Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Morning With Chinese Characteristics

Here was the scene a few minutes ago, when we all woke up on Easter morning. No Matey Road, but a Jinjiang Inn in Chengdu. No Easter egg hunt, but a ping pong ball hunt.

And now it is off to try to find the cathedral. And then the Easter pandas...

~Steve

Hot Pot Of A Different Sort

Here's the latest installment of "Guess What Food This Restaurant Serves."

First clue...It was indeed hot pot.

Second clue...Friends of mine visiting from Wuhan took me to this place. (That's a clue for the aficionados.)

Third clue...Desi and the kids weren't there for the festivities.

~Steve

PS: The answer is posted as a comment. Do you dare look?

Missing Easter, But...

This Easter has been a lot different for us. While Christmas had at least some secular signs, for both the trained and untrained eye, the most special Christian celebration goes by without any notice from the general populace.

Yet for those who search, opportunities to share in the spirituality of the season can be found. For example, on Wednesday night, we were invited to join a group of local Catholics, both Chinese and foreign, for a lovely Seder meal. This occasion allowed us to share in the rituals of Holy Week with people, most of whom we had never met before, but whom we were comfortable with from the start because of our shared faith.

Catholic means "universal." This definition echoed loudly in our hearts and minds as we joined with individuals from many nationalities, backgrounds, and walks of life, united by our love for the Holy Trinity, to share in a feast recalling the ancient connection between Jews and Christians and celebrating the Passover meal as Christ did.

~Desi

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Guo Qiao

This was a suspension bridge we had to cross to complete our ten kilometer hike from Jinshanling to Simatai. Not a bad ending to a beautiful (and exhausting!) day. (Desi tells me I conked out at 7:30!)

~Steve

Beida Jia You!

We always seem to bump into Peking University students out on the wall. (Shouldn't they be studying!?) This time, it was a group of international exchange students who are studying business management. Their countries of origin are Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and the United States.

~Steve

The Legendary Jinshanling To Simatai Hike

As is usually the case with the Great Wall, the pictures do all of the talking...

~Steve

Sunset Over The Great Wall...

...Is everything it is cracked up to be!

~Steve

Speaking Of The Wild Wall...

...See if you can spot Desi and Julie in one of these pictures, all of which were taken at a particular rugged section.

~Steve

How The Wild Wall Is Tamed

There is a lot made around here about the distinction between the wild wall and the wall that has been restored. Well, here's what things look like in between...

~Steve

Jingshan Bingguan

Here is the hotel that Gan Xiansheng, our hei che driver, recommended. The hotel is comprised of a series of traditional, Chinese-style courtyards. As for the rooms themselves, as you can see, they provided us with a place to rest as we geared up for two days of hiking on the wall. Nothing fancy, but serviceable nonetheless.

~Steve

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Trust Factor

Given my Type A personality, relinquishing control is not one of my strong points. Yet, while living in China, this practice has become the rule rather than the exception. In other words, to experience the fullness of what China has to offer, I have had to hand over the reins (or, in the following example, the steering wheel) to people I have never met before. Entrusting strangers with the care of my family and my self is undoubtedly something I'd never even consider in the US.

Take this past weekend. As our long distance bus pulled into the station at Miyun, we were fully expecting to disembark and head to a xiao che (small bus) that would take us on the final leg of our journey to the Great Wall at Simatai. Unfortunately, the Frommer's guide was apparently outdated because when we stepped off the bus, there wasn't a xiao che in sight...Just a flock of hawkers ready, willing, and able to capitalize on our error and pile us into their hei che (literally, black car) to make the trip to Simatai.

While self-sufficiency is usually our top priority, in this case we had no choice but to consider this option (and its hefty 300 kuai price tag). As I stepped off the bus, a woman in an official-looking uniform asked me where we were going, told me there were no such buses available, and proceeded to escort all of us across the road to the awaiting drivers.

One man, Gan Xiansheng, walked over to us and gently requested our business. This guy was very different from the normal, more aggressive hei che shifu. We all felt comfortable with him right away, loaded our luggage into his VW Santana, and took off on an eighty minute adventure.

During that time he spoke to us in very clear Chinese about the places we were driving through, people he knows from those places...And how we actually should not go to Simatai, but rather to Jinshanling, the proposed end point of our Great Wall hike, and stay there instead. He told us that the hotel in Jinshanling is bigger and it is much quieter there. He then proceeded to plan out the next two days of our lives.

