Up the Mountain

I had a decision to make. After the small-town experiences in Henan province, was I going to travel north to sight-see the Longmen Caves? There, centuries ago, Buddhist monks decorated hundreds of caves with a museum of sculptures. Or was I to head south, into the adjacent province of Hubei? I read about a beautiful mountain there with an abundance of history itself: Wu Dang Shan (“shan” means mountain). It was the birthplace of the rhythmic martial art, tai chi, and more than stunning views and culture, I could do something else—-practice tai chi.

Between the two it was a mental coin flip. But I recall the key factor that swayed my mind: I thought, quite vividly, “Yeah, I can go see the art and caves and learn how these monks lived. Or I can go one step beyond, and actually live as they did by practicing a meditative art.””

That did it.

The train arrived at Wu Dang Shan in northwestern Hubei province.

Sorry, best map I could find. My path went from Ruzhou (right next to Luoyang) down to Wu Dang Shan (Mt. Wudang).

As the train chugged off into the horizon, never in my trip had I felt as alone as I did then—-and being an American trekking China for some days already, this is saying something. I wasn’t depressed lonely, just matter-of-factly solo. But just the same, I didn’t like it. I was the only one who got off the train! I stood there on the platform in this rural land.

I saw this:

Hello, security guard guy.

and this:

Hello, food cart lady.

I actually missed the crowds of people who usually help indicate where to go. I went down some stairs minus the urban convenience of a ramp for my luggage. So I lugged my stuffed suitcase in that funny, leaning, swaying way you gotta carry something heavy in one arm. Such a bittersweet reality is this life without modernity! Now it was bitter; later it woul’d be sweet.

I exited the station out into the town, but rather than a downtown-y kind of happening place my guidebook told be about, it was just a few stores and small eateries. And in rural China, this looks pretty drab. And where’’s the mountain!? I’’ll tell you what I began to fear: I began to wonder if I got off at the wrong station! A young man approached and aggressively offered a ride. “Wu Dang Shan”, I said, stressing the “shan”. He nodded, which I liked, but offered a price that I didn’’t—-as in an I’’m-going-to-rip-this-foreigner-off-for-whatever-I-can price. A bit turned off, I couldn’’t go with him despite his knocking the price down to less than half. Plus, I located a small bus nearby asking just a fraction of what the young man wanted.

It turned out that the train station had moved since my guidebook was written and that this little outcrop of stores and shops seemed to be here as accompaniment to the new station location. Indeed it was a good 20 minutes until I got into the real town. But once I got there, I knew I was in the right place:

The quaint little city, also called Wu Dang Shan, sitting below the mountain of Wu Dang Shan.

I walked along the sidewalks rolling my suitcase along like a pet, looking for a hostel —which I never found. Luckily, the next best thing found me. A lady excitedly approached, motioning for me to follow her. I’’ll tell ya, these Chinese are not shy about soliciting. She saw my luggage and all, I suppose. “What the heck?”, I thought, and followed her to her building just a couple blocks away. I managed my heavy suitcase up another few dusty flights, but from the plain, gray stairwell opened the door to a quaint little apartment with rooms renovated into a hotel.

My eager host on the right and a mother/daughter mountain-climbing team staying there, too.

Perfect. And now with my base needs met I was able to step upon this platform of comfort and reach for the higher needs of my time here: tai chi up the mountain. I got online and onphone, talking with a school in town. There are a couple institutions, and I found one with an English-speaking employee. The next morning, a trainer came to my hotel and took me away…:

‘Come. Tai chi with me.’ I didn’t know anything about this guy except he looked right for the part.

And before we left town, he made sure I did, too:

Feel free to judge me.

Once clothed, we were ready to ascend.

Honestly, though, I still kinda wondered where the mountain was. My limited, Minnesotan knowledge of mountainology didn’t understand the idea that a mountaintop is a long and windy road trip, and that along the way to the peak, sits several lower peaks and dipping valleys, going up and down and up like a bull stock market chart.

We arrived at the “base camp”, the area where we paid admission and hopped aboard a bus to the school:

On the way up, it started to get gorgeous.

I just had to hold on to my seat between shots. After several tight lefts and sharp rights, the bus slowed and my trainer pointed out the door. We were there:

This was my home for a short while, a modest place on the hillside. Let me give you a tour:

my room

The dining area and doorway to the bathroom and kitchen:

The kitchen:

The pets:

I named it Charcoal. But it didn’t stick.

A couple days later, we all named this one ‘dinner’.

My trainer and I arranged just a two-night/three-day stay. I know, I know, so brief. But I only had three weeks to trek China; plus he charged me more than I preferred. That being said, a day full of tai chi is a long day!

But boy, were they rich. Temples, valleys, a movie being filmed, teaching English, and a whole lot of monkeys. Oh yeah, and tai chi (and some kung fu: )

You’ll see.

have a spectacular week wherever you are,

-Brandon

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Old-School China = Bone-Breaking Pressure

In China around 1000 years ago, a unique trend began in the area of fashion, custom, and duty. Parents started to tightly wrap the feet of their young daughters so the feet wouldn’t grow large. This binding became extreme enough to require the breaking of the toes and of the arch. And it evolved to become a common practice throughout all the classes of Chinese society for hundreds of years. This practice hasn’t take place for sometime now. And the society it represented was much different than the one we see in China today.

But it wasn’t that long ago–phased out in the 1930′s and 40′s–and the fact that things were so different just some decades ago speaks to how much change has taken place there. I think that’s what intrigues me about the practice of ‘xiao jiao’–small feet. They are a marker of this change. Also, they represent the actions people take under the weight of social order.

Soon after I arrived in Zhuhai, I learned that some elderly women still lived with these signs of old times. I wanted to find one of these women. One day in my adult English class we talked about family and a student named June said she had a 99-year old grandmother back in her home province of Henan. I asked if she had the bound feet. June affirmed.

Four months later I got off the train in the city of Ruzhou in Henan Province. Last week I talked about chillin’ around small town China. This time, I share with you the experience that brought me there.

On a Sunday morning the same brother-in-law who picked me up at the train station, along with June’s mother and I, waited alongside a wide, empty road in Ruyang (the small town outside Ruzhou). This day they were taking me to see the woman I’d traveled so far and waited months to meet.

