Posts Tagged With: far east

Stumbling Upon an Amazing Place of Love

This is what we love about traveling the way we do: because we’re less than briefly in a place, we get the opportunity to stumble on places which would’ve illuded us otherwise.

Great places.

Amazing places.

Mysteriously wonderful places which aren’t on the tourist itinerary or promoted on the official websites.

We were looking for schools is nearby Doudian.

We’re on an extended trip.

And extended trips cost money.

Especially if you’re a Tribe of 7 people.

The Tribe must eat and live.

So we teach English to cover the cost and finance the experience.

Maybe we’re more like migrant workers, or Gypseys.

Gypseys.

I like that idea.

So, yes, we’re Gypseys, working a little in a place, for a little while, while we meet beautiful new people and taste beautiful new experiences and discover a little more about The Way of the Gift.

We’ve settled, briefly, in a little village on the outskirts of Beijing.

DaGaoShe Village.

Working in the town of Liangxiang.

But the school we work for treats the contract we signed, more like a very broad guideline than a contract, and even though we are just migrant workers, we do afford ourselves the luxury of, if we have to work, enjoying what we do.

So we’re looking for new schools.

Which is much easier than trying to get a school, which does not know what honesty or integrity means, to grasp these principles.

As we travel, we notice, everywhere, dogs bark, birds fly and people are the same.

Some are honest.

Some not.

Some are caring.

Some can care about no one except themselves and their own interest.

This seems to be unrelated to race or gender or religion.

As if only glimpses of completeness is sown across our world, to spark happiness, framed by love and peace, on mountain tops and along the banks of rivers as they create new valleys flowing to the ocean.

DaGaoShe is sort of between Liangxiang and Doudian.

12 kilometers from Liangxiang.

8 kilometers from Doudian.

On the edge of the massive Beijing.

So we thought, a school in Doudian would be great.

An honest school.

It is closer.

It is smaller.

And generally we seem to meet greater people in smaller places.

So we’re Googling English Schools in Doudian.

And Bethel pops up.

A school.

But not a regular school.

And they’re not advertising that they’re hiring.

So we Google some more and later call in the help of recruiters, which makes things easier, because they know of all the schools and opportunities.

And we interview with other schools and look for that opportunity that will viably finance our experience in another place.

But it doesn’t matter.

The fact that Bethel isn’t hiring is of no consequence.

Because what they are doing, draws our interest.

Sort of like the sun drawing water from the ocean.

It cannot be resisted.

We call them.

Speak to a woman who introduces herself as Anna.

We make an appointment.

We’ll visit them on a Monday afternoon.

Anna explains that some kids won’t be there, that weekends are better for visits, but we work on weekends and kids aren’t monkeys in a zoo, so it doesn’t make a difference that they’ll be busy with their daily lives.

Over breakfast I order a cab on Grabtalk.

If you’re ever in China for a while, near a big city, you should get Grabtalk.

It’s like Uber, but much more.

In China you use WeChat, not Whatsapp.

And on WeChat you add Grabtalk.

And Grabtalk will get you whatever you need, wherever you are, at a really good price, between 8 in the morning and 11 at night.

Sometimes even later.

My sister went home to SA.

On her arrival back in China, she took a cab from the airport to our village and paid 400¥ just for the cab.

The other night we were in Beijing CBD for a medical emergency, at the Beijing Children’s Hospital.

Our Maddi had a terrible fall.

We had a big scare.

It was a wild chase in an ambulance through the streets of Beijing.

And it was 3 in the morning when we headed back home, relieved that she is okay.

With Grabtalk the taxi cost 82¥.

Same distance.

More 300¥ cheaper.

You need tickets to go to the great wall, or a hotel, or a restaurant or a PS4 or perfume or pizza, they organize it for you, they don’t charge you anything extra and they speak English.

That’s nice.

Believe me, that is very nice for people who have only a rudimentary understanding of Chinese, yet live in a world where few speak fluent English.

At 2 the cab arrives.

A smart new Beijing Motor Company x65 SUV.

Something like a Hyundia ix35.

The driver is friendly.

He knows the way.

It is a 15 minute drive.

Even closer to our home than we thought it was.

At Bethel Anna welcomes us.

She is a Spanish girl who has been with Bethel for about 2 years.

She studied to be a translator.

Studied in Spain.

Then studied more Chinese right here in China.

And her journey brought her to Bethel.

On their website we read about the project.

It was founded a decade ago.

A couple came to China from France.

They knew they wanted to do something which makes a difference.

They’re both musicians, so they started visiting orphanages and playing music.

Then they adopted a child.

Then Bethel happened.

An orphanage for visually impaired children.

Or a foster home specifically equiped to love and raise and educate kids who face this challenge.

China is an interesting place.

We’ve come to love the people.

We’ve come to respect their way.

But it isn’t Utopia.

No society, no matter how well it is run, is free of trouble.

China is a well run society.

It is egalitarian.

People have access.

The streets are safe.

Old people and young girls walk in streets and parks, late at night, without fear of mugging or rape.

Public transport is clean, effective and affordable.

Public healthcare is available and of high quality.

Police are well trained, friendly and helpful.

Education is good and free, until you have to go to High School and then it is inexpensive, even University within the reach of a Mom and Dad who work at a factory and want to send their one child to University.

That is one challenge this society faces.

One child.

Our Tribe adored by some, envied by others.

One child.

For a long time a couple could have only one child.

Then it eased a bit.

If both members of a couple were the only child, they were allowed to have 2 children.

Then it was eased a little more.

If either member of the couple were the only child, they were allowed to have 2 children.

And quite recently couples were being encouraged to have 2 children, as the government saw a negative population growth and projections predicted a lack of labor and consumers in the world’s second largest economy.

But it seems, most people have gottten used to the idea of one child.

A family is 3.

Or 5, if grandma and grandpa is included.

4 adults.

One child.

6 adults really, mostly, and one child.

So women don’t seem to be dragging their men to the bedroom at every opportunity to conceive that second child.

And somehow this affects babies who are born with a visual impairment.

“A blind baby won’t be able to take care of us as well as a healthy baby would.”

Of all eight of us.

That is quite a burden children in China grow up with.

Family is everything.

And you take care of your family.

First.

It is beautiful.

But imagine the weight on a Chinese child as he grows up and goes through education with the one aim: to get to the top with the best possible job, so that I could take care of my Mom and Dad and my husband’s Mom and Dad and our grandparents.

Imagine the fear in a parent as they discover their baby is blind.

Anna welcomes us in the foyer of the school.

It is an old hotel of sorts on a largish piece of land.

The hotel building has been converted to offices and classrooms.

The property is well maintained.

Clean.

Warm.

She shows us the classrooms, the music room.

We meet some students and teachers.

A little guy runs up to us and starts talking.

Playing.

He seems happy.

And confident.

Anna tells us there are about 500 000 orphans in China.

A lot of children.

But, if you think about the population of China, maybe half a million orphans aren’t that many?

Still half a million children.

Children abandoned for some or other reason.

Many of them abandoned because they are blind.

Anna explains, parents often don’t realize their baby is blind at birth.

And many times, visually impaired babies are abandoned when they are closer to their first birthday, or even after that.

Almost like little Moses, abandoned after he did not need to be nursed anymore, with the slight difference, these babies are not abandoned to go live in a palace, they are taken into State Orphanages, which are mostly not geared to take care of and raise and educate children with disabilities.

