Mount Song Journal

This blog post will be all about the first trip I took outside of Shanghai that wasn’t organized through Purdue. I plan on doing a post like this for every trip that I take inside China. The format will be a journal. I’ve been writing daily journals for my time here in China, and I’m essentially just sharing the ones for this trip. This means that some parts of the day may be glossed over very quickly while others will be focused on in detail. It all depends on what made an impression on me, and what didn’t.

(1/31) Hotel Motel Holiday Inn

The Plan

So our plan for getting to Mount Song was fairly simple. Take a train from Shanghai to a city called Zhengzhou, and then take a bus from Zhengzhou to Dengfeng, the city we’re staying in. The buses leave every 30 minutes, and drop off half a block from our hotel. We would check into the hotel early, and then go explore the city and find dinner. Simple enough plan for the first day.

The Reality

Very little of that happened. Our train out of Shanghai was awesome. It left at 9:30, and we got to the train station at about 7:45. Getting tickets was as simple as handing our passport and a confirmation number to a ticketing officer, and we were all past security with over an hour before the train left.

The train itself was very cool. It was a bullet train and got up to about 200mph at times. It was an incredibly smooth ride too. Riding the train was not that cool. In the row behind me there were two mothers with three children between them. They all sat in the same row, which meant that 5 people were occupying 3 seats. The children were kicking and screaming the entire time and the one directly behind me was slamming the tray table attached to my seat up and down. Not fun, but not too bad.

The train arrives in Zhengzhou at 2:00pm and we set off to find the bus depot, which doesn’t take too long. Once there however, we learned that the buses do not go every 30 minutes. Far from it. There was only one more bus heading to Dengfeng that day, and it left at 4:00pm. We also learned that they didn’t like serving foreigners. We got knocked around ticketing windows, having to get our passports checked and answer questions about why we wanted to go to Dengfeng. It was way more difficult to get a bus ticket than it was to get a train ticket.

We eventually work it all out, and found ourselves with and hour and fifteen minutes to kill. So we did what any group of Midwesterners would and pulled out the cards to start playing euchre. We got two games going, and were quite the spectacle for the other riders waiting in the depot. A few people were hanging around us while we played. I’m not sure if they just wanted to see what the weird Americans were doing, or if they were trying to learn how to play by watching us.

3:45 rolled around, and we all packed up and headed out to the bus stop proper where we proceeded to interrogate every single bus that stopped to ask if they were headed to Dengfeng. After about a half hour, we found the guy who did.

The bus ride to the city was… interesting. We were packed in like sardines, and at one point the driver pulled into a random parking lot and ordered us off the bus. We all got off and the bus driver drove away with all of our bags still on board. I was already a little on edge, so this made me upset to say the least. It turned out that the bus just needed gas but I still don’t know why we couldn’t be on board while that happened.

We all got back on the bus and after a bit more driving finally arrived in Dengfeng. The bus pulled into some back parking lot, and just unceremoniously kicked us off and left. We pulled up some maps, and found out that we were a mile and a half away from our hotel. We also found out that our hotel was just now telling us that they refused to serve foreigners and had canceled all of our reservations.

Unsure of what to do, we decided the best course of action would be to go to the hotel anyways and fight for the rooms they had promised us. We picked up all our luggage and started trekking across the city. It was super dark and just barely above freezing. Everyone we passed on the street either stared at us, took pictures of us, shouted ‘Meigouren!’ (Americans!), tried to get us to go in some cab, or some combination of those. About an hour in, we started seeing different hotels, and since we didn’t have any place to be anymore we figured we’d stop in at one.

We saw on our map that there was a Holiday Inn nearby, which got us very excited since an American hotel chain would definitely serve Americans. To our great disappointment, what we were seeing was a hotel called the Holiday Resort Inn Hotel, or something similar to that. It was this crappy little hotel reminiscent to an American motel. When we walked in and asked for a room, the front desk immediately told us ‘No no no. No rooms, please leave.’ We argued with them for a bit and then worked out that there were four rooms available that our group could have. Between all the rooms we’d have 8 beds of 11 people, but that didn’t matter to us at all. We just wanted a safe place to sleep for a night.

