in China. I would bet the entire National Mall would fit inside. Walking through the western gate (the one reserved for the king) and opening onto the sprawling complex was an awesome sight. The roofs gleam with gold, while the pillars are red and the ceilings and columns are painted with blue and green designs. The animals from the Chinese zodiac show up in statues and on rooftops, while huge gold-guilded vats dot the complex as early fire-prevention methods. I have no idea how many buildings were in the complex, and we only saw a fraction of the grounds and gardens. Touring the Forbidden City could easily consume and day and a half, and we had about an hour and a half’s worth of energy to give to it. From my taste of the city, I can easily imagine the Emperor receiving dignitaries and holding Lunar festivals, the Empress sweeping along the paths in her silk, or Mulan warning of the Hun’s attacks ;).

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Over the entrance to the city hangs a huge painting of Mao Zedong, and guards line the bridge leading into it.

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Some of the details of architecture

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The lovely Becca

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The number of figures on the roofs signified the importance of the building

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The gardens

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We spice up our visits with selfies ;)

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To finish out the day, we attended an acrobatics show. There was a tightrope walk and contortionist, mat acrobatics/jumps/flips, pole climbing, a juggler, and somehow 12 woman all managed to balance on a single bicycle. I *might* have filmed some of it using my sneaky go pro.

We had a dinner of noodles – again, delicious. I have always strongly disliked the version of Chinese food I’ve encoutered in America. I.E., I hate Panda Express. But everything I ate in China was delicious! Beijing fare seems to lack the smothering of sauce, although Hong Kong food was comparable to the orange chicken or sweet-and-sour pork you may find. At any rate, we were famished once more and the spicy beef noodles were delicious. This was no Korean ramyen ;).

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Beijing: Day 6 – Flag Raising at Tienanmen, Bell and Drum Towers, Hotel, and National Museum of China

Thursday, July 31, 2014 

We got up early Thursday morning to make it to the 5:16am flag raising at Tienanmen Square. Even at that early hour it was warm and the humidity was soon stifling. The walked began quietly, but as we approached the square we joined a horde of people trekking to the square as well. When dawn arrived, the Red Guard marched out from under the gate with General Mao’s large portrait, silently and synchronized, carrying a large Chinese flag. Patriotic music blared as the Guard stood at attention and raised the flag over Tienanmen. Unfortunately, the haze of pollution was thick that day, but we were still able to see okay and snap a few pictures.

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After the ceremony, we wandered back to our hostel, lamenting the lack of coffee shops that open early, took a nap, and eventually made it to see the Bell Tower and Drum tower. They were, unfortunately, closed for repairs so we could not climb to their tops, but we did get a close-up view of the outside of the towers. The walk there and back was interesting because we could see the demolition of the hutongs nearby. Piles of rubble where homes and traditional alleyways used to be was a evidence of coming modernization in that area as our travel guide talked about (As you can probably guess, they weren’t happy about it).

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The Drum Tower

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Bell Tower

(up close you can’t see the construction)

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Can’t get into the towers? Nothing for it. Guess we just have to take selfies.

We checked out of hour hostel that afternoon and moved to a hotel a short bus ride away. When we were booking places for our stay in Beijing, we could not decide whether we wanted the help that the hostel offered or the comforts of the hotel more. Logically, we booked both places (although, the hostel was such a great experience and so helpful that we would not have minded staying the rest of the time there. We loved it!).  We got settled in quickly and then headed to the National Museum of China.

The National Museum of China is large, imposing building, with no-nonsense architecture inside: straight, orderly lines with large spaces, impressive in the sheer size of its columns and rooms. We visited a main exhibition hall with portraits of great leaders and paintings of the road to “liberation” with its bloody battles, both sad and patriotic scenes of the ordinary people of China, and celebration of Mao. We also visited the Ancient China exhibit which traced the history of China from “prehistoric” times up through the dynasties; we made sure to pay close attention to the Yuan dynasty since the Korean drama we love was about Korea breaking free from China during the Yuan dynasty. :D I also saw a couple of real Ming vases. Now I know what to look for when I am at yard sales :D .

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Fittingly, the museum reflected some of my impressions of China: created to awe and make an impression.

