Two Adventures in Xi’an

Question: what has 11,000 legs, lives underground, and has been around for thousands of years but was only discovered 4 decades ago?

Answer: the Terra Cotta Army (兵马俑)!

If Nate and Iook a little stressed, it’s because a third of China was pressing towards us at this moment.

In April, Nate and I traveled again with CET. This time, we went south to the famous city of Xi’an, resting place of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang and his thousands of terra cotta soldier statues. After a 10-hour bus ride (we drove through the night on this trip), we rolled up to one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions. It was a Chinese national holiday so not only were lots of foreign tourists there, all the Chinese tourists were too. There’s an expression in Chinese, “人山人海”, that literally translates to “people mountain, people sea”. This phrase could be used to describe both the tightly-packed rows of earthen warriors and the seething masses of people who mobbed them.

With piles of labeled body parts, it was like a witch’s pantry.

The terra cotta soldiers were very cool. We first went through an exhibit that presented some history, which then opened up into three massive excavation pits that contained the soldiers. My favorite part was actually getting to see the excavation in progress. In two of the pits, there were ladders, tarps, and tools laid out among the bodies. The soldiers themselves weren’t finished – apparently it takes longer than 40 years to rebuild a 9,000-piece relic that was first built in the third century BCE.

This horse got stuck in a wall.

 

 

 

After we were done with the Terra Cotta Army, we went to Xi’an’s most famous street food market for dinner. The food there was mainly in the style of the Uyghur, a Chinese people group in the country’s northwest that has been largely influenced by Middle Eastern culture. The best dish I tried there was a spiced roasted lamb skewer, a street food delicacy I got to enjoy several times while in China. Nate and I also bought massive cotton candy spools for $5 each. It was luxury in excess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thus climbing, we ascended.

The next day we tested the limits of the human body. Mount Hua is one of China’s most famous mountains, and parts of it make it one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do those parts. We didn’t have time.) Hiking the mountain means ascending a neverending series of staircases carved into the mountain itself. There are 5 peaks on the mountain, and we made it to two of them. It took 9 hours. Up.

Somehow, the view and the experience were worth the extreme physical pain we were all in by the time we reached the summit. China’s dramatically jagged mountains rose around us in green and yellow.

Us with Brian, a friend from South America we made on the hike!

Thankfully, we got to take a cable car down so we didn’t have to try to not fall down the mountain as we went down the stairs in our weakened state. Although the rapid descent through the mountains we had just climbed did make me question the merit of ascending the mountain on foot, the experience of flying through China’s mountains in a glass box was truly breathtaking.

The entrance to Mount Hua Park

By the time we made it back the bus, my legs were shaking so bad I could barely stand for lack of balance. Sleep was such a relief that night.

We got up super early the next day to drive back. I managed to stay awake most of the ride, and I was pleasantly surprised that the scenery on the daytime ride back was more diverse and beautiful than I had realized. I got to see mountains, plateaus, terraced rice fields, farms, and other manifestations of the landscape that must be unique to China. It was like driving through the China section of a world history textbook.

That was my last out-of-town trip while I was staying in Beijing, and was it ever a good one.

The Great Wall of China

On March 4, I experienced my first of the New7Wonders of the world (it’s a thing). The Great Wall was built spanning several dynasties and centuries to protect China against attack from the north. Now it’s a landmark that rides the mountains through the middle of China, and an extremely popular tourist destination. If you want to maximize authenticity and minimize crowds of people wearing matching visors, you can go to a partially unrestored part of the wall, which means it’s more of a hike and less of a selfie booth.

The whole group, pre-Great Wall (Nate and I are front left)

The unrestored section we chose to go to is in Chenjiapu, an hour outside of Beijing. I was traveling with a group of about 50 students, mostly from either my school, Peking University, or our neighboring rival university, Tsinghua. We rented a bus that took us to Great Wall Fresh, family-run restaurant and guest house in the mountains of Chenjiapu. We enjoyed a family-style lunch before our guide, one of the Great Wall Fresh family members, led us off on our adventure.

Hiking to the Wall

From the point you see in the picture up there, it was about a 45-minute hike to the place where we mounted the Great Wall. And suddenly, we were standing on bricks that were laid centuries ago.

If you look closely, you can see everyone else on top of the tower – far, far away from us.

 

The rest of the group went left along the wall to a beacon tower, but Nate and I thought we could get a higher vantage point by taking a quick detour up the wall to the right. We were right about “higher”, but not about “quick”. An especially steep and dilapidated part of the wall, it took us nearly an hour to go up and come back down, putting us far enough behind that our group was out of sight, lost to us in the mountains of China.

Nevertheless, we did not fear. We decided to just move a little quicker until we caught up with them – besides, we were walking on a major tourist attraction that was made for walking on. It would be very difficult to actually get lost. And that’s how our coolest date ever began.

The whole walk along the Wall took about 2 hours from that point.

At one point, we reached a point on the wall that was higher than any other we could see. We climbed a teetering pile of bricks to the top of the watchtower. In every direction, the hazy mountains were layered to the horizon. We could see as far as the curve of the earth would let us. The pictures I took are a sorry representation, but that truly was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. The world God created is unfathomably beautiful and wonderful, and Nate and I got to see such a unique piece of it.

Though we kept up a good pace, we never caught up to the group. As we were descending from the Wall at the end of the hike, we met a search party coming from the other direction. They thought we had gotten lost forever on the Wall. Maybe we nearly had a couple of times, but we made it in the end. And I’ve got some amazing memories to show for it.