A small bus approached and slowed. In we went:

Grandma lives outside of town—-outside of asphalt roads, as a matter of fact.

‘Over the meadow and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.’

After several miles of town and country, hills and fields, we stopped along a stretch. Now we had to walk it.

Past animals:

Moooo

baaaa

Past the landscapes:

Brother-in-law brought along baby daughter, too. Grandma brought gifts.

Finally, our sunny, Sunday stroll started to slope downward, meeting a few buildings at the bottom. We were there:

Right this way, sir

If curious, here’s some of the journey on video:

 

It was a farmstead, a compound that housed family and extended family. The queen bee of this hive stayed in perhaps the most humble brick/mud building. Brother-in-law led the way inside:

‘Yeah, so we got this American dude out there who wants to check out your feet. You, uh, cool with that, Grandma?’

She expected me, and I entered. At first, I just watched the family interact:

Three of four generations. Generation three, June’s sister, had to stay back at the restaurant in Ruyang.

I looked around a bit, too, checking out her digs:

Guess she likes corn.

Then we began to speak–with the help of a bilingual friend on speaker phone.

Her name is Jing Yuan, a 99 year old woman who’s lived around these parts her whole life. When she was six, her feet were prepared for the binding process. From what I’ve read, this meant stretching wet bandages around her little feet, wrapping her toes down and in. Eventually, the arch of the foot is pressured to break upward. It’s that tight. Jing Yuan did say that the pain wasn’t too bad if she didn’t move her feet. Unfortunately, walking on the bound and broken feet was necessary for the little girls to do to secure the shape. For Jing Yuan, this was 93 years ago.

I put her feet on my lap and removed the socks:

Where are the toenails and pinky toe?

Once the shape was set, the bindings would stay on—-for good. It was a big part of a woman’s day changing the bandages and washing—-crucial, too, as some girls died from infection.

There’s the nails and the pinky toe.

We see or hear about these kinds of customs throughout the world–I always wonder how they start. Historians believe the ancient wealthy Chinese wanted to emulate the small feet of some dancers of the day. But how that got to breaking girls feet is quite a leap.

What is understandable, I think, is how this trend could perpetuate and be maintained. This is interesting, too, because we can compare this to us. For one thing, like many trends, foot binding began in the upper class and trickled downward. (In America the same thing happens with baby names.) Foot binding became a symbol of wealth—-of not needing to do manual work. And somewhere along the line it became sexy.

So like a poor woman today with a knock-off Prada bag, the lower classes followed suit. (This was really tough, too, because the women in the these classes did need to work.) But they did it. Now go ahead and put yourself in the shoes (he he) of a parent during that time. If a girl in town has feet twice the size of the others, then according to your world, she’ll have no place in life. And all this in a society that held social acceptability to a level higher than we’ve ever known it in America. (Though we still know it in America.)

It’s such a pronounced example of the powers of culture and tradition.

Supposedly, it wasn’t the bare foot that the men liked, but the visual of the feet in their shoes.

Can we see the norms that we accept without question? The things we do to fit in? Our desire to be looked up to? The things we find attractive?

Stepping outside one’s culture is a beneficial skill because it’s enlightening—-and this level of actualization helps us lighten up. It’s freeing. :)

But what a sign of change! What was once seen as practically mandatory is now looked back on with interest and curiosity at best, disgust and embarrassment (by some people foreign and domestic) at worst. In a complete turnaround, the wealth and status exemplified by a woman’’s bound feet was frowned upon and eliminated by the communist mentality and order. This new ideology praised labor, and today you’ll see both men and women work on rebuilding a road or demolishing a building.

As a result of the political and social change, Jing Yuan “only” practiced foot binding for 50 years. She said taking the bandages off for good was also painful. The foot wants to adjust to its new freedom, though she said her feet didn’t change all too much:

There have been a lot of changes in Jing Yuan’s lifetime—-social and personal. I asked her to look back and she recalled being in her 20′’s and 30′’s and doing outdoor work with a cane. She also fondly remembered Mao Zedong and the founding days of modern China.

Here’s an illustration of the changes in this society: In one generation women’s feet size doubled ;)

Mother and daughter

Well feet were made for walking–actually, some of these ladies couldn’t walk and needed to be carried. But this gal could, and can. :) Darn near a centenarian, she is!

To me, she’s a symbol of feminism, too, because she represents where China was and is today in the area of women’s rights.

Most feminine of all, I think, is her legacy of life she’s mothered, and grandmothered, and great-grandmothered…

Generations of Chinese women

Unfortunately, at this age, you’ll also see the other side of all this life:

Her son (one heck of a tombstone, too)

Here she is on video:

As a child, her whole world was defined by the order that shaped her feet—-which her feet still symbolize today. But more than one social trend, they represent all the cultural sways of behavior humans take part in. And now, ironically, these feet clash with the same world she endured so much pain to fit into.

Only it isn’t exactly the same world, is it? The society, the trends, customs and behaviors that her generation of Chinese defined their lives by—-the whole aura of those days—where did the times go that required her feet to be bound?

They’re gone.

So remember not to get too bound up in the social pressures of your day.

’til next week

-Brandon

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Small Town Saturday Night

Howl at the moon; shoot out the lights. The folksy folks of small town China reminded me of the community I grew up in.

After chugging along 12 hours of train track southbound from Beijing, I arrived at my destination: small town Henan province.

Tada!

I know. It’s not the first thing on most people’s China to-do list, but I had a very special to-do: a 99-year old woman who I’ll introduce you to next time. For now, we go back to that Saturday I arrived and the experiences I had with the locals.

Check it out…

I arrived at the Ruzhou train station groggy after a difficult night’s sleep on the train. It was one of those mornings when you witness the first light of day, but know you ought to be asleep instead. Sort of like, “Aw man, the day’s started, and I’m not ready.”

Oh well, ready or not.

I hopped off my train car and awkwardly wheeled my suitcase over the dirt and track to get to the station platform:

Hanging a left out to the town, I gratefully met my hosts.

Now, a former student of mine, June, set this all up. And it was her family that met me at the tracks. They would also house, feed, and show me around from the time I got off the train to the ride back to the station two days later.

June’s brother-in-law, his daughter (June’s niece), and June’s brother all greeted my arrival. I didn’t know how I’d recognize them. But of course, they had no problem recognizing me.

