Kids Spending #1

Just paid $900 today for AP exams for the kids! Every year I ask them if the exams are optional, because, are they really going to get a 5 on all the exams and use all the credits? Maybe I am just a bad example. I had plenty of extra credits when I graduated college, and didn’t really think the AP credits mattered at all. Hopefully it is different for my kids.

Another $45 for the SATs.

$200 on college applications and counting…

A Little Fitness Goal

Over the weekend I realized I have a pretty good life. I have a great loving husband and pretty good kids (maybe better if they talk to me a little more, but I guess you cannot push it when they are teenagers). Financially we are doing pretty well. My husband and I have never really spoken to each other about our finances before, but last week we actually logged into our accounts and showed each other. Surprisingly we have more than we thought. I know people on FIRE forums usually have a number in mind. I guess we are not at our ideal number yet, but it is very comforting to know that we could stop working today and should survive at our current number.

Unfortunately, there are still two problems in my life. (And hopefully my kids will turn out well so it does not turn into three problems). The first one is that I don’t like where I live. But that has to be another post or posts. It leads to why I want to travel, and maybe even leads to the meaning of life, etc.

The second problem is pretty silly, but since it always bothers me in the back of my mind, I guess it is time to address it in my blog. I think I am 20lbs overweight. If I want to set a higher yet achievable goal, I have 30lbs to lose, and will be where I was 20s post kids. If I want to be back to my college weight and may even be considered acceptable in an Asian country, then I need to lose 50lbs or more. But for now I would think the 20lbs is a good start, and probably 30lbs would be the max I ever want to lose.

The thing is, I have been at about the same weight for the past 5 years, but I did manage to lose 15lbs 1.5 years ago, in maybe 3 months. I was not even trying at the time, but being sick from the flu for a month helped kick start things. The major thing is that the flu made me lose interest in alcohol, so I hardly drank for a few months. Also I started lifting weights, which really helped. I was doing the strong lift 5×5 program three times a week, and it worked well. I didn’t even watch what I ate at all, and I felt tighter and stronger.

But the weight slowly came back last year around this time. I started drinking more in the summer. I turned 40, but I really cannot really blame any changes in metabolism. I know I overeat. But the lifting kind of covered up my overeating.

But I stopped lifting last summer. Why? Well the lifting is pretty tiring for me. If I lift one day, I definitely cannot do much exercise the next day. Around four years ago I started taking a tennis class once a week, which was fun. After two years, I could finally hit the ball back and forth (and thus people are willing to play with me), so last summer I started playing 4-5 times a week. I felt pretty active, playing outdoors is nice, and I forgot about lifting. But I guess tennis just is not enough to keep the weight off.

So I am back to where I was two years ago, and basically where I have been since my mid 30s. So here is kind of my new fitness and diet plan. Oh and it will definitely get ruined because I will be in Hong Kong next week, but I can at least try to be healthier this week and continue when I come back.

1. Just stop over eating! I went to like 4 buffets last month and totally over ate. But a friend was visiting and there were birthday parties and all, so I would still do it again. But I started logging on myfitnesspal again and will try to control my portions, and stop eating once I am full.

2. Limit alcohol. I have to think about this one. Maybe 2 glasses a week?

3. I finally looked up what intermittent eating is. Why the fancy words? It is basically just skipping meals a few times a week? Maybe I will try skipping breakfast and lunch twice a week.

4. Exercise wise, I will try to exercise 5 times a week. I am hoping I can play tennis three times a week in the winter, and start lifting weights twice a week. I may try to push it to 3x lifting a week, but it may be too much for my body. Maybe I will go to pilates or something an additional day to get out of the house. Unlike two years ago, I don’t think I will try to lift as heavy (last time I hurt my wrist a little, not sure if it was from lifting or tennis, so I just want to be more careful. I am not really the push myself to the limits type of fitness person, so… ), so the results will not be as drastic.

Anyway, I will write again in a month or two and see if I made any progress.