Which complicates matterrs a bit.

The sooner a visually impaired child can get the care he needs, the better.

Bethel has a relationship with many Chinese Orphanages.

They provide training and do awareness campaigns.

They’re launching a new project inside a specific orphanage where the need is deep.

And some of the children are fortunate enough to come to be in their care.

At Bethel they get a proper education and all the care they need.

They learn to read braille.

They learn Chinese and English and music and all the regular subjects they would’ve been taught at school.

They learn to move in their environment, without sight.

To cope.

To thrive.

As Anna takes us on our tour, two kids with bowls of fruit make their way up the stairs to the second floor of the school.

They are taking an afternoon snack to their classmates.

They find their way with ease, playing as they go along.

One stops halfway up the stairs at the large Christmas tree.

Puts the bowl of fruit down and looks at the tree, feeling the decorations and smiling.

Then he’s off, after his friend, running up the stairs.

Counselors come to meet the children once a week.

A large hospital in the city helps with medical care.

Some children need operations.

Cataracts.

Others would be greatly helped by a cornea transplant.

This year Bethel managed that.

A donor and transplant which changed a child’s life.

But being here at Bethel seems to change lives.

Being abandoned as a child must be something to deal with.

Being abandoned because of a physical impairment must be even harder.

And as we walk from classroom to classroom, meeting beautiful children and amazing teachers and carers, we are overwhelmed by gratitude.

For our own sight.

For being able to navigate our world with ease.

For being able to come to this place, so close to our little Chinese House, and meeting these awesome people who love without hesitation.

Changing the future of a handful of beings.

“It is a drop in the ocean”, Anna says as she explains the daily routine.

“We foster 40 children”.

“And there is a long waiting list.”

“Here at Bethel we care for 27 children.”

“In the city we have two apartments where we care for 13 older kids who we’ve been able to enroll in a special needs school.”

“Why not more?” I ask.

“It costs 4000¥ to take care of one child.”

“4000¥ per month.”

“That’s about $650”.

It comes down to funding.

“We have a ‘sponsor-a-child-program’ in which you can give 400¥ ($65) a month towards the care of a specific child.”

I do the math in my head.

It takes 10 donors to sponsor 1 child.

40 kids.

400 donors.

And then the needs of the existing children are taken care of.

“There are always more kids waiting to come to Bethel“, Anna explains, as we stand in front of a large world map at the top of the stairs.

I don’t get the map.

Then a see a sign talking about adoptions.

And Anna explains.

“We try to find the kids homes.”

“A child needs a home.”

“A child needs a family who will love them.”

“Last year we did 14 adoptions.”

“This year we did 19.”

“It is the most adoptions we could manage so far.”

“Most adoptions are international.”

This is part of Anna’s responsibility at Bethel.

“A lot of adoptions are to America.”

Anna explains that people from other countries have done adoptions too.

I can’t remember the countries.

I think Spain.

Maybe Canada.

This year they had a child adopted by a Chinese family in China.

“That is the ideal. Then the child stays within his culture, his own language and world.”

Kids are well prepared for adoption.

In addition to being able to read braille, find their way in their environment and being counseled regularly, there are always English classes, so if they are adopted by an English speaking couple, language is not a problem.

At the moment an American and a Brazilian girl volunteer a year of their time specifically to teach English to the kids who are being prepared for adoptions.

And my gratitude deepens.

How amazing that there are people who love so much that they would adopt a visually impaired child, from another country and raise that child as their own.

“It is difficult, ” Anna explains.

“People want to adopt babies”.

“Babies without challenges.”

“Often our kids aren’t babies anymore, when they are ready to be adopted.”

In China it seems there is a deadline for adoption as well.

If you’re 14, that deadline has passed.

“We were so happy”, Anna says as we walk from the world map, past pictures of children and Christmas decorations, “this year a boy was adopted just before his 14th birthday. That is good. He has a home. He has a family.”

And as children move to families, new children come to Bethel to receive a gift they would not receive, had this organization not been here in our backyard, supported by good people and run by stunning people, who love enough to change little lives into eternity.

We see the homes where the kids live.

The playground where they play.

The pool where they swim in summer.

We hear of the horses they ride once a week at a stable in Beijing.

And then it is four o’clock and our Grabtalk Cab is back to pick us up and take us home.

Maddi plays on one of the bikes in the playground.

I know we’ve only seen a glimpse of what happens at Bethel.

I sense that it wasn’t chance, or by the way that we stumbled on this place.

We believe in ‘serendipity’.

Our lives drawn by our Origin towards meaning in every moment.

And as we get ready to leave, I ask:”So what can we do? What are needs we can fill. I can shovel coal for the heating? Or do dishes? Maybe clean?”

“It sounds stupid”, Anna responds, “but maybe you could come and play with our boys?”

“Two thirds of our kids are boys, but our staff is female and the boys lack a male role-model.”

Except for Anna and the two volunteers, the rest of the people who make Bethel a reality are all Chinese.

Locals.

The manager is a woman who studied special needs care and education.

The carers and teachers are women who live in the nearby village.

And I agree.

Hesitatingly, for it is not something small to be a role-model for a child whose world you have no idea of.

“Okay.”

“I’ll come. And be. Here. With a boy or two. For as long as I can and as often as I can, and as long as you’ll have me. It would be a gift.”

As we ride the short drive home I think of it all.

The families who moved close to Bethel, who kept their visually impaired children and changed their own lives, so that they could bring their kids to Bethel during the day for education and special needs care.

The founders, who started something astounding, in such a way that it could continue long after their departure.

The families who support and adopt.

The exquisite beauty, hidden in our backyard, in the Chinese countryside, in a seemingly insignificant place.

The startling beauty of the gift these kids receive, in a world which was ready to destroy them.

The grace of it all, as our Origin conspires to take loss and transform it into gain, by touching peoples’ being and connecting people and filling us with happiness, framed by love and peace.

And I know this hour or two on a cold Beijing afternoon was just the beginning.

For us.

As we forge new relationships.

And are allowed to share in the immensity of it.

As, perhaps, your reading this, is just the start.

The seed.

Of your own involvement with this exquisiteness, in a far off place, which you cannot comprehend.

Maybe you could look at their website: www.bethelchina.org/home/?

Maybe you could see a child?

Maybe you’ll be taken on a trip, which would be the best years of your life?

I don’t know.

For, each of us, have our own journey.

But I do know this: no one can visit this place and leave untouched.

Even virtually.

Maybe, instead of planning your next trip in the Seychelles or the US or Paris, maybe you could do a trip to Bethel?

Or if you are at that stage of your life where you have time on your hands, you could offer to be a volunteer, giving the most precious gift of all.

Who knows how this journey will go?

But we share it.

Even now.

Even if just briefly.

And it is not without meaning.

It is serendipitous.

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Every bus-route has an end

A while ago we took bus 35, the only bus which runs from our little Chinese village to the nearby city of Liangxiang, in the opposite direction.

Away from Liangxiang.

Along the way we got off & discovered the most beautiful organic fruit farm.

Today we decided to take the bus again.

Same direction.

But ride it until it stops.

Or returns to our village.

After 30 minutes it stopped, of ambling along beautiful country roads & through picturesque little villages.

The conductor asking us to disembark.

