Sam's Trip to China

Two years of college Chinese was not enough 😅

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

8 March ’20

My Chinese last name is “马”. It’s a common last name, often used by Muslim-Chinese, and it’s literal meaning is “horse”. My first year Chinese teacher picked it our for me because it’s an approximate transliteration; the character is pronounced “mah” kind of like the first syllable of “Maynard”.

So when my whole family, Dad, Max, and Eli came to visit, we were four 马 running around. We took to calling ourselves the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Shepherding the three of them around was not easy! Eli had spent the last six weeks up in 上海 (Shanghai) as a camp counselor and had learned just enough Chinese to get himself into trouble. The other two knew nothing, besides, of course, 你好 (nihao “hello”) and 谢谢 (xiexie “thank you”). Max managed to pick up phrases like “I wish you peace” throughout the course of the trip, but certainly nothing useful like “I want two bowls of noodles” 😂

But we made it through in one piece! The nearly 900 photo album on google attests to our adventures - and below you’ll find a distilled version of it. All four of use went through every item and voted on inclusion. Items receiving three or four votes (a majority) made it to the commenting stage, where each person individually wrote up their thoughts on photos they felt inclined to. No one could see what anyone else wrote (besides me of course 😈).

The general route was 香港 (Hong Kong), 阳朔 (Yangshuo) (where we met up with Eli), 昆明 (Kunming), 峨眉山 (Emei Mountain), 成都 (Chengdu), 天水 (Tianshui), and finally 北京 (Beijing), as with all trips there were significantly fewer photos towards the end, but still enough!

Sam: Our journey began (a member short - Eli was still up in 上海 (Shanghai) being a camp counselor) in the towering city of 香港 (Hong Kong). My Chinese was useless half the time here, as the locals speak Cantonese, which is entirely inoperable with the Mandarin I had learned. But I’ve already talked some about Hong Kong before!

Dad: A beautiful city wrapped up in an ugly power struggle. Didn’t see any violence during our brief stay, but our hearts go out to those who do.

Sam: Our first (and only!) dimsum of the trip - dimsum is not too friendly towards vegetarians, of which we had two (Max and I). Still, if you go to Hong Kong you have to get dimsum, so we went to 添好運 (Tim Ho Wan) one of the most famous spots in the city. What I’m holding is fried milk - absolutely delicious.

Max: Fried milk blep!

Dad: One of the Eightfold path: right focus.

Sam: Found by Maxwell at the Hong Kong Museum of History, he sent it to our group chat and we all cracked up when Eli responded “pls no”

Eli: 我是小人,请别打我!(Editor’s note: Eli has taken a semester of Chinese in his first year of college and is showing off here 😂 This means: “I am the little person, please don’t hit me!”)

Max: Ancient china was indeed a land of sophisticated beliefs and cultures…

Sam: Taken in the 广州 (Guangzhou) train station when we were transferring. My favorite part of the photo is the cell phone in the little girl’s hand that she can barely hold!

Eli: (Not pictured) There was a setup in this building with three TVs side-by-side with an advertisement playing across all three of them. If I remember correctly, the TVs would also move. (Editor’s note: Eli was not actually here, and so must be remembering a different train station)

Dad: They’re actually the same size - it’s all a matter of perspective.

Sam: Our second destination - 阳朔 (Yangshuo) ! The Chinese have a saying about this place - 桂林山水甲天下,阳朔山水甲桂林 (Guilin shanshui jiatianxia, Yangshuo shanshui jiaguilin “Guilin is the most beautiful place in China, and Yangshuo is the most beautiful place in Guilin). We spent about a week here and it was incredibly hot and humid and filled with other Chinese tourists - definitely not a gentle introduction 😂

Eli: Yangshuo was surrounded by these enormous beautiful karsts. The city was pretty flat, so the karsts always claimed the top half of your vision.

Dad: Our home - for about 2 days too long.

Eli: The karsts loom.

Eli: Dogs and cats would roam wherever you went. Going about your day as normal, you might meet several wild animals on the way.

Max: The cutest pup at an off the path hostel near the Taiji academy where I was training. The owner was a really cool guy who played music in the bars at night and had me spray-paint his wall when he found out I was an artist.

Eli: There were a huge number of street vendors in Yangshuo that seemed to be making a living off of selling very cheap novelty items. I’m not sure how.

Sam: I’m with Eli on this one. Frankly a large part of the Chinese economy baffles me. I remember staying in a block of hostels during my time in 秦皇岛 (qinhuangdao) where in the tiny little alley leading to my place there were four convenience stores. Four! I think what us Americans fail to grasp is that China is four times as populated as the US - so everywhere we would expect only one of a certain business to survive there’s room for four.

