OK, this is what I did from January to April...
Return to Beijing
I celebrated New Year in Madison, Wisconsin. On January 2, I got up at 5am for my flight back to Beijing, after having spent the last two weeks at home. It was really nice seeing everyone again, especially since this was my first trip home in a year and a half.
The first leg of my journey was short, considering that eventually I would end up on the other side of the planet. Starting from my friend's house where I had been staying, I walked about two miles, through the frigid winter air, to the long-distance bus stop near the University of Wisconsin's campus. It was still dark outside and not a soul was in sight. I could have taken a taxi, but I actually enjoyed the solitude of walking through this small city when most people were asleep. I knew that once I got to Beijing, it would be impossible to walk for half an hour (or even half a minute) without seeing anyone.
I arrived at the bus stop at the break of dawn. There was a bit more traffic on the road, including the double-decker bus that would take me to Chicago, where I would catch my flight. I was the first person aboard, so naturally I sat in the front seat on the upper level. The bus left on time, and I got a panoramic view of the Wisconsin countryside, including a spectacular sunrise, as we drove south on I-90. Not a bad way to start a year.
My bus arrived in downtown Chicago ahead of schedule. To kill some time, I went to a Starbucks. As I was sipping my coffee, a homeless guy sat down next to me. With a weak voice, he told me that he had slept outside for the last two nights in sub-freezing temperatures. He said the homeless shelter required an ID, but he didn't have one. He could buy one for $21, but he didn't have that much money, and they wouldn't assist him in this financial burden. That's why he had been sleeping outside, he told me in simple terms. He was probably younger than me but his difficult life was already showing in his face. I felt really lucky to be able to sleep in the warmth of a friend's house. This guy didn't ask me for money or food; he seemed happy enough to be in a warm building, and to have someone to talk with for a bit. When I finished my coffee, I wished him luck and went on my way. I get asked about homelessness a lot when I'm in China, where very few people are living on the streets. To a lot of Chinese people, it just doesn't make sense that there would be so many homeless people in a country as wealthy as the USA. And if I'm honest, it doesn't make much sense to me, either.
I took the subway to the airport and caught my flight back to Beijing. Believe it or not, I was quite excited to sit on a plane for the next fourteen hours. Overseas flights offer me a great chance to catch up on my photos and to write in my journal, not to mention the ability to use the “home theater” built into the seat in front of me. I think I watched five movies during the flight. When people complain about cramped conditions on airplanes, I honestly don't understand what they're talking about.
I made it back to our apartment late in the afternoon, had dinner with Katie and Morgan, and got ready for an exciting year to come.
I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in this “small” city of four million in Hebei Province. This is where some of the skiing events will be held at the 2022 Winter Olympics. The city is quite scenic, being located in the mountains. A high-speed rail line that will whisk people there from Beijing in less than two hours is under construction. I'm excited that the Olympics are returning to China, even though I likely won't be living here in 2022. Still, it'll be cool to see my former home on display on a global stage.
North Korea (DPRK)
Katie and I took a trip to North Korea for Spring Festival (AKA Chinese New Year). This is one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited. It's also a destination that deserves more than a short blog post. I'll put together some more information about our trip to this secretive nation soon. For now, you'll have to settle for a few photos:
Katie and I traveled to this city of 3 million, on the outskirts of northeastern China, to visit a famous Snow Village. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. There weren't any buses going there, and the aggressive taxi drivers at the bus station wanted far too much money. But the trip wasn't a complete bust. We did stumble upon a snow park, full of gigantic sculptures, so we were able to make the most of our time.
The other reason we had come to northeastern China was to visit Harbin. This city is cold, with daily low temperatures averaging -24 degrees Celsius (-11 Fahrenheit) in winter. Harbin's most famous attraction is its annual ice festival, and this did not disappoint. Mudanjiang's snow sculpture park had seemed big, but it was dwarfed by Harbin's ice park. The theme this year was “Famous Buildings From Around the World” (Or something similar), so the park was filled with replicas of places like the Kremlin and the Blue Mosque. When it got dark, they lit the sculptures in a dazzling – and slightly trippy – display. If you're ever in China during winter, this park is not to be missed.