Google Maps, with the helpmof a sturdy VPN, informed us that we were in ZuCun, or Zu Village.

The place didn’t look like much, but we’ve learnt that the most exquisite treasures are around the corner, if only we are willing to take a walk.

Life is often like this.

Somewhere the bus stops & then we have to get off & if we are willing to walk where we are, we might just experience something great.

In the streets of Zu Village, as in the streets of all the villages on the way, corn is spread to dry, workers carefully turning it & working it, so the corn may fall off the cob & dry in the sun.

Happy yellow greet us everywhere.

We get ice cream from the nearest shop.

Then we walk.

Past old Chinese homes.

A pond where old men are fishing.

Then a country road.

Fields of corn & cabbage & nuts & berries.

A river accompanying us & friendly locals greeting us, as we make our way.

We walk past a paper factory.

Small.

Unobtrusive.

Then a dam & sluices.

More fruit trees.

More fields of vegetables

Probably we’ll never set foot in Zu Village again.

But we were here.

We saw the old man & his dog, making a vegetable garden on its sidewalks.

We spoke to the boy who waits for the bus, at the end of its line, to carefully wash & clean it, while driver & conductor enjoy a meal.

We sat in the shade of an old Willow Tree.

Greeted the old men as they waited for a fish to bite & spent a moment with a Mom and her toddler who wanted to take a picture with Maddi & Sophia.

It wasn’t a ‘wow’-moment.

It was a quiet one.

Calm.

A needed one.

We need quiet moments along our way.

We can’t always be on the Great Wall or at the Forbidden City.

In fact, mostly, real life, I think, is lived along forgotten paths, near insignificant little villages,  where few tourists make their way.

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Every long Journey will be Interupted

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We’re taking a trip.

A long one.

With no specific destination in mind, except perhaps to experience and learn.

And no determined end, except when we run out of grace and goodwill, which are both invaluable on a journey like this one.

We left our beloved country almost 20 months ago.

And for now, we find ourselves in a little village ( 大高舍村 ) on the outskirts of Beijing, about 10 kilometres from a city called Liangxiang.

We’ve received a lot of goodwill from beautiful people in this very foreign world.

And we lost some goodwill, from beautiful people who suggested that they were friends.

That is the nature of goodwill.

It cannot be claimed or demanded.

It is given, or not.

And in receiving,  or not receiving it, we are grateful,  for there is a Sourceror who conjures goodwill and lets it disipate in a perfect rhythm of gift and care, loss and gain and loss again.

On an extended journey like ours, the worst interuption is a medical matter.

In a country where we’ve not even been able to explain eloquently that we have a headache, it is daunting to imagine you might need a doctor, on short notice.

It is one of the things you put at the very back of your mind, lest angst consumes your every moment and you confine your children to padded rooms, only letting them out to pee, if they really have to.

We’re good at walking away from the things that worry most people.

You have to be if you want to load a 13 year old boy, two girls of 12 and 11, and an 18-month old Boo on an airplane and head into the unknown, without an idea of what it all will demand.

And then, when a need arises, you deal with it, at least consoled by the fact that every moment leading up to this need wasn’t poisoned by fear.

Fear is a terrible thing.

It sort of sucks the life out of you.

And everyone in proximity to you.

And every experience, which might’ve been beautiful, but seem gray and tasteless in the dim light of nightmarish phobia.

Fear makes us do stupid things.

Like being selfish and needy.

And existing without truly living.

In our little Tribe, the only thing soliciting greater anxiety than an amputated head on a stainless steel hospital trolley, after an horific accident in which half of us lost the ability to perform normal bodily functions and the other half lost their heads, is a dental emergency.

Ask Wildrie, our kind and very patient dentist back home.

It takes an unusual amount of coaxing and encouragement to get any of us to open wide, even despite excruciating pain and vivid pictures of Zombi-like rotting faces, brought to life by our own imaginations enticed by pain induced hallucinations.

So when one of our daughters anounced that she was going to need a dentist, only days after we arrived in 大高舍村, we knew it was important.

So how do you find a dentist in a new city?

Ask friends?

Google it?

Go on Facebook and ask for recommendations.

All pretty handy in a world where you and all your friends speak the same language, where you can read it and Google and Social Media is open and unrestricted.

Where we are, none of these options are viable.

In fact, private medical care isn’t available.

If you need a doctor, you go to a hospital.

If you need a dentist, you do the same.

And so we ask our neighbours where the nearest hospital is and head there, hoping for the best, armed with our passports, all the Chinese currency we could scrape together, after having relocated our Tribe of seven, aware that we’ll need to eat for 6 weeks, before my little bit of income from teaching makes its reluctant appearance, and that every ¥ we spend is part of a meal we won’t have.

Hospitals in China are Public.

State operated.

They are not expensive.

They are clean and well run.

We find the hospital.

Amidst a thousand signs we’re not able to read, we find an information desk.

With a translator app (almost as invaluable as goodwill if you journey through this part of the world) we explain we would like to see a dentist.

The problem with translator apps, they translate fine from English to Chinese, but the person you speak to usually doesn’t carry a handy translator with them and even though they understand you, because they are relieved they understand you and want to move right along as quickly as they can, in order not to seem incompetent, they start answering your question in Chinese which must have inspired the fast train which runs between Beijing and Hong Kong and you have to listen and understand as much as you can in the 7.3 seconds it takes for them to talk, before your eyes glaze over and you can see a mindless stare reflected in the lenses of their spectacles.

A bit of advice: learn as much of the language as you can, as soon as you can.

We’ve found, even though what comes out of our mouthes sound like giberish, since Chinese has different tones which influence the meaning and you can think you are explaining to someone that you are a teacher, while in actual fact you are telling him you are a mouse, solliciting uncontrolable laughter, always recieved in good spirits and optimism, because you don’t know what was heard and only what you hoped to say, when you practice listening, over time, you understand more of what is said.

I listen to the radio, to every conversation on which I can eavesdrop, to people in shops and restaurants and gradually my brain has built a translator of its own.

So this morning I figure out we must go to the 3rd floor of the hospital.

Which we do.

Where we are told we need a hospital card, fear slowly dripping down my spine, becuase why would China provide state-sponsored healthcare to a foreigner and his oversized family?

Before the sweaty droplet could reach the crack where a monkey-tale used to be, according to the stories my Dad told me, the friendly nurse writes a few words on a piece of paper, asks an attendant to accompany us somewhere and smiles at us.

We go to the 1st floor, which is actually the ground floor, since buildings in China do not have ground floors, making it easier for me to understand,  since I don’t know yet what ‘ground’ is in Chinese, but I do know how to count, and there is no word for 1st or 2nd or 3rd in Chinese, just ‘ee’, ‘ar’ and ‘san’, one, two, three and ‘low’, which means ‘floor’, so ‘ee low’ is easy enough to follow, but on ‘ee low’ it took us 30 minutes to find the information desk, and so we are grateful for the smiling chatting attendant walking us down, first to one desk where our daugther’s details are entered onto a computer and she is handed a hospital card, then to another desk, where we pay the 3¥ for the hospital card and a light blue booklet in which all records will be manually kept of all treatment she will ever receive at the hospital.

Then we go back up to the 3rd floor, where a young dentist greets us.

She calls herself Dr Gee.

She speaks a little English.