———————–

Well an hour after I posted this and telling my husband about me trying to skip breakfast and lunch today and twice a week…. he immediately went to make me a ramen 🍜 and since I was getting a small headache and a little hungry, I ate it. Maybe this will be harder than I thought. 😂😂

Why I Was So Excited to Discover FIRE

When I first discovered FIRE 🔥 two weeks ago, I was so excited and felt like I have found my people. So how did it all get started in the first place?

Well, I am pretty sure I was not the first person to google ‘how much does it cost to travel the world’. Actually I do it all the time! Maybe a year or two ago I looked it up again. As usual the first few pages of google results were by travel bloggers and digital nomads in their 20s. And I skimmed several posts as usual. Most of the blogger’s travel costs were around $2000 per month, often less but sometimes more. I used to always brush it off because i figured I cannot stick to their budget – I don’t like hostels, prefer a little luxury, and don’t really budget.

But I don’t need to stay at the Intercontinental either. With airbnb things have really changed. And even if I spend more than everyone else – $3000? $4000 a month? (ok I am not really that big of a big spender, but just to make the math simple I made the budget very safe.) Well I started an online business several years ago that is pretty passive – I can run it on bare minimum, like 4 hours a week. Although the income is not much, if the traveling costs is just say $3000 or $4000 a month, I realized the passive income can allow me to travel the world full time. Yay!

I didn’t feel like I identified much with a lot of the travel bloggers’ or digital nomad’s lifestyle though. Often they talk about balancing workload and attracting clients and traveling. They usually sound like they are having a great time, but I am quietly worried for some of them. Maybe it is just me being a mom and an old person who still remember the market crashing in 2008, but I feel the stress for people living paycheck to paycheck, even if they are lounging poolside in a tropical paradise.

But I knew there are plenty of people out there more like me, and I just have not found them. Back then I didn’t know the term financial independence, but I knew how it felt. It was especially important to me because I have been financially stressed during my twenties and early thirties: I had my oldest son the year I graduated college when your first job never pays too well. But then I started working in real estate in 2003, which meant you could make money very easily. So several years of busy work and greed followed – we started investing and renovating and flipping, Everyday we just always wanted to buy more and more, because it never felt enough. Ahhh it was so stressful looking back. And then of course the market crashed, and before that I was already on my way to a divorce.

It took me maybe 7-8 years to get out of the divorce and financial mess. In the mean time, my current husband has just been chugging away working at the same job he has had for 30 years. He has done nothing fancy, but he mostly maxed his retirement accounts since he was 20. Maybe he bought a few stocks along the way. He even bought our current home during the last housing boom, which lost money. Still, he definitely had enough to FIRE on before 50 for himself, if he never made the financial mistake of bringing me and the kids into his life. Anyway, after I sorted out my mess, I slowly discovered what financial freedom felt like, and the peace of mind a comfortable amount of savings can bring. As for lifestyle, we have been trimming spendings on unnecessary things anyway for several years so we could be less wasteful. Even though we don’t really budget nor deprive ourselves, we still end up fully funding our retirement accounts each year, and actually all of my passive income goes towards additional savings. And even though my husband still plans to work for quite a few more years (I guess? He has never mentioned retiring early. I think he may actually likes his job!), if he stops working tomorrow, we actually may be ok! (only maybe because then the kids will probably have to fund their own college. oh well!) (Oh yes, and if I want to connect back to my point about the travel bloggers, I can also afford to travel around the world by myself without my husband! Well, I may elaborate on that another day)

Well, this is the brief summary of how I discovered FIRE. I finally found the people who are living within their means and seem less wasteful, and have retired early without $20 million in the bank, and instead are content and care about enjoying life. There are many aspects I identify with the FIRE community that is hard to identify with other people:

  • Life is more than simply just work and your job. If you love your job, great! But for most people, we have to find our identity and meaning away from our jobs.
  • Learning to be content. If your goal is simply to chase money, there is never enough.
  • There are many things in life that we can enjoy that does not have to do with money or status. 
  • Know that having time means we can enjoy things slowly and not to rush through life. 

I am sure there are other things that I cannot think of right now. But the above maybe some of the topics I will write about in the future. And in this post I have also mentioned traveling. Why is traveling so important to me? That will be the next post.

