// BEIJING (10.12 - 10.20) //

Hey, all! I hope your past week has left you happy and healthy. My heart has been back home and with my pals in St. Louis the past few days, but my sights are set onward and upward nonetheless. Week two began with our first official travel day: a two hour flight north from Hangzhou to Beijing, China's capital city. Flying domestically in China is essentially identical to flying within the States. The security process, even though I didn't have to take off my shoes (!!!), is statistically more effective than ours; that is to say, Chinese airports are more secure than those in the States, so I was told. Stepping out of the terminal, we were greeted by a cool Autumnal breeze. I welcomed it gladly. I love fall :))))

[the building our hotel offered breakfast in!!!]

Our home for the week was a hotel called the Friendship Palace, and it certainly lived up to its name. We stayed in one building on what seemed to be an entire campus owned by the hotel. The architecture was modeled in the traditional Chinese style, but the interiors were all extremely modern. On our hotel's property (a short walk from our residency) was a TGIFridays. Actually, it's just called 'Fridays'? At any rate, so random. After a long morning of travel and a week of eating mostly local fare, we were all craving something familiar. I told myself at the beginning of this trip that I wasn't going to eat anything I could get back home, but when I tell you I needed some fries, I NEEDED some fries. As satisfying as they were, I learned one thing: eating Western food in China is considerably more expensive than eating Chinese food in China. Who'd have guessed?

We awoke early the next morning -- it was time to climb, baby! On the hour bus ride to The Great Wall of China, our tour guide for the excursion attempted to impart us with some history about what we were about to see. His English was a little difficult to understand, but I did clearly register one quote:

"You are not a hero unless you climb the Great Wall." -- Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China

The Great Wall of China is one of those landmarks that everyone has an image of in their mind: a sprawling line of tan stone against a background of mountains and greenery. It was exactly that, and also different than I had pictured? It certainly is a tourist attraction; our group added to the mass of charter buses near the point of access to the portion of the wall we were slated to climb. Beyond the ticket area and preceding the Wall itself were multiple coffee and gift shops.

We were given 2ish hours to make it as far up and down as we wanted, and I was determined to reach the top of our portion. I knew that it was going to be a bit of a hike to reach my goal, but I had not anticipated the severity of the incline or, consequently, the amount of distance there was to cover. Each step varied in height, so it was necessary to carefully monitor my footfalls to ensure the safety of myself and those around me. This kept both my mind and legs constantly working. There are landings with towers (presumably used in the past for watching/guarding? lol idrk don’t listen to me) every so often, as well as a small souvenir/refreshment shop near the halfway mark. Otherwise, the entire trek is uphill. My new friend/cast-mate Michael S. and I stuck together and helped each other maintain a quick but steady pace. As much as I fought showing it, my legs were BURNING. My poker face did get a few breaks, though; we stopped in almost every tower we encountered to peak out the arched windows and admire the landscape becoming increasingly smaller beneath us.

“Life’s a climb, but the view is great.” — Miley Cyrus [lol anyway here’s me at the top of the Wall]

Approximantely 50 minutes and 3,000 steps later, we reached the top! The weather that day was chilly with a slight drizzle, which I was definitely thankful for right then. I was a sweaty mess. For some reason, I was expecting there to be some grand arrival point with a long, flat stretch of the Wall to walk around on. Instead, the peak was the juncture of two paths: the one leading back the way we came and one heading downward on an alternate route. I think the photos definitely speak for themselves on this one. The view was breathtaking. Navigating the inconsistent stairs heading down was just as difficult as it was going up, with the added fatigue of the climb we had just completed. My legs were shaking for the entire descent, and I was more than thankful for the railing when I accidentally gained too much momentum or tripped over myself (more than once). The Great Wall attracts so many different types of people; there was representation across the entire spectrum of age, race, and ability. Joining people from around the world in experiencing one of the Seven Wonders felt extremely unifying.

