Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Great Wall

I have decided that it is impossible to use one word to describe what it was like to walk along the Great Wall. The experience was certainly the highlight of our 8 day trip to China. We visited the Juyong Pass (traditionally called Juyongguan) section of the Great Wall, closest to Beijing but actually not the most popular section, which turned out to be a blessing, as we occasionally found ourselves alone on the Wall. This section of the Great Wall, like most, has been renovated since being built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); however it still showed the wear and tear of many years of use. The most shocking thing about the wall was how incredibly steep some of the steps were! Also, there were spots with a really steep step or two followed by some smaller steps and then back to steep steps, which made for more challenging walking than I had expected.

One thing that we found very interesting during our visit to the Great Wall was the number of Chinese people who wanted their pictures taken with us. Not being a traditionally "touristy" spot, there were not many other non-Chinese people around, so we were often targeted for picture taking. Our translator, Dominque, explained that some of these people might be from very small villages in China and they may not have ever seen white people before. We liked to tell ourselves that we bared similar resemblance to famous people and they wanted their pictures taken with us for that reason, ha! ;)

Walking on the Great Wall was such a memorable experience and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend the day at Juyong Pass. I'll leave you with pictures, which are not entirely my doing, as my co-workers Cal and Nathan shared their fantastic photos of this experience (and the rest of our China trip pictures) with me.
This building is located at the start of Juyong Pass. You can choose to go left or right from there.
Steps showing their age
We are on our way up the left, or more difficult side.
The views get better and better the higher we go!
Looking out onto the right side...I have close up of that red building below.
The section that you see now is the "right" side of the wall that we would climb after descending from our climb of the "left" side. That building in the center is also in photos below.
If you look closely, you can see how steep some of the steps are!
View from the top of the left side. Not many people actually climbed up the entire section.
An example of our popularity for photographs!
This is at the top of the right side...
...and the building that we saw from afar when we climbed the left side.
This sort of shows you how steep the left side was. This was taken from the top of the right side.
A road runs through the two sides. That red building is the one from the first picture.

A Great Wall "selfie"!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Macedon Ranges

Yesterday was my birthday, the third birthday I have celebrated Down Under. Technically today it is still my birthday in America, and yesterday it wasn't quite yet my big day in the USA, but we do celebrate our birthdays on the actual "date" in Oz. Due to the time difference, birthday wishes tend to come over a 2 day period, so it is really fun to have an "extended" birthday of sorts.

I have a few more China posts to write, most notably a post about our trip to the Great Wall, but today I wanted to share a little bit about our day trip to the Macedon Ranges. Erik had asked a few times what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I thought that a day trip somewhere within an hour or so of our house would be a good idea. There are many choices that fit into that category, but yesterday I chose the Macedon Ranges.

From our house it only took about 45 minutes to reach Mount Macedon. Once we left the freeway and started driving on the road up to the top, we started passing gorgeous houses. Actually these were more like estates, with gated driveways, tennis courts, pools, and immaculate gardens. I have decided that rich Melbournians must own these amazing properties! The scenery on the drive to the top, which included those beautiful houses combined with a winding tree-lined road, was awesome.

The first thing we decided to check out was the Memorial Cross. This cross is massive, and was rebuilt in the 1990's when it was decided that the cross was unsafe, as it had deteriorated from weather. It serves as a memorial to Australian soldiers who served in the World Wars. You can also see the CBD (Melbourne) from the Memorial Cross.

That is "Melbs" in the distance!
Next we did a short hike to Camel's Hump, which is the highest peak of Mount Macedon. From there, we spotted Hanging Rock, which was our next destination.

Hanging Rock was created by a type of volcanic activity over 6 million years ago. A hike to the top provided awesome views of the Macedon Ranges and Camel's Hump in particular. The rock formations are quite stunning, especially with the backdrop of the ridiculously blue sky that we had yesterday.

Camel's Hump is the high part of the mountain in the background!
This spot actually reminded me of a hike we did in the Glass House Mountains.
When we returned from the walk to Hanging Rock, we found a kangaroo that clearly is used to being around people. This "wild" kangaroo was just hanging out where people were having picnics, eating grass and letting crazy Americans pet it without any sign of distress!

After leaving Hanging Rock, we headed to Hanging Rock Winery to do a bit of wine tasting. I ended up having a glass after the tasting and we sat outside enjoying the perfect weather before hitting the road back to Melbourne. All in all an excellent birthday, made possible by my fabulous husband and by the often unpredictable Melbourne spring weather, which turned out to be absolutely perfect yesterday!

View of Hanging Rock (left) and Camel's Hump (right) from the winery!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Shichahai District

During the week I spent in China for work, we stayed in Shichahai, which happens to be a famous scenic spot in Beijing. Just outside our doorstep were 3 lakes surrounded by shops, food stalls, craft vendors, bars, and restaurants. The lakes provided the perfect area for a morning run and for an evening stroll. There was always something happening and it was a great place to watch the Chinese go about their daily lives, as it was very rare for us to see a non-Chinese person in this area unless it was someone in our traveling group!
This spot was just a minute or so walk from our accommodation!
Sunset on the lake
A "regular" performer on the lake. We saw him several times, working out to music with crowds watching.
The lakes were a popular place to be during the day and at night.
Nighttime iPhone shot!
Surrounding the lake there were scattered pieces of exercise equipment where we would often see Chinese people exercising, and sometimes we would join in ourselves!

