The Leshan Giant Buddha, or "Dafu," is located near Chengdu in Szechuan Province just to the east of Leshan City. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is over 1,300 years old. The Giant Buddhais considered to be the largest pre-modern stone statue in the world. It is carved into the mountainside over looking the confluence of the Min, Qingyi, and Dadu Rivers. The statue is also culturally important in that it has been featured in many Chinese stories and in poems,
The origins of the statue go back to the time of the Tang Dynasty. At that time, many people relied on the rivers for their livelihood. The rivers were extremely rough and difficult to navigate. Many boats were destroyed and lives lost. A Buddhist monk by the name of Hai Tong began to collect alms in order to save money to begin the construction of the Giant Buddha hoping it would appease the river gods and calm the currents. It took Hai Tong 20 years to save enough money to begin the construction of the statue. When some government officials heard that Hai Tong had raised a significant amount of money for the Buddha's construction, they went to see Hai Tong and demanded the money. Hai Tong said he would rather give them his eyeball, which he then plucked out in front of them. The frightened officials left and construction of the Buddha began in 713 A.D. Hai Tong did not get to see the completed statue since the project took 90 years.
It is believed the construction of the Buddha did help to make the rivers safer as the workers would drop huge pieces of stone carved out from the mountain into the river. This slowed the current and made the rivers easier to navigate.
In addition to the Giant Buddha, there are thousands of other Buddha's carved into the mountain around the giant statue. A statue of the monk Hai Tong as well as a shrine to Hai Tong are located nearby. Mt. Emei itself is considered a sacred mountain to Buddhists as well as some of the other mountains around the Giant Buddha.
The site is visited by millions of people each year. It is considered a sacred site for Buddhists. The most popular time to visit the statue is during the Lunar New Year when it can take several hours to climb the 250 steps next to the Buddha that lead to the top of the Buddha due to the large crowds.
The builders of the statue constructed a complex system of gutters around the Buddha in order to carry water away from the statue protecting it from erosion. The statue has suffered some damage due to the weather however pollution was the cause of much damage also. The Chinese government began restoring the Buddha in 1963. The government also had several factories closed and moved in order to lessen the exposure of pollution on the Giant Buddha.
The entire statue is carved from stone except for the ears which were carved from wood and covered with clay. The statue was constructed from the head down to the toes. The entire statue is 233 feet high. The head is 48 feet tall. The nose is 18 feet long. There are 1,021 coiled buns on the head for hair.
I really enjoyed doing my research and project for the Giant Buddha. I was excited to actually get to see it however I would have really liked to have had the opportunity to walk around it and seen some of the other statues and shrines on the mountain.
The Tang Dynasty is referred to as a time of peace and prosperity. I would think this aided in the construction of the Buddha since many of the men working on the statue would likely have been called upon to be soldiers if this were a warring time for China. During the Tang Dynasty there was also an appreciation for works or art. I would believe that this attitude would also supported the construction of the Buddha in addition to the religious aspect of the statue.
The Leshan Giant Buddha, or "Dafu," is located near Chengdu in Szechuan Province just to the east of Leshan City. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is over 1,300 years old. The Giant Buddhais considered to be the largest pre-modern stone statue in the world. It is carved into the mountainside over looking the confluence of the Min, Qingyi, and Dadu Rivers. The statue is also culturally important in that it has been featured in many Chinese stories and in poems,
I've always been fascinated by cities of transformation. Maybe because I live in Pittsburgh (cue the collective groan from the group that arose anytime the Pittsburghers would reference home.) But, my childhood hometown was changed from a steel town to a struggling post-industrial rust-belt town, and now back into a booming technology and medical hub of the midwest. My parents' generation (and mine as well, apparently) loves to talk about that transformation. I grew up around stories of a changing city.
I think this fascination with transformational cities influenced me to choose Shenzhen for my pre-trip report. Shenzhen is the test city of Deng Xiaoping's Special Economic Zone as he sought to "open up" China away from some of the communist economic policies that had defined the Cultural Revolution period for China. The opening of Shenzhen was successful, as it is now a bustling city with a population of over 12 million and booming technology and finance industries. China replicated the Special Economic Zone model of Shenzhen in many other cities and districts.
However, much to my chagrin, and due in part to the addition of a new direct bullet train route from Guilin to Hong Kong, it is no longer necessary to stop in Shenzhen enroute to Hong Kong. I would have to look elsewhere on this trip to see evidence of cities transformed. It turns out that's not very difficult to do in China, which has been rapidly modernizing as a nation for awhile now. Cities are rapidly transforming everywhere, including many that we went to on this trip, such as Shanghai and Yangshuo. These contrasts are very apparent but sometimes easy to overlook.
In my high school history classes my teacher would show us pictures of her trips to China where the Pudong region of Shanghai, now famous for its iconic skyline, was nothing more than a grassy riverside town. This inspired me to want to go to Shanghai and see this for myself. My own experience with Shanghai is that its historic district is deeply entwined with its modern side. A few of us took a night cruise down the Huangpu River where we were struck by the contrast of seeing the bright lights of Pudong, the modern home to Shanghai's financial district. When the cruise turned around we got to view the historic but beautiful skyline of "The Bund" on the West Bank of the Huangpo river, often called Puxi. The juxtaposition of these two views, which we saw within seconds of each other, is a constant reminder that despite Shanghai's transformation into a thriving modern city, its historic roots still linger in a beautiful way.
