Posted by: Andrew | 12/07

The End

I offer no excuses for not updating the blog in the past 2 or 3 months, mostly because our lives simply became quite mundane. We fell into the grind and routine of finishing up the term at the school, we didn’t travel. Well, that’s not true. I did travel to the Philippines, but not much happened there to share with you all. Any time I sat down to write I felt like I had to write articles for my second job, try to make some cash. Alyse’s computer died about a month ago so she wasn’t really on all that often. However, any updates we could’ve made would’ve bored you to tears.

We leave China in approximately 6 hours, and this blog will more than likely die with our departure. We had a fantastic, eye-opening year that, despite what everyone told me, did not fly by. It was a full 10 months and it felt like it, more times than others of course. We traveled to 7 major cities, through countless provinces and climbed a gorgeous mountain. We met people from all over the world and built new friendships. We tasted a culture that not many dare taste, and came out alive. At times it felt like we were wasting our time here, not taking advantage of being abroad, but in the end I think we accomplished and experienced more than we expected to when we first came. I will say though, we never did see the Great Wall. Maybe in the fall.

Alyse might post an update or a follow-through once we get home, but I doubt it. I’m going to start my own blog next year, although it won’t be a genuine travel blog because I don’t plan on doing all that much traveling outside of Shanghai. Oh, for those of you who might not know, I’m coming back in the fall for another year of China fun, but this time Alyse is opting to stay behind. I’ll post the new blog address here once I figure it out and get it up and running. It will most likely vary greatly in style and content from this blog.

We arrive in Washington at 9:20 AM, July 12th. Thank you for reading along, it has been great to share our stories and opinions with you this way. I’d love to chat with anyone over a beer or coffee this summer if you’re interested in our experiences. Just send a message or give either of us a call. We’ll see you all soon!

Posted by: Andrew | 02/05

Run! It’s the Expo!

There is a countdown clock in the subway at people’s square that has Haibao (the expo mascot) all over it and announces how many days are left until mass amounts of people descend upon Shanghai. Some friends of Andrew’s called it the doomsday clock, and while I understood why at the time, I now fully comprehend the seriousness of that term. As of May 1st, Shanghai has officially gone to hell in a hand basket. Lujiazui is impossible to navigate and People’s Square is filled with people who have no idea where the heck they’re going. If I know where I’m going better than half the people around me, something is wrong.

The opening ceremonies of the expo on Friday night included a fireworks show all over the Bund. We found out about a cruise on the river that night so we bought tickets with some friends. Well the Shanghai fun police decided to ground all boats and close the river to the public that evening 2 days before the ceremonies. The party still happened, but the boat was docked. There was free beer and champagne, so it slightly compensated for it. However, we couldn’t see the fireworks at all thanks to the giant apartment complex next to the harbor. Thumbs up, Shanghai. Thumbs up. Apparently there were fireworks at the Pearl Tower, which we could see, however my bladder is the size of a small child’s so I missed those too. The boys and I managed to weasel 3 magnum bottles of champagne out of the bartenders as well as several bottles of Tsingtao to bring upstairs to the rest of the group who had camped out at the railing. There were 10 of us total so we had a stash to rival everyone else’s on that boat. One of the boys kept whining about getting his 150 yuan worth, and I feel like he did since they only had 100 bottles of champagne on the boat and we got 3% of their stock. I’ll concede that it was fun despite not being able to see the fireworks, though it did end just a bit early.

We’ve got the next few days off for Labor Day, so we’re going out to dinner with some of Andrew’s friends tonight, then on a picnic in the park tomorrow. It’s been 80 degrees or so here for the last 3 days and it’s lovely. However, I do not understand how people are still wearing suit jackets and trench coats outside. I had on shorts and a t-shirt the other day and some woman riding her bike was staring at me so hard I thought she would crash her bike. The way people looked at me you would have thought I painted myself purple and grew green antlers. It is 75 degrees out. I’m going to wear shorts. Deal with it, China. I know they’re thinner than us and have less hair but there is no way they’re that much colder than me. It’s not as though I’m a bear, sheesh.

I’m off to catch the bus…

71 days till we’re back in the States! Incidentally, if you could all improve the economy before we return that would be fabulous. Thanks.