It was around 8am on a bright, sunny morning:

Ruzhou actually boasts a significant population of ~100,000, but in this 2nd World country this means something different. Buildings and vehicles were in tough shape; traffic was sporadic and disheveled. There was an arid feel to the city.

Interestingly, it featured such wide streets, yet they drove these little miniatures:

It was time for breakfast. So my greeters took me for breakfast. Here was June’s brother-in-law and his beautiful baby girl at our table:

After eating, we met some other family outside an apartment building and piled into a van to drive to next town over: Ruyang.

Here in small-town China, center lines are treated as suggestions.

This town was quite a bit smaller. Maybe the population of Bemidji, but again: done 2nd World, China style. There, June’s sister and husband–the one who picked me up–owned a restaurant. This was pretty cool, cause I got to gorge on a bunch of local foods made the way mom used to make. :)

The cooks in the white, Judy’s sis in the middle, Mom 2nd from the left. (The kids didn’t work.)

And for you geography fans:

I kind of wondered about being a burden on them, but June assured me they were eager to have a visitor. I wasn’t too surprised by this as I’ve been treated so generously many places I’ve visited. The Chinese really adore Western people. Plus, June said I’d be their first American visitor. Perhaps I was the first American to set foot in this small town! Ruyang makes Bemidji look as diverse as the United Nations. So, I guess this made me the delegate for all Caucasians.

They brought me inside and offered me the goods. Time to gorge.

Children of the family and I digging into the mounds of fish, veggies, egg, noodles, and some seaweed stuff.

That’s the thing about China eatin’. They give you a bunch of platefulls of various foods that you think you’ll never even dent. But half hour later, it’s all gone! Cause it’s good. The crunchy, the salty, the sweet, tender and juicy and greasy, the light and flakey. Chinese food is awesome.

Let’s look at the trouble-makers who prepared the meal:

This restaurant likes their cooks unbuttoned.

And I liked them to add that smokey flavor:

‘Chinese Kitchen’ needs to be on reality TV

Things picked up as evening approached and the kitchen started rockin’ and rollin’:

Check it out:

Small Town Saturday Night was upon us. A group of five dudes lumbered through the restaurant front door, carrying themselves without a care in the world. They requested food like they owned the place—-not in an arrogant way, but with a warm familiarity. Oddly, the vibe brought me back to my days in high school, where growing up in small town Blackduck, MN, I remembered the same total ease and comfort with which I moved through the halls. Like these guys—-like any small town, I think—-there’s no need to be self-conscious about acting the right way among a roomful of strangers.

Now living in a larger city, the familiarity with most folks around me simply isn’t there. So there’s at least a necessary to create a mode of indifference to the many people in urban life. It seems like you got to put up some walls in a city.

I find it so darned interesting that I recognized this difference while here in rural China! After all, I lived 18 years in tiny Blackduck. But for whatever reason, being in this context helped me realize this charm. And it all started with these jokers:

They reminded my of my mother’s uncles, actually.


A familial familiarity

Later on, I walked the dark streets of Ruyang. Some of the locals approached and looked at me. Some would say “hello” and giggle. To them, I’m a sight; but to me, I’m the observer. It’s a two-way street when you visit a different world. I approached an outdoor eatery, the kind I’d seen all over this country and what is known everywhere simply as ‘barbeque’:

Along the right, cooks with raw food and a propane grill set up shop; people then pick out the meats and veggies they want cooked.

Other than this crowd, it was quiet and clear this night. I could howl at the moon as I missed the small-town life back in Minnesota.

The next day was a fresh look at a Small Town Sunday Morning:

And just for fun, here’s a shot of my hometown to compare:

Blackduck, Minnesota

Next week we get much more rural–and historic–as I take you as far as the Ruyang community bus goes.

enjoy the rural,

-Brandon

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A Little China Choo-Choo

China train travel. Hmm, what’s that like? Well, that depends on where you are. On my train trip from Zhuhai to Guangzhou–—one city in Guangdong province to another–—the train was brand new and the ride pristine.

Elsewhere I went…, not so much.

These rides were the stereotype of Chinese train travel. And when I went to buy my ticket from Beijing down to Ruzhou in Henan province, I was in economy mode. So instead of buying a sleeper for the 13-hour overnight journey, I bought a seat.

Next time I’ll work a little harder to afford the upgrade.

Beijing is the star. (Ruzhou, my destination, is just south of Luoyang.)

I was on my way to Ruzhou, because just outside of it is a town called Ruyang. And just outside Ruyang lives a special, old woman who I travelled all this way to meet.

Back in Beijing, I arrived at the train station on the evening of my last day there:

Alright, now I had to see where to go:

Hmmm……

No worries–the display flashed between Chinese and English. I found my train and waited in line at the gate leading our to the rails.

Soon, it was time to board, and a nice hoard of riders and luggage flowed toward the ticket-taker gate. Outside we went to board the train; inside we went into our car:

Oh boy…Where’s everyone going to sit?

Oh, that’s right. They’re not–at least not on seats:

Sit tight, floor buddy.

It was around 8pm and I immediately began to dread the hours ahead when I’’d be restless, tired, and unable to sleep in all this commotion. People were everywhere.

One side of the aisle had sets of 2×2 seat-benches facing each other with a table top in the middle. To sleep, these riders could either try to lean back on the erect seats like an airplane. Or they could try to lean down on the table top, their arms or bags as pillows.

They were the lucky ones.

Cause the other side of the aisle had seat-groups of 3 x 3 facing each other. I got one of these, and on my bench I was monkey-in-the-middle. Still, it was better than the aisle seat, because the table top on our side extended out only so far, leaving this person with nothing to lean on. The 20-something guy to my right in this predicament chose to kneel on the floor and rest his head against the seat cushion.

And we were the lucky ones….

Cause finally there were those in the car who had no seat at all. It’’s better than not getting a ticket, but these poor folks either stood in the aisle, sat on their bags or on the floor, or picked up a makeshift stool that some lady was selling back at the station. (I watched her, too, and wondered what she was selling those things for.) Now I knew.

Through the night I had plenty of opportunity to observe the passengers, each with their own destination and story. I inquired with some of my seat-mates. One thing I’m always curious about is whether I can pinpoint a person’s province by their looks. That’s tough. Nonetheless, the idea that all Chinese look alike is dispelled when travelling with others from all over the country.

