Viking Country 3: Road Trip Treasures

One of the more endearing things about the road trip in Sweden was the sheer volume of cool stuff to see that is really close to the main highway. I feel a deep cultural attraction to “the road trip” which I’ve always sort of assumed was part of my American heritage. After all, as a child, my father took me on summer road trips in the RV to all the beautiful national parks of the West. My mom took us on weekend road trips up and down the coast or the town next door. When I got a car, I took repeated road trips with my friends. Loading up on road snacks, blasting your road music and pulling over when some random sign says “world’s largest ketchup bottle” is a basic part of Americana that thrives in my soul no matter how long I’m away.


Sweden is the only other country I’ve been to that I feel really gets it as far as road trip culture goes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved driving across Germany. Those people have amazing gas stations. The New Zealand drive was great and I loved having my own wheels in Bohol. The main difference is that, however beautiful the roadside scenery was in all those places, the road was just a way to get to places that public transit didn’t go. In Sweden, they not only have great gas stations, but also STUNNING rest stops that are basically parks and attractions on their own, AND they have the most wonderful series of roadside attractions.

On the day I fled the not-a-murder-house-we-promise, I found a cool viking church, another old-timey village replica, the most beautiful rest stop I’ve ever seen, and a giant statue by Pablo Picasso.

Viking Church

The Swedish people were late to the Christianity conversion party. After all, the religion’s spread originated in Rome, and the Roman Empire never quite managed to get a foothold in the land of the ice and snow. Vikings were worshiping Odin and co. right up to the 12th century, and even when they finally did “convert” it was… very halfhearted. A lot of the viking cultural and artistic trappings stayed almost entirely the same but with a little “for Jesus” footnote.

20180815_121721

I stopped in at Glanshammar Church in Örebro to see a little bit of how the Viking and the Christian met in the middle. I have to say, I wasn’t much impressed by the exterior of the building. There was an interesting watchtower construction, but the church was remarkably plain for something supposedly Catholic. I mean, think of all those Romanesque arches and Gothic cathedrals in Europe. What was this little white nub of a building?

Fortunately, I stuck it out and found the door. The interior of the very plain white building is filled end to end and top to bottom with highly intricate artwork that uniquely combines the traditional Christian art and architecture from the continent with the Swedish styles seen in earlier Viking tradition.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Outdoor Museum of Provincial Life

Next, still in Örebro, I stopped by the 18th century village reproduction called Wadköping. According to the sign, many of the buildings were actually transplanted from their original home to create the open air museum. I began to wander the town, noticing once more the extreme prevalence of red buildings. I saw some ladies doing needlework with laundry drying, and I went into buildings for kids that had plaster animals and pretend food.

I found the home of Hjalmar Bergman (Ingred Bergman’s father), a famous if often misunderstood writer who wrote about a mythical town of  Wadköping as a kind of Anytown, Sweden representing a middle class provincial life. The recreational is named after his literary invention as there was no such village in reality.

There was a replica school house which showed a typical education plan for students including Christianity, native language, arithmetic, “knowledge of nature” (the natural sciences), gymnastics, gender segregated crafts, and drawing.

There were a startling number of little artisan shops inside the buildings. Some were simply souvenir and ice cream shops, but others included traditional arts like woodcarving and a silversmith. The Historiska Butiken was particularly filled with the kind of beautiful Norse styled witchcrafty goodies that I know at least 30 people in my immediate friend group would have loved to fill their homes with. Even I had a hard time resisting. Tiny luggage space saves me money again!

A Fully Functioning Castle?

My last stop in Örebro was the Örebro Castle. This was the only place I ever really had trouble finding parking since the castle is quite central and Örebro is not a tiny village. After a few drives around the block, I found some street parking and headed over. It was mainly an exterior photo-op because the castle is not decorated in antique royal furniture the way so many of the castles on the continent were. A small part of the castle was set up as a kind of tiny museum, and much larger parts of the castle are actually used as government and business offices. The governor even lives there. Functional castle!

While exploring, I also found a hiking trail sign that indicated a “walking with death” level of trail difficulty, and a dramatically oversized park bench, just for fun.