In the French concession, which is a territory of Shanghai that was given to the French delegation in Shanghai from 1849 to 1943. The architecture of the buildings in the French Concession reflects its occupation by the French during this period. Today, the French Concession is very western and modern and reflects its past occupation by the French. We noted an important building -- the site where the first national Congress of the Communist party of China was held. Today the building is a museum. Right next door is a Shake Shake. The irony was not lost on us.
Later in the trip I was also struck by Yangshuo, a city very much transformed by tourism. It was easy to be turned off by the major tourist thoroughfare, West Street, which is lively with local business, music, and food, but also overcrowded and very overwhelming at times. When I spoke to people on the trip who had been there before, they mentioned that just in 5 years, the city appeared to have exploded with tourist growth. In my own experience, the sheer number of people was astounding, and this type of foreign tourist influx changed the types of businesses offered on West Street (KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks). Our tourist experience was affected by the quantity of domestic and foreign tourists. Especially considering we were there during a time when it rained for 3 days straight, and I still found the town to be overrun with people (acknowledging of course that we were some of those people taking over the town). We often found that the amount of people and cars, made it more difficult to engage in tourist activities such as biking.
I later discovered that Yangshuo first emerged as a tourist destination in the 80s, but the rapid tourist influx started in the 2000s. It's year tourist population doubled between 1998 and 2003, and has risen substantially since then. The World Tourism Organization chose Yangshuo to be a pilot case study for an analysis of sustainable development indicators of their tourism industry.
I had a wonderful time in Yangshuo. It's impossible to forget that while it does have many tourists, it's physical beauty is astounding. You are surrounded by the Karst mountains at all times. The Li river is frequently within view, excursions to Moon Hill and local Tea Plantations are well within a days journey. We visited the Yangshuo Cooking School, where a local woman taught us the basics of Guangxi recipes. I found all the people of the Yangshuo tourist industry to be wholly invested in helping us love their home. At the Tea Plantation, we had an enthusiastic guide, George, who also took us to a very old and overrun village filled with Ming Dynasty history. Our bike tour leader took frequent stops to make sure we saw all the local foliage and crops that Yangshuo had to offer. We ate at a restaurant called Lucy's where you could get Tuna Salad and Banana Crumble, and the owners were friendly and spoke English. These were some of the nicest people I met in all of my time in China.
As much as the tourism industry may change the experience that we, the tourists, have when we visit a place like Yangshuo, it doesn't diminish its value as an industry for the people of Yangshuo. I am reflecting back on of all the people we met who rely on tourism for their livelihood, both foreign and domestic, and how this industry affects them positively and negatively. This transformation of tourism may not always be positive for the town itself. Certainly, it takes a toll on the infrastructure and the environment. (With three days straight of rain, we saw quite a bit of flooding). Visiting a place like Yangshuo has helped me to see the cost and value of tourism on a city and the types of decisions governments must weigh as they accommodate close to a million tourists a year.
Both Shanghai and Yangshuo are cities transformed. Though they are very different cities, they speak to a diverse China that is rapidly changing in many different ways. This experience has certainly fueled my desire to return to China soon to see how these cities continue to grow and change.
This entry addresses one aspect of my experience in China – a hospital stay. Before detailing that process, it’s vital to address a few caveats. These caveats are first and foremost a gratitude to the planning and awareness of the folks at GEEO prior to the trip and to David while the trip unfolded. First, plan for the unwanted and unanticipated by getting travel health insurance. This $52 pretrip expense saved mother and me thousands in the long run. Even if you are a teacher traveling with high school students, make this insurance mandatory and keep a list of the health policy numbers for everyone on the trip. I’ve heard too many stories about high school students and their passports (or temporary misplacement of said document.) I would not trust high school students to be organized enough to find insurance information quickly. Guard the list of these policy numbers like you guard your own passport! One never knows when sickness or a broken bone may side track an individual. Second, have an adequate number chaperones. Expect that one adult may need to stay with a sick or injured traveler. Make sure that your ratio for supervision will be able to accommodate one less adult with your group. Fortunately, in our group mother and I were a team. When she was sidetracked, I was with her. If a hospital situation happened to another person in our group that person would have either had to have a second group member stay with them or hire a private nurse. American medical standards are very different than those in China. Much more about that later. Third, be aware of the health of your group at all times. We experienced this on our trip in several ways. The mantra “hydrate” still rings in my ears to this day. David and Matt were quietly monitoring our individual fitness and health along the route. By the time David suggested that mother see a doctor, he had already researched medical options and knew the most effective way to access those options. David clearly explained both medical options and trip itinerary to mother. The prospect of traveling to a place with dormitory style facilities and lack of easy access to medical care helped mother make the decision to seek medical care when she did.
Mother selected the Global Doctors practice as her initial foray into the realm of medical care in China. Johnny, our tour CEO, helped us navigate to the office. Global Doctors is true to their name. Mother was greeted by a physician who not only spoke English, but came from Arizona! Dr. Jessica listened to mother’s cough, checked our itinerary, prescribed some antibiotics and scheduled a follow up appointment for the next day with the full expectation that we’d rejoin the group for the Yangtze trip. While the Global Doctors medical practice was on the travel insurance company’s recommended list, they required payment at the time of the visit. Fortunately, an American credit card was accepted.
