02/02/17 – China’s End: Reflections and Hutongs

Current feeling after four weeks: what this insane bronze from Sanxingdui looks like.

I’ll be honest with you all: I’m really glad the last four days in Beijing were somewhat anticlimactic – I don’t think I could’ve done another cave-temple or done another trek or rode another train. With 6,800 km covered on trains and buses between Beijing, Xian, Turfan, Dunhuang, Lanzhou, Shuiliandong, Tianshui, Guangyuan, Chengdu, Rongxian, Leshan, Chengdu again, Xian again, Luoyang, and then back to Beijing, it’s time to fly somewhere. And that somewhere is Seoul for a fun 22-hour layover, all courtesy of Seoul International Airport’s airport transit tours. These tours, for the maximum of $10 USD, will take you anywhere, and all depend on the amount of time you’ve got between flights. I’ve got nearly a day, so I’m taking the five-hour tour into Seoul, but any amount of time from a couple of hours to nearly a day will allow for a tour. The shortest one goes to a local temple near the airport, while the longest in summer season (7 hours) goes all the way to the DMZ between North and South Korea. Plenty of options, and I’ll let you know how the five-hour Seoul tour goes.

Spoiler alert – I started this entry last night but finished when I got to Phnom Penh so I’ve already been and gone. An entry on Seoul is coming up tomorrow – it wasn’t half-bad for something you buy discount at the airport!

The real spoiler, though: *whispers* the roofs are slightly different in Korea…

 But back to China, at least for one more post. I spent my last two days alone in Beijing trying to get the Er-fo-si model finished, and as of tonight it’s on it’s last hour of aligning the chunks to make the statue. I had to sacrifice my computer’s battery to keep my phone charged, so I had to restart the model from scratch. But between yelling at my internet (a recurring theme in these last four weeks), eating some really good food in the Sage Youth Hostel bar, and going on a short hunt for a new Macbook cable in Wanfujing, I decided to check out the National Museum in the morning and Nanluoguxiang Hutong in the evening.

This museum gets a bit of a bad rap for underplaying both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but with a signboard like that are you at all surprised?


The National Museum (and I say this now because I’m far away from the Great Firewall of China) was a really nice museum turned into a headache by the hordes of people who’d come from their villages to the capital following Chinese New Year to be good patriots. Chinese patriotism, as I’ve come to learn, is a mass-migration, and while it’s a really interesting social phenomenon that shows how much the Chinese love their country, it’s loud, boorish, rude and overall a pain in the ass for any traveler not used to getting unapologetically knocked in the head by a selfie stick every half-hour. I dwelt on this a bit last time talking about the Temple of Heaven, but I never expected to come to the National Museum and find this:



And that was only the first line, which took little over an hour.

Then this one…
Then we double-back…
Still not as bad as Tiananmen Square across the street – that place was a zoo!


Two-and-a-half hours later, i.e. the longest line I’ve waited in outside an airport or an amusement park, you get to a really nice museum with a vast collection of ancient Chinese artifacts.

Another of the alien heads from Sanxingdui in Sichuan – Francesca and I were supposed to go there but the trains heading out of Chengdu were completely packed the day before Chinese New Year.
Bronze ritual pot, Zhou Dynasty (c. 1000 – 700 BCE)
Mini terracotta army, Han Dynasty Tomb (205 BC – 226 BCE) – the Qin Emperor coined the phrase “go big or go home” with his giant afterlife army. The Han Emperors, meanwhile, wanted their dynasty to survive longer than twenty years so they invested more into infrastructure than attempting to be a Pharaoh.
Porcelain “moon flask” – late Qing/early Ming Dynasty.


Bronze Rhino – Western Han Dynasty (25 CE – 226 CE). You can tell by now that I’m pretty into ancient Chinese bronzework. There were other cool things in the museum but the bronzes took the cake easily.

But was the wait worth what was inside? The jury’s still out on that considering I spent two hours in the museum but two-and-a-half hours outside in the cold.

The Nanluoguxiang Hutong, meanwhile, was the lighter side of the intense consumerism that’s grasped China in the last twenty years. A Hutong, as I mentioned in my last entry, is an ancient residential or commercial road that was spared the wrath of the CCP’s attempt to bulldoze the ancient city of Beijing and turned into a modern strip mall inside of the ancient buildings. Nanluoguxiang is one of the largest in Beijing, and the time to go is at night because the lights come on and the crowds begin to gather. And it’s unbelievably kitsch and fun, a great last sightseeing and window-shopping opportunity for my last night in Beijing.

