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2 posts from November 2014


Silk Road Diary: Dunhuang by Henry Guyver

We woke up in Dunhuang, an oasis in the Gobi desert. It was a place along the Silk Road where weary travellers would replenish supplies, trade goods, and switch out for fresh camels. This was my favorite stop of the entire trip. As we got in the guide said it was a small town at only 180,000 people – funny how it really is all about perspective. The “town” is surrounded by dunes. Huge, beautiful soft sand dunes in every direction. That morning we had free time before our group lunch, so Nick, Tracy, Jiang Laoshi, and I set out for a bit of a stroll. The sun was just coming up and you could see the dunes rising up in the distance through the crisp, cold air. We went through the main shopping/pedestrian mall but everything was closed. We strolled on and went along the river. We started hearing gunshots and were a bit bewildered (and mildly concerned). We looked for the source and across the bridge, along the riverbank there was a long path with little stops for sitting or little exercise stations. At two different spots with open space there were men whipping! The first man had a long Indiana Jones style whip with red cloth braided into the leather in some places. He was doing these incredible cracks. We stopped and asked him what it was for, he said for health (we knew that already – anything weird anyone does in China is for health). He said it was a good full body exercise. I asked him if he could teach me and he said that it was impossible for me to learn haha! I laughed and asked if I could try anyway and he said ok. It was hard, I never did make much of a good noise.

We headed on down the river where there was another man doing it, but the first 5 feet of his whip were double linked heavy steel chain! After that it was 3 feet more double linked steel chain, just a little smaller, and then about 6 feet of half inch thick rope. You could actually feel it in the air when he cracked his whip – that is what we’d heard from so far away. It was easily as loud as a 9mm handgun. He was a strong looking guy, maybe mid 50s. We asked him what the deal with it was and he said that he was retired and had been doing it for about a year now, that it was a good way to start the day, good exercise, and that he had friends that he did it with. He was much nicer and more fun than the first guy. I asked if he could teach me and he said yes, but that I shouldn’t be discouraged if I didn’t get it, as it took him about two weeks to get it down. He handed it to me and my hand comically dropped – the thing was crazy heavy!! I was already locked in at that point though, so I stood in the middle of the area and dropped all but the handle. It fell like a medieval knight’s mace, I tried to wrap my head around what I was supposed to do. He said to get it helicoptering around my head and then “when I felt it” to rip it back the other way with my whole body. It was totally unnerving to have heavy chain going over my head and even more so to think I was going to try and kill all of its momentum with one jerk.  It was scary! I put my sunglasses on so I wouldn’t take an eye out and went for it. It quickly came right back at me and not gently wrapped all the way around me. This was very funny for everybody – including me, and I tried again, this time making a pathetic clipping sound. Nick tried and actually managed to do a couple of pretty good ones. The girls were alllll toooo happy to give good advice from the sidelines but got a reality check when they picked the thing up. Jiang Laoshi gave it a try and didn’t manage to get it spinning over her head – one feel of how heavy the thing was was enough for Tracy. We thanked the man and agreed we’d all get whips and then walked on. IMG_4959

We went back to the hotel and geared up to head out for lunch with the group before heading to the dunes. The specialty in Dunhuang is donkey meat, so we had slices of donkey meat with a spicy, oily sauce, and donkey meat noodles for lunch, among other things. Apparently there’s a saying that goes something like “Dragons are in heaven but on earth there is donkey meat.” I thought that was funny, it actually was all very tasty though, and we were hungry. Next we got on the bus and headed to the Singing Sand Mountains. Apparently at some point in time someone got over 200 people to slide down the dune at the same time and it made a loud singing noise, so that spot is named thusly. This was something I was really excited for, it was an hour-long camel ride followed by a short hike up, a slide down a bit further on an inner tube, and then hop back on the camel and loop around. Riding the camel was a lot of fun. As the Gobi gets incredibly cold, they were Bactrian camels, we rode between the humps. It was surprisingly comfortable. I found the best method was to get one leg up like you were trying to sit cross-legged and then to have the other leg down to the side. I felt like I could ride for a long time like that, other people fought the motion of the camel’s gait and looked hilariously uncomfortable. IMG_4995 JD-Gansu-30

The night previous I plotted with Nick and some of the others to ask Fu Laoshi’s permission to split off from the group, hike higher and watch the sunset from the top of a dune (they go as far as the eyes can see and are each veritable mountains), she said yes. We were intent on having a quiet, peaceful experience, so we kept our plans under wraps and managed to recruit Jiang Laoshi to come with us. She has a wonderful spirit of adventure and really wanted to do it.  After the camel ride, sliding down part of one of the dunes, and checking out the small lake oasis we snuck off from the crowd and started the climb up.

