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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Nikki say: “A visit to Qufu is a worthwhile endeavor.”

The day before we climbed Tai Shan, we took a day trip to Qufu. I’m happy to say we managed to go there, get around, and come back all on local buses without much trouble. We’re getting pretty good at this traveling thing! Anyway, Qufu is a small city about an hour away from Tai’An. It’s the hometown of Confucius, the extremely influential Eastern philosopher. I didn’t know this until we were there, but apparently he didn’t get much done during his lifetime. It wasn’t until after his death that his ideas became popular.

When we first got into Qufu, I thought it was just a big tourist trap. The town was very loud and dirty (even for Chinese standards) and the streets were lined with vendors selling all their same-same junk. And to top it off, we had to pay a pretty high entrance fee to get into the Confucius cemetery grounds. (Luckily there was a local woman there selling black market tickets at a slightly lower rate.)

The cemetery ended up being really nice, though. When I say cemetery, don’t picture a Western style one with hundreds of graves in a neat little grid under a manicured lawn. This cemetery is a giant woods with graves poking up randomly between the trees. The gravestones themselves are large slabs, most of them about five feet tall. It was one of the most peaceful places we’ve been in all of China. Yes, there were big tour groups, but the forest is huge, so it’s pretty easy to lose the crowds. Confucius is buried there, along with over 70 generations of his family. Isn’t that incredible? There are graves there that are over 2,000 years old. I don’t even know where my family from five generations ago are buried. I can’t imagine being able to trace my entire family tree in one place. And the cemetery is still being used today, so who knows how many generations will end up there.

We paid our respects to the big man himself, as well as his son and grandson. Then we went for a long, quiet stroll along the paths. Like I said, it was a very peaceful area, and a great place to reflect on life, the universe, and everything. I probably could’ve spent the entire day ambling between the graves, but we didn’t want to miss the last bus back to Tai’An. The other major sites to visit in Qufu are the Kong family mansions. We had to choose between the cemetery and the mansions, and I think we made the right choice, but I would’ve liked to see the mansions as well. We probably should have just spent the night in Qufu instead of doing it as a daytrip. Oh well! At least we were well-rested and ready to go for our hike up Tai Shan.

“I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge. I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.” –Confucius

Stair Stepping up to Heaven’s Gate

Last week we climbed Tai Shan, one of the five sacred Dao mountains and a World Heritage Site. There were many, many, many, many steps! It was more or less four hours of??stair-stepping. The beginning was fine. The stairs weren’t so steep and there were long stretches of level ground between them. After we stopped to eat lunch at the Halfway Gate to Heaven, the climbing got really tough. My lungs were burning and for some reason I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. We had to take quite a few breaks on our way up.

We only saw four other Westerners on the entire mountain. Many giggling Chinese girls got their pictures taken with us and many more people said hello to us. When we finally reached the summit area at the South Gate of Heaven, we could only find an expensive four-star hotel. After wandering around, we did find a cheaper one and luckily there was a guest from Beijing there who spoke a bit of English. The staff led us on a fifteen minute walk away from the village (up more stairs!) to a different building. It was all under construction, so there were boards, cement, and dust everywhere. Our room was pretty dirty and the bathroom was one of the worst we’ve had. At least it had hot water!

We went walking and took some pictures during sunset when the lighting was really great. It was too hazy to really see anything in the distance, though. Then we went to a restaurant and paid a fortune (a Chinese fortune, not a Japanese one) for inedible chunks of chicken bone and gristle. You would think that by now I would know not to order chicken in China. We also tried a special type of jian bing. They use what looks like a potter’s wheel to make a very thin pancake, then put thick soy sauce on and wrap it around a green onion stalk. It was pretty good and even Brad tried it.

We had decided not to get up for sunrise (even though that was why we were spending the night) because it would be cold and too hazy to see anything. Well, at four in the morning, the hotel staff woke everyone up by banging on every single door. And I don’t just mean a simple knock and a yell, this was literally door pounding and screaming for about ten minutes. Since we were awake, we decided to just get up and see it. Outside there was a beautiful full moon and it was dawn already, so it was fairly bright. It wasn’t too cold, but all the Chinese had rented military surplus coats. It looked like we were hanging out with a detachment of the Chinese Army.

