Trip to China: GMS principal shares journal from weeklong trip to the Far East

Sunday, July 1, 2018 - 10:57
  • Gruening Middle School students pose for a photo with students from Wenhut Middle School during a recent trip to China. (Photo by Bobby Jefts)
  • Gruening Middle School students recently took a weeklong field trip to China, where they visited numerous cultural sites, including the Great Wall. (Photo by Bobby Jefts)
  • Photo by Bobby Jefts
  • Photo by Bobby Jefts
  • Photo by Bobby Jefts

Editor’s note: Gruening Middle School principal Bobby Jefts recently returned from a weeklong field trip to China, where he and a group of GMS students learned about the Asian country’s culture, customs and history. Jefts shared his journal from the trip with the Star, which first appeared in the June 28 print edition of the paper.

What do you get when you combine a teacher who makes great connections with her students, has a passion for world geography (the seventh-grade ASD social studies curriculum) and world travel, and students from Gruening? …The ultimate middle school field trip.

This summer, 31 people from our Gruening community took an Education First trip to China-Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. This is a journal of our discovery of some of the places students learned about last school year.

Day 1

We meet up in two waves at the Anchorage airport for flights to Seattle and onward to Beijing. It’s hard to imagine we leave Anchorage bright and early on a Sunday morning and don’t get to Beijing until late Monday evening.

We arrive in Beijing and meet our tour guide, who goes by the name John Zhaoqiang. I prefer his Chinese name, Zhang. Zhang lives in a province about two-and-a-half hours via bullet train from Shanghai. On the way to the hotel from the Beijing airport, John gave us a few key phrases in Chinese (many of which our students already knew from an after-school-informational program provided by the sponsoring teacher), told us a little about Beijing and gave us information about the upcoming tour.

Day 2

Tiananmen Square: The first thing that came to my mind was The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. We passed the mausoleum of chairman Mao Tse-tung. There was already a line at the early morning hour that we arrived to the Square. Interestingly, Zhang told us there is talk of moving Mao’s body to the village where he was raised. It was fascinating to me to see the iconic painting of Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City. Zhang told us that the portrait of Mao receives a fresh coat of paint each year. Also, 80,000 tickets are sold daily (only online, by the way) for people to visit the Forbidden City.

10,000 rooms were built in The Forbidden City. Interestingly, no nails were used in the construction, only a system of interlocking beams, similar to a very large Lego structure. The next palace we visited was the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which was the living quarters for the emperor.

Lunch consisted of a rickshaw ride through the Hu Tong area of Beijing. “Hu Tong” means “Narrow Alley.” What amazes me about these Education First tours is the authentic food (and lots of it) our students got to experience on this trip. A local family opened up their home and allowed us to have lunch with them. As it turns out, the father is one of the most respected and renowned kung fu masters in the country. He is a fourth-generation master and has since retired from practicing the art form, although he is still active in training the next generation.

The afternoon was spent touring The Summer Palace which was about a 45-minute bus ride from the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace was one of the five imperial gardens. Dinner consisted of a Peking duck dinner, where I attempted to master the use of chopsticks (to little or no avail) and a theater show of “The Legend of Kung Fu,” about Chun Yi (“The Pure One”) and his path to becoming a master of this martial arts form and reaching the sacred goal of enlightenment.

Day 3

Temple of Heaven Park:The Temple of Heaven Park is not a religious temple per se, but a temple of heaven and earth. An example of this is the Hall for the Praying of Good Harvest. During this tour, Zhang tells us about the Ming Dynasty, which was the second to last dynasty in China’s feudal history, lasting about 300 years. In one of the museums in this park, I noticed a picture of a young chairman Mao taken in the Hall in 1949.

The afternoon was spent hiking a portion of the Great Wall of China at the Badaling area about two hours from Beijing. The Great Wall, known as “Chang Chung” in Chinese, meaning “the long city wall,” is approximately 6,700 kilometers (or about 4,100 miles) in length and was built to keep the Mongolians out of China.

