China · China travel · Travel

China’s four great ancient capitals

I’d better put up some posts and photos about Southeast Asia because I have another trip coming up soon, but let me post one more post on mainland China. It’s about the four great ancient capitals of China – Beijing, Nanjing, Xian, and Luoyang, which I’ve been lucky to have visited. These four were all capitals during China’s greatest periods, such as the Tang Dynasty (Xian), the Han Dynasty (Luoyang), the Ming Dynasty (Nanjing), and so on. As Chinese history is so complex and turbulent, the capital was changed many times, and these four cities were capitals several times as well.

The first one I listed above is China’s current capital and probably most famous city (though Shanghai might beg to differ), so most people are definitely familiar with it. To be honest, Beijing actually isn’t even that ancient, with its first turn as capital in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but it’s still one of China’s most historic and important cities. The second, Nanjing, is also very well-known, though not as big on the travel itinerary for foreign tourists, which is a shame. The third, most people should know but mainly for its world-famous terracotta warriors. The fourth one, Luoyang, is the least well-known, both because its glory days were the furthest away, and also since it hasn’t developed as much as the other cities, especially being in Henan province, which is rich in history but not so rich in actual socioeconomic terms. But just like the others, it’s got several very interesting sites such as the Longmen Grottoes (a UN World Heritage site), a great museum, and China’s first Buddhist temple, the White Horse Temple. I even wrote an article about Luoyang for China Daily.

My favorite capital is Nanjing, which is also my favorite Chinese city in general. It’s very pleasant, charming, modern, even green with lakes and large leafy parks, and of course, historic. It has a more laidback vibe than other cities like Beijing or Xian, as well as nearby Shanghai, but it’s not a sleepy, boring place either. I’ve actually been to five capitals though, with Hangzhou (Southern Song Dynasty) being the fifth. Hangzhou is actually more famous for its West Lake than for being a former capital, but it’s an attractive city. All five are well worth visiting, with Luoyang being quite close to Xian (less than 2 hours by high-speed train) so it’s not exactly off the beaten path and hard to visit.

Beijing
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Inside the Forbidden Palace. This is one of the main structures inside the giant complex, which even though I saw it countless times in movies, photos, and ads, still amazed me when I actually visited in 2012. Forgive me for the picture color; the air that day wasn’t very good.

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This is the CCTV headquarters, which is one of the strangest modern buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s one of Beijing’s many interesting buildings, though maybe not so attractive. You can notice the sky is bright in this photo, which shows that you do get nice days sometimes in Beijing.

Nanjing

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Confucius Temple entrance. The historic area surrounding this temple is also confusingly known as Confucius Temple and is considered one of Nanjing’s main attractions, but nevertheless the whole area is a good place to check out.

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The Sun Yat-sen mausoleum, which honors and houses the body of Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of modern China” and a great Chinese, albeit not without some flaws. The mausoleum is located on a hill, which also has the tomb of the founding Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (itself a very pleasant site), and a historic pagoda.

Xian
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Xian’s Bell Tower makes for a grand sight at night. It’s located near the center of downtown Xian, with roads extending in four directions to the main gates of the giant city walls that surround the downtown.

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Xian features a Muslim Quarter, which is a nice place to visit and eat. It’s full of stores like these, restaurants, food stalls, and vendors, as well as a unique mosque built like a Chinese temple- Great Mosque of Xian.

Luoyang

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Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes has thousands of stone Buddhist carvings, but these are by far the largest and grandest.

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Luoyang fittingly has a very nice history museum, with ancient Chinese pottery, like this blue Tang Dynasty horse, being one of the highlights along with fossils and a fully-reconstructed Chinese mammoth.

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Luoyang photo roundup

These are a few more good photos from Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes and the Luoyang Museum in Luoyang, Henan, one of China’s great ancient capitals.

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The North side as seen from the South side of the Yi river. The giant Fengxian cave is the one on the middle.

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This shows how much these caverns filled up the cliffside. There was a fair amount of climbing involved to see everything.

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There were countless small caverns with multiple statues such as this.