We returned to the same hotel that we had checked out of earlier in the day. The hotel required cash to cover the room for the 2 nights that we expected to stay. One of the hotel staff members was kind enough to walk me to a nearby ATM to get the vital cash and all was well. That evening, mother’s congestion had worsened. She chose to employ a strategy that has worked for her in the past during times of a compromised respiratory system: she slept sitting up. Our room had a comfortable easy chair which she settled into for the evening. I contacted home and my researching fanatic husband informed me that mother’s prescribed antibiotic was the recommended protocol for her condition…however, the side effect of that particular antibiotic was heart problems. I honestly could have rested a lot more comfortably without that fact, that fear, pounding in my mind. I slept with one ear open to every breath that mother struggled with that night…if one can call an experience like that “sleeping”.
The follow up appointment with Dr. Jessica did not go as earlier anticipated. Dr. Jessica administered a series of breathing treatments then pulled me aside to recommend hospitalization. We got on the phone with my sister who holds mother’s medical power of attorney to discuss this option. We were aligned with Dr. Jessica’s recommendation. There are a number of hospitals in Chengdu. I later learned that the #2 rated hospital in China is located in Chengdu. This was not the hospital that Dr. Jessica thought would be a good match for us. She instead recommended a “quieter hospital where we would be likely to arrange a private room.” Dr. Jessica then explained some of the differences between U.S. and Chinese hospitals. Chinese hospitals have a much lower level of nurse staffing (there is only a skeletal overnight on call staff and they are sleeping!) A relative or friend is expected to stay with a patient during hospitalization. Chinese hospitals do not provide meals. Dr. Jessica instructed one of the Global Doctors’ office staff to guide me to the local Wall Mart so I could stock up on some food items for our hospital stay. Wall Mart in China has a few things that we won’t expect to see in the U.S. anytime soon: prepared duck’s heads, several kinds of fresh seaweed, live fish and frogs (in the food section) and some more palatable items that I did select for our hospital stay.
Dr. Jessica ordered a chest X ray. It confirmed the diagnosis of pneumonia.
A bilingual nurse from Global Doctors accompanied us to the hospital. The hospital required a 2000 yuan cash deposit for admission. Payment was resolved and an MRI was ordered. The MRI confirmed what was obvious from the X ray: mother had pneumonia.
Mother settled into her room and was immediately given a round of IV antibiotics. Global Doctors offered private nursing services if we wanted. Mother and I agreed that an extended private nurse was not necessary. However, we asked the private bilingual nurse who accompanied us from Global Doctors to remain with mother at the hospital while I returned to the hotel to collect our things and check out. Mother’s Chinese respiratory physician anticipated a 10 day hospitalization. We were hoping for a MUCH shorter stay.
The next morning, a nurse came in and put pills into a small three part container. “Morning” she said and left. I’ve been trained in medication administration in the U.S. where pills are only administered straight from the container and given directly to a patient. It seemed very polite for the nurse to inform me that mother was receiving morning medications. In the afternoon, the bilingual nurse from Global Doctors checked in on mother. She looked at the IV line and called the hospital nurses to replace the drip. In China, hospital nurses did not keep a vigilant eye on the IVs. They do respond to the call button to change a drip. Patients or their accompanying care givers are responsible for monitoring IVs. Also, the bilingual/bicultural nurse informed me that I was the one expected to administer medication. Hospitalization was quickly turning into as much of a cultural experience as a medical one.
There was a corridor at the end of our hospital hallway. The left corridor led to a huge 20+ gallon steel container of boiling water. Caregivers and staff members alike used this large communal tea pot for food preparation and clean up. Knowing about that convenient resource on our floor gave me some additional options for my next shopping trip.
Oh yes, shopping. Remember, food is on your own in Chinese hospitals. The BYO theme extends to other necessities like soap, towels and nightgowns. No half exposed bodies hanging out of hospital gowns in China. Bring your own gown and you have yourself covered. Back to the supply your own food aspect of hospitalization, there is a hospital cafeteria but my Mandarin is inadequate to order from a text only, non picture menu. Our hospital was conveniently located across the street from a shopping mall with a large food court. We’re in Chengdu, the land of spicy hot pots. At this point neither mother nor I had much of a stomach for spicy food. My attempt at communication with the food court vendors yielded little success when I asked for a broth with tofu in English. The pictures that vendors used to entice new clientele all featured spicy, meaty hot pots. Fortunately, the Metro Department Store included a food section. I found tea cups, tea, soap, towels, fruit and some peanut butter and crackers. In China, most financial transactions occur over the phone, not with cash. I get to the register and the cashier seemed confused. No phone, actual money. I did not understand what I was being asked and no one around was able to explain it to me. I just stood at the register with my items and cash in hand, insistent that I would pay cash. It wasn’t until about a week later that mother’s bilingual/bicultural nurse informed me that Metro is a shopping club, like Sam’s Club, BJs or Costco in the states. Fortunately, the Metro cashier asked another member for their phone app ID card to help me get through the checkout process and all was well. Metro would be my go to shopping source for the next few weeks. Cashiers quickly accommodated the American and her cash whenever she showed up in the checkout line.
Communication was a challenge at the hospital, too. My internet and apps were limited. Nurses, however, seemed quite competent in this regard. Many had a translation app on their phone that translated between Mandarin and English. Mother’s bilingual nurse did check in for a short period each afternoon and that helped even more but the regular contact with nurses who had good translation apps was a godsend. Doctors were less competent with the translation piece. Few had translation apps available but they waited for our bilingual nurse or, at times, contacted Global Doctors directly for translation assistance. Accurate translation is vital. At one point, a physician came to me and asked if I knew about hormones. I said yes and thought to myself that we all have hormones operating internally at all times. Then the doc clarified her statement and said “steroids.” Steroids is a very specific application of hormones and there are many steroids, all with significantly different side effects. When I got the specific name of the steroid that the hospital was requesting permission to administer, mother wanted to reach out to both her primary care physician from home and Dr. Jessica from Global Doctors before agreeing to the treatment plan. It took a few hours since the time differential between China and the east coast is exactly 12 hours but all care givers approved the treatment plan and mother then gave her consent.
