gap year in israel

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Day 1

I’m happy to tell you that we arrived in Beijing safe and sound. We were a little tired from the long plane ride (to say the least) but we were lucky to get here on a sunny day and we were extremely excited to explore the city!

Chabad house was our first stop on the trip. On the way there, we learnt that Beijing has terrible traffic, as a 20 minute journey took us over an hour. As you’ll be able to see in some of the pictures (to follow), most participants got the best out of the busy traffic situation, and fell into a deep sleep 5 minutes after the bus driver started his engine. We eventually got to Chabad house which is a pretty remarkable structure in itself, and met with Rabbi Rodin who spoke to us about the small Jewish community in Beijing and the small Jewish school there with only 40 kids. When we asked him what it is like for him to run a Jewish Chabad house in a communist country he told us it is a rather complicated task. They have to navigate between practicing Judaism and remaining under the radar and not doing anything that would seem like opposing the status quo. For example, they don’t practice conversions as that might just mean crossing the line.

Due to the change of schedule (Rabbi Rodin needed to meet us earlier than originally scheduled) and the traffic, we postponed the drum tower and rickshaw ride to Wednesday and headed back to our hotel. Everyone was hungry and exhausted from the flight, so we quickly dropped our bags in our (beautiful) rooms and headed for dinner. Apparently eating out is a more complicated task than we had guessed, with only one English menu and only one Chinese speaking tour guide. It took us quite a long time to get food on our plates and when the food did finally come, we still had to figure out where all the forks went.

We just had a short gathering in my room to speak a little about the Tiannamen square massacre, or what the Chinese officials refer to as the Tiannamen square incident. Tomorrow we will visit Tiannamen square but it is illegal to talk about what occurred there in the 1989 Student demonstration which is why we talked about it tonight. after which we will visit the forbidden city.

As for now we are all pretty much exhausted and ready for sleep, I’ll send you another update tomorrow to tell you how our day went. I hope to be able to send you some pictures tomorrow too. So far it seems as though your kids are in good spirits and enjoying themselves!

Day 2

We just finished a long and very exiting day in Beijing! We started with a tour of Tiananmen square which is the third largest square in the world! We walked across the square, where in the old days, people used to walk in order to see the emperor while being surrounded by armed soldiers watching their every move. Instead we were surrounded by many Chinese people that wished to take their picture with the “Americans” (every non- Asian is considered to be American). Ketzia and Omer Caspi got to feel like real time celebrities for a while. They are currently leading in our competition of Beijing’s most popular Aardvarkian. At the end of the square above the entrance to the forbidden city, stands a gigantic picture of Mao Tse Tung looking down upon the many visitors. When the older generation in China got engaged, it was customary to give a gift to the fiance’s family of a picture of Mao. The richer the family, the bigger the picture! Not a very tasteful addition to the family living room in our opinion, but we will leave it at that since our emails are probably monitored by the Chinese Government. (Just kidding! We all have a Mao picture in our apartments! We love it, it really makes the room)

If we thought the Tiananmen square was big then the Forbidden City, where the emperor and his generals lived is humongous! It has 9,999.5 rooms and it is literally astounding. We passed through the many gates of the city for about an hour and still hadn’t reached the end. The architecture is amazing and is the best preserved wooden structure from it’s time (600 years ago). It was built during the Ming dynasty. We had a great time walking around, listening to our guide and admiring the view!

Too many hours had gone by without us spending any Yuans (Chinese currency) so in order to fix this problem our bus took us to a pearl factory. China is the largest producer of sweet water pearls. We watched in amazement as one of the workers opened a clam, (that Ben Gaster had gracefully fished out of the water tank) with a sharp knife and took out about 20 pearls! After a short explanation about the pearl industry, we walked around to see the jewelry they made. Some of us just couldn’t resist the cheap prices (or the “I know you’ll do the right thing” look, from their girlfriend in my case…)

After admiring the pearls we sat down to eat lunch at a local restaurant. I can’t really tell you what we ate because, honestly, I have no idea what it was, but the group truly enjoyed it! Even the weird foamy stuff with no shape was proven to be pretty good in its undefined way!

After lunch we went to see the Temple of heaven, where the emperors used to make their sacrifice to gain good harvest. We were surprised to find out that the Temple of heaven is three times the size of the forbidden city! It is endless! Apparently when the Chinese say they’ll build a temple they mean business! The temple was amazing! While walking there Omer, Ben and myself joined an old guy that was playing hacky sac by himself. We played with him for a few minutes, he was really good! We weren’t…

From there we went to walk around the Pearl market. They have all kind of fabrics, leather products, electric gadgets and basically every fake product that ever existed. We didn’t stay there for long and after a short dinner we went to see the Kung Fu Show. There are no words to describe this crazy phenomenon that is the Shaulin monks. They are almost inhuman! We watched from the front row how they fly in the air, lift their bodies on top of sharpened spears and move so rapidly and gracefully! The monks literally stood a few inches from us during certain parts of the show. It was spectacular and we all really loved it!

