When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
– Mary Oliver
Xi’an: ancient capital, bustling city of industry and education, and voted Central China’s most liveable city by the Erik Fruth Opinion Council.
I fully admit that I was swayed in Xi’an’s favor by the incredible food. The most incredible bing on the planet, saozi mian//臊子面 [cool video link!], endless street food stalls selling cakes and warm plum juice, ubiquitous and unfailingly delicious roujiamo//肉夹馍, enormous mantou//馒头, heavy use of cumin, chive, and garlic… the list goes on.
It goes without saying that I was well-fed in this city. I would like to point out, however, that I was well-fed out of the necessity to try every street vendor’s culinary offerings (describing their edible creations as anything less than cuisine is plainly insulting to their craft).
All this is not to say that Xi’an is dull in other aspects.
The largely Hui Muslim community in Xi’an is distinct in their dress and diet, and the beautifully eclectic mosques in which they worship. The three tiles below were all taken inside two mosques in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter. The latter two were taken inside the spectacular Great Mosque, the largest and best preserved of China’s early mosques,¹ built in Chinese architectural style and thus lacking traditional domes or minarets. The mosque hearkens all the way back to 742 CE, though the building that stands now was constructed in the early Ming Dynasty.² More information about the mosque’s history and some incredible photos of its grounds can be found at the links above.
Lastly, the city is home to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors. Three pits dug as part of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum contain thousands of clay soldiers — complete in rank and file — as well as hundreds of chariots, horses, and court officials. For the man who united the warring states of China in 221 BCE to become ruler of the dynasty that would later bear his name,³ this mind-bogglingly grand burial was a matter of course.
The Gansu/Xinjiang border is the edge of the world.
Figuratively, of course. But when you’re there it feels plausible. Like when the sand and soil ends, the world ends too. Walk off and you’ll likely fall into infinity.
Although, the friendly owners of Dunhuang’s local guesthouse seem unfazed by the fact that they live so close to boundless space. They have kids and a dog and offered us dried red dates and coal-furnace hospitality in the middle of winter.
I visited this city of history in the middle of winter.
Blisteringly windy and outfitted for Californian cold, Beijing was rough. Luckily, I was rewarded for my efforts with some incredible sights.
The photos below were taken in front of, inside, and behind Beijing’s most famous landmark: the Forbidden City. This cultural and historical monolith is “remarkable” many times over. The 980-building and 160-acre palace complex was the seat of the Ming and Qing Dynasties for nearly 500 years (1420-1912 CE).¹ It took 14 years to construct, more than a million workers, whole logs of precious wood from southwest China, marble from quarries outside Beijing, and specially baked tiles imported from Suzhou.¹ Perhaps the most famous part of this already world-famous structure is the Tiananmen Gate adorned with Mao Zedong’s universally recognized portrait [Tile 1], which separates the Forbidden City’s Imperial Palace from Tiananmen Square, the scene for some of China’s most pivotal moments in history.
Beijing’s night markets are known for their unorthodox selection of meats — notably, silk worms, starfish, and scorpions. Hawkers are well-versed in both Mandarin and English and will prepare an assortment of expensive culinary curiosities for you at the drop of a hat.
UNESCO World Heritage site and a modern wonder of the world, the Great Wall of China is truly incomparable. The Wall is actually a multitude of interconnected, behemoth fortification structures built as early as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), some of which can still be seen near Dunhuang, Gansu Province.² The part of wall closest to Beijing receives the vast majority of tourists and is also the most recent, built during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE). The majority of what exists of the 10,000+ mile-long defensive barrier is the 5,500 mi (8,850 km) Ming Dynasty structure.²
Yet another of Beijing’s copious UNESCO sites is the Temple of Heaven. Also constructed from 1406 to 1420 along with the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven played an important religious role during the Ming and Qing Dynasties — visited by Emperors during prayer ceremonies to Heaven for good harvest.³ Depicted below is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests; the currently standing structure having been built after the original burned down in a fire caused by lightning in 1889.³
The five photos below were taken inside the massive Summer Palace complex. Most recently in its history, the palatial park and grounds served as the summer resort of Empress Dowager Cixi, who famously (or infamously) spent 3 million taels of silver originally designated for the Chinese navy on the enlargement of the palace, purportedly causing China to lose the First Sino-Japanese War six years after the renovations.⁴ You can read more about the Summer Palace’s history, and see pictures of its countless sights (my photos do not do it justice) here.
The Jingshan Park lies directly north of the Forbidden City complex depicted in the final tile. Hoary trees and their shadowy crone counterparts abound in the park, as do large groups of senescent women dancing in choreograph and equally gray-haired men practicing tai chi.
It’s the least I can do to see the world with open eyes.
– Anthony Bourdain in No Reservations (Laos)
I am lucky enough to have a fellow ELCA global missionary friend who is in a year-long program called, Young Adults In Global Mission (YAGM), and is living in the largest and arguably most historical township in South Africa. She resides in Central Jabavu in the South West Township called Soweto, also known as the home of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Coming from a small town, being on display is nothing new to me.
It seems that everyone else is secure in who they are to the outside world. They know their place, where they are, and what it means to be South African. I’m still discovering what it means to be American, and yet I’m not just on display, but I’m also a window into the USA.