Roadside Picasso

Waving good by to Örebro, I hit the highway for another longer stretch in search of the Picasso. That’s right, there’s an original Picasso standing out in the Swedish countryside… or… lakeside anyway. I’m not actually a big Picasso fan, for complicated reasons involving art history and feminism, but this seemed like the Swedish equivalent of “the world’s largest bottle of ketchup” and I could not drive so near it without stopping by. It was a long slow drive down a thin, low speed limit road, but it was such a beautiful day, and the road ran along the waterfront. A worthy side-trip.

On my way, I paused at one of Sweden’s many beautiful and amazing roadside rest stops. This one was a small lake surrounded by beautiful evergreen trees. The water was so still that the perfect blue and fluffy white of the sky were reflected like a mirror. I ate my sandwich and watched the beauty, just feeling overwhelmed by Sweden.20180815_160148.jpg

When I finally arrived at the Picasso, I was not disappointed. It’s clearly his work, and it’s GIANT. I wandered all around taking photos from various angles before I realized that the absolute best angle for the late afternoon sun also contained a couple having a nice fika (cup of coffee & snack) on a bench below the statue. I tried my best to shoot around them, hoping they might finish and move, but in the end I had to go in for politely asking if they would mind stepping away from the bench for just a moment so I could get the best picture. I do hate asking people to move their picnic, but it’s not like I’m going to be back again any time soon. They were quite gracious about the request, and I got my “shot”.20180815_172959.jpg

Fine Dining

I had reserved a cabin in a campground for the night, but was slowly learning to plan dinner before checking into the more remote accommodations. With no desire for another grocery store dinner, I decided to stop in Karlstad for a nice restaurant meal. Thanks to Google, I found a place called Elektriska. It’s built in the remains of an old electro-technical plant and focuses on high quality, sustainable, local, ethically sourced food cooked with an eye for haute cuisine. It is not cheap, but it was just inside my price range, and sounded right up my alley. Not to mention, it was in an adorable neighborhood.

20180815_191332.jpg

Their cocktail menu alone could have kept me happy. In the end I chose a lingonberry Gin and Tonic made with Stockholms Branneri Pink Gin, lingonberry, grapefruit, and Mediterranean Tonic. ($15)

The appetizer menu also looked like something I could just happily graze my way through, but the waitress advised that even the larger sampler was unlikely to be quite enough for a dinner. I settled on the “16 Ampere” appetizer platter which included rainbow trout with dill and vinegar, truffle salami with ricotta and sunflower, and wild boar with plum and tellicherry. ($17) The menu is seasonal and based on what’s available, so don’t go expecting to get exactly the same.

The wild boar sausage and the wild trout sashimi were entirely delicious, but the star of this dish was absolutely the salami. I would never in 10 million years have thought to combine salami, ricotta cheese, AND sunflower butter. I love all three of these, and I have probably had salami and ricotta together, and might have tried ricotta with sunflower seeds in a salad or something, but… wow. I can’t even explain how amazing this flavor combo is. Get u sum.

My main course was more rainbow trout, and if you like fish you know you just can’t go wrong with fresh caught local rainbow trout in season. This was skin fried rainbow trout with root vegetables, sundried tomatoes, and crayfish tails in a buttered crayfish broth. (28$)20180815_202844.jpg

I included the prices because this was the MOST expensive meal I ate on holiday, and I kind of wanted to put in perspective what that means for me. A high quality meal and cocktail at a fancy restaurant is not something I do often, but I’d been saving by eating in grocery stores and local delis, and this was a splurge that was 100% worth it. Amazing food isn’t cheap, but it sure does make the pleasure centers in my brain light up like Christmas and New Year’s all at once.

Cabin In the Woods

I got to my “campsite” in Värmland after dark and had a little trouble finding the bathrooms, but fortunately I was the only one there, and I’m not afraid to pretend to be a bear. The cabin itself was very plush with wall to wall carpet and a sort of beach house all white linen decor, as well as excellent WiFi. Despite being an actual cabin in the woods, the whole vibe of the campsite was homey and friendly which was a nice change after the farmhouse fright night.20180815_220708.jpg

The next morning I was able to easily find the bathroom and kitchen, make myself a cup of coffee and prepare a bit of breakfast from my grocery supplies. Traveling in a car means I can stock up on food for most meals and snacks more easily than when I’m traveling by bus and train. I was in no particular hurry to hit the road, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the little table and chairs out front of my cabin while watching the sheep across the road.