After the hike along the Great Wall, it was back to Beijing for a tea-tasting at a local tea shop. Ginseng oolong, jasmine, litchi black, pu-er and fruit teas were the samples we were given. I’m more of a plain coffee person myself; however, I did find these teas quite appealing.

We finished our day at the Bird’s Nest and the aquatic center, a couple of the sites of the 2008 Summer Olympics. By the way, Beijing will be hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022.

Day 4

We began our day with a visit to a local middle school, Wenhui Middle School, a neighborhood school for grates 6-8. As is often the case with middle school students, things seemed awkward at first in meeting new students, especially considering the language barrier. However, after a couple of hours of presentations by the Chinese students (charades, music, trivia games and gift exchanges), no one wanted to leave. I took the time to high-five every student before we left. What an experience for all of us.

After that was a flight to our next destination, Xi’an. “Xi’an” means “western peace.” Zhang mentioned that people from metropolitan areas like Beijing and Shanghai go to Xi’an because it’s a “small town. We are going to the countryside.” There are only around 12 million people in Xi’an. The famous Silk Road started in Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty and at one time was the biggest city in the world. Xi’an at one time was also the capital of China and its history is, in many ways, more important than the history of Beijing, according to Zhang.

Day 5

We begin our day at the Terracotta Army Museum. The terracotta warriors were first discovered in 1974 by local farmers who were just trying to dig water wells. They were, quite frankly, disappointed at the pottery head they dug up. Little did they realize what they had found. The terracotta warriors were built by Emperor Qin about 2,200 years ago. They were built to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is believed that there are 8,000 warriors.

After lunch we returned to Xi’an for a visit to the Tangbo Art Museum, where our students observed local folk art, learning about “farmers’ paintings,” as they are known in the area. We then participated in a calligraphy class.

Later, we visited an area known for Muslim street food. This area goes back to the Asian Silk Road period in Chinese history. Many Muslims moved to Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty and opened businesses.

We finished Day 5 with an ornate dinner theater show of the Tang Dynasty called the “Empress of the Great Tang.”

Day 6

We flew to Shanghi and visited the World Financial Center. It is the ninth-tallest building in the world. Whereas Beijing is known as the political center of China, Shanghai is obviously the financial center. Shanghai is booming economically. “Shanghi” means “above the sea.” The population of Shanghi is more than 23 million, about the same as Beijing. It’s hard to fathom it was a small fishing village in the 1600s. The afternoon was spent at the Nanjing Road area, one of the most popular commercial shopping areas in Shanghi. “Nanjing” means “north to Shanghi.”

The evening was spent watching a spectacular acrobat show in a Shanghi theater.

Day 7

Our last day began with a visit to the Jade Buddha Temple. Buddhism was first introduced to China in the first century B.C. during the Han Dynasty. In this temple are the statues of Budda and his disciples. Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam are all important religions in China. If you are a communist party member, however, you don’t practice religion.

During the cultural revolution, Mao sent some of his soldiers to check out the Jade Buddha Temple. One of the monks placed a picture of Mao on the entrance to the temple site. If the soldiers opened the doors to the entrance, they would have split the picture. This perhaps led to the preservation of this temple.

The afternoon was spent at the Tian Hou Silk Factory, where our students got an amazing biology lesson in the process of making silk. China is known as the “silk country.” The Silk Road began 2,000 years ago. Silk was shipped around the world from Shanghai.

The afternoon was spent in a picturesque area of Shanghai known as The Bund. The Bund is referred to as “The Old Shanghai,” where there are many European style buildings. After the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century many Europeans moved to Shanghai.

We finished our last day in the Yu Garden, which was built during the Ming Dynasty in Old Shanghai. Many of the stones used in the garden come from T’ai-hu Lake known for its unique limestone formations.

Day 8

It’s back to Anchorage. We fly from Shanghai to Seattle; then Seattle to Anchorage.

When our teacher organized this trip (last year our students visited Italy and Greece on another Education First Tour), her intention was to enrich the lives of the students who participate in these adventures. I don’t think these students realize how much they have enriched my life. By the way, the 2019 Gruening summer trip is to … the Galapagos.

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