Oh and on an unrelated note, the fall foliage is in full force here in upstate New York. Here are some photos I took two weeks ago just before peak foliage. If there are any leaves left after all the rain we should be getting this week, maybe I will get to take even more pictures.

hv-12
Photo from Fort Montgomery, New York. View of the Bear Mountain Bridge and the Hudson River
hv-3

Last Week I Discovered This Thing Called FIRE

So as the title suggests, last week I discovered this thing called FIRE 🔥 – Financial Independence Retire Early. I am so excited to have discovered it, so much that I decided to convert my old attempt at travel blogging to a new blog about life reaching to and after FIRE (I think I am there!) and trying to live a content and fulfilling life. Also I should still finish posting about my travels from 2013 (I didn’t even get to the most interesting parts of the trip yet) and other travels since!

Back Story

So to clarify, I just discovered all these FIRE blogs and forums, so I don’t fit the classic definition (mostly I am missing the frugal and budgeting part). 🤭🤭 To me, it is more about the comfort, contentment, and freedom financial independence and possibly early retirement brings.

A little back story. I have only had one 9-5 job and I only lasted for one year: 2001-2003. I also interned in 1999 for a year. Both times I hated going to work in an office every day. From 2003-2011 I worked as a real estate agent and also got into real estate investing. In comparison it was a lot more suitable for me, but looking back it was very stressful. Luckily there was quite a few years of ups before the down.

During those years I also had two boys, got divorced, got remarried in 2011 and moved to Beijing with my current husband and kids until 2013.

Since moving back to the US, the past 6 years it has been a journey of really finding myself. I had to move to a new town, and decides to not work in real estate anymore. I tried starting my own online business. It was pretty frustrating during the first two years. I had doubts. I considered maybe going back to school and getting a job. What would I do?

Contentment and Financial Independence

It is a learning process and I have become more aware and mature (I hope?). I started buying less and Marie Kondo my stuff, and actually really focusing on the joy part of all aspects of life. I buy less clothes but I spend more on hobbies that I enjoy. High end restaurants really don’t bring me much more joy than a good cheap place. And I am trying harder not to waste things.

And one day I discovered that, due to my husband’s steady job and savings (I may have contributed a little, maybe?), we are actually doing ok! If there is any temporary setback, we have an emergency fund and will be fine. If he decides to never work again, we can live comfortably on it forever – somewhere (will probably have to move overseas, but we don’t mind. Actually I am very much looking forward to it.) (Well, but sorry kids. That plan does not include funding your college tuition then.) But what a relief it brings to your life!

Even my online business has been generating a steady passive income for the past three years. It is much less than what I used to make working full time, but after adjusting my expectations, I am very appreciative of it. Right now it completely goes towards our savings, and can one day turn into my travel fund (more about that in the future).

Why Blog?

Actually I am not so sure. And hopefully I will keep it up! First, back to discovering the FIRE community last week. Before, I only know people who would question me – so what do you do all day? Are you going to get a real job once the kids graduate? All the while they are always stressed for things and money and time. I am just so glad that I found the people who realized that there is life and purpose beyond work.

I guess blogging would be a good outlet for me. I enjoy reading other people’s blogs and listening to podcasts so much, and maybe this will be a place to recap my thoughts after all the blogs, podcasts, tv shows that I consume. There will be something about daily life – There is no schedule, so what should I do to be fulfilled and productive?

I love to travel but I have been wanting to live in other countries for a few months at a time vs visiting the highlights for a few days. I cannot really do that yet (maybe? I am secretly planning all the time) until my kids go to college in two years. But in the mean time I may post some travel photos and stuff.

Well I am definitely not going to give financial advice or break down my budget line by line. But next time I travel I will try to keep track on spendings and share it.

Ok I am kind of rambling on. I guess I am just very glad to discover the concept and FIRE blogs. Finally I feel like there are people who understand how I think!Anyway, I will try to be more focused on my next entry!