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Bejing: Day 1- Arrival, Hot Pot, and the Lake District

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Once upon a time, there were two girls who traveled to an ancient city in the east called Beijing. They rose with the dawn, bleary-eyed, but excited for the adventures to come. Little did they know what evils would arise to bar their way to this exotic land in the east. They boarded the Great Sliver Train and were transported to the airport where they knew a great bird would carry them to their destination. Alas! With dismay they discovered that their great bird would leave from the other airport of international travel. They sped toward the line of taxi waiting to take them there, and one quickly conveyed them thither, but evil chance dogged their steps there as well, for the driver desired gain over honesty and emptied their pockets of too great a sum. Yet, they were thankful to have arrived in time to enter and prepared to board the winged creature that awaited them with twenty minutes to spare. Only one obstacle remained: they must obtain fund for their journey. How they despaired to find that there were not ATMs within the secured area! Hope waned, but they prayed, and they discovered a way to leave the area (escorted by an attendant of the winged creature). One of the fair-skinned beauties dashed to the ATM, obtained the necessary funds, and returned in time to board. Finally, the girls were soaring towards the ancient city of Beijing (and the rest of the trip went much more smoothly).

So, yes, it was quite the adventure leaving Korea (although it wasn’t quite as dramatic as in the “tale” above ;D ) Our time in China and leaving China went very smoothly; leaving Korea was the most difficult part of the entire trip.  We are very thankful for God’s help and provision. On the plane Carissa and I watched The Lego Movie and discovered a great theme song for our trip called “Everything is Awesome.” Every time something unfortunate or not-so-great happened we would smile and sing, “Everything is awesooomme!” Check out the video to see what we mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4Kx-jqDgRo

Once we arrived in Beijing we got food and drinks at the airport Starbucks and planned out next adventure: getting to the hostel. We hoped it would not be as adventurous as getting out of Korea. After deciding to take the subway we walked to the ticket window (passing a small group of Red Guards marching in sync) and found the blinds closed and a small sign that said, “Service has been suspended.” We weren’t sure what that meant (although it felt very “communist China.”), so we wandered down the escalators, found tickets downstairs, and boarded our train. We found our hostel with little trouble. It is called Sitting on the City Walls and is located in a historic hutong, the old alleyways that crisscross the center of Beijing, just past a small exercise park where many of the locals exercise on the equipment there and old men play ping pong and chess.

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Our hostel room, nestled within the walls and deep in the Chinese Hutongs. Our door opens straight into the garden courtyard.

Many locals still live in the hutongs, and as we wandered to and from our hostel each day we often saw laundry hung up and elderly people sitting on stools and playing cards.  The doors that lined the hutongs were often open, revealing people’s courtyards beyond, cluttered with all manner of things. Down other hutongs we explored throughout our trip were food vendors selling delicious dumplings, pastries, and steamed buns. One day we followed a couple of hutongs to a market where everything from clothing to kitchen utensils to fruits and vegetables were being sold. We were also able to see more of the poverty that many Chinese people live in. Beyond the door to our hostel lay a lovely courtyard with a green plants, a fountain, computers, modern plumbing. Beyond the open doors along the hutong lay dirt and apparent squalor and squat toilets. It was a sharp contrast.

The hutongs are definitely a must see, however, for a visitor to Beijing. Staying in the hutongs gave wonderful glimpses into local life- people riding bicycles, women playing card games in the gathering dusk, children playing. Exploring the hutongs was often fun and interesting, and our hostel’s location made us feel like we were living among the local people. Although we were only in the hutongs for short periods, we were able to see more of how local Chinese live than staying at a hotel would provide. It was a great experience!

We had a lovely private room and bathroom located just off of the courtyard. The staff spoke excellent English and were extremely helpful. They gave us a map, itinerary suggestions, and a list of attractions in both English and Chinese (important for taxis) and how to get there by public transportation. They also were able to arrange tours and shows and help us find the things we wanted to see in Beijing. In Bejing, hostels are definitely the way to go.

After settling into our hostel we went to a hot pot restaurant. We chose different meats and vegetables and added them to boiling pots of water. Our waitress did not speak any English and we did not have any idea what to order or what we were supposed to do, but with hand gestures and lots of smiles we ordered and cooked the food the correct way.

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All smiles

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Stick all the delicious dishes into the golden pot of boiling, seasoned water, and voila! Hotpot stew.

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Lanterns, day and night

Next, we took a short walk to the Houhai and Xihai lake districts. This was a lovely area with a long, narrow lake that stretched and curved through this part of the city. The shores of the lake were lined with restaurants, karaoke bars, shops, rickshaw drivers with patrons, other drivers offering rides to walking tourists, and street vendors selling flowers, popsicles, toys, and balloons. Boats floated lazily on the water, many painted in an ornate Chinese style, some shaped like yellow rubber duckies (we think because Peking Duck is a famous food in Beijing) amid the lily pads. Lotus plants with wide leaves and beautiful pink flowers grew in the water near the banks in wide swatches. Carissa and I had a pleasant afternoon walking along the lake-side path, dodging rickshaws and bicycles, and watching the locals swim in the lake.

