By Sam Landsberg, 13, Palms MS
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Instead of taking us with him on his five-week vacation to China, L.A. Youth staff writer Sam Landsberg, 13, is doing the next best thing, filing regular dispatches in his China Blog from the most populated country in the world. Along with his family, Sam will spend most of his time in Beijing, where his parents are working. He also plans to venture out to see other parts of the country too. Read all about his experiences here.

Sam with his summer camp teacher Chen Laoshi

I’m writing this final entry on the plane back home to Los Angeles, which with one five-hour layover in Korea, is almost a 24-hour trip. But with the time difference I left at noon and will arrive at about 3 in the afternoon the same day.

I had an amazing trip and I’m happy and sad that it’s over. The last two weeks, I went to summer camp and achieved beginner level in Mandarin Chinese. Right now I know a couple of characters and I can say a few, very basic things, such as, "What is your name?" and can introduce myself. I can also read pinyin, which is Chinese in letters from the Roman alphabet. At camp we had classes all morning and then we had activities in the afternoon, such as tai chi, swimming and pottery. My favorite was ping-pong and working with clay. We used a pottery wheel and shaped clay with our hands.

The camp had kids from the United Kingdom and America learning Chinese and kids from China "learning" English. (They had already been learning it in school and really they were just improving it.) Unfortunately, I missed a couple of days at the end because I got a stomach virus, either just from traveling or from not washing my hands well enough in a foreign place with foreign germs. I missed going to an amusement park.

Starting to learn a little Chinese was great and I think I’m going to keep studying it, but it was interesting to see the differences in teaching styles. A lot of times English teachers try to make learning "fun," but that is not the case with Chinese teachers. It seemed the Chinese teachers didn’t know what to do with themselves in a classroom of American and English students wanting to be entertained. However, I liked my teacher, Chen Laoshi, a lot and learned a lot. (Laoshi means teacher, and Chen is her last name.) I got to meet some British kids and became friends with them and I also became friends with a family who had just moved to Beijing from Atlanta.

The building where Sam lived in Beijing

I’m going to miss a lot about China, but not everything. I won’t miss the horrible traffic, which can be quite overwhelming and frightening. There are so many cars and so many bikes, and nobody is willing to give in, so people will just sit and block traffic because no one will let people into a lane and then everyone else behind them is stuck. Even having to walk through it is scary. I also won’t miss the pollution, which you can see, smell and even feel all around you. There were only two days of blue skies while we were there and on the rest of the days you couldn’t even see the sun. The weather was very hot and humid every day and added to the smog; sometimes it was unbearable.    

One thing that also really got on my nerves was everyone staring at me and my brother because of our long blond hair. They also stared because nobody has two kids because of a law in China allowing only one kid per family. Not everyone knew we were boys because of our long hair and the staring got worse the second I stepped into the men’s restroom. At times it was kind of creepy literally having people’s eyes following me wherever we went. At one museum two girls asked if they could take a picture with us—just because we were blond and foreign.

I will miss the great food that we ate every day. I ate foods that I had never tried before and in some cases went back to the restaurant for more. One of my favorites was Zhao Wang’s Home Restaurant. We went there our first night and last night plus once in between. They had this fish dish called Squirrel Fish. The chef has to cut a whole fish exactly right before they fry it and it turns out looking like a squirrel, which sounds creepy, but it’s too good to care. We also went out for the necessary Peking duck, which was delicious, of course. We had a lot of special meals. Almost everything we ate was delicious. I think we only had one bad meal at the beginning of the trip. It was a dumpling place, but it was kind of fast-foody. The food wasn’t very good and gave me a stomachache.

I’ll also miss bargaining for just about everything I buy and all the great prices. I bought shoes, a hat, an incense burner and a messenger bag. I had fun haggling with the salespeople and you just can’t do that in the U.S. It’s a reasonable price to pay about 30 percent of the original price or less. First the sales person asks a ridiculously high price and when I would say no and start to walk away, they would give me a calculator and say "Best price." I’d punch in the price I wanted to pay, then they would complain and it went on from there. They would tell me that they couldn’t feed their family if they sold it to me for that price and that they needed to pay the factory. At one point someone said to my mom "This price is inconceivable, darling." You pretty much bargain for everything except in restaurants and taxis.

