Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall

What sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun, and makes gaps even two can pass abreast?  Finally…the Great Wall of China.

One of the wonders of the world, the Great Wall is one of the symbols of China.  Beginning around 500 BC and continuing through the 16th century, the wall of today was constructed by many dynasties attempting to seal off their northern border from nomadic invaders.  Today the wall remains only in sections, though the PRC government has spent tens of millions of dollars renovating and restoring this world monument.

A group of us journeyed to the Mutianyu section of the wall on a Friday morning.  This section is the second-most touristed part, but is the best preserved.  The other sections farther out from Beijing are practically devoid of anything beyond creeping vine and the leering gaze of condors.  You can hike among crumbling ruins and even camp on the wall without ever seeing another person.  Oh well – those sections take hours to get to, and given that we were on the school’s budget, we opted for an ideal compromise.



The initial climb up to the ridgeline

Map explaining the possible routes up to the wall

First sighting

Guiding post

Absolutely beautiful mountains guard Beijing to the north. Barring invaders made it across these peaks, this wall was here to stop them.

The Mutainyu section is the 2nd most visited section of the Great Wall, but it is the best preserved and not that far from Beijing (~75 km to the NE)


...and falling with the contours of the mountains.

View of the mountains through a guardtower window

Looking back at our trail so far

Me towards the end of the walkable part of the Mutainyu section of the Great Wall of China taken by an Australian couple from Brisbane (I told them how it poured when I was there!)

Some of the group

This section of the wall is a one-way trek - you have to venture back the same way you came

A final descent

Afterwards, a decent meal at a restaurant at the base of the wall

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Through a Certain Strand of Light

A thousand dreams, a thousand prayers.  Enough incense to fill the jasmine sky.  From the relative chaos of ancient Beijing to the tranquility of the northeast mountains, the Summer Palace has served as a spiritual and now cultural relic of China’s imperial past.  Built by the Jin Dynasty in the 12th century and expanded by the Qing in the 17th, the complex is a series of buildings, halls, and towers spread over a handful of kilometers around the dark and deep Kunming Lake.

Originally known as the Garden of Clear Ripples, the site was an important place for the royals to escape the vernal heat of their pancake-flat capital, Beijing, while still being able to perform their important spiritual obligations.  The focal point of the compound is the Tower of Buddhist Incense that sits on the north side of the lake.  From there, temples and pavilions radiate outward around Kunming, coalescing into the tortoise-shaped Nanhu Island in the southeast of the lake, the Hall of Joyful Longevity, and the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom.  Inside of these rooms, bronze pots house incense in the same manner as it has for nearly 800 years.  Etched carving and stone steles adorn the exterior under intricately latticed roofs, a living birthright of timeworn China.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Summer Palace is the archetypal Chinese garden, and is ranked amongst the most noted and classical gardens of the world.

The pictures tell a better story…

After walking about a kilometer from the subway, I entered the Summer Palace at the north gate. Here is Suzhou Town, a small village slightly away from the main sites, this is now filled with reenactments of how it used to look hundreds of years ago.

Crossing the bridge

Another view

Ugh, these bridges are really steep

Traditional lamps

This picture would have been mildly decent, but my camera apparently had some moisture on the lens...

Under the main bridge heading south towards the actual Summer Palace

Another traditional home

An old man will write a Chinese name for you onto parchment

I really like this sort of neoclassical Chinese art

Man selling wind flutes to silly French tourists

Leaving Suzhou Village for the actual Summer Palace...

Spring blossoms adorn the Summer Palace

Schoolchildren blowing bubbles near centuries-old royal halls

Ancient meditation hall

Getting closer to the main site...

...and along the way, a man crafts blades of grass into insects.

Across from him, Buddhas gild the outside of the building. People stopped and prayed to these.

Ah, finally. The main symbol of the Summer Palace, the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The structure stands over 62 meters high (almost 19 stories), arcing gracefully among the clouds and watching over deep Kunming Lake. On the first day and fifteenth day of the lunar month, Empress Dowager Cixi would come here to pray and burn incense.