The front desk had a lot of problems on their end, but we just held our ground and kept asking for the rooms we now knew they had available. We eventually got it all sorted out by paying for the rooms in full up front and giving them a 500 kuai deposit on top of it.

With the rooms finally all sorted out, we dumped our bags and headed out to find a place to get dinner. Most of the restaurants were closed through a combination of it being the early days of Spring Festival, and the check-in taking about 2 and a half hours. We finally found a place that was open and just took it. They served a sort of personal hot pot for us.

If you don’t know what hot pot it, it’s a style of cooking wherein you’re given a heating element, a bowl of broth, and a plethora of raw meat and vegetables. You bring your broth to a boil, and then throw the meat and veggies in to cook them, then pull them out to eat once you’re done.

This hot pot was pretty good, but my god was it spicy! I was crying within minutes of starting, and had to follow each bit with a drink just to not pass out from the spice. The craziest part was that we had ordered to lowest spice level they had. Regardless, it was great to get a (very) hot meal after being so stressed out and walking around in the sub-zero temperatures all night.

We all went back to the hotel afterwards, set up in someone’s room and played euchre late into the night. It was a party and a celebration of having made it through this first day.

(2/1) The Lost Day

Today was so much better than yesterday. The quality of this trip basically started by falling off a cliff, so it’s all uphill from here.

Woke up this morning at the ‘Holiday Inn’ and my first activity was to shower. This normally isn’t even worth mentioning, but my god was this a strange shower. The bathroom at this hotel had the three things any person would expect form a bathroom: a toilet, a shower, and a sink. The weird part was that there was absolutely no division between them. The shower wasn’t surrounded by anything and it was so close to the toilet that you could have conceivably sat on the toilet while still under the shower’s water. Very strange. To makes things even stranger, the drain under the shower was the highest point of the bathroom floor. This meant that all the water from the shower flowed across the entire bathroom floor to a drain just in front of the door. There was no way to take a shower without soaking the entire bathroom and everything in it. If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of the design.

Once my weird shower was over, we set out to find a better hotel. We had a few ideas of where to look and so we just set out to see what we could find. We eventually found a part of town that was much nicer than what we had seen the night before. We found two hotels that were livable, the second one of which had an incredibly cute and excited lady at the front desk. She very much wanted to have us stay with them, and her eyes lit up when we told her that we had 11 people in our group. She pushed us hard, but ultimately it was the fact that the rooms there were the cheapest, and the quality wasn’t awful that made us stay.

We gave her a small deposit so she knew that we’d actually come back, and then left to grab our bags and the rest of the group. We moved to the new hotel, and finally felt comfortable. We took real showers (in real bathrooms) and then went to lunch. We found a place that had hand pressed dumplings with shrimp and beef, and I think we order about 15 per person. It was great.

After lunch, the group all went back to the hotel to plan what we wanted to do with the half day we had left, and to plan the rest of the trip. I just crashed. I probably slept for 3 or 4 hours while some other people in the group worked out the logistics of the next few days. Once we had all planned or slept, we decided that there wasn’t enough time left in the day to do anything major, so we just started walking around until we found something of interest.

This is what we found:

3yfjinu
Some pagoda

No clue what it is, other than a pagoda. The significance of it is lost on me. Either way, we walked up to it. There was this really neat carnival set up at its base. It had a bunch of small rides, games, and prizes for children. Kind of neat. We walked up all the stairs and just walked around at the top. It was pretty neat.

We left the pagoda and went in search of dinner. We found a noodle place and feasted on bowls of spicy noodles. A lot of the food here is quite spicy, which I think is characteristic of Western China. We then went back to the hotel, played a bit of euchre, and got ready of a hike the next day.

(2/2) Celebrity Status

What a day this was! For a trip that started off rough, we’ve really turned it around.

Today we were able to go to Mount Song proper. We taxied out to the base of the mount and just kind of went for it. The first thing we encountered was a big Spring Festival celebration. It had a bunch of drums and costumes, as well as some people dressed up in the Chinese dragon/lion costumes that most people associated with Chinese New Year. It was really fun to see the celebrations.

