Shanghaied, Chapter 5: The Not-So-Great Wall of China
When I visited China in high school, one of the first things I noticed in China was the staring. People would notice me and point, particularly at huge tourist attractions. I only spent 9 days in China at the time, so to me it was more amusing than annoying. As a Westerner in China, you’re a sort of oddity, and in many cities, most people have never seen a Westerner up close. So it’s not like I wasn’t ready to be stared at when I came back for my study abroad.
What I wasn’t ready for was how exhausting it gets as the weeks go by. It’s not so bad in Shanghai, where there are a lot of Westerners in the area. Aside from little kids, most Shanghai residents don’t even bat an eye when you walk into the room. No, the people who are most brazen in their staring are the tourists. Not foreigners; the vast majority of tourists at sites of interest in China are from other parts of China. People from the interior of the country have often never seen a foreigner outside of a movie. At popular local sites or on mass transit, where tourists congregate, people will point, stare, or gossip about you. People take pictures of you, ask to take selfies with you, or film you doing mundane tasks because you’re so exotic. It started off cute, but it slowly begins wear on you as every rural sightseer coming to the big city wants to show their friends back home the strange, bizarre people that they found. Even in Hangzhou, which isn’t a first-tier city, people weren’t that surprised to see foreigners. West Lake is a big tourist attraction, but we went in the off-season, so there were a lot of locals. While we still got a lot of pictures taken of us, it wasn’t as aggressive as I thought it would be.
Last week, however, we went to Nanjing, and we stayed outside of the city center. As of yet, that’s been the most aggressive gawking I’ve ever experienced. We’ll get to that in a second. First off, though, last weekend, we gathered a crew to go visit Nanjing, which is another fairly close city to Shanghai. We arrived Friday afternoon after taking a high-speed train (which took around two hours).. This time there were 8 of us. My only Hangzhou buddy was Eryn, so I was excited to travel with some of the other Alliance students and see another one of China’s cities. Our stay began with us buying snacks (which I’ll touch on later) and settling into the most adorable Airbnb you could imagine. There were a few cute little rooms, pleasant decorations, and weird and quirky bedsheets (I slept in a zebra-themed bed). From our brief time that we spent walking through the city, Nanjing looked fairly similar to Shanghai and Hangzhou, an eclectic mix of Western, Soviet, and Chinese architecture. When we set out the next morning to begin our day, however, the staring began. People spoke to each other and snickered, pointed in amazement, or openly took photos. Apparently we weren’t in a particularly tourist-y part of Nanjing, and we got a lot of attention. Another annoying thing we found was that taxis wouldn’t pick us up, and if they accidentally did stop for us, they would pretend they didn’t know where we wanted to go and pull away. That occasionally happens in Shanghai, but in Nanjing it was for more open. We tried our best to smile, wave, and now show our mild annoyance.
After departing our darling little Airbnb, getting ogled at by locals, and finally getting on a bus, we set out for our first destination in Nanjing: Purple Mountain. Purple Mountain, while not actually being purple, is definitely mountainous, and is best described as a sort of national park. There are a lot of things to do there, as the mountain as a lot of history, and is known for housing various tombs. Eryn, a few other, and I broke off into a small squad to go off on our own up into the mountains (the others broke off to go the plum festival, which cost money to get in to). Our plan was to take the cable car up to the peak, then work our way down to Sun Yat-sen (the first president of the Republic of China)’s mausoleum. After that, if we had time, the goal was to reach the Ming tombs lower down on the mountain, below the mausoleum, and end up back at the entrance. As it turned out, we would accomplish none of these things, and get lost in the woods. It was a good time.
Here’s how it went down. We arrived at the cable car to find that it was down for renovations. Instead of turning back to go directly to the mausoleum, we opted to take a circuitous route through the mountains to reach an interesting-looking observatory, and from there head to the mausoleum. Up we went, working our way up the long stone stairway that took us higher into the mountains. Our first clue that this would end…interestingly was that I was the main navigator. And by that, I mean that I vaguely remembered the map we looked at down by the foot of the mountain. Remember in Hangzhou how I got everyone lost? Yeah, this doesn’t go well for us.
