Friday, July 29, 2016

Thank You and See You Later

Well, this is it.  My final night in China for 2016.  We arrived in Shanghai early this afternoon, which didn't leave much time to explore.  I maximized every second, though.  I spent a good hour just standing overlooking The Bund and reflecting on what the past five weeks have been for me.

It's hard for me to put into words my feelings as I leave China for the second year in a row.  I have seen more in these weeks than some people see in their entire lives.  How can I not be humbled by my experiences.  From robot battles and chanting monks in Japan to camel riding in the Gobi Desert and the Mogao Caves in China this has been yet another summer to remember.  Not to mention my time with the teachers and students.  

Asia is a world of its own.  A world with amazingly wonderful people and history that continues to shock and impress.  I can't express enough how wonderful it is being on this side of the planet.  l am already planning a return to China, and hopefully a select few other Southeast Asian countries, for the summer of 2017.  There is something about China and the wonderful people here that just keeps me wanting more.

And SABEH (  This organization has truly inspired me to follow my dreams of improving education abroad.  They have shown me that a small group really can make a big impact.  Without them I would not be chasing the crazy dreams I have for the future.  The teachers within SABEH are some of the best, most creative educators I have ever come across.  I have learned so much from them this summer and feel rejuvenated about the education profession.  These people are becoming a second family.

Thanks for reading this summer and be sure to continue following my blog.  Even though I will be on my way back to the States tomorrow, my travel impact doesn't end.  Look forward to reading about practical ways of incorporating multicultural and international education into a classroom.  Globalization is our future and our students need to learn to not only be tolerant, but to appreciate cultures from all corners of our planet.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Approaching Nirvana in Mogao Caves

Well, my time in the Gobi is coming to it’s close.  I am writing this from our bus as we leave this beautiful sandy wonderland for our next city.  I still am having a hard time comprehending what I saw.  This part of China is not commonly visited.  In fact I haven’t seen a Westerner since we left the Xi’an airport.  It’s the type of trip you would never think to go on, but leaves a long lasting impression on your life.  I know I will always remember the experiences I’ve had here in the desert.  Our next city is Jiayuguan, which also played an important role along the Silk Road.  Plus, they are apparently known for their delicious pulled noodles, nom!

This morning, though, was by far the most splendid experience we had in the desert.  We were fortunate enough to visit the Morgao Buddhist caves.  When I heard this would be one of our destinations, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect.  I have really learned to appreciate the Buddhist religion during my time in Asia and hoped to use this opportunity to learn more.  Lucky for me it turned out to be that and more.

The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang were all started by a single monk named Le Zun nearly 2,000 years ago.  He believed in a vision he had which guided him to the location in which to build his shrine.  He believed the Buddha Sakyamuni had provided the vision and so he commenced his work on what would turn into a massive undertaking over a thousand year period.  Even though today it appears to be in a totally isolated desert, during the time of Le Zun, the location of these grottos was right along the Silk Road, allowing many monks and visitors to appreciate the beauty.

The monk's initial cave was so inspiring that it led others to build a total of 735 caves.  Each one hand dug out of the limestone on the cliffs and then pained meticulously over years.  Many also included statues.  Obviously we were not able to view all of them.  Not only would that take days, but many are also off limits to the public.  It's important to note that these caves are original.  Some of the statues have been restored, but beyond that everything I saw today was the original work completed by the monks.  Because of that, though, strict preservation methods have been enacted.  Only about 30 grottos are open to the public.  The rest are locked behind newly constructed modern doors for protection.  Of the 30 open caves, our guide chose what she believed to be the 10 best to share with our group, and what an extraordinary job she did.

Unfortunately, photography of any type was strictly prohibited inside the caves in hopes of better preserving the artwork.  I bought a wonderfully informative book that breaks the caves down by room though, so that I still have some photos for memories.  For my blog I have taken photos of the images in the book I purchased to share with you some highlights of what I saw today.

CAVE 332
One Buddha and Fifty Bodhisattvas

The Library Cave - Location of 50,000 Buddhist Manuscripts

CAVE 407
Ceiling - look carefully for the three rabbits in the very center
The very outer ring is the "Thousand Buddha's motif" and also covered every inch of the walls

CAVE 428
If you look carefully, this painting shows the story of the previous life of Buddha Sakyamuni in which he sacrificed himself to a family of tigers in order to feed them to keep them from starving to death....a truly beautiful story and painting...