His plan went something like this...

OK. I'll drop you off in Jinshanling. You can stay in the hotel there and hike tomorrow morning to Simatai. It will take you 4 to 5 hours. You can call me while you are hiking and I'll meet you at the end. Then I will drive you back to Jinshanling to pick up your luggage and take you back to your home...For 500 kuai.

Steve and I, after having planned this weekend in our own way, both thought, "Huh?" And then proceeded to say, "OK!" (And after sacking up the 300 kuai fare for this part of our trip, 500 didn't seem too bad for all that service.)

Some guy we never met before just took over all of our plans, changed them...And we went for it!

And it was awesome! It worked out just as he said. He was waiting at the end for us, just as he had promised, and transported us all the way back to Yan Bei Yuan in quick fashion.

Lesson learned? Sometimes you have to give up a little to get a lot. Carefully calculated risks can be worth taking. In this case, it certainly was for us...

~Desi

Monday, April 06, 2009

Pai Dui!

We decided, this past weekend, to take a trip out to the Great Wall and hike along some parts where we have never been. Our decision to do this at this specific time boiled down to one factor...The weather! The forecast was for temperatures up into the twenties, which meant that it would (finally!) not be too cold for extended outdoor time in the mountains. Nor would it be too hot, as it surely will become in the months ahead. So a perfect time to hit the road...Or so we thought!

It was only after arriving at Dongzhimen long-distance bus station that we, somewhat belatedly, remembered it was Qing Ming weekend. Qing Ming weekend?

Qing Ming is an ancient Chinese festival that has been translated as "Tomb Sweeping Day." Essentially, Qing Ming is when families make pilgrimages back to their home towns and honor their ancestors. This honoring takes the form of everything from sao mu (the sweeping off of grave sites) to the offering of food, tea, money, and other gifts.

In practical terms, Qing Ming meant for us that there were hordes of people heading out of Beijing city and returning to their family homes in outlying villages...Many of which are, as it turns out, precisely in the direction of the Great Wall! This was a recipe for disaster...Or so we thought!

As we wandered through the station, we slowly but surely came to realize that things were not as bad as they appeared. Somewhat surprisingly, each long-distance bus appeared to have its own pai dui (orderly line). On top of that, at the end of each line, there was a young woman holding a sign on a long post. The signs had the numbers of respective buses on them. In other words, these signs marked the end of each pai dui. All you had to do was locate the sign for your bus route, join the queue, and you were good to go.

So twenty minutes later, there we were...Sitting on the 980, heading out to Miyun, a small town (of five hundred thousand!) located near the Great Wall. Don't worry, though...It's the Ballas...There was sure to be a misadventure eventually...

~Steve

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Catholic Churches In China

We have posted before about the difficulties of being Catholic in an officially atheistic society. The long distances to "nearby" cathedrals. The relative absence of the Christian calendar in everyday life. (We are especially feeling this absence during Holy Week, as there is nary a sign of Easter anywhere to be found.)

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is reconciling the fact that there are actually two Catholic churches here in China. One is the official Catholic church that is "loyal" to the Communist Party. The other is an "underground" church that operates in homes and other less visible places around the country.

Two years ago, Pope Benedict XVI offered his support to those clergy who join the official church, in an effort to bring the two segments of Chinese Catholicism closer together. Bishops appointed by Rome now commonly also make their pledge of fealty to the government.

This coming together, of course, raises other difficulties. Are priests who join the official church in some way "selling out?" Are underground churches, by naturally inviting suspicion, somehow limiting the ability of sanctioned parishes to do good work in improving the everyday lives of people in need of the church's charitable works? Where do we draw the line in making such judgments, as the distinction gets a little fuzzier than it was in the past?

Well, imagine holding hands with a standing-room only crowd in a cathedral this coming Easter morning, singing and swaying as the Lord's Prayer is belted out joyfully in Chinese.

And then imagine holding in your arms, that same morning, a baby who surely would have been forcibly aborted had her mother not been shepherded by fellow Catholics in the underground church.

Please keep the Chinese Catholic church, both the official church and the underground church, in your prayers during this Holy Week.

~Steve