Despite being exhausted by the climb, we were in high spirits. The mountain air was crisp and clear, and as we got higher and higher, we could see for miles. The view was beautiful, the terrain rugged and verdant, and the company excellent. We were halfway to the observatory when we found a cool rock slope. It was fairly steep but good for climbing, and lots of locals and tourists were making the trek. Did I mention I love rock climbing? My friend Adam and I practically lunged for the rocky wall while the girls reluctantly followed. After we scaled up to the top, we found that the slope became a jagged path through the mountains. Since we were good on time and I love hiking, we set off, jumping small gorges, climbing up and down rocky outcroppings, and occasionally passing other tourists. We ended up in a small bamboo grove and worked our way back to the main road.
And then it invariably took a turn for the…well, not worse, but definitely not according to plan. The observatory was closed. At this point, we’re 0/2 on reaching our targets. We set out along another mountain path with a stunning view of the forests and mountains outside of Nanjing, where we encountered people selling fruit, those delicious candied plums I keep seeing, and trashy souvenirs. At this point, we’ve been walking for a few hours now, and we’re getting tired. The other group had left the plum festival and explored the Ming tombs, so we’re hoping to meet up with them.
Back to my navigation skills. Two people in our group checked different navigation systems. Google Maps and Baidu Maps (the local Chinese equivalent) didn’t agree; Baidu showed a shortcut to the mausoleum, while Google maps didn’t. Trusting the domestic map, I opted to take the shortcut, because the alternative was just heading back. After a pleasant downhill walk, we discover that both maps were technically correct: There is a road to the mausoleum. There’s just a massive locked gate in front of it.
The sensible thing to do was admit defeat and turn back. That is not what I decided to do. I somehow noticed a small path cutting through the woods and into the mountains that appeared to lead around the gate, and I managed to convince everyone to-
I’m pretty sure what I’m about to describe is not trespassing. Pretty sure. Kind of sure.
Okay. Let’s say, hypothetically, that one wanted to circumvent a large metal gate, and decided to go off into the mountains. If that were the case, then our intrepid band of travelers, following their brave and handsome navigator, would have followed the footpath to find that the metal gate only extended around thirty feet up the hillside. Flushed with victory, we then would have theoretically worked our way around the gate, and immediately ran into the wall. It was around 6 feet tall and seemed to continue for miles. We tried to circle around it but it just kept on going, winding up through the forests and hills of Purple Mountain. As it turns out, the footpath was probably a maintenance road used to build this wall. Why they wanted to block this shortcut off, I have no idea. I do know that after around a half an hour of walking, as a last ditch effort, we tried to see if the wall was climbable.
Did you know that they put shards of glass on top of walls in China to dissuade you from climbing them? Huge glass shards cemented to the top of the barrier, inexplicably. We elected to just turn back at this point rather than attempt to scale the death wall. In retrospect, it was pretty foolish to try and outmaneuver a wall in the country with the longest wall in human history.
Um. Hypothetically. Not that any of this necessarily happened.
Despite having accomplished nothing, we still had a really nice time. We headed back from Purple Mountain and set out to explore the older parts of Nanjing. Later in the evening, we set out to take a small boat ride to ride down the Qinhuai River, which runs through the old core of the city. The area is beautiful; lots of old traditional buildings, small food stalls, and the omnipresent souvenir stores. Eryn lost a dare and had to buy some stinky tofu. It’s a traditional Chinese dish that we’re seen in Hangzhou and a few parts of Shanghai. Or rather, we smelled it. I’m not entirely sure how to describe what it smells like: something like sweaty socks and spoiled milk. I can’t describe how little I wanted to try it, but it was the only way to get Eryn to buy some. Despite its awful aroma, it was surprisingly delicious. Possibly one of my favorite things I’ve eaten in China. I was so enthusiastic about it that I ended up stealing most of Eryn’s bowl. It just goes to show; you can’t judge a tofu by its smell. Or something to that effect.
After nearly being killed by an excavator en-route to the boat ride (safety codes are mostly suggestions here), we arrived at the riverside. The entire area was still lit up for the lantern festival, so the entire old town was a riot of colors and lights. We purchased cheap tickets (most places in China have a student discount, so touring is way easier) and took cute little boat ride down the river. We saw lots of performances of traditional dances along the way, along with massive colorful lanterns on display. It was a fun experience, and we headed back late at night feeling exhausted from all the walking but back in good spirits.