View of a full room - There was a statue of Buddha Sakyamuni originally, but it was stolen many years ago

CAVE 148
My favorite of them all - a 50 foot long statue of a Buddha reaching nirvana

Massive 9 storied temple featuring 113 foot high Buddha statue - a true marvel

What has truly inspired me the most during this Silk Road journey is seeing the history where it happened.  As I stood in those caves today, I could visualize exactly where and how the monks would be standing for days on end to get every detail on the walls just right.  Seeing artifacts in a meeting like this gives meaning beyond anything a museum or book could provide.  I felt connected to the history and was able to appreciate it on a whole new level.  These caves have topped my list of memorable and inspirational sites in China.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sand Sand Everywhere!

Greetings from the Gobi Desert!  We landed here last night in the most authentic airport I have ever visited.  It was essentially a large paved area for the planes to land on with a teeny tiny building to receive luggage in.  When we exited the plan we walked from the tarmac into the building and comically watched as they drove our luggage right past us to the little building.  We were a bit concerned that we might night find the right luggage carousel, but it turned out there was only one in the airport XD

Airport tarmac with nothing but desert surrounding

The entire airport

The flight here, though was stunning.  As we approached our destination, the city of Dunhuang, all that could be seen in any direction was sand.  In the far distance, though were the edge of the Himalayan Mountains, complete with snow covered peaks and all.  These distant peaks are actually visible in most areas of the town as well.  This is my first time ever visiting a desert, and what a desert it is!

Last night we visited this beautiful area of mountainous looking sand dunes where we had the opportunity to ride camels up the dunes.  It was both thrilling and unrealistic.  To think that I was actually riding a camel through the Gobi Desert with a group of wonderful teachers an friends was beyond comprehension, but it was happening.  Also, I finally understand the concept of dry heat.  The temperature here is near what it was in Xi'an, but with little to no humidity, I barely sweat at all.  It's beautiful!!

My camel!

After the memorable camel ride, I wandered over to the Crescent Moon Lake.  This lake was truly a site to behold.  A small buddhist temple was built around the moon shaped lake, which is a natural source of spring water rising up from the ground.  It was small but satisfactory for the monks who lived there.  The lake was truly breathtaking.  Something about the small pagoda, mixed with the lake and the sand dunes in the background just brought everything together in the most remarkable way.  While others went off for sand adventures like riding ATVs or climbing a dune.  I sat in the beautiful little oasis for quite some time.  It was peaceful and the perfect place to sit and reflect on my journeys.

Naturally, this town is all about the Silk Road, just as was our visit to Xi'an.  Today we really travelled far into the desert.  About two hours, actually.  Most of the ride was not even on a road, just a sand path that had been lined with rocks as a marker.  The bus held up very well even under the tough conditions.  Our tour guide referred to this as "real China" because we were seeing the remarkable landforms without the crowds and the tourist stuff.  This part of the Gobi Desert had two major passes, over 2,100 years ago,which were checkpoints for explorers and traders traveling along the Silk Road.  These checkpoints were in large fort-like fortresses.  In an almost unimaginable truth, remains of these checkpoints still survive today in their original state and location.  The two we visited were Yumen Pass and Yangguan Pass.  In fact the area we were in today is actually Inner Mongolia.  A location I never in my life would have expected to visit!

Yumen Pass remains

Yumen Pass

Yangguan Pass remains

We also made one other stop today at a different ancient ruin.  This part of the country, during the Han Dynasty, needed protection.  The reigning emperor declared that a portion of the Great Wall be built through the desert to keep out unwanted enemies.  Portions of the wall still remain today out in the desert, which is quite a testament to their craftsmanship back in 111 B.C.  The wall was built with materials that are not especially viewed as strong.  Things like clay, mud, and straw were the main constructions materials.  While DRASTICALLY different from the portion of the Wall I saw last summer, this section was even more powerful to see because of its remote location.  It showed just how strongly the emperors wanted to keep their people in and everyone else out.