After looking at the festival celebrations for a while, we headed over to the Shaolin Temple. This is the oldest Buddhist temple in China, and is generally considered to be the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism. It’s almost 2000 years old and honestly was incredibly underwhelming.

It didn’t really look like much and there were SO MANY PEOPLE. The entire place was packed to the point of bursting. It was crazy, I was getting pushed all over the place (which is no small task) and could barely see anything. What I did see just looked like any of the other temples I’ve seen in China. They’ve restored much of the temple, which I guess is a good thing, but it really lost what could have made it unique.

What was really cool was the fact that I was almost a celebrity inside the temple. People would very openly stare and take pictures of us. Some brave souls would even come up and ask to take their pictures with us. We almost always said yes, which generally opened the flood gates, and lead to about 20 more people coming over to get pictures with us. Parents would have their kids pose with us, and would frequently jump into the pictures themselves. It was the crazy, because from my perspective there really wasn’t anything particularly amazing or special about us.

The best time it happened at the temple was when we found a cool rock structure and all climbed up onto it to get a picture.

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Americans on a rock

Someone must have shouted “Americans on a rock!” because within seconds we had a massive crowd of close to a hundred people all taking our picture, with some people posing at the front. I picked out a random girl in the crowd to take the picture above with my phone, and afterward posed for some one on one photos with her, which was way more than what anyone else got.

Scenes like this happened all throughout the day, so I won’t mention them again (except for one more special instance that’s yet to come) but feel free to assume that we got stopped for pictures at any point during the story of the day because we probably did.

After we pushed our way out of the Shaolin Temple, we made our way to the pagoda forest. This is a graveyard of sorts for the most important monks from the Shaolin Temple throughout history. I was a little underwhelmed by it, since I though the pagoda forest would actually be in a forest (crazy, I know). Instead, it was just a series of large pagodas all next to each other. Still cool, but not quite what I wanted.

After this, we saw some cable cars that headed up to the top of the mountain. We all had come to Mount Song to go hiking, so we had a debate about whether to take the cable or not, since it would bypass a huge chunk of hiking. In the end we figured we should take the cable car up since there were a few things at the top of the mountain we wanted to see, and then maybe hike afterwards if we were still up to it. That was the best decision we made all day.

The cable car station at the top of the mountain was very nondescript, as was the scenery. There were some rolling mountains in the distance, but many of them were covered by the smog, so it was a little hard to see. We looked around for a bit and found a small, paved path and just started following it.

After maybe five minutes, we knew that this was the place to be. The path lead directly into a cliff face, and then continued along its side. It’s called a plank walk, and isn’t actually that uncommon here. We followed the winding path through (and sometimes next to) the mountain and what we saw was utterly stunning.

It’s hard to describe how amazing it really was (and the pictures don’t capture everything), but I’ll try. The mountain was like a series of massive boulders that had been glued together with greenery. It towered above the path, and fell away beneath it too. Some parts of the mountain looked slightly different though. It was as if they had been sliced open, and were now serrated. They were almost ridged, with very regular groves running up and down their entire length. Off in the distance, there was a river of rocks that cut its way between the mountain peaks and slide off into the distance where it met the rolling hills surrounding the mountain. It was stunning.

If that description didn’t make sense (which is very likely) I’ll just show some pictures instead.

The hike we did at the top was very intense. Going one way, that path was about 5 miles long. The net elevation rise was surprisingly small, maybe only 300 meters. However, since the trail was literally built into the side of the mountain, it had to follow the natural formations of the rock. This meant that we were frequently going up 100-200 meter rises, just to go back down them a few minutes later. In total we climbed over 100 stories just to get to the end of the trail. While it wasn’t through the terrain that I expected, this was definitely the hike I had come here to do.

Before I describe the end of the trail, I’ll describe one more time that someone stopped us to take a picture. We were walking down some steps in the path, when this woman comes up to a girl in our group named Jackie. The Chinese woman is carrying her 1-2 year old son and she just hands him to Jackie. Jackie’s shocked at this and just starting laughing at the absurdity of the entire situation. She’s fumbling around with the kid, trying to position him for a picture, when she realizes that the kid is wearing a sort of long johns for pants and that the butt flap is wide open, showing his smooth little bottom off to the entire world. This just makes her crack up even more. Our entire group is just watching this in amazement while the Chinese family is getting their pictures. Jackie hands the kid back, who was very much indifferent to the entire experience. The family says ‘thanks’ and leaves us standing on the trail wondering if that actually just happened. It was incredible.