Climbing sand mountains is such hard work. It takes energy to even lift your leg, it feels like you’ve taken two steps while your efforts are only worth half a single step. We got to the top of where the adventurous tourists go and talked to an old man who works there picking up trash. He said that it would take us an hour and a half to climb a dune I pointed out – one of the tallest around and closest to us. We really wanted to see the sun set on the Gobi from the top of a dune. The group was Nick, Jiang Laoshi, Jesse, Tracy, Julie, and Stuart. I convinced them that the old man’s hour and a half was hiking at old man pace and that it would take roughly 40 minutes (it took 35). They were up for it so we started trudging on.

We hiked and hiked and sweated, despite it being quite cold. We were mostly silent as we climbed and I thought about things. Chinese people love chengyu’s -little sayings, usually four or eight characters, little pieces of wisdom. I wanted to make my own chengyu so I thought about it while we climbed. Stuart and I led the pack. We made it to the false summit (got to hate that), and headed on to the true peak. Finally we made the last few quad busting steps to the top. It was a spine, you could straddle the dune. It was unnerving in some ways because if you tipped at all you were going to fall 5 or 6 hundred yards to the bottom, but it was absolutely breathtaking. The dunes ran forever in every direction, leading in the distance to mountains. The Gobi Desert. It was so hard to think about what it was like for the travellers on the Silk Road down where the camel ride was and the inner tubes and the tourists smoking cigarettes next to the no smoking signs on the top. On the top of this dune, which we had struggled so hard to climb, we felt like we could see the Silk Road. We could feel the despair of endless desert while at the same time the welcome sight of the lake and the trees. I don’t need to write these things down to remember them, but I will. The wind was incredible, it tore the warmth from you but one by one we sat down at the top, squished together, and watched as the sun went down, lit up, and night fell. IMG_5096on top of the sand dunes, waiting for sunset

Before we left I shared my chengyu. We sat in silence and thought about it for a little bit. I wrote it in my book later, so I could remember it and so I can reference it when I need to. I said, “You’re going to get sand in your shoes, and that’s alright.” I like it. Everyone bought these bootie things to keep sand out of their shoes and I told them that they could tie them up as tight as they wanted, they were still going to get sand in their shoes, but they still paid the 15 kuai and when it came time to take our shoes off their river of sand was no less than mine. I knew it was going to be like that. It’s true though, no matter how much you do to protect from the uncomfortable things, some sand is always going to get in, but that is ok. You just have to dump it out.

We walked home in the dark, mulling things over, smiling and conceding that we were dying of thirst and starving. We marched down out of the Singing Sand Mountains and walked the streets until we found a cab that could take us to the food street. We ate in total silence and all sat back in our chairs. Everyone equally exhausted, sandy, and satisfied. That night we all slept like babies. JD-Gansu-41

The next morning we headed to the Mogao Grottoes, another area where Silk Road merchants commissioned large carvings into cliff walls and even the man-made hollowing of cliffs. They carved into the cliff wall and filled the caves with beautiful paintings on the stone and large ceramic figurines. It was very interesting. The highlight was a 100-something foot long reclining Buddha guarded by several incredibly fierce looking demons. Some day I want a couple of those outside my house. IMG_5139outside the Mogao Grottoes

After the grottoes we headed to the airport and took the only plane at the airport to Xi’an and then connected a flight home to Nanjing. It was almost strange coming back to Nanjing. I hadn’t realized how different, how diverse China is. I thought I had some sense of it having been in Nanjing but now know that I know little to nothing about China. My Chinese improved a lot over the trip and I’m looking forward to learning more so I can be a more effective traveller. For now though, heaven is high and the emperor is far away.

P.S. My whip should arrive within the next 5 days.




CIEE Nanjing 2014 Fall Mid-term Program Update

We came back from our weeklong trip to northwestern China about two weeks ago. Although busy in catching up with the office work after a week’s travel, I can’t wait to write about the program update and most recent activities. The improvement our students have made in Chinese surprised me; and the weeklong trip was, citing a student’s comment, “an oasis of fun in a desert storm of Chinese studies”.

I am very glad to see the progress our students made in their Chinese classes. For each of the three levels, there are four hours of Chinese classes each day from Monday to Thursday, focusing on reading and speaking separately. It’s very intensive and it’s not unusual to see some meltdowns at the start of the program. At least two students from the highest level came to my office in the first few weeks, tears flowing down like streams, expressing difficulty of the class, and how hard it had been for them to adjust to the class pace and teaching style. In cases like this, the best I can do is only to offer encouraging words, such as 继续加油(jì xù jīa yǒu, keep trying) and 慢慢来(màn màn lái, take it slow) as it takes persistence to learn a language like Chinese. When I see our students work on their homework after class, or have a one-on-one tutoring session with their Chinese tutors, I know no matter the length of time, all their efforts will pay off. Lately I got a lot of positive feedback from our Chinese instructors and tutors that our students progressed greatly, which is surprising as we just came back from a weeklong trip. However, it came to me that probably it’s the time for all the efforts to pay off. What’s more, even though the students could not bring Nanjing University classrooms while traveling, by frequently interacting with local people such as tour guides, restaurant waiters, street vendors, etc., they were able to create their own real-world classrooms, and felt more confident in speaking Chinese. IMG_5147a tutoring session