It’s been such a great trip. Thank you for joining me. We’ve been to the Lama Temple, where we saw monks walking around and people burning incense in front of 20-foot Buddhas. We’ve been to the Great Wall of China and the Terra Cotta Warriors. We’ve learned a little about Chinese culture and visited the Forbidden City. I hope you join me on my next trip to who knows where.

Oh and one final bad translation. This was etched in bronze on a building front: "Private residence not enters."


July 30, 2007

A fish dish in Lijiang

After Xian, my family and I headed to Lijiang. It is in Yunnan Province in


southern China near Tibet and the home of the Naxi (nah-shee) people. We stayed and spent most of our time in the old town, which is more than 1,000 years old. There is also a new town, which is the more modern city of Lijiang. Water from a nearby mountain, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, runs through the old town and provides the people with water. Every few blocks there are wells with three pools, one for drinking water, one for washing vegetables and a third for washing clothes. I also saw old and young women wearing full traditional dress everywhere in the old town. The dress consisted of lots of bright colors and tassels on the back. If the woman was married, she would have two wide, white crossing pieces of cloth across her chest.

The first day we were there a guide showed us to a few places. First we saw some of Lijiang’s famous frescoes (paintings), which were interesting, but it was more fun to watch everyday life, like seeing an old man sprinting across the street pushing an old woman in a wheelchair who was holding a baby. We went to lunch in a small restaurant where a huge barbeque cooked the food. As we walked in we saw the fish that we later ate for lunch swimming in an aquarium and a live rooster walked around the courtyard. I named the rooster Monty and hoped he wouldn’t end up on my plate.

Later, we met a slightly famous and not-so-slightly insane traditional Chinese medicine doctor, named Dr. Ho. I don’t know why our guide took us there, but he and his son kept telling us all about how famous he was. He’s pretty much famous for being famous, but according to his son, he’s actually a fairly successful herbal doctor. He seemed like a good doctor, but I’m not sure if he ever had any marbles. Everything about him seemed more than a little crazy. He gave us free tea but, according to my Lonely Planet travel guide, John Cleese, a member of Monty Python, visited Dr. Ho and said: "Interesting bloke, crap tea."

We also visited two museums. One of them was the former residence of Joseph Rock, a scientist from Austria who became an American citizen who had come to Lijiang to study plants. But he became fascinated with the Naxi culture and decided to study it instead. The people of Lijiang credit him with connecting them to the modern world.

The second museum was much more interesting. It was about the Dongba religion of the Naxi. We were there on a special day and got to meet the top Dongba Master. He wrote a blessing for our family in the Naxi pictograph language, wishing us good health, longevity, and happiness. The Naxi still have surviving traces of their ancient matriarchal society (a society where women are in charge). We learned that hundreds of years ago there were hardly any matriarchal societies and today there are even fewer. It may sound nice for the women, but it’s really not as good as it sounds. In the Naxi matriarchal society the women have power, but they also have to do all the work, while the men sit at home. Some of this has changed, but not all of it.

That night we went to the goofiest, corniest show I have ever seen. It was a cultural dance show with bright costumes and Naxi dancing. It was really hyped up by the theater as being authentic and a fantastic show, but I still enjoyed it, if for no other reason than how funny it seemed to me. It also occurred to me that the Naxi try to make money off every aspect of their culture, through tourism.

The next two days we had to ourselves, and the first day we went to a vast vegetable market with plants I had never imagined before. There were slabs of tofu twice the size of my head and a machine that looked similar to an oil pump only much smaller. The machine was pounding dried peppers into a spicy powder. I had the spice later on a fried potato pancake (oh yes, the Naxi have got the latke DOWN) and it was delicious. After the market, we just wandered around the old town.

The next day, we went bike riding, which was fun at first, but soon became terrifying as we came to the new city of Lijiang, because of traffic. I barely escaped being hit twice by cars. Nobody obeys traffic laws here. I’m used to a place where you can get in trouble for disobeying traffic laws, but in China you could get hit … for obeying them.

July 24, 2007

Terra Cotta Warriors

Very few of the big cities in China are well known in the United States. Most people know of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, but there are many, many more cities with millions of people. One of them is Xi’an (shee-ahn), which is a little better known than others because it is home to the Terra Cotta Warriors, an army of more than 6,000 life-sized clay sculptures built to guard an emperor’s tomb.    Xi’an is also the capital of the Shaanxi (shahn-shee) province and in ancient times was the capital of China for 13 dynasties. (Oh no … not again.)