Sam: Our first 火锅 (huoguo “hot pot”) meal of the trip! We were joined by Raven, a friend of Eli’s who had been a counselor with him at the summer camp up in 上海 (Shanghai). She and Eli were actually here on the dime of that program and they spent the whole week together. The four horsemen didn’t officially start travelling together until our next destination, 昆明 (Kunming). (PS if any friends of Raven’s are reading this you should ask her about her train ride to 成都(Chengdu))

Max: Eli loves it!

Sam: One of the most famous attractions of 阳朔 (Yangshuo) were the bamboo boat rides down the rivers. Only one is pictured here but there must have been thousands that went down the river every day during the peak season. Dad and I would rent mopeds and drive out to bridge over the river and watch the endless horde of raft guides pole their way down the river…

Dad: This is actual bamboo. Many of the boats on the river were made of PVC pipe.

Sam: And the king of all the raft rides was the one past a particular spot on the 丽江 (lijiang “Li river”) which is featured on the back of the 20元 (yuan) bill. Dad kept insisting that the view didn’t match the drawing, but I think his eyes are just getting old…

Eli: If I remember correctly, there was some debate involved in finding the right angle that matched the bill.

Max: Tourist photo :P

Dad: When you’ve seen yuan, you’ve seen it all! :O

Max: The ride down the river was nice to look at but it made me very sad - the roar of the engines (I had to wear earplugs), the plastic boats, the incessant stream of people coming and going. It made me think of the fish and the birds whose home this place is.

Dad: It didn’t really look like this. But it could have.

Sam: Max sums it up well here - we were required to wear life vests and we weren’t allowed to reach out of the boat and touch the water or anything. All we were allowed to do was sit there and squint up at the karsts and be deafened by the engine. Next time I’d just find a teahouse and enjoy the view there.

Sam: Sometime during the week Max wandered into a 太极 (taiji “Taichi”) school over on the East side of the city. He fell in love with the place and spent the remaining days in 阳朔 (Yangshuo) coming here, and with Eli hanging out with Raven, Dad and I got to roam by ourselves. Max invited us to come visit and so on our last day we went to see what he had learned. He taught us push hands, which he’s doing in the picture above, and both Dad and I gave it a shot 😁

Max: This school was amazing. From the first day I arrived they welcomed me like family (uncle Zhang cooked some of the best food I had in all of China) and taught me the best they could. This is where I learned to truly love taiji, and learned something more of it’s martial applications such as Toushou (push hands), pictured here.

Dad: Cloud hands! (Editor’s note: I think he means “push hands”, which is the name of the activity that Max is currently engaged in)

Sam: One time Dad, Max and I took the mopeds down to a small “beach” (mostly rocks) on the side of the 丽江 (lijiang “Li river”) and spent the afternoon swimming 😊


Max: Once when I was swimming in the rivers I saw an old man way out in the middle, floating along, singing/chanting at the top of his lungs. Love that dude. I want to be him in 50 years.

Dad: I think this says it all

Sam: Our next stop was 昆明 (Kunming), the capitol of 云南 (Yunnan) province. We transferred trains in 贵阳 (Guiyang) which is where this picture was taken. It may look huge, but this isn’t even a particularly big train station by Chinese standards!

Eli: 人,很多 (Editor’s note: this means “people, many”)

Sam: Also 贵阳 (Guiyang) - again, just an average sized train station by Chinese standards!

Eli: many trains for many people (not shown)

Sam: On our first night in 昆明 (Kunming) I found a 麻辣香锅 (malaxiangguo “spicy drypot”) at a nearby underground mall. The service people were so delighted that I spoke Chinese that they insisted on helping us take a picture, and also taking pictures with us!

Eli: Dry pot! Spicy noodles with toppings but no broth. Sam told us that it’s considered a snack, but it felt like a full meal to my non-Chinese tummy.

Max: Never hath a more characteristic photo been taken…

Dad: Best food in all of China. Possibly the worst setting.

Sam: I personally love this photo. We went to a Buddhist temple in 昆明 (Kunming), the first of many (much of touring in China is going to temples. I’ve heard it’s similar in Europe, but instead of temples it’s churches).

Sam: More of the temple.

Dad: Nice contrast. Who took that photo?? (Editor’s note: it was Dad)

Sam: We happened to show up to the temple on a day where there was a performance or rite of some sort. I asked a nearby woman who worked at the temple when it would be starting and she said “very soon.” We sat and waited and five minuted turned into ten into twenty into nearly thirty… During this period Eli found and befriended a cat who seemed to be a temple native.

