Mathematicians Without Borders
The following pages were written in my journal on each of the ten days that I travelled through China with my calculus classmates in April 2012. The twelve of us and our ten chaperones made up the Mathematicians Without Borders 2012 of Peru, New York. We travelled exceptionally far geographically and culturally on our trip and I can only pray that I adequately captured the awe of our days in China in the following pages.
Without further ado, here are my fond memories!
April 5, 2012
What a beginning to our trip! We are missing a person, it is 4 a.m. and I am jacked up on caffeine! Mr. Chen and Gabby were supposed to be carpooling to meet the bus, but she didn’t show up at his house, so he went to hers instead. He found it dark, the phone-line unresponsive, and a large guard-dog unwilling to let him past. When he showed up at the school without her, he reported that even honking the car horn did not rouse a response from the house.
We have now driven the whole bus to her house. And finally she’s awake and coming! Next stop: the border!
And now excitement can set in for china! Twenty-four straight hours of travel ahead! And then China!
Delay number two: A tour bus full of Hasidic Jews is stopped in front of us at the border. Border control is removing all of their bags to check over. They’ll probably have to do the same for us when it’s our turn.
April 6? 2012
We are following the sun west, so the light hasn’t ceased. It’s nearly 4 a.m. Eastern North American time, but 4 p.m. Beijing time. Thanks to the light, I’m not really tired… I think. Okay, so it’s a little confusing. However, I do know that Beijing time is five hours ahead of Germany time, where some of my friends are this month.
I’m not sure how much longer this flight is… A few hours? Surely no more than that… I’m thinking I might have unusually bad jetlag on this trip.
We are in China! We went through customs, baggage claim, and now we’re on the bus, waiting to begin. It’s evening here, but we won’t waste any time! Now our tour guide is speaking!
April 7, 2012
First morning of waking up in Shanghai and it certainly feels like a city, but from the view out of my hotel window, you wouldn’t know it’s Asia.
Last night as we drove into the city everything was lit up. It was absolutely spectacular! All of the buildings had lights and many of them were multicolored lights. Even the deciduous trees lining the road had lights in them. To say it was breath-taking might not even be adequate. It was like being inside of a kaleidoscope, but much brighter. Of course, it is a city, so I couldn’t see the stars, but the city lights made up for that smog and light pollution induced problem.
Our first stop last night was to go to the top of the highest building in Shanghai and one of the tallest in all of China. On the top, observatory level it was all glass, even part of the floor.
Where to begin?!
First of all I knew nothing of crazy driving before coming here. The drivers here DO NOT stop for pedestrians. We almost got killed. And our bus pulled a U-turn in the middle of an intersection!
We started the day with a visit to a temple. We learned just a fraction of what we could, given the time restraint. For example, a swastika symbol on a statue’s chest was supposed to symbolize fertility; not the Nazis.
Before we could leave the temple complex (Buddhist I think), we were asked to sit through a sampling tea ceremony. They had us try several different types of tea and explained the benefits of each one. They showed us the cleaning of the leaves and tried to sell us teacups. They made no profit from us though because Mr. Chen told us that if we wanted to buy tea, then we ought to wait and buy it in a better place.
Our next stop was lunch, which entailed all of us being seated around a large circular table. The food was all placed on a central turning part that rotated as we all selected from a variety of dishes. My favorite was chicken in an unrecognizable, orange colored sauce.
The toilet- well I’m not sure it can rightfully be called a toilet. I’m going to have to term it more specifically as a “glorified hole in the ground.” On the bright side: toilet paper was provided!
Following lunch, we visited the Yu garden. It was very beautiful, filled with traditional Asian touches, such as koi fish and a gigantic three toed dragon. I specify three toed because the original owner of the garden should have been executed for decorating with a dragon (as that was a right reserved only for the emperor). However, he reasoned with the emperor that a real dragon should have five toes, while his had only three, so he was permitted to live on merit of his cleverness.
Our day nowhere near completion, we spent two hours at an inside market. We came up with an idea to buy tassels with a Chinese symbol to put on our graduation caps. We didn’t buy them on the spot though; we’ll have lots of opportunities.