Here were some of the passengers:

These fellas were across from me.

So was this gal:

sleep-smiling :)

Sharing my bench were these fellas:

And across the aisle:

 

Eventually, I’d try to sleep. White noise hummed along with occasional knocking from the tracks. Our “dance” to this music was random, stuttering upper-body, back-and-forth sway-jerks. And if I can recall correctly, I think the car was lit up the whole time, too. No matter, I got exhausted and managed some sleep.

(And later in this trek, I’d have some hindsight gratitude after hearing about the rough ride for a couple Austrian women. Their car was so crowded that passengers on the floor curled up at their feet, using the women’s back-packs as pillows.)

Finally, morning came:

“Zao sheng hao”

And at around 7:00, I arrived at Ruzhou train station:

Straight and to the left. That’s where my ride was waiting. (But that’s for next time.)

I talked earlier about the “lucky ones”, those who have better conditions than others on the train. But I’’d say the lucky ones weren’’t in this car at all. Folks in the sleeper cars were quite better off. (And hey, why stop there? Plenty opt out of trains altogether, for obvious reasons, and pay a few extra yuan for a plane ticket—–where you have three more tiers of riding conditions.)

Here’s a peek at a sleeper car that I rode (I splurged) a bit later in my travels. It was fewer solo travelers and more families. Things were more spacious and, naturally, folks were well-rested. Things overall just seemed more chipper. It was a nice illustration that though money doesn’t make you happy, comfort sure helps.

Kids were playing some kind of ‘paper, rock, scissor’ singing game.

They got a kick out of me, an American. Some gave me seashells for gifts. Here’s one of the boys who was particularly adorable:

When in transport we have the chance to learn so much: the places people go, the stories they tell, the reasons for their travel. Americans, or course, love the automobile. In China, though, things are more public. And in a place that already is generally curious about Westerners, the train provides a fertile ground to nurture the interactions that make travel so special.

Next week, I’ll tell you about my experiences in small-town China.

have an awesome week,

-Brandon

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Beijing Means Business

Here’s a picture book for your eyes and minds highlighting some illegal entrepreneurs, the business district of bustling Beijing and Walmart in China.

Enjoy!

A common sight in Chinese cities are the street entrepreneurs, selling everything from produce to clothes to books to small electronics. Where I lived, many of these street salespeople were left alone. But in Beijing, police cracked down, making this Chinese woman and her booking-selling son the faces of outlaws:

Two of uncountable amounts of folks in China that practice guerilla sales along the walkways and streets of urban China.

The American in me digs their free-spirits, out to make their buck, er I mean, yuan. But the authorities don’t. A couple minutes prior to this picture, I was looking at socks from the nearby sock-selling lady. Suddenly, she bundled up her whole blanket of goods in professional form in like one second and was primed to bolt. But then she stopped.

No worries; false alarm. Pheww.

These prey always have to be on the look-out for the predators. (I heard the cops have plain-clothed officers mingling around whistling dixie for a sneak infiltration into these commercial zones, too. And I also heard the sales people have look-outs for police.) But for now, the sock lady put all her display back down–thank God–because I was eyeing a couple pairs for my own tootsies. I wanted to know how they compared to prices in Walmart, which interestingly, was within sight:

After getting the lowdown on what I’d have to drop for some street socks, I entered the Walmart for some comparison. Overall, I was eager for a more American-style shopping experience. Unfortunately in China, Walmart didn’t have the trail mix and other goodies I anticipated. It wasn’t the low-price leader, either! Those street salespeople were. Socks in the store were double what the sock lady had them for. Boy, I hoped she was still there when I left.

But Walmart did have something the street-sellers didn’t:

I can’t imagine a story about a Christian holiday and the dream of a gun could relate to many Chinese folks.

I left and went back to the outdoor entrepreneurs. I got my socks. And the book lady was still chillin’ with her son. My buddy from a couple posts back, Zhong Hua, happened to be with me this day so we asked the lady what was up. Why live this stressful life? There was a Walmart right there–couldn’t she get work?

Turns out she’s not from around here. She comes into the city in the summer to make some extra money and still be able to care for her son while he’s not in school. In the fall they go back to their province; the boy goes to school; and the mom goes to her other job.

It’s a real pickle of a problem: this mom and son aren’t hurting anybody, so why not let them be? But many consider the sight of poor folks a-peddlin’ to be distasteful. Plus, it’s not fair to the legit retailers who have to pay taxes.

I looked down again at her books and found a good one to buy. My best of luck to them:

And let me say this: though circumstances are unfortunate, an attribute I see constantly in China is the understanding that you don’t get something for nothing. Everybody pulls their own weight. And when a billion people do this…well, we hear almost everyday about China’s rise.

Later on, I jetted to see the other side of the business world–the shnazzy business district of Beijing. Though not as impressive as the skylines of Shanghai or Hong Kong, it’s no slouch. After all, Beijing is ground zero for the gargantuan government that is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

I got off the subway and popped out right in the thick of things. I felt right at home as if it was any nice, large city in America:

CCTV Tower (China TV)

Top brands, clean streets, nice-dressed folks. I felt a bit out-classed here. Made me miss the approachable alleys of pork buns and shirtless, smoking dudes near my hostel. But whatever, I hung in there and enjoyed it–though at a quickened, city pace.

Okay, that’s all for Beijing until my book comes out later this year. Oh wait, one more thing: there’s a lot of people:

Rush hour subway

And this scene makes for a nice segue into next week’s post all about train travel in China, on my way south to some beautiful, rural hill country.

Thank you, Beijing. The combination of your size, energy, growth, and spirit are un-duplicatable. You continue to lead a billion people to wealthier futures. You teach the whole of humanity about humanity through your rich and living history.

see you next week,

-Brandon

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Beijing: Emperors and Communists

After a lazy Sunday in Beijing, it was time to get into the nitty-gritty and get me an eduvacation.

Beijing is one of the most storied capitals around. Its most recent chapters have been written while home to the government we all associate (and some define) with China: —the China Communist Party (CCP).

But this definition would be a mistake, because before the CCP was the Kuomingtang government; and prior to it was the more storybook ages of emperors and dynasties. Many are familiar with the Ming Dynasty 1300’s-1600’s (—as in, I just bought an antique Ming vase).