Everyone is doing great and I attached a few photos of the group.

We are back in our hotel and going to sleep now. Tomorrow is another long day! We are going to climb the Great Wall of China! Wish us luck!

Until tomorrow…..

Day 3

This is our third day in china and some of us are feeling like locals! Sophie and Leah, for example, managed to acquire quite a vocabulary in a really short time, or Ben, who knows how to count to 10 in Chinese (even though our bus driver thought Ben told him to “go home” when he tried to count from 8 to 10, but it still counts in our opinion). This morning on our way to the Great Wall, our tour guide taught us how one word can have a lot of different meanings, it all depends on how you pronounce it. For example the word “ma” has four different meanings and if you don’t properly pronounce it with the right sound, you just might accidentally call your mother a horse. A very unpleasant mistake!

The Great Wall was everything we hoped it would be and more! It was truly exiting to see this magnificent man built wonder and walk it. The wall is actually built of many different walls in the different regions of china that were built in separate times. There are 8,000 kilometers of the Great wall, and the only part of it that is open for tourism is in Beijing. At the beginning of the wall there is a stone with a saying by Mao that says that you are not a true hero until you climbed the Great Wall. So we are feeling pretty good about ourselves now that we have… I’m not sure if we will feel the same way tomorrow morning when we can’t move our feet after climbing all those stairs, but as for now, we are pretty content. The wall was much narrower and steeper than what we imagined, and the view from it was stunning. From the top we could see endless miles of the wall across the Chinese countryside. We also need to remember that there are 1 million men buried under the wall who died building it. According to our tour guide, it was at a time when the total population of China was about five million in total, so if the numbers are accurate we are talking about 20% of the Chinese population!

After descending from the wall we went to a cloisonne factory. Cloisonne is a very ancient Chinese art of making plates and vases (and some other stuff) of bronze wires. It is a long, long process. Just the art of coloring and painting on the bronze takes 3 years to learn. The guide took us through the whole process of making the instruments.

From there we drove to see the Ming tombs. The tombs are actually an area where 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty were buried. The whole region is considered to be very feng shui and have a very good flow of energy, for reasons that are beyond my understanding. The tombs themselves are buried deep inside the mountains, but again, the Chinese used to go all out with everything they built when the emperor was involved, and the path to the burial place goes for many miles and is spectacular. When we arrived we went through the “gate of heaven”. Before you go through it, you first need to concentrate on which foot you enter with first, because if you’ll cross with your right foot, you will be a girl in the next life time, but if you cross with your left foot than you are bound to be a boy. This caused quite a confusion in our group, some changed their mind and came back through the gate to go again, and one of the participants just hoped on through with his two feet and promised himself a lifetime of living as an androgynous. It might not be science, but you don’t argue with ancient Chinese wisdom. Before we left, another fluent Chinese speaker in our group, Drew Silverman, practiced her language skills on two of the police officers at the site, by telling them the only sentence she knows in Chinese: I love you. Apparently “I love you” is not a very common saying in china and it is customarily only said after a couple is engaged. The officers were both very flattered and embarrassed at the same time. Needless to say, she also practiced how to say “I’m sorry” before we left.

From the Ming tombs we went to see the acrobatic show. It was a spectacular show! Chinese people kept throwing other Chinese people in the air, through hoops and to unimaginable heights! We held our breath a couple of timse during the show when we were sure a serious injury was about to occur on stage, but somehow it didn’t. Not even when 8 motorcycles were driving together in circles inside a huge (but not big enough) ball shaped iron cage! We all loved it!

We are back in the hotel and ready to go to sleep. So far we had three amazing days and we are excited of what’s to come next! Tomorrow we will start our day in the Israeli embassy, visit the Lama Temple, the drum tower and the silk market, and end our day at the the night market!

I’ll send another update tomorrow,

Until than,

Day 4

Today was our fourth day of the trip and time is passing by too quickly in our opinion!

We got to the Israeli embassy first thing in the morning and we got to meet the head of the embassy’s culture department. They taught us about their mission of bringing the State of Israel to the people’s awareness in a manner that will represent Israel differently than the image represented in the news. They said that Israel has a lot to offer to China in the fields of agriculture, water desalination, micro technology and much more and even though politically they basically disagree with Israel on any topic (because 30% of the oil in China comes from Arabic countries) we are cooperating in many other channels.

