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Tomb Sweeping Day (Qing Ming Jie)

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Qing Ming Jie – 清明节

Qing Ming Jie literally translates into English as Pure Brightness Festival, actually known as Tomb Sweeping Day – a day to celebrate the dead. Families usually go to visit ancestors’ grave sites, perhaps with some offerings, and pay their respects, but the most common thing most of us foreign students here associate with it is the burning of fake paper money, just because this is what we see happening the most, on roadsides, after dark. Outside remembering ancestors, what it meant for most of us was though, essentially, a 4-day weekend, because we got Thursday and Friday off uni for the festival.

Burning fake money

(The above picture isn’t mine, but it shows exactly what I’ve seen. I wouldn’t recommend trying to take a picture, unless you want to get beaten up (*ahem* speaking from experience *ahem*). And rightly so, because despite this being something they do in public, it’s kinda personal: burning the money as an offering to their ancestors)

Tianjin – 天津

We initially planned to use this time to go out of Beijing for a few days, going somewhere far enough from Beijing that we couldn’t go to in a weekend if we wanted to, but close enough that we could fit it comfortably into our 4-day break. Unfortunately, various issues came in the way of our travel plans, and so we ended up just going to visit Tianjin for a day on Friday – a city about half an hour outside Beijing, on the high-speed train. It was my first time on a high-speed train, we were travelling at a speed of approximately 300km/h. Tianjin is known for its European architecture, and indeed, walking through some parts of the city felt like being in Rome or France. (Not that I’ve ever been to Rome or France before, but I’d imagine it would be somewhat similar). As usual, we attracted a lot of attention, being some of the very very few foreigners around at this time of the year, with plenty of people asking to have pictures taken with us. (Yep, we’re just that popular!)
I’m going to go through our time in Tianjin with more pictures than text.

We first went to seek out the ‘mosquese’, with this helpful sign at the subway station. DSCF2256

The Chinese reads the same way as the Arabic! :) (Classical Chinese used to be written from right to left)

“The Prophet’s Mosque” — The Chinese reads the same way as the Arabic! 🙂 (Classical Chinese used to be written from right to left, and this style is still quite prevalent)

After entering the courtyard-area though, it seemed that the buildings were all locked, and no one was around anyway, so we turned around and headed back onto the main road..

We wandered through “Ancient Cultural Street” – the shops and walkway both brimming with people, and, as is standard wherever you go in China, saw some unusual things on sale, for example:

Cat furniture?

If you can’t deal with a real cat, you could always get one of these.

Just going through pictures, I realised that I've become immune to things that look very typically Chinese, like this- the beginning of Ancient Cultural Street

(Not the best picture of the beginning of) Ancient Cultural Street, Tianjin

I was impressed!

I was impressed!

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Curio Antiques Market

Inside Tianjin Folk-Custom Museum, which was actually more a temple than a museum:

A pretty (but fake) Chinese sight. (The blossom was plastic)

A pretty Chinese sight. (The blossom was plastic, though)

Also inside the ‘museum’, there was a stall at the back selling these strange scenes with some furry bug…things:

Maybe it's not totally clear, but the 'characters' in these settings were bugs!

A Bugs Life

A Bugs Life

A Bugs Life 2

As a result of the Concessions in Tianjin, a lot of the architecture is definitely visibly different to that of other cities like Beijing. There’s a specific ‘Italian Style Town’, which unfortunately I don’t have pictures of, but- minus the foreigners, here’s a bit of what Europe looks like in China:

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We found and went inside a church, not missing this very comprehensive list of rules by the door:

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No love? I thought God loves me D:

Our clothing apparently wasn’t ‘proper’ enough… a woman at the door stopped us and I think she was asking us to remove our headscarves. We couldn’t make out exactly what she was telling us, but she kept putting her hands together in prayer fashion, and saying something like “this is how we do it here”. When we said we couldn’t/wouldn’t take our headscarves off, she seemed a bit hesitant, and not wanting to offend, we were about to turn around and leave, when she stopped us, and ushered us in with a smile. We made sure to smile and thank her when we left, so we at least left her with a good impression…

I found it amusing when Nafeesah told me that it was her first time ever in a church…and this, in China.

A Starbucks on one side, and a Costa on the other. European enough to me.

A Starbucks on one side, and a Costa on the other. European enough to me.

