The Ancient Capitol: Xi’An

The great thing about being a Peace Corps China volunteer in 2017 is we get to take full advantage of the growth of high speed rails across the country. Last year, a visit to Xi’An would have taken 9 or 10 hours by train. Now, it’s a quick 3 hour trip – which makes for the perfect weekend getaway!Fullscreen capture 1262017 101959 PM.bmp

Xi’An (pronounced shee-an) is one of the ancient capitols of China- 1,500 years ago, when Beijing was a backwater nobodyville, Xi’An was already a bustling metropolis. In the Tang dynasty it was the largest city in the world by population, with over a million inhabitants inside the city walls and another 2 million outside.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102213 PM.bmp

The later Ming Dynasty walls remain today, creating a massive, rectangular 14km perimeter around the city center. Visitors can climb to the top and walk or bike around, getting great views of the interior and exterior city. The sky was rather polluted the day I went, but it was still a contemplative experience, nonetheless.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102222 PM.bmp


One of the famous dishes in Xi’An is biang biang noodles, named after the thwacking noise the dough makes when it is repeatedly slapped onto the table and stretched over and over again. The noodles are as wide as a belt, but at the same time very thin, and remind me Lanzhou’s da-kuan noodles.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102006 PM.bmp

The character for Biang Biang is extremely complex (see below) with 57 strokes needed before it can be written out. It is essentially total artistic nonsense, and never made it into the great, definitive Kangxi Dictionary. There are over 47,000 recognized characters in the dictionary and biang biang is not one of them. Case closed!Fullscreen capture 1262017 102012 PM.bmp.jpg


Wild Goose Pagodas

A short bike ride south outside of the city walls will bring you to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the Tang Dynasty. Originally the structure was 10 stories in height, but subsequent earthquakes and rebuildings have left it at its current 7 stories.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102037 PM.bmpIn 627 AD, the famous monk Xuangzang left China on a 17 year, road-trip journey to India, in an effort to gain a more enlightened understanding of Buddhism and bring back hundreds of original Sanskrit texts.journey.jpg

The Wild Goose Pagoda was constructed to house the texts and related translations, and also to honor his journey and spirit. Across town the Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built a short while later in 707 AD. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102114 PM.bmpAs more and more pilgrims returned from India with Buddhist texts, the two pagodas (and Xi’An as a whole) became a symbol for the spread of Buddhism throughout China.

Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts

This is a museum that is not to be missed! The Qujiang Museum is a private (AKA pricey admissions) museum, but absolutely worth it. The highlight is several rooms displaying works of pure gold through several dynasties. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102101 PM.bmpThe gold work is mostly filigree- fine gold threads that are then woven together to form baskets, headpieces/ crowns, and (my favorite) vases.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102911 PM.bmp

Precious gems- rubies, pearls, jades – are securely embedded into most of the pieces, and little animal figurines can be spotted throughout. There were gold phoenixes, dragons, bats, and elks that were easily identifiable, all thought to bring good luck to the very fortunate and wealthy owner of the piece.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102054 PM.bmp

I’ve seen some of the most exclusive works of gold housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the National Palace Museum in Taipei- this collection easily rivals the best in the world.

Muslim Bazaar

No Chinese city is complete without a night market- and in the heart of Xi’an there is the wonderful, energetic Muslim Bazaar. This is one of the larger night markets I’ve experienced in mainland China, and it was a surprising amount of fun.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102133 PM.bmp

It’s absolutely packed on the weekends with all sorts of snacks to savor and trinkets to buy. There was a refreshing variety of goods for sale – I drank several cups of fresh squeezed pomegranate/ coconut/ sugar cane juice, and found myself running to the bathroom to relieve my bladder on several occasions. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102127 PM.bmpXi’An is also famous for Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍  (Mutton and soaked bread) which I obviously had to try.Fullscreen capture 1262017 103159 PM.bmp

This is a three step meal:

  • You’re first given an empty bowl with some very firm, round bread.
  • This then needs to be shredded by hand into small pieces (mine were massive chunks but the locals could break the bread down to a much more refined size).
  • The bowl is handed back to the waiter, who will take it to the chef, who then pours a boiling mutton broth over the bread. Some sliced lamb and other condiments are added, before the bowl is return to you. Slurp quickly!Fullscreen capture 1262017 103315 PM.bmp