Although most people go to Xi’an for the Terra Cotta Warriors, that wasn’t the only thing we saw. We took an overnight train, with small TVs in each bunk and big, white comforters, from Beijing and arrived early in the morning. We had breakfast and then with Nicole, the tour guide we had hired, headed to the Big Goose Pagoda, a seven-story pagoda (or tower) with an interesting story.

The Big Goose Pagoda

No cement was used to build it, but the bricks were stuck together with kiwi fruit juice, clay and sticky rice. The Big Goose Pagoda was originally five stories tall, as commissioned by the crown prince Gaozong in memory of his mother. However, when the only female empress of China, Wu Zetian, took the throne, she had it built up to 10 stories because even numbers were for women and odd numbers were for men in ancient China. Later, three of the stories fell off, leaving it at the present seven.

The pagoda is in the middle of a Buddhist temple and monastery and along with thousands of paintings of the Buddha, I could see monks walking around in their robes. There were huge incense burners, like at the other temples I’ve visited, but it also had a huge chandelier of candles, which according to our guide Nicole, represented a bright life.

We left the pagoda to go to the Terra Cotta Warriors, but there were a few stops first. We went to lunch and then to the Terra Cotta Warrior Reproduction Factory where they make models of the warriors and then try to get you to buy them. I don’t actually know why our guide took us there, but I’m guessing these people might actually need the money, because there was no other point to the place except to sell us things. The actual Terra Cotta Warriors are outside Xi’an in an ugly, industrial suburb. There were piles of trash everywhere from construction and it seemed like an awful place to live. But when we finally got to the warriors, we weren’t disappointed.

The sculpted soldiers are east of the Emperor Qin Shi (pronounced chin shee) Huang’s huge mausoleum and face east guarding it. In the 200s BC the emperor commissioned at least 6,000 warriors to protect his tomb, and himself, in the afterlife. Clay molds were used to shape the warriors, and then each facial expression was carved by hand to represent real people. They were buried near the tomb by workers.

The warriors were not discovered until 1974, when some farmers were

Terra Cotta Horses

digging a well. Most of the figures held weapons – and they were still sharp when they were found.  The soldiers were originally found in ruins because peasants raided the tombs and smashed and burned many of the warriors shortly after the warriors were buried. However, after being discovered, many of the soldiers were put back together and now they stand as magnificently as they once did. Some are still in ruins, but that makes it even more interesting. Although the warriors were incredible to see, after a few hours I was tired and a little bored with terra cotta. They didn’t seem as shocking as they were at first, but I still think the warriors are amazing.

The Chinese government has opened three pits to see the warriors underground. But there are 103 pits altogether! However, we saw many of the warriors because we went to the larger pits.

One of the most interesting parts of the day was talking to Nicole about her life. She grew up on a farm in rural China. She chose her name while studying English at college. Her grandfather founded a major bank in China, but he was persecuted and openly humiliated during the Cultural Revolution because he was a professional. Her parents are farmers and at 24 years old, Nicole is helping to support them and her younger siblings.

Afterward, we went to dinner at a very popular local food place. We were the only tourists in the entire place and I liked that. And the menu definitely wasn’t for Westerners. My favorite thing was a local dish, which consisted of a small baked cake stuffed with a delicious meat filling called fanji roujiamo. Something we didn’t order: donkey penis cooked in algae soup. Everything we did order was delicious and we went back to our hotel happy and full.

This was on a sign outside the Terra Cotta Warriors: "Asks you on own initiative to walk according to the scenic areaturnover line. Thanks the cooperation."


July 18, 2007

Sam at the Great Wall, guava in hand.

