Peony Festival in Henan Province

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I wasn’t really sure what to expect at the Peony Festival, aside from flowers, of course.  The festival happens every year in the spring time, and in mid to late April is when most of the blooms are out. Luoyang is a city of upwards of 6 million, but it’s clear they’ve made a large tourist industry out of the festival.

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There were vendors everywhere, outside the temples, and inside the festival.  When I visited the Longmen grottoes that morning, I had seen lots of funny hats, and at first I thought, Well, maybe it’s a trend to wear funny hats on tours?  Then I saw the vendors and realized all the hats with huge fake flowers were from the peony festival.  I really can’t make fun of them too much, because I ended up buying one- I just couldn’t resist!

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Of course, then I was a foreigner wearing a funny hat, and I ended up in lots of peoples’ family photo albums.  At one point, one of the vendors sent her young son over to me to give me a few flowers as a gift.

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Capitalism aside, the actual flowers were really fascinating. During this week, many different colors of blooms were out, including white, pale pink, bright pink, purple, and even some yellow ones.  I couldn’t help but take lots of photos.  Peonies are quite large blooms, so the stems have to be really sturdy to hold them up.

PeonyYellow

It had rained the day previously, so everything was well-watered.  The day I went was very nice, and I even got a little sun burned. I am still thinking of the cold winter days of Beijing over the last few months, I guess I have to adjust back to warm weather!

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Overall it was really interesting to see how this small place has turned into a tourist destination.  The flowers were gorgeous, so if you find yourself in the area between March and May, it’s a fun trip.  The festival itself really only takes a couple hours to tour around, so you’ll probably want to look up some other things to do in the area. To read what else I did in Henan province, you can read my blog post on the Kung Fu school.

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Mutianyu Great Wall in the Spring Time!

GreatWallWelcome

I took advantage of the nice days this weekend for my second trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. I find this part convenient because it is about an hour (or two) from Beijing, and it is less touristy than other parts, like Badaling.  Also, in the spring  time you can take cable cars and toboggans.  I visited this same part in January and had a completely different experience, seeing the wall covered in snow, and very few people  visiting.  This time, the weather was nicer, and there were lots of people about. Still, I felt like it was a really nice day, and not as crowded as it will be in June!

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After buying our entry tickets, my friends and I took the cable cars up to the watch towers, where we could then walk down the great wall.  If you don’t want to splurge for the 60 RMB ticket, you can hike your way up, but it’s quite a ways! When I went there in January, we only went to Watch Tower 8 because we had to walk, but today I think we went up to  Watch Tower 20-something.

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Once we were on the wall, it was really nice to look out and see how far it stretched. Luckily, the air quality was pretty nice today (although I’m sure it still qualified as “unhealthy”).

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I really enjoyed walking along the wall today because I got to see the area full of vegetation. I feel like we didn’t have much of a spring in Beijing- it went from winter cold  to summer hot in the span of a couple weeks. Still, I’m glad the weather has changed, because this means the tobaggans are ready to go! Basically, after walking along the wall for about an hour, we got to ride sleds all the way down.

GreatWallTobaggan

It was a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it! I wish our group had waited a little bit longer, because we were behind another group that was choosing to go quite slow. We would have liked to go faster! Still, we sort of turned it into toboggan bumper cars and had a great time.  It probably took about 5 minutes, maybe a little more, to go all the way down on the track.

GreatWallLunch

After all the hiking and our mini adrenaline rush, we had worked up quite the appetite, and headed to the Schoolhouse, which is a neat little restaurant right by the Great Wall. They specialize in sustainable meals, and grow a good portion of the produce they sell.  Everything was really fresh and delicious, so if you find yourself looking for a meal at Mutianyu, I recommend it! It’s best to make a reservation though, especially if you go in high season (July and August), since it probably fills up with tour groups.  They had crayons to draw on their menus, and I couldn’t help but share my artistic representation of my trip to the Great Wall. In this photo, you can even see the Wall (the real one) in the background!

GreatWallDrawing

Overall it was an awesome way to spend the day, and I am glad that I live in quick (depending on traffic) driving distance to such a neat historical site!

I’ve uploaded  the video of my toboggan ride (thanks to my GoPro camera strapped to my head), which you can view here:

Shaolin Kung Fu in Henan Province

This weekend I visited a small Kung Fu school in Henan Province, Wusengyuan (武僧院). It usually isn’t open to visitors, but they made an exception for our tour group! At this school, students pay to take classes for up to three years, at which point they can be invited to stay at the school and continue learning the art of Shaolin Kung Fu.  The school becomes like a family, with the teacher knowing the names of all 200 students.  Although the average age is six or seven, the youngest student there was only three years old!

