Sigh. My China summer is almost over. In just over 11 hours, our plane will take off — well, the first of three planes in which we’ll spend 18 hours, not counting time spent waiting in airports. In 36 hours, we’ll be in Toronto.

The Dude and the Kid are looking forward to being home. The Dude wants to play his drums, eat steak and cheese. The Kid is looking forward to seeing her friends and hanging out in hippy cafes. And, I suppose I’m looking forward to stuff too. But unlike my traveling companions, I’m doing less pining for home than anticipatory pining for China. I’ve loved it here, and can’t quite believe that our time here is (for now at least) almost over.

Of course, we’ve been so busy actually *being in China* that I didn’t have time to do all the posts here that I wanted to. So, this is official notice that for the next couple of weeks at least, I’m going to lie a little bit. I’m going to keep writing and posting as if I were still here. Perhaps that will help a bit with the pining.

Besides, I still have much to say about Chinese toilets, and gender roles, and surprising discoveries, and the simple lesson that I learned here about intersectionality. And, once upon a time, I had a post titled “Shanghai: Part 1.” Surely, that demands a Part 2, no? And, after all, this was *meant* to be a pedagogy blog; so, there’s pedagogy stuff coming too. And food! Once I have faster internet, unmediated by a proxy server, at my disposal, I’ll be posting lots of amazing photos of our culinary adventures here.

But first, while we are still here, one last on-the-ground post. A brief one, because I only have an hour or so of premium-priced Shanghai hotel internet at my disposal; and the Kid and the Guy are waiting for their turn. If what follows is a bit choppy and laden with infelicities, it is because my time here is scant, in more ways that one.

Ok. Last time I wrote, I said that there had been a few occasions in the last couple of weeks when I thought “I cannot believe that I’m here.” Those thoughts began with our arrival August 13 in Beijing.

Before I get to the breathtaking stuff, I need to report that Beijing really felt Canadian to us. Weird, huh? Part of it was the quality of light. It turns out that light at similar latitudes is similar in subtle ways that you can’t really describe but which are, it seems to me, undeniable. Nanjing and Shanghai are very much southern towns. But Beijing (literally, “Northen capital”) is China’s great Northern city. The light and the foliage remind me very much of Ontario. And, the urban planning — the width of roads, the lot sizes, the signage — reminded us all of Scarborough. Sounds implausible, I know, but when we made the observation to fellow Canucks here, they agreed immediately. And, the dress code is more Ontario-like as well. Nanjing and Shanghai are affluent, high fashion cities, full of women in the most adorable dresses and high heels you have ever seen. Beijingers are much more likely to be attired in sweats, jeans, t-shirts. Their hair is less coiffed. They seem more like one of your neighbours. So, at first, Beijing just felt really familiar to us. Who knew that our arrival in Beijing would herald a denser series of “I can’t believe I’m here” moments than I’ve ever before experienced?

Here, typed in haste, is an annotated list of those moments (in chronological order):

Sunset on the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was a short walk from our hotel; so we headed over to scout the location on our first afternoon in town. We didn’t actually enter the grounds until the next day, but it was the first day that, for me at least, was most striking. The Forbidden City is surrounded by a wall and a moat. Old men fish in the moat. Outside the moat, hawkers sell souvenirs and delicious fruit snacks. (My favourite was fresh plums, cut in half, threaded on a bamboo skewer and dipped in molten sugar — like candy apples only juicier. Yum!) From this area, one can see the distinctive rooftops of the buildings within the walls. Just seeing these famous roofs was breathtaking for me. But, as it happened, we got to see them in the best possible circumstance — a gorgeous blue sky and the sun just setting. Before we came to China, we were told that we wouldn’t see a blue sky all summer long. But most of our time in Nanjing and Shanghai was marked by blue skies. Still, whilst we were in Nanjing, folks told us that we wouldn’t see blue skies in Beijing. Not true. Except for one rainy afternoon there, we had nothing but brilliant blue skies for our entire visit. This first afternoon, the sky was as deep a blue as ever you’ll see. As we approached the tallest building in the FC, we wondered why there was an army of professional photographers with their very expensive cameras trained on that building in particular. Then we realized that as the sun was setting, that famous rooftop was becoming jewel-like, resplendent. The next day, we saw tons of souvenir photos of the sun setting over the FC in just this way. It turns out that, when the sky is just right, when the light is just right, the photographers shows up to shoot postcards. We were lucky enough to stroll up at the moment that Beijing photographers wait weeks or months for. And, it was great!

The Great Wall at Mutianyu
I don’t know whether I’ve ever done anything better than climb the Great Wall at Mutianyu. The countryside at Mutianyu (about an hour’s drive north of Beijing) is gorgeous. Sublime mountains and lush forests as far as the eye can see. That setting alone would be stunning. But, of course, you don’t see it on its own. You see it from the ramparts of a centuries-old stone wall that has, over the years, been worn smooth by millions of feet. The wall snakes over the mountains in ways that you wouldn’t think possible if you didn’t see it firsthand. No peak was too high, or too unattainable for those who built the wall to lay bricks there. It is huge and ambitious. Hell, forget about building it; it’s even ambitious to walk it. “Walk” is the wrong word, in fact. I used to think that one walks the Great Wall. Nope. It is a crazy, curving, topsy turvy drunken-Escher staircase that must be climbed. We arrive at 8:30 in the still cool morning air and climb for four and a half hours, going as far in each direction as we can. Even in the cool morning air, we are soon panting, our clothes soon drenched in sweat by the steepness of the climbs. By noon, we are melting. And, it is perfect. The natural scenery, the incredible feat of human engineering, the wonderful athleticism of the wall experience. Everything about it is perfect. And tons and tons of tourists have gone there, but I can’t help feeling as though I’m doing something entirely special, entirely personal as I climb and pant and sweat and feast my eyes on the unparalleled beauty of the area. It is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