And we can keep going back.

Before these dynasties the Mongols had ‘er under control in the 1200′s. They wrested it from other previous Chinese dynasties dating as far back as the BC’s. Beijing isn’t a modern creation, and it hasn’t been a stable one, either. If time-lapse video was available, you’d have a great appreciation for the changes and depth that each block beholds.

So in this post, I take slices of the city–the most famous slices, perhaps–and pivot them to reveal the depth behind these structures and the city as a whole.

Remember the singers and musicians from my last post? They were in the Temple of Heaven Park. And it was there that those Ming, and later, Qing dynasty emperors would come to pray for bountiful harvests. Back then, China was much more openly religious and these sacred structures weren’t for commoners like you and I. (Unless I have some readers with Chinese Emperor blood in them.)

One of these sacred places.

Repainted, giving you the idea of how cool it looked.

The innards:

We hear about these emperors, and we have this disconnection with them, almost like they’’re other worldly–like a fairy tale. But they weren’’t out of this world—–just across the ocean from ours, ruling and existing right here, standing on this very floor, sitting on this very chair.

I got a kick out of connecting with this place in these earlier times, but the truth is that it was only about 100 years ago when the emperors saw their last days.

On to the big time tourist action…

Tiananmen Square is adjacent southward of the Forbidden City. It’s a more recent development, actually, being widened and having new structures erected around it by the CCP in the middle of last century. And sitting to its south, are two large structures dating back to the 1400′s:

The massive Zheng Yang Gate

And across the road to its south:

Arrow Tower

And as seen in the picture, the space between the two is now used as a busy roadway; subway lines also lie right beneath these surfaces. Modernity and classicism come together all over in Beijing.

To be sure, these structures just by themselves are full of wall-talking history. And some of this interesting stuff involves the West. French and English forces actually controlled Beijing for a while in the early 1900′s. The rebellion against such invasion took place at these monuments.

Then back north of these two lies the famous Tiananmen Square. Remember this shot?

This was from 1989. Anti-government demonstrations. (The tanks are pro-government)

Tiananmen square has been the location of immense pro and anti-government activity. It’s a pivot point for China and a location that demonstrates the changes over the years and the way these changes look overlapped today.

At Tiananmen square, a centuries-old space denoting an age of emperors was face-lifted in soviet-era styling. Once Mao passed away, his mausoleum was built:

Mausoleum on the right

It’s not the best picture, but I like what it says. The rear structure is Arrow Tower. The middle is Zheng Yang Gate. Then it’s Mao’s Mausoleum, and the foreground is the open Tiananmen square. I took this shot because I was struck by the many layers of China, right here.

One can do their homework and identify the Chinese of today as a communist people enjoying limited freedoms, a disinterest in religion, and an exuberance for their leadership. But communist China is just one small slice of history. Those who really do their homework are rewarded with the understanding that China is something bigger–a history, a culture, an era. The dynasties and governments have just dressed and decorated this spirit and being.

Looking at it this way, you see that today’s government is just a glue, a tool, an organization, used by that which is China–—not the other way around. Whether Taoist, Buddhist, Atheist, Communist, Democracy, or even colony, that which is “Chinese” is bigger than any political or social or religious hat.

Then turning around, I saw the latest hat:

CCP is 90; a birthday monument in the Square

And here’s their guy:

Mao and another example of the layering: a recent facade built on the existing Ming dynasty structure. This picture is the entrance to the Forbidden City taken from Tiananmen Square.

The “city” was built right along with the Temple of Heaven. As such, it was an exclusive residence for the emperor and his crew. For 500 years it was off limits. When the dynasties fell, the gates opened. Today, it’s a busy tourist spot, but it’s no trap. It’s an awesome collection of architecture and museums.

Here’s some pics:

This place is huge. We saw maybe half of it in the 4 hours we were there.

We? Well, I made a friend:

This young gentleman personified the kind of extraordinary kindness that I’ve experienced at times in China. I was walking Tiananmen Square, not really sure where I was going and asking other tourists. He approached to see if he could walk with me and show me around. I hesitated for a sec, wondering if I wanted a stranger with me the whole day–or if he wanted some money. But finsing out he didn’t, my second thought was, “why not?”

Zhong Hua was great company and super helpful.

Some more “forbidden” pictures:

I dug the untouched buildings.

In the garden in the rear of the complex.

What a slice through time! Here I was, walking on the once-exclusive stones that emperors had walked. And here was everyone else and their uncle, as mild mannered and care free as if it was any town square. They likely are all descendants of those commoners who toiled in the hillsides and fields, off limits to what went on in these walls.

This kind of history loudly declares the large factors at work directing the sways of humanity. It’s humbling; it’s freeing.

’til next week,

-Brandon

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Beijing: On a Day of Worship

Howdy, Readers!

Day two of my trek through China had me getting to know some lesser-known, but more personable aspects of China’s capital, Beijing.

Having gotten in late the night before, I reserved this day for what I was taught Sundays to be: the Sabbath and/or lazy days for whatever. It was a real walk in the park. I simply got to know Beijing a bit before all the heavy touristy stuff kicked into gear during my week.

First thing I did when I got up? Checked out my digs:

In case you already didn’t know, hostels can be real diamonds in the rough. This place cost me a fraction of a hotel. And the community vibe in these places is reliably awesome!

Plus, look what I found:

Fishies and turtles. :)

Okay, enough turtle-play; time to set out. I read about a church nearby and wanted to see what a Christian gathering in this country looked like. Plus, I wanted to check out my neighborhood.

Just outside my hostel was a network of narrow alleyways known as Hu Tong. They’re an attraction themselves as lots of history has passed through their narrow corridors. Plus it’s enjoyable to feel the intimacy with Beijingers—the small shops, the humble, concrete-built homes, and the bicyclers peddling their old contraptions:

Soon I left the maze of alleys:

Things opening up: this is a well-known road that leads up to Tiananmen Square.

It was gorgeous outside; just blue skies and summer heat. On the way to the church the scenery changed, offering avenues of museums, hotels, and government buildings. None of the buildings were very tall, leaving access to the wonderful weather.

St. Michael’s Catholic church, was only a handful of big Beijing blocks away. I approached the old steeple with a cross atop around noon. Mass was in its final stretch:

Wrapping things up

Black-haired heads I assumed to be Chinese filled the pews, but a monitor of text had me question my assumption. (You can always tell Korean characters by the circles.) Asking a nearby nun, I found out that this was, indeed, a Korean congregation.