I don’t think it had any special significance, but we saw this cool clock, in the middle of a ROUNDABOUT, no less!! (There are no roundabouts in China)

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It was cool, we could actually see the cogs moving

The above picture also shows one minor thing I liked about Tianjin — the colour of the taxis! Turquoisey-teal taxis to brighten up the city 😀

Also, something different in Tianjin, was the subway ‘tickets’. Unlike in other cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, where the single journey tickets issued are reusable cards, Tianjin’s machines gave us round, green, plastic tokens (kinda like poker chips…). Swipe it on the way in through the barriers, drop it in the ‘coin hole’ thing on the way out.

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Subway ‘tickets’

This station in Tianjin must be the fanciest subway station I have ever seen….ever:

Talk about fancy!!!

Chandeliers in a subway station!?!?

We walked down Nanjing Lu (yes, we did a LOT of walking) – there’s a very famous road in Shanghai called Nanjing Lu, it’s full of people, shops and bright lights, especially at night, and this road was almost similar. By the time evening fell, we still had some time before our train departed, so we went to see (literally, look at and take a picture of) Tianjin’s TV Tower. I distinctly remember thinking that the sky was a very nice colour.

TV tower

Tianjin TV tower

There was a bit of a manic rush trying to find our train to go back to Beijing. Although we’d got to the station with plenty of time, there were no signs to a handful of platforms, including the one our train was leaving from… We must have walked all the way around the station – twice – before deciding we might as well ask the security guard, seeing as there was no one else to ask. He just pointed up some stairs, which had a sign saying which platforms it led to, ours not included!! We had no choice but to listen to him: we ran up the stairs, ran up some more stairs, still saw no signs to our platform, followed the stream of people, and eventually saw a sign to our platform across the other end of the station. With less than 5minutes to departure time, we were running across the station to our platform, down the stairs, and down the full length of the platform to the carriage which had our seats in. (The stairs come down the the front of the train – carriage 1, our seats were in carriage 8, all the way at the other end of the train.) The train left about 90seconds after we sat down… we were still trying to catch our breath…

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Halfway home…

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I say halfway home, because coming back to Beijing felt kinda like coming home. And seeing as I’m flying back to England on Tuesday (tomorrow!), Beijing ‘home’ counts as the halfway home right now. I just hope the snowy weather there doesn’t disrupt my flight! Or the weather here, for that matter! It snowed over Saturday night and also during the morning in Beijing, and when it snows here, (which I was told numerous times is not a regular occurrence at all, maybe only once or twice a year, but it’s snowed at least 5 times so far already…) the ground stays extremely icy for days on end. There’re still ice mounds around on roadsides etc probably from the first time it snowed, which was possibly back in November! Simply because the temperature hasn’t given it a chance to melt.

Anyway, so I arrived back in Beijing on Saturday morning, and boy – I have never been happier to hear that Chinese English voice that does the announcements on the Beijing Subway! 🙂 (On a tangent, I heard a “please mind the gap between the train and the platform” recently on one of the lines, but the Beijing Subway is no London Tube.)

The train journey from Xi’an back to Beijing was largely uneventful, compared to the journey there when a verbal fight had escalated to the point of physical contact, right in front (and almost on) us. Instead, as I was alone on the return journey, it was more likely that the Chinese sitting around me would attempt conversation, and indeed, within the first 2o minutes of the 14 hour journey ahead of me, this happened. Foreigners are an intriguing species, remember. Although they were speaking Mandarin Chinese, accent differences just made it near impossible for me to understand anything… It’s even difficult to understand Beijingers, especially the older generation; in my experience, the easiest to understand are university students, or conversations between parents and their very young children, all of whom sound like they’re speaking clearer.

At this particular time, I really wasn’t up for the possibility of having to try to understand and speak Chinese for all of 14 hours, so I (pretended to) read my Kindle for a while, tried to sleep, and was then asked by them if I wanted to join them in their game of 扑克牌 pu ke pai (a transliteration of ‘poker’). I declined and found out that what they called ‘poker’ isn’t actually what I know as poker, and instead, all it means is ‘to play cards’. Anyway, after watching for a while, and not understanding how whatever game they were playing worked, I ended up teaching them the rules of the card game I know only by the (Indian?) name ‘Sathyo’. I’d imagined explaining it successfully in Chinese would be really difficult, but they all picked it up so quickly, and I ended up feeling like was the new one to the game!