[a central area in the Quadrangle]

After our group reunited at the bus, we took a short ride to a Royal Quadrangle -- a centuries old residential area that I wish I could provide more details on but won’t for fear of misspeaking. The same guide that led us to the Wall toured us around the grounds. Again, I couldn't pick up on much of what he said EXCEPT that the color green represents longevity in Chinese culture. Still, the architecture was intricate and a treat to look at.

The next day (Monday) was another day off before our busy week ahead. The majority of the cast, save for a few recovering sickies (they're doing much better now, thankfully), decided to conquer the subway and explore further into Beijing's epicenter. The trains were clean, user friendly (there was English!), cheap (1 USD round trip), and fast. America's public transit system could definitely take some notes. Although the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were both closed for public access that day, we found a charming mom and pop restaurant on a side street and enjoyed a family-style meal, complete with a turntable to facilitate the passing of dishes. From there, we checked out the National Centre for the Performing Arts and a flower exhibition in Zhongshan Park before catching a train back home.

We went back to work on our show the next morning and didn't stop until we opened Thursday evening. After our final dress rehearsal, our tour's local promoting company (Grand Boat) led us through a traditional blessing of the venue. Incense and comradery filled the air, and the ceremony finished with the sharing of a large spread of fruit, duck, and chicken. We performed for our first audience with full hearts and stomachs. Now, after 8 shows in 4 days, we have made it to our home for the next week: the Northeastern city of Harbin!

For the remainder of the trip, I will carry myself with the same insatiable appetite for excitement that Josh Friedrich yielded daily. Regarding the Snapchat message you sent me the day before your death that accessibility delayed my response to -- China is incredible.

Yours,

Benjamin

// HANGZHOU (10.05 - 10.11) //

[70th Anniversary graphic seen throughout Hangzhou]

[70th Anniversary graphic seen throughout Hangzhou]

After landing in Shanghai last Saturday afternoon, a three hour bus ride brought us to Hangzhou, the home base for the promotional company responsible for our show's booking and accommodations for the duration of the tour. We arrived in China at the tail end of a holiday for the entire country -- the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China. Hangzhou was decorated with garlands of miniature flags, patriotic advertisements, and a general joviality among the people on the streets The weather this week has been temperate and comfortable.

The air quality, however, is no joke. The sky is visibly hazy with smog. I chose not to wear my pollution mask for our first prolonged time outside just to test the waters, and that was the last time I've walked anywhere maskless (save for a few instances of forgetfulness). You know that feeling when you're about to be sick, when your breathing is a little shallower than usual, your throat is dry, and your body is producing extra mucus to make up for it? That's what breathing the air unprotected feels like to me. I am keeping in mind, though, that it is my first week in a new country with vastly different air than that good-good breeze on the prairie back home. A majority of the locals didn't wear masks this week, but most of the cast is coming down with a cold, which we all believe largely stems from travel fatigue and adjusting to the air quality.

With rehearsals beginning Monday morning, Sunday called for sleep and some exploration. After a filling breakfast at the hotel's buffet (something that quickly became a highlight of the entire company's day), a few fellow cast members and I explored the luxury mall near our hotel, appropriately deemed a 'Shopping City.' This mall was HUGE and literally a one stop shop; the floors upon floors of high end stores (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, and the like) were matched by retailers for every homegood imaginable. You could even purchase your groceries at the market on the bottom floor! I was initially surprised by the extravagance I saw on the rack, walking the aisles, and generally all around Hangzhou, but Michael (the actor playing the Mandarin-speaking lead of our show) relayed that China is "really into showing wealth right now."

[view from a walkway at West Lake]

[view from a walkway at West Lake]

Later that day, we headed to ChinaMobile to get our Chinese SIM cards. That's right -- I have a Chinese phone number now! Every afternoon, I get an iMessage news bulletin with jokes, news, the weather, and other anecdotes? It might be a cell-provider-wide thing? Maybe I could have opted out of it? Who knows? I can't read? At any rate, it's been fun to Google Translate it and feel like I'm keeping up with something. That night, a few of us took the half hour walk to West Lake, a famous scenic area full of classic architecture and, obviously, a stunning lake. For 50 yuan each (that's $7 for those of you following along at home), we were able to take a 50 minute boat tour across the water. We somehow timed it perfectly and were able to catch the nightly fountain show, a spectacle of water jets timed to lights and music, while on the ride. It was a magical start to this adventure (head on over to @benjaminblove on Instagram to see a small video of my view on the boat that evening — it’s ridiculously beautiful).