Communication in China required a bit of adaptations. For the first few days in Beijing, I was able to send group texts with embedded pictures. When one has 5 siblings who all are concerned about their 84 year old mother traveling half way around the world, group texting is a communication boon. Everyone gets all the information and no one feels left out. After a few days in China, texts with pictures were delayed days (even a week!) Texts that were too long also created a hiccup. Group texts just didn’t go through. By the time that mother was hospitalized in Chengdu, the only effective electronic communication was short individual texts. Whatsapp worked for a while. When the rest of the NCTA group was cruising the Yangtze, David’s texting wasn’t getting through. Brittany used whatsapp to send fabulous pictorial updates from the river. I could send hospital picture updates back to the NCTA group and to my one sister who downloaded whatsapp. About the time that the NCTA group moved on from the river, whatsapp stopped working for me. David’s texts were working again and we stayed in touch with him as the group logged their time in other southern China locations.
My siblings and our NCTA group were not the only people concerned about mother’s situation. I received and sent multiple communications to GEEO, possibly daily texts to Brenda Jordan with Pittsburgh NCTA and multiple daily phone updates and clarifications to the travel insurance group. Then TMobile sent a text threatening to suspend phone service. They noticed I was making international calls. REALLY????? Before leaving the states, I informed TMobile I would be traveling. At that point everything was fine. While in China, TMobile decided that additional payment was due despite the fact that the bill was paid in full. I called TMobile to explain the situation, their explanation was that they are a U.S. company and it looks like I’m not in the U.S. Therefore, I was ineligible for their phone service. I explained that they were alerted to my travel plans ahead of time and now I am out of the country with a medical crisis on my hands. I require effective communication. The situation seemed to calm down from crisis mode until two days later when TMobile sent a second text threatening to suspend service. My second call to customer service met with little resolution: “The text you’re getting is a routine text automatically generated in this kind of situation. You will probably get the same text again.” This was NOT an acceptable response on their part. I felt inadequate problem resolution and called my husband for his assistance. If our account gets suspended his communication is impaired, too. He negotiated through several levels of customer service to reach someone who understood the challenge that I was going through across the globe. Dunning texts from TMobile ceased. This was not the only financial issue that popped up during hospitalization.
One of the nurses’ non medical responsibilities is bill collection. A posse of nurses showed up to mother’s room with a bill expecting cash payment of 4000 additional yuan. Full hospitalization was covered under our travel insurance policy but it was taking time for the hospital and the insurance company to communicate. I took the bill and went off in search of an ATM that accepted my American bank card. That seemed to settle the nurses for the time being (even though I was unsuccessful in finding that magical accepting ATM machine). On her next visit, our bilingual nurse spoke with accounts receivable and explained that insurance payment was pending. I knew that insurance would be covering all expenses and wasn’t overly upset by my lack of success in coming up with additional cash. Several days later, I had been gone for a food shopping excursion and returned to the hospital to find mother upset. The posse had returned and, in my absence, presented her with a bill. Now it was up to 7000 yuan. Mother was ready to call her financial advisor and move money to cover her stay. All mother heard was 7000 and she knew that was a lot of money. I assured her that 7000 yuan is very different from $7000 and, besides, the entire hospitalization is covered by travel health insurance. It’s just taking time for the hospital and insurance company to connect. Mother’s retirement accounts were safe and she seemed relieved.
We’re still in the hospital and still trying to locate non spicy food in Chengdu. We asked the bilingual nurse to write the characters for “broth” so I could explain to food court venders what I wanted. The folks in Chengdu could read the script all right, most just didn’t prepare that style of mildly seasoned food. I finally found someone who accommodated the request. We got such a bland broth that neither mother nor I wanted a repeat of that experiment. Then nurse Nancy made a special recommendation from the cafeteria: “good for Chi chicken soup.” This soup is made from silky chickens, a special breed that has naturally black meat. Mother was willing to experiment. Black chicken meat was ok, but what was hard to stomach was the chicken head with beak, eyes, and cox comb still attached looking up at her from the soup bowl. We clearly experienced cultural issues with food during this hospital stay. Thank heaven mother was getting sustenance from an IV saline solution with her antibiotics.
One morning mother awoke with the biggest gusher of a nosebleed that I have ever observed. Nosebleeds can be a side effect of either excessively high or low blood pressure. In her case, pneumonia exacerbated a pulmonary hypertension condition. Three doctors appeared, including an ENT specialist. Mother was taken to the ENT unit where the bleeding was finally stopped and her right nostril was packed with gauze. I rubbed her back during this process until I started feeling faint. It wasn’t the blood that I was reacting to. I was famished and most likely dehydrated. Fortunately, there was an empty exam table where I could lay down. My fear at that moment was that I, too, might require medical attention if I fainted and blacked out on the floor. I needed to do everything I could to avoid creating a second medical situation. It was clearly time to pay more attention to hydration and sustenance.