Sign for the school.

When we visited, there were various groups of students practicing basic skills, jumps and leaps, movements in groups, and even boxing.

Although there were students of many different levels, they really impressed me with some of the movements they could already perform.  One of my friends noted it included a lot of gymnastics, and I have to agree. Just look at how high some of them were jumping!

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With the group drills, there was always a student calling out the different movements, so I got a chance to brush up on my Chinese numbers 1- 10.

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Although I’m sure it’s hard work, most of the students looked like they were really enjoying themselves.  In addition to learning kung fu, the students have to take lessons in all the normal school subjects as well. This means they only get one day off every two weeks.

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My question was, how do they determine who has to be the one to get jumped over? 🙂

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In addition the tumbling, the older students were also practicing boxing, breaking bricks with their hands, and training with wooden posts to practice their hand attacks.  It was really fascinating to see all the different areas of the school, and the variety of lessons they were learning.

The school itself was set in a gorgeous mountain area, which is probably much cooler in the summer than Beijing!  There were many paintings all over the walls.

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Just when we thought our visit was concluding, the teacher decided to give some  challenges to some of the more advanced students.  This included breaking bricks with their hands. The student below has only been studying at the school for one year.

The teacher explained to us that the students have the option of becoming monks once they go through the school. It was clear to us that he leads this school because he loves Kung Fu. He also showed us what it really means to be a kung fu master. He brought over a long piece of iron, and when my tour guide said that it was for breaking over the head, I was a little dubious. And then he did this:

We probably spent a couple of hours at the school, and I was very thankful they allowed us to visit and watch their practices.  It was really interesting to get a glimpse of what it might be like to be at full-time kung fu school, and the skill of the students was really impressive.  Thank you to all the students and the teacher for allowing us to visit, and thank you to China Culture Center for organizing the trip!

A trip to Benxi Shuidong National Park

I spent the last week in Shenyang, enjoying some more cold northern China weather, and decided to get outside the city a bit to see what’s out there! About an hour away is a good mountain for winter sports, but since I’ve already seen the Harbin International Ice Festival, I decided to go see a different nearby site instead- the water caves at the Benxi Shuidong National Park.  These caves actually have a river running through them, so you can take boat tour to see the different cave formations (in different colored lighting of course).  If you ever find yourself in Liaoning, China, it’s worth a stop to go see.  Because the park has a lot to offer as far as hiking trails, I suggest going a little later in the year than I did.  The caves of course are accessible year round since they stay about the same temperature, but I wasn’t very tempted to walk around outside considering all the snow and ice covering the ground!

Benxi Lake

There is a small lake as you walk to the entrance of the caves, as well as a small museum.  This is why I think it would be a great spring or summer mini vacation, since there is actually quite a lot to see if it’s not all covered in snow!

Benxi Tower

The park is about an hour and a half from Shenyang if you drive there directly, but you can also take a bus to the city of Benxi and then take a taxi or tourist bus to the park as well (total two hours).  My taxi driver turned park navigator snapped a photo of me outside the cave entrance:

Benxi Me

Luckily the visit to the caves required no advance planning on my part- upon entering the park I paid a fee (150 RMB) that granted me entry to the different sites.  As I entered the cave, I just joined the line and hopped in a boat!

Benxi Entrance

The cave itself was really impressive, as they had installed lights to show many of the different formations.  I enjoyed the colored lights, but I think some people might want to see normal lights to get a sense of what the stalagmites really look like.

Benxi Lights

What is it like to take a boat tour through a cave? I planned ahead and brought my GoPro Hero 2 along on my journey with me, and took a video of some of my journey:

I’ll post a more detailed entry later on what it was like in the city of Shenyang, but I hope you liked seeing the water caves! Next time you go to a park, don’t forget to love the nature there, even if it’s covered in snow.

Benxi Sign

Culinary Delights in China

Just to give you some context, I was one of those kids when I was little that was a pretty picky eater (true story: I convinced myself I hated water chest nuts, but one day my sister gave some  to me and said they were white carrots and I ate them. Go figure). Now that I live in foreign countries, I’ve had to leave that aside and be open to what I eat. In Peru it wasn’t as difficult because at least I could read the menus. In Beijing it’s a little different– I can recognize probably ten Chinese characters total, so when I go to a restaurant, I have to hope the menu either has English translations or pictures just so I can order.  This isn’t too much of a problem in Beijing, but when I went to Harbin, this was quite a challenge. Our hotel’s restaurant had no pictures, and so I ordered dumplings because that was the only food word I could think of (mmmm jaozi, you were a delicious savior that night).

