My short trip to Xiamen (pronounced Shaman, like the chanting, spiritual witchdoctor) left me recharged and deeply relaxed. Xiamen is one of the most comfortable major cities in China- the city is mainly comprised of a large island off the Fujian coast. In the 1980s it was one of four SEZ (Special economic zone) that led China toward modernization and economic prosperity.5ef46560533e48c0acc5bfa5.jpg

That being said it is neither overdeveloped nor inhumanely capitalist in feeling, which is the dreary reality and fate for many of other China’s mega cities and early SEZs. The population sits at 3.5 million; there are numerous parks, the skies are blue, and the coastal breeze is much appreciated.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70148 PM.bmp.jpg

The name Xiamen means “doors to the mansion”- after losing the Opium Wars, Xiamen became an entrance point for European powers to conduct their business and governance in China. The tiny Gulangyu Island is a short ferry-ride away, and it is here that the Westerners built their consulates and homes. Fullscreen capture 3162018 94103 PM.bmp.jpgMany of the buildings are still standing today – although in various stages of decay – and their terracotta roofs still paint a magnificent picture of what the island looked like a century ago.   Fullscreen capture 3162018 70158 PM.bmp

The tourist ferry port to go Gulangyu was even busier than some train stations and airports I have been to in China- expect long lines, and bring your passport as always! I got into a screaming match with a couple who definitely cut me in line, (I parroted off some propaganda I see regularly about traveling with class 文明旅行!!! 听过没?”, which in retrospect is an un-classy thing to say to a stranger ) but two minutes later I was over it and completely #unbothered since we would be stuck on the same ferry anyway.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70204 PM.bmp

One of the best local dishes here is an inexpensive bowl of 沙茶面 (Satay Noodles). The broth is rich with south-east Asian spices and there’s always the option to add an egg and some mish-mash meat rolls for more flavor.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70638 PM.bmp

I also found a small restaurant serving handmade vegetarian dumplings and noodles, where the dough for the noodles was being kneaded on one end of the table, and the patrons sat at the other end eating the finished product. An intimate and comfortable experience, though I was nervous for the little boy (the owner’s son, I assume) whose fingers were constantly in the vicinity of the fast moving knives.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70630 PM.bmp

Xiamen gets an A+ for urban planning. A wide pedestrian/ biking boulevard surrounds much of the perimeter of the island, so traveling from district to district became a pleasant and scenic experience. A pair of highways have been built out over the ocean, which makes for some dramatic night photography.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70217 PM.bmp

The coolest neighborhood in Xiamen is Shapowei (沙坡尾)made up of low-rise buildings from the early 20th century. Most storefronts have been converted into cafes and specialty restaurants, and I spent several evenings here wandering around, stopping for the occasional snack and drink.Fullscreen capture 3162018 65956 PM.bmp

I wonder what Xiamen will look like a decade from now – if its urban population will double, if the island will drown under thousands of new high rises, if traffic will snarl the heart of the city… but hopefully the city can retain its coastal cool, and hold tight its history as the doors to China.


Hong Kong & Macau

I’ve been out and about for the past eight weeks on a lengthy tour of East and South East Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xiamen in Fujian Province. This was a relaxing trip and definitely the longest vacation I’ve taken IN MY LIFE since I was born, unless you count preschool or kindergarten as vacation.

A long holiday is never a bad thing, but at some point I did feel an urge to get back to work and commit myself to something. I always dreamed of retiring at 35, but now I know … it’s probably best to wait out retirement until my 60s along with everyone else!

I probably won’t have time to write a post for each of the trips, but I’ll start with the China related adventures, since this is a Peace Corps China blog after all. First up: Hong Kong!Fullscreen capture 382018 105056 PM.bmp.jpg

Hong Kong

The land and islands that make up present day Hong Kong were lost to the British Empire after the First and Second Opium War. After just over 150 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 (photo below) as an autonomous ‘special administrative region’ for the next 50 years; that is, until 2046.hong-kong-handover-1-july-1997-1

Today Hong Kong is home to 7.4 million people, and still feels a world away from mainland China. People read and write traditional Chinese (instead of simplified), speak Cantonese/ English and not Mandarin (and thus the phonetic spelling of words is different as well), and still have some Western demeanors due to the legacy of British rule.Fullscreen capture 392018 111128 AM.bmp.jpg

The man below is painting a Lunar New Year greeting with traditional characters in gold ink – so cool! – to hang outside the front door of a home.Fullscreen capture 382018 83939 PM.bmp