From the embassy we went to the drum tower, a tall building with 24 drums at the top. Drummers drum from this tower every hour, and we got to see five young drummers take their place and start beating together. The building was built 700 years ago and the purpose of the drums is to let everyone know what the time is. The building held an exhibition of many ancient and very creative gadgets that are meant to tell the time. For example a boat shaped incense stand, that is meant to count two hours of sleep during the siestas. You light the incense before you go to sleep, and it burns a string every half an hour. Every string has two bells at its end that fall down and make a noise when the incense gets to it. So every half an hour a bell goes off… You have to be very creative when you don’t have an alarm clock! It’s a good thing we got rid of this strange habit of napping at noon………

From the tower we got on rikshaws for a tour in the hutong neighborhood. The hutongs are very old neighborhoods with one level houses built very close together. The houses are very small and have no bathroom in it. So the people living there use the communal bathrooms and showers that are spread every few meters on the streets. Our tour guide who lives in the neighborhood said that the bathroom is where the neighbors get to have their best conversations. In this neighborhood being friendly with your neighbor also means knowing all of his or her tattoos. All of them!

We went to learn a little calligraphy in a place near by. We entered a small Hutong house with a small kitchen, a small living room and two small pet crickets that were hanging in small cricket cages from the ceiling. The calligrapher said they remind him of the sounds of spring. Personally, the repetitive cricket sounds made me miss the winter that is right outside the door, but I have to admit it has a certain charm to it, in a Walt Disney kind of way. Anyways, turns out our calligraphy teacher is no less than a kung fu master! His two kids are also kung fu instructors and he himself learned kung fu together with Jet lee in the same class! We were impressed! Our ‘kung fu master’ taught us how to write the numbers in Chinese from 1 to 9, plus a few other words. Ketzia, who is in the lead for Beijing’s most popular Aardvarkian was also crowned as aardvark’s best calligrapher!

After we learnt calligraphy we continued to the Lama Temple, a Buddhist Temple with wooden Buddha, 26 meters high, that is carved into a single stem! It goes 13 meters deep into the ground and 16 meters above it, it is an amazing structure! After burning incense at the temple (or keeping the free incense untouched in order to bring back home) we left to go to the silk market where everyone’s bargaining skills were tested to their limit! We are talking about shopping of the fittest! We left this place exhausted after an hour of mind games with the skilled vendors (only to decide we should come back tomorrow again since an hour was not enough. There are still too many Yuans that take up too much space in the wallets).

After the silk market came the real cultural shock. The Beijing food market with all sorts of creepy crawlies fried, baked and barbecued for the public’s enjoyment! I’ll tell you that some of our brave participants had tried the local delicacies! The main event was a sheep’s penis that was eaten by four of our participants! We can take comfort in the stuff they didn’t eat like: scorpions, cockroaches, bulls testicles, snakes, silk worms and spiders! We sure had a lot of fun! We finished the day with a relaxing massage treatment and we are heading off to bed.

Tomorrow is our last day here and we will soon be heading back to Israel. One of my favorite moments today was when the embassy representatives asked the group if they liked Beijing, they said Beijing is great but they love Israel! That’s a pretty good answer in my opinion considering the fact we are having a great time here!

Until tomorrow,

Day 5

We are already in Israel after a long 11 hour flight. It was hard to say goodbye to Beijing but we are happy to be back in Israel!

This is what our last day in China looked like

As I wrote in my last email, we decided to wake up a little earlier on Thursday morning and head back to the silk market. With a shout of “Every man for himself” the group vanished into the market with a hungry look in their eyes. After an hour and a half of mad shopping everyone returned to the bus much more at ease and satisfied, ready to go on with their day!

We drove to the Summer Palace, the beautiful royal gardens built for the royal families for entertainment in the summer months during the Quing Dynasty. Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi, who is referred to as “The dragon lady” used to stay in this palace. It says that even though she’d eat 120 courses in a meal, she was a very beautiful woman, that worked hard on her appearance. In order to stay young she’d drink breast milk from 20 different women(!). Just a disturbing fact, that can only make sense in China. I felt like sharing it with you.

We continued to see the Beijing’s Olympic park that was built, like a lot of Beijing massive structures, for the 2008 Olympics. The park is very impressive. It is also a pretty controversial place since the government built it over a residential area. After taking some photos we continued to the art area of Beijing where the cold got the best of us, and instead of touring the different art galleries, most of us clustered in a small coffee shop to drink our last cup of tea in China.

Here are some weird facts about China we learnt on our tour, to conclude this crazy week:

  1. Due to the city’s horrible traffic issue, during the Olympics, every car was allowed to go on the road only one day a week. The day of the week was determined according to the last digit on the car’s license plate.
  2. The bricks on the great wall were glued together with eggs and rice
  3. The Chinese people don’t like the number four since it sounds like the word ‘death’ in Chinese
  4. The local supermarkets sell chicken feet as a snack, like it was a bag of Cheetos
  5. Even though almost everything in the world is made in China, purchasing original brands will cost twice as much as it will in the USA (especially clothes and cars).

That’s about it. We all got back safe and sound and I have attached a bunch of photos

Shabbat Shalom!