Don’t see too many of these gals in the U.S. anymore.

Though there are several Christians in China, Koreans have really taken to it.

A few Chinese and myself lined the back to observe as everyone exited:

peace out

I stayed to look around. The church had that solemn feel and featured pictures along the side walls of Jesus at different times in his life. This small to mid-sized church wasn’t overdone, but offered a nice environment:

looking back

I always appreciate the deeper self that is reached during worship and while being in such a building. People come here to tap into that real, more serene self, and that aura always has me leaving a better person.

:)

Afterward, I meandered and moseyed south towards, fittingly, Temple of Heaven Park. It’s well known for its historic structures (so they get ya with an admission charge). Dad gummit.

park entrance

I walked in right away feeling the shine not just of the sun but of the energized folks around me. It was great. They were pair-dancing to Chinese tunes with Western pop beats.

gettin’ down

I have much praise for both large and small cities. Here though, I felt that energetic presence and freedom from timidity that citizens in the largest cities have. These dancers reminded me of some skaters in New York’s Central Park I saw a few years back: not punk skateboarders or even cosmopolitan roller bladers. No, these were vintage 4-wheel roller skaters, dance-skating to old hip-hop and disco beats. Funky stuff; and fun to absorb. As was this scene in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park.

It’s inspiring to see people so free to do what makes them happy. As such, I felt like I arrived someplace special. Better make a note of it:

That a way. Friendly Beijing woman helped with the map, too.

After this performance, I delved deeper into the expansive park. After getting a little shade and turning down some overpriced ice-cream, I heard some live music.

And I followed it.

A large group of mainly middle-aged singers congregated around a band. It looked like an informal gathering, perhaps just a Sunday afternoon passtime. But I found it noteworthy that the music sounded like a hymn and the folks sang like a choir.

go for it, man

loud and proud

See, I know China as an agnostic country, but the group I saw sounded like they were worshiping something: love, China, etc. I enjoyed seeing these folks–as I did the Koreans in the church–elevate to a place of love and joy. That search for something deeper exists in everyone.

Their elevation rubbed off on me. Maybe through the power of the Internet, you can get a taste of it yourself. :)

enjoy your awesome weekend, and I look forward to further explorations of Beijing next week!

-Brandon

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One Final Trek: Off to Beijing

After my year teaching was complete, I set off.

I had amassed an amazing amalgamation of experiences in and around Zhuhai. But free from my job, it was time to explore far off places in China. The next several posts will be an account of this trip I took almost exactly a year ago to the day.  :)

Every trip starts with a starting off point:

Zhuhai is down there.

I stared at this map on my bedroom wall all year long. Finally, I was going to be able to see these places. Which places? Well this trek would start in a little village known as Beijing:

After a week there it was off to a rural area near the city of Luoyang where I’d meet a very special old woman:

After that, I went to the mountains of Hubei province to an area called Wu Dang Shan where I practiced Tai Chi and Kung Fu:

And then I wrapped it up with a jaunt over to the historic city, Xian:

And I sure as heck wasn’t walking to these places.

Here’s a fun mix and of how five modes of transport got to my first target, Beijing. (The working title for this article was Bus, Train, Subway, Plane.)

Off we go!

***

First, I had to take the boring ‘ole city bus to the train station. But off on a three week journey, the bus ride was exciting!

Hop on

And this was no ordinary train I was headed toward. Here in Guangdong Province, high speed rail was being completed between Guangzhou–to the north–and Zhuhai. It wasn’t yet complete all the way to Zhuhai, though. That’s why I needed to take the ‘ole bus to the station.

Soon the high speed train arriveth to take me Guangzhou where’d I’d fly out to Beijing.

No choo choo for this bullet.

Trains are a neat topic because, well, trains are cool; but also because they conjure up some controversy back in the U.S. Obviously, they’re expensive and so require the right conditions. Even then, they require subsidization.

Right now they’re cutting a major corridor between St. Paul and Minneapolis. The image of a fresh new train taking smiling faces to and fro has many seeing past the current chaos of detours and jackhammers.

Let’s hope it’s a true benefit to the community.

In China, I don’t hear the clamor of debate regarding trains. Of course, could they change things if they wanted? (Do they want to?) The Chinese are reliably supportive of government projects.

I don’t know the finances of the train I was on. I hope it was a good investment. All I know is that I paid a small amount for a good distance and the ride was cool, comfortable, and smooth. It made me look forward (foolishly) to my next train ride on this trip following my time in Beijing. Unfortunately, that experience wouldn’t be so comfy.

But it sure was on this train. Here were some sights on the way up to Guangzhou:

Always were building

And here were my seat neighbors:

I had a few more neighbors when I got off the train in Guangzhou. We were all headed to the airport, and this required the subway. Into the tunnels we went:

We were gophers (or moles, or worms) burrowing to the airport in this contraption:

Pretty nice subway system in Guangzhou.

inside view

Lastly, we went from the underground to the over-ground. I boarded the plane and we soared to Beijing. The flight was ordinary, but my earphones didn’t work, thus I couldn’t listen to the movie which was the English film, “The King’s Speech”. I found it odd the earphones weren’t electronic; they worked like a stethoscope.

Oh well, guess I had to make conversation with the woman next to me:

Getting to know her paid off, and made for a story to end this article:

See, I was in need of a ride into the city. The Beijing airport is a ways out and we got in past midnight so the trains didn’t run. My only option was a spendy taxi. I asked my new friend if I could share one with her. She said something in broken English about that being okay, her husband coming, too.

Whatever, sounds good. :) I’m gonna save 100RMB!

We landed, got our bags, and indeed, we left the terminal and met her son and husband. She looked at me and mentioned me to her husband something like “the one on the phone I told you about”. If he ever looked back at me, it was for the shortest second. I had the feeling he wasn’t happy to have me. I realized, then, that it wasn’t a taxi, but their own car we were taking that, the one her husband drove to Beijing.

Putting myself in his shoes, I empathized with his displeasure of having to take a stranger to his hostel at 12:30 a.m. somewhere in the huge city of Beijing. As much as some folks in China liked the Westerner, I was pushing it here with this guy. I was stuck there between a rock and a hard place–his reasonable annoyance and his wife’s hospitality.