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Lotus on the lake

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Bright red doors an tiled roofs

One of the best parts about our lake visit was discovering a fantastic Starbucks. It was located in a traditional style building, ornately painted, with “Starbucks” written in Chinese characters. It was pretty exciting. Definitely the coolest Starbucks seen yet in our travels.

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Starbucks in hanja

We visited this lake district again later in the week, this time in the evening. The lights of the restaurants and bars glimmered on the lake. The music and voices live performances and karaoke singers mingled and floated across the lake from the bars and cafes lining the lake, mingling with the voices of the crowds that had come to enjoy the lake in the evening.

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The lakes transformed at night

 From the more relaxed and peaceful stroll in the afternoon to the fun and energetic atmosphere in the evening, the Houhai area was one of our favorite places in Beijing.

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End of the day adventures: food markets…

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…and cool buildings.

-Rebecca

Japan!

Anyeong haseyo everyone! Or, more appropriately for this post, konichiwa! Carissa here. Although this has been almost a month in the making, this is our recap of our recent trip to Osaka and Kyoto, Japan. The ever-amazing Rebecca Hobbs has wonderfully narrated this adventure – I butt in with italics wherever I can cause the most mischief ;). But hey, I did the pictures and captions!

Our trip started with a delayed flight – no big deal, although we got into Japan too late to catch a train to the city. We had planned to spend the night in a capsule hotel, but had to sleep in the airport instead. It wasn’t comfortable. Really. At all. Although Becca did get flirted with by a guy from Taipei who offered her green tea kitkats around 4am… but I’ll let Becca tell the story now ;).

After spending a mostly sleepless night (at least for me) in the Kansai International Airport in Osaka, we took an early train to Kyoto. An hour and a half later we arrived and began our temple sightseeing.

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Ready to go!

My favorite temple we visited was the Silver Pavilion. The temple itself is not as impressive as the Gold Pavilion, but its zen gardens were stunning. I had enjoyed the gardens and grounds at the other temples immensely – mountains and trees and ferns, still and quiet (all of which I have missed greatly while living in Seoul)- but the zen garden and the temple grounds here were even more beautiful than the others. Near the temple there were zen sand rakings and sculptures interspersed between vibrant flowers and plants. I had never seen a zen garden before, and the straight lines and cones of sand they had created there were unique and very Japan (at least in my mind :) ). A path led up a small hill, winding through lush, green forest with stunning flowers. I often caught my breath in wonder as I walked the dirt path, surrounded by vividly green trees and thick ferns, spotting unique flowers I had never seen. There were colorful hydrangeas in blue and purple, as well, and beautiful views of the temple and zen garden below. It was quiet and peaceful. The garden smelled of rich soil, lush vegetation, and clean air. It was beautiful. This temple and its gardens are certainly one of my favorite memories of my time in Kyoto.

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The Golden Palacewpid-IMG658-1.jpg

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Bamboo forest

Speaking of visiting temples, one thing I didn’t expect, but was happy to see, were the occasional people dressed in kimonos and men’s traditional Japanese clothing. At nearly every temple we saw one or two Japanese men or women dressed in traditional clothing. I am not sure why they were, but it was fun to see! It felt like such a cultural experience. It was also an experience trying to casually and secretly snap pictures of them because they looked so cool…

Or in my case, not-so-casually snapping pics. I may have accidentally stepped on someone getting this one. ~Carissa

Or in my case, not-so-casually snapping pics. I may have accidentally stepped on someone getting this one. ~Carissa

After visiting many temples we walked along the Path of Philosophy towards our hostel. This path runs though a pleasant residential area with traditional houses with walled gardens on one side and a narrow canal on the other. Unfortunately, we could not muster a philosophical discussion while strolling along this path. We did enjoy the peaceful walk, however. :)

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Philosopher’s Path

After we left the path, and were still making our way to our hostel, we discovered a magnificent temple gate just off of our path. It was massive. It had thick columns of dark wood and multiple gates, tall, imposing and six inches thick with wide strips of iron- all set in a forest with vivid and lush green trees. We were too late in the day to climb to the top, but we did snap a couple of good pictures.                            wpid-IMG698.jpg

Hey everyone – Carissa here. So let me briefly recap what our last 24-hours had looked like: red-eye flight into Osaka, minimal sleep on a shared airport bench, and a full day of temple-hopping with our luggage on our backs. It was fantastic. But… I wanted a shower. And we were lost. 