It’s all quite enjoyable, and quickly warmed me up as I was sitting outside in the chilly November night. The soup congeals though as it cools- so it must be finished ASAP

There’s something for everyone at the market- carnivores will delight in skeletons of sheep and other animals, purposely hung to be gawked at by visitors. Vendors cut the flesh off the carcass and skewer them into kebabs for roasting.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102141 PM.bmp

Vegans can find something delicious too- including fresh jackfruit, sliced on request. Is it just me, or does this giant fruit eerily resemble the leg of a lamb, or maybe Spanish iberico ham displayed at a banquet?? Fullscreen capture 1262017 102145 PM.bmp

This trip to Xi’An was one of my most interesting and rewarding weekends yet. Luxury malls and high rises dominate the noisy central roads, but one or two side-streets away, the atmosphere is completely serene.

Biking around on those one lane streets, I could hear the dry leaves scraping the ground in circular patterns below me, and songbirds confined to their cages chirping in the trees above. In some ways, Xi’An has not changed at all after 1,500 years


From Xining to Zhangye

Xining: Tibetan Medicine Museum

Earlier this autumn I made a weekend trip to Xining, taking the 70 minute bullet train. Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, and the gateway to areas of China with heavier Tibetan influence.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM.bmp

I was there to visit the Tibetan Medicine Museum of China to see the Great Thangka. A Thangka (tangkasnet) is a Tibetan Buddhist painting done on cotton or silk. In this style of art, there is always one large figure in the center, surrounded by dozens of smaller demi-gods, animals, and monks depicting a Buddhist story. Here is an example, courtesy of Wikipedia:Fullscreen capture 11212017 62554 PM.bmp

The thangka is always colorful and ornate, meticulously painted with layers of blue ocean waves, deep red temple facades, and gold or silver lining saved for clouds and deities.

What makes the Great Thangka special is its sheer size and length – this is a scroll painting 618 meters (2,000+ feet!!!) in length and 1,000 kg in weight – which took 300 artists over 25 years to complete. Walking into the exhibit was a mind-blowing experience.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14042 PM.bmp

Wall after wall, room after room, was this never-ending scroll painting as far as the eye could see. Every square inch of visible surface-area was covered in colors and stories- there were elephants, tortured human skeletons, vultures, blue-skinned fire demons, dragons, and historical figures important to Tibetan Buddhism.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14029 PM.bmp

It was a quiet Saturday morning and I had the entire exhibit to myself. In retrospect I should have requested a guide to help me further appreciate the artwork, to better understand the major themes and fables depicted. Fullscreen capture 11212017 14035 PM.bmp

Had it not been for the green arrows on the floor guiding visitors through the museum, I definitely would have been lost at some point. The experience was similar to wandering through a corn maze, only slightly more artistic and lacking screaming children.

Here is a floor map of the exhibit; from above it looks a bit like our large intestines (I drew a yellow line to helpfully indicate the thangka snaking through the museum).Fullscreen capture 11212017 62604 PM.bmp

I am really curious about the logistics of outlining, painting, storing, transporting, and installing the Great Thangka. Researching this might just be my Peace Corps secondary project, instead of fixing up the dreaded “Book Nook”.

Zhangye: Danxia Geopark and the Giant Buddha

Several weeks later I again headed north-west from Lanzhou for three and a half hours via bullet train, this time to Zhangye.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM_1.bmp

Zhangye is famous for the Danxia National Geopark, a rock formation landscape similar to the Grand Canyon. With good weather and angled sunlight, the rich colors of the earth streak through the mountainside in reds, yellows, cream, and every color in between.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14301 PM.bmp

Danxia is about forty minutes away from Zhangye downtown by private car. After arriving at the geopark, I hitched a ride on the park bus that came every ten minutes or so, stopping at each viewpoint to admire various rock formations.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14253 PM.bmp

Chinese love giving ridiculous, long-winded names to odd shaped rocks on mountains and hills- the Danxia Geopark is no different. Below are some fancy titles for the sculpted landscape, and if you squint hard enough, maybe you could see a scallop or monkey, but I honestly just saw dirt-colored cliffs.