People and Views from Tian Shui to Xining

After spending around 30 hours spent in Tian Shui, we were ready for our train ride from Tian Shui to Xining (西宁), the capital of Qinghai Province (青海). Although I did not spend much time in Tian Shui, I feel like I have entered a more ‘real’ part of China. There were more passengers who were obviously not tourists, but were people on the move. Many of the people were darker and looked tougher, like they really can survive the Northwest, surviving farming on half desert land and its harsh winters. They might’ve been carrying most of their belongings in large rice bags, and they wore cloth shoes and clothes that you don’t see much in Beijing anymore.

The views from the train also seemed real, like what you see in Chinese movies with war scenes, with barren land and sand flying around. The landscape along the ride is truly unique, with short mountains with yellow earth. Most of the ride is along the what I believe to be the Wei River, a tributary of the Yellow River, and the color of the river is certainly yellow.

The ride from Tian Shui to Xining was around 8 hours, and was much more pleasant than my first train ride. The mood of the ride was also very relaxed, unlike the overnight trains where everyone was tired and grouchy. Everyone in the cabin were talking, playing games, sharing snacks, and enjoying the view.

tianshui-china-72

tianshui-china-71
train waiting area

tianshui-china-74
train station worker

tianshui-china-73
Yellow River beer

tianshui-china-77

tianshui-china-78
View from the train

Hu’s Family Mansion in Tian Shui

We wandered into the Hu’s Family Mansion (胡氏古民居) after walking around the Pedestrian Street and market area. The family mansion seems to have several names: The Compound of the Hu Family, 南宅子 (South Mansion) and 北宅子 (North Mansion), Tian Shui Cultural Center, all refer to the same place.

tianshui-china-263

My friend Sharon would rave about this mansion nonstop for the next two weeks, mainly because there is no entrance fee. It is pretty ridiculous that even regular temples often have an entrance fee involved. In addition to being free, the mansion is also pretty quiet, and not drowned with tourists like some other attractions.

The mansion was built in the Ming dynasty (明嘉靖年), which would be around the 1500s. The Hu was a prominent family in Tian Shui, with both a father and son holding important government positions. The home belonged to the family throughout the years until it got taken away by the government.

tianshui-china-121
Position of the family

The home was built in a large courtyard style. There is some Northwest characteristics to the home which would make it interesting for those who know more about architecture history.

tianshui-china-268
The delicate decorations of the home

tianshui-china-264tianshui-china-262

We wandered around the different parts of the mansion, both upstairs and downstairs. You will get to see the beds the family used to sleep on, in addition to their decorations and toys. There are some very well made furniture in some rooms. I was very impressed of the quality of the wood:

tianshui-china-259
tianshui-china-258tianshui-china-256

A large area which seems to consist of half the home is the kitchen and the food preparation area. There must have been many people to feed in the home, including family members, maids, and more. You will find old cooking tools and the typical chili peppers hanging out to dry.

tianshui-china-120tianshui-china-265tianshui-china-266tianshui-china-267

It is rather interesting to see the old preserved homes and tools, There was even an underground tunnel and room, although I forgot its purpose. Well, why not end with a political slogan painted on the side of the wall.

tianshui-china-270

 

Nanguo Temple (南郭寺) in Tian Shui

tianshui-china-254

On our second day in Tianshui, we were to depart in the mid afternoon, giving us plenty of time to explore a sight or two in the morning.

Looking back at my trip, I find that I may have relied too much on some Chinese blog and travel sites like Mafengwo (蚂蜂窝) and Yododo . Actually Mafengwo puts together these great guides for any city you can think of. Plus people post their travel blogs there, which is totally addictive. The problem was that it made me try to plan non-stop in my head; I did not want to miss any attraction, even if it was something that probably did not interest me. I would overthink and try to plan my trip too much, rather than just relax and enjoy whatever may happen.

I didn’t do any research on Tian Shui other than for the Grottoes before coming though. I spent my one night in Tian Shui looking up travel blogs about the city. I skipped the blogs that used too many adjectives, or talked too much about history, because I won’t understand it (My Chinese is not good enough when too many names and dynasties are involved. And if they quote a poem, forget it!) One blog recommended Nanguo Temple (南郭寺), so we decided to go there.