That afternoon mother assessed her blood soaked nightgown and clearly realized that she could use a backup in the nightie portion of her wardrobe. My shopping list got a little longer that day. Again, we were right across the street from a mall. I was able to easily locate much of what we needed. The nightgown request was a cinch to fulfill. Back in the hospital, the corridor at the end of the hall that was home to the huge teapot on the left side was also home to what I affectionately called the “Chinese hospital laundry” on the right. Relatives totally moved in with their hospitalized loved ones. Tasks included doing laundry by hand in the hospital. The right hand side of the corridor had a clothes pole running below the ceiling. Folks hung wet laundry on the line and retrieved it later after it had dried. I finally accepted my full responsibility as a hospital relative, washed mother’s nightgown, and hung it to dry. We Americans might not be aligned with the food in Chengdu but we are aligned with the importance of clean clothes.
The hospital nurse came by later in the evening, shook mother’s pill container and said “night time.” Oops. I had missed reminding mother to take her evening pills. Mother looked at the nurse, took the pill container from her hand, grabbed some water and downed the pills. “It’s night time,” mother said, looking the nurse in the eye. Mother’s sense of humor stayed strong through the whole experience.
When I spoke with my husband that evening and shared my feelings of physical depletion, he recommended the go to remedy that I use for him: miso soup. “But we’re in China, not Japan!” I protested. Then I recalled that there appeared to be a Japanese restaurant in the mall. Why hadn’t I considered that sooner? My itinerary for the next day was clear. Miso mission.
Our bilingual nurse stopped by in the afternoon with a wad of cash. Insurance payment was finally approved. We were reimbursed for two outpatient hospital visits and for medications that had been charged to my credit card. We were also reimbursed the 2000 yuan initial cash payment to the hospital. Financial issues with insurance were finally clear. The accounts receivable posse should not make a return visit to our room.
I was now free to investigate the nearby mall for its miso potential. Triumph! There was a Japanese restaurant with both miso and another favorite of mine, seaweed salad. I felt nourished by something more than snack food for the first time in a week. I reported my success to mother. “Do they have sushi?” she asked. It looks like we finally stumbled upon something that we were both interested in eating.
On the health front, mother was still feeling weak but much better physically and just waiting for the 10 days of IV antibiotic treatment to be completed so that her respiratory specialist could sign off on flight readiness. By mother’s second day with IV antibiotics, she felt well enough to sleep lying down rather than sitting up. She last experienced significant respiratory impairment about 3 years ago when she went through a period of sitting up to sleep for 7 straight weeks. Mother and I both felt hopeful that the follow up MRI on day 10 would show all good news. Dr. Jessica felt hopeful. She visited mother in the hospital to evaluate mother’s general strength for the long flight home. Day 10 MRI showed a clearer left lung and significant congestion now in the right lung, too. Mother required a new, different round of IV antibiotics. And a longer hospital stay. We were disappointed but not defeated. It was clear to both of us that mother’s health was improving. We just had to wait a bit longer for the physicians to concur. From day one of this hospital stay, mother’s Chinese respiratory physician diagnosed her with “pneumonia and COPD.” I looked at mother and said there’s a difference between pneumonia and COPD. Based on mother’s general health and level of mobility, I’m disputing the COPD diagnosis. Mother agreed. Maybe the language barrier worked to our benefit in this instance. The doc never understood our conversations questioning his diagnosis.
After 4 more hospital days, mother was finally cleared for flight. She required in flight oxygen and a nurse to accompany her home. This was all covered by travel insurance. Nothing came out of our pockets. It took about 2 days for the insurance company to hire a nurse, get her to our location in Chengdu, and secure tickets for our return flight. Mother’s return trip was business class. She discovered that business class was her preferred option for long flights. A health experience like this is a totally unrecommended strategy for a seating upgrade.
Mother disembarked to a greeting from 3 generations of her offspring. The smile on her face was broader than everyone else’s combined. Mother was greatly relieved to be back in the U.S. Ambulance transport to the hospital of mother’s choosing had been prearranged by the insurance company. The insurance company established effective transition from Chinese to American medical care. Mother’s nurse stayed with her until all medical questions were addressed. During our flight, the folks at Global Doctors translated the Chinese medical records and forwarded them to mother’s flight nurse, my sister and me. We made certain that mother’s American caregivers would be fully informed about her overseas treatment. Additional healing time was still ahead. The Chinese medical system had been successfully navigated.
Tell someone that you’re going to China, and you’ll get the usual questions about seeing Beijing, the Great Wall, Shanghai, Xi’an, and the terra cotta warriors. However, you probably wouldn’t expect to hear questions about Yangshuo or its wondrous landscapes or thriving tourism industry. Yet, Yangshuo has been on the radar of Western tourists for decades and offers a Chinese experience removed from Buddhist temples and imperial or Communist history. The 20 yuan bill includes an image of Mao Zedong on the indomitable Li River of Yangshuo, so clearly the Chinese government believes it to be a place of great importance. Yangshuo might be the least traditional Chinese city that a tourist will encounter, although it is supported by the Chinese government and serves as an example of their fledgling eco-tourism industry.
If someone is going to discuss Yangshuo, it won’t take long until the stunning karst mountains are mentioned. For those individuals that have traveled to Halong Bay off the coast of northern Vietnam, the Karst Mountains of Yangshuo should look familiar. In addition to the sharp peaks formed by millions of years of erosion, Karst mountains are also famous for caves and underground lagoons due to their primarily limestone composition. As one of the defining features of Yangshuo, you can be sure that the locals have built an industry around such beautiful aesthetics. There is rock climbing available throughout Yangshuo County and a common destinations for tourists is Moon Hill. The hike to Moon Hill may not be easily completed by any tourist, but take a quick look online and it certainly seems worth it. Another activity that tourists engage in upon visiting Yangshuo is renting a bicycle and simply exploring the countryside. With the mountains as a backdrop and trails throughout the region, cycling has become a common tradition for visitors to Yangshuo.