Eli: this kitty was kinda fat and super chill

Max: Eli and I named him “Fat Belly Boy”, which I now forget how to say in Chinese and was probably saying wrong in the first place anyway. (Editor’s note: that would be 胖肚子 (pang duzi))

Dad: Fat cat pets stray animal.

Sam: I was not present but Eli apparently just passed out on the couch of some random tea house…

Eli: Tea shops were awesome. Drink some tea, play cards, drink tea, drink tea, eat peanuts, drink tea. Very relaxing. Great place to get work done or read, I’d imagine.

Max: Geisha Lounging in Tea House (1874)

Dad: Some things, like jumping in puddles, are universal.

Sam: 昆明 (Kunming) was actually having one of it’s driest seasons in years, so I think a little bit of rain was very welcome by the locals. We had been thinking of striking further into the mountains of 云南 (Yunnan province), but the dry season made us decide otherwise.

Eli: I smoked those losers on a hike and spent my excess time at the top sketching the temple.

Sam: 昆明 (Kunming) has a pleasant mountain hike on the North-East side of the city. Dad and Max had a friendly habit of saying “你好” (nihao “hello”) to everyone coming in the opposite direction - some people just brushed past but many were delighted and a pair of women even started trying to converse with them at which point I had to step in and translate 😂

Sam: At the end of the hike we treated ourselves to some tea - Dad spent about five minutes trying to coax a nice photo out of us and in the end this was the best he got 😂

Eli: It’s not visible, but this place had a great view; you could oversee the whole city. There were several groups of high-rises, each of which appeared to be the same building duplicated twelve or thirteen times.

Dad: Robbie, Chip and Ernie. (Look it up!)

Sam: This was the view that Eli was referring to above.

Eli: The Chinese seemed to really love their light displays. I saw several roads and rivers decorated by brilliant multicolored light strips. Really astounding-looking stuff. (Editors note: although this is true, I believe that this photo simply has a little longer exposure…)

Sam: Hungry from our hike and caffeinated on 普尔 (pu’er) tea we grabbed a 滴滴 (didi, their rideshare app) back into the city and hit up a local night market. Night markets are some of the greatest places to walk around and get absolutely every manner of unhealthy food in snackable sized portions.

Eli: xiao chi—little eats. (Editor’s note: Eli is translating the sign here: 小吃) Not sure if there was actually anything else to do there but snack.

Eli: Street food! Fried tofu. I also had some fried pork which was really good but kinda stopped being good about halfway through.

Max: Take your medicine, little boy…

Dad: Feed the hungry, clothe the poor.

Eli: lost in the chinese night markets

Max: Sam was always leading the way, even when it was the wrong way.

Dad: Sam always led us in the right direction.

Sam: ^^ Now I discover who had faith and who didn’t

Dad: “There was a sky somewhere above the tops of the buildings, with stars and a moon and all the things there are in a sky, but they were content to think of the distant street lights as planets and stars. If the lights prevented you from seeing the heavens, then perform a little magic and change reality to fit the need. The street lights were now planets and stars and moon. ” ― Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream

Sam: The end of our 昆明 (Kunming) adventures! Our next stop was 峨眉山 (emeishan “Emei Mountain”), one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism (but not one of the five great mountains, nor one of the four sacred mountains of Taoism). It was conveniently on the route northward to 成都 (Chengdu) so we decided to stop by for a day or two!

Eli: kids these days

Max: “Regulate anybody but myself!”

Dad: Words to live by.

Sam: This was an absolutely terrible computer generated translation that was on the main tourist map of the town. Although it’s true that there is English in most areas of China, the quality of the English is not necessarily decipherable. In my own travels I even found typos and misspellings at the Summer Palace and The Great Wall…

Sam: In 峨眉山 (emeishan “Emei Mountain”) there is only one thing to do: go up the mountain. You have two choices; you can either go up on foot through all the various temples scattered along the side of the mountain, or you can take a bus straight to the top and peer off the edge. We opted for the hike. It can’t be completed in a single day (we took a van back down from the halfway point) but the top was all fogged up so we didn’t miss anything.

Dad: “I think I bent my fingernail.”

Sam: An interesting modern exhibit within the gift shop of an old temple - the gift shop sold carvings made from wood that had been chopped on the side of the mountain and blessed by a resident priest for over 1,000 USD 😱

Eli: The tetrahedron here is being suspended in the air via fishing line. No idea why the exhibit was created, but it was cool.