She takes a look at the mouth of our daughter who, by now, needs no more vivid imagination or gentle coaxing to open wide, as relief that we’ve come this far washes over the two of us and pool at our feet.

She needs x-rays.

A piece of paper is printed.

We go to the 4th floor.

10 minutes later we’re back with Dr Gee, x-rays in hand.

She explains the problem and starts treatment.

45 minutes later we stand at a counter and pay the days bill.

151¥

Then we go to the pharmacy counter to collect medicines, which we need to take back to Dr Gee, before we can be ‘released’, so that she can retrieve and replace the anesthetic she used and explain about the rest.

151¥ and about 2 hours later we head back home, laughing at ourselves for our rediculous fear of dentistry, while patting ourselves on the back for being able to find our way through this as well, with so much ease, in a place where nothing should really be easy for people like us, except for grace and goodwill.

This morning, from a nurse who was kind enough to scrible a few words, an attendant who didn’t mind showing us the way and Dr Gee who took the time to give our daughter treatment which equals everything we’ve ever received in our beloved country.

And from Wildrie we received better than the best.

Goodwill.

We can’t make sacrifices at the feet of little golden statues to sollicit or guarantee it.

We can’t make advance payments or take out insurance.

It is given or not.

Which fills us with gratitude every time we receive it in such abundance.

Helping us not to take anything for granted, not anything.

On our journey, we are learning this, feeling a bit stupid, since this isn’t suddenly true.

It is always true.

For all of us.

And as we walk away from Dr Gee and the friendly nurse, finding our way to the home with the kind neighbor who fed us on the night of our arrival and who helps Zuko with her vegetable garden, who shows Zuko where the perfect little shops are to get unique little things, we are deeply aware that whoever we are, wherever we go, even despite our desperate striving to create a safe bubble in which to exist, but for the goodwill of our Origin, we would be lost in a world filled with animosity.

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Let’s take Bus 35 to Somewhere

Bus 35 runs from our village, 大高舍村, into Liangxiang, where I have classes 5 days a week.

The bus runs between 05h40 to 20h30.

We’ve taken it to Liangxiang many times over the past few weeks.

This morning we got on it in the opposite direction, to see where it would take us.

It is amazing what you experience if you are willing to just get on a bus and go somewhere unknown.

We rode the bus for about 20 minutes and then got off in a neighbouring village, started walking along its streets, taking in the atmosphere, the old buildings, the beautiful people, the smell of food and the sound of laughter.

We walked down the main street, eventually getting to the entrance of the village.

I love how villages and towns and cities here in China have ornate entrances welcoming you.

We kept on walking in the shade of large trees planted decades ago, all along the road.

A woman on an electric scooter stopped alongside us.

She started talking and explaining, too fast for us to follow, but friendly and kind, us able to understand she has a gift she wants to share with us.

A little way further down the road we find their farm, their gift.

Amazing organic fruit trees.

Plums.

Peaches.

Apricots.

And a similar fruit we don’t know.

They explain that they do not spray their trees and invite us in to come and pick and eat as much as we like.

Birds provide the soundtrack fro our experience.

We enjoy one juicy plum followed by another juicy peach.

Maddi’s face and clothes are marinated in fresh fruit juice as she eats along.

As we leave we take a bag of fruit with us.

It starts to drizzle.

People offer us umbrellas which we politely decline.

The drizzle is perfect.

We find our bus stop.

We ride home, along tree-lined streets.

As Beate would call it, ‘China the Beautiful’.

Not just the trees and fruit and countryside.

The people.

Always friendly.

Always welcoming.

Always sharing their little bit of abundance with our little tribe of strangers.

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大高舍村 Market day

Along the moon calendar 大高舍村 (Da Gao She Cun) has a market.

Four, sometimes five times a week.

We recently moved to 大高舍村.

It is about 10 kilometres from nearby Liangxiang in Fangshan County of Beijing.

We have village life, while being not too far from the little University Town where we teach and study.

Recently Zuko acquired a pick-up.

The kind which runs on pedal power, which is very popular in China.

It makes life easy when bringing potatoes and mushrooms and all kinds of exotic fruit back from the market.

The market isn’t really just 大高舍村’s.

It is set-up between Siao Gao She Cun and the next village, an easy 3 kilometre ride on Zuko’s pick-up.

At the market you get not only fresh fruit & vegetables, but also meat, fish, clothes, house-ware, bedding, furniture – pretty much anything you can imagine to need and at a much lower price than you would pay in a Liangxiang Supermarket.

It is sort of 大高舍村’s Taubau, just with instant gratification & a little more color.

But you have to head there early, by 9 the action starts to fade and by eleven the only evidence that there was any business done is some corn leaves or onion peals discarded on the side of the road.

This, I think, is how getting your food should be.

A little more pleasant than the supermarket’s white isles and organized rows.

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From Jiamusi to Liangxiang

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On December 29th 2013, we loaded our luggage in a friends Fortuner and drove the 400 odd kilometres from Bloemfontein to OR Thambo International Airport, to start a 24 hour journey, taking three flights, to arrive in Jiamusi, Heilongjiang, China, late the afternoon on December 30th.

That was 18 months ago.

On July 1st 2015, we loaded our luggage on train K2606, departing from Jiamusi train station, to start another 24 hour journey.

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This time to Beijing.

And from Beijing to Liangxiang in Beijing’s Fangshan County, about 40 kilometres from the city centre.

Public transport in China is cheap and convenient.

We bought second class tickets, or what they call ‘hard-sleeper’-tickets.

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You get a bed, with fresh clean bedding, in a carriage,  alongside many other travelers.

The carriage is equiped with a toilet, bassin area and conductor who constantly cleans and makes sure everybody is comfortable.

The journey was easy.  We played cards.  Excitedly talked about what awaits us on the other side.  Read some.  Shared dinner and breakfast and lunch.  Slept some.

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And then we arrived in Beijing.

At the beautiful old train station with its bell-tower which rings on the hour.

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Crowds of people easily finding their way.

We find our way to the KFC for a cup of coffee and ice cream for the kids, while waiting for Anna Wang, who is meeting us for the last leg of our journey.

In Jiamusi we had new friends seeing us off at the station, making sure we catch the right train and find our carriage and settle into our little semi-compartment.

18 months ago, at OR Thambo International,  it was just us, our friends far away in Bloemfontein and Nelson Mandela Bay.

This afternoon, as we sip hot black coffee, the bell striking once, it is just us again.

Our little Tribe, on our amazing little journey.

It is different from a 3 week tour, with luxury accommodation and arranged transport.

It is immersive.

Tasting and experiencing what never could be on a short little visit.

Anna arrives.

We load our luggage in the black mini-van and head out of Beijing, towards Liangxiang.

The air-con a welcome comfort after 30 minutes at the train station.

It is a 90 minute drive.

We could’ve taken the subway.  Google Maps says it is 90 minutes by subway from Beijing Train Station to Liangxiang on the new Fangshan-subway-line.

Anna insisted on meeting us.

She takes us to the Police Station, where we need to register our arrival.

And then to our new little home.

In Jiamusi the institution I worked for provided us with housing, for which we were grateful,  since it would’ve been an impossible requirement for us to seek and find housing, in a country we’ve never been to, from South Africa, before our departure.

In Liangxiang, we found our own home.

Over the internet.