Of course they put me in the front with him. Mother and son sat in the back, and I tried to make small talk with the Dad on the 35 minute ride. But “I don’t understand” is all he’d tersely respond.

There we were driving along the freeway at 12:30 in the morning into the Beijing, myself sitting shotgun in this stranger Chinese family’s car. (Nice car, too.) They needed to know where to go and couldn’t read the directions I had in romanized Chinese (known as pinyin). They needed the real-deal Chinese characters. I did have  a phone number (and a dead battery on my phone), so sheepishly had to ask to use their phone to call my hostel. They did and got directions.

There would yet be several minutes of trying my best to keep it light.

During our silence, I looked out the window and through the fog of night, got faint hints of Beijing. I noticed the random billboards and traffic signs, indicating I was in a fresh, new part of China.

Suddenly, I was alarmed back into the car as Dad threw on the hazard lights and abruptly pulled over onto the shoulder just shy of an exit ramp. I was confused and assumed car trouble. The car stopped, Mom quickly opened the passenger’s side back door. Okay, more confusion. I turned around to see her holding their toddler just outside as he peed—on the shoulder of the freeway. It all went down like the pit crew at a NASCAR race—just replace the sounds of air wrenches with the white noise of sporadic late-night drive-by traffic and the sight of a boy peeing. He finished, she hoisted him back inside, and off we went. 15.4 seconds. Nice job, Crew! I’d have thought this middle class family would have used diapers. Nope.

A little later the father had to call my hostel again. He spoke loudly. The Chinese like to bellow on the phone anyway, but I think he was frustrated and lost. Oh boy. We had exited the freeways, onto city streets, and then exited those down alleys just wide enough for the side mirrors to clear (one time we had to pivot them inward to squeak by a dumpster). I felt odd and tired, but just as I started considering alternative sleeping plans he stopped the car, got out and opened his trunk, and pointed. We were there. Mother refused any money. Gosh, I hope they weren’t far from their place.

They left, and it was just me and Beijing. The next day was Sunday. I walked into a church service and later witnessed some “worshipers” in a nearby park.

You’ll see.

-Brandon

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Yangshuo: Grateful for Rain

Yes, that’s right. I was grateful for the “bad” weather during my time there. Crazy, huh? Well, normally I’d wish for blue skies just like the next fella, but something about this place made the rain feel appropriate. In fact, sunny weather would’ve been a bit lacking.

Day two ends my three-part series about this memorable weekend getaway I had in China.

I awoke my second morning in Yangshuo and realized it was colder–and wetter–than the day before. But I brought my raincoat for a reason and wasn’t discouraged I had to use it. Yangshuo is all about its outdoors, and if nature brings rain, then so be it.

So I geared up and hopped out of bed–(Well, actually, I climbed down off my bunk. I stayed in a hostel and shared the room with a couple Norwegian gals, a French woman, and a Chinese dude.) Hostels are interesting.

I got outside and it greeted me with this:

A good day for a bike ride?

Yeah, I rented a bike because I wanted to cover more ground. So I squinted my eyes and peddled through the precipitation on some generic, old school bike. I glided by businesses opening and pedestrians with umbrellas. It was just a drizzle, but it was still a drizzle. And with my hood wrapped over the back and sides of my head, it was all I could do to be cautious in the reliable chaos of Chinese traffic.

I was on a main street heading out of town, but wanted to explore more of the city. So I veered off the beaten path and biked along the old, gray roads of Yangshuo. It felt similar to the old areas of Zhuhai, except the vibe on these old streets was, I don’t know, more historic or classic or earthy or something: stone bridges, old bicycles ridden by folks wearing plain clothing. It felt like I was in a film scene of a period piece; the vibe was something new and authentic.

I found a hill which I could climb. Eager for the view, I carefully made my way up these steps:

No hand rails here; just keep your weight directly above your feet.

At the top was a small area where one could take in the view. And this wasn’t a concrete platform with handrails; just a semi-level dirt floor. Everything in Yangshuo–particularly this morning–seemed so wonderfully natural. Even the man-made steps felt like the hill created them.

Certainly, Mother Nature created these odd and striking mini-mountains:

Yangshuo from above.

Dramatic landscapes can provide an incredible calm, I realized. Like gaping into the Grand Canyon, they’re a shock to the senses, a reality telling us, “See? This is how small you are. Stop taking yourself so darn seriously. Calm down.”

This view was teamed with a light breeze and quiet, similar to that feeling you get from a slow walk in the woods or a mellow cruise along the lake at sundown, not a ripple on the water; moment by rich moment. But it was more than just the emotional sensation. The rain added to the affect with a physical accompaniment. It was cleansing and clarifying.

I stood and let my guard down and the sobering affect of the drizzle played its part. I don’t mean to get all touchy-feely with you all, but it was powerful. I actually had some negative feelings come up, apparently needing this window to pass through. Then like a loon’s call on that calm lake, I heard music below somewhere in the thicket of Yangshuo. It resembled a marching band and it sounded like it was coming straight off the record player, some crackles in there for affect on this “period piece”. Somehow it made for an appropriate soundtrack.

I got down after a 20 minutes or so and began to bike once more. This time out of town.

I soon was reminded that, like snow, rain isn’t as pretty in the city. Away from town, the drizzle was nourishing and energizing. (Maybe this is why I used to love playing in the rain as a child so much.) I came across other travelers. This gang was certainly enjoying themselves:

As I look closer, I think he’s giving the peace signal.

This next group from Europe was determined not to let a little rain spoil a family vacation. And they didn’t care how they looked doing it:

I think they got it a few sizes too big.

‘But dad, I can’t see anything!’

 

At a scenic stop further down the road, a lady called out from across the street. She had a bouquet and wanted to prove her sales skills:

I couldn’t resist an honest smile.

And they say good things come in twos, right?

I think they were just after my money.

Turns out, there’s a tradition of wearing a crown of flowers around one’s head here. How hippie. How beautifully appropriate, too. Whereas so much of China celebrates the man-made (Hong Kong skyline, the Great Wall, Macau Casinos), and so many Chinese have ingrained a littering habit, it was awesome to revel in a place so different.