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There’s a main Buddha statue with several figures standing by the side, and many smaller sitting Buddhas around him, with a row of tiny figures on the top.

 

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I swear this Buddha is smiling right at the camera.

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A row of small figures with a row of tiny figures beneath.

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Statues of famous monks lined part of the South bank of the Longmen Grottoes.

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Luoyang has a history stretching back thousands of years ago and its museum exhibits reflect this. These objects are from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the second dynasty in Chinese history. There were artifacts from the first one too, the Xia Dynasty (2000-1600BC).

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A man taming a horse. A lot of the pottery depicted scenes from life, unlike most pottery which are just normal staid objects.

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This procession was buried in the tomb of a member of royalty or nobility.

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A band of musicians and a dancer, from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

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A bronze ding that’s over 2,000 years old from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

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A fine example of the famous Tang Dynasty tricolor glazed pottery horses. It was quite big and there were several of these on exhibit.

 

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A garbage bin at the Longmen Grottoes. At the museum afterwards, I would see a frog statue that resembled this.

 

China · China travel · Travel

Luoyang’s famous Longmen Grottoes and museum

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The most famous sight in Luoyang is the Longmen Grottoes. The main reason I came to Luoyang, the Longmen (Dragon’s Gate) grottoes were a UN World Heritage site and one of China’s most famous grottoes. Thousands (yes, thousands) of Buddhas were carved into caves on the cliffs on both sides of the Yi River starting from 493 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty, though most of the statues were carved during the Tang Dynasty. Yet I have to admit that it was the history of the grottoes (and Luoyang), and not the actual statues, that first attracted me. I had looked up the history and photos of the Longmen Grottoes and I wasn’t impressed. The grottoes seemed small and the statues unimpressive. Well, I still went ahead to visit it and not for the first time, I turned out to be completely wrong. Far from being small and normal, the Longmen Grottoes were fascinating, numerous (as I said, thousands), and in some cases, magnificent.

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The site lay at the southern end of Longmen Avenue, so it was a straight bus ride from my hostel. When I got off, I passed through a lane lined with souvenir stores (a very common sight in Chinese tourist attractions), then walked out into a large open area to the entrance. On one side, there was a musuem which was almost finished but not open yet. During all this time, I still hadn’t seen any of the stone statues since I assumed they were easily visible from outside. As I entered, I found the place was actually quite pleasant. A central walkway was framed by willow trees lining the side of a placid river and a cliff where the statues were carved on. The river was spanned by a multiarched stone bridge near the entrance and another one further in the distance.

The stone statues were mostly on the cliffside and you had to climb wooden staircases to see most of them since only a few were at ground level. Be prepared for a bit of a physical workout if you want to see most of the statues. The statues were different sizes too; some were human sized, some were tiny, smaller than your hand, and others were giant. Some statues were carved inside small caverns while others, especially the hand-sized ones, were carved directly onto the rock. There were serene Buddhas, smiling Buddhas, and fierce divine figures. At some places, carvings and caverns covered the entire surface. Unfortunately, some were destroyed due to war and the ravages of time.

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On the North side of the Yi River in the Longmen Grottoes.

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The large cavern contains a Buddha but each of the open spaces also contain Buddhas.

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The walls of this mini cave are carved with thousands of tiny figures.

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The sheer amount of statues carved onto the cliff was overwhelming and impressive.

The best part was the Fengxian Cave, a large open cavern where nine giant Buddhas as high as 17 meters loomed, flanked by heavenly kings, temple guards and other divine figures. It was a really impressive sight and by itself, would warrant a visit. It took me a while to get through this entire side of the river, which was the north side. The grottoes were located on both sides of the river but most of the statues were on the north side. The south side has many shrines, temples, steles, the grave of Tang poet Bai Juyi, and a big surprise.
I walked into the 1,500-year-old Xiangshan Temple and right above it, was a much more recent villa. This was where Chiang Kai-chek, the then-leader of China, came to celebrate his birthday in 1936. The villa’s rooms were left in an impeccable state and filled with photos of him and his wife, as well as a Kuomintang flag. I knew Longshan Grottoes was a place where past emperors had come, but I certainly didn’t expect Chiang Kai-chek to have. By this time, I had spent over two hours and I had to rush to leave, so I didn’t visit Bai Juyi’s grave which was beyond the exit on the South side.