The view of the rest of the enormous Summer Palace compound the the top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense. Down below is the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, a magnificent complex that served as dressing rooms for Empress Dowager Cixi as well as her birthday celebrations. I want to go to her birthday party.

Facing west from the Tower, the crystalline outline of Fragrant Hills pagoda is visibile. A trip for next week.

The Baayun Pavilion is located directly adjacent to the Tower of Buddhist Incense. It is constructed almost entirely of bronze (barring things that needed to be made from stone), though it's hard to tell from this picture.

Descending from the Tower into the Empress' dressing room and birthday party area, the Hall of Dispelling Clouds. She had some nice stairs... well as some impressive decorations. This is a Kirin, a mythical beast present in many East Asian tales. It's been been covered, probably to prevent annoying tourists from desecrating it with Wrigley's. Side note: this is where I met some young Israelis who had just finished their military service. They saw my IDF shirt and started to talk to me.

Looking up

Leaving the Hall, the view of the path around the huge spring-fed Kunming Lake. I planned on walking the several miles around it, but it soon started to pour.

Silly Chinese tout

On the side of the lake is China's first and most intricate rock art made for the royals. It's, well, interesting.

Granite mist moving over the lake

One of the bridges to the small isles that line the inside coast of Kunming

Willows wave against the backdrop of an imperial pavilion

Sidewalk poetry

As the rain started to fall, I made it my goal to at least get to the main island resting on the east side of the lake

Nanhu Island and the Seventeen-Arch Bridge. The lake looks like a tortoise, though this shot in rain from an off angle doesn't exactly show that, with the long bridge as the stretched neck. It is unknown if the Emperor created it with this in mind, but it's still pretty cool.

From Nanhu looking back through the rain

Running back towards the subway, a good 45 minute journey

A final shot of the Tower of Buddhist Incense before ducking into the Beigongmen subway station.

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The Elusive Canadian Llama

One of my favorite things about Beijing is exploring the ancient citadels of dynasties long past.  The Lama Temple has been on my t0-do list since arriving in the Chinese capital. Building on my streak of never taking a cab while traveling solo (with the exceptions of getting to the Great Pyramids in Giza, Egypt and to the incredibly distant airport in Sofia, Bulgaria), I set forth on the Beijing Metro with about a three-quarters mile walk upon arriving at the closest station.

Constructed in 1694, the Lama Temple, also known as the Yonghe Temple, is one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist complexes in the world.  It originally served at the residence of the Qing Dynasty’s eunuchs, eventually shifting into a temple under the Qianlong Emperor.  This is when the temple became an important Buddhist monastery and a critical node for Tibetan philosophy in northern China.

The temple itself is situated on a east-west axis.  From the verdant entryway, the opulence of the halls and the grandeur of the Buddhas grows until you reach the eastern terminus.  Tibetan characters are interspersed among Chinese axioms, reflecting the past occupants and the work that the site housed.  Mothers show their children how to bow with incense above their heads while elderly people are wheeled up to see Buddha.

Allegedly, the Lama Temple only survived the erasure of the Cultural Revolution by the direct intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai, which is really good, because on a less smart-sounding note, it’s really cool and well worth an hour and a half to explore.


Also known at the Yonghe Temple, the site has received millions of dollars from the Communist Party to restore it. Entrance fee - 40 RMB (~6.10 USD)

The entrance path

Approaching the main temple site

Since the relaxing of religious constraints by the state in the early 1980s, the Lama Temple has become a popular place for Beijingers to pray to Buddha. Incense sticks are placed in a tub of embers and then held above the head as one bows and kneels facing the gilded statue.

Another - meditation and prayer in front of the Buddha

Another shot of people lighting incense for prayer

Ancient incense pot. Coins lay scattered around its base.