Once I felt full and rested, and put all my bedding in the laundry room, I hit the road once more. The cabin rules had included a rather extensive list of guests cleaning responsibilities and it wasn’t the first time I encountered such. The Langholm hostel had similar rules instructing guests not only to strip the sheets for the laundry staff, but also to take out the trash and sweep the floor before checking out! I try to be a good guest and never leave a big mess behind, but for me that usually means putting all my waste IN the garbage and cleaning up any big spills. I know pretty much all US hotels/hostels have housekeeping that have to clean the rooms between guests, but I’ve never seen the need to make extra work for them. Still it was a stretch even for me to be told that I had to go to the main building and get the vacuum cleaner, haul it over to the cabin and vacuum, then take it back, and also fold all the bedding after removing the duvet covers. I guess I’m just saying if you go to Sweden, expect to be your own housekeeping.

Winging It and Winning

I was getting used to following the roadsigns to roadside attractions by this point in my road trip and I happily turned off to explore Borgvik and Hyttruin without really knowing what I’d find. Hytta means “foundry”. Hyttruin is therefore the ruins of a foundry. I’m not a person who is typically interested in ironwork, and I think if the sign had said “iron foundry” I might have kept driving, but then I would have missed these wonderful ruins, and you know how much I love ruins.

Looking at the size of the defunct forge, I could imagine mythical dwarves making Thor’s hammer there. It was enormous, but it’s not from the days of antiquity, it’s just from the 1800s. Alongside the ruins ran the waterfall that was created to supply the foundry with hyrdropower. There were signs around the place explaining the history of pig iron, and the ins and outs of manufacture, but it turns out I’m still not interested in iron production. Very cool ruins, though.

Art & Lunch

Next I popped into a little art gallery nearby (still in Borgvik) called Sliperiet. It turned out to be a restaurant/art gallery and I opted to do both. Being hungry, I started with the restaurant and once again indulged my salmon habit. It was another highly artisan place with only a few chef chosen dishes on the menu each day. The salmon and veg were perfectly lovely, but what made the dish sing was the lemon cream. I don’t know how he made this stuff, but it was absolutely lemon and cream in the best possible way. Both are great with salmon but together it was heaven. I could eat that lemon cream every day on everything.20180816_130950.jpg

While I was eating, the staff brought me a booklet with little biographies of all the artists on display in the gallery which gave me a chance to think about what I was going to see. I decided to do the museum as a break between lunch and dessert, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of art on display in what was really the “middle of nowhere”. I took photos of absolutely everything, but I’m only going to share some of my favorites here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In case you want to follow up on any of these fine creators, I’ve tried to include relevant links: Albin Liljestrand, Kjell Engman, Stephan Westling, Ann Lillqvist, Rodney Smith, Christian Coigny, Nino Ramsby, Ylva CederTim Flach, Sara Nilsson, Jonas Rooth, Eka Acosta

After a lovely dessert of crème brûlée, I asked the very kind and helpful staff people where to go next. I had planned a day “in Varmland” but had no idea what was there, and had been going off of roadside stands and Google Maps markers with some success so far, but it never hurts to ask a local. They told me about an artist commune called NotQuite and I resolved to include it as my last stop in Varmland for the day.

An Artist Commune

20180816_161751NotQuite is an artist community built in an old paper factory in the middle of nothing. The art on display is far more experimental and boundary pushing than anything else I’d seen that summer, and not all of it was good, but all of it was sure trying to BE something. I wandered into the abandoned factory floor where art installations were scattered around almost as though they had been abandoned along with the paper. Small bright displays stood alone in large concrete rooms, and almost all of the signage was only in Swedish.

I found a mattress with some cobbled together VR goggles and a vague sort of “play me” note. It was an odd distorted and block color reality with a voice over in English of a person of indeterminate gender exploring the concept of sexuality. Very much everything you might stereo-typically think of when you think of experimental art commune.

It was mostly empty, but I’m not sure if that was because of the time of day or time of year. After spending a while wandering through the factory buildings and trying out the art, I headed back to the main gates. I stopped in at the gift shop on the way out where some of the more polished and “ready for home consumption” kind of art was on sale. I had a chance to ask a few questions about the place to the lady behind the counter. She explained that while a few people did choose to live on site, that most simply came there to work, and that they were funded by a grant from the government to support the arts. You can learn more on their website.