The Li River is the other defining physical feature of Yangshuo. With bamboo boat rides and fishing with cormorants on the table, it’d be difficult not to be entranced by Yangshuo. Cormorants are birds trained to catch fish and then bring them to fishermen. When in Yangshuo, individuals should dabble in seafood with one of the most popular dishes in the region being beer fish. The cormorant is an iconic image associated with the people of Yangshuo, but some tourists doubt whether it is still an authentic means to fish or merely a performance put on for visitors. Reading through countless travel blogs, it is quickly apparent that tourists recognize Yangshuo as a region at war with its identity. The Yangshuo of the West, streets littered with tourist restaurants and shops and doing all it can to promote English-language learning as a means to support tourism industry. In fact, there are several English-language schools on the two main streets in Yangshuo. Then, there’s the Yangshuo of China, a place where domestic tourists go to escape the hustle and bustle of cities and to take advantage of China’s ever improving standard of living and rising incomes. When thinking of Chinese tourism, too often individuals might think of ideal locations for foreigners to visit, but a more affluent China is sending millions upon millions of Chinese citizens out into the world. Similar to excursions to the Rocky Mountains or a weeklong stay in the Poconos, Yangshuo offers a domestic getaway for Chinese citizens looking for eco-tourism.
Despite my apprehension about going to a place that seemed too Western or at least not Chinese enough, I loved my time in Yangshuo. Even with the preponderance of clubs and fast food on the main pedestrian area, it did not detract from the experiences out in the surrounding countryside. In fact, the people of Yangshuo seemed no different than the rest of the people we'd encountered on our trip up to that point: kind, outgoing, and looking for our business. On the first day in town, it was raining steadily which limited many of our outdoor activity options. So, Dr. Kenley and I were both in need of a haircut and we found a small place on a side street just off the major shopping areas. The hairdresser and David had a lively conversation going for over 30 minutes and she talked all about her family and the Yangshuo area. Included in the hair cut was a vigorous head washing/massage which was equal parts pleasant and painful. If you have the opportunity to get a hair cut in China, please make sure that this component is included. It was quite the experience! A clear indicator of how Yangshuo functions differently from other Chinese cities is how few people were out and about early in the morning. Admittedly, I did not stay up late enough to see when the parties ended every night, but the streets were deserted until nearly 9 AM each day as our crew went in search of breakfast. Like the tourists, it seemed like the townspeople were recovering from busy nights. However, Lucy's Place was always there for us and served the most amazing banana crumble. I do not speak in jest, it was scrumptious. If you take nothing away from this blog other than the name of this amazing restaurant (Lucy's Place) and the divine dessert it serves (banana crumble), then I'll consider it a success.
One of the great things about China is that many of its most beautiful and historic sites are not always located downtown in a major city. There might always be an easier way to access these locations (chair lift at the Great Wall and Emei Shan), but there is often the option of taking the more challenging, physical path. I find that I appreciate experiences and wondrous views more fully when I've felt I worked hard enough to deserve them. Our bike ride through Yangshuo County was wonderful and several hours long. The views would have been the same from a car, but it wouldn't have been remotely the same experience. The climb to Moon Hill wasn't terribly long, but the quick ascent and humid conditions left our group sweating buckets when we arrived at the top. Instead of overshadowing the experience, the shared struggle of our climb enhanced our time together at the top and our ensuing lunch with a local family when we made it back down from Moon Hill. Regardless of the tourist-heavy nature of Yangshuo and its environs, I loved every second of our time there. On the opposite end of the continuum, in the midst of our bike ride, we stopped at a natural* hot spring inside of a mountain. The hot pools were a pleasant break after hours of riding, yet the true joy of this place came from the myriad shops we were forced to walk through in order to escape the mountain. Any time we thought we were close to an exit, there'd be another slew of tables to pass through. I wasn't angry or annoyed; rather, I was impressed by the relentless quest to turn a profit inside of a mountain. Albeit the natural beauty of Yangshuo or its tourism-heavy economy, it's absolutely a place worth-visiting.
In my class, we talk about the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping and the phrase credited to him "To get rich is glorious." I think Yangshuo is a perfect example of China moving towards capitalism. The whole county is seemingly set up to cater to the needs of tourists, both domestic and international. Another topic I'd like to touch on in my class in terms of Yangshuo is eco-tourism. I'd like to contrast ecotourism efforts in America and China while having students investigate reasons for the differences. The hair cut experience that Dr. Kenley and I shared in Yangshuo is the kind of personal story that my students need to hear. Many of them have yet to leave the country or even Pennsylvania, so their perceptions of people from other countries are typically way off the mark. I hope the hair cut adventure can humanize the Chinese people for my students, instead of having them be categorized as an "other."
Roughly thirty miles outside the former capital city of Xi’an rests the Terracotta Army of China’s First Emperor. Discovered in 1974 by a group of drought-stricken farmers attempting to dig a well, the thousands of statues created to protect the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi have come to represent the strength and power of China’s ancient imperial past. However, these thousands of soldiers aligned in neat rows at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor also play a significant part in the post-Imperial period of China’s history. As the Warriors have entered the modern era, they confront historian and tourist alike with a sense of conflict and cliché as the past has been translated, and to some degree reconstructed, for the present.