Although it can be sort of intimidating to go to a restaurant unsure of how you’ll even manage to order, what comes to the table ultimately makes it all worth it! I have had some of the best food I’ve ever tasted here, and Chinese food from China leaves what we call Chinese food in America in the dust! There is also a huge variety of what you can find, between restaurants with international twists and specialty foods from a distinct region or town in China.  I’d like to outline a few of my favorites so far.

picture of colored dumplings

For anyone unsure about what they want to eat, dumplings (or jaozi) are definite way to go. They’re pretty easy to eat, even if you aren’t that proficient with chopsticks, and they come in practically unlimited flavors and fillings, so if you have some dietary restrictions, you should be able to find some dumplings anywhere.

My favorite so far have to be the dumplings at this little restaurant in Chaoyang near the Liangmaqiao subway stop, Bao Yuan.  When you order several different kinds of dumplings, they color  them so you can tell the flavors apart! I know, it sounds sort of weird (purple dumplings, ew?). It’s just that they color the dough a little bit, and I think it looks pretty cute.   They also have a large menu of dumplings, as well as other dishes, so it’s a great lunch or dinner place to go to.   One of my favorite non-dumpling dishes of theirs is this sautéed eggplant which comes topped with cilantro, garlic, chili pepper, and crunchy noodle. If you mix all the toppings together, it makes for a really delicious mix of flavors. I’ve also never had eggplant the way I’ve had it here, where it’s incredibly soft. Anyone who doesn’t like eggplant just hasn’t had it cooked like this!

I should have taken a picture of this eggplant dish before it was all mixed up, as it looks a lot better that way, but hopefully you still get the idea anyway.

eggplant dish

eggplant dish

As much as I love dumplings though, the cuisine here is far more diverse than that, and it’s been great to go to some small restaurants that specialize in regional foods. I went to have some really spicy food at a Sichaun restaurant near the Westin Chaoyang, which certainly helped clear my sinuses during the allergy-inducing weather lately.

fried chicken and chili dish from a Sichuan restaurant.

fried chicken and chili dish from a Sichuan restaurant.

I also tried some food from Xinjian, an autonomous region in northwest China heavily populated by the Uyghur ethnic group, among others.  This food was fascinating because the people in this region are traditionally Muslim, and I noticed a lot of influence from neighboring countries in the cuisine. I chose to have a side of yogurt with my meal, which was  great for balancing out some of the spicier dishes our group ordered. The lamb skewers we had were also a big hit, and we ended up ordering a second round for the table.   At Chinese restaurants in general, most dishes are served family style, and on larger tables they’re put on lazy susans so you can spin it around to grab some of any dish.  I like this format because it doesn’t commit you to eating any one thing (especially if you have no idea what it is and just ordered based off a picture). It’s also a plus if you go with a group, and you can just decide to eat what everyone else orders, which works out perfectly for me, since there’s usually at least one Mandarin speaker at the table!

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suckling pig (a Niajo specialty)

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Garbanzo beans with potato, sausage, and tomato.

Another great thing about Beijing is that there are plenty of restaurants if you don’t like Chinese food (hey, we all need some variety now and then).  There’s a fairly new part of Beijing called SanLitTun which is a huge conglomerate of modern shopping centers and international eateries. My favorite section so far is the Nali patio, which is reminiscent of an indoor/outdoor space typical of Spanish housing compounds.  Inside is a whole array of restaurants, including several Spanish restaurants. I like these because even if I don’t know the Chinese or the English doesn’t make sense, I can figure out what I’m ordering from the Spanish on the menu! This past week I went to Niajo for their monthly wine and food tasting night. The theme was Segovia, and they featured a different wine from the region with each course. The food was amazing, and my friend and I ate every single thing they put on our plates.  I will be keeping an eye out for the next tasting night, as it really was a treat to find some authentic Spanish food so far from Spain!

There’s a whole variety of food here if you’re willing to look for it, and sometimes the best way to find restaurants is to just walk around until you like the look of something. I’m glad I have such a long time here that I can go exploring and see what different types of cuisine this place has to offer. Each meal is an adventure for the palate waiting to be  tasted!

