On September 13, 2005, my life changed. I watched as six babies were carried into my apartment. They all came from the Xi’an orphanage and had some special medical needs. The oldest was 4 months and the youngest just 42 days. That morning I had been single, and by evening time I was the caretaker of them all. What a change that was. A little bit of background might help. I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a few years after graduating from high school, I got a chance to go and study in the US. After this, I moved to Taiwan and taught English there for seven years. While I was there, I started learning Mandarin Chinese. I thought that coming to Xi’an for a year would be a great idea because there is so much history here, and I could also learn some more Mandarin. It was while I was here that I started volunteering at the Xi’an orphanage. I was so moved by the plight of the babies. One thing led to another, and I was offered a contract to open a foster home, signed with the Xian orphanage. I am so grateful that they have trusted me enough to allow me to help them with the children. I have now been in Xian for four years and counting.
For expats or those who are visiting Xi’an and looking for a unique gift, Shu Yuan Men is the place to find it. Affectionately known as Old Street- is located near the South gate (Nan Men) inside the Wall of the city. Wander through a street of painters within Ming and Qing Dynasty Architecture. Its old stone slab streets lead to small alleys and courtyards filled with everything from calligraphy to sculpture. This is a place that you will want to stay and spend some time and the Bell and Drum towers and the Muslim Quarter are a walk or short taxi ride away.
Coming here can feel a bit like walking through a Chinese haunted house. The place itself is filled with untamed trees, all growing at their wild leisure and forming cobwebs of stringy branches here and there. At the entrance is a pair of worn-down foo-lion statues, their once ferocious frames now dulled into slabs of featureless rock. Nearby, a brick well sits unused, filled with a soupy green liquid. The decrepit atmosphere is perhaps fitting since this place is an ancient tomb after all. It belongs to Qin Er Shi秦二世, a historical figure of small consequence, but who also holds the title of being China’s second emperor.
For centuries tea has been an important part of Chinese culture. In ancient times, tea was called ‘tu’ and during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) the word took on the pronunciation we are familiar with today, ‘cha’. Research on the history of tea has been made more difficult as the ancient Chinese character also means a type of bitter vegetable.
The tea plant originates from China and was described by the Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu, as ‘a grand tree from the South, tall … with [a] circumference [of] up to two metres’.
China is one of the four oldest civilizations in the world, and jade is one of its most important symbols. According to archeologists, jade has been found and used for more than ten thousand years in China.
The “Jade Culture” which originated from the New Stone Age and continues to this very day has distinguished China from other civilizations of the ancient world. Chinese regard jade as the pneuma of heaven and earth and use it as a medium between human beings and Gods, which gives an unusual religious significance to the jade.
Less than two hours away from the capital city of Hanoi lay an undiscovered beach oasis. Nha Trang is located in the south central Vietnamese coast. This very affordable beach town has it all; 6km of beachfront, warm weather all year round, affordable accommodation, great food, island tours, water sports and much more.
You can reach Nha Trang in a variety of different ways; however flying arguably offers the most value for your money. Flights to Nha Trang are fast and usually quite cheap. At about $60 and one and a half hours the flight from Hanoi certainly beats a 30 hour train ride. Ho Chi Minh City is even closer at only 9 hours by bus or 40 minutes on Vietnam Airlines. As soon as you take your first breath of that fresh tropical air on the tarmac of Nha Trang’s refreshingly simple airport you know that you have just arrived in a place where time moves just a little bit slower and most problems seem to suddenly seem unimportant. Once on the ground you must make your way to Nha Trang’s city centre which is accessible by taxi or private car at about $10 and $18 respectively. The journey will take you through a scenic highway that winds along the mountains and hugs the coast most of the time. The journey takes about 40 minutes.
In China, I must remember that part of the reason that I am here is the experience. If I wanted everything to work the way I am used to it working, I should be back in our home country.
Doing the same thing (such as skiing) in a new country sometimes produces different results and experiences. If you want to go skiing at Cui Hua Shan, it is best to get up at 6:00 am, because you have four buses or taxis to negotiate that takes about 2 hours over the 40 kilometers to get there.
But who ever got up at 6:00 am unless the house was on fire? I got up once at 6:00 am and I have always regretted that day.