Who needs a foam roller?!
The Shichahai District is a popular one for rickshaws. A rickshaw is basically a bicycle with a carriage-type thing on the back that can seat 2 people. Often they are used for tours, but they can also be used as a mode of transport. On the tour, rickshaws will take people around the lakes and also through the hutongs, which are basically alleyways with shops and restaurants. Apparently most hutongs used to be made up of family homes, but many homeowners decided to sell their homes in these prime locations to businesses wanting to earn money.
Lined up and ready to go for the next group of tours...
...and they are off!

Walking through one of the hutongs in Shichahai.
There was an open square-type area next to one of the lakes where there was always something interesting going on, particularly at night. One night we returned to a large group of locals playing hacky sack and they were insisting that we join in on the fun. On the last day we indulged in massages on the square overlooking the lake. Our 15 minute massages cost about $3.

I think we were extremely fortunate to have stayed where we did for this work trip, given all of the cool things to do within walking distance of our accommodation. Mixing in with the locals provided us with a chance to see the "real Beijing", as opposed to the crowds we saw at some other more traditionally touristy places during our time in China.
Enjoying some gelati on our walk back to the sports school!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Chinese Sports Schools

My professional life in Oz has come incredibly far since our arrival over two years ago, and to be honest, it just keeps getting better! A few days ago, I returned from a week in China for work, where my manager (boss), myself, and 3 of my coworkers visited Chinese Sports Schools in hopes of bringing back ideas to implement at our government-funded sports school in Melbourne. Not only was this a wonderful professional opportunity, but a chance to see a new country and to be thrown into a non-English-speaking culture. I have traveled to many different countries over the last 10 years, but this was my first experience in a country where only a few people spoke English. In addition, my coworkers and I were fortunate enough to have free time to explore Beijing and also to spend a day hiking on the Great Wall.
The boys are ready to go!
In order to immerse ourselves directly into the culture of Chinese Sports Schools, we actually stayed on-site at one of the schools. Basing ourselves at the Shichahai Sports School, we were placed in "VIP" rooms. We were guided by Dominque, an employee of the school who spoke English well enough to translate for us... most of the time. Unfortunately, we happened to be visiting the school during a holiday period, so not all sports were training while we were there. However, we did get to watch a few training sessions for various sports, and these were located right down the hall from our rooms.

In addition to Shichahai, we visited several other sports schools in the area to watch training sessions. Of all of the sports we saw, the sport with the most participants seemed to be table tennis (ping pong). Starting at a very young age, some of these students train for as many as 7 to 8 hours a day. What was most striking was the repetitiveness of the drills, and the fact that students never seemed to lose focus or get tired like I might expect a young "Western" student to do. Other sessions that we had the opportunity to watch included badminton, golf, wushu (a martial arts-type sport), tennis, and taekwondo.

One of the more unique experiences we had was visiting a farm owned by Shichahai Sports School, about an hour and a half from the city. The school uses the farm to fuel the top level athletes, and whatever food is left after that gets fed to guests, lower level athletes, coaches, and staff at the school. Since we were staying at the school (with 3 meals/day included), we think that most of what we were eating came from the farm that we visited. There are training facilities at the farm and also accommodation, so athletes could go into "camp" at the farm when preparing for a big competition. The farm also serves as an Outward Bound center, for corporate groups to rent for retreats and workshops, which I'm sure helps to fund the operation of the farm and school.
Free range chickens
Outward Bound apparatus in the background

Testing one of the challenges. These guys would have gotten wet if they had fallen!
Free range piglets!
On our last full day in China, we were able to visit a sports university, perhaps forging a partnership where we could sent students for short exchange programs. At Capital University of Physical Education and Sports, we were treated like kings (and a queen!) for the day. In addition to touring the facilities, many of which were used for the 2008 Olympic Games, we indulged in perhaps the best lunch of our entire trip, feasting on many different types of Chinese food. In China, food is served on a round turntable, which is moved around so that everyone can try various dishes. At this meal, we were provided with about 20 different dishes, including some traditional Chinese foods like pig's ear (which I did not try but the boys did) and lotus flower (which I did try and was quite tasty). Overall, our group was adventurous with eating over the course of our trip (more details on that in an upcoming post!), which apparently is not always the case with Western travelers.
This pool was built for use before the 2008 Olympics.
An entire section on Sports Medicine in the Olympic Games library.
Prentice's books are everywhere! I taught Sports Medicine using this book.
Our staff and our gracious hosts
The only negative about our trip was that we did not get to watch any weightlifting. At every school we visited, we asked about lifting, but it seems that there are specialized schools for lifting and we could not get access into those schools. Since we are teaching Olympic lifts from year 8 at our school, we were hoping to get some insight on how the Chinese approach Olympic lifting, as they have been very successful in that sport. However, it seems that the Chinese did not want to give away their secrets as to what makes them good at Olympic lifting! One thing that we observed without visiting any lifting schools is that Chinese people are very comfortable sitting in a deep squat, and it is often their "default" or resting position. This improves mobility and allows for better weight lifting technique compared to Western cultures who struggle to get in that deep squat position. If you have ever visited China, you would know that it is hard to find a traditional toilet, at least in Beijing, so in order to use the bathroom you better have decent squatting skills!
Impressive flexibility
This identifies a Western toilet versus a Chinese toilet!
The thing that perhaps stood out the most for me on our tour of these schools was the presence of a Chinese flag at each and every venue where athletes train. While the Chinese might not show a lot of emotion, they most certainly have pride in their country and aspire to one day compete for their nation. The difference between China and countries such as the USA or Australia might be that the Chinese are more willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the top from a young age, even if that means 30 minutes of shadow drills without a ping pong ball at the age of 5!