With lots of negotiations, with the help of Google Translate and WeChat, China’s version of Whatsapp.

I was a little worried, despite my belief that our lives are connected to the Origin of Life and Being & that there is a rhytm of loss and gain, which is good, aware that every loss brings gain and every gain will flow to loss again, creating space for new gain.

We’ve ordered shoes online.

Electronics.

But never before have we ordered a house.

You speak.

You agree.

And then you trust that everything will work out.

And eventually it does.

In Liangxiang, on the outskirts of Beijing, housing is expensive.

Not as expensive as in Beijing itself, but still, on what I would earn with the little bit of teaching I would do, a 3-bedroom apartment would eat more than 35% of my income each month.

And we did the apartment thing in Jiamusi.

Which was an interesting experience.

A difficult one, in some ways, for a little Tribe who came from a beautiful little wooden house, set on a not so little hill, overlooking forest and ocean.

It took some getting used to the 5 flights of stairs to climb every day and the view of another apartment building and the less space and the neighbours above and below.

We made the most of that and enjoyed the experience – somewhere, if we get the gift of old age, we’ll talk about the beauty of our little apartment on the 5th floor in Yi Yuan Qao Qi, but when we found a little house, with a little garden, just 10 kilometres outside Liangxiang, renting for not even 17% of my income, we were excited.

Could it be possible?

To live in a house with a garden, and a beautiful entrance gate, in China where most families live in apartments?

It must be a scam!

And had we given ourselves to fear of the unknown and belief in the worst, we would’ve opted for a smallish 2-bedroom apartment,  somewhere on the 5th floor again, neatly furnished and very safe, but above our means and already inside the sphere of our experience.

It is a littlenharder to be brave when you are part of a Tribe.

When Zuko and I were just married, young and without children, we would often throw caution to the wind, without thinking about it twice.

We shared an adventerous spirit and we would deal with whatever happened, together.

We continued this tradition after the kids arrived, but it took and it takes a little more now.

We have 4 other lives to consider and you don’t know how hardy they would be and you don’t want to subject them to stuff that is unpleasant or bad.

Still we phoned and WeChat-ted and ordered.

And arrived.

Driving down a little alley.

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To stop in front of a beautiful red gate.

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And find a not so little house with 5 fruit trees and loads of birds in the garden.

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The landlord and his family are friendly.

He apologises.

Everything isn’t ready yet.

He misjudged himself on how long it would take to prepare for our arrival.

The inside is repainted.

But the bathroom and kitchen isn’t ready yet.

Zuko can’t cook and more than 30 hours after we’ve left Jiamusi, it seems we can’t wash either.

Maddi is unaffected.

She starts playing in the soil under the fruit trees.

Dude and Pippin and Sophia choose bedrooms.

For teenagers this is important.

The house has 5 bedrooms, not 4, as the landlord indicated.

The wood-panneling and Chinese sliding doors give it an exotic feel.

Chairman Mao greets us in the lounge.

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And as the sun sets our neighbours, an elderly couple, bring dinner.

Since we can’t cook.

Beans with beef.

Vegetables.

Rice.

In the cool of early evening, we sit on the steps of our new home, enjoying the warmth and hospitality of beautiful people we’d just met.

We sleep.

And then we start cleaning, while the landlord brings a new fridge and washing machine with great pride.

And installs a beautiful new gass stove in the kitchen.

Our Tribe impressing me,  hardier than I thought, braver, alongside each other, as we livemthrough a little discomfort and make the best of this very moment.

Perhaps the Landlord too struggled to believe and was a little hesitant?

Not believing that a foreigner, who says he lives in Jiamusi, would arrive, when he said he would and rent, what he agreed to rent?

And because of his disbelief, he held back, not wanting to waste time and money?

Whatever the reasons, 3 days after our arrival we take a hot showermin our own bathroom, we do some laundry in the newly installed washing machine and Zuko cooks a beautiful dinner on her new gas-stove.

This morning we’ll head to the little breakfast shop where we had breakfast on our first morning in 大高舍村 (High house village), then we’ll stroll to the outdoor market to find bedding and seeds for the garden Pippin has already prepared.  Later we’ll watch a movie and have dinner on our steps.

And so we’ll find a new rhythm, in a new place, filled with new people to meet and beautiful places to discover.

Life, not very normal, but interesting.

A little discomfort and uncertainty,  always the gateway to something exquisite.

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10 Must-Do Jiamusi Activities

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Maybe one day you find yourself in Northern China with a few days to kill.

Or, you’re keen to go where few others go on holiday.

Here are 10 must-do things to enjoy in Jiamusi, in China’s Heilongjiang Province.

We’ve lived here for 18 months and had time to explore, experience and enjoy.

1.  Walk or Cycle the Shongua River Park:  The city is stretched along the bank of the Shongua River which forms the longest Park in Northern China, with beautiful walkways, gardens, Memorials and Statues.  During the day the Park is filled with old people playing board games, playing traditional instruments and taking slow walks.  There is music playing and there are vendors selling balloons, ice-cream and snacks.  At night it lights up with energy, large groups of people doing ‘Zombie-dancing’, a kind of co-ordinated slow exercise dance-thing, which is quite something to see.  In summer we loved cycling the park at night, feeling the energy of this vibrant place.

2. Take the Ferry to Willow Island: from the tall Memorial Monument at the River Park, near the RiverSky Hotel, you can take a ferry to Willow Island across the river for 2¥.  On the Island you are greeted by a minority group who are the last remnants of a Gypsey like people who first lived int his area, hunting and fishing like Eskimo’s.  Now they entertain you with a little Amusement Park, restaurants, horse riding, bicycles for rent and carraige rides.  If you walk past the noise and buzz of the organized amusement, you hit the gravel road and experience a little bit of rural China with 2 little villages, a forrest and large farmlands, cattle and sheep grazing along the way.  Whenever we had time, we would take our bicycles across on the ferry and cycle from one side of the island to picnic and swim on the other side of it.  This is a great day-trip.

3. Enjoy a Picnic at TsiFung Mountain:  TsiFung Mountain has a massive reservoir at its feet and pristine forrest with little paths to picnic spots.  There are boats to rent and restaurants, a wooden walkway on the edge of the water and an old Temple set slightly up its side.  You can take a bus or taxi here.  We’ve even cycled there one sunny summers day.  A large Buddha greets you, as you arrive and at his feet are statues of all the animals of the different Chinese birth-years.  In winter you can ride a snowmobile, tube down a slide, ice skate or even go sledding on the reservoir.  We loved walking in the forest.   Hearing the birds.  Breathing solitude, always amazed that even though this is a densely populated city, none of the places ever feel over-crowded.

4. Play in the Children’s Park: As you arrive at the Children’s Park, you are greeted by the chairman, or rather a statue of him and then you walk past playgrounds,  canals with peddle boats,  pagodas and food-vendors.  The Parks in Jiamusi are many and all of them are well kept, clean and safe.  They are beautiful havens where you see children play, couples whisper sweet nothings and others practicing traditional arts.  TaiKwonDo, Kung Fu, TaiChi.  Music.  Games.  It is in the Parks that we always tasted China’s wealth.  In winter the Children’s Park is transformed into a playground with every imaginable activity you can do on ice, on offer.