Therefore, I went out to the village near Chi Hua Shan and stayed at a hotel – at hotel that was right at zero degrees. Think of it as winter camping with all the comforts of home. Nothing is as cold as a hotel at zero degrees. It feels colder because we expect it to be warm. I have camped out at minus 25 degrees C in Alaska in the US and I still felt the hotel was colder.
As the season gets colder, two commodities become increasingly important: heavy clothes for going out, and books for staying in. Luckily, the markets in the xiaozhai district of Xi’an are able to supply both more than adequately. Outside the city walls, the XiaoZhai district is one of the most developed parts of the city, and one of the most popular for Xi’an’s youth. There certainly is no lack of things to do, between the Shaanxi Historical Museum, the largest bookstore in town, restaurants ranging from two-story KFC and McDonalds to the most expensive Korean food you are likely to find, and the many shopping centers and clothing stores that line the streets. For expatriates who have combed the insides of the city walls for things to do, this southern city district is a perfect stop.
Book City is, by a wide margin, the largest bookstore in town. It stands at an impressive four stories tall and uses every inch of the space. While getting in with a bag or large purse is a bit of a hassle (you have to check it at a window by the door), the store is certainly worth checking out.
Xi’an is famous all over the world not only for its unique ancient cultural history but also for its fantastic Chinese souvenir shopping. Some excellent offerings specific to Xi’an include: Chinese calligraphy rubbings, Tang pottery replicas, Terracotta Warrior replicas, Folk paintings and Folk paper cuttings .
Hundreds of billions of yuan are pouring into China’s real estate market. Apartment complexes and entire neighborhoods are built in the blink of an eye. Apartments are sold before construction is finished; and everyone’s attention (both good and bad) is riveted by China. However, uncertainty lurks. Can China’s real estate boom continue, or will the bubble burst like the US dot.com industry in the nineties? Regardless, many investors have successfully navigated the Chinese market and many, many more are on their way. And, they are all asking, “Where should I buy?” and “How do I buy?” You could search the internet for weeks reading the latest reports and articles on the subject, but the truth is: if you want to take advantage of the opportunities in China, you have to be here. Everyone knows China is the “new” big frontier and although one should always be cautious when making investments, there is a lot that can be done. Whether you are looking to invest in one unit or a couple of thousand, foreigners can successfully navigate the Chinese market.
The Yellow River is said to be one of the most unique rivers in the world. It flows from the Tibetan Plateau in northern China and then continues northwards towards Mongolia. The river then runs south through the Qinling Mountains and finally heads east towards the sea via 50 different routes.
Both the Yellow and the Yangtze River flow through China from the Tibetan Plateau. The two rivers are well known for the amount of glacial silt they carry. The Yellow River is said to be the most silt laden river in the world and is thought to have even more of the material than the Yukon River, the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Nile. For tens of millions of years glaciers have been grinding down the sides of the Himalayas producing the crushed rock. The rock is so fine that it can stay in the rivers for long periods of time. It is thought that the best farmland in China is along the eastern seashore, which was in fact created by the deposits of glacial slit from the two rivers.
One of the main draws for tourists coming to China, is the contrasting landscapes. On one hand, you have one of the oldest civilizations with over 5,000 years of rich history. And on the other, you have a rapidly growing cityscape with the fastest rising economy on the planet. And the best example of these contrasting landscapes is seen clearly in Xi'an. Ancient temples and pagodas stand in the glow of bright, neon signs. The yin and the yang....if you will.
Have you ever been in Shaanxi? How can you learn about Shaanxi? The Chinese have a famous saying 民以食为天 (Mín yǐ shí weí tiān) which means 'people regard food as their primary want'. If you want to know the customs and culture there you must start with their food. I now invite you to be my honoured guest as I lead you through a nice tour of Shaanxi food.
Generally speaking Shaanxi can be divided into three parts: 陕北 (Shǎnběi - north of Shaanxi), 关中 (Guāngzhōng - middle of Shaanxi) and 陕南 (Shǎnnán - south of Shaanxi). The province is rich in wheat and has a broad variety of pasta dishes.
I recently was off to climb in the Qinling Mountains near to Cui Hua Shan (Jade Flower Mountain) with a Chinese friend who had been one of my students. As often happens with climbers and others who pursue various activities, there is some sense of elitism or elan: as if one has some inner truth or purpose. As we departed, we spoke with a Chinese woman who saw us loaded down with our backpacks. As we left, the woman said to us, “You just want to suffer.” It did take a little bit out of my sail.