I threw a guava over the Great Wall of China! And not many people can say that. Everybody has seen pictures of the Great Wall, and everybody knows that it’s fantastic, but even as I walked from my hotel to the wall itself, I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen glimpses of it from the taxi on the way there (It’s about a 45 minute to an hour drive from Beijing), but I had no idea what it would feel like to actually stand on top of one of the wonders of the world. Turns out, it felt like standing on top of the world.
The Great Wall is surrounded in some parts by lush forests and in others by touristy towns. We decided to climb the non-touristy part and yes, it is a climb.
No one knows exactly when the Great Wall was built, but it was probably started around 770 B.C. to 476 B.C. China was not one country, but split into many rivaling states, which were constantly at war. So they all built a bunch of walls to keep out neighboring states. It wasn’t until the Qin (pronounced chin) dynasty that some emperor dude named Qin Shi (pronounced chin shee) Huang connected all the walls into one big one. The same guy unified China, standardized the money and writing systems, and commissioned the famous Terra Cotta warriors. So he’s an important guy. The wall protected China and showed the power of the emperor. It stretched from Linzhao in the west to Liaodong in the east. In the Han dynasty (there are way too many dynasties to keep track of them all), Emperor Han Wu Di (there are way too many of those, too) extended the wall. Today the Wall is more than 1,500 miles long.

Because we went on the non-touristy part, not only were we among the only people there, it also had not been restored. Shrubs and trees overgrew almost the entire thing, except for a small path down the middle and some stairs that were so steep you had to sit down to get from one to another. I really liked that part. I was climbing on something that people built and used thousands of years ago. It was an amazing feeling.

The Great Wall of China

Our original plan was to go from the un-restored part all the way up to the restored part. But when we got to the end of the un-restored part, a guard wouldn’t let us through. We stood there waiting while someone from our hotel called someone from security and negotiated for an hour and finally gave up, but of course 20 minutes after we left, other people who were waiting there were let through. And all of this was made possible by the wonderful cell phone… in a desolate area on the Great Wall of China!
I think that we got to see the better part anyway, because on the popular parts, you can’t walk 10 feet without someone trying to sell you something.
It may seem weird, but whenever I’m in another country, I like to see what the bathrooms are like. Here in China, there has been a huge array. On the "I wouldn’t use that unless I was absolutely desperate" side of the scale are the squat toilets. These are simply holes in the floor that you have to squat to use. They are even worse than the public bathrooms at Venice Beach. The bathrooms get better from there. At fancy hotels and restaurants, I’ve seen stylish and well-designed bathrooms. At South Beauty, the restaurant I went to on the Fourth of July, there was a communal trough sink outside the men’s and women’s restrooms. In the restrooms, there were no doors on the stalls, but dozens of hanging plastic tubes like beaded curtains sort of covered each of the stalls.
At People 8, one of my favorite restaurants in Beijing, the bathroom was the most interesting yet. At the beginning of the meal, the waitress brought us a little flashlight and said that it was for the bathroom. I actually had to hunt for the bathroom. Much of the restaurant was pitch black. One area was full of huge columns and mirrors. It took me about five minutes, but I finally figured out that each huge column was an individual bathroom.

That’s all from China for now.
P.S. Here’s another bad translation, this time from a menu. "Note: Many tableware are used in our restaurant. Parts of the cuisine in this menu are probably not the same as the photos they show. We regard the substantiality as the standard one."

July 12, 2007

Bags of Chips Ahoy

Although July 4th is an American holiday and it’s not celebrated here in China, I had an incredible Fourth of July in Beijing. Early in the day I didn’t do much. I had lunch from 7-Eleven, which was surprisingly delicious. I ate rice with two dishes– one was chicken, onions and peppers, and the other was green beans with chicken and vegetables. I wonder why 7-Elevens in the U.S. have really bad food compared to the ones in China. Would you rather eat a week-old hot dog or some good Chinese food?
Later I went out to dinner at a place called South Beauty because my friend’s mom, who is studying in Beijing, invited my family. It was in a shopping mall near the Forbidden City with designer shops and a huge food court that had not only little food stalls, but also actual nice restaurants. My favorite dish was steak with peppers and onions, but there were at least 15 dishes, all “family style”. There were egg slices wrapped in pork, cucumbers and plenty else to eat. I also ate watermelon as dessert for the first time, which is really popular here. Wherever you walk you see rinds on the ground.
After dinner we went to the Beijing Chaoyang Theatre to see one of the famous Chinese acrobatics shows. One of my favorite parts was with all men and little boys (some of them looked as little as 7 or 8). There were hoops set up on top of each other, which the acrobats leapt, flipped or crawled through and sometimes they even launched each other through them. It was fun to watch little kids flipping and jumping to about twice their height.