One of the many spiritual statues that adorned the Lama Temple

Kneeling to Buddha

Blooming flower blossoms near the Hall of Heavenly Buddha

As your progress further and further back into the Lama Temple, the number of people thins dramatically

An absolutely giant Buddha - nearly 30 feet tall and located in the far rear of the temple!

Horrible picture (never again am I giving my camera to Canadians), but the giant buildings with walkways to the far west of the complex

A slightly better shot

A spinning drum inscribed with Tibetan characters

Lion statue gracefully guarding the entrance to the mega Buddha

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My Kind of Town Has All That Jazz

We travel nearly 9000 miles and yet Chicago still finds a way to insinuate its way into our daily lives.  This time, though, is different – we actually look forward to going to our university complex.

Taking a few lessons from Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town,” it really is remarkable that we are able to study (and “study”) in such an amazing facility as the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.  This is the school’s second international scholastic node after Paris with a new center in Delhi set to open in several years.  Located on the 20th floor of the Zhongguancun Culture Plaza building directly adjacent to our dormitories at Renmin University, the UChicago Center in Beijing contains a host of amenities that make it extremely attractive to work in: large, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the entire building, a large student area with water and a professional coffee machine, couches galore (much softer than our beds at Renmin), and fast wireless internet that is already “over the Great Firewall of China.”  While still getting a few kinks out of the daily operation schedule, the University of Chicago in Beijing is an in an incredibly facility run by a highly capable (with great singing voices!) staff.  Especially the more-than-a-receptionist Coco; she rocks.

The University of Chicago Center in Beijing is an amazing site located on the 20th floor of the Culture Plaza building adjacent to Renmin University (where we live). Here, the front desk area with our amazing receptionist Coco.

A 3D map of the UChicago campus in Hyde Park greets visitors upon arrival

The Zen Garden - a nice study (and apparently nap) zone in the corner of the building

The view of Haidain District in NW Beijing from the UChicago Center

This curving wall has portraits and captions about all of the Universitys Nobel Prize Winners

Tables and couches constitute a large study area

The student lounge - with a coffee/espresso/cappuccino machine! Also, a dinosaur discovered by famed UChicago paleontologist Paul Sereno graces the edge of the room.


The library

Art exhibit

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Sharks, Quarks, and Parks

The red pulse beats calmly and rhythmically from the core.  Like a stone dropping into still water, waves emanate from the center.  You can feel that idea in Beijing.  The Chinese capital wields incredibly influence over world politics – in realist terms, Beijing is objectively the second-most important city on the planet after Washington.  It’s a humbling feeling to know you are truly in one of the great poles of global order.  In the Chinese mind, the world really does revolve around their modern capital.  Unlike the relatively new upstarts of Shanghai, Shenzen, and Hong Kong, Beijing seems confident of its role to rule over China ad infinitum.  The drum beats on in Beijing as it has for millennia.

The school has been taking us on some excursions throughout the city on Fridays.  While overall they have been decent, my one major complaint is that I wished the school would take us to more, well, unconventional and far-flung sites.  We can visit the tourist sites on our own; we are here for three months, so I wish the university would facilitate some harder-to-get-to trips that I wouldn’t necessarily do/be able to do on my own.  Oh well.

Anyway, the pictures from several trips!

The group in Tiananmen Square as we make our way to the Clock Museum in the Forbidden City

Guard in front of the gate that marks the entrance to the Forbidden City

Me in front of the gate to the Forbidden City, directly adjacent to Tiananmen Square

Entering the Forbidden City. We were heading to the far north-east side of the complex to visit the Clock Museum, so we had no time to explore the rest of the sites here. The city definitely deserves several hours!

The clocks in the Forbidden City Clock Museum were neat and really intricate, but sadly made me extremely tired

Trying to leave the massive maze of the Forbidden City...