Our evening was supposed to come to a close with an acrobatics show (although it continued on much later). I know the first and last couple of acts were great, but I’m ashamed to admit that I slept through a large part of the show, as did many of my jetlagged classmates.
I tire now, as the hour creeps past midnight, so I’ll plan on continuing to recount the tale tomorrow.
April 8, 2012
A great last morning in Shanghai! But first, I won’t be very pleased with myself down the line if I don’t recount the rest of yesterday’s events.
After waking up from the possibly spectacular acrobat show, we went back to the hotel where the group was minimized down to nine students and three chaperones. Our plan was to go to the Bund, to view the city lights from across the river. Our bus was done for the night, so instead we went to the subway. I was shocked to see how very clean it was, sparkling white in fact! It is by far the cleanest subway station I have ever seen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until we were already on the train that we learned it was the last train of the night, so we had to get off and switch directly to the train to where we’d come from without seeing the lights on the Bund. It seems the whole city shuts down by eleven o’clock. We grabbed a quick meal at a noodle joint on our way back, but we were the last customers in there because it had an eleven o’clock closing time.
The noodle joint: how on earth were we expected to eat noodle soup with chopsticks?! We managed it, but it was challenging and nobody managed to drink the broth. The longer we worked at it, the more adept we became, but the place was closing and the hour was late, so we didn’t linger.
This morning the same group of students, minus Abby, went with Mr. Chen on a walk to a street vendor who was selling scallion pancakes. We each tried to varieties, which were both concoctions of greasy deliciousness, as well as soy milk which was quite sweet. I brought some back for Sonja and my mom, who also found it much to their liking. Thus far, the only food I’ve tried that I didn’t like was a meat dumpling that Mr. Chen got for everybody on the first night.
On our walk to the scallion pancake booth we passed a group of elderly men and women practicing tai chi (spelling?). Their motions were exceptionally smooth and controlled. Watching made me want to jump in and try! On our way back, they were done, so we waved to them. Mr. Chen stopped, said a few words to them in Chinese, and the next thing we knew we were posing for a picture with several of them!
Hearing Mr. Chen communicate in Chinese has been pretty cool. We would certainly be lost without him! It makes my desire to become proficient in a second language that much stronger!
We took a walk before we had to check out at the hotel. Mr. Chen led the way while the rest of us didn’t really know where we were, which was fine because we were just enjoying the experience. Our first stop was at a stand where fruit was being sold. We didn’t go for the ordinary fruit though! Leaning against the stand were several very tall, apparently wood sticks or approximately three inches diameter: sugar cane. Naturally, we were unable to resist, so Mr. Chen bought us one cane (which was much longer than I am tall). The man at the stand started shaving the bark off of the base of the sugar cane. With about ten inches exposed, he invited….
…One of us to grab ahold of the shaved end of the sugar cane. Raelyn stepped up and did as he requested. With her hand firmly holding the cane, he chopped the end piece off. He repeated the action until most of us had pieces of the sugar cane. After photographs had been taken, we all bit small chunks off and sucked the sugar water out before spitting them on the ground. I can truthfully say that I have spit on the streets of Shanghai.
Our day went on with a subway trip to the Bund where we viewed some of the most distinctive buildings in the city. We saw this as a great photo opportunity, so we took out our Press Republicans from home and devised several poses. In one the boys held Mr. Chen parallel to the ground. In another we formed the letters of CHINA with our bodies. In the third several excited Chinese people posed with us. In the final shot we created a four-tiered pyramid in which I was hoisted to the very top. As we took our photos an enormous crowd of Chinese people gathered to watch us, some snapping their own photos of us, the crazy Americans. At least we know those pictures won’t be winding up on Facebook because Facebook is blocked in China!
Much of our afternoon experience consisted of walking and looking around. Our final Shanghai stop was another market where my mom and I purchased a ton of tea.
With our shopping done and many more bags being toted, the whole group went to the train station where we got onboard a soft-sleeper. We’ll be in the cramped quarters of our train cabin for fifteen hours. When I wake tomorrow we will nearly be in Xi’an!
April 9, 2012
I rose with the sun this morning, so I went out into the train corridor with several other members of the group to view the countryside as we rolled through.
The sights are pretty amazing. We’ve seen shepherds with sheep and vast farmland. I wonder what they’re farming. Rice?