Cheers,

Alyse

Posted by: Andrew | 23/04

I didn’t really realize how long it’s been since we’ve updated… sorry, kids. I guess we’ve just been busy. By ‘busy’ I mean we’ve been doing nothing worth writing about. Lately it’s just been a lot of teaching and going out on weekends. I have managed to finish almost all of my shopping though, which is ridiculous considering the sheer amount of stuff I’ve purchased here. Most of it’s knockoffs of course, but who can really resist a Burberry trench for $50? Not me… Not me.

I feel like right now is a great, yet horrible time for me to write since I’ve been feeling really ethnocentric today. It’s an unavoidable feeling that tends to make you feel like a horrible person, but most, if not all, of the expats I know here feel like this from time to time here. I’ve tried to avoid writing when I’m feeling this way just because I don’t want to taint a post with some bias and make you all think I loathe China to its very core. I don’t. It’s just that sometimes I feel like America blows the socks off of China, that’s all. Yes, we owe them a metric ton of money, yes our economy is tanking; however we know where to throw our trash and how to use doorknobs (see previous posts). Just sayin. I did go out and pick up some San Pelligrino, Kettle chips and Annie’s to curb that feeling. I love import markets.

A couple weekends ago we went out to Qingdao. I found us airfare for just under $100 roundtrip, so we packed up and headed out for the long weekend. We stayed in a hostel that was less than perfect, but I suppose you get what you pay for. The beds were rock hard though, I wish Chinese people would figure out that beds = box spring + mattress, not just box spring.

Qingdao was beautiful and quiet and did absolutely nothing for homesickness. We went down to the pier and it was a bit blustery and cloudy with pine trees and little houses on the hill and reminded me a little too much of Ruston Way. The Bavarian architecture which is prominent throughout old town Qingdao was a nice change from the urban sprawl that is Shanghai. Being in a town with hills again was nice as well. Flat land gets old after a while. We went down to the beach where tons of people were flying kites and strolled along for a bit before going out that night for German food. If there is any food that is the polar opposite of Chinese, it’s German. We also went and toured the Tsingtao brewery which was built in the early 1900’s by homesick Germans. I didn’t know it was possible for Tsingtao to taste good but when you’re at the source that stuff is actually fairly delicious. Especially the stout… though it is substantially pricier. The next day I found myself more or less stuck in bed completely ill with some horrible cold. We went out for a bit but I had to bail on going out for dinner since I had a fever and didn’t want to move. I’d like to thank whoever the jerk was who coughed or sneezed on me and got me sick for upwards of a week. Cover your mouths, China!

We managed to get out that Tuesday before heading out to the airport to get some seafood at this slightly upscale place downtown. When I say upscale I mean the meal cost us around $20, complete with Andrew’s pitcher of beer which was ordered by mistake since the he wanted a bottle (yi ping pi jiu) and she asked if he wanted a pitcher and he said yes without knowing. Well done. Everything was delicious. You just can’t get seafood like that in Shanghai since everything is super polluted, and you do not want to eat any bivalve that’s been hanging out in that water.

Despite me being sick it really was a lovely weekend. I’d like to go back in the summer when it’s warmer but that’s also when it’s overrun with Chinese tourists. Frankly, I’ll take the cold.

The last few weekends I’ve been frequenting the markets with friends. We’ve stopped going to Qipu road, because that is the most crowded one with the worst quality stuff. We’ve started frequenting the Pearl Market below the Science and Technology Museum and the Fengshine market out by People’s Square. I’m trying to get all of my shopping done before the Expo descends upon Shanghai and I can no longer bargain for things because all the stupid foreigners going there are willing to pay obscenely high prices for cheap crap. Seriously people, the fake Louboutins are BAD knockoffs and are not worth 1200 yuan! ($200USD) It is quite possible to get an amazing deal on something. I talked a girl down from 800 for 2 purses to 250 for both. My friend somehow managed to barter down prescription glasses from 300 to 170. This means I got prescription glasses in rad red frames for $25. I’ll be getting some black ones this weekend because hey, why not?

I’ve also found that making friends with shop keepers is key to getting good prices. I now have a glasses girl, a purse girl and a pearl girl, all of whom give me awesome deals on things. I also have a different story with each of them. I like to change up my background so I get more practice with Chinese and it keeps it interesting. Also, if you tell shopkeepers that you’re a student they give you much better prices. They always ask if I’m studying and I always say yes. The glasses girl is the only one who knows we’re teachers because we got the deal before we told her our background stories. So far I’ve been a 22 year old student graduating in June, a teacher at the college, and a 21 year old student who’s been here 2 months and is graduating next year. It keeps me entertained. It also keeps me on my toes because I have to remember who I’m talking to.