Remains of the Han Dynasty portion of the Great Wall

Monday, July 25, 2016

An Army of Clay

Ni hao!  Welcome to my journey down the Silk Road!  This year we were able to create a truly once in a lifetime trip for our week of travel.  We are retracing the steps of traders from long ago as we visit cities that were main trading hubs on the Silk Road!

We started at the center of the country in a city called Xi'an (pronounced she-on), which was the start of the Silk Road in China, making it the most eastern location on the Road.   Xi'an has history that dates back millions of years.  In fact we saw prehistoric human fossils in a museum that were over 1,500,000 years old.  Xi'an was also the location of China's capital for a nearly 2,300 years spanning across thirteen different dynasties.  With history like that, the city is sure to impress.

X'an is best known for the terra-cotta army.  This, of course, was at the top of my China list and I was so excited to finally check it off.  The story of the warriors dates back to the Qin Dynasty.  The emperor believed he would continue to rule in the afterlife, so he ordered nearly 700,000 slaves to build him an army to protect and rule by his side.  This infamous clay army features thousands and thousands of slightly larger than life size soldiers.  Each soldier was painstakingly hand made and modeled after actual soldiers in the emperor's real army.  It took nearly 37 years to complete from start to finish.

The site was actually found by a farmer.  One day, back in 1974, while trying to build a well he unearthed the head of one of soldiers.  Upon making this find, he immediately shared the site with the government and formal excavation began.   We actually met this farmer at the end of our visit!  The government pays him to meet people and sign books about the find.

There was a problem, though.  As they continued digging, what they found could almost be described as rubble.  In its heyday, the army was built in a protective building complete with a roof.  At one point in history, though, rebellious citizens who were still upset with the policies of the Qin Dynasty smashed and burned everything in sight.  Because of this, the archaeologists working on this project have endless work ahead.  It takes on average about 8 months to rebuild a warrior from the smashed pieces.  So much is yet to be discovered!

Take a look at some pristine examples of each type of warrior behind glass:

Cavalryman with Horse

Standing Archer

Kneeling Archer

High Ranking Official

Middle Ranking Officer

There is a flood or more information I could give you that I learned about this army, but at least you have the basics now.  The next big thing to happen in Xi'an will be the opening of Emperor Qin's tomb.  They know exactly where it is located an how to get inside.  The reason they are waiting to open tomb is because they are afraid the current level of preservation technology is not adequate enough fully preserve whatever artifacts are inside once they are exposed to the natural elements.  It is sure to be a big reveal whenever it does occur, though. Until then, we will just have to wait!

We only spent a short time in this city, but it created memories to last a lifetime :)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Goodbye Hangzhou

I am sitting here at Starbucks enjoying my final day of people watching in Hangzhou.  What a spectacular experience it has been.  I am leaving Greentown Yuah School for the second time with new memories, new friends, and an expanded view of teaching.  I truly feel that I am leaving here having learned just as much, if not more, as the educators I came to teach.  The teachers in Greentown are fantastic, passionate, and progressive.  It really was wonderful getting to work with them again this summer.  Their enthusiasm is quite inspirational.

As for the students, our leader from Greentown made it known that the kids who go through our 10 day program in the summer return in the fall as the strongest students in the grade.  Hearing that made me not only proud of our program, but also proud of the students.  They worked so hard during their time with us and it clearly shows through in their educational journey.  After two summers of teaching high school students, I am shocked at how much I have enjoyed the experience.  I often say that I love working with second grade because the students are so eager to learn.  What I am finding out is that high school students are just as eager, especially when given the opportunity to be creative.  It has really altered my view of older students.

As an educator, it's so critical for us to continue working on our practice and understanding on the profession.  My experiences here in Hangzhou have taught me more than I could have ever imagined about teaching.  My memories from here will be shaping my practice in my own classroom for years to come.  All I can say at this point is that I do not see this as my last time in China.  I hope to return next summer and for years to come.

This is far from the end of my journey, though.  Although we are leaving Hangzhou this afternoon,  I still have another eight days in China.  Tonight we fly to Xian to see the infamous terra-cotta warriors.  From there we will be flying to the northern part of the country to explore the Gobi Desert, which I am really looking forward to.  Last year we travelled through the tourist areas.  This year we are going off the beaten path to enjoy some truly once in a lifetime experiences.  I will try to keep my blog going as best I can over the next week, but I am not sure of the quality of internet I will have.