However, if you are in to pain and suffering the Qinling Mountains have a lot to offer. On one camping trip, I took five of my students to climb Turtle Mountain. It was a great trip, but if I had to find Turtle Mt. again, I would be at a loss. I have some frustration in that I can't find a good map of the Qinling Mountains that helps me to get back to where I was before.
A building suspended mid-mountain, being within 2 metres of a powerful waterfall, 2,000 year old Pingyao City are some of the sights you can see if you visit Shanxi Province. Pingyao City is the only Ming-Qing Dynasty style town still standing. The city was the birthplace of China’s banking institution and at its height, much of the country’s banking business took place here. Yet there are no longer any banks in the city today.
The City Wall gives you an idea of the size of the city; you can see from one end of the city to the other with its rows of houses, wooden framed doors and identical dark grey roof tiles. Chickens and donkeys were being kept in some of the backyards and on the street a horse drawn cart was delivering coal to the locals. The Wall is an ideal place to see Pingyao at night as the streets are lit up with glowing red lanterns.
Blurry eyed and still half asleep I heat some water and stand impatiently as it comes to a boil, I’m up early, much earlier than usual and honestly…I didn’t even know the sun came up at this hour. The water comes to a boil and I throw in some tea, taking a sip, I sigh, squint my eyes and look outside its 8:30 in the morning, I guess my day has begun. I’m up today because I want to get out of this city, the noise, the crowds, the streets…it’s all been adding up lately and I need a break. I was told of a great place that has exactly what I am looking for, I’ll head there for the day and get some of that “fresh air” that I hear others talking so much about.
It’s called Cui Huashan and it’s about an hour south of the city, as I sat thinking about the beautiful trees, fresh air, and relaxing atmosphere my teas gone cold…hmmm I hope it’s not going to be one of those days. So I pick myself up, look down at my tea shake my head and grab my day pack. Now to be honest I did a little research into where I was going before waking myself up at the early hour of 8:30.
“You’re going to climb Hua Shan?! Oh no… Please be careful! It‘s so dangerous there!”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard Chinese people say this to me the week leading up to my summit of Hua Shan. Literally every person I told about my planned climb told me of the perils that are involved in climbing Shaanxi’s sacred mountain.
At the time, I thought everybody was freaking out over nothing. I figured that their warnings about Hua Shan were the same kind of warnings as “don’t drink cold water” or “be careful of the bright sun today” that I often hear from Chinese people. Seriously, how dangerous could the climb be?
Of the 6000 km long Silk Road, half of it is in modern day China. One had to travel on the Silk Road for half its distance before one even got out of present day China.
The Silk Road started or ended in Chang’an or modern day Xi’an. However, lesser routes went east to Louyang, Kaifeng, and Anyong, three of the other ancient capitals of China. Kaifeng had a Jewish synagogue until 1850. Traditionally, Jews have not been home grown in China. They must have come down the Silk Road.
If you walk through the streets of Xi'an, especially in the city centre near the South Gate, you will find a lot of nice artefacts related to the culture of Shaanxi Province. We want to explain one of them because in our humble opinion, it represents the old culture of Shaanxi Province best.
There are some different theories about the origin of the Chinese shadow-play.
ⅰ. Some people think the first shadow-play figures were invented to illustrate Buddhist sermons, first made of paper, then later of leather. You can find, for instance, a whole set of shadow-play figures in the “German Leather Museum” in Offenbach showing very detailed depictions all the tortures of the “Buddhist Hell”.
ⅱ. Others think it has its origin in the marionette theatre of Shaanxi Province. The unintended shadows of the marionettes gave the players the idea to create a two-dimensional theatre.
ⅲ. The next opinion about the origin of shadow-play is that the shadow-plays were invented by people who used the “lantern of galloping horses”, a paper drum with a candle in the centre, projecting the shadows of the figures onto the screen.
ⅳ. Another theory says the hand shadow-play of Southern China might be the origin, until now we can find this form of shadow-play in Guangzhou (Canton).