Most of the buildings have been huts, or houses just above the level of huts. There were also some caves that we learned people used to live in. The least aesthetically pleasing structures were refineries and what appeared to be nuclear power plants.
The narration from Mr. Chen as we go is very helpful and interesting. He told us that some of the tea is grown so far up that the growers send monkeys up to pick the leaves!
A little while ago, several of us went for a walk to the end of the train. There we saw that there were six beds per compartment instead of our four. As cramped and uncomfortable as our space was, we had a bit of a reality check to see how tight space was at the other end of the train. That combined with the squalor viewed out of the train window makes me very thankful for the good fortune we have in the United States.
Xi’an is a small, traditional styled Chinese city. In other words, it’s bigger than New York City and people are encouraged to build in the style of the Tang dynasty. There is a twelve mile long wall that wraps around the part of the city that existed in Ancient times, but now that section simply forms the core of a city that has expanded greatly beyond it. In the late afternoon we rode bikes along the entire length of the wall. I found it to be an unexpectedly bumpy venture, but I enjoyed the view of the city that that the ride afforded me. The wall itself is certainly the most striking feature of the city. However, Xi’an has other great features that our visit wouldn’t have been complete without.
Our new tour guide loaded us into the bus and our second city exploration was underway. Midway through our drive we passed groups of teenagers in their school uniforms. We couldn’t help but marvel at how they were in a similar stage of life to us, yet their lives were extremely different from ours. For example, unlike us, they wouldn’t be off vacationing on spring break, the girls are not permitted to have long hair, and the students stay in one classroom while the teachers move rooms to instruct on their subjects.
Our goal on this foray was to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist holy site. It was a large complex, full of traditional style buildings and one seven level tower. We hiked to the top of the tower, snapping lots of pictures as we ascended. The view of the intricately designed buildings below was breath taking.
After we climbed back down the stairs our tour guide directed us to a room behind the gift shop. There, we received a basic lesson on Chinese calligraphy. The lesson was not scheduled but it was enjoyable none-the-less. The woman compared the old form of calligraphy with modern methods, painting some symbols as she went along. She finished with an explanation of meanings in some paintings, urging us to buy some (an offer we all refused).
Our next stop after tat was the previously mentioned sojourn on the wall. Just a few minutes ago, the segment of the group that I was with returned from dinner. While the others went to see the dancing fountain, we went to a splendid dumpling dinner and Tang dynasty show. There were eighteen dumplings available (I didn’t eat nearly that many). They were made in the shape of the animal or plant that they were filled with to help people identify them. My favorite shape, but least favorite taste was the turtle dumpling. The duck also had a cool shape. One dumpling looked distinctly like a dog head, so I couldn’t bring myself to try it. My absolute flavor was a walnut flavor. After I figured out that the shape represented a walnut rather than a brain as I had originally guessed, I eagerly snapped up three of them.
After we had finished eating, the lights dimmed and the Tang dynasty show began. It consisted of an hour of performers singing and dancing traditional routines from that era. They were dressed in clothes representative of the Tang dynasty as well. They were exquisitely detailed and full of a bright array of colors. Seeing that performance was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity, not unlike many of the experiences I’ve been having. One can’t help but stand in awe of it.
April 10, 2012
We went to see the Terracotta soldiers this morning! We started in pit one, which housed the largest number of the life sized clay men. What an amazing sight. Sometimes you simply need to take a moment to marvel at the capabilities of mankind. With simple tools and decades to work, 7000 workers created life-sized masterpieces that have managed to endure for thousands of years. And thus we twelve calculus students, and our chaperones, were able to see them today.
The sheer numbers of soldiers and the details on each one were utterly unbelievable. Their designation as one of the eight wonders of the world is well earned. Viewing the Terracotta soldiers has made this my favorite day of the trip thus far.
After leaving pit one we watched a brief historical movie and spent some time and the gift shop as well as a small museum display of some of the bronze weapons that have been found in the pits. Before a noodle lunch, we finished with a stroll through the area around the second and third pits. Instead of lining up restored soldiers in the pit itself, the workers have left pit two mostly as they found it, with just a few restored soldiers set up in glass cases on the platform for tourists to get a closer look at. The third pit was the smallest and many of the soldiers were headless because invaders had damaged that pit the most. There is a fourth site that hasn’t been excavated because it contains rivers of mercury; it’s far too dangerous.