About ten minutes later we all marched up to a good spot to view the sunrise. I think it was the best spot on the whole mountain, actually. The sunrise itself wasn’t much, except for the brief period when we could actually see the bright red sun. When it appeared, the crowd went into a photo-taking frenzy. The most popular picture is to stand with your hand out, so it looks like you’re holding the sun. I don’t think the concept of “cheesy” exists in Asia.

After we had our fill of the sunrise, Brad and I headed up to the actual summit at the unimpressive Jade Emperor Temple. We got a fried dough thing for breakfast, then went back down, this time on the cable car.??All in all, it wasn’t my favorite hike, but I don’t regret it. The sunset and full moon were cool. And they say that if you climb Tai Shan you live to be 100, so that should be good.

Lin’an and Hangzhou

We finally couchsurfed for the first time! Our hosts, Huixin and “Ben,” live in Lin’an, a smaller city about an hour outside of Hangzhou. It was definitely off any kind of tourist trail. They had a very nice apartment and made us feel right at home with them. Huixin had to leave for a business trip, but before she left she took us out to a clean, hidden lake to swim (along with a few other naked Chinese men). We also saw a beautiful bridge in Lin’an. Besides that, there wasn’t too much there. With the notable exception of the cab drivers, the locals were very friendly, which was a nice change.

Even though Ben helped us with our commute to Hangzhou, it was still a big pain. The traffic in that city is horrible and we had several long rides in packed, hot buses. And of course we’re back in China, so the driving is absolutely nuts and the drivers honk almost nonstop. When we finally did get to the city center, we had to wait in a long, slow-moving line to book our train tickets. After all that, by the time we got to Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, we were not in very good moods.

The West Lake is a World Heritage Site with many emperors’ homes, temples, pagodas, and gardens. It also has several islands and causeways that were??artificially??made between the 9th and 12th centuries. Over the years many poets and writers have written odes praising its beauty.??The city of Hangzhou borders one side of the lake, and the other sides are surrounded by mountains (which we couldn’t see very well because of the haze/smog). With all the tour groups that visit now, it’s not exactly peaceful, but it is much quieter than the nearby city.??Really, it is a nice place, but we probably didn’t enjoy it as much as others might.

Our Ferry Ride and Shanghai

We took a ferry from Osaka to Shanghai. It was a 48 hour boat ride and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into it, but it actually went really well. In fact, it was so nice, we started referring to it as our “poor man’s cruise.” The ship was very big, with three separate levels and lots of lounge space. My shared room was Japanese style with tatami mats. The room could sleep up to fifteen, but only two other women were in there–unfortunately, they each had a baby with them. Brad’s room was much larger and had about twenty guys in it. There was only one other Westerner??on board, a tattooed Canadian guy who spent the entire trip watching episodes of “House” on his Mac Book. The Asians all seemed very curious about us and a few asked us where we were from. At one point, Brad and I were playing Crazy 8′s and a Japanese man, who told us to call him Mr. T, asked if he could join us. I’ve never seen anyone get so into a game of Crazy 8′s.

I’m glad we entered Shanghai by boat because we were able to see the busiest seaport in the world. The entire river from the ocean to the city is lined with shipping ports. We saw thousands of shipping containers all stacked on top of each other, many cranes loading and unloading ships, and an incredible amount of boat traffic. At one point I counted thirty-seven boats around us. The sheer volume of cargo that goes through there is incredible. It was very interesting to see how all that “Made In China” stuff gets sent back to the US.

The city of Shanghai also seems like an interesting place. Walking down the Bund is a fun, but also somewhat odd, experience. One side of the river has beautiful, historical buildings that look like they belong in New York or Chicago. The other side is filled with modern, LED infused skyscrapers that were all built within the last twenty years, making a weird juxtaposition. I thought it was interesting that all the old Western buildings all had multiple Chinese flags up, as if they’re trying to claim those historical buildings and remind everyone that this is glorious China, not the West.

There’s just a really exciting energy in Shanghai. Maybe because of all the people and flashing lights. It’s the economic center of the country and it really feels like it. It’s also where the Communist Party of China started and we saw the room where they held their very first meeting. The propaganda displayed there was so one-sided it was hilarious.??Besides that, we didn’t do a whole lot in Shanghai. We spent one rainy day looking at sculptures, porcelain, paintings, and calligraphy at the Shanghai Museum. Most of the time we just walked around. The downtown area is crazy busy, but the French Concession area is fairly quiet and feels more like Europe. One night we splurged and bought German draft beer. It ended up being the best beer we’ve had on this entire trip. Now I’m more excited than ever for Oktoberfest!