Hutong by day…


Hutong by night!


I’ve found that during Chinese New Year the evening is the best time to go out and see things. Case and point: Rongxian’s lantern festival.


This is a newer trend in China: sparking lights hanging from storefronts.


Everyone who goes to China with a bit of money in their pocket should do this: buy a seal, like this one, and on the spot the engraver will engrave your name alongside a rough translation in antique Chinese characters. And then you have a family seal!
Not quite sure what to make of this one…is it some good old fashioned Han racism towards the other 55 ethnic groups in China or just a bunch of fat dolls in Tibetan garb?
From Chengdu they come, to Beijing they travel, we must always have pandas, or society unravels.

The next afternoon I was in a cab to Peking, and because I started writing this entry in the airport, I’ll keep the timeline consistent. Pretend I’m not actually in Phnom Penh right now, or in South Korea, but I’m still sitting waiting for a flight to Seoul. It’s 4:30 in the evening and the gate is empty because I’m three hours early. I put my feet up, and give myself some time to think about the last four weeks:

Oh, wait, the last time I did that in a Chinese airport I got stuck on an airplane for twelve hours trying to get to Shanghai Pudong…bring the brain back, bring the brain back!

I’ve never traveled so far in such little time in my life. The rugged, survivalist, devil-may-care attitude that Francesca brought to the table was both treacherous and rewarding. For two-and-a-half weeks, especially during the last week before we got to Rongxian, we traveled by the seat of our pants. That seat-pants-traveling, of course, made me much more relaxed and devil-may-care about being incredibly organized and meticulous about planning every detail of every voyage to a T. That’s something that’s got me into trouble in the past, especially the last time I was in China where I had to stay up all night through a delay in order to travel the entire way across Shanghai from Pudong to Hongqiao, pick up my girlfriend on the way (who was on a direct flight from Singapore to Shanghai) at our hotel, scramble to pick up our tickets, and then jump on the high-speed train at the last minute. This trip made me realize that China can rarely be planned in advance, and while you can try, things like snow in Urumqi, Chinese New Year, or being dragged out to dinner every night with De Ge in order for him to save face as a good host will always get in the way.

Or to a Lantern Festival after five days of nonstop travel which likely led to my hypothermia – in hindsight a jacket might’ve been a good idea too.

If there had to be a lesson learned from Francesca, it was this: travel light, travel flexibly, but don’t be Grizzly Man. That woman…she makes my travel stamina look like I take package deals to the Caribbean on a regular basis. There’s a happy medium to be found between my past bad habits of overplanning’s and Francesca’s, a woman who prides herself in riding a train all the way to Kashgar every Chinese New Year and lamented that this year we only got to Turfan, insanity. But it was a lesson that needed learning, because if we’d only tried to get train tickets on direct routes we’d still be stuck in Lanzhou right now.

Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 2.12.44 PM.png
The final map – 6800 km by train and bus.

Those indirect routes and haphazard experiences led to some of the most amazing sites and experiences of the trip. Our random decision to scramble up the mountain directly west of Bezeklik led to arguably the most incredible view I’ve seen off a mountain since the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. Catching various local buses and hitchhiking down random country roads almost entirely cured my claustrophobia, and made me comfortable with riding in cars with livestock – we had twenty people and two ducks in the van up to Shuiliandong. And both the mountain-monastery at Shuiliandong and the incredible niches at Qianfoya were products of mini-layovercations themselves. And don’t get me started on Rongxian – the only reason we found the ancient road was because we scrambled up both sides of Longdong Canyon on a hunch. Just stopping to smell the roses and throw away the rulebook for a minute made these experiences happen, allowed for our research to come together, and created a “go big or go home” mindset that resulted in three giant photogrammetry models that are currently too big for my computer but were a Herculean task to photograph. They will someday work…the damn computer, not the photography involved, is the problem.

It also resulted in everything we did for the last four days leading up to coming back to Beijing. Longmen was Francesca’s idea, the pandas were mine, and we both looked up from our plates one night over dinner in Rongxian and said together, “we should go to Leshan”. It made for arguably the most enjoyable four days of non-research on the trip.