I will leave you with this photo of a uniquely Chinese view that I saw as I left my apartment last night.  Bears and cats hanging outside windows XD

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Visit to Venice During My Stay In China

I have decided to stay cooped up inside for the day as the temperature outside is 120° and climbing.  I'm quite alright with that, though, as we just returned from an overnight stay in an absolutely gorgeous water town about an hour and a half north of Hangzhou.  The school has been so gracious and wanted to do something special before we left for our week of travel.  They really set the bar high for the week of travel with this side trip.

The town is called Wuzhen and has a 1,600 year history.  It's also the location of the International Internet Conference held annually.  Mark Zuckerberg even attended last year as he has tried to make headway with allowing Facebook in China.  The town itself has really only been a tourist destination for about 10 years.  Previously it was uncared for and being left to rot.  In 2003, though, they started a 3 year, multimillion dollar renovation to keep as much of the original city as possible while upgrading the buildings to modern safety standards.  The outcome was simply stunning.

Oh, and as you probably noticed in my blog post title, it is compared to Venice as it has a similar feel, but with an Asian flair.

We spent two days just roaming the town and exploring everything it had to offer.  Back in ancient times it was a fully self sufficient town, and still is today.  There were factories and workshops for everything from silk to soy sauce.  These were active factories today, so we were able to see these products being produced in their natural setting.  The most amazing was the silk.  It was absolutely fascinating seeing how the unwound the cocoons in order to spool the threads of silk.  It was tedious work being completed by older women for extremely low wages.  It gave me a new appreciation for all the silk garments I usually ignored in China, though!

The white pods are the cocoons with the silk worms inside!

Another factory we went to was a garment dying facility.  We watched as they added clay patterns to the fabric and then dyed the exposed portions.  Once the pattern was removed, a bright white space would be left behind.

This was especially memorable because as we were watching, a film maker came in and asked us to be in a propaganda film he was making for the town.  We added him on WeChat and he is going to contact us once the film is ready!  He also got some really nice shots of our group.

We were sad to say goodbye to such a beautiful place, but we couldn't stay forever.  I'll leave you with some beautiful shots from around the town.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Return to The Temple of Soul's Retreat

Well the teaching part of my journey hasn't even been over for 24 hours and the vacation part has already started.  The other American teachers and I went to the LingYin temple (Temple of Soul's Retreat) today.  I spent some time at this temple last summer as well, in fact it was exactly one year ago to the day, and was just as enlightened visiting a second time.  You can read about my visit to the temple last summer here.  This year I got proof of my visit to the 1,600 year old temple!

I was actually able to see some temples I never made it to last summer, including a small yet stunningly beautiful temple at the top of a mountain.  A cable car was required to get to the temple and once there beautiful views of Hangzhou were surrounding us.

We could see the entire city laid out in front of us.  Being up so high, movement was impossible to see in the city below leaving us with an eerily peaceful, still view of a city of seven million.

As we climbed a few stairs to the next platform, a soft chanting could be heard in the distance.  Incense was burning all around and it was nearly impossible to feel relaxed.

We traveled through to the back of the temple, following the chanting and came across a group of monks chanting a mantra and praying to a large wooden Buddha statue.  It was glorious.  This was one of those out of body moments where I step back in disbelief amazed at where my life has led me.  I could have stayed all day and listened to the chanting as it brought a feeling of peacefulness just by listening.  Unfortunately, though, we came towards the end of their ritual and they retreated to their homes about ten minutes after our arrival.

This is most certainly one of those moments of travel I will never forget.  It just all came together so perfectly.

Tomorrow we are fortunate enough to be going away for a night to "The Venice of China".  I am extremely excited to see what this new town is all about.  It's sure to be yet another wonderful experience.

Until then, check out this STUDENT DIRECTED video promoting the school I have been working at.  It truly made me proud to be part of such a progressive student centered school, even if it is only for a couple of weeks.  It's great knowing that by being here and working with the teachers and students, I am adding to the progressive education Greentown is providing.