I didn’t plan ahead for this trip so I probably missed major cultural highlights, but generally Hong Kong is renowned for several things, in addition to outrageous property prices:

  • Excellent food, which I indulged in on a daily basis
  • Excellent nightlife, which I danced and drank my way through on Friday and Saturday evenings
  • Excellent hiking trials, which I was too tired to even locate on a map, let alone attempt to hike

Some cities are referred to as the “city of 1,000 spires”, “city of 1,000 bridges”, or “city of 1,000 minarets and bazaars”… Hong Kong island should be known as the City of 1,000 Steps. It’s built entirely into a mountain, so any movement in the north – south direction results in a drastic change in altitude and requires climbing stairs, but if you’re lucky you could catch a ride on a nearby outdoor escalator.Fullscreen capture 382018 104258 PM.bmp

Its slightly more difficult to visualize the topography of Hong Kong today due to all the skyscrapers, but the painting below from 150 years ago gives a better sense of what the island is like.City_of_Victoria

The cuisine in Hong Kong is really incredible- it’s far lighter, sweeter, and seemingly healthier than anything we eat in Gansu, which is always drenched in vinegar, chili sauce, and other oils. Some of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in the past year and a half came from the few days I was in Hong Kong.Fullscreen capture 382018 105755 PM.bmp

Most of the dishes I ate were steamed (though I assume the dishes could have gone through the fryer as well… before ending up in a healthy-looking bamboo steam basket).

I had the pleasure of meeting up with my dear friend Andrew and his wife Vivian for the weekend. They will be first-time parents in about one month’s time (yay!), which meant the nightlife portion of my itinerary was pawned off to their childfree friends, much to my delight.Fullscreen capture 382018 110412 PM.bmp.jpg

I ended up at the Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) neighborhood, with its densely packed ascending and descending streets of bars, restaurants (including kebab shops identical to those in NYC!), and clubs. Chengdu has a recently built an upscale club and bar district called Lan Kwai Fong as well- but I gotta say, the original in Hong Kong is much better!

Andrew also took me to the south side of Hong Kong Island, away from the skyscrapers that dominate Victoria Harbour. It was a foggy day but still an enjoyable trip away from the frenetic energy of downtown Hong Kong.Fullscreen capture 382018 84243 PM.bmp

Plus, I got to pray at Tin Hau Temple, dedicated to Mazu the Goddess of the Sea!Fullscreen capture 382018 110616 PM.bmp

The next day I traveled farther out in Kowloon, to see Lei Yun Mun, an area that still holds tight to its fishing village roots. It’s also a quiet part of Hong Kong, and one of the more beautiful places to visit with its blue-green waters and countless small boats resting in the calm harbor.Fullscreen capture 382018 100522 PM.bmp

The restaurants here all specialize in selling fresh seafood- each shop hosts an array of tanks crammed with crustaceans and a variety of fish, with the sea water spilling from the top tanks downward.Fullscreen capture 382018 100604 PM.bmp

The seafood here is definitely fresh but also extremely expensive, but diners here don’t mind- they will pay a premium for quality. A woman picked out a massive crab for her banquet that night…Fullscreen capture 382018 110711 PM.bmp

I feigned interest in a small spiny lobster, pictured below. For now, I’m good with just eating shumai and shrimp dumplings JFullscreen capture 382018 100537 PM.bmp


A short ferry ride west will bring you to the two small islands that make up Macau, which has had heavy Portuguese influence for over 500 years. Today it is more known for its mega-casinos and gambling than for anything else. As a broke volunteer I passed on the gambling and headed to see the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.Fullscreen capture 382018 111019 PM.bmp.jpg

The church was completed by the Jesuits in 1640 and burned down in 1835, with only the stone front still standing. It looks European in style but has Chinese characters and motifs on the façade, which makes it culturally significant.Fullscreen capture 382018 104436 PM.bmp

To be honest, I don’t really love the designs that were carved; the dragons and hydras look childish and out of proportion, and nowhere near as complex as what I’ve seen in Lisbon and other European capitols. It looks like a half-assed effort from both the Chinese and European architects that would have had heads rolling if constructed in Portugal or China proper…Fullscreen capture 382018 104322 PM.bmp

These future PLA leaders didn’t seem to mind though; they’re just happy to remind the world of China’s ever-expanding territory and regional influence! Fullscreen capture 382018 102005 PM.bmp

Personally, I found the nearby cityscape much more appealing. People might say endless rows of concrete apartments are drab in appearance, but they hold a hell of a lot stories waiting to be told.Fullscreen capture 382018 104404 PM.bmp

The best thing about Macau though? freshly baked Portuguese egg tarts!!


