Sorry for the long break! Anywho, on to what I’ve been up to….
A few weeks ago China celebrated Qingming Festival and we had a short three day break from classes. As such, my friends and I decided to take the opportunity to go travelling. It was only after we had bought our train tickets that our teachers explained we would in fact be missing class if we went on our trip. At first I didn’t understand because for this particular vacation period Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were all supposed to be vacation days. Come to find out, in China during certain “breaks” schools make up for missed time by rescheduling classes on the weekends.This means that our Monday and Tuesday classes got moved to Saturday and Sunday. As a tried and true American, I have a strong sense of pride in my weekend time so I was not about to go to school on a Saturday. In the end, my friends and I decided to go ahead and skip class. And so we rode off to Hebei Province.
The first stop was Chengde, a 6 hour train ride from Beijing by commuter rail. While we were still on the train, Akiko and Andrea struck up a conversation with a woman. She happened to live in Chengde and was naturally curious as to why four foreigners were headed to her home town. She was very friendly and when we got off the train she introduced us to her husband. As we exited the station, she even helped us find a taxi cab. As we said our goodbyes, we thanked them. The four of us piled into the taxi and just before we shut the door, my friend Li-Anne, bursting with exuberance shouted out, “Happy Qingming Festival!” And we zoomed off.
This last sentence, while innocent enough, caused the rest of us to burst out laughing in the small taxi cab. In China, Qingming Festival is celebrated for honoring the dead. Individuals return to old family graves to clean, honor, and leave offerings to past generations. It’s hardly what one would call a “happy” holiday. Nonetheless, the phrase “Happy Qingming Festival” became a catchphrase for the rest of the vacation.
Chengde itself is a relatively small city. Back in imperial times, it was the summer get-away for Beijing’s royal court. As such, there’s quite a lot of history and architecture packed into the little city.
Our first stop was the Bi Shu Shan Zhuang (lit. Hiding from the Summer Mountain Mansion but it gets translated as the Summer Resort in English). This was a massive park compound filled with plenty of man-made lakes, pagodas, and villas. Hard to believe that is was designed for only one man to enjoy. Walking around there easily took up an entire morning, and we never got to see it all. The mountain section had still been closed to visitors.
After our tour around the Summer Resort. We ate lunch and decided to change our train tickets. Originally, we had planned to leave Chengde and head for Shijiazhuang. However, the lady on the train told us there was nothing very interesting in Shijiazhuang and we’d best go elsewhere. So after lunch we headed to the train station. When we arrived, we were greeted with a massive line of people. An hour and a half of waiting, getting cut in line, blocking people from cutting us in line, we finally made it to the window. At that point, the irritated ticket woman informed us that it was 5:00 and she was off work. We, and the entire line of people behind us, immediately began to shout angrily. In a tired, nonchalant voice, the woman reminded us that the next person on duty would be coming in 30 minutes. So we waited it out at the front of the line. When the woman finally arrived, we gave her our Shijiazhuang-Beijing return tickets and asked if we could exchange them for Qinghaidao-Beijing return tickets. She looked at us blankly and said, I can’t do that here. You have to be at one of those stations to do that. We ended up waiting in line for 2 hours all for nothing. By that point we were so frustrated it became comical. We wished the ticket woman a Happy Qingming Festival, left the train station, and headed back to our hotel to play card games and plan the next day.
The next day, we headed off to tour various temples around Chengde. As I have come to learn, temples in China are a lot like churches in Europe, apart from the really famous ones, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. I’m afraid my time in China has given me a sort of temple-apathy. For example, at the temple even though I was witnessing the world’s tallest wooden-carved standing Buddha statue, I couldn’t bring myself to fully appreciate it. I just kept thinking that it looked like all the other Buddha statues, just bigger and wooden.
For our last day in Chengde, we decided to see…. a giant rock. We’re not particularly clear on its history or how it got to be there, but then again how often do you get to see phallic rocks in your every day life?
After our visit to the rock, we headed to the train station and caught an overnight train to Shijiazhuang. The next morning we arrived at around 7 o’clock. All of us were pretty exhausted from a bad night’s train sleep, so we rested until the afternoon. Afterwards we went out to explore the capital of Hebei Province. As it turns out, the lady on the train was right. There’s not a whole lot to do in Shijiazhuang. Nonetheless, we went on our own self-guided temple tour till dinner time.
The following day, we ran out of temples to see. So we decided to check out this place called “The Garden in the Sky.” As it turns out, the Garden in the Sky is a makeshift amusement park, resort-thing on the twelfth floor of a random building in downtown, Shijiazhuang. The complex was massive, sprawling at least a city block, and it included rides, a river, waterfalls, swimming pools, as well as various plant and tree species (albeit some fake).
After touring the Garden in the Sky, we headed off to the Shijiazhuang Museum of history. The museum’s facade was elegantly designed and was surrounded by a massive square making the architecture look more grandiose. However, once we entered, we discovered there was nothing in the museum at all. In place of exhibitions, the walls were lined with panels displaying pictures of artifacts. It seems as though the museum was trying to cut a few costs by showing pictures of exhibitions without actually having any.
By the end of the vacation, we were all quite exhausted. I for one was happy to get on the train heading back to the semi-normalcy of Beijing.