That’s all I can think of that’s worth writing about for now. It’ll be less than a month before the next one, promise!

Cheers,
Alyse

Posted by: Andrew | 25/03

Businessmen and Urine

I feel as though whenever I post cultural differences in China that I’m pretty much a Debbie Downer, but I don’t want to give the impression that I hate this place or its people. I try to approach these differences with an open mind and take into account the history of the country and the enormous changes the people here have been through in the past century. That really helps put things into perspective for me.

China is still a third world country. I don’t care what anyone else says or how much money the government will pour into trying to mask this fact here – they are not a fully developed civilization. They try to make their streets modern, build extremely fancy buildings even bring in vast numbers of foreign businessmen to try to improve their image. However, the infrastructure of this country is still way behind that of a modern country’s

I saw the perfect analogy today. We were walking back from the bus stop and not 100 feet away from the bus was a man in a business suit. He was facing a brick wall taking a piss. At noon. That man IS China. China pays money to buy a nice suit and then pees on a wall in public. They have nice buildings, foreign businessmen, and gigantic shopping malls. But babies still wear onesies that have slits in the butt so they can squat and take a crap on the sidewalk, grown men urinate wherever seems best to them, road crews lay a new road only to tear it up a week later because of some flaw that I can’t discern, and the best of all is the fact that doorknob technology still seems to be beyond the grasp of many here.

I think China got caught in this storm of modernization and pressure was put on them to try to reach certain standards, produce certain levels of output to meet the needs of the over 1.5 billion people here, and most of all the need for an image to appear to the rest of the world that they are civilized. The government is too ass-backward to fool me though, I can see through their clever disguise. My head is so full of opinions and thought processes that are trying to sort out everything I’ve seen and experienced so far that I think writing it all down for you to understand is just hopeless. If you really want to know let’s go out for a beer in July and I’ll tell you all I can think of.

So doorknobs. Apparently they’re hard. The cafeteria on the first floor of our apartment building has a set of double doors with what I’m willing to admit are slightly redundant door handles. There are long, vertical handles on each door with the word push (from the inside) in both English in Chinese. Below the handles are doorknobs so they can lock the place up at night. Most Chinese doors don’t use doorknobs I have to point out, from what I can tell they use a locking mechanism on almost all their doors. Essentially you unlock your door and then pull or push open without turning a knob. So you can see how there might be issues at the cafeteria. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been amused watching people trying to leave that don’t reach for the knob, they just push the handles. Then, instead of logically trying to solve the problem, they just push harder. Then they push harder and rock the door back and forth. I’m pretty sure they would break the door open before utilizing the doorknob if it wasn’t for the lady who sells lunch tickets who gets up and shows them how to do it.

Next weekend we’re headed for Qingdao, a fun mix of Bavarian and Chinese culture. Follow the link for some more info and pictures!

Until next time (I’ll update myself more frequently, I promise!),

– Andrew

OH! New photos made it up to Flickr apparently. Check ’em out, but I can’t say they’re extremely exciting, just the last of the batch I’m going to upload from 2009. More to come!

Posted by: Andrew | 17/03

Chengdu – Shanghai

Our train left at 11:23pm so we had lots of time to rest up, which was good since the quality of sleep you get on a train isn’t very good. Little did we know that that train was going to be packed to far beyond capacity.

We were stuck with soft seat tickets since that particular train was older than China and had no soft sleepers. It had hard sleepers, but I’ll get to that. Normally a soft seat is similar to that of an airplane seat. It would have gotten uncomfortable over the course of 40 hours, but they’re doable since they recline and have those fold down tables and such. This train however, had “soft” seats that were more like dining room chairs with a tiny bit of cush. They also faced each other with 4 people sitting around a small table. I had been holding it together through the crowded train station based on the fact that soft seats were like the ones on newer trains. We got on this train and I absolutely lost it. I have a decent sized comfort zone but this was so far beyond that that it just wasn’t going to happen. Luckily we speak Chinese and knew that sometimes you can upgrade your seat once you’re on a train. We asked our helpful conductor (who is one of my favorite people on the planet now) if we could upgrade to hard sleepers. He cheerfully said it was no problem and told us to get our things. He then led us through a total of fifteen train cars absolutely packed with people and it’s a good thing we bought cheap hiking packs for this adventure otherwise I can’t imagine how we would’ve gotten through the crowds. We had to shove our