Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pan Shan and Chang Cheng

I spent this past weekend climbing, climbing, climbing. Saturday morning at 6:30, our whole program headed to Pan Shan, a mountain located about two hours outside of Tianjin in a rural, isolated region called Ji County. The mountain was beautiful, and we took a leisurely four hours to climb up to the top. On the way up, we encountered breathtaking scenery, a fascinating Buddhist burial ground, and several temples with very aggressive monks seeking donations.

For 50 yuan ($7) I took a cable car ride up to the very top of the mountain along with some other members of our group. We seemed to be rising above the clouds, although it was difficult to tell because of the thick mist accumulating in the high elevation. Another temple stood at the highest point of the mountain, and after taking some pictures and enjoying the lovely, fresh and clean air, we made the journey back down Pan Shan to eat lunch.

Lunch was served at "The Farmer's House," which was, quite literally, a farmer's house located at the end of a bumpy dirt road. The "restaurant" also doubles as a "hotel," at which Scott and I had been planning to stay Saturday night in order to visit a nearby section of the Great Wall. After taking a look around the place, however, we decided to go against the advice of our travel agent and seek more civilized lodgings closer to the town center.

The rest of the group went back to Tianjin Saturday afternoon. Since Scott and I still wanted to stay an extra night to climb the Great Wall today, our teacher helped us book a surprisingly great three-star hotel in downtown Ji County. For the even more surprisingly great price of 160 yuan (about $20) per night, we got cleanliness, air conditioning, real showers, and comfortable beds... we were in heaven!

Upon our arrival at the hotel, I had a hunch that Scott and I were the only non-Chinese in the entire town; that was confirmed when we ventured out to get dinner at the local KFC. Everyone we came into contact with was very helpful and friendly, but there was much staring, pointing, and loud shouting of "HAH-LOH!!" and "MEIGUOREN MA?" (are you American?). I'm finding more and more that a little bit of Chinese and a cheerful smile are the cure for all this. For example, I was standing in line to get a second box of chicken nuggets at KFC, being stared at intensely as usual. When I told a woman in front of me that her daughter was very cute (which she was), I was surrounded by instant new friends.

We'd arranged a cab to pick us up at the hotel and take us to the Great Wall (Chang Cheng) the next morning; he was there right on time at 7:30 am. The 40-minute cab ride was more like a dangerous roller coaster ride, but it was pretty fun all the same and we enjoyed the beautiful country scenery along the way. This section of the Great Wall was much more rugged than the more frequented one we'd visited outside of Beijing. The first side we climbed was extremely steep, and ended abruptly against a vertically rising cliff. To get to the other side of the wall, we crossed a river and then climbed up about 30 minutes of almost vertical steps with no railing cut into the mountainside. The view was well worth it, and the exercise felt great! Along the way, we talked to Chinese tourists about how we were Meiguoren and we all sympathized with each other about the rigorous climb.

After about four hours of climbing, Scott and I met the cab driver for the ride back into town. We collected our bags, got some lunch, and went to the local train station to get tickets back to Tianjin. The train station was located in a large warehouse-like room with no air conditioning and an outdoor communal pit for a restroom. We were excited (and a little apprehensive!) to find out that each ticket for the 2.5 hour ride back to Tianjin cost only 7 yuan ($1). The train ride on the circa- 1960 vehicle was an interesting experience. The seats seemed to be sold out at Ji County, but at each of the ten stops on the way to Tianjin we picked up more people, who had to just stand in the walkways. The restroom was a small box with a hole cut in the floor; passengers brave enough to enter the bathroom had the special treat of seeing the train tracks "whizzing" (haha) by underneath! Of course, Scott and I were the only non-Chinese on the train. Everybody was very curious to talk to us but we were feeling pretty anti-social and didn't bite. My postcard-writing attracted a crowd of people looking over my shoulder and trying to read the few Chinese characters I wrote on each card ("hello" and my Chinese name, "Mei Xiang").

I'm very tired and must go to sleep now. What a great weekend, and a wonderful introduction to the beginning of my career as a waiguoren (foreign) backpacker in China, which commences a week from today.


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