But if I spent some time looking at a map instead of reading people’s blogs, I may have realized that all the other attractions are located in the city center within walking distance to each other, while this temple requires a short taxi or bus ride and is slightly more inconvenient. It actually worked out fine – we spent maybe an hour at the temple, and then had time to visit the downtown area of Tian Shui.

Back to reading too many blogs though. Reading too much makes me feel like I missed certain attractions, like the Fu Xi Temple. But honestly, I have seen so many temples already, at times I wonder if I need to see another temple again, like ever.

Anyway, writing this blog forces me to look through my photos and think of ways to improve my photos. It forces me to learn and reflect on what I’ve seen. So this is what I know about the Nanguo Temple after a brief search:

  • It is a rare temple that sits in the South and faces North
  • It is one of the top eight attractions in Tian Shui
  • Tang dynasty poet Du Fu wrote a poem about the temple in 759AD, which totally adds street cred.
  • Maybe most importantly, there are two famous old trees at the temple. One tree is estimated to be 2500 years old, and is the 3rd oldest tree in China.I didn’t really read the sign when I was there, so I thought the trees were ‘only’ 1000 years old. But I just found out one of the tree branches is dead (not sure which tree), but in between the dead branch grew a new tree. How impressive! Now I’m so glad we went!
  • When doing the research, I wonder if we missed a section of the temple. Oh well!

tianshui-china-245
Maybe it was this tree?

tianshui-china-251
Is this the tree with the ‘dependent’ tree?

We took a taxi to the temple because if you take a bus, you will have to get off at the bottom of the hill, and then climb up a hill. I remember the fare was not expensive, while the hill is probably at least a 30 minute climb. When you get to the top, the temple does offer a good view of Tian Shui. But the sky was quite smoggy.

tianshui-china-220

My most interesting part of the day was snapping this photo of these sleeping dogs (they look quite like my dog Billy)

tianshui-china-58

And getting to chat with this man below at the temple. He was a worker at the temple and I believe he lived there as well. His job that day (or maybe for the rest of the summer, or maybe his life) was to take out weeds with a screwdriver. Of course that was believable after I saw an old man at a luxury compound in Beijing, cutting the lawn with large scissors.

tianshui-china-60
There were no weeds behind him! He did such a good job!

Photo gallery time:

tianshui-china-219tianshui-china-225tianshui-china-229tianshui-china-232tianshui-china-223tianshui-china-231tianshui-china-61tianshui-china-235tianshui-china-237tianshui-china-240
tianshui-china-221

Overview and Food of Tian Shui

Actually I did not research much before going to Tian Shui. Now that I’ve been there, and finally looking at a map (3 years after going there), I finally have an understanding on where everything is.

When we took the train to Tian Shui in 2013, the train station is actually located in Maiji district, about 15km East of the city of Tian Shui. There are plenty of stores and hotels around the train station. However, the high speed train was being built and I’m not sure of the location of the new train station.

tianshui-china-93
View from the train station

tianshui-china-92

We spent one night close to the train station. The sun came out in the evening, and it was actually quite pleasant along the river. I am guessing the river is Weihe (渭河), the largest tributary of the Yellow River.

tianshui-china-218

tianshui-china-56

Tian Shui is a small 3rd tier type city in China, and the second largest in Gansu Province, with 3.5 million people. There are actually quite a few attractions in Tianshui in addition to the grottoes. None of the other sites are extra spectacular, but it may make an interesting day for people who want to travel slowly and experience each city. These smaller cities definitely have a much different vibe than Beijing; and the Northwest just feels even tougher, although it is hard to explain.

A sample itinerary of Tian Shui can be as follow:

Half a day at the Maijishan Grottoes. Walking through the grottoes takes around 2-3 hours. For those with the time, the ticket to the grottoes include a visit to a cliff with a temple underneath, and a scenic area.