First a little history lesson (this is after all a post by a history teacher who was able to nerd out across China with other history teachers!): The tomb of China’s first emperor needed to be suitable to his status. At the start of his reign, if Sima Qian’s record is to be believed, he conscripted roughly 700,000 laborers to begin construction on a new palace complex, and his tomb, its contents, and an army of soldiers. Shi Huangdi believed that it was his destiny to conquer the afterlife that was ruled by the mythic Yellow Emperor. To accomplish this feat, his tomb needed to be outfitted with the images of all that he needed. In the Chinese concept of the afterlife, the objects buried with the body did not need to be the real or functional object but rather a realistic symbol of the item. For example, a statue of a servant became a real servant in the grave. No blueprints or plans for the tomb complex survive, but the model is similar to those constructed in the Han period with a mound covering several rooms that spanned 56 square miles. The sheer size of his mausoleum was a microcosm of China modeled on an imperial city with a series of walls (both inner and outer), buildings, and a palace to house his tomb. The elaborate and fortified underground world was undoubtedly influenced by his personal fears and beliefs that those around him were trying to kill him. The tomb was a fallback to help ease death if he should fail to find the Elixir of Life.
Even in death, Shi Huangdi would continue to unify and rule a diverse people, and for that he needed a life-sized army. In order to be considered an army, it must have consisted of at least 10,000 soldiers, known as a wan. So far about 8,000 soldiers have been unearthed at the site. The production assembly required to produce the volume of clay statues must have been astonishing. There are four different types of warriors – cavalry, archers, lancers, and hand-to-hand fighters – and commanders of each type that are 4 inches taller. There were also life-size horses and chariots. The hollow bodies and hands of the statues were standardized and anatomically simplified in order to increase the speed of production. These different parts were then assembled in various combinations of stances, arm positions, and had different garments and bronze weapons. The face and hair style of each warrior, however, was unique as they were hand-sculpted. Prior to firing, the statues were vividly painted with red, white, black, green, brown, blue, and purple lacquer further adding to their individuality. The lacquer, made from the sap of trees, that was used has not survived and the statues uncovered that still have some pigmentation quickly deteriorate within a few moments of their discovery. The bland colors of the soldiers in rows today are impressive – imagine the sight of them brightly colored and prepared for the afterlife in 210 BC! Once completed, the Warriors were placed in a pit roughly 260 meters long, 62 wide, and almost 9 deep which was then covered with a roof. The result must have been a brilliant balance of individuality and uniformity – a symbol for the recently unified states.
The Warriors remained hidden until the spring of 1974. In March, the six Yang brothers were digging a well due to a lack of water for their crops as a result of the failed agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward and the Four Pests Campaign. After digging for several hours, the brothers reached a thick layer of red earth which they assumed to be the remnants of an old kiln. They continued on and began to find bits of pottery, but kept digging. Water was more pressing than discovery. Out of the dirt emerged what they believed to be an earth-god. Very quickly the wider community and Communist Party leadership found out about the discovery. The Terracotta Warriors were reborn.
Just as Shi Huangdi sought a new imperial identity for China under the Qin Dynasty, Mao sought to forge a new national identity in the post-Imperial period. Museums and the ancient past provided a rich collection of stories to bend to his purposes of reimagining the present and the future. In the book Places of Memory in Modern China, David J. Davies argues that the Terracotta Warriors and the museum are "not places for conveying historically accurate memories; instead, they are locations for meaningful experiences that claim a relationship to the past and assert meaning in the present and for the future." The twentieth century was a period of upheaval in China politically, economically, and socially. The collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1922, the decades of civil wars, Japanese Invasions, and Mao’s Communist Revolution fractured the sense of historic stability the imperial system provided. Essentially, China faced an identity crisis as they entered the modern era. China had to find where they fit in the modern, interconnected world.
When the Warriors were discovered, they became a politically charged artifact as the state began to create a new historical narrative. After their discovery, construction began on the museum that would house and showcase the Warriors to the world. The museum itself, completed and inaugurated on October 1, 1979, was, according to a news article covering the opening, intended to be “the most modern Chinese museum of its time” to propagate the strength of China’s ancient culture. However, the archeological work at the site and on the statues have continued in the post-Mao period. Since the 1990s, visitors now are welcomed into the responsibility of protecting and preserving the "past imperial strength and grandeur" of China. One guide said that visiting the museum is “an experience with the culture and civilization of the past—the root of Chineseness— that makes claim on present generations to carry forward.”
Few of the over 5 million annual visitors to the museum think about how the Warriors are presented to them, or what they actually mean or represent. They are there for the “authentic” experience with the past the museum touts – “the Warriors on their original ground” – and the iconic view of the Warriors all aligned in neat rows. Just search “#terracottawarriors” or “terracotta army” on Instagram, which is blocked in China, and scroll through thousands of selfies and videos of visitors encountering the soldiers.