  • Huge Scallop Rock Cumulus
  • Colorful Meeting Fairy Deck
  • Spirit Monkey View Sea
  • Supernatural Tortoise Looks at the Sky

Also worth noting that every image on Google has been photoshopped and saturated beyond reality, and what I saw with my eyes looked nothing like what a visitor may have expected, if they were to believe Google.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62548 PM.bmp

The other must-see landmark in Zhangye is the Giant Sleeping Buddha (张掖大佛寺). This slumbering sculpture is the largest of its kind in China – and thankfully, has barely been touched since its creation in the Western Xia Dynasty 900+ years ago.02-20121111-08_cn-sleepingbuddha-sml

The Buddha is held together by a hollow wooden frame coated in a layer of clay, and painted over. A panorama shows its true scale: 157 feet long x 24 feet wide at its highest (shoulder to shoulder). He is guarded by ten disciples behind him, and two on either side of his head and feet.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62530 PM.bmp

No photography was allowed inside, so these are Google photos. Behind the statue on the wall were Ming Dynasty murals retelling scenes from Journey to the West (interestingly, the wall paintings were completed before the book 西游记 was written, so many of these tales about the Monkey King existed along the Silk Road well before they reached the rest of China!). There’s also a legend that Kublai Khan was born here, but so far there’s little evidence of this.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14214 PM.bmp

The temple exterior is unadorned and unpainted. There are banners along the entrance pillars with a beautiful poem, written in traditional Chinese characters:

Sleep Buddha, long may you slumber
Sleep 1,000 years
Slumber forever, do not awaken
Those who ask, question forever
Question 100 centuries
Never ask, and you will never know

Of course I made a sketch of this too, with the poem written in gold ink glimmering against a black midnight sky, overlooking Zhangye’s Giant Buddha. May he sleep for another 100 centuries!Fullscreen capture 11212017 62540 PM.bmp


Labrang Monastery བླ་བྲང་བཀྲ་ཤིས་འཁྱིལ and more: the Chengs reunite in Lanzhou!

Mid-September my mom visited Lanzhou to check I was alive, 15 months into my Peace Corps service. In addition to cleaning my apartment from corner to corner (“its so dirty! Its so so dirty!”) we took a short weekend trip down to Xiahe, which is home to Labrang Monastery and the Sangke GrasslandsFullscreen capture 1092017 80638 PM.bmp.jpg

Labrang Monastery and Sangke GrasslandsFullscreen capture 1092017 80436 PM.bmp

Founded in 1709, Labrang Monastery is Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred complex outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. At one point it was home to over 4,000 monks but this number has been cut by 2/3 since the Cultural Revolution. Today it is also a functioning school for studying Buddhist law, religion, medicine, etc.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80647 PM.bmp

We were admitted into some of the temples and halls when prayer sessions were not being held. I was most impressed by the boxes and boxes of centuries-old scrolls and sutras housed inside, lining the interior walls up to the ceiling (like a scene out of Beauty and the Beast, when superficial Belle is blown away that the Beast is actually literate and not just an animal-thug)

Some of the exterior murals on the temple walls were phenomenal with incredible detail and colors. The frescos depict various guardians/ gods/ demons battling for dominanceFullscreen capture 1092017 83356 PM.bmp

The entire perimeter of the complex is made of a 3.5 km continuous corridor of prayer wheels – lifelong Tibetan Buddhists have traveled hundreds of miles to come here to pray and receive blessings. The most devoted will not simply walk and spin prayer wheels- instead, they bow and prostrate themselves on the ground every step of the way around the entire Labrang complex.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80445 PM.bmp

I attempted a sketch of this (leaving much of the image black and white- a new style for me, perhaps!)22277892_1694771400554991_6830050048584187904_n.jpg

The day was generally cloudy and even rainy, but for half an hour the sun came out and gave us perfect blue skies.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80455 PM.bmp

The Sangke grasslands were rather underwhelming. I imagined a vast field as far as the eye could see, with the spirits of wild horses and Tibetan/ Mongol herders soaring freely across miles and miles of wild pastures. In reality, most of these lands have been fenced off into small squares by the owners, so the grasslands have been tamed in some sense.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80236 PM.bmp.jpg

Still, I got a wonderful photo of the family that stayed on the particular plot of land (they were Tibetan for surethey did not speak mandarin Chinese). The baby is impressively unimpressed, and the young man is ruggedly handsome in a way that comes so naturally for Tibetans.