Part or one full day can be spent in the city of Tian Shui with all the attractions, most of which are walkable to each other:

  • The Hu’s Family Compound, the mansion of a prominent family that dates back to the 1500s
  • Fu Xi Temple (伏羲庙), a temple walkable from everything else. The temple was built around the 1480s, and is well known for being the only temple in China with a statue of 伏羲 (known as the ancestor of all of China)
  • The Tian Shui Museum, located next to the Fu Xi Temple
  • Yuquan Temple (玉泉观), a Taoist Temple
  • Nanguo Temple (南郭寺), a temple several km away from the city, that offers a view of Tian Shui.

If I ever return to Tian Shui and decide to slowly travel through the area, I may also consider visiting the following Buddhist attractions that are similar to Maijishan, and were made from the same time period. They are perhaps a 1.5 hour drive West of Tian Shui, and can be visited together in one day:

  • Wushan Water Curtain Cave Scenic Area (武山水帘洞), which got its name from a cave where the water drips continuously in the winter, and looks like a water curtain. It is known for having the largest outdoor some kind of buddha statue in Asia (露天摩崖浮雕大佛拉梢寺大佛). According to the website, there are also over 100 statues, over 2000 square meter of murals, and one headless dried corpse!?
  • Gangu Daxiang Mountain (甘谷大像山). There is a really big buddha there.

A walk around Tian Shui

On the second day of our trip, we walked around the Tian Shui city center. Below is from a walk around a market:

tianshui-china-62
Must be a speciality for the area. There were so many choices!

tianshui-china-64

tianshui-china-67
I think this was a crazy guy begging for money. He was singing; everyone was ignoring him, and it was a little weird.

tianshui-china-105tianshui-china-106tianshui-china-107

Most of the food offered in Tian Shui seem to be starch based, usually some kind of dough or noodle with spicy sauce. We tried different soup noodles for different meals, which were okay. I love to eat, and usually food is a priority in my travels. But sorry Gansu, not anymore! I would soon realize that there are places where I simply don’t like their food, at all, and Gansu is one of them (even though I didn’t make it to Lanzhou, and I would probably like their noodles). In fact, if I ever have to lose weight quickly, I may consider simply living in Northwest China for a month.

One food that is famous in Tian Shui is called gwa gwa(呱呱?). We went to the Pedestrian Street of Tian Shui, and saw this store that is probably famous for 呱呱. It was early in the morning, but I heard it is quite popular and sometimes sell out:

Eventually we decided to try the gwa gwa at another store later in the day. I believe it is some kind of buckwheat dough with chili oil on it. I didn’t really hate it or like it. Actually, other than the chili oil, I was not sure if it had any taste. The appearance of the food is definitely not going to win any award, but at least I gave it a try.

tianshui-china-117
A not very appealing glob of brown and purplish dough.

tianshui-china-119

2013TianSui-118-edited
The final product

Maijishan Grottoes (麦积山石窟) in Tian Shui, China

The first stop of our Northwest China trip is to visit the Maijishan Grottoes (麦积山石窟) in Tian Shui (天水), Gansu, China.
tianshui-china-169

After our 14 hour train ride, it was a relieve to get off the train, even though we were faced with bad rainy weather. After finding a hotel and washing up, the rain kind of stopped, and we were ready to visit the first site of our visit, Maijishan Grottoes.

Before planning the trip, I have never heard of the Maijishan Grottoes, or Tian Shui. Actually, I barely knew the Gansu province existed. I have only heard of Mogao Cave and Dunhang, which is a place along the Silk Road, and I wanted to go there. Eventually I found out about Qinghai Lake, Gannan, Tianshui, and everything else that are on the way. Considering that Beijing to Dunhuang is around a 35 hour train ride, pretty much a quarter of China was kind of on the way.

You can take bus #34 to go to the Maijishan Grottoes from the Tian Shui train station (the train station is actually NOT in the downtown of Tian Shui, but in the Maiji District). The bus stop is right in front of the train station and stops on the main road. It is an important tourist attraction, so the bus cannot be missed. The bus ride is around an hour.