5. Visit the Heroes Park: this Park is slightly aside from the city centre, near Jiamusi’s number 16 middle school.  A Park dedicated to a brave Jiamusian who fought during wars with Russians and Japanese.  There are memorial stones, an old tank, an old river boat and along with the Park’s surroundings,  we tasted something here, which we did not taste anywhere else.  Not so many people.  No music.  A quieter place, as if remembering isn’t always pleasant.

6. Enjoy the Public Art at the Memorial Park: The Memorial Park is riddled with monuments and beautiful statues.  It is a stones throw from the very large, very modern New Mart Shopping Mall rising 16 storeys into the air and it remembers the Russians for emancipating this little part of China from the Japanese and their puppet Emperor.  If you’re there, look for the massive ant sculpture and the beautiful woman with the peacock.   In summer fountains dramatically spray into the air and children find relief from the season’s heat.

7. Eat beautiful Food: Hot-Pot, Dumplings, Barbecue,  Beijing Duck and Fabulous Breads. In Jiamusi you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to food and restaurants.  You’ll see the big multi-storey restaurants,with private rooms where you are served by a dedicated team of waiters at no extra charge, from the main streets and when you head down alleys and little roads you’ll stumble onto exquisite family-owned restaurants, each offering something special.  You can try threm.  The food is stunning.  Noodles.  Korean food.  Russian food.  There is even a French Restaurant and a selection of coffee restaurants.  “Summer” is our favorite place for coffee, cake and sandwiches.  Exceptional coffee.  And after dinner Jiamusi offers an Theatre, Cinema and Bowling Lanes for late night entertainment.

8. Shop at the Markets: The Markets in Jiamusi is something to explore.  At the big shopping malls you’ll find all the Western Brands you’ve desired, but at the markets you find treasures at robbery prices.  Be sure to haggle.  If they say it costs 100¥ you should bargain them down to 50¥, they expect you to do that.  There is a massive underground market, built in what I imagine serves as a bomb shelter, stretching kilometres and many streets under the city.  Then there is also the Flea-Market where you’ll find anything from food to household items, around the corner streets with furniture and behind it an 8 storey market filled with clothes and shoes and curtains.  Here you can get a pair of Lee or Tommy Hilfigger Jeans for 100¥ and shoes for even less.

9. See the past at the Museum: The museum doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside you’ll find pictures and artifacts giving you a feel for the long history of this area, from the time of little fishing villages spotted along the Shongua River, through the revolution, Japanese Occupation, Russian Occupation into more recent days.  The museum is dedicated to a local teacher who lost her legs saving students, her story dipicted as you enter the museum.

10. Amuse yourself at the Zoo: The zoo is right next to a massive Temple and is also host to Jiamusi’s Amusement Park with a fair sized Roller Coaster and pretty big Ferris Wheel as major attractions among all the other Amusement Park kind of stuff.  The zoo itself is forest-like with not too many animals, but enough to make for an interesting afternoon of leisurely walking and playing.

In addition to all of this Jiamusi has interesting architecture.   Two diverse temples.  A little Roman Catholic Church, a larger Evangelical Church and a Mosque.

Just walking the streets is interesting, as old and new and rich and poor exists and lives amongst each other, knit together by the smells and sounds of a hearty people who embrace their bit of world.

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Between Worlds

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It’s been 18 months.

At the end of 2013 my little Tribe and I packed up our little wooden house on the not so little hill, sold our ageing Defender to a shrewd lawyer and our beautiful inherited antique furniture to Colonial Antiques, bought six plane tickets with the proceeds and found our way to Jiamusi in Siberian China.

A bit more than a year before our departure, we realized that something will change in our life.

We didn’t know what, but we knew change was on the horizon.

We sensed it, like you can smell the rain in the Kalahari, as it is on its way.

It wasn’t the first time, we’d smelled the rain before and felt it on our soul.

I’d been working for a non-profit for more than half a decade.

It wasn’t the first time.

My career, if you could call it that, had been in non-profits and non-profits are just that, not profitable, so you go into it, with a lot of passion and hope, aware that you won’t be making exceptional profits, hoping you would contribute something to life and society, and sometimes the non-profit isn’t even breaking even, so you walk away with loads of experience, but somewhat poorer financially than you went into it.

I’d been interested in happiness, writing and speaking about it on every opportunity afforded me.

Not because I wasn’t happy, or was seeking happiness, but because I was immensely and increasingly happy, since I could remember, and wondered why, for so many others, happiness seemed so illusive.

As a young child, immersed in ignorance, as a young adult, inspired by aspiration and most recently, progressively framed by love and peace as faith seeped deeper into my being, enabling me to live a happy life, despite loss & gain, always caught by loss again, happiness existed in my being.

I was curious to understand why I’d been happy for most of my life, except for that brief moment in 2006 when my world seemed to implode and rejection desired to devour my heart, from which I emerged happier than before, aware that the depth of our sorrow contributes to the breadth of our happiness.

Curious, why so many with seemingly so much more, weren’t.

Aren’t.

Then two forward thinking Academics noticed my writing and offered me the opportunity to study again, perhaps sensing that happiness is indeed an Ancient topic well neglected in modern literature,  only recently revived, in Psychology and Spirituality,  but perhaps untied from its deep Ancient Roots and the thinking which has gone before.

I had the privilege of studying when I was young, and publishing in an Academic Journal, but life and hope and aspirations consumed my time and it had been 15 years since I expended any real energy on extensive learning.

There was the post-graduate Certificate I gained from Rhodes University, which taught me a bit of Broadcast Management, but to be offered the opportunity to read towards a real PhD, on a topic which made your being come alive, was a prospect to be embraced.

The rain we smelled started falling.

The scholarship,  however, wouldn’t cover the cost of clothing and feeeding a family of six, nor would the 16-hour days I’d been working at the non-profit, allow any time for legitimate learning or pondering.

It seemed an impossible fortuity.

Something which would have been wonderful,  but would have to be set aside as the glistening golden chains of regular life and responsibility bound us.

Impossible, however, only exists, when we are unwilling to let go and unwilling to consider  metamorphosis,  and so we let go and found the chance to teach, while studying, in the deep Far East.

A world apart.

18 months later, I am inordinately grateful.

I’ve only touched the surface of what had been written, by Ancient Philosophers,  excited that there are deep wells from which to drink, over time and encouraged by the old African Philosopher, Augustine of Hippo Rego, that we should allow ourselves time to digest, but somehow I’ve learnt much already.

Sustained as I patiently consume and consider.

Energy does flow where attention goes.

The gift of the past 18 months, not only reading forgotten wisdom, but reading it in an environment to which I am un-accustomed, a listener and observer, learning about happiness in every moment and every interaction.

Soon we will depart from Jiamusi, heading to Liangxiang, a little University Town, with fewer than 100 000 residents, not too far from Beijing.

And as we pack our bags and say our goodbyes, I contemplate and take stock.

I’ve realized my own happiness is a gift.

A gift received from when I was born, as I lived under the grace and kindness of our Origin.

They, awakening in me an awareness of their presence and a comprehension (rudimentary,  but non the less) of Their Being.

Gradually, like the tide, coming in, pushing water over rocks and river-banks, until all that is parched is covered by its cool.

I’ve realized, loss is gain and gain is loss.

Neither one better than the other.

Both vital to our happiness.

I’ve realized, although we verbalize it, and endeavor after it, in different ways, we have this desire to be happy in common, as a species, a kind, a race.