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Fengxian Cave, where the 17-meter-high Buddha is surrounded by eight other giant figures and many other statues.

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Xiangshan Temple.

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A room in the Chiang villa where Chiang Kai-shek came to mark his birthday and meet with generals in 1936. That’s the ROC flag and a photo of Sun Yat-sen, the “father of modern China”, Chiang’s mentor and a founder of the ROC.

But Luoyang, being a former great capital, had more than just the Longmen Grottoes. My next destination was the Luoyang History Museum, which was further north. I took a bus up and then got off an intersection that I knew was close to the museum. I’d even asked the bus driver but she wasn’t sure, and another passenger even said it was further north (where the museum used to be). I didn’t mind since I’m pretty sure the driver didn’t see many visitors trying to get to the Luoyang Museum. The road looked kind of shoddy and so I decided to take a taxi. The road to the museum passed through some empty lots and construction sites and was quite far from the intersection, so vindicating my decision to not walk (it looked close enough on the map!).
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The museum wasn’t new (having been opened since 1958), but its building was. It was a massive angular reddish-brown building perched on top a concrete base. The inside was spacious and new, and there were very few visitors. There was a lot of cool exhibitions including Tang Dynasty tri-colored glazed pottery (Tangsancai) horses and camels, artifacts from the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC), fossils, and even a full-scale skeleton Asian mammoth. Lots of history happened in Luoyang, which dates back to the 12th century BC. I was in a rush so I breezed through the galleries on art and paintings. I needed to catch my train back to Xian in the afternoon. I exited the museum, which fronted a large park though only a few people were around. A few children were riding little bikes and a couple was getting their wedding photos done in the distance.

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Stone animal statues from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

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A Tang-dynasty tricolour glazed camel. It looks like it’s in agony.

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An Asian mammoth (Palaeoloxodon naumanni).

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I’ve never seen this color used in Chinese pottery horses before but this blue horse is unique and impressive.

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Pottery lamp from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

I took a taxi back to my hostel, where I had an interesting conversation with the driver. I commented on how the museum was really nice but it was a shame that there weren’t many visitors. He talked to me about Luoyang and its history, comparing it to Zhengzhou (the provincial capital) and saying that Luoyang had more. In fact, that was why Zhengzhou had taken the Shaolin Temple away from Luoyang’s jurisdiction, he said, so that it could claim a historical place as its own. I don’t know if that’s true but I know information about the Shaolin Temple always mentions Zhengzhou as the main starting point, which isn’t that much closer than Luoyang to the temple.
I quickly checked out of my hostel and took another taxi to the high-speed station, where I had another interesting conversation with the driver. This guy also bigged up his city, talking about Luoyang’s history and culture. Unfortunately he used some complex words that were beyond my limited vocabulary so I couldn’t understand a lot of what he said. What I did understand was when he said that Luoyang people had a different reputation from other Henanese. Us Henanese have a negative reputation, he said, but when people hear you’re from Luoyang, their perception changes. It’s unfortunate but true that Henan has a bad reputation for being criminals and swindlers. The province is one of China’s poorest and its people are sometimes derided. It’s sad because this was the cradle of Chinese civilization. Thousands of years ago, this was where Chinese history began and civilization took shape. I hope that more can be done to help this once-proud province.
My trip back to Xian went without incident other than a consistent stomach upset, and a cute kid who sat with her mother next to me, who sang, talked, and even danced continuously. At one point, her mother even apologized to me and there was absolutely no need!

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The train back to Xian rolls into the Luoyang station.

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Luoyang- the first night

I’m really trying to finish up the writeup of my Xian-Henan trip last October as I’m embarrassingly behind schedule.