When you arrive to the Grottoes, you will be at the bottom of the hill. Being China, your bus stop and ticket booth is never close to the actual site. Not only do they charge you to each site, sometimes requiring a ticket for different parts of the site, they also like to build the ticket booth as far and downhill as possible. You can then decide to either walk uphill for 30 minutes or more to get to the attraction, or pay for some mode of transportation to go up to the attraction.

If you pay extra, there is a tourist bus (kind of like trolleys/buses in Disney World) that takes you from the ticket booth to the attraction. Even if you take the bus, you still have to walk up hill for another 15 minutes. There are some stalls selling snacks and trinkets along the way.

tianshui-china-40

A little background about Maijishan Grottoes

Maijishan Grottoes is one of four major Buddhist grottoes in China. The other three being Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Yungang Cave in Datong, and Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang.

The mountain is 142 meters high, and the grottoes were built between 384AD – 417 AD during the late Qin (后秦) period. Addition caves were created throughout the years. More statues and work would be added and restored during the next 15 dynasties.

Maijishan Grottoes was created when Buddhism first spread to China, being one of the earlier caves. Civilians took up Buddhism before the emperors took up the religion, which is one of the reasons why most statues were made from clay, which was a cheaper material for regular people. The red rocks at the mountain are also too soft for making the statues. Currently, there are 221 caves, 7000 sculptures, and over 1000 square meters of murals.

Actually, I only know very basic information about the grottoes from the brochure. But simply looking at the cliffs, wondering how anyone, over a thousand years ago, could carve these piece of art hanging on the side, was amazing in itself.

We didn’t pay for a guide because I figured my Mandarin is not good enough to understand these history and Buddhist terms anyway. I overheard some tour guide explaining how you can compare the change throughout the years, with the Buddhas changing from more an Indian look to a more Chinese look. I did not understand everything, but I did take a bunch of pictures:

tianshui-china-166
Your first view of the grottoes – the East side of the mountain

tianshui-china-169
A closer look. The buddha on the right was being repaired.

tianshui-china-53
A look from the side

tianshui-china-208
Stairs going up to the different caves. It is pretty scary if you are scared of height!

tianshui-china-54

tianshui-china-48
Steep steps. I just need to insert my funny tourist photo of the day. Many Chinese women dress up to go to attractions, knowing there will be lots of photos taken (smart). But they never really choose the most comfortable footwear.

tianshui-china-211
West side of the mountain

tianshui-china-213

Among the 221 caves, many are not open to visitors. Some statues are behind screens for protection. And of course, a lot of work needs to be restored, and some are on loan. The most interesting (or photogenic) is this row of bigger statues called the “Seven Buddha Pavilion”:

tianshui-china-182tianshui-china-181tianshui-china-185tianshui-china-184tianshui-china-187
tianshui-china-186tianshui-china-189
tianshui-china-200tianshui-china-196

tianshui-china-193
Look at how angry he still looks, over a thousand years later!

tianshui-china-195

tianshui-china-198tianshui-china-203

tianshui-china-204
Other caves that you can peek into

tianshui-china-209

tianshui-china-210
A kind of funny photo of the Buddha and Mao all around her

tianshui-china-190

There were some interesting people watching experiences too. There was the security guard who insisted on taking a picture for me (probably just so he could play with my phone). I ended up with a 10 minute long video of me looking very uncomfortable, not looking at the camera at all, with the guard shouting “Don’t look at your phone! Look away!”. That actually would’ve been a smart line to use maybe if he was trying to steal my phone?

We spent around two hours at the grottoes. Our entrance ticket also include entrance to a hike to some mountain. We never really understood what was included or how to get there, so we left, satisfied with what we saw on this first day. Upon research, it seems that the other attraction that is included is called 天水仙人崖, some cliffs with a temple underneath, 15km away from the grottoes. It can be reached by the tourist bus or taxi. Oh well, maybe next time.

Hard Seat Overnight Train Ride #1

2013XingTai-14

A little back story. Other than seeing Sharon’s family, one reason why we went to Xing Tai is to pick up Sharon’s nephew along for the trip.