Sweden still makes me sigh with longing when I think of these days. Staring now down the barrel of planning another summer holiday, I’m deeply tempted to return and explore a new part of the country. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Korea these past few years, it lacks the freedom, the nature, and the stunning variety of culture and food that I yearn for. Still, until I have a stable landing pad for my next “home base” I guess I’ll take what I can get in the holidays. 

Advertisements

Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

20180810_121051

It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

20180810_124038

When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

20180810_135415

When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

20180810_160839

I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

20180810_180628

After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

20180811_155933

On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
11106833366_fb394b195f_b

It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

20180811_190433

After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

20180811_192115

The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

Stories Around Hamburg

My week in Hamburg was cut a little short because of the insane heat wave going on last summer. I spent an unfortunate amount of time simply being too hot and trying to recover from that. 37 C with no AirCon or even fans is treacherous. Plus, my Airbnb was up 5 flights of stairs, no elevator. I still had some interesting and unique experiences while I was there, most notably the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Nikolai, the Hamburg Harbor, the Miniature Wonderland, a wonderful ferry down the Elbe to see some old shipwrecks on the shore, a live music fountain light show in the park, and an interactive haunted history adventure!


Monday Madness

Monday was the single busiest day I had in Hamburg. I started the day with a trip to the ruins of the church of St. Nikolai because I love ruins. The spire stands as the highest point in the city of Hamburg and is quite distinctive sticking up above the surrounding trees and buildings.

bove ground, you can explore the ruins of what remain after the Firestorm of 1943, see some beautiful artwork, and take the elevator all the way to the tippy top of the tower for 360 degree views of the city.

It’s really quite delightful, and included in the elevator ticket price, is entrance to the museum located in the former cellar of the church. I’ve never been one to turn down a museum, but the experience was vastly more than I bargained for, and is getting its very own blog post. Let me just preface by saying, wow, the German’s don’t pull punches when it comes to discussing their role in the Nazi disaster.

After the memorial museum, I continued on toward the warehouse district where I had scheduled a combo harbor tour and Miniature Wonderland experience which I previously shared. I really have no idea what the tour guide said as it was 100% in German, but the harbor is really pretty, and I did get to see sunset from on the river Elbe which was a real treat.


Tuesday Too Hot
Tuesday was the hottest day. I went out for food and the restaurant was lovely but sweltering without Air-con or fans. I decided beer is hydrating. It’s certainly more available than water. I had the most tender pork and wonderful sauerkraut.


I thought I could find a cafe like Starbucks to enjoy AC and iced latte until it was time to go to the park in the evening but if they had AC it couldn’t compete the weather. One cafe that actually had a visible ac was out of ice for drinks.

In the end, I had to give up on everything and head back to my room where at least I could get ice and a cold shower. I’m genuinely worried for the people in Europe if climate change continues to serve up these super hot summers in towns without the infrastructure or social awareness to handle them. Even something as simple as putting a 3/4 full water bottle in the freezer in preparation of a hot day out was a complete novelty to my German hostess. In future, I’m not planning to return to the mainland of Europe during the summer months ever again.


Shipwrecks on the Beach, Cruises on the Elbe, it’s Wednesday!


Way down the river at Blankenese there are some slightly famous shipwrecks. Old craft that were simply not ever cleaned up, yet are so close to the shore that they are completely exposed at low tide. It sounded cool… or… at least interesting, even if the weather was still too hot. Sadly, I had the only day of difficulties with the Hamburg transit that day. The 50 minute journey took 2 hours and I got to the wrecks 45 minutes after low tide instead of 15 minutes before. Despite this setback, I did get to see them mostly out of the water and in the shade with the wind it was a nice place to sit and rest and watch the tide come in.


I don’t much like swimming alone at larger beaches. I seem to be good with smaller places, I was fine in the Philippines in the rivers, but not the beaches. I like swimming in the ocean if I’m snorkeling, but not just wandering into the water from the shore unless I’m with a group. Whatever the reason, I didn’t go swimming in the Elbe that day, but once I cooled in the shade, I was content to sit and watch the river and enjoy the breeze.