What a beast…

The survey we did prepared me so well for what I’m going to be doing next in Cambodia. The cloud cover, the elevation frenzy, the 10-12m errors, the barometer pressure going crazy, all that dumb shit with the GPS never happened in Toronto when I was practicing. Even though our points line up well and will either lead to a preliminary publication or a second survey season with some clearance, and the road we found is projected near-perfectly on the (non-Google Earth – that’s tomorrow’s project) GIS model, mapping in Rongxian was an exercise in patience. I can only assume my error is going to be high under the jungle canopy, but thankfully I’m just clarifying points, not taking them, so it shouldn’t be an issue. Thank you worst conditions ever – you’ve prepared me for sunny days and absolutely no elevation.

I will not miss the cloud cover.

On that note, I wanted to thank everyone who made this project possible in its first fledgling season: the researchers at the Mogao Research Institute including Zhao Laoshi, De Ge and the staff at Da-fo-si working for the County of Rongxian, Li Fei in Chengdu, and Yu Laoshi and her team (who we’ll likely be working with next year in Rongxian if I so choose to go back for another season to clear the road) at the University of Xian.

But of course, none of this and I mean none of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for Francesca. She’s absolutely bat-shit insane, and she knows I think so, but I would never want her to change a thing…except not losing the clipboard that one time and also not dragging me up the mountain outside of Rongxian when I had those paralyzing shivers (which we’ve now established was hypothermia). I would follow her to the ends of the earth on whatever research project she decides to take on next, but not without teaching her that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I sometimes need to eat it. Francesca Monteith, you’re a bad-ass motherfucker, so just do you and I’ll try to get my creature comforts in somewhere…i.e. food and sleep. Goes to show that most geniuses are insomniacs. I will settle for being well-rested and of above-average intelligence.

The usual pose of me going: “Hey is that…” and Francesca interjecting with “nope, it’s not.” “But…” “Nope, keep walking.” Photo courtesy of Erin West outside of Bezeklik.

I thought I’d leave this entry with a set of Greatest Hits/blooper photos of the last four weeks, more involving actual photos me, Francesca, and Erin instead of ruins and monuments. Every photo is its own story, so take a look at the captions and enjoy The China Project 2017 with me one last time:

My failed attempt at archery, Emin Minaret. (Francesca Monteith)
Three goofballs at the Turfan Museum (random museum administrator)
That pretty much sums up how we felt about food the evening after we climbed the mountain at Bezeklik (Erin West).
Erin ran back and forth constantly trying to get the timer on the camera right – the first few shots were of our feet. But Jiaohe looked great! (Erin West)
Just about to clear the tumbleweed out of the cave we photographed, and about 1/2 of the researchers at Mogao were there with us (Erin West)
The orange boot coverings are China’s way of getting you up and down the Dunhuang sand dunes without getting sand in your boots. It was surprisingly effective but you could probably see me from space (Erin West)
Journey to the West Cultural Theme Park, Bezeklik – this was too weird for words so we kept walking (Erin West)


Bus-stop propaganda in Xinjiang – rough translation is  “Don’t follow false stories, look for the source of the rivers”. i.e. Beijing > Islam.
Take a knee, Erin – you’re above the most epic view in China!
The Hall of Severed Hands, Turfan Museum. We took turns trying to figure out where the rest of the bodies ended up.
What I now think of when I hear the term “internet troll”, Maijishan Caves.
Sad Arhat is sad, Longmen Grottoes – the one thing that Chinese artisans never quite mastered was the side-profile, but they were leagues ahead of medieval Europe.
More bathtime for Buddha, Er-fo-si. I thought I was finished but that was rag two of…twelve? (Francesca Monteith)
The first of two monasteries at Shuiliandong – prone to rockslides (I assume), this is somehow 200 years old.


January 29th in Beijing, a city with a population of +/- 20 million people, and we somehow made it onto the busiest line in the system with NO ONE ON THE TRAIN. Both frightening and necessary (Francesca Monteith)
Walking in Gaocheng – that path was rarely used on our way around the site. Why? Well, when studying ancient civilizations, it’s always better to walk in broken footsteps than in flawed modern ones.


Oh, wait one last thing: a gratuitously cute video of baby pandas…thought I’d save the best for last!

See you in South Korea and Cambodia!

Andrew Harris

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