gap year in israel

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Day 1

Dear Parents,

The group had an amazing (and exhausting) first day in China. After long lines at Ben Gurion airport and quite a wait to get through security, the group was off and away. The flight was uneventful, making it a great flight of course. Upon arriving in China, everyone donned extra layers of clothing, bundled up in their hats, scarves, and gloves and they headed out to explore Beijing. Accompanied by our incredible local tour guide, Chongyan (who goes by Juliet with tourists…), the students are already beginning to learn a little bit of Chinese. So far, they’ve mastered how to say hello.

Driving into Beijing from the airport, it was hard to gain an appreciation for just how big Beijing really is just yet. Geographically, the city of Beijing is almost as big as the entire State of Israel, and it is home to 21.5 million people. That’s about two and a half times the population of Israel. As we explore the city and surrounding sites over the next week, we’re sure the sense of enormity will begin to set in.

Our first day was truly special with activities and sites which gave us a great first taste of the country. One of our first activities was a tour of the Hutongs. This area is a very old neighborhood with one level houses built very close together. The houses are very small and are built in a square shape with a communal, interior courtyard. Basically, each side of the square once belonged to an individual family so that four families shared a structure. When they were originally built, they were constructed without bathrooms, so the people living there would use the communal bathrooms and showers that are spread every few meters on the streets. These days, more wealthy or politically prominent families live in the Hutongs and each square structure now belongs to an individual family.

In order to get a real feel for the area, the group snuggled into pairs on a rickshaw ride. With two people per rickshaw, and a Chinese driver pedaling them around, everyone really enjoyed the chance to sit back under a blanket and gaze out at the local scenery. Even with the chilly weather, everyone is having a wonderful time!

Another highlight of the day was a visit to the home of a local resident who gave everyone a lesson in Chinese calligraphy. Being inside his home was fascinating, but what was more interesting was learning about the Chinese alphabet and a bit about how to form the letters and write our names. If any of the students complain about having a hard time learning Hebrew this year, just remind them how “easy” Chinese is!

Nearby to the Hutongs, the group visited the famous Drum Tower. This building is very tall and the group had to climb a steep, narrow set of stairs to get to the top where they found 24 drums and had a great time seeing the Drum Ceremony. Every hour on the hour the drummers drum and everyone loved it! The building was built 700 years ago and the purpose of the drums is to let everyone know what the time is. The building also has an exhibition of many ancient and very creative gadgets that are meant to tell the time. For example a boat-shaped incense stand, which 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 makes 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!

One way to explore a new culture is to taste the local cuisine. Lunch was great fun as we ate authentic Chinese food (which of course, is only referred to as “food” in China.) Most of the students managed well with their chopsticks and many people commented on whether the food was the same or different as what we know in the West to be Chinese food. We learned that there are many different varieties of Chinese foods each from a different part of the country, which as we all know is huge. But everyone had forgotten lunch when we arrived at the Wangfujing Street Night Market. The street is lined with food vendor stalls selling everything you can imagine. You can find cooked and ready to serve on a skewer everything from snakes, scorpion, silkworms, seahorses, and all kinds of other delicacies. The sight of these snacks caused many of us to lose our appetites, but a few were daring enough to try a few selections.

As the day wound down, we checked into our hotel and everyone was looking forward to going to bed early after an amazing first day. Unfortunately, due to the “Great Firewall of China” it’s been hard to send many photos to share with you as we want to, but promise to do our best!

Layla Tov from Bejing!

Day 2

Dear Parents,

The group had another exciting day exploring Beijing. One of the most well-known sites in the city is Tiananmen Square, which is the third largest square in the world! We started our day in this massive square, wherein the olden days, people used to come to see the emperor while being surrounded by armed soldiers watching their every move. Much to our surprise, our tour guide made no mention of the Tiananmen Protests which happened in 1989 or the famous “Tank Man” incident. Just as their was government censorship then, there still is today and the local guides are not permitted to talk about it.

At the end of the square above the entrance to the Forbidden City, stands a gigantic painting of Chairman Mao Zedong looking down at the many visitors (check out Yoni’s and Solly’s picture with it in the background). When the older generation in China got engaged, it was customary to give a gift of a picture of Mao to the fiancé’s family. We learned a bit about Maoism and his leadership – he served as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976.

Heading under Mao’s photo, we entered the Forbidden City next (it’s no longer forbidden to visitors…) Now, if we thought the Tiananmen Square was big then the Forbidden City we could only describe as humongous! The Forbidden City is the compound where the emperor and his generals lived. It has 9,999.5 rooms and is truly remarkable. According to legend, the emperor was allowed to have only this maximum number of rooms on earth – only the ‘palace in the sky’, as the paradise in heaven was called, could have 10,000 rooms. We passed through the many gates of the city for about 2 hours and still didn’t see everything. The architecture is amazing and the buildings are the best preserved wooden structures from its 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!