Dad: Sam with Inverted Pyramid, 2019

Sam: Further into the hike up the mountain…

Max: Drunken Masters. Later we would be running up the steps on all fours.

Dad: “Dance little sister, Dance.” - Mick Jagger

Sam: We stopped at (another) temple for some food and afternoon pick-me-up tea. I’m not sure what I’m explaining to Eli but I’m very sure that he was wrong.

Eli: A man joined us at this table. Through Sam, the only one of us who could speak with him, we learned that he had been living nomadically for a long time—like ten years. For some reason, he insisted that I was Chinese. (Editor’s note: the man was using the word “怀疑” (huaiyi “American born Chinese”) and even after I confirmed that Eli had no Chinese blood whatsoever the wanderer continued to insist that Eli was an ABC.)

Max: i cri

Dad: Exactly!

Sam: An excellent mistranslation spotted on the mountainside 😂 时时 (shishi) here actually means “from time to time” but each character translates just as “time”, to make “time time”.

Eli: a young explorer braves the dangers of the chinese jungle (circa 1914)

Dad: That’s a very happy child.

Dad: V is for Victory. Unless you’re hanging upside down from a tree.

Eli: zoom in

Max: A challenger approaches…

Dad: The Mysterious Dao.

Sam: The further up we went in the mountain the fewer people there were - this temple was completely devoid. Max and I used the opportunity to do a photo shoot of his 太极 (taiji “taichi”) moves.

Max: Can you feel it??

Eli: Dad looking over us chilling in a river. The water was supposedly godly for some reason, but was actually kinda gross. It was super cold, had litter in it, and pipes lined the bank.

Max: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.”

Sam: Just after this we were approaching the bus stop to take use back when it started to pour. We took shelter under one of the roadside noodle shops that litter the mountains and the shop owner offered to help us call a van. Without him we would have missed the last bus…

Sam: Safely back into the city and cruising for dinner!

Dad: “I hear the rabbit is fresh.”

Sam: After 峨眉山 (emeishan “Emei Mountain”) we hopped on a train just a couple hours north to China’s hot pot capital: 成都 (Chengdu). 属九香 is absolutely one of my favorite spots and what I took us to immediately upon arriving 😁

Eli: I look bored, but I was actually usually pretty excited to eat it. I was too weak for the spicy broth, though, and I think I was probably missing out.

Max: I always came out of Hotpot buzzed, stuffed, and feeling saucy.

Dad: Somebody’s tired…

Dad: And Max said, “Let there be light. Only make it LED.”

Eli: Bikes were super common. There were several companies ala Lime, so you coulda basically get a bike wherever you were. Mopeds were also really common. Cars weren’t uncommon, but some places in China—Shanghai in particular, I believe—has a limit on the number of cars allowed in the road. (I think the US should copy this.)

Dad: “I told you never to text me when I’m commuting without pants!”

Dad: Bats. Outside the belfry.

Sam: Walking around 成都 (Chengdu) during the evening… We had moved further north so the heat was a little more bearable now (or we had just adjusted to it 😂)

Sam: One of the big attractions of 成都 (Chengdu) is a night market called 宽窄巷子 (kuanzhai xiangzi “Wide and Narrow Alley”). Eli and I had fun!

Max: Idk about you but this is terrifying

Sam: One of the shops in 宽窄巷子 (kuanzhai xiangzi “Wide and Narrow Alley”).

Eli: For some reason, dad and I were often on the hunt for a parasol. We kept seeing fancy umbrellas, but never actual parasols. This is where our search ended.

Eli: crouching tiger, hidden 大哥 (Editor’s note: this means “eldest brother”)

Sam: Another attraction we went to in 成都 (Chengdu) was the restored thatched cottage of the famous Chinese poet 杜甫 (Dufu). They had turned the whole space into a garden which was actually quite pleasant. Dad took this photo and put it up on Facebook…

Sam: …which I subsequently took and turned into this 😂

Sam: At this point in our trip we re-separated. Max, after doing some sniffing around online, had found out about a Taoism class taught up on 武当山 (wudangshan “Wudang Mountain”) and was dying to check it out. So he bought some train tickets to strike out East as Dad, Eli and I turned North-Westward. We arrived at the ancient city of 天水 (Tianshui) in the province of 甘肃 (Gansu). This picture was taken at the 麦积山 (maijishan “Maiji Mountain”) grottoes - some of the oldest and largest Buddhist carvings in all of China. Carved into a sheer cliff face you took some pretty steep stairs to see them up close.