I have so many more pictures that attempt to capture a fraction of the beauty we saw that day, so I’ll stick them here.

Click on this photo to see it bigger!

The Call of the Canyon

A few weekends back I attended the national training conference for A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP) up in the Rockies of Colorado. I had the utmost nerve-wracking pleasure of meeting my ministry team to the Grand Canyon for the first time and I already feel myself falling in love with our dysfunction. During our free time, I set out to hike on my own but was quickly engulfed by four other ministry members who refused to let me find the freedom in solidarity I thought I was craving. We decided to summit a small peak that was supposed to take two hours, so naturally we did it in one. The second we set out at that unrelenting pace, huffing and puffing, I thought about the palaces I had been summiting just months early and realized “this is a piece of cake” (even though my sensitive sinus cavity screamed with the change in altitude). Mind over matter is not just a mantra used by the weak who capture our pity. When we reached the top, someone, I don’t remember who, said, “you guys just want to read and chill?” and that’s how I knew I had found my people. I threw up a hammock between some rigid pines and fell into a Spanish story of love and mystery and regret while the sky dusted it’s gentle blessing onto my head.

The second we started out, I realized we were about to hike the first mountain that ever captured my undivided attention some 8 years ago. I remember how that peak flirted with my competitive side and how the bigger, older, stronger boys won me over to loving the dynamic landscape by daring me to sprint down the mountainside along with them. They must have seen that subtle flicker in my eyes of someone who is never satisfied and whispered, “let’s go” before falling full force into the pull of gravity. And I in all baby-of-the-family mindedness had the nerve to think I could keep up with them. I was right. When we reached the bottom, eons before the rest of the group, those boys all turned around to me and laughed, not at me, but in surprise of me. One of the boys leaned over to me and said “keep flying, kid”. At the time, I might not have known what he meant, but I think my heart kept that promise anyways. I remember how we parted ways from there and never shared a moment of depth again. I remember how one of them died a few years later and how that was my first clue into the fact that death doesn’t see in the spectrum of age but rather in the black and white of “now or later”. I hope he thought about flying down that hillside when he laid his head back for the very last time.

My ministry team kept things slow on our way down that old familiar peak and even though I was grateful they had chosen me to go along at all, I realized I have a thing or two to teach them this summer about choosing to go fast simply for the sake of going fast; about speed for the sake of speed; about flying for the sake of flying. But, we had just met so I kept my mouth shut like I always do and hoped it would be enough just to write it down later.

My team makes a lot of sense to me and I’m not really sure why. I suppose it’s because their quirkiness seeped through their cracks just enough to not make me feel incessantly uncomfortable in my own skin like I do with most new people. I felt that I didn’t have to keep my mummy wrappings on so tight, that I could loosen them up enough to breathe even though a bit of weird and dark and sarcastic and smart slipped out. Heaven help them the day I cut the wrappings off in full this summer.

We learned many things about how to do effective ministry in a National Park and throughout it all God spoke to me and said, “this is what you’ve been looking for” and I believed Him. I believe Him in that He sent me to the place of my roots in faith to tell me that this season of my life isn’t an escape like nearly every other season has been. He sang Job 5:8-11 to me all weekend long saying “little thorn bush of mine, it’s high time you realize you’ve got flowers coming alongside your thorns and they will make each other beautiful. stop acting like you were meant to scare everyone away”. I realized that I am the earth He has been pouring rain on and that this period of sunshine – hot, dusty, desert sunshine – will go hand in hand with that rain and make flowers pop up on my skin previously thought to be barren.

I am still hopelessly afraid of that Canyon; I keep having dreams that he reaches up and swallows me whole. I think it stems from the fact that I haven’t been able to place my hands and forehead upon this type of land yet to ask it for forgiveness and permission. I’m worried he will speak to me in a language the mountains never used. I’m worried I won’t recognize that call. I’m worried I’ll like it more. All I know is that I fully plan on standing on that rim with my guitar, singing songs yet unwritten into his open palms, and hopefully, he will believe that I mean good.

I hold a lot of worry that my belief system won’t be rigid enough for the rest of them the same way it seems to be too rigid for those who have never set an alarm for Sunday morning. The way I see it, God is far too big to ever fit into one human’s mind and take the shape of the most perfect summation and believe Himself satisfied. I think He whispers between the winds in the trees far more than most Christians give Him credit for. I think they’d all call me a heathen if they ever saw the thoughts I have crossing paths inside my skull. All I know is I have experienced far deeper things running through haunted forests than I ever had sitting in church. There is a subtle shaking throughout the whole inextricable grid of the earth and mankind appears to be the only ones who cannot feel it. Maybe if we weren’t so focused on ourselves we would notice that everything is quaking and our knees cannot remain so straight for much longer. I think that’s why I chose the Canyon over all the other ‘professional’ internships I was offered; I’m ready to be back on my knees worshiping something that is not an altar in front of me, but an air that is all around me, that is in me, that cannot be trapped in the makings of mankind. I’d like to believe anything worth believing in is Bigger than the thing that believes in it.

I’m overly excited to get the summer started, to be back with my team, to be back surrounded by those who treat the earth as a sacred place and not a servant. I’m ready to be challenged and lonely and swallowed and completely whole in a place where most people aren’t. I want to get lost in it all, I think I already am.