After Huashan, my next destination was Luoyang, the fourth of China’s four ancient great capitals. Located in Henan province, the cradle of Chinese civilization and boasting four ancient former capitals, Luoyang was a bit overlooked in travel circles (see my recent article on Luoyang, an attempt to remedy this). I was going there mainly to see the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site with countless Buddhist statues that had been carved over 1,500 years ago, from when it used to be one of China’s most important cities. I was also going to visit Luoyang’s history museum and Old Town. Luoyang was also close to the Shaolin Temple, the famous kungfu institution which you’ve probably seen in movies, especially Jet Li.

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Night market near Luoyang’s Old Town.

I took the high-speed train from Huashan to Luoyang, the second of three similar trips on this Shaanxi-Henan jaunt. I was midway through my journey when I looked across and got a shock. I saw somebody who I thought I recognized two rows ahead on the opposite side. That guy looked like my cousin, who I had met for the first time the year before in Zhoushan, Zhejiang. As I kept looking, the guy spoke to his companions, and his voice sounded just familiar. I felt like calling out to him, but I was a little worried about if he turned out to be somebody else. I mean, he looked like my relative, sounded like my relative, but this was halfway around the country. For Americans, this was the equivalent of being on a train in Colorado on a holiday, and seeing your distant cousin from Rhode Island, who you had only met for the first time the year before.
When the train stopped at Luoyang, I decided to ask the person besides me, who was in my “cousin’s” group. “Are you from Zhejiang?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied. “Are you from Zhoushan?” I then asked. “Yes,” he said. Then my cousin came up to me and indeed it was him! We got off the train and talked. He was with his colleagues on a company vacation, having just been to Huashan like me, and now on his way to Luoyang. We split up at the exit, he with his colleagues on a tour, while I went to the taxi stand. I got into a taxi and the driver immediately said something about the meter display and offered a fee. Apparently he didn’t want to use the meter. I asked why and he replied, but I couldn’t understand or agree. After a few minutes of this, a train station staff knocked on the window “What’s the matter? Why aren’t you on your way?” The driver then drove off, and soon he dropped me off at my destination – Luoyang International Youth Hostel. It was at the edge of a long nondescript three-storey building, which I could have easily missed. It was a good location because it was right on Longmen Avenue, a wide boulevard which went southwards directly to Longmen Grottoes. The taxi fare was RMB20, roughly the same as what the driver had told me. I was later to understand what he had been going on about when I got in. At the side of the avenue was a separate small road for bicycles, something which Taiwan should do well to copy. My first impression of this Henanese city from the vehicle traffic and the people was that it was much less urban and developed than Xian or Shanghai, which was to be expected. Henan as a whole is one of China’s poorest provinces and its people had a (unfair) negative reputation for being tricky and poor, a far cry from its glory days over 1,500 years ago when Luoyang, Zhengzhou (the current provincial capital) and Kaifeng served as imperial capitals. Nevertheless, I was glad to be in Henan because of its importance in Chinese history and because I think to fully appreciate China, visiting the less prosperous areas outside of the wealthy coastal regions (Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu etc) was in order.

The hostel may have had a casual entrance, but the inside was a different story. The entrance was decorated with posters and flyers of other hostels around the nation, and the inside was spacious and clean. There was a decent porch with couches and a computer at the side, and the rooms were arranged around this area and in the above floors. As soon as I checked in, the front-desk lady asked me if I wanted to go eat “shui-xi” (水席) for dinner. This was Luoyang’s famous water banquet, a set of over 20 soup-based dishes that dated back to the Tang Dynasty. Another guest wanted to go that very evening and he was looking for company. I agreed and I met R, a young solo traveler from Shantou. He and I set out to take the bus to Luoyang’s Old Town. I’d heard of this before and it was nice to be able to go eventually. I’d had some concern about taking the bus due to worries about pickpockets and not knowing the route, but with R, it was alright. We walked into the Old Town, which was guarded by a massive stone tower. Inside was a bunch of restaurants, bars, and stores along pedestrian lanes, housed in old-style single-storey stone buildings. We eventually found a simple restaurant that served shui xi, and had four dishes of it. One of them was quite good, having a sweet and sour flavour, though the rest were just alright. The Old Town was quite nice, and it was near a night market, which looked a bit like those in Taiwan, but not quite. The lantern-strewn lane was wide and there was a lot of meat and seafood, including “xiaomi crab”. The Old Town closed early, as by 9.30 almost all the stores and restaurants were closed. We went back by taxi because the bus stopped at 9.30 as well.