I myself fell victim to the sweeping view over Pit No. 1 this summer on my trip. This was the most crowded site we visited in all of China on our over 5,000-mile journey. I attempted to wait in line among the sea of visitors also waiting for the perfect picture and then was forced to push my way through to the front or I would still be waiting months later. After I escaped the forest of selfie sticks and “Instagram Boyfriends,” the history nerd reached the front. Yes, I’ll admit, I did take the Terracotta Selfie and proudly posted it on my Instagram courtesy of my trusty VPN. But as I moved beyond that initial swarm, the crowds thinned. It seemed that most tour guides, with their little flags held high in the air, spent less than 20 minutes with the Warriors and then left. Walking through the rest of the site, there were fewer people looking around and more heading toward the gift shop street along the exit route. I found myself thinking “what is the meaning of this place and why do so many people come?” I guess for many it is the “authentic” experience of the ancient world or for the bucket list.
I’m still trying to figure out what my visit means for me as a teacher and how I will convey that to my students this school year. Maybe my encouragement to them will be to stop using social media as a lens through which to view their lives, their world, and the past. So how does one move beyond “doing it for the ‘gram” when visiting the Warriors? Be an informed traveler. Without studying the past, the present has no meaning outside of perception. There is a parallel between the Warrior mania of the 21st century and the 20th century Egypt mania following the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Howard Carter said it well when he opened the tomb in 1922, “what a short period three thousand three hundred years really was…that made that ancient and our modern civilization kin.” According to Dr. Lynn Meskell, a professor of anthropology and material studies at Stanford University, a person’s desire to connect with objects from the past “serves as a temporal linkage and a recollection of our shared humanity. It is through the sensory qualities of touch that we feel the compression of time and space…but the link is eternally severed. What we simply have left are their things, the physical reminders and instantiations of the greatness that was.” While these Warriors were never meant to be seen, they now are the second most popular tourist site in China behind the Great Wall. It would seem that Shi Huangdi did find immortality of a different kind through his Terracotta Army.
It’s been a little over a month since I got home from China, and I miss it! Yes, it’s nice not to be living out of my carry-on suitcase, and it’s good to be home with my husband and our adorable puppy.
But, I miss the fun people I had the privilege of getting to know on my trip. I miss getting to see something new and exciting every day – the staggeringly beautiful Southern Chinese countryside. I also miss the food. I spent a non-trivial amount of time last night, lying awake craving the fried noodles I had in Yangshuo. (First World Problems.)
Some of the best food we had on the trip was in the Muslim Bazaar of Xi’an. In part because of my background studying the Middle East – but also because I am a Tang Dynasty fangirl – Xi’an (the Muslim Quarter in particular) was the city I most anticipated visiting. My excitement was enhanced by how much fun I had creating my pre-trip report on the site. If you have any interest on the Muslim Quarter and Xi’an – especially lesson plans – please check it out:
Prior to visiting Xi’an, I knew that the Muslim population dated back centuries, from the Tang Dynasty at least, although the Great Mosque in its current form was constructed later during the Ming Dynasty. The Mosque is a great example of cultural syncretism because of the ways that it blends typical mosque features (such as the minaret) with Chinese architecture. (I go into a lot more detail on my pre-trip website about the blending of Chinese and Islamic cultures in the Mosque.)
When I actually got to the Mosque, I have to admit I was surprised by how small it was. Having seen a number of cathedrals, I expected the mosque to be gigantic. It probably also didn’t help that all of our experiences in China up to this point were large scale: the GREAT wall of China. The Gargantuan Forbidden City, the giant metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. Xi’an, in comparison felt small. Rather than being disappointing, it made for a nice change in pace.
Although Xi’an may have felt geographically smaller than the rest of China, it was just as crowded, especially in the Muslim Bazaar at dinner time, when everyone in the city (it seemed) was on the prowl for delicious street food. Some highlights: the plum and pomegranate juice, the fried spicy potatoes, quail eggs on a stick with chili oil, noodles, and persimmon doughnuts. My meat-eating companions also enjoyed some lamb on a stick and the Chinese hamburger, and I can attest that they smelled delicious, although I did not taste them. The persimmon doughnuts are still somewhat of a mystery, but my friend Karen and I would like to figure out how to make them. So far, this is the most useful recipe I’ve been able to find: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/tour/food/chinese-cooking/persimmon-cak...
Since Xi’an (formerly Chang’an) spent a significant amount of its history as China’s imperial capital, there’s myriad ways a visit to the city is relevant to teaching Chinese history, but here are a few ideas.
• Architecture of the Ming Dynasty: The Great Mosque was built during the Ming Dynasty, and could be used in conjunction with a number of other sites we visited (such as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall of China) to discuss how the Ming Dynasty used architecture to enhance state power.
• Regional Cuisines of China: The delicious food of the Muslim Bazaar of Xi’an is a great way to discuss the connections between geography and culture, as well as cultural syncretism. For example, the North of China is historically known for growing wheat rather than rice, which is why the traditional foods of Northern China include noodles and breads, more than rice. Some of the foods in the bazaar – such as dates – are not native to China and show the important role of trade in Xi’an’s history as well as another example of cultural syncretism. I also think that comparing the regional cuisines in China and the cuisines of Chinese diaspora communities, could be and interesting way to talk about the relationship between geography and culture, as well as the relationship between migration and culture. (Let’s be real: I love to eat, and I take advantage of any opportunity to make a history lesson revolve around food.) I’m thinking about using this as a starting point for my implementation plan, so be on the lookout for a more detailed lesson plan!
Welcome to those of you who are going on the NCTA 2019 China Study tour with GEEO and G-Adventures. We're looking forward to hearing about your experiences, especially of the places that you became the in-country "experts" on. Please upload some pictures to give us a sense of the places you visited and the people you met along the way.
All the best,
NCTA University of Pittsburgh Coordinating Site