Never fear! The Japanese people we interacted with were incredibly nice. Our taxi driver went to extra effort to translate our directions into Japanese and make sure to get us to the right hostel. After sleeping in the airport, a bed felt luxurious (to me)

After resting, we went out to the Gion district / downtown area. We walked along this narrow food-alley packed with restaurants and finally picked one. After removing our shoes, we were seated in our own private wooden booth, where we ordered a ten-course Japanese meal. Yep, TEN courses, all authentic. I’m not sure I can remember them all, but there was sushi (not bad!), sashimi (whole fish), different soups and noodles. 

The next day we walked in the rain to a temple near our hostel. We wandered to one of the buildings in the temple area and saw people taking off their shoes, placing them in a bag, and walking down stairs underground. We thought we would check it out too. A man at the entrance asked us what language we spoke and then handed us a sign in English that explained that you could go underground and touch a gravestone of some important person, carrying out one wish. The sign warned us to constantly hold on to the handrail and that the only light would be on the tomb itself. Carissa and I both skimmed the information, not truly taking in the significance of what it said. We paid our 100 yen, took off our shoes, and descended; no big deal.

I have never been in such darkness. I could not see my own hand in front of my face, let alone Carissa in front of me. I shuffled slowly on the downward path that waswpid-IMG788.jpg taking me under the earth, then understanding the significance of the information on the sign we read- like don’t let go of the hand rail. After a few minutes I turned a corner and saw the gravestone. The lighting was eerie; it pooled around the gravestone alone, illuminating nothing else. I touched the stone (I am saving my one wish for something important ;) ), ascended stairs, and emerged into the blessed light. It was one of the fun, surprising, random things that happen on adventures and give real-life meaning to phrases like “as dark as a tomb”.

After our tomb-walk, we entered the actual temple. It is nestled up into a small mountain, surrounded with trees and ferns in vivid green. A large porch extends over a cliff. Inside the temple was art and furniture pieces of dark wood and gilded with gold. On the porch, there was a large iron pot, smoking with incense, as people gathered around and placed the incense sticks on top of the burning coals. wpid-IMG721.jpgEven though it saddens me to see all those people following a religion that will not save them, it was a surreal moment. In that moment it struck me that I was in Japan, at an ancient mountain temple, immersed in Asian culture. God is good to give me an opportunity to see His world and the unique people and places He created.

After visiting the temple, we walked back towards our hostel, stopping in shops along the way. The most interesting find: a Samurai sword ear pick (not purchased). We stopped at shop with beautiful fans, and I couldn’t resist buying one of them. One caught my eye right away. It had light colored wood, lovely white paper, with a subtle tree branch and blossom patter in white, and three red butterflies. Definitely a souvenir to remember Japan by. Carissa and I spent a good twenty minutes wandering around the shop, amidst such beautiful things, with the rain drizzling outside and two kind Japanese ladies from the shop occasionally showing us fans. We also stopped at a restaurant for lunch and had soup with green tea noodles (Kyoto is known for its green tea) (I had maccha [green tea] every chance I got – ice cream, noodles, tea, kitkats… :D :D) and an ice cream dessert with green tea ice cream, jello-like cubes, and rice cakes. The soup was my favorite.

In the afternoon we headed to the Shinto Shrine. The shrine is famous for the thousand or more orange gates with black accents on the base and top, and Chinese writing along each column, that line a pathway that climbs to the top of a mountain and back down to the temple. The gates were tall and for long stretches they sat one after another, only about 6 inches apart. We climbed step after step on the path, weaving our way up and down, through a beautiful forest vibrantly green and dripping with water from the heavy rain that fell minutes before. There were others climbing the path as well, but at times Carissa and I were the only ones walking through those gates, surrounded by a peaceful forest. It was wonderful, and both my soul and my imagination were refreshed.

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Entrance to the Fushimi-Inari Shinto Shrine

1000 gates really means 1000 gates!

1000 gates really means 1000 gates!