Modern Chinese soliders march against the backdrop of ancient China as we wait for our bus to our next stop

Next stop: the National Center for Performing Arts. To the east of Tiananmen Square, this is one the largest and most advanced theater facilities in the world - certainly fitting for the Chinese capital.

Pretending to be Asian, I look really dumb...

The "egg" is surrounded completely by shallow water, so the entrance is a glass tunnel underneath the lake

Entering the foyer

Our tour guide, "Krystal" (her Chinese name is something completely different), gave us a very odd speech that sensationalized the construction of the theater. Everything inside, from the rare marble in the floor to the endangered Brazilian wood composing the ceiling, was said to be the best. Krystal: "This stone from faraway province is best in world. Many lives destroyed, but perfect building!" Not exactly what she said, but basically.

Dramatic shot

My boss! Sec. Clinton visited the National Center for Performing Arts just recently on her most recent trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

A exhibition showcasing the Chinese and international performances that have occurred at the center

As the cultural capital of China, many famous people have visited here

Entering Beihai Park. This giant white pagado, dating back several hundred years, sits on a small island in the middle of the large site. In the giant lake, you can (and we did) rent boats to paddle around the tranquil environ.

Silly Chinese people

In front of a lion (?) statue


Walking around the island in the middle of Beihai Park

A man gently writes Chinese characters on the ground with a large brush


Eating lunch at a lakeside restaurant in Beihai Park - noodles with beef past and several kinds of vegetables

Chrysanthemum tea

Ornate traditional doors cut across the park

A peaceful way to spend an afternoon lakeside

This was my first time to Beihai Park - now Ive been there three times because its so awesome to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon here.

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Aerial Cascade

The Temple of Heaven (天坛) is one of Beijing’s most visited sites.  It is a giant complex on which many prayer halls form the area where the Qing and Ming emperors would make their annual walk from the Forbidden City to make offerings for a bountiful coming year.  Built in 1406, the area’s many building and pathways are all designed to worship, as the name implies, heaven. Everything here has a purpose – the color, the number, and the shape were not arbitrary decisions, but instead are deep-seated reflections of ancient Chinese culture that still influences life today.

For example, the number nine is a royal number representing the emperor.  Marble slabs in multiples of nine can be found throughout the area.  Also, the shape of a square represents the Earth while heaven is a circle.  The main architectural sites are squares upon rounded mounds, and then the actual temples are again circles on top of squares.  The duality of heaven and Earth is underscored throughout the grounds in subtle, yet striking ways.

I usually like writing longer pieces here, but I think the pictures and their captions are actually better.  I apologize for the long delay in posting.  Expect new posts soon!

Starting the day off with a hearty breakfast

I took the subway to the Temple of Heaven and I wasn't really sure what side to enter from. Apparently, I came in through the "less awesome" side, the East Gate.

The park is huge

Chinese soldiers

Elderly people gamble for money in the Long Corridor, a series of 72 interconnected rooms which symbolized the 72 earthly fiends. Sacrificial animals had were kept here as they had to be at least 200 paces away from the altar, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. At midnight of day of the sacrifice, they are led out of their bays.

An old man uses water and a brush to create temporary messages on the floor.

The detail of the roof - it's hard to imagine that when this entire complex was used by the Ming and the Qing dynasties, no nails were uses for any of the construction!

People playing dominoes in the Long Corridor

Foot badminton

These people were literally screaming as they threw down cards

Another shot of the large open spaces. People practices tai chi in the distance.

The main attraction, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Getting closer...

Ah, here it is. Every year during the winter solstice, the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors visited this hall to offer their sacrifices to the heavens.

Odd little urn thing

The inside of the Hall where the emperor would, as the name suggests, pray for good harvests in the upcoming year.

Me in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Built in 1406, the Hall is over 12 stories high and sits upon 3 marble bases. Everything here has specific reason why it is included - its number, position, and color reflect the culture of ancient China.

Panorama shot. Click for larger image.