By this point in the day, we began to think that the theme for the day was “huge sites”…Our next stop was Jingshan Park, which is an imperial park covering 57 acres immediately north of the Forbidden City. It was beautiful and since it’s situated on a hill, from the park we had amazing views of the Forbidden City as well.

Moving on, we headed to the Temple of Heaven, where the emperors used to offer their sacrifices to ensure a good harvest. We were surprised to find out that the Temple of Heaven is three times the size of the Forbidden City! It is HUGE! The temple was stunning! It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998.

We next visited a Silk Factory where we learned about silk production. It was really cool. Our guide at the factory, Mary, was very excited to show us the photos of all the famous people who wore garments from their factory, including former President George W. Bush. During our conversation with her, we realized she knows many languages, so some students started to speak with her in addition to English – Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and even few words in Hebrew. It was a really funny and cool situation!

Shopping is another major theme of the trip, which of course makes sense since pretty much everything is “Made in China.” Throughout the trip, the students have been very excited to buy souvenirs and have been talking about what the best gifts for their parents will be. They are so appreciative of the opportunity they have to be in China!

For dinner, we had an authentic Chinese experience of eating Hot Pot. This is basically fondue, but without the cheese or chocolate. Instead, there’s a pot of hot water in the center of the table, and everyone cooks their own food. You then fish out your food from the pot and dip it in a variety of sauces. It was fun for everyone!

In the evening, we attended a Kung Fu Show. It was incredible (also watching it from the first two lines in front of the stage)!!

Finally, after a packed and a meaningful day, we are back at the hotel.

Until tomorrow…Layla Tov from Beijing!


Day 3

Dear Parents,

There is no doubt, one of the biggest highlights of any trip to China is, of course, climbing the Great Wall… and that’s what the group did today! Now, we never realized that climbing the Great Wall of China is a little like a Stairmaster on steroids. It is not a flat wall that you walk along since it’s laid out through uneven terrain, so there are many, many stairs. It’s also not one continuous, connected wall but rather it is broken up into pieces with the landscape itself also creating part of the barrier. All in all, it stretches 8,500 kilometers. As we climbed, it was humbling to think about the fact that there are 1 million men buried under the wall who died building it. This was at a time when the total population of China was about five million in total, so we are talking about 20% of the Chinese population!

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 (also, the folks with the fitbits were like kids in a candy store, so they motivated everyone to climb as well.) It was incredible. As we began to climb we were bundled up due to the cold but by the top we were sheading layers (and pounds) from the workout. I’m not sure if we will feel this 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 different viewing points, we could see endless miles of the wall across the Chinese countryside.

Today we also visited the Ming Tombs. The tombs are actually an area where 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty are buried. The whole region is considered to be very feng shui and have a very good flow of energy. 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 lifetime, but if you cross with your left foot than you are bound to be a boy. When we got to the top we again got to see the beautiful mountains – truly a lovely final resting place for the Emperors.

Next, we walked down the Sacred Road (the road leading to heaven) which leads to the Ming Tombs, commemorating the Emperor, known as the Son of the Heaven, who came from Heaven to his country through the Sacred Way, also deservedly would return to Heaven through this road. The road is lined with 18 animal statues dated 600 years ago.

Now, as we all know, many (most?!?) things are “made in China” and throughout the trip, we’ve had a chance to visit a number of factories to see how local products are produced. The first one we visited was a jade factory (which is the national stone of China) and there we got to see how they process the jade into beautiful jewelry and other pieces. Late in the day, we visited a cloisonne factory. Cloisonne is a very ancient Chinese art of making plates and vases (and some other stuff) using bronze wires and then coloring in the spaces formed by the bronze. It is a long, long process. Just the art of coloring and painting on the bronze takes 3 years to learn. The designs are very intricate and small as well so each piece is done with great care and precision. It was really interesting to see the artists working and the amazing finished products as well.

We ended our day at a traditional Tea House where we sampled different flavors of tea and watched the proper way to prepare it. It was a relaxing and aromatic experience in the Tea House and we enjoyed trying a variety of teas.

That’s all for today…Layla Tov!

P.S – Unfortunately, we had a few technical challenges on the internet today. We hope tomorrow it will be better, and we will be able to share more pictures with you from today.

Day 4

Dear Parents,

Thursday was another exceptional day with a variety of sites and activities. As we headed out to our first site, we cranked up the radio on the bus and danced in the aisles to Gangham Style. Ellie knew all the moves and totally impressed everyone including our driver and guide! We started the day at the Summer Palace which is the beautiful royal gardens built for the Emperors’ families to spend their summer months during the Quing Dynasty. Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi, who is referred to as “the dragon lady” used to stay in this palace. The legend says that even though she’d eat 120 courses in a meal, she was a very beautiful woman and worked hard on her appearance. We aren’t so sure we’d want to eat so much even if given the chance, but to each his own… Another fact we learned about the Dragon Lady was that she locked her emperor son inside the Summer Palace for 10 whole years until he died. There are amazing views at the palace so if you have to be locked up somewhere, this wouldn’t be such a bad option. We also walked through the longest corridor in the world which stretches 820 yards. The lake on the grounds of the Summer Palace was also beautiful!

