Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's My Favorite Part Because...

I took my first overnight bus and overnight train this week. Monday night I left for the overnight bus (with beds!) to Kaifeng. It is the oldest Jewish city in China and a former capital, from the time of the Song Dynasty. I had finished reading Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng by Professor Xu Xin right before I left, so I was very excited to go. The bus left at 9pm, and it was supposed to be a 9 hour trip, but it dropped me off at 4:30. In the morning. So I got in a cab to the train station, where I talked to some people - with the help of a Chinese person who was studying English. Then when the buses started running he and I got on the bus and he helped me find my first tourist spot (Tie Ta, or Iron Pagoda) on his way to the university. It wasn't opened yet, so I walked up and down the street and danced with some ladies in the parking lot while I waited for it to open. The Iron Pagoda is the most visited sight in Kaifeng. It is 13 stories tall, over 1000 years old, made of ornately designed glazed bricks (the brown makes it look like iron), and has survived floods, earthquakes, fires, and other disasters. I wandered around the park area, which was very deserted and hazy, for a bit and then got back on the bus for my next stop. (The one bus went basically to all the tourist places I wanted to go. It was great.)
On the bus to Kaifeng
Tie Ta - Iron Pagoda

Play about the Song Dynasty
Processional at the Dragon Pavilion
Next stop was LongTing Park, where the Imperial Palace used to stand, also home to the famous Dragon Pavilion and where I saw the most amazing thing I've seen in China. When I got there, bells chimed and music played, and there began a processional introducing - whom I presumed to be - the main characters of the Song Dynasty. The costumes were amazing, and the beards were wonderfully fake. I stood and watch until the end of the procession, when I went in and walked up to the Dragon Pavilion. There was a lot of construction going on, but the height at which the pavilion sat was very impressive. I wandered about, looked at the sights of the former imperial palace walls, the rockery, garden, and lake. As I was getting ready to leave, I stumbled upon a play starring the Emperor of the Song Dynasty. I think it was about him finding a husband for his daughter. It was recorded, so the actors were mouthing their words and you could see the straps on their mustaches and beards, but it was very entertaining. I walked past Millennium City Park - a giant amusement park - but decided to keep going. 

ShanShaan Gan Guildhall screen wall
I went instead to the ShanShaan Gan Guildhall, which was built by merchants from various provinces during the Qing Dynasty. It was beautiful, bright, and very ornately designed. 

I walked from there to the Da Xiangguo Si (Prime Minister's Temple) and had lunch in the local market. The temple is famous for a gold plated statue of a goddess with 1000 arms, which have eyes painted on the palms. It's carved from a tree. What I can only imagine was an incredibly large tree. Down the street is a smaller temple called Yanqing Guan, which is famous for a bronze statue of an emperor. It was neat, but the best part was when I was getting ready to leave and this priest-like guy invited me to sit at a table, and I picked a stick (I think I've decided it was a prayer stick or something) and proceeded to give me a blessing or fortune in Chinese. I wish I had recorded it because it seemed very positive, and he spoke very enthusiastically. 
Qianshou Guanyin-1000 Armed Goddess of Compassion
Yanqing Guan Priest (monk?)

Next, not originally on the list but on the way, was the Memorial to Lord Bao on Baogong Lake. He was a mayor of Kaifeng who was beloved for being honest and upright. There was a neat exhibit about him, in Chinese, but the murals were beautiful and had English captions describing 4 examples of his uprightness. It also had one of the most beautiful rockeries I've seen, with stone statues and a waterfall. 
Lord Bao Mural

Rockery at Memorial to Lord Bao

Kaifeng Museum
Chinese People's Hospital, where the Kaifeng synagogue once stood
Teaching the Torah Lane
Plaque identifying the site of the former synagogue
Next, and one of the two things I had most been looking forward to was the Kaifeng Museum. The museum itself, which was very nice and contained the usual historical artifacts, relics, and models of the city, is also home to 2 steeles describing the history of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng. They are locked up on the fourth floor and are the only part of the museum you have to pay money to see. The guide could not tell me why, except that very few people, mostly foreigners go to see them. One was rectangular and laying down was almost as long as I am, and the other was 2 steeles linked together which were shorter and looked a little like a tombstone. Of course, they are from the 1500s and 1600s and have been buried under floods, so one had barely any legible writing on it and the other had none, but they and a giant lotus bowl are all that's left from the long history of the Jewish people. There was also a map of the Silk Road, by which the Jews came to Kaifeng when they were forced out of the West. I was sadly not allowed to take any pictures. But after this I went to the site of the former synagogue, which was laid out in traditional Chinese style and modeled after the Second Temple. It is now a hospital and there is only a stone plaque in Chinese on the side of the road identifying what it used to be. But down an alley around the corner is "Teaching the Torah Lane" and the Zhao residence, where Ester lives. Ester is the last remaining Jew in Kaifeng, and the Zhaos were one of the original families that settled in Kaifeng and had a great influence over the community. I met her by accident as I explored the alley and she happened to be coming out of her house. Using my phrasebook I told her I was Jewish and she invited me into her house, where I saw Jewish pictures and artifacts and memorabilia from her life. It was an incredible experience. Unfortunately, my Chinese is nowhere near good enough to have asked her about her life and her family, but I was very thankful to have met her.
Ester, the last Chinese Jew in Kaifeng
Some artifacts in Ester's home

Teaching the Torah Lane was the last thing I wanted to see on my list - I haven't finished my tourist list for any city the whole time I've been in China. Except in Shanghai, when I had 3 weeks to explore. But Kaifeng was small enough for me to walk to most places, which was great, and it felt very Chinese, while most of the other cities I've visited have some Chinese parts next to increasingly modern areas. Anyway, it was still pretty early so I walked around, went to a market, and found a classic culture street, another name for a pedestrian tourist street. It was neat. Lots of food vendors and clothing stores. I kept walking until I got back to the lake and sat down and read for a bit. Then I got on the bus for a night ride around the city before heading to the train station for my overnight train to Shanghai. 

Wednesday, DisneyEnglish in Nanjing went to Shanghai to volunteer and do crafts with children of migrant workers. But since I arrived early, I had breakfast with my friend Hope from training. I met up with the Nanjing people for lunch and we were off to our volunteering event. There were 3 teachers from the school there, and we were supposed to help the kids do traditional Chinese crafts. There was knot-tying, paper tying, and painting. I ended up at the table with the painting, where the teacher did not have enough materials for the group and spent the entire time modeling how to do the craft. Some trainers had a late train and stayed to make sure those kids got to do all the crafts. We also gave each kid a giant Mickey and Minnie Mouse plush toy. It was pretty fun overall. Hopefully there will be future events in Nanjing. 
Nanjing-Dongbao VoluntEARs
When we got back to Nanjing, some of us went to KTV for the rest of the night. It's kareoke in a private room, kind of expensive but very fun. We went to a night market for food after and then I went home to get some sleep before work started. 

Happy Holidays!