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China 2019 – Day One

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 we 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, thank you, and bathroom.  We even learned that two of our students, Raya Holz and Shira Dubow, speak some Chinese and have been helping us as well.  They’ve inspired us to want to learn Chinese too!

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. After dropping our luggage off at the Hotel, we experienced our very first traditional breakfast.  Many of the students were brave and tried the rice soup and radishes, and many stuck with the fried bread.  After that, we had 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.

Nearby to the Hutongs, we 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 we 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!

Next we were invited into the home of a very sweet lady (we all called her ‘Auntie’) and she taught us how to make dumplings! We learned that some of the students have a natural born talent for dumpling making – Shoutout to Evan Johnson – who went around helping everyone perfect their dumpling making skills.  Afterwards, we got to eat the dumplings with lunch, as well as other traditional Chinese foods. 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.

After lunch, Auntie gave us a lesson on Chinese calligraphy, 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!  Juliet tested us afterwards how much of the words and numbers in Chinese we remembered, and Josh Tannenbaum remembered it all!

We ended the day with a trip to the Wangfujing Market, where the students were thrilled to walk around, do some shopping and soak in their surroundings. One of the highlights was seeing the Largest LEGO Store in Beijing and seeing the different Chinese sculptures built completely out of LEGO.  Many of the students said as they were walking down the street that it reminded them of Times Square with all the lights and fancy stores.

As the day wound down, we checked into our hotel and everyone was looking forward to going to bed early after an amazing and long first day.

Layla Tov from Bejing!
Charlee and Avia

 

China 2019 – Day Two

Dear Parents,

We 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 there 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. 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.  As we were walking through the square,  many locals began coming up to the students and taking photos with them. Our students felt like celebrities!

Heading under Mao’s photo, we entered the Forbidden City next (it’s no longer forbidden to visitors…) Now, if we thought 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. In the park, we met some Chinese dancers, and Xander Morgenstern, Bay Friedman, and Eliana Cohen joined in and danced right along with them!

Our next stop was a Silk Factory where we learned about silk production. Our guide at the factory, Mary, explained in great detail how silk is made from silkworms and the process of spinning the silk into a scarf or garment. Mary’s enthusiasm was catchy and the students were enthralled by Mary’s tour.  She was very excited to show us the photos of all the famous people who wore garments from their factory, including former US 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 a few words in Hebrew.

Shopping is another major theme of the trip, which of course makes sense since pretty much everything is “Made in China.” Throughout the two days so far, 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 a new experience for everyone and we are happy to have tried it.

In the evening, we attended a Kung Fu Show. The show was about a young boy who comes to a Buddhist Temple. Through practicing Kung Fu and Zen he becomes a master and finally reaches the sacred goal of enlightenment.  After the show, Moshe Goldsmith commented about how he now wants to become a Kung Fu Master!

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

Until tomorrow – Layla Tov from Beijing!
Charlee and Avia

 

China 2019 – Day Three

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 we 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 shedding 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.

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 silk factory, and today we visited 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. We then learned what each of our Chinese animals is (most of the students are snakes or dragons – it’s based on the year you were born) and we’re able to buy their Chinese animal made from jade.

After a delicious Chinese lunch (Xander Morgenstern said it was the best meal so far!) 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 dating back 600 years. Juliet told us it usually takes an hour to walk the Sacred Road, but our students did it in 45 minutes! After climbing the Great Wall, I don’t know where the students got their energy from!

From the Sacred Road, we drove to the Acrobatic Show! The acrobatics show 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 4 motorcycles were driving together in circles inside a huge (but not big enough) ball shaped iron cage! Raya Holz was even brought on stage to be apart of one of the acts. They fit her inside a giant ceramic vase, and a girl balanced her on just her feet! It was incredible! Moshe Goldsmith said that he no longer wants to become a Kung Fu Master, but a Chinese acrobat instead!

Our mantra this trip has been “let’s do it because when is the next time we will be in China?!” and I can tell you that it has pushed the students out of their comfort zones, whether it’s trying new foods or climbing higher and higher up the Great Wall, and I’m so proud of their positive attitudes and willingness to explore new cultures and traditions!
We can’t wait to see what the next three days have in store for us and can’t wait to try more new things!