On my way to the ferry terminal, I saw a marker on Google Maps called “magic tree” so of course I had to stop and look. I have no idea what it was or how it got labeled on the map, but it was pretty?


This ferry ride was everything I wanted. Very few humans, a seat in the shade with a breeze and a nice view. They even got close to a few points of interest since it’s a tour ferry. Much better than the overfilled boat tour I’d taken as a combo with the Miniature Wonderland ticket.


The ferry dropped me off downtown at St. Pauli’s, a famous bustling cultural hub in Hamburg. I had a delicious salmon sandwich at Pier 10 then went to the night market. It was a little less “market” and more “outdoor bar” with some food trucks but still cool. I drank a beer and got some specialty cheese.


Thursday: Fountains and Flowers and Music oh my!
Another extremely hot day. I stayed in all day, drenching myself in cold water and holding a frozen water bottle to my neck. When the sun got lower and the temperatures dropped back below 30C, I went out to the botanical gardens. I decided to go out before sunset despite the heat because I wanted a chance to see the actual gardens, but my main goal was to see the fountain and light show with live music accompaniment that is a nightly feature at the gardens in summer. I walked slowly, taking my time to enjoy the flowers and take lots of pictures.

The gardens were stunning, if slightly wilted from heat. More locals came out to enjoy the relief of the relatively cooler evening air and to eat some ice cream by the lake. I even ran into a swing dancing group cutting a rug in an open pavilion in the park.

Then, when I was ready for a rest, I sidled up to the in-park restaurant for dinner. I decided to finally try currywurst. I’d seen it all over the place but hadn’t eaten any yet because I was trying to enjoy what I thought of as “traditional German” food. In the end, I gave in because currywurst was so ubiquitous I had to accept it as a local specialty. I’m not really sure it’s related to curry. It’s a wurst (sausage) with sauce that may be tamarind since it tasted a bit fruity and tart, I think it was sprinkled with turmeric powder. It was nice but somehow nether Indian nor German. I don’t know the fascination but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

For the concert, I found a spot by the water early on as the lawns around the lake began to fill up with families on picnic blankets. I watched ducks and geese be unbelievably blase about humans even as toddlers chased then around the grass.

I’ve been to a lot of fountain shows, I love them all, but what makes the Hamburg show so unique is that it’s all live. The music is performed live, and the person controlling the fountains and lights is activating all of it live. It’s not a pre-programmed computer controlled performance, so it’s not as perfect or technically marvelous as some, but it has the tremendous advantage of being totally unique every time, and of involving live performance artists. I was sitting so close to the edge I got sprayed by the fountains from time to time which was a welcome respite from the day’s heat. One day, I’ll buy a better night time camera, but here’s a little snippet to give you an idea of the show.


Hamburg was an up and down experience going from extreme heat and misery to wonderful, captivating experiences when the heat eased off. I wish I could have experienced the city more fully in better weather because I really loved everything I was able to experience while there.

It’s basically impossible for me to fit a whole city into one post, and Hamburg is no exception. I’ve already published the story of Miniature Wonderland, and following this post will be the deeply emotional ride through the St. Nikolai WWII memorial museum, and finally the thrilling conclusion of my last adventure in Hamburg: The Dungeon!!!!!!

The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

20180708_183040

I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

20180708_183104

In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

20180708_105047

The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

20180708_110618

I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

20180708_120330

Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 
Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

20180708_124129

From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

20180708_133604

Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

20180708_152115

I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

20180708_172320

At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

20180708_172204

The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

20180708_161440

There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

20180708_160141

About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

20180708_163329

When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

20180708_164233

Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

20180708_164211

Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.

Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

15momshouse1.jpg

The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

100_0468.jpg

The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

100_0496.jpg

The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

01jishuitan gate1.jpg

We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

05wall pit stop3.jpg

After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

09yanqiao2.jpg

Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

10village gate.jpg

Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

17brickbed2.jpg

There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

100_0467.jpg

Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

100_0478.jpg

Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

35chickens2.jpg

Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

39school2

The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

100_0486.jpg

We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

100_0489.jpg

This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

100_0492.jpg

We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

09village4.jpg

Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

100_0498.jpg

Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

100_0508.jpg

Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

100_0524.jpg

They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

100_0530.jpg

¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.