Back to our last few days in Xi’an, on Wednesday we’d gone to Lishan (Li Mountain), and on the bus ride from where we were staying to the railway station where we would get the bus to take us there, we were pleasantly surprised to see a group of Australian tourists, (tourist-sightings were very few, as it’s not tourist season) who asked us if we were going to the Terracotta Army and if we could point them in the right direction. Luckily for them, we’d already been earlier in the week, and the bus towards Lishan was the same as the one to the Terracotta Warriors anyway.

We got the cable car up partway, and then climbed the rest of the way to the peak, which was just lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of steps. Actually, after the cable car, when we started our way up, we were offered the option of horse riding up to the top by a group of men standing around smoking, but none of us wanted to risk it… riding a horse up a mountain in China, I mean.

Queuing instructions for the cable car. (Not that there was anyone there at all)

Queuing instructions for the cable car. (Not that there was anyone there at all)

One section of the steps up to the top of Lishan

One section of the steps up to the top of Lishan

As usual, there was a lot of smog and fog (aka pollution) but not bad enough to reduce visibility from the top completely. After taking in whatever we could of the view and the wind up there, we headed back down again, seeing some interesting bins on the way… Some were labelled ‘recycling’ and others were apparently specifically non-recycling. I was so convinced. Really.

In the evening, we found a little restaurant down in the Hui area, called Aliren, which was almost the cleanest place I have seen in China, and the food was good too! Bonus!

On Thursday morning we visited the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum, with the idea that we should learn something about the history of Xi’an, considering it was one of China’s great ancient capitals. The Museum itself was one of the boringer types, and we saw a lot of things dug out of tombs etc, which didn’t tell us a great deal about the city’s history itself. It was fun still, I found this row of statues particularly amusing… (Though I’m not sure what they were actually supposed to be)

Compare the meerkat .com!

Compare the meerkat .com!

We then headed back to the Hui area, as although we’d passed by and through it a couple of times, we wanted to take our time wandering through and check it out properly. The Aliren restaurant had made such a good impression on us, that we stopped there again for lunch.

Gate to the Muslim district, the characters read 'hui fang' which translates roughly to Hui Street

Gate to the Muslim district, the characters read ‘hui fang’ which translates roughly to Hui Street

Again, we attracted calls of “Hello scarves, take look” as we walked past the many stalls. And a typical conversation between ourselves and the stall owners went like this:

“Excuse me, how much is this?”

“60 yuan”

The three of us would look at each other, knowing of course, that the quoted price was much too expensive. As we begin to walk away, the stall owner calls after you…

“Oh you say how much then! I’ll give it to you for 50, yeah?”

“Ok ok friend, let’s say 40? Alright, 30 then!”

“Ohhh just for you! Come back, how about 20?”

This is all well and good, if you were actually interested in buying it…but sometimes, we just wanted to find out prices – we soon found out that unless you definitely want to buy something, don’t ask the price. Even just stopping to LOOK is dangerous, and you’ll find it difficult to walk away peacefully. How do they expect us to buy something if we’re not even supposed to look at what they have on offer!?

In one stall I walked into, I exclaimed my surprise to the others when I heard some music sounding awfully similar to Bollywood… And as I turned to find the source of the music, there was Shahrukh Khan dancing around on the little laptop screen, in front of the two female shop-owners, who looked up at me after hearing my surprise, and said excitedly in Chinese: “Yes! You recognised it!? It’s Indian! Are you from India?”. Well, by this point and judging from their reactions, I thought I might as well say yes. 🙂

It's Shahrukh Khan! On a street on a little screen in a little side street in Xi'an!

It’s Shahrukh Khan! On a street on a little screen in a little side street in Xi’an!

In the evening, we went back to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, (where we ate pizza – at Papa John’s no less, oops) to watch the musical fountain show…which was a slight let-down, but nice anyway.

Musical fountain show outside the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which is in the background

Musical fountain show outside the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which is in the background

After packing up our stuff and checking out on Friday, we went to the Great Mosque of Xi’an. It is now a tourist attraction and although we saw some Hui people praying inside the hall, it’s not an active mosque anymore. I was sad to hear the woman at the front desk who looked at Nafeesah and I and said “Are you Muslim? Then you don’t need a ticket.” She then pointed at Beth and said “SHE needs to buy a ticket.” Well, no judging done there at all. 😦

The mosque itself was different to any kind of mosque I’ve seen before, probably because all the ones I’ve seen have some features of Middle Eastern/Arab architecture, whereas this one was completely Chinese in design, except for some Arabic decorative writing here and there; but all in all, not greatly interesting, in my opinion. We got stared at a LOT, and spotted people trying to secretly take our pictures/videos, although some were not so discreet, and would aim their phone cameras directly at us as they walked across in front of us. Not the first time we’ve experienced this, anyhow.