Until tomorrow,
Wan an (晚安) –  Goodnight!
Charlee and Avia

 

China 2019 – Day Four

Ni Hao Parents!

Thursday was another exceptional day with a variety of sites and activities. 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. When her husband, the Emperor, died, she took over as Empress and ruled for 48 years. After the Summer Palace was burned down, she rebuilt it herself. 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 years until he died, because she didn’t like the way he ruled. When she passed away, she was buried with a pearl the size of a doves egg inside her mouth, and all her treasures buried in her tomb. 20 years after her passing, grave robbers broke in and stole everything, including the pearl.

The students were mesmerized by the story of the Dragon Lady and even called her the “OG Girl Boss”. Knowing the story behind the Summer Palace, made visiting it all that more special.
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 (it is in the Guinness Book of World Records) which stretches 820 yards!

The lake on the grounds of the Summer Palace was also beautiful even if it was frozen over. 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.

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 inspiration 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.

After an incredible dumpling lunch, we continued on to the Temple of Heaven! The Temple of Heaven is 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. The students loved seeing so many locals out enjoying the good weather and playing all sorts of games like MahJong, cards and more.

We continued on to 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. The students really enjoyed a traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony, how calming it was, and how much they learned.

Another stop on our tour today was a Pearl Market! The students really showed off their bargaining skills that they learned from the shuks (outdoor markets) in Israel. The Pearl Market resembles a mall, but there are no prices on anything. The students had to tell the shop owners how much they want to pay, and then bargain from there. When we were ready to leave, the students proudly showed off their goods with pride.

To end off the day, we went to an all vegan Chinese restaurant. Some of the hardcore carnivores couldn’t believe how good the food was and even slightly considered going vegan.

When we returned to the Hotel, some of the students opted to get massages, because it has been a physically exhausting week.

Tomorrow we will be visiting the Lama Temple, the Silk Market, and doing Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday Night dinner, and Oneg Shabbat with Chabad of Beijing!

Until next time,
Charlee and Avia

 

China 2019 – Day Five & Six

Shalom Parents,

We returned safely from China this morning, after an incredible week! Our 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, we started the 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, we practiced our bargaining skills with a shopping trip to the Silk Market. This is basically one big flea market with all kinds of fabrics, leather products, electric gadgets and basically every replica product that ever existed on sale. A lot of cool Chanukah and Thank You presents were bought and everyone had a great time seeing who was the best bargainer. 

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 and his wife Dini Freundlich, 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 them what it is like for them to run a Jewish Chabad house in a communist country they 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 the Rabbi 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 Shabbat chicken and potatoes were a welcome sight after having pretty much had our fill of Chinese food this week.

On Shabbat Day, we took advantage of some well-deserved rest and started our day a little later than the previous days of the trip. 

We began the day participating in a special workshop of Ti 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! Many of the students feel like Ti Chi Masters!

Later in the afternoon after a lively Shabbat lunch with Chabad (Xander Morgenstern got up and led everyone at the meal in song with the Rabbi), 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 installations. It’s a really cool, young and informal area and the students strolled around the different galleries really appreciating the art. We even were able to see the Israeli Business & Cultural Center, and the students were so excited to see the word Israel and a carving in the building of a Menorah. It felt like a little bit of home in this foreign country. 

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 building lit up after dark is really a treat to see. The students felt special standing on what will be the home of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics! 

As we headed to the airport, the students all shared what their favorite moments of the trip were. To name a few – Maya Cohen said she loved the Great Wall of China, Sammy Abady enjoyed making dumplings and learning to write Chinese calligraphy, Josh Tannenbaum liked trying to communicate and interacting with the locals (he was very good at it), and Shira Dubow’s favorite part was the Olympic Stadium and experiencing China with good friends. 

This was an incredible week filled with new experiences, and one-in-a-lifetime moments that we won’t be forgetting for a long time. 

Avia and I were privileged and honored to spend this week with the students, learning with them and from them, and experiencing China for the first time with such young and fresh eyes. 

As Rabbi Freundlich of Chabad Beijing told us: “You are traveling the world with the future leaders of the Jewish people” – and I couldn’t agree more!

Shavuah Tov and all the best,

Charlee

 

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