I met Sharon when I was living in Beijing, where she worked as a nanny. She was young and naive, maybe 22(?), was nice, energetic and loves kids. For someone with her background (from a village close to a 3rd tier city, and very young), she had traveled quite a bit. I believe some of her previous employers took her to Australia, Hong Kong, and other places, so she really wants to bring her nephew along and show him the world.

That sounds great on paper, but I kind of wonder why she thinks any 10 year old would want to go on our trip. My own kids and husband definitely won’t want to go (actually if we were still living in China, I can make my family go. It will just be a more luxurious and relaxing version than what I’m about to experience for the next few days).

First of all, Sharon’s nephew has to hang out with adults. Our plan is to go to Gansu and Qinghai, some of the poorest provinces in China. It would be great for my kids to experience it. But for a kid living in a village, won’t he want to go to a big city, watch a 3D movie and go to an amusement park? Second of all, Sharon does not have the money for plane tickets, so we will be taking the train the entire trip. And that is A LOT of train and bus rides.

14 Hour Overnight Train: Xing Tai to Tian Shui (天水)

Things may be a little different now, but when we took the trip in the summer of 2013, you could buy Chinese train tickets only either 14 or 21 days (I forgot) before the actual trip. Even though Sharon went to book tickets on the first day they became available, all the soft and hard sleepers were already sold out. What we had were hard seat tickets. That sounds bad, but there are worse – some people will buy standing room tickets for the 14 hour ride, and sometimes even for 30+ hour rides.

If I have to go on the same trip now (2016), there are high speed rails serving most of the route if not the entire route. If I were to travel again, I will definitely take the high speed train. However, many of the other passengers I saw may still be taking the regular train:

  • I will end up taking three 10+ hour hard seat train rides. I think the overnight trains are always more crowded because everyone is thinking they will save one day and sleep on the train. But hardly anyone sleeps well, and everyone is very grouchy by 3am.
  • Some people are stuck buying standing room tickets because the hard seat and the sleeper tickets are sold out. But most people buy the standing room tickets simply to save money. Currently the hard seat ticket for Xing Tai to Tian Shui is 141.5 quai, or around $23, which is still a lot to some people. Sometimes a group of 3-4 people will share one hard seat ticket with the rest of the group buying standing room tickets. They will just all rotate seats during the trip. Or they will just squeeze two people in one seat. On my next train ride I would meet two students on a 40 hour train ride, going home from university, sharing one seat. I don’t think those people will be paying for the high speed train if they can help it.
  • During the less crowded trains, the standing room ticket holders will just take whatever empty seat that is available.
  • The hard seat on these Chinese trains are quite hard. The seats are completely straight up and are not tilted backwards at all.

Here are some photos from my first hard seat train ride

2013XingTai-11
Beginning of the ride. People were still standing, although the air conditioning did not seem to work

2013XingTai-12
Beginning of the trip

2013XingTai-13
An hour into my ride. See the man who was standing in the last photo? He is now sitting down. There is a reason why they sell cheap folding chairs outside the train stations.

2013XingTai-15
A while later, you see that man who was standing has now decided to sleep on the floor.

2013XingTai-16

As the night wore on, people stopped standing and many started sleeping on the floor. There was no room on the overhead bin for my luggage, so I had to put my bag on the floor. Since people always scare me by telling me people steal things on the train, i wrapped one leg around my bag the whole trip, believing it will be safer.

Not that I could really move my legs. An older man started sitting on my bag, which meant he was sitting on my camera lenses for hours. I couldn’t really tell him to move since there was no room. Plus in that situation, you feel so fortunate simply just having a seat. Eventually he started to sleep on the floor right under my seat,  his head right next to my foot, while another lady slept on the floor next to my other foot. And I still wrapped one leg around my bag the whole 14 hours and did not move a bit.

Luckily I decided not to eat too much before the train ride, and didn’t even drink after I got on the train. People who were trying to go to the bathroom took 30 minutes just to walk through a carriage. Later I heard the bathroom actually had a broken door, so people had to spend 1-2 hours just to walk to the farther away bathroom and back.

Despite all that, I actually slept quite a bit. And I will continue to have decent sleep during the rest of my train journeys. I guess I really can fall asleep anywhere.