Beijing Neighbourhoods
That afternoon, upon our return, we make our way to a funky little cafe in a more-or-less residential neighbourhood. The kind of cafe that sells hippy handicrafts and keeps copies of literary paperbacks on hand for customers to borrow. A young man in a Daffy Duck t-shirt is about to leave as we arrive. The Guy loves his shirt and points at it, a look of delight on his face, at the exact moment as the young man (I’ll call him DD) points at my tattoo, the very same expression on his face. This seals the deal. And, for the next hour, he’s sitting with us, chatting excitedly, playing us music from his ipod, singing, feeding Molly bao. His English is no better than our Chinese. So, our communication is a mixture of fragments of both languages, hand gestures and drawings — like a super-intense game of charades/Pictionary. This is the longest interaction we’ve had with a Chinese person who doesn’t speak much English and who isn’t somehow affiliated with my Nanjing employer. I feel unbelievably chuffed to have a chance to break bread with this odd, lovely young man. And, I can’t quite believe it’s happening.

A couple of days later, we go on a Google maps-inspired goose chase in which we unsuccessfully seek a particular highly recommended dumpling joint. We never find the dumplings, but we do end up walking through narrow residential alleys, watching people unwind on their own doorsteps, watching the neighbourhood boys roughhouse, listening to the quiet chatting of the old men. And again, I feel touched and privileged to glimpse lives that are just as striking for their similarity to ours as for their differences from ours.

Temple of Heaven
We visit the Temple of Heaven on our last day in Beijing. We’re tired from the Great Wall, and pretty grumpy. We probably should have just stayed in our hotel room, but don’t want to waste our last day in town. So, we go to the Temple. And, the unsurpassed beauty and distinctiveness of the building cuts through our fatigue and ill temper. It is perhaps the most striking building I have ever seen, as true to its namesake as any building could be.

The Sleeper Train
We take a sleeper train from Beijing to the southern province of Guangxi. It’s a 29 hour journey. I’m grumpy because I wanted a soft sleeper compartment, which would have afforded us some privacy, but we could only get hard sleeper cots, which are in bunches of six in a car crammed with many such bunches — all of them open to each other. In retrospect, I’m so grateful it turned out this way. For 29 hours, we hear others’ chatting and laughing, smell their cooking, learn about how people live. And, inevitably, we start to make friends. We’re the only foreigners on the car. These folks — families mostly — travel this way all the time, and they never see foreigners in their compartment (the foreigners fly or take soft sleeper). So, one by one, starting with the little girls and teenagers, people start to visit us. Our bunks become the salon for the whole train. The Kid and I practice our Chinese on our “roommates”. We teach them card games, chat about music, about geography. (“Canada is large and beautiful,” they say. “Is it cold?” “Yes,” we reply, “it is cold in the winters but hot in the summers.” “Really?!” They are astonished. One man says that, ah yes, he used to know this fact, but that he had forgotten it.) The Kid practices Chinese calligraphy with her new friends, collects email addresses for future correspondence. As we finally leave the train, everyone cracks huge smiles and says goodbye to us. An old woman tells me that I have a wonderful daughter. It is the best slumber party ever.

Yangshuo
Yangshuo — or, more properly, the pretty little eco-resort 7 kms outside of Yangshuo where we stay — is the prettiest place I have ever been. The landscape is dense with limestone karst peaks — tall, skinny mountains formed as their limestone erodes. They’re getting taller with time as more erosion occurs. Have you ever seen those funny upside-down “U” mountains on Chinese scroll paintings? I always thought that the Chinese just painted really stylized rather than realistic mountains. Nope. They’re just realistically painting karst mountains. Our hotel is on a little river with gentle rapids in a karst valley. Karst peaks loom around us, shrouded in mist in the morning, glowing orange in the sunset. Holidayers float down the river on bamboo rafts as ferrymen smoking and quietly gossiping with each other gracefully conduct them forward with their bamboo poles. We go for bike rides in the countryside and are surrounded by water buffalo, mynahs, lush bamboo and palm trees, fish farms, free range poulty, an astonishing variety of food crops, little bricks villages with hand pumps, and old women in bamboo hats. The locals sell passionfruit and beerfish and flower wreaths, and are unbelievably warm and friendly. I want to say so much more about this astonishing place, but time presses. Perhaps in a future post… It’s too soon to leave it behind, this slice of heaven we found.

The Dragon’s Backbone
On our last day in Guangxi, we drive for three hours, to the north of the province to the Longji (Dragon’s Backbone) rice terraces — tall mountains improbably terraced with rice paddies (and other mixed crops). Again, there is an hour’s climb up steep, winding steps in the hot son. But the view is worth the price of admission. From the highest vantages, the terraces form a giant backbone, ribs stretching fantastically to either side. Back down at eye level, we see lizards, a snake, a giant colourful centipede, enormous butterfies, moths and other insects, fat hens climbing free. Again, from on high and from closer to the ground, the views take our breath away.

Ok. I am out of time. No time to edit out all of the sentimentality and cliches engendered by our amazing last two weeks in China. Next time I post, we’ll be home. So long, China. You have changed us irrevocably.

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