Another favorite of mine was an act with a lot of rubber balls about the size of a basketball. Women laid on their backs and juggled the balls with their feet. One woman laid on her back while balancing a platform with her feet. On the platform was a pole with a basketball hoop on top. There were also small paddles sticking out all along the pole. Somehow, she managed to move the platform with her legs so that a basketball bounced up the pole, one paddle at a time, until it finally went into the hoop. The entire show was spectacular, but all the women wore shoes that resembled the shoes women wore when they had their feet bound. It is not exactly known when foot binding began, but it used to be considered beautiful for women to have small feet in China. Small girls’ feet were bound in ribbons to make them unnaturally small. I found that disturbing.
After the show, I had my first-ever foot massage. It was my friend’s mom’s idea to get foot massages together. We were all ushered into a room with big reclining chairs. The room smelled like incense and we got to order snacks and drinks before the massage.  We soaked our feet in big wooden buckets of steaming hot water and our choice of rose, seaweed or milk ”lotion.” Then we got a 45-minute foot massage while eating sandwiches and sipping milk tea with boba. It felt amazing, and we even got free socks afterward. My only problem was that I’m kind of ticklish on my feet and the masseuse kept telling me to relax. All together it was about $100 for five people! I slept really well after a great Fourth of July.

Once again, I will leave you with a bad translation. This appeared on my chopsticks package from 7-Eleven: 7- Eleven is promoting the campaign of “bring back trash.”


July 5, 2007

A street sign prohibiting horn honking

As I stepped off the plane at Beijing Capital Airport, I was greeted by ads for the Beijing Summer Olympics, which are next summer, with pictures of basketball player Yao Ming, actor Jackie Chan and Xiang Liu, a Chinese hurdler. Beijing is trying to make everything nicer for all of the people from all over the world who will be coming for the Olympics. At passport control there were buttons for people to press asking about customer service. They said "Greatly Satisfied," "Satisfied," "Checking Time Too Long," and "Poor Customer Service." I couldn’t help but notice that the customs officer asked me to press one of the buttons before he finished checking the passports.

The 18-hour flight was wonderful. I flew on Asiana Airlines, which was really nice. As we took off, all of the flight attendants, who were dressed exactly alike down to their makeup and hairstyle, all bowed in unison. I fell asleep immediately and slept like a rock for nine hours. When I woke up my mom told me I had missed a meal so the flight attendant brought it to me. I finally got to press that button to call the flight attendant, which I’m never allowed to push. The button, by the way, was on my own personal remote for my own personal TV. The meal, unlike usual airline food, was delicious. It was a Korean dish called Bi Bim Bap, noodles, and soup. A few hours later we got breakfast. We landed in Korea and then got on another plane for Beijing. I was picked up by my dad and the driver from the Los Angeles Times, where my dad works. I hadn’t seen my dad in six weeks and it was great.

The first day, Monday, we saw Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world and the site of student pro-democracy demonstrations where thousands of protestors were killed by the Communist government troops in 1989. We also saw the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the main entrance to the Forbidden City (the imperial palace). They were both spectacular. I was too tired because of the flight to really appreciate them, but I’m going to return later in the trip.

A temple off of Qianhai Lake in central Beijing

The next day, we went to a place called the Lama Temple (Yong He Gong). Inside there was an almost 60-foot tall Buddha statue, huge incense burners, and lots of monks. My brother and I bought incense and burned it with the Chinese people at the temple. Many looked like they were in mourning. They lit the incense (sometimes huge bundles of it), held it near their heads and then bowed many times. It was incredible to watch.

Afterward, we went to a place called the Silk Street Market. It was basically a six-story building of knock-off clothing and merchandise. It was completely overwhelming because there were hundreds, maybe thousands of booths, each selling things. As I walked by the attendants would yell, "Cool boy, I have a T-shirt for you." And if you looked at something and then said no, they would literally chase after you yelling out lower prices. My brother managed to buy a jacket for 100 yuan (Chinese currency), which is about $13.The jacket was originally 850 yuan, about $50. It was insane but fun.

So far, after only two days, China has been so completely different and foreign it’s almost hard to believe. So few people speak English and when there is English on signs it is usually horribly translated, like a sign near a lake that said "Please fall carefully to the lake."

Till next time,

June 28, 2007