He wouldn’t look out of place in an ad for Hermes or Prada (see below) but instead of being a moody, pretentious prick, he’s just living his life…Fullscreen capture 1092017 113025 PM.bmp.jpg

Gansu Museum

Back in Lanzhou, we visited the Gansu Museum in the Qilihe district. The highlight here is the Bronze Running Horse- crafted some 2,000 years ago, it was rediscovered during the Cultural Revolution, and (thankfully!) not destroyed in some crazed political movement shortly after. The horse is no ordinary horse- it is a Celestial Horse, a prized breed of beautiful and fearless warhorses from the Fergana valley of Uzbekistan.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80605 PM.bmp

Personally, I was equally as impressed by the “Tiger-Devouring Sheep Pedestal” made some 2,500 years ago! Both the horse and tiger are on my sketch list… stay tuned!Fullscreen capture 1092017 80711 PM.bmp

The Vegetable Lady

Outside my school there is an indoor market that sells live chickens, fish, and fresh vegetables. I go to the same lady to buy groceries (she’s friendly and always gives me free parsley and chili peppers), and sometimes I have difficulty understanding her heavily-accented Chinese, so I brought my mom along for support.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80830 PM.bmp

The following (pleasant, at least initially) exchange occurred.

Vegetable Lady: Hi! So… is he your only child?

Mom: No, I have an older daughter. She’s 3 years older than him, shes 31

Lady: 31! Is she married? 你的姑娘结婚了没?

Mom: No, she’s not married.

Lady: WHAT? 31 AND SINGLE?Fullscreen capture 1092017 82054 PM.bmp

Mom: yes.. it’s quite normal in America and in New York.

Lady (shocked, and feeling extreme pity for my mom): BUT… YOU DON’T HAVE GRANDKIDS?

Mom: Yeah… I mean its not a big deal… I’ve lived in America for 35 years, it’s really not as important as it is in China…Fullscreen capture 1092017 82104 PM.bmp

Lady (speaking as if our entire family was a failure): NO GRANDKIDS? No grandkids to hug… no grandkids to hug… (没孙子抱! 没孙子抱…)

*later, as we leave the market*

Mom: Oh my god… even the vegetable vendor is hounding me about grandkids!!!

Weekend in Lanzhou

My dad and sister finally made it to Lanzhou, just for the weekend (they were busy touring Beijing and the ancient capital Xi’An – the schedule was packed) so we did a quick tour of the must-see things in Lanzhou:

The night market at Zhenging Road. There is a line around the block for 牛奶鸡蛋醪糟, a hot, frothy milk-egg-cereal drink. kind of loud, kind of crowded- sums up Lanzhou nicelyFullscreen capture 1092017 90235 PM.bmp

Lanzhou Beef Noodle Sampler (I have an entire post dedicated to these beef noodles)Fullscreen capture 1092017 82025 PM.bmp

Mine turned out to be a single strand of noodle, much to everyone’s amusementFullscreen capture 1092017 80800 PM.bmp

San Pao Tai Tea by the German Bridge/ Yellow River (best view in the Lanzhou, also home to some of the dirtiest toilets in the city as my mom found out.. which is why I always just pee in the bushes)Fullscreen capture 1092017 80748 PM.bmp

And of course, a dinner 涮羊肉 with our relatives here in the city. After 55+ years (I won’t reveal my mom’s age!), she finally meets her older half-sister. About time!Fullscreen capture 1092017 91954 PM.bmp


Pingliang: Full Circle!

At the end of August I headed to Pingliang, Gansu for a short trip. It is a small town (by Chinese standards – population around 300,000) five hours east of Lanzhou by bus. I was going there to visit my other half-aunt and her family for the first time.

A flurry of phone calls were made between my cousins in Lanzhou and Pingliang in the days leading up to my visit, and before I knew it, I was enjoying a huge bowl of “Mutton and Bread Soup” outside my hotel with my cousin and her husband the morning i arrived.
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The dish is famous in Pingling (it is also famous in Xi’An, and I suppose every city within a 100 mile radius of Shaanxi province will claim to have invented 羊肉泡馍.)
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You rip the bread into tiny pieces over the soup, and it quickly picks up all the rich broth and fat from the heavy mutton slices that have sunk to the bottom of the bowl. the soup comes with extra parsley, scallion, chili sauce, and sweet vinegared garlic cloves for taste- and a stick of Wrigley’s gum to help hide the fact that you enjoyed such an intensely flavored meal for breakfast.