At the same time, I attribute the progress to our fantastic faculty. Some teachers have been teaching CIEE students for the last ten years. Their teaching methods and styles are distinct from what our students are used to in the States. For example, Professor Zhu, one of the instructors for the highest-level class, is famous for her strictness, and a tingxie(dictation) every day which requires you to memorize up to 70 new words daily. She never caves in to pressure from students’ complaints, because after ten years of teaching, she knows what works the best for  progress in the long run. Now after almost two months since the start of the program, most of Prof. Zhu’s students have got used to her teaching methods and found them very effective. The classes became enjoyable and the progress students made even surprised themselves. IMG_5188in Professor Zhu's class

Besides Chinese classes, CIEE Nanjing offers two courses taught in English: history of the US-China Relations instructed by Dr. Liu Woyu and Intercultural Communication and Leadership
(ICL) instructed by Dr. Yanfei Fu, resident director of CIEE Nanjing study center. The history class examines the relations between the United States and China from the 19th century until the end of the 20th century with topics such as the US and China modernization, Mao’s China in the cold war, and the Threat if a Rising of China. By conducting and presenting an independent research, students are able to pursue a topic of their interest in the historical evolvement of US-China relations. In the Intercultural Communication course, through discussions, small group activities and interaction with cultural partners, students develop skills, knowledge and understanding that help them to communicate effectively cross culture and engage more appropriately with local people in their day-to-day life.

As an old Chinese saying goes, 读万卷书行万里路(dú wànjuàn shū xíng wànlǐlù), or in order to attain wisdom, it is not enough merely to read books, you must be well travelled as well. Thus after two months of study in Nanjing, we embarked on a weeklong trip to the Northwestern China. As Nanjing is located in the economically developed Eastern China, we took students to the Northwestern China which is still underdeveloped or even struggling in poverty. This way our students will have a more complete China experience. What’s more, the Northwestern China, especially along the Hexi Corridor, or the Silk Road, is full of historical sites which played an important role in the religious, trade, and knowledge exchange between China and the Middle Asia almost 1,000 years ago. 

More specifically, the places we covered in the Northwestern China were Ningxia and Gansu provinces. Ningxia is a Chinese Muslim autonomous region. In its provincial capital Yinchuan, we had the opportunity to enter a mosque, admire its ceiling and pillars with intricate patterns and hear an Arabic song used to call other Muslims to come to service. Although none of us is Muslim, the simple yet beautiful Arabic song resonating in the mosque hall evoked a sublime feeling in everyone. IMG_4671students outside the mosque in Yinchuan IMG_4674inside the mosque 

After having a first close contact with Chinese Muslim culture, we took an overnight train ride and went on our trip. Next came the Bingling Temple in Linxia and the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe. The Bingling Temple Buddhist grottoes built on cliffs are isolated by the waters of a reservoir and therefore survived China’s tumultuous 20th century thanks to its relative inaccessibility. IMG_4721overnight train ride IMG_4752in the Bingling Temple JD-Gansu-14outside the Bingling Temple

Our experience in Xiahe is yet more unforgettable. This Tibetan town attracts visitors from all over the world because it’s home to the Labrang Monastery, one of the six great monasteries of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. Before our visit to the Monastery, a group of students ran into a very friendly Tibetan young man who was eager to communicate with foreigners. He invited our students to his simple dorm and told his stories. He is a student at the Monastery studying Tibetan philosophy. He expressed his complex feelings towards the majority Han people: he dislikes Chinese government’s policies that he deems unjust for Tibetan people, but he has many Chinese friends from whom he learns Chinese language and culture. It was the first time for our students to have such a close contact with a Tibetan and I’m glad that their openness and spirit of exploration gave them some authentic Chinese and Tibetan insight that normal tourists wouldn’t get. IMG_4782Outside the Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu Province. IMG_4780


The trip culminated in Dunhuang, once the most prosperous city along the Silk Road. This fertile
oasis has long been a refuge for weary Silk Road travelers. Most students have picked Dunhuang as their favorite place for the unique experience of camel riding in the desert. Dunhuang is home
to the Mogao Grottoes, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. One student, Henry Guyver, loves Dunhuang more than anything. He’s got a true writer’s talent.We welcome you to read about his Dunhuang experience on this blog. JD-Gansu-29

Coming back to Nanjing with so much shared and cherished memories about the trip, we all settled down again in our home far away from home. Thanksgiving is only three days away. While I feel sorry they can’t go back to the States to be with their families, I’m sure they’ll feel thankful that the CIEE family Thanksgiving in Nanjing will be packed with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, pumpkin pie and even Sparkling cider! It’ll be their one of their most memorable Thanksgivings.