A quick stop at a history museum and now we’re on our way again. It was nice to browse through the artifacts in the exhibits, but with only an hour to spend it was impossible to absorb even a fraction of the vast Chinese history.
A random note: before we leave this city I want to write in my journal that Xi’an is the start of the ancient Silk Road. If that doesn’t attest to ancient power, I don’t know what does! Being at this geographical point makes me think about how cool it would be to journey (though not on foot!) along the ancient route of the Silk Road.
Our last stop in Xi’an was the Muslim section. I couldn’t help but mentally compare it to Istanbul and my experiences there last summer.
Just a few of us went to see the mosque. It wasn’t as awe-inspiring as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, but it was interesting. The writing was both Chinese and Arabic. Another extremely noticeable difference was the apparent lack of a minaret. Unlike the overwhelming tile surroundings of Turkey, everything was built out of wood; a beautiful marriage of the Muslim and Chinese styles.
After visiting the Mosque, we walked down through the Muslim market area. Again the wares were a mix of cultures. Our tour guide even told us that the Muslim Xi’an residents even have a distinct accent. After leaving the market to head toward the bus, the three chaperones I was with and I got lost enough that we made it back to the bus ten minutes late.
We’re on a soft-sleeper train again for the night. This time when we wake up we will be in Beijing.
April 11, 2012
We are in Beijing, capital of China! We’ve had a few luggage complications this morning, but the sun is shining and Beijing’s infamous smog is not very bad, so I am looking forward to a good day.
Our first stop today is the Temple of Heaven.
Wow! We all enjoyed that a lot! We spent some time in the garden before going into the temple. There were Chinese people everywhere, pursuing a range of activities. Some played badminton without a net, some played a game akin to hacky-sack, others participated in tai chi, many played Chinese poker, and one large group was doing Tibetan dancing. After a few minutes of observing and learning the basic motions, we jumped in and joined them. We didn’t have nearly the grace that they possessed, but it was easy to quickly catch on to how to do it. It consisted of a lot of arm waving and slight footsteps, moving us in a big circle. It could be done either vigorously or more serenely, giving all participants the freedom to do it however they liked.
The Temple of Heaven itself had a number of beautiful buildings throughout the area. The main tower was an imposing behemoth of glossy green and blue paint. I’d like to think its luster had endured for thousands of years, but our tour guide told us that the buildings were refurbished a few hundred years ago. As glorious as the Temple of Heaven seemed, it turned out it was entirely outshone by the Summer Palace, which was our next location.
The summer palace might have been equal to the summer palace had it not been for the Summer Palace’s natural beauty. Many trees were in bloom. Who could resist the charm of soft pink and white flower blossoms? As we moved further in, our gazes were drawn to weeping willow trees that leaned out over the water of an enormous man-made lake. The most distinctive feature of the summer palace was the 700-step Buddhist temple. We didn’t climb all the way to the top, but we did go quite high. Our climb was motivated by a desire to see the view, but the emperors of ancient times believed that they had to climb to that height to show the gods the extent of their devotion.
Our last significant stop of the day was Beijing University where we met up with Laura Scott, who is in a study abroad program. It was interesting to mentally compare the American Universities to this Chinese one… I think I prefer the American universities overall. I also relished the chance to see a how Laura’s study abroad program worked, I could be in a similar situation at some point in the next four years!
April 12, 2012
Today we started in Tiananmen Square. It was a little daunting to stand in that enormous, strictly regulated space. I couldn’t help but marvel at how the hoards of people easily stepped across a plaza that once ran with the blood of innocents. I myself walked over the ground without hesitation, yet I dwelled on the fact that people had died where I stood.
Figuring we would never have the chance again, we joined the queue and went through security to view Mao Zedong’s body. The security was very tight. There were metal detectors, cameras were forbidden, and guards were posted everywhere. Inside the building a guard was very quick to silence Senora Delucas when she whispered just a few words.
The sheer number of flowers being laid down in the tomb was astounding. While western teaching proclaims Mao to be a monster, a title I believe he as earned, in China he is still worshipped, still a national hero. It boggles my mind.