These ladies lived out their post-golden years peddling these flowers. Kinda cute; a bit saddening; a little touching. I bought some postcards (and a flower crown) from them and kept going. I had a river to reach.

The bike trail ran alongside the Yudong River. I got to a landing where boats where being launched:

No noisy engines like I experienced the day before. Drivers navigated by pushing long poles against the river bottom.

Later on down the river, I stood on its bank. This experience contrasted the agitation of 24 hours previous. I watched these flat, bamboo rafts glide by with passengers on board. It was graceful. It was also dreamy. Mist hovered above the water as the drizzle tapped hypnotically against my coat. I looked down and could see fish below the bank. And of course, let’s not forget the anchor of this picture: the signature hilltop terrain in the background. Such a sight!

One last stop on this ride provided my favorite shot of the landscape:

It looks like earth shed from the mountaintops and collected below. And now the collected areas resemble the land being curling back toward you.

I don’t know how these giants were created. (Seriously, is there a geologist in the house?)

Yangshuo’s drastic terrain is a catalyst for a lot of feelings. This day was about letting the natural power of this environment saturate and transfuse my spirit.

The next day Jordan, Carla, and I headed back to Zhuhai. Batteries charged.

Here’s to rejuvenation the old fashioned way–with nature.

-Brandon

 

And on this Saturday morning, June 16th, as I put the finishing touches on this article, I look out my window and what do I see?–gray skies and drizzle. If you’re in the countryside reading this, you’re the envy of me. Rain in a city is just wet. Rain in the country is awakening.

 

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Yangshuo: Earth’s Teeth

Breaking News: My fund-raising campaign on the website, Kickstarter, was successful! With the money raised this week, I’m (much) better able to create and distribute my book project about my year in China. :) Take a look at the video about it here: video and write-up. And I look forward to getting this exciting book out for all you to enjoy. I’m also planning a tour in a few cities, such as Fargo, Duluth, and the Twin Cities to share my stories, answer questions, and show off the new eBook technology I’m using. Hope to see you out!

Now let’s get back to China.

Last week, we left off with us arriving at Yangshuo after sunset. It was a long ride up, but a wonderful journey. This week we start off from my first morning there…

I awoke early and walked to the bus station. Along pedestrian-only West Street, stores were closed, but restaurants were open for breakfast. The air was crisp and cool on this 50 degree morning in Yangshuo. Cloudy, but not wet, it had the look and feel of China: not a paradise, but a place of history and genuineness (even in this touristy location). I got my first glimpses of the terrain that was blocked from my view the previous black, night. Walls of rock towered behind the buildings, adding an enclosed feel to the town.

Here’s a video of that morning:

Approaching the bus station, I anticipated the beauty of these monoliths in the countryside. I got on a full bus shuttling north to the popular drop-off along the Li River.

Once there, we divided into groups to hitch a ride on a motorbike taxi down to the river’s edge, my starting point for the day’s journey:

I had just two full days to take in the surreal scenery of Yangshuo. I spent each along (or on) one of its two main rivers. (The Yudong being the other.) My plan today was to ride a boat 14 km north on the Li and then go by foot the remaining 10 to the next town. Along this stretch is displayed some of the best scenery Yangshuo has to offer. And it started with a bang.

I walked down to the landing to see this:

There's the shot I was waiting for.

You see, this exact view has teased me since my arrival to China. I’d seen it a hundred times on the back of every 20 Yuan bill:

A picture is worth about $3.50.

And many Chinese were eager to stand in front of this view with bill in hand. Check that off the ‘ole bucket list, I suppose.

Now it was time to get intimate with this scenery. And it’s time for us to go for a ride on the river. These buggers were my transport:

All aboard!

Off we trolled and one thing that I cannot say (to my initial surprise) was that the ride was peaceful. The boat engine rattled a loud percussion as we trolled along edge, and when out in the open, screamed a whiny roar “WAAAAAAAAA!” along with a whole herd of tourists making the same journey. It was cold, sometimes wet, and usually bumpy. I learned an interesting truth about the scenery at Yangshuo: such a backdrop has the ability bring out and magnify a variety of feelings. On this ride, I felt power and abrasion.

Steep rock faces

A violent meeting with the sky.

Earth's Teeth

And here’s a bit of footage:

It wasn’t too long, and we stopped. The intensity of the ride was an experience, but I was ready to settle into a hiking groove. Peddlers offered me trinkets. A cup of tea felt right. Abrasiveness evaporated and the richness of a Guangxi river trek replaced it. Behind the peddlers was a plain of sand and pebbles drifting gradually down into the Li. I looked down:

calming stones

Stones like this are offered in some therapist’s offices. Patients are welcome to handle them for a soothing motion. How these relaxing rocks are carpeted below these unsettling hilltops is a geologic wonder and an irony to behold.

And to add to the variety, a taste of the majestic was out in this pasture:

Fit right in.

Then the hike began, moving to the beat of Li River life. And now, more than natural beauty, an exposure to the ways of locals along the fertile banks was offered. They lived a pace you’d expect:

An older lady on the bottom corner, gardening the old-fashioned way.

Later, I moseyed over to an older gent who tended his bull. He seemed happy to have me come by and got a chuckle out of his bull’s shrug and huff in response to my attempt to pet it:

From earthly contrasts to human ones, the mellow that is emanated from these folks is a novel experience for most westerners. But compared to the noisy, horn-honking ways of urban China, it’s a true 180. It’s so easy to lose track of the joy of being when stacked with the concerns of kids, debt, etc. I don’t have to tell you this, I know. But I do have to say that the stress created due to these everyday concerns is really evident here. Because clear is the peace hidden beneath.

Back to nature, each corner turned on my river’s edge walk offered a potential postcard shot:

Something about the river parting these peaks! Depicted is the age-old battle of rock vs. water, the static vs. the flowing.

I reached the end of the trek and was treated to one last view:

The fog covering the far mountain was a foreshadow of the following day.

The backgrounds of Yangshuo impressed me in how they bring out an array of emotions. You feel the dramatic, the intimidation, the awe, the calm, and the coziness of those who live amongst these natural skyscrapers. But if the first day was about breadth of emotions, then day 2 was about depth. Stay tuned for it next week.

And I hope you were able to experience some feelings of your own while reading. It’s a lesson in how our natural surroundings can speak to us and enhance our lives.

have an awesome week,

-Brandon

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