And mostly we are dissapointed, because we seek it in Spirituality or Materialism, but seldom in the Origin of Spirit and Matter.

Denying ourselves the gift we have already received, from Them Who brought us into Being.

And perhaps the unwrapping of what has already been given exists in ridding ourselves, or being ridden of, the conviction that we have want.

Seeing, that we have no want, for They are and we are with Them.

Also, as we embrace the metamorphosis,  receiving the time to live slower, to walk slower, eat slower, love slower, happiness is afforded the conditions it needs to flourish.

The past 18 months gave us the opposite of what we had.

Instead of 16 hour working days, I had 4 or 5 classes to teach.

Instead of getting into the car and rushing through traffic to just be on time for an appointment,  we had slow walks, talking along the way, listening, smelling, consuming our environment.

Instead of no breakfast and a hurried late dinner, we had slow meals, with long conversations and simple food.

Wealth isn’t always wealth, for with it, often it seems, comes the poverty of our being.

Instead of short sleepless nights, interupted by anxiety of unpaid salaries or knocking suppliers, we had the regular deep rest of uninterrupted long nights, waking up revitalized.

We were happy before we came to China.

I was happy as an oblivious little boy and as an arrogant post-teenager, when Zuko and I fell in love, I was happy as a student and as a Minister and a Media-guy trying to bring about change with no resources and excitable people.

We were happy then, despite the loss.

And we are happy now, despite the loss.

For loss is always gain and loss will thankfully be ever present.

Don’t be misled.

The happy life is not a life poor of loss.

Selling all your movable assets and moving 13000 kilometres away from everything you’ve ever known is loss.

Being in a world in which you understand nothing and are never understood is loss.

Being the distrusted foreigner is loss.

Not being able to reach out to your Mom when she is afflicted by a stroke, or being able to console a friend when his wife and daughter dies, all of it is loss.

But loss is gain and gain is loss and it is good, for our happiness isn’t born of circumstnaces, but concieved by the Origin of our circumstances from Whom we receive in such a way that it is complete.

Not some of us.

All of us.

And not because of our devotion or delighting in Them.

Because of Their Being.

For They let it rain on everyone and They too bring famine to everyone, indiscriminately, as old confessions would say, for we all are from Them and They do not abandon what has been brought into being from Their own Being.

There is no reward or punishment, as religions would like you to believe.

There is They from Whom we come, Their grace and kindness, Their indestructible consistency and desire to live at One.

And so we find ourselves between Worlds, finishing up in Jiamusi, looking forward to settling (for a while) in Liangxiang, but always between Worlds, as we live a life which is complete, while it is still being completed, understanding it, as understanding will still dawn in our being.

Gypseys, vagrants even, in a world filled with death and injustice, seemingly out-of-control, yet perfectly loved by They Who are Love.

And so we encourage you to be on your own journey, from World to World, good travelers who never arrive at their destination.

Looking inwards, instead of at the illusions of success and acceptance.

Listening to Their ever present Voice, not the voices of destruction planted in your  being over time, the Voice of Them from Whom you come, always Whispering, calling us out, to be, as They are.

Not seperate or superior.

Redeemed and Regenerated, as we are being redeemed and regenerated.

Becoming the gift, as we receive it, for we are all created in Their image, not just some and we are all being called, all of us also answering at once, even if it be fumblingly in our muted blindness.

Happiness ours, along this Way.

Our Gift.

Which cannot be lost.

PS: at Sevencitys you could read some more about The Gift of the Way

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Harbin – a Place of Snow & Trains

Harbin is the capital City of China’s Heilongjiang Province, in the North East of this vast country.

In China it is a medium size city.

It has a population of about 6 million people.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s almost three times the size of a South African city like Johannesburg.

It is famous for its annual Snow & Ice Festival and its Russian Architecture.

The city has its origin in China rubbing shoulders with Russia in the 1890’s, as Russia was building their Trans-Siberian Rail-line.

In 1907 the city had almost 600 000 residents of whom nearly 65% were foreigners.

As we walk the city’s streets, we stumble upon an old (but still active) Turkish Mosque, a beautiful Jewish Hall with red tiles on her walls and a Jewish Hospital, built in the early 1900’s.

The center-piece of the city, St Sophia’s Cathedral.

Our Tribe had the opportunity to spend seven days here, during China’s Spring Festival.

This is a busy time in China, people traveling all over the place to get home & spend time with family, much like Christmas time in South Africa, or what I imagine Thanksgiving to be in America.

We booked our tickets early, boarded the train from Jiamusi to Harbin at about nine one evening and arrived in Harbin the the early hours of the next day.

In China trains serve in 3 classes: seats, hard-sleeper or soft-sleeper.  We took hard-sleeper tickets, which is pretty comfortable and very affordable, if you don’t mind a lack of privacy for a few hours.

The trains are clean and run perfectly on time.

Arriving in a foreign city, where you can communicate with people is one thing, arriving in a city where you cannot speak the language or read any of it, is quite another.

We showed a taxi driver our hotel’s address and, at his grace for lack of linguistic ability and because of eagerness to get our Tribe to our hotel, paid the exorbitant fee he charged for the short drive.

In Harbin, as in most Chinese Cities, Taxis are numerous and Taxi Drivers are a special kind of people, optimizing their profits whenever they see a foreigner, who they know cannot possibly be too picky.

Our Hotel is comfortable.

On the 26th floor of a large new building in the heart of the city.

We’re surrounded by International Brands trying hard to catch the hearts of the Chinese Market.

St Sophia’s Cathedral is a 5 minute walk away, Zoalin Park, where a large display of Snow & Ice Sculptures awiat, is just down the street & Central Street, a beautifully preserved shopping street with cobbled road and old Russian Buildings, is just around the corner.

It is Spring in Harbin, but it is still cold and snowy.  Temperatures hovering around -16ºC.

For which we are grateful, since we are excited to see the massive two and three storey Snow and Ice Sculptures, which would’ve melted, had it been any warmer.

Quickly we familiarize ourselves with the public transport system of the city, which includes busses and subway trains, hoping to save ourselves from the entrepreneurial spirit of the taxi drivers.

We take the bus to the Golden Dragon Tower, Asia’s highest steel structure (higher than Paris’ Eifel Tower).  We walk the glass floor, see the 3D museum, view the city from up high.

The views are amazing.  The experience, something we never dreamed we would enjoy.

The feelings of vertigo cancelled by the exquisiteness of experiencing something together – something not described in Western Travel brochures or written about in travel magazines.

From the Tower we walk the precinct. We visit the most amazing City Library.  It is open 24 hours of every day.  It has elevators, bookshops, a food-court and is a hive of activity.

Then we discover an old Russian Palace with regal decoration and massive fish-tanks.  As we walk this monarchical remembrance we can hear old kings making plans and deals, as they build the world’s longest railway line across country borders.

The bus ride costs 1¥.

Public transport is cheap in China and with the help of Google-maps we know which bus to take and where to catch it.  Just make sure you get a good VPN, before you come to China, as Google is blocked and without a VPN you won’t be able to access any of the information.

Beate has an iPhone.  The maps on it isn’t blocked by the great firewall, but it lacks the public transport information offered by Google Maps.  Maybe iPhone users don’t ride the bus or subway?