Pingliang Middle School #1

One of the highlights of this trip was visiting Pingliang Middle School #1, where my great-grandfather was headmaster from 1938 – 1948. I have spent much of the past decade letting everyone know I’m from a well-educated family (at my previous job, I frequently announced, “Well, we were educated, unlike some *other* Chinese families during that era…” within earshot of my many Chinese-American coworkers and [against better judgement] my Chinese-American boss. I’m sure they were secretly openly thrilled to receive my resignation email last Spring.)

Here we are, outside the front entrance of the school 甘肃省平凉一中 (the current principal is standing next to me with the grey blazer, the others are my relatives):
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Anyway, the school dates back to 1515, in the Ming Dynasty! The site has served various purposes throughout the past 1,000 years- first an imperial garden for the royal family (back when Chang’An was the capitol), then as a grounds for public executions in the turmoil that inevitably followed dynastic change, and eventually became a school. Nothing from the past remains at the school today- the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake and its aftershocks made the buildings structurally unstable, and the entire campus has been rebuilt since.
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There are several rooms in the reception hall that chronicle the history of the school. I found a black and white photo of my great-grandfather on the wall: same nose (but thankfully, very different hairline)! It was quite an inspirational – almost surreal – thing to see, and as an educator, visiting Pingliang Middle School 1 has helped my Peace Corps experience come full circle in some ways.

Kong Tong Mountain and the Case of the Missing Stele

Pingliang is also home to Kong Tong Mountain, one of the most sacred Daoist mountains in China. It is a unique site in the sense that for over 3,000 years (from the Western Zhou period onward), almost all major A-list figures in Chinese history have made pilgrimages to these mountain to seek counsel- emperors, generals, famed poets, religious leaders, rebels, warlords, master painters (me) etc.
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Unfortunately the Cultural Revolution had a devastating impact on Kong Tong Mountain, which became an easy target for the red guards due to its association with Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Most of the temples that had stood for centuries were burned to the ground- only a towering pagoda and a few small temples were spared of this fate.
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We (my cousin, his niece, and I) had a most unusual task the day we went up for the hike. 100 years ago our family was on good terms with Daoist monks in the mountain, and our clan had donated vast sums of money to build/ renovate many of their structures in the final days of the Qing Dynasty. A stone stele was carved for our family, and as of a decade ago, it was located near the steps of the mountain, at an easily accessible location. A stele basically looks like a tombstone:
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However, the never-ending feud between Buddhists and Daoists recently (re)erupted and the steles of several prominent donors became victims of inter-sectarian strife! The tablets were smashed and moved to an unknown location. These quarrels seem so immature and pointless in the 21st century – especially after the mindless destruction that already occurred in the 1960s and 70s – but old feuds die hard…
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While hiking the mountain we stopped to talk with countless Daoist monks along the way to inquire about the current location of the smashed steles. Unfortunately, no one could help us. If you ever climb Kong Tong Mountain please help us find the missing stele!!
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Here is a group photo from one of our lunches with my aunt, her husband, and my three cousins – who are all 20 to 30 years older than me. They were all so nice to me and wouldn’t let me pay for anything during my stay – this is a very typical Chinese way of showing gratitude and fondness towards a guest (which i felt horrible about, because I’m basically an adult who happens to have a man-child job for the time being)
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From what I understood, my cousins worked for many years in the “iron rice bowl.” this is a term used to describe people who had a steady occupation through the government or state owned enterprises- and can retire with good pensions and live comfortably. These SOEs are now mostly dismantled and the next generation generally has to fight for survival like the rest of us living in more capitalist societies.

My aunt (seated, left) is 77, and her husband (seated, right) is a few years older. My uncle was quite talkative and had so many stories he wanted to share about the past. He described the stretch of time between the 1960s and 70s as ‘devastating’ but still maintains a strong spirit and sense of humor regarding whatever life threw at him.

I used to be a doctor. But we weren’t rich like American doctors, I only made 49 RMB ($7 USD, unadjusted for inflation) a month. Though back then Mutton and Bread Soup 羊肉泡馍 was only 2 mao ($.029 USD) per bowl! So, it wasn’t all bad.”