Eli: I’d like to put the disclaimer to these photos that they are satire

Dad: “Please, dear Buddha, don’t let the stairs fail.”

Max: Is it just me or are the Buddhas judging him…

Dad: Gods don’t like Pepsi. Gods like Dr. Pepper.

Sam: The clothes Eli is wearing, the pepsi bottle, the sunglasses, the backpack, the camera in Dad’s hands - I can’t imagine anything more tourist about this photo.

Eli: i donno if this one should be put in guys

Dad: My Morning Meditation.

Sam: Meanwhile, Max had made it to 武当山 (wudangshan “Wudang Mountain”) …

Eli: on the brink of death

Dad: Beautiful!

Dad: Gorgeous.

Max: This place was incredible. A secret sanctuary of esoteric knowledge made by a 60 year old man who had been studying taoist arts since 6 years old. He rehabilitated an old temple by himself up in the Wudang Mountains (the mythological birthplace of Taiji), and for years has been teaching Westerners willing to make the pilgrimage and sleep on hard cots in basic cabins. (Oh, and pay money).The community of people there was very genuine, from various walks of life, all seeking something and somehow finding their way to this place. I didn’t want to leave.

Dad: Amazing place.

Sam: Meanwhile we went to a temple of our own in 天水 (Tianshui) and I caught this guy straight up snoozing on a pole. The legend.

Dad: If you look at the bottom of the post, you can see he is making progress! Good job! (Editor’s note: I can’t figure out what Dad is talking about here)

Sam: A fruit market in 天水 (tianshui) that Eli insisted on wandering in to. I let him flounder on his own for a minute or two before going to his rescue. This was hours before the great dumpling disaster - a story you should ask Eli about if you get the chance 😁

Eli: i got some grapes i think

Max: It’s that simple, folks.

Dad: It does indeed. (Editor’s note: I believe that Dad and Max are talking about the sign up top here)

Eli: Another questionable Chinese -> English translation. Sam said that it’s simply because they didn’t care that much about having accurate translations. One in a hotel had a display with the current date and “week 4” on it. Week 4 of what, we wondered? Turns out it meant Thursday, because days of the week in Chinese literally translate as “Week” + 1/2/3/4/5/6, where 1 is Monday and 6 is Saturday. (Sunday isn’t 7 but instead gets the character rì, meaning sun, or the character tiān, meaning day)

Max: Jesus will forgive.

Dad: Never!

Sam: Although you can’t tell, we’ve made it to 北京 (Beijing) already. This was taken at the 天坛 (tiantan “Temple of Heaven”). Eli and Dad spotted this guy in the crowd and Eli apparently spent a good couple minutes pushing past people to where he could take a picture.

Eli: There were shirts all over the place with really silly or downright wrong English on them. This may have been the most egregious offender.

Dad: This is why he couldn’t open the pod bay doors.

Eli: this took quite a bit of practice

Dad: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! (Or if you’re into Spanish, “Nosotrooooooooooooooooooooossssssssssss!”)

Sam: Still in the 天坛 (tiantan “Temple of Heaven”), over by the sacrificial altar.

Eli: The Bee store! I loved this place because every time the door opened, a cute little jingle would play. I took a recording.

Dad: I think the disguise was probably a good idea.

Sam: I’ve talked before about how awesome the convenience stores are in China (in Asia in general). They made a perfect stop to grab a quick bite to eat, or check out some fun Chinese snacks, or just take a pit stop in the middle of the day.

Eli: 跳舞跳得真好 (Editor’s note: “Great dancing”)

Max: Love :)

Sam: Max and Dad were both highly interested in the Chinese Museum of Art - Eli tagged along cause he was a good sport 😂 They have some permanent exhibits around calligraphy and, of course, the famous Chinese style ink paintings, but this time when we went they also had an exhibit on Tibetan artists. It was incredibly pro-Communist and obviously heavily filtered - Dad walked right by the exhibit muttering something about “not even wanting to look at it.”

And that about wraps it up! We did so much more than what shows in the photos, especially in 北京 (Beijing) where photo taking had dwindled due to exhaustion. Dad hauled his camera around the whole time and many of these photos are his, but you should check out some of the other ones he took here as well!

If you asked me what my favorite part of the trip was I would probably say it was being able to eat together with my family. I had been abroad for over half a year and during the last four months in particular I mostly ate alone. So it was wonderful to have a big ol’ hotpot meal with giant bottles of 2.5% alcohol by volume beers, an infinite flow of food till we burst, and friendly faces to share everything with 😊 As for what the three of them liked best… well you’ll have to ask them!

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