We lunch at a little noodle shop, rest for a while in our comfortable rooms and reconvene in the late afternoon, hungry to experience as much of this city, as we can, in the seven days we have.

With the sun setting we walk around the corner to Central Street.

There are amazing sculptures everywhere.

Beate, our fellow-traveler who has lived in Germany, The Netherlands,  the UK and United States, comments that the street makes her feel as if she is walking in an old European City, hidden away from time.

The old fashioned Russian music playing in the background, adding to the atmosphere.

We take her word for it.

It is definitely not the China most people imagine.

The feel of the city, its atmosphere is tantelizing.

The mixture of culture and memory energizing.

We look for a hidden away local restaurant to have dinner.  We are hungry, after a day’s experiences.

We find the perfect spot, which we revisit a few times during our stay in Harbin.

It is unpretentious.   The food is amazing.  The proprietors friendly.  It is everything we hope, as we walk new roads.

I take a quick respite from our stay in Harbin to fetch our son from Beijing.  He’d been visiting family back home, enjoying Africa’s Summer.  I take the fast-train from Harbin West Station to Beijing.  The train travels at 200 km/h, reducing the trip to 8 hours travel time.

The train station has the feel of an International Airport.  Large.  Clean.  Well organized, with lots of international brands offered in all the different shops.

Late that evening we fly back from Beijing to Harbin.  A two and a half hour flight.

If you decide to travel to Harbin, you’ll probably fly into Beijing.  Taking a flight is easy.  Domestic Departures are close to International Arrivals and the Airport offers a free shuttle to the apropriate terminal.

If you want to take the fast train, that is easy enough too, and it costs about a third of what a plane ticket would put you back, with the bonus of seeing something of the Chinese Countryside along the way.  To catch the train, you need to get to Beijing Station.  You could take a shuttle for about 200¥, or you could take the subway, which is very easy to navigate and will cost only 28¥, including the first leg of your trip on the special Airport Express.

In Harbin you should set at least an afternoon aside to spend at St Sophia’s Cathedral.

The Cathedral survived the cultural revolution and is now a museum with loads of pictures depicting this city’s rich history.

We are fascinated.

Not only by the pictures, but also by how much of this old Orthodox Cathedral remains and how the Chinese government embraces every inch of the country’s history, giving honor to the people who built the city with effort and innovation.

In 1900 Harbin was a modern city with electric streetcars, electricity and the amenities you would find in London and New York.

The Cathedral always at the heart of activity.

Sun Island is where the major action is, if you want to see the magnificent snow & ice sculptures.

You can take a bus there.  Or a taxi.  Or you could take a cable-car from Swan Castle, across the river to the Island.

That’s what we do.

For Maddi it is her first time in a cable car.

The rest of the Tribe had been to Table Mountain, for all of us it is our first cable-car ride in China.

We share a car with a family from Shanghai.

People from all over China come to Harbin to enjoy the experience it has to offer.

Once on Sun Island, it is difficult to eecide where to start exploring.

The Island isn’t just host to the Snow & Ice Festival.

We start our day at the Russian Village, recreated from original Timber Buildings which used to be in the city.

It is a bit like a museum-village, with Russians in most structures.  One a bakery, the other a home, another a bar or a doctor’s office, a school house and in every building old furniture from the period.

Then there is Polarland.

An amazing Aquarium with fantastical shows of Sea Lion & Beluga Whales.

We see Polar Bears, Penguin, Otters, beautifully created and maintained polar fish displays.

We spend an entire afternoon watching shows and fish and whales, feeding animals and experiencing something stunning.

I love the Beluga Whale show with two Beluga Whales and divers.

It is different from the stuff you see at other aquariums.

Here spectators stand next to a massive wall of glass & the whales perform, alongside their trainers in diving gear, under water.

It leaves you breathless.

Maddi loved the Sea Lion Show.

All shows are bilingual.

Russian and Chinese.

The crowds are massive.

The experience well worth the cost of the tickets, which includes everything, except refreshments.

In Zoalin Park we had our first taste of Ice Sculptures.

Everything from cars to surfers and mermaids.

On Sun Island the scale is massive.

Most sculptures being two or three storeys high.

You should do Zoalin Park one evening, but if you didn’t see the Snow & Ice Sculptures on Sun Island, you did not see what this festival is about.

Seven days is a good time to spend in Harbin.

You need time to walk the streets.

At least, that’s how we enjoy a city.

All over the place there are amazing monuments and statues.

Exquisite, tree-lined  pedestrian streets.

Restaurants with tasty food.

We ride the city’s new and modern subway.

Not just to get around, but also as we make our way back to the train station, on our last day, as we head back to Jiamusi.

For a city with 6 million people, we are surprised to find it uncongested, spacious and clean.

Running on time, costing only 2¥.

We tried to visit Harbin’s Amusement Park, but that will have to be a Summer trip.

In the North of China, it seems, Amusement Parks close down for the winter.

It’ll be worth coming back, even if only to ride the Big Wheel Carousel,  which is bigger than London Eye.

And to get some more ground coffee, butter and cheese, which is readily available here, but not so easily obtainable in Jiamusi.

Maybe you’ll never make it to this part of the world?

For us it was good to see and taste a world which flourished with international cooperation,  while our own world was at war with Britain,  struggling to hang on to something which, perhaps, should never have been, or at least should not have been the place of death and injustice it became as it was fed by colonial hunger.

I imagine the Russians had a similar colonial incentive, building their railway?

How different, however, it came to be, as people greeted each other & worked together, to create something.

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Tangyuan, Heilongjiang, Northeastern China

Our Tribe loves traveling together.

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Sometimes it is impossible & we travel vicariously through each others’ experiences.

When Xia Yin invited us to join her family for a day trip to Tangyuan,  I knew I won’t be able to join in, but encouraged Zuko & the girls to enjoy the day.

They left at 07h00 from Jiamusi.

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Tangyuan is just 50 kilometres away.

You can get there by car, bus or train.

Jiamusi is surrounded by beautiful, exquisite towns, filled with beautiful exquisite people & hugged by stunning parks, mountains & forests.

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By 08h30 they arrived in Tangyuan.

At the temple.

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For Zuko’s travel companions this was an important day.

There are many temples all over China, but this one is special.  It is buzzing with activity.  Monks spending months at a time here, studying, meditating, praying.

Our friends pray.

Zuko & the girls taste the holy space.

A monk befriends Maddi.

Gives her a hug & green stone bracelet.

Inside this space they do not take pictures, respecting the sanctity of the moment.

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From the temple they take a tractor train to the forest.

Beautiful Asian trees & wooden decks greet them.

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They play games.

They love games.

They share a meal.

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They talk.

Mostly with smiles & gentle touching, for language is limited.

They nap & relax on the hangmats.

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Take a walk into the mountain.

Listen to the sound of the wind rustling through leaves.

Then the return by tractor-train to the temple & from there they head out back towards Jiamusi.

On the way, they stop for dinner along the Shongua River.

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Barbeque meat on sticks are very popular.

Corn is picked in the fields right next to the restaurant.

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They play some more.

Eat some more beautiful food.

And then the day is gone.

And as they tell their story, we resolve, in October, when I have a few days, they’ll take me there too & maybe we’ll follow the track of the train, disembarking wherever it stops, spending a day, to embark again, to see another little town, meet more beautiful people, taste a different China.

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