Longmen Grottos (龙门石窟) and FutureLearn

In early December I took the high speed rail to Luoyang in Henan Province to see the famous Longmen Grottoes. This was one of the furthest weekend trips for me so far, one that required spending the night in Xi’An first, before heading further east to Luoyang the following morning.Fullscreen capture 12242017 100301 PM.bmp

Luoyang is one of China’s four great ancient capitols- the others being Xi’An, Nanjing, and Beijing. Interestingly, Luoyang itself doesn’t have massive city walls, palaces, and temples that could still be seen today in the other three. The capitol was likely burned to the ground several times in the past millennium, and hit particularly hard during the Cultural Revolution. However, it is home to some splendid rock carvings, collectively known as the Longmen (Dragon’s Gate) Grottoes.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92506 PM.bmp

These Buddhist grottoes were carved from the Northern Wei period 493 AD onward, and work ceased at some point in the Song Dynasty (around 1127 AD). Over the 600+ years, some 2,300 caves and 100,000 (!) Buddhist figures were dug out of the cliffs in various scale- many minuscule, and some enormous.

The one cave everyone comes here to see is the Fengxian Cave, the true masterpiece of the Tang dynasty. In this expansive, open-air grotto, there are nine carved statues, with Vairocana Buddha seated in the center. The five central figures are serene and calm- the outer four guardians are clearly ferocious warriors. This is a political work of art as well; all power radiates from the Emperor and Emperor only!Fullscreen capture 12242017 92450 PM.bmp

It was during the reign of the enormously powerful and wealthy Wu ZeTian – the only female emperor in all of China’s history (crazy mother-in-laws don’t count!!) – that this set of statues was carved. The effortlessly beautiful central Buddha was modeled in her image, and has distinctly feminine features – the high eyebrows, slender nose, pursed lips, etc. Her earlobes are 2 meters in length, so I would still come up 10 cm short if I were to miraculously levitate and stand next to her earsFullscreen capture 12242017 92901 PM.bmp

From across the river you can get a better sense of scale for the Fengxian cave, and you can also see the many, many stairs I had to climb to enjoy this World Heritage Site.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92443 PM.bmp

Back in Xi’An, I revisited the Wild Goose Pagoda which was much more impressive this time around, with clear blue skies instead of a polluted grey backdrop. I got someone to take a photo of me pinching the tip of the pagoda, as if I were lifting the precious lid off a seven-tiered dessert platter.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92536 PM.bmp

Later I came across a group of old men playing chess, just outside the Ming city walls. This sort of hobby – chess, and the crowd of back-seat chess drivers that gather – is common across all of China, especially on a lazy weekend afternoon.Fullscreen capture 12242017 102457 PM.bmp.jpg

A moment like this warrants its own sketch:Fullscreen capture 12242017 110501 PM.bmp

I also witnessed a blazing sunset while waiting at the platform for my train back to Lanzhou the following evening, a sure reminder that another weekend trip has come to an end.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92436 PM.bmp.jpg

FutureLearn: The European Discovery of China

I’m taking full advantage of my free time by traveling through China, but to gain a deeper understanding of many of these sites and how they are connected, I needed more background information than what was provided in brochures, audio-guides, and WikiTravel.

There are several sites offering free online courses on almost any subject you can think of – and after some digging, I found “The European Discovery of China” through FutureLearn.Fullscreen capture 12242017 90634 PM.bmp

This is an eight week course (each course requires the learner to finish viewing a dozen or so short videos and an optional quiz at the end – all videos can be downloaded as PDF text as well) that explains interactions between the East and West for the past two thousand years.Fullscreen capture 12242017 90641 PM.bmp

The course has a heavy emphasis on the analysis of ancient maps, paintings, and letters, all of which I enjoy. Did you know life in the royal harem was boring as fuck for most of the young women living behind palace gates, many of whom might never even see the emperor in their entire lives?Fullscreen capture 12242017 90816 PM.bmp

It also clears up some rumors “Did Marco Polo ever reach China?” (Answer: yes, but it is strange he never mentioned the use of chopsticks, or the complex writing system!)Fullscreen capture 12242017 91225 PM.bmp

Usually I will download all the videos of a course onto my tablet and then watch them on the train rides during weekend trips- this is an efficient way to make use of time, on the already efficient high-speed rail!

The European Discovery of China has really added depth and context to all of the traveling I’ve done in the past year and a half, and I’m always pleasantly surprised to see Lanzhou/ Gansu pop up every now and then in a lesson.


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