In July of 2006, I was on a bus heading through the Qinling Mountains in China with a beautiful young female. We were going to visit her aunt and relatives in the small town of Foping about 200 kms southwest of Xian. Donna is a student at the university in Xian where I am an associate professor of history. Donna is just a friend. I take trips with male and female students, but after the trip is I say good-bye to the guys and turn the females over to their boyfriends. Sometimes the female students have a hall pass to go with me. Sometimes they don’t. Back in America, at 56, I would not be a threat to anyone’s reproductive cycle. But in China, one cannot be certain.
Donna’s aunt was located in the Qinling Mountains which are south of Xian, China in Shaanxi province where I live. One day Donna and I hiked a beautiful river valley with steep walls and lush vegetation. A river runs through it. We found two natural moss slickened rock slides to glide down into deep green pools of refreshingly cool water. The next day at a natural history museum in Foping (5,000 people), we met two Chinese guides and one American researcher who had been studying and observing Giant Pandas. When I discovered I might qualify for such a trip, it took me almost ten minutes to sign up. Five days were required to go to Xian and return to Foping with a student/translator and the necessary gear for six days of camping in the wilderness of the Qinling Mountains. It seemed as if I had been preparing for such an event all year.
There is an old Chinese saying: “不到长城非好汉 (bu dao chang cheng fei hao han)”.It means “he who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man”.
As we known, the Great Wall is the symbol of China. If you come to Xi’an, you will see a very beautiful landmark around this ancient city. Through it, you can see China's ancient history and civilization. Yes, it is the Xi'an City Wall. Today, let’s visit the famous building together; explore the history and story behind it.
1. The history of the city wall
The fortifications of Xi'an, an ancient capital of China, represent one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese city walls. The city wall of Xi’an is an extension of the prior Tang dynasty structure. It is the most complete city wall that has survived through China's long history. It was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370 and finished in 1378 and has a rectangular –shaped construction. It is over 4 kilometers from the east to west and about 3 kilometers from the north to south. And the total length is 13.7 kilometers. It stands 12 meters high, 12-14 meters wide across the top and 15-18 meters thick at the button. On the top of the city wall, there is a rampart every 120 meters apart, which extends out from the main wall. The top of the rampart is at the same level as the top of the wall. The ramparts were built to allow soldiers to see their enemies who would try to climb up the wall. The distance between every two ramparts is just within the range of arrow shot from either side. This allowed soldiers to protect the entire wall without exposing themselves to the enemy. There are altogether 98 of them on the city wall and each has a sentry building on top of it.
China believes in horticulture (the study and growing of plants). Half of the flowers planted in the gardens in American and Europe come from China. China also has a great love or veneration of trees. Americans claim that the oldest living thing is a Bristle Cone Pine tree (2000 years old) in Nevada in the US. But the Chinese claim that the oldest living thing is a cedar tree in China.
Lou Guan Tai, about 40 kms west of Xian, is home of Lao Tse who wrote the Dao De Ching which is the world’s oldest recognized philosophy. Close to the time of Lao Tse (500 BC approximately), there was planted a cedar tree that still grows today. At least the sign I read, I believe, said that it was 2500 years old. At the Shaolin Temple, in Hebei Province, are also trees that wrestle for the prize of the world’s oldest living organism. Many temples through out China plant trees, in particular, the cedar tree because of its longevity. The cedar tree is like the redwood and has oils that preserve it. Nothing seems as safe as a cedar tree in China at a temple. 2500 years is a long time to stay out of trouble.
So February is upon us and those of us living in China know exactly what that means…while other countries are busy buying chocolates, picking out flowery cards and plunking down money for long stemmed roses we are busy stocking upon fireworks, breaking out the red packets, and readying our stomachs for a two week gorge fest. That’s right it’s Chinese New Year.
When locals mentioned a smaller place close by, my mind immediately painted a still life image of a horse drawn cart loaded with luscious brightly colored fruit. As this concept became more vivid in my mental eye – my need, to embark on a journey to see the quaint little town with the river running through it, had to be met!
A little research showed that it has a population of close to 4 million which could just as well have been New Zealand.
The Chinese language has become increasingly popular all over the world. There are hundreds of Universities abroad offering Oriental studies degrees. And perhaps thousands of Chinese language courses all over the world. Most try to teach you how to speak Chinese and how to read Chinese characters. But when it comes to writing Chinese characters, most courses shy away from that. The reason is simple. It takes a lot of will and time to be able to master Chinese Characters.