After about 3 hours of hiking, we finally made it to the end of the trail: a little Buddhist temple that we had been able to see off in the distance the entire time. From afar it had looked amazing, since it was built right into the mountain side, yet somehow it didn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor up close. It did have an amazing scenic spot just past it where we got some great closing pictures of the hike.

We then had to start rushing back, since the cable car stopped running at 5:30 and it was already 3:00. We booked it back, keeping our heads down and just pushing back to the start. We did the whole thing in about an hour on the way back, putting the total distance covered at around 10 miles, and 200 stories of stairs climbed. What a trek.

We cable cared off the mountain and then just beelined for a taxi back to the hotel where I proceeded to crash. Hard. Tomorrow doesn’t promise to be any easier.

(2/3) Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting

Today’s activity was… KUNG FU and before I go any further, I just have to say that I am so freaking sore. After the hike yesterday and then kung fu all day today, it’s a wonder my body is functioning at all. Anyways, we went to a real kung fu school today. We got picked up from the hotel in the morning and were driven to a small little neighborhood is the backstreets of Dengfeng.

The school was just a few buildings surrounding a courtyard. Most of the rooms looked like dormitories, and it seemed like most of the people there lived there, at least in part. There were also a great number of small children as young as 5 up to about 12. It seemed like the school was a kind of camp for them, because they were off to the side the entire day, doing their own thing. They would practice for a bit, but mostly they just played around with each other.

Our training started with about 20 minutes of running circles around the courtyard. This was followed up by 20 minutes of stretching. After that, our teacher showed us some basic moves. He would show us a move, which generally consisted of a simple kick or arm motions, and then would to the motion while sort of lunging forward. We would just do as he did, and practice them as we moved back and forth across the courtyard. We learned a few of these types of moves, and practiced them for maybe an hour.

Afterwards we were given a break and got to go have a tea ceremony with the master of the school. The ceremony was very interesting. The master would heat water, and the pour it all into one cup, transfer it to the next cup, and so on. He then dumped the water out, and then poured whatever was left in the teapot on little statues that were set out around the table. He then made of tea and poured all of it into one cup and repeated the same process as above, throwing the tea out at the end. He did this a few times. The whole process is meant to clean the tea set before use. Finally, he put a lot more tea into the pot than before, and started straining it before putting it into the cups. He poured a cup for everyone, and then we all drank.

After the ceremony it was back to training. This time we jumped right into it, and they showed us how all the moves started to fit together. We learned this new routine for about an hour before we broke for lunch.

Our afternoon session began with another 20 minutes of running, followed by another 20 minutes of stretching. Once that was done, we started adding more moves to our routine from before. We had another break with another tea ceremony where the master told us that he had certificates for us all, but we would have to earn them by performing the routine we had learned.

We got back from the ceremony and started going over the routine trying to perfect it. We didn’t really perfect it, but we got pretty good. The master came back down, watched us all perform it, and passed everyone. We were then able to see the teacher perform some kung fu. The teacher we had was quite incredible. He was 20 years old and was the nephew of the master. He had competed in some kind of Olympic kung fu tournament and had taken home 5 gold medals. He performed a set for us that used a weapon that looked somewhat like a spear, as well as performed the routine we had learned, only much better. After the performances, we were all presented our certificates and then took a bunch of pictures with everyone at the school.

We were driven back to the hotel and then set out to find dinner. We found a hole in the wall that spoke absolutely no English, so we had to get by with our Chinese. The menu was just Chinese (no pictures) so ordering was a bit of a guessing game. We told the waitress what type of meat we wanted, and she would just point out the most expensive thing on the menu that had that in it. I ended up getting strips of beef with sautéed bell peppers and onions. It was pretty good. After dinner we all went back to the hotel, confirmed our taxi for the next day, and then just crashed… again.