While the scenery was incredible at the Palace, we also found ourselves totally impressed with a man who was drawing with a huge paintbrush on the pavement with just water. After admiring his work for a bit, he surprised us by painting a picture of Jordan Greene! It was really incredible.

Moving on, we visited the Beihai Park which is a public park and former imperial garden located in the northwestern part of the Imperial City, Beijing. First built in the 11th century, it is among the largest of all Chinese gardens and contains numerous historically important structures, palaces, and temples. Since 1925, the place has been open to the public as a park. The park has an area of more than 69 hectares (171 acres), with a lake that covers more than half of the entire park (at this time of the year, the lake is totally frozen). The Beihai Park, as with many Chinese imperial gardens, was built to imitate renowned scenic spots and architecture from various regions of China and served as inspirations for the design of the numerous sites. The structures and scenes in the Beihai Park are described as masterpieces of gardening technique that reflects the style and the superb architectural skill and richness of traditional Chinese garden art.

While in the part we joined in with some of the locals to play a game that is similar to hacky sack but with a ball that resembles a badminton birdie – a ball with feathers. Eli was quite good at it! Everyone had a great time with the interaction using the game as a way of connecting with the Chinese with whom we couldn’t really communicate in other ways. As we left the park, we stopped for a snack from a local vendor who was selling fresh roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes. Rachel and Maayan didn’t seem to love the chestnuts, but appreciated the chance to try them!

Another stop on our tour today was a Pearl Factory. Everyone had a great time seeing a demonstration of how the pearls are grown and harvested, as well as a terrific time window shopping throughout the gallery. There were even some students who bought jewelry (we hope as a thank you present to their moms for sending them on the trip!)

We finished out the evening with a bang! We went to an acrobatics show which was truly spectacular entertainment! The Chinese are known for their limberness and we were amazed at their talent. People flying in the air, through hoops and to unimaginable heights! We held our breath a couple of times 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! It was awesome!

Day 5&6

Dear Parents,

The group returned safely from China after an incredible week! Their final two days in Beijing were just as incredible as the rest of the trip and included a lovely Shabbat with the local Jewish community.

On Friday, they started their day at the Lama Temple which is a set of Buddhist Temples that showcase differently sized buddhas. The largest wooden Buddha is 26 meters high, and is carved from a single tree! It goes 13 meters deep into the ground and 16 meters above it, it is an amazing structure that took 3 years to import and 3 years to carve.

Moving on, the group practiced their bargaining skills with a shopping trip to the Silk Market. This is basically one big flea market with all kind of fabrics, leather products, electric gadgets and basically every replica product that ever existed on sale. A lot of cool Chanukah presents were bought and everyone had a great time seeing all that was on offer.

In the evening, we headed over to Chabad, a five-minute walk from our hotel, to join the community for tefillot and dinner. The Chabad House is a pretty remarkable structure which includes a restaurant, kosher food market, and a museum which also serves as a synagogue. We were greeted by Rabbi Shimon who spoke to us about the small Jewish community in Beijing and the small Jewish school they have 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 to be opposing the regime. For example, Chinese law prohibits him from performing conversions. We enjoyed seeing the artifacts in the museum and admired the stained-glass windows depicting synagogues which once stood in different cities and towns in China. Plus, the shabbas chicken and potatoes were a welcome sight after having pretty much had our fill of Chinese food this week.

On Shabbat, we took advantage of some well-deserved rest and started our day a little later than the previous days of the trip. In addition to another great meal at Chabad with the local community and other travelers, we also had the chance to participate in a special workshop on Tai Chi. The instructor taught us some basic maneuvers and a few routines. We found the exercise to be both a good workout and relaxing. And, for beginners, I think we did a pretty good job!

Later in the afternoon, we walked to the 798 Art District which was about a half hour walk away. It was really nice navigating a bit by foot and seeing some of the “regular” parts of the city as well. The art quarter was filled with many local art galleries and art instillations. It’s a really cool, young and informal area and the students strolled around the different galleries really appreciating the art. After Shabbat was over, we capped off the day with a visit to the Olympic Park where the 2008 Olympics were held. We had a chance to see the beautiful Aquatics Center, which is fondly described as the Water Cube, and the National Stadium, known as the Birds Nest. The architecture is really cool and the buildings lit up after dark are really a treat to see.

All in all, we had a wonderful week! And, as great as it was, it’s also great to be back home in Israel!

Shavuah Tov!