The next day we set out to a giant marketplace for breakfast. Marketplaces like this are all over China; there are vendors selling vegetables, fresh meat, and delicious baked goods. I ate some tiny, delicious blueberry baozi, which as I’m sure you can imagine is the perfect way to start the day off. We then set out on a more somber part our trip. We visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which commemorates the victims of the Nanjing Massacre and WWII. The Memorial Hall itself is a huge, grey building of beautiful but simple design. To enter, you pass through a gate, and walk past a series of statues depicting the suffering of Chinese victims during the war with simple caption or explanations. The entire outside is bleak and grey. After arriving in a massive gravel-filled pavilion with a few cement paths, you enter the hall, and begin moving through the exhibit. Signs in Chinese, English, and Japanese guide you through the history of Nanjing during WWII, complete with hundreds of explanation signs, historical artifacts, and testimonials. The Memorial Hall was a powerful and heartrending experience, simultaneously beautifully designed and horrifying. It should be noted that many parts of the exhibit were heavily politicized, and heavily referenced China’s current ideological and geopolitical objectives. The exhibit ended with an epilogue that contained the line “Under the inspiration of the patriotic enthusiasm, we should struggle unceasingly for the constriction of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the realization of the peaceful reunification of our motherland, and the maintenance of world peace”. Nevertheless, the Memorial Hall was still an incredibly emotional site, and an important part of understanding how China views WWII.
To finish up the day, we visited the Confucius Temple, which is dedicated to the life of, you guessed it, Confucius. Beautiful murals tell the story of his life and wanderings, and the temple is dedicated to him and the worship of ancestors. Confucius isn’t a “saint” in the Western sense, but he is considered a great sage, and Confucianism is still prevalent in Chinese culture. Many people come to pay respect to his life, and to burn incense in memory of his achievements, as well as to pay respect to their own ancestors. The temple is old and beautiful, and has several traditional courtyards with massive gongs and drums. Adorably, due to the lantern festival, there were a bunch of cute lantern cartoon figures of Confucius and his disciples. Inside the temple was an exhibit on the civil service examination, which was a series of rigorous tests that needed to be passed in order to work in the Chinese bureaucracy. One of my favorite things that I found was a pair of socks with notes written on them for cheating on the exam. They’re hundreds of years old. I feel weirdly comforted that students throughout history have felt as stressed and desperate when facing exams as I do. And to my Alliance teachers reading this, I promise I will not try and emulate this brilliant – er, reprehensible historical example of cheating.
Following the temple, we headed back to the train station and bought a ticket home. We were nervous because Amrita (another Chinese class buddy!) couldn’t find a seat and had to take a standing car home. Standing cars are fairly common here because so many people use the trains, and the concept of standing for two hours was not an appealing one. Nevertheless, we managed to buy tickets and head home with no trouble.
Anyway. The following week has passed in a blur of schoolwork and Chinese notecards. I started off the week with our last calligraphy class. My calligraphy is still awful, but it’s been fun to learn, and our teacher is the sweetest old man. My classmates and I celebrated our Chinese teacher’s birthday, I studied China’s political structure (which is waaaaay more complicated than I thought it was), and Umama and I did a lot of cooking. She lives right below me, so I’ve hijacked her kitchen. Most of our cooking consists of bickering fighting over who gets to eat the delicious mushrooms we make. We had a potluck Friday afternoon at Eryn’s room, so Umama and I made fried rice with vegetables. (I promise I’ll include pictures of everyone so you can keep track of names, by the way). All in all, I’ve reached a good, stable rhythm. I feel like I’ve really settled in here in Shanghai, and I’m so glad to be here with so many great people. I couldn’t pick a better group of people to get lost in the woods with.
I’ll leave you with this: I mentioned getting snacks in Nanjing. There are lots of really weird snacks here; I’ve seen packs of dried seaweed (which are delicious), chicken legs sealed in plastic wrap (ew), and bizarre squid-flavored Lay’s potato chips (ewww), to name a few. Lots of American brands have all sorts of odd local flavors. The best by far are Oreos; they’re one of the few good vegan cookies that I’ve been able to find here, and they really went all-out with the different flavorings. There have some crazy flavors of Oreos here, such as: lightly sweetened, chocolate, lemon, mango-orange, blueberry-raspberry, coffee, birthday cake, strawberry, green tea, and in one memorable occasion, a box of peach-grape flavored oreos that tasted like cough syrup. Most of them have been pretty good, though!
And here’s the worst English of the week: I found this on a menu in Shanghai; the Chinese and the picture both say that it’s baby cabbage. I think the English could have been a little clearer