Does London have a list of Top Ten Scenic Sports? No, only in China.

Does London have a list of Top Ten Scenic Sports? No, only in China.

Some pictures of things I mentioned in my last post but was unable to upload pictures of:

I do believe the Chinese reads 'cow tongue'. Now you all know what's in your milk.

I do believe the Chinese reads ‘cow tongue’. Now you all know what’s in your milk.

Pit 1 (the best of the three) of the Terracotta Warriors

Pit 1 (the best of the three) of the Terracotta Warriors

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Nice to make your acquaintance, Tea.

Nice to make your acquaintance, Tea.

His characters were beautiful!

His characters were beautiful!

"You shall not pass!" (Gandalf)Maybe Tolkien is much much older than we think.

“You shall not pass!” (Gandalf)
Maybe Tolkien is much much older than we think.

Predictions of things that might shock me on my return to London:

1. Extortionate prices.

2. The lack of Chinese faces, or I guess, the sudden increase in ‘foreign’ faces!

3. Fresh air! (Compared to Beijing’s pollution levels, I believe I’m more than qualified in saying London’s air is ‘fresh’)

Did I mention I can’t wait to be home? -_-

Muharram

(A mini glossary of sorts is included at the end for any readers for whom terms used in this post may be new)

I do believe this is my first Muharram away from home, and while I thought that the closest I would get to any sort of Muharram programme would be online, watching and listening to the uploads from sicmtv (I miss you, Mahfil!), I couldn’t even get that due to extremely bad internet.

Luckily, a friend found out that the Iranian Embassy in Beijing is holding majlis for these nights, so we decided to go. (Tuesday was my first time there)

And I am so glad I did.

We may have been speaking different languages, but my surroundings were all too familiar; for those few hours, I was not in China at all.

I’ve been asked many times about the Muslim communities in Beijing, hopefully this can go partway to answering, but please leave comments/questions for anything else, and I will try my best to answer from what I know! So, I can happily say, totally against any expectations I had, I’ve now found some Shia here. In the ladies side, I estimate there were at least about 50 people, I was the only non-Iranian. That didn’t stop people from attempting to talk to me in Farsi though; apparently I would easily pass as an Iranian… Unfortunately, this did hinder communication somewhat, as (most of) the few I managed to talk to didn’t speak English nor any Chinese, but no matter! I was happy nonetheless!

Apparently, there were at least 100 in the mens side, which again, is far more than I expected, but from them, we did manage to find out that Dua Kumayl is read on Thursday nights there too, as well as functions for all the other bigger events in the Islamic calendar, such as Eid al-Ghadeer, and Milad un Nabi.  Needless to say, this did wonders for my mood! 🙂

Before now, I don’t think I fully appreciated what a binding thing religion can be. I may be on the other side of the world in Beijing. And this may be my first Muharram away from home. But I will not be commemorating it alone this year.

Glossary

Muharram = the first month of the Islamic calendar, in which Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Holy Prophet, was martyred in the Battle of Karbala.

Mahfil the community/mosque I have been brought up in back home (aka, the best place in the world)

majlis = I think Wikipedia takes care of this one quite well – “special gatherings among common interest groups be it administrative, social or religious… Examples include remembrance of Husayn ibn Ali”

Dua Kumayl = a supplication traditionally read by Shia Muslims on Thursday nights

Eid al-Ghadeer = a day celebrated by Shia Muslims as it was the day on which the Prophet appointed Imam Ali to be his successor

Milad un Nabi = Birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet (also usually celebrated)

NiuJie

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Probably over a month ago, I went to Niu Jie (Ox Street) – the Muslim quarter in Beijing – home to the famous Niu Jie Mosque (Ox Street Mosque). You can tell you’re in the right place with all the green boarded shops on the street. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but honestly, I did feel a bit let down. I must have read about the market that takes place there, and gone at the wrong time.

Anyway, possibly the most interesting thing I saw was this sign at the entrance to the mosque:

And I just wanted to share that much at least – it’s getting harder and harder to keep up with posting! 😦