This door is called the 70 Year Old Door. During the annual commute from the Forbidden City to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, this door was set up for the ailing Qianlong Emperor to shorten his path. In order to guarantee his successors wouldn't be lazy and continue to take the door, he decreed that one could only use it once they became a septuagenarian. He was the only person to use it.

One of the many buildings that directly surround the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Taichi in the park

Lady praying to...

...the Nine Dragons Juniper. This tree, rolled into what kind of/sort of/doesn't look like nine dragons, is also almost 1000 years old.

Chinese people decorate their masks, unlike in other Asian countries.

Playing with traditional streamers


Many of these trees were several hundred years old with some nearing 800

Another building that looks like the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. However, behind here is what is called the Echo Wall. People on opposite sides of the hall can hear each other if they both face the back wall, even if whispering. Perfect parabola!

The unattractive Circle Mound. Like the Echo Wall, the sound reflects perfectly when standing in the middle. Lavishly built with nine stone dragons, surrounded by multiples of nine stones, and and three marble stone levels, this was an important altar when it was built in 1530.

Asian tourist yelling in the middle of the Circle Mound

Man playing Chinese flute

Nearest subway station to the Temple of Heaven

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Somewhere Between Winnipeg and Siberia

Finally.  Half of a year of waiting is over.  Visa from the consulate – check.  Dog-eared Lonely Planet – check.  Chopstick finesse – uhh, to be acquired later.  I was finally going to China.

Since I had to change my Tokyo itinerary, I rebooked myself on American Airlines’ once-daily flight to Beijing via Chicago-O’Hare (ORD).  I originally was upset at the flight, since it left Chicago at 9:00 PM Monday and arrived 11:30 PM Tuesday, so by the time you clear immigration, customs, and get your bag, it will be Wednesday.  However, I realize that while essentially arriving 2 days later after taking off, AA 187 allows you to sleep on your nighttime circadian rhythm rather than during the day.  Coupled with the low loads throughout the flight, who interestingly seemed to be made up of mostly non-Chinese tourists and businesspeople, I fell asleep somewhere around Winnipeg, woke up in time to cross the International Date Line, and fell asleep again until we were solidly over Siberia in the Russian Far East.  After 13 hours and 7 minutes of flying time, we landed in the political, cultural, and psychological capital of the People’s Republic of China – Beijing.

Anyway, here are the first pictures as I struggle to cope with the 13 hour time difference with Chicago!

My Chinese visa with the personal data blocked out

I took AA 2088 from Tampa (TPA) to Chicago O'Hare (ORD), connecting on AA 187 to Beijing Capital International (PEK), the busiest airport in China. Some information on my boarding pass I erased for internet privacy.

Heading NW from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) across Canada and eventually...

...heading east over the top of Alaska. It's always cool to see the local time clock instantly add 24 hours when the plane crosses the International Date Line between Russia and Alaska.

Chinese immigration card

Arriving in the PRC; stepping off the jetbridge at 11:15 PM Tuesday evening

An Air China 757 parked in the gate next door, probably headed to SE Asia, Korea, or Japan on Wednesday morning given the range of the aircraft

Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital (PEK), the busiest airport in China, is overwhelmingly huge. Finished prior to the 2008 Olympics, T3 is the 3rd largest building in the world by area.

Blurry, but another shot of T3 at PEK

A bizarre little machine at Chinese immigration where I could rate the officer and my experience as she perused my visa details. The whole process took maybe 20 seconds, with no questions asked. The agent merely looked at my visa, typed something really quick, and said "thank you" in Chinese. I blocked out her ID number so I don't get in trouble with the PRC government. My passport was stamped so fast I didn't click the happy face in time!

I love signs, but I really like the white sort-of-star shape. Signs conveying important information in the US lacks that "boom boom" found in Chinese signs.

Luggage belt 41 for AA 187 from Chicago

Silly ad at PEK, waiting for my bag

Upon landing, my phone connected to China Unicom cell service and located me. Dumb, but also kinda cool.

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