Touristy Bits

Friday was my first full day and since I was feeling fresh I dove straight in to sightseeing. First stop, Lama Temple. Lama Temple was originally a residence for court eunuchs, but it was converted in to a home for monks in the 18th century.

I am not a great sightseer but Lama Temple was conveniently located so it took minimal effort to get myself over there. I paid my entry fee and followed the other visitors to pick up the complimentary bundle of incense.

A sign over the incense dispensary instructed to “burn three sticks of incense” but the first thing I saw when I stepped in to the main courtyard was a number of people burning their whole bundle. Being myself, I immediately went in to agonies over whether it was more correct to follow their lead or to limit myself to the instructed three sticks.

I succumbed to mimicry, and joined the group lighting their bundles over the flames. I took my burning incense, kneeled on the kneeling device, executed a few bows, and prayed that I hadn’t done anything unlucky or offensive. After my little ritual was complete, I dumped my burden and wandered off to explore.

The primary decorations of the Lama Temple are buddhas. Paintings of buddhas, statues of buddhas, and one 18 meter tall carved image of Maitraya the future buddha. Buddha statues aren’t exactly a novelty to me since I’ve visited many around the world but this temple has quite a collection of tantric Buddhas. These are all statues of Buddhas entangled with consorts, except displayed with modesty blankets. I couldn’t help but be amused by the heads poking out above the blankets, leaving their dirty deeds up to the imagination.

As I wandered through the halls I continued to observe the incense burners. Many appeared to be rationing their sticks in order to burn at each station, and offerings of unburned incense were made as well. It may have been a bit rash to burn them all at once but at least I didn’t have to carry them around for the entire visit.

From Lama Temple it was another easy walk to the Temple of Confucius. I am not very learned when it comes to Confucius, but he has earned his spot as a fascinating historical figure. The information scattered around the complex was of variable level of interest but it was enough to make me want to learn more.

The temple in the complex was built in 1302, but most of the other buildings were built in later expansions. Of greater interest to me were the trees. There were a number of beautiful, gnarled old Cypress trees over seven hundred years old. I wandered around appreciating the peacefulness of the complex, and smiled at a woman making beautiful sounds with a brass musical device.

Beijing, nihao!

This is my second big trip traveling alone, and I was only marginally less terrified at the outset then I was when I left for Peru in 2009. There are all the ordinary concerns of travel– theft, scam artists, water quality, and what to pack, but as a solo woman the always-present threat of sexual violence dwarfs all of that.

On the flip side, there are few better ways to assert your independence than to complete a successful solo journey. I still remember how proud I was when I safely returned from Peru and the worst thing that happened was I lost my toothbrush.

As an experienced traveler I know how unnecessary it is to plan everything in advance, but I always take extra care choosing my first night’s lodging. For this trip it meant spending a little extra to stay in an AirBnb. My hosts were Noel & Jonathan, a couple hailing from California who had moved to Beijing five years ago and never got around to leaving. Coincidentally, we actually had a Facebook friend in common.

Noel & Jonathan live in an apartment that is a hybrid of Western and Traditional styles. A traditional apartment would have an outdoor restroom, and the bedrooms would be connected by a courtyard. Their apartment has two stories and indoor toilets with only the guest room requiring a trip outside.

Indoor toilets are great in theory, but in China you can not flush toilet paper and the sewage system is subpar. They have been largely successful minimizing odor but they informed me that it was much worse when they first moved in. My hosts told me horror stories of apartment buildings where the plumbing directed odors straight up, and the higher your floor the more you suffered.

A typical Chinese apartment will have no decoration or color, with the exception perhaps of an image of Chairman Mao. Noel brightened up the apartment by hanging tapestries and art. I got to experience the surprise first hand when a Chinese friend of theirs saw their apartment for the first time and explained it was unlike anything he had seen before.

They also had wet bathrooms, which are common across Asia. This means the toilet, sink, shower, and often the washing machine, are all in the same room. It was a little strange at first but I got used to it pretty quickly.

The location of the apartment was ideal. They live in a residential lane (hutong) a short distance from the Lama Temple and the Temple of Confucius, as well as a charming street full of cafés and western or foreign style restaurants. The hutongs are your best chance at falling in love with the city as they are full of humanity and charm. They are treelined and have mostly single or double storied buildings. A strange juxtaposition with the massive development of the outer parts of the city.

Home Away From Home

I generally make an effort to see the most notable sights when I travel, but it’s the people I meet who make the experience special. Noel & Jonathan were incredible hosts and within a day I knew that I would be ditching my hostel booking to extend my stay with them. Too hell with my (completely undefined) budget!

The night I arrived, they were both waiting for me in their home. Straight off, they suggested I refresh myself with a shower and we should go find dinner. I enthusiastically agreed, because who wants to make decisions after a long plane flight!

They decided to take me to Stuff’d, a sausage restaurant that could easily have come straight out of Brooklyn. They make their own sausages with imported meat to ensure quality, as well as offering their own brews. We ordered a nice selection of sausages plus this ridiculous calzone like thing called “The Last Supper,” stuffed with a hamburger patty and pepperoni. It was pretty damn tasty.

Over dinner and the following days, I learned a lot about Jonathan & Noel. Jonathan is from San Francisco, and Noel grew up on a ranch in California. They moved to Beijing for Jonathan’s schooling. They are both intelligent, kind, generous people. And they are extremely religious and politically conservative. Like, almost worked for Sarah Palin/not repulsed by the tea party conservative.

This was an interesting turn of events for me. While I have some religious friends and likely some conservative friends, the reality is I almost entirely interact with progressives and most do not participate in organized religion. To encounter intelligent, open-minded people of this sort whom I liked and respected was a bit of a shock.

In no way did they try push their beliefs on me, but religion and their politics are heavily entwined in their lives so it came up often.

I met many friends of theirs who all had a connection to the church. I joined them for a dinner that was followed by a Christian discussion group, but I slipped out as they listened to a sermon. I conversed with their guests, but kept silent when the discussions turned to God working through a famous young woman, to help her do great things. I never quite got to a place where I felt comfortable saying “Actually, I don’t believe in any gods.”

Unemployment Done Right

In April I parted ways with my employer for the last two years, Paperless Post. It was unexpected and stressful, but it also felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. It had been clear to me for months that we had a mismatch of understanding and values and the work environment was not one where I could thrive.

The timing was almost perfect as my lease in Fort Greene would be ending at the end of May. I started looking for jobs in London and had a few promising leads. Most notably a position at the design studio Ustwo that I was feeling nervously optimistic about.

I was very disappointed when things didn’t work out with Ustwo and briefly returned to the job hunt before I had a moment where I asked myself why I was in such a hurry to get back to the grind. Immediately I started looking up airfares and within a few days my plans started coming together.

I knew that I wanted this to be more than a holiday, so I decided from the start to commit to integrate self study and learning with my travels. I am lugging my laptop along so I can work on my technical skills, including ones that kept the Ustwo position just out of reach for now.

I have also wanted to address my addiction to stimulation. For example, I rarely watch a TV show or movie without simultaneously playing a game on my phone or browsing Reddit. Sitting patiently without engaging myself in some activity is extremely difficult. A strict practice of meditation seemed the best way to address this, so I applied for a 7-day course in Chiang Mai.

With all that to consider, here is my final itinerary:

Beijing: 6/12 – 6/19
Seoul: 6/19 – 6/24
Siem Riep: 6/24 – 7/2
Chiang Mai: 7/2 – 7/30
Hawaii: 7/30-8/6

I’m already over a week in to my trip, so I will be posting about my experiences retrospectively and back dating the posts.