(2/4) Never Going Home

At time of writing I am sitting at a table in the dining court of the baggage check-in area of the Zhengzhou airport and am quite annoyed. Our flight is currently delayed and no one can tell us for how long, only that it’s at least 6 hours. I want to kung fu fight something

The day started out pretty well. I was able to get about 10 hours of sleep last night, which is probably the longest I’ve slept in one go since arriving in China. I got up, took my time getting ready, and everyone was leaving the hotel around 11. We met up with our cabs with no issues and started the one and a half hour drive to the airport.

We got off at the departures terminal and started to get emails from Ctrip (Ctrip is the app that we all use to book travel around China). They told us that our 3:30 flight had been delayed and would now be leaving at 5:45. We weren’t too pleased about this, but it wasn’t too big of a deal. We then went around to get our bags checked but found out that they wouldn’t take bags for a delayed flight. Ugh, but not the end of the world.

We found a dinning court that was on our side of security, and set up camp. I got some soup dumplings and then went, with my friend Alex, to the flight desk to see if we could confirm the flight was actually delayed (at this point we had only heard that from Ctrip) and to see when we could check our bags. We waited in line for at least a half hour before talking to an airline employee. He told us that the flight was indeed delayed and that they didn’t know how long it would be. He asked us to come back and check again in 30 minutes, but since that’s how long the line was we decided against it.

We ended up going back to home base and waiting around. That’s when I started writing this. I’m just angry and stressed and feeling helpless. I’m so frustrated at the whole situation and really just want to get back to Shanghai, or at the very least feel like I’m making progress towards that goal. More to come.

—–

I made it back! That’s probably a given since this has all been posted, but I’m still so happy to be back.

We were given the run around at the airport for hours. The flight desk kept telling us they didn’t know where our flight was or when it would leave. They refused to take our bags, and Ctrip kept sending us emails that pushed the takeoff time later and later. Eventually the takeoff time was 8:30 and it stuck there. They even started taking bags, so that was a good sign.

It was interesting how they took the bags. They would check your ticket and ID as normal, then weight the bag, and then send it immediately to a scanner. You then had to wait for the scanner to clear your bag, at which point your ID was returned to you. The reason I’m being so strangely specific on how they take bags is because the scanner didn’t clear mine. This meant that the flight desk kept my passport and sent me off to some back room.

The baggage check room was filled with a bunch of conveyor belts taking bags down to the tarmac. It also had a help desk and a much larger scanner. The employee there had already pulled my bag off to the side. He didn’t know much English, but he kept saying ‘battery’ and pointing to pictures of laptop batteries and portable phone charges. I was really confused, because although I did have both of those things, neither of them were in my checked bag. I opened the bag and started pulling my clothes out to try to show him that there wasn’t a battery in the bag. He didn’t accept that, so he took all of my clothes and sent them through the scanner on their own, and then sent the bag through. We both dug around some more until he found a UV water sterilizer that runs on AA lithium ion batteries. When the guy found them, he almost laughed and gave me the OK.

I then got to repeat all that when I went through TSA (or whatever you’d call the Chinese equivalent of it). I emptied all my pockets and put my backpack through the scanner, but I didn’t take my laptop out, since there weren’t signs asking me to. This got the bag flagged, so I took out my laptop and my portable phone charger which got OKed. They scanned the bag again and it still got flagged, but this time I wasn’t sure why. They were asking me if I had an eReader (which I didn’t) and we just sort of made noises at each other across the language barrier for a while. I eventually realized that the box with all of my medication in it was causing the issue, and I took it out for them. They were fascinated by it, and couldn’t understand what I meant when I tried explaining it to them. Eventually I took out my phone and just translated ‘diabetes’ at which point they just nodded and waved me through.

One hour and seven scans later and, we had finally made it to the gate. We saw the flight was now delayed an extra 30 minutes, but at this point that was expected. We got food, waited, and boarded. The plane eventually left at 9:30, five and a half hours after it was supposed to.

We got back to Shanghai without any more hitches, and taxied back to campus. I’m now back where I feel comfortable and ready for a nice long sleep and a nice long day of doing nothing at all tomorrow. What a crazy week this has been.

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