This is the largest city on the border with North Korea. You can walk along the riverfront promenade and gaze at the world's most mysterious and culturally isolated country. Whereas the Chinese shore is lined with brightly lit skyscrapers, there's just a dark little village on the North Korean side.
Most of the attractions in Dandong are DPRK-related. You can walk halfway across the Friendship Bridge, which once connected the countries until it was bombed during the Korean War. Or you can ride on a boat to the very edge of the North Korean shore (listen to more about that experience in my podcast with Sam Dreiman). You can also hike up a section of the Great Wall, where the housing barracks directly below you are, in fact, in North Korean territory.
To be honest, this trip was a bit anticlimactic, considering that we had already been to North Korea. Most of the people who we traveled with to North Korea had gone there by train from Beijing, via Dandong. Being Americans, Katie and I weren't allowed on this train (this is currently the only restriction for Americans who want to travel to the DPRK).
For those of you that haven't been to North Korea and aren't planning to go, Dandong is definitely worth a visit. You'll at least get to dip your toes (maybe literally!) into the Hermit Kingdom.
Beijing is actually quiet during the Spring Festival holiday. This is the most important holiday in China, when everyone travels to their ancestral homes to celebrate with their families. Most people who live in Beijing aren't from there, so the city becomes a ghost town. We came back to Beijing on the fifteenth day of the new year. By this point, the city was back in full swing. It also happened to be the day of the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Spring Festival celebrations.
Long story short, there were fireworks. Enjoy!
Camping on the Great Wall
Katie's brother Greg and his girlfriend Katie came to visit us in Beijing! Our first adventure was camping on the Great Wall of China. Eating breakfast on the wall and watching the sun rise from behind the mountains was a breathtaking experience.
After our night on the Great Wall, the four of us took a train to central China. Our first stop was the ancient village of Hong Cun. It was such a pretty place, many artists had set up shop to work on their masterpieces. The climate was much warmer than in Beijing, and spring was in the air. We had a great day of exploration.
The main reason we had traveled to this part of China was to visit Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). I had already come here with my mom the previous year, but there was so much fog, we barely saw anything. I decided it was worth a return trip. Our group of four got up early and took a cable car to the top of the mountain, where we planned to spend the night. Unfortunately, when we arrived it was even more foggy than the last time I was there. Huangshan gets something like 300 days of rain per year, so I shouldn't have been so surprised.
Luckily, conditions improved as the day went on. Katie and I hiked to the bottom of a canyon and took a funicular back up the other side. By the time we reached the top, the tips of the mountains were poking out from the clouds. We watched an amazing sunset behind the “sea of clouds” from the highest point on the mountain.
The next day we got up about an hour before sunrise and hiked back to the mountain's highest point. From there, we watched the sun come up and were delighted to see that the clouds were almost completely gone. We spent the rest of the day exploring the top of the mountain, finally able to see what it actually looked like. Yellow Mountain went down as one of my favorite attractions in China so far (though Zhangjiajie still scored a bit higher).
After heading back down Yellow Mountain, the four of us took an overnight train to Shanghai. It was my third trip (and Katie's fourth) to China's largest city, so we didn't do a ton of sightseeing. We did get to stay in a lovely apartment in the French Quarter where some of our new friends from our North Korea trip lived. And we got to visit several other friends in the big city, so it was worth the trip. After two days in Shanghai, Katie and I bid farewell to Greg and Katie, and we headed back to Beijing. We really hoped they enjoyed their first trip to China.
Ancient Hoofprints and Rolling Hills Hikes
Once it got warm enough, Katie and I did a couple of day hikes around Beijing. These were hit-and-miss, mainly because China is changing so fast. We have a hiking guidebook that was printed in 2010, but it's already horribly outdated. Half of the first “trail” was now a paved highway. We did get to see some hoof prints made by horses a few hundred years ago, as they headed toward the old Silk Road. This was also the road where Empress Cixi was carried out of Beijing, all the way to Shanxi province in the early 20th century, so there was a lot of history to the trail.
Our second hike was on the Rolling Hills trail, near Huairo. This mostly involved bush-wacking and walking through farm fields. It was cool, though, because we saw so few people all day. And we could easily take public buses to the trail head and back to Beijing, so we only had to spend around $2 each on transportation.
That's all for now. Stay tuned for a summary of my travels in May through August of the year that was...2016.