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On the way down the path led us near a shop where a man was selling small replicas of the gate and would write on them in Chinese for you. Carissa and I each got one with our name and country written on one column, the date written on the other, and “hope” written on the top beam. It is a fantastic souvenir that will remind me both of the great time I had in Kyoto and to pray for the Japanese people.

wpid-IMG856.jpgThe next day we took an early train back to Osaka. Our flight wasn’t until the evening so we decided to spend the morning and afternoon exploring a little bit of Osaka. Our first stop was Osaka Castle. It is a beautiful, Asian-style castle with at least 6 stories, surrounded by high walls and a moat.It was great! We walked along the moat for a short time, then walked over a bridge and wound our way up a path to the castle. There were beautiful views of the Osaka skyline from the castle grounds. There was a museum inside the castle, and the best part, for me, was trying on Samurai costumes. I tried on the tallest helmet; it had black spikes extending a foot and a half into the air. It was plastic, but it was heavy! Samurai warriors must have had strong neck muscles. Here’s a great picture of Carissa and I:

Rebecca, the fierce warrior!

Rebecca, the fierce warrior!

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So this guy had this hawk… and he let me hold it. It was pretty exciting :D

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Castle selfie ;)

Castle selfie ;)

It's a moat!

It’s a moat!

A castle, a moat, and the Osaka skyline

A castle, a moat, and the Osaka skyline

Chillin' by the moat

Chillin’ by the moat

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After visiting the castle we ate some traditional Osaka street food- Tokoyaki which is a doughy ball with a flavorful sauce and a small bite of octopus inside (it was actually really good!) and a type of Japanese pancake with vegetables inside.

By the way - our takoyaki was ordered via a vending machine, from which we received a ticket to take to the food truck.

By the way – our takoyaki was ordered via a vending machine, from which we received a ticket to take to the food truck.

On our way to the subway, we walked through the beginnings of a music festival. Bands were starting to play, freestyle dancers were busting their moves and throngs of brightly-clad, cutsey, overly-stylized asian-stereotypical fans were gathering. A group of guys gathered around the girl band, while girls thronged at the boy band. Of course, everyone had synchronized dance moves. The majority of the crowd was under-30, but there was definitely a few 70-year-old grandpas pumping their fists.

Da boys.

Da boys.

Just look at his perfectly-coordinated shoelaces!

Just look at his perfectly-coordinated shoelaces!

We then headed off to see the Universal Studies City Walk, Osaka. It was fun visiting the unique shops (like those with Spiderman ramen :D ). We also had some delicious nachos at the Hard Rock Cafe, where I saw the Thriller music video for the first time (I couldn’t believe how long it was! There were also some pretty cool, monster-dancing moves ).

Citywalk Hollywood holds great memories for me, so it was really fun to see Osaka. It’s very similar – they have King Kong, HardRock cafe, the CityWalk sign. The food choices are different, and there aren’t as many interesting shops to look at. But I definitely enjoyed it as a thing to see :D.

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We arrived at the airport and another, although not as pleasant, adventure awaited us. We found out that our flight actually hadn’t been delayed like we thought (it was the error of a confusing e-mail from the airline) and had already left. After much prayer and time spent talking to people higher and higher up the chain of command, the airline changed our tickets to the next earliest flight back to Seoul. Unfortunately, that flight didn’t leave until 8:00am, and we were supposed to start teaching at 9:00am. Alas. We got our work covered and then spent the next few hours (it was already 11pm) hanging out at the 24-hour McDonald’s, playing gin rummy (which I won, although Carissa says it was just beginner’s luck. I have played the game before, however…. ) and ordering something new every 45 minutes (I discovered that the McDonald’s had a delicious dip for their chicken nuggets- basil and cream cheese. Yum! I wanted to order ten of the dips and bring that bag with me). We also discovered that we could get blankets from the information center, so around 1:00am we each found a padded row of chairs and slept for awhile. It was surprisingly comfortable, and I got a solid four hours of sleep; blankets for the win. We got on our plane without a hitch, leaving at 8:40am, and were back in Seoul and teaching by 12:55pm.

Now, I want to go back again! Japan was a fantastic place to visit. The people were very nice and polite, the food delicious, and the streets clean. I enjoyed being surrounded by nature even in a city, breathing in the smells of earth and plants, resting in the peace and quiet of the temple gardens and grounds.  There was plenty of traditional Asian architecture to see and culture to experience, as well. Although the public transportation system is a little confusing and the taxis expensive, we still got where we needed relatively easily (by God’s grace). Overall, it was a great experience! (So great, in fact, that we are even looking into possibly going back to Japan in July.) This trip rekindled my taste for adventure and experiencing other cultures.  I am looking forward to visiting more countries soon. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of visiting Japan and experiencing Your provision and blessings!