Gorgeous sushi rolls at a Japanese restaurant in Chaoyang district.

Gorgeous sushi rolls at a Japanese restaurant in Chaoyang district.

Sneaking into the Forbidden City

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Well, I didn’t really have to sneak, because the city is no longer forbidden to ordinary citizens without an Emperor living there. 😛 Carrie and I continued in our journey of visiting places without doing much research ahead of time, and we had an enjoyable afternoon walking through the grounds.

The best way I found to get there is to take the Beijing subway to Tian’men Square, which is right next to the Forbidden City. You can’t get much better than paying RMB 2 (roughly 30 cents) for a subway ticket.  It was good to go there during the off season because there were quite a lot of people there today, and I can’t even imagine what it would be like on a weekend in summer. As we walked in, we found a guide right away to show us through the massive complex which is about a kilometer from one gate to another.  Since the layout is pretty straight forward, I suppose we could have gone without a guide (or a self guided recording), but then we would have missed all the history as we walked through.  You could conceivably spend an entire day here because there are multiple halls filled with artifacts from different emperors. I am not much of a museum person, so we only went into a few of these places, and instead focused on admiring the architecture of the different buildings.

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The Forbidden City is the largest palace compound in the world, and it was used to house the Emperor, and even had an office, gardens, and soldiers quarters at the entrance.  There are a few large courtyards that were used for ceremonies. The buildings are painted gold throughout because that was  the color used for the emperor.

FB RoofThe roofs of the buildings are marked with animal statues, and the double roofs on the buildings were used for warmth.  The second roof provided more insulation for the buildings.  I can imagine it would get quite cold in the winter. I was lucky to have a clear blue sky day when I visited today, especially considering the bad weather Beijing was having last weekend.

As with every large tourist destination, there are the traditional things to see as well as the opportunities to be hilariously touristy, thanks to enterprising individuals.  If I had wanted to, I could have dressed up in a costume to walk through the area during my tour.

FB Costume

The advantage of having a tour guide who kept us moving is that we were able to avoid the many vendors selling refreshments and those offering to make us a DVD of us “flying” over the city (are movies of people flying over the Forbidden City a thing?). Of course, it turned out our tour guide had her own agenda for us.  We walked into a very low trafficked area at one point, and she explained it was an office for the nephew of the last Emperor.  We got to walk in and there were a few rooms of gorgeous antique pottery. After a few minutes, the Emperor’s nephew himself came in.  He is actually a renowned artist and calligrapher, and offers calligraphy to raise money for restoration of the Forbidden City.  Although we hadn’t budgeted to buy scrolls (which run between 100 and 250 USD depending on size), it was interesting to look at a few samples.  Meeting an Emperor’s nephew was also a great opportunity for me to use some of my sparse Chinese, since I can in fact say “nice to meet you” in Mandarin.

Our guide, Lily, outside the office.

Our guide, Lily, outside the office.

After that, we continued through the rest of the complex, which ends with the Emperor’s garden.  The trees there are old, some even 300 years old. I liked the garden the best because it was really relaxing. I suppose if I ran a country I’d like a nice quiet place to walk through.  There was even a small building with a roof for playing chess.

FB Garden

Our tour concluded with the garden where we said goodbye to our tour guide.  There isn’t the option to walk through the gate we entered through, so we had to go out the entrance by the garden, where apparently all the rickshaw drivers hang out just to get tourists to take them up on their transport.  It was one of the few times here (so far) where I was completely bombarded with all sorts of people trying to sell me tours and approaching me to take their vehicles.  It was somewhat frustrating, and Carrie and I just kept walking- it’s not like we can take a rickshaw half way across town.  Unfortunately the area behind the Forbidden City is sort of a weird layout, and it took us almost 30 minutes to find a cab.  Next time I go there I will have to figure out the quickest way to get back to a metro stop instead.  Still, it was really interesting to spend a few hours wandering through the area and seeing the architecture, and learning some of the history of China. If you’re planning on going to the Forbidden City, wear walking shoes and also decide how much time you want to devote to the different sections.  The entrance fee is 40 RMB in the winter and 60 at other times, so it’s quite reasonably priced if you choose to walk through on your own.  The signs for the artifacts in the museums are in English as well as Chinese, so you can still learn a lot from them. Behind the garden are two famous parks to visit if you have extra time afterwards. For me, it’s one more UNESCO world heritage site visited!