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The entrance to Luoyang’s Old Town.

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Inside the Old Town, with its pedestrian lanes flanked by stores which all featured lanterns and banners.

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Restaurant with a big sign indicating that it serves the historic “shui xi” dishes. 

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The four shui xi dishes we had. I liked the top left soup stew the most as it had a sweet and sour flavor.

The next day I set out by myself to the Shaolin Temple, the aforementioned subject of countless Chinese kungfu movies. It was supposedly easy as the hostel staff told me I could take a bus directly to the town of Dengfeng right on the avenue outside, then from there take a small bus to the monastery. Indeed I was able to take the bus to Dengfeng, but it turned out to be a bigger journey than what I’d expected and my only real negative travel experience on this trip.

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BBQ meat and fish eggs at the night market at one end of the Old Town.

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The living room of my hostel. It was very spacious and nice.

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My Luoyang article

The city of Luoyang is one of China’s four great ancient capitals. The other three – Beijing, Xian, and Nanjing – need little introduction, but Luoyang seems to lag. That’s why I wrote a piece about Luoyang for China Daily. It’s in Henan province, and about two hours from Xian by high-speed train. The most impressive sight is the Longmen Grottoes, which features thousands of Buddhist statues – as high as 17 meters, human-sized, finger-sized – carved into cliffs on both sides of a peaceful river. Luoyang also has a fine historical museum, the earliest Buddhist temple in China, the White Horse Temple, and Guanlin temple, which honors Guan Gong/Guan Yu, a Three Kingdoms-era general who was deified in the Sui Dynasty and is widely worshiped in Guangdong and Hong Kong. His head is also buried at this temple.

Meanwhile this following article was not written by me but it’s an interesting piece nonetheless. Marriage is a tough process in China, as this New York Times piece shows. There’s a lot of pressure on both men and women, involving stringent requirements – wealth, education, even height- as well as a commercial aspect (which other Asian societies like India also have). In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, if you’re a guy and want to marry, you got to have your own home, otherwise you’re almost screwed.

China · China travel · Travel

Ancient China trip to Shanxi and Henan

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I took another trip to China last month. This trip was to the cradle of Chinese civilization, where the earliest Chinese settlements and dynasties started. This area is known as the Yellow River Basin, as the Yellow River (China’s second mighty river after the Yangtze) passes through it. Most of China’s earliest kingdoms and dynasties started here, including the Qin Dynasty, from which China got its name from, and the Han Dynasty, from which ethnic Chinese are named after. After going to Beijing earlier this year, it was fitting to now be going to Xian, another of China’s great capitals and arguably its second famous. Xian has the world-famous terracotta warriors and it was the capital for most of the great Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Besides Xian, I also went to Huashan, one of China’s holy mountains, and Luoyang, which was in neighboring Henan province. Luoyang is also a former capital, one of China’s four ancient great capitals, though probably the least well-known (Beijing and the charming southern city of Nanjing round out this prestigious quartet).

A is Xian, B is Huashan, and C is Luoyang. This area, especially Henan province, is basically the cradle of Chinese civilization. As you can see, Shanghai is to the southeast and Beijing is to the northeast.

It was the first time I was going to Xian or the Yellow River region in general, and ironically it was a region which I didn’t have much interest in before. Despite all the great history, I thought this region, including Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan and Gansu provinces, was old, dusty, and a far cry from its past glories, especially as the center of Chinese civilization slowly but gradually shifted eastwards to the Yangtze River Delta to Nanjing and Hangzhou, and northwards to Beijing. Henan province has at least four former ancient capitals but you’d be hardpressed to read any recent positive news about it. I turned out to be completely wrong, which isn’t the first time it has happened.
This was a completely solo trip which made it a bit more challenging. Initially I was going with my mother, but a medical emergency with a relative forced her to stay behind. Anyways, all this just meant that this was a great opportunity to see new sights, to challenge myself, and to test my faith in China and its people.