[Squid: 10/10; will buy again]

[Squid: 10/10; will buy again]

Other highlights of our week in Hangzhou include dinner and a nighttime trek to the cultural plaza near our hotel (basically a large courtyard to another shopping center) with Jenna (cast mate) and Shannon (crew member). Feeling emboldened by a menu with English on it, we mistakenly ordered massive sake bombs to celebrate our first day of work. A handful of us went back to West Lake on Thursday evening, making sure to stop by the Wulin Night Market on the way there. I found myself surround by 50+ vendor stalls, endless knockoffs, bartering, and bugs on a stick. Even though I didn't end up buying anything, I did practice my Mandarin by asking a vendor, "How much money?" They responded, and it was only then that I realized that I had neglected to learn the numbers. We are back in Hangzhou in November, so I hope my language skills have improved and the market is still open by then. Also, I ate squid! It was incredible!

I'm here for work, but I've been waking up every morning feeling like I'm on vacation. It's so easy to get out of bed because I can't imagine what the day outside of rehearsal might hold. I'm already being challenged in ways I couldn't have imagined. The world is vast, and I cannot wait to keep seeing more of it.

Anyway, that's all I've got for now! We leave tomorrow morning for Beijing, where our tour plays its first performance on Thursday the 17th. Expect some more insights, a few Great Wall pics, and a lot more geeking out about how amazing this all is.

Yours,

Benjamin

"Come Fly with Me..."

Byron_Shanghai.png

At this time next week, I will be on a 13 hour flight from Chicago, Illinois to Shanghai, China to begin a 14 week children’s theatre tour.

WOAH.

The town where I grew up (and am currently writing this) is home to 3,625 people, one of the country’s 99 nuclear power plants, and land that is ‘generally flat and ideal for farming’ (thanks for that one, Wikipedia). I have never been out of the country, except for a few holidays in St. Petersburg…Florida!!11!! (lol, get it?!!1 Because Europe *also* has a St. Petersburg??!1!!1) Aaaaand I’m the only one laughing :’) Anyway, post-grad travel abroad, the “Oh, I don’t know…I’ll probably just backpack overseas for a few months,” was never in the cards for me. This isn’t me asking for your RSVP to my nonexistent pity party or anything — I’m just trying to set the scene, alright?

All of that is to say that this three and a half month experience is going to be a big one for me. I’m excited! Well, excited and scared. Despite both the cast of amazing new friends I’ll be performing with and how independent I like to think I am, I know that I’ll be feeling homesick and lonely at times. While this blog is for my family and friends to receive a more detailed account of my whereabouts and goings-on than a regular Facebook post or instant message could provide, it’s also a platform for me to feel supported and listened to in a place that promises to be big, loud, and crowded, albeit new, dynamic, and exciting.

[cast of amazing new friends as referenced above]

[cast of amazing new friends as referenced above]

I plan on posting once or twice a week, maybe one shorter anecdote/update followed by lengthier recap at the end of the week? This will all depend on the WiFi situation, the success of my VPN vs. ‘The Great Firewall of China,’ and the demands of my schedule. As far as more personal contact goes, I know my regular cell number is a no-go, but I think Facebook Messenger is a safe bet, as well as an app that is really popular over there called WeChat? Stay tuned!

If you made it this far, you’re a real one. Feel free to reach out in any way if you plan on following my #journey; I’d love to be able to picture who I’m talking to every week :)

Once I get you up there where the air is rarefied,
We'll just glide, starry-eyed.
Once I get you up there,
I'll be holding you so near
You might hear all the angels cheer

Because we're together.

So, come fly with me?