Furthermore, what our tour guide said was interesting, but what he didn’t say was equally interesting. He completely glossed over the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
I’m tired now, so I’ll finish my account of today’s events on the bus tomorrow.
April 13, 2012
Well, today has dawned bright and hot.
Yesterday was also quite warm as we trekked through the Forbidden City. It was amazing how vast the emperor’s palace was. It consisted of a seemingly endless series of courtyards. Each one had a unique and specific purpose. He first courtyard had a river running through it and several stone bridges crossing it and from there the show of riches and power only increased until the emperor’s own living quarters and then the imperial garden.
One of my classmates told me that we walked about three miles in the Forbidden City. I don’t know if I quite believe that, but it seems like a proper measure of the humongous scope of the area.
The big event of the evening was a Kung Fu show. The performers showed off stunning feats, such as flipping through the air, breaking sticks on their heads, and moving with startling grace and speed.
After the show we walked through a sort of marketplace on our way to find quick and easy food. In the section of the marketplace we passed through vendors were selling highly unusual meats. It seemed like everything was skewered. I recognized starfish, which I rather wanted to try, but I didn’t have time to stop and buy. We had suspicions that anther meat was snake, but there was no way to find out as we hurried past. And most shocking: they had speared LIVE scorpions. The little guys were still struggling, wriggling around, waving their creepy-crawly legs. It is my understanding that they are perfectly edible once they’ve been fried, but I don’t think I’d be able to shove my disgust aside for long enough to choke one down.
Right now we are on a long bus ride to the great wall, for which I’m enormously excited. We are going to a part of the wall that has a reputation for being a little less crowded, so my hope is that we won’t be too overwhelmed by other tourists.
The Great Wall was a perfect start to the day. We zoomed past the vendors and started the climb. Before the trip I always thought of being on the wall and not of the process of getting up there. It turned out to be a long climb up stairs cut into the hillside. Once we finally made it to the wall there were stairs and slopes in the wall itself that had to be traversed to hike along the wall.
Looking at the well-laid bricks, it’s hard to believe they were laid thousands of years ago without modern technology. China’s ancient power is truly a tangible thing from the vantage point of the wall.
Down at the bottom again, the vendors swarmed around us like maggots, vying for the best position, the best price, and a profit that will allow their survival.
After lunch we went to the Beijing zoo. Our main intent was to view the pandas. They were of course very cute although I found it to be a sad situation. I don’t believe in holding wild animals in captivity, but my classmates all enjoyed viewing the animals.
Our main evening event is going to be the famous Peking duck feast.
April 14, 2012
Last full day in China! I’m sad to be nearly at the end of this once in a lifetime trip. And I really don’t want to leave this warm weather behind. However, my life awaits me in Peru, New York.
The Peking duck dinner last night was my favorite meal of the trip. There were many of the usual array of dishes to choose from, but several of them were different from the standard ones we’ve had and the deviations from the norm were quite delicious. After everything else was already on the table, they brought out the ducks and carved them right in front of us. Some people didn’t like seeing them carved, but it was a little cool to see part of the process, and to witness their expertise.
Dessert in China is not usually a sugary treat like in America. Here we’ve come to expect a small plate of fruit to be brought at the end of the meal. Every time it has been something we’re familiar with, but last night was different. They brought us slices of dragonfruit. The outside is pink-red and spiny but the inside is off-white, speckled with black seeds. I found it enjoyable to eat; soft but a little bland.
Our last day was relaxing. We started with an easy climb to a temple pavilion. From there we had a gorgeous view of the Forbidden City. The smog took away from the view a little bit, but the sight was still great. From that vantage point it was easy to imagine old imperial China.
Our day continued with lunch in a Chinese couple’s modest home in the Huotong district. They set up two tables for our group an before the meal they showed us how to make dumplings. We were shown three different folding methods and even given the opportunity to try the easiest method. I spooned a mixture of chives and pork onto a small circle of dough and then pinched it closed the way I was shown. My dumpling was fried along with the rest of the batch and served to us with the meal.
Not wanting a strenuous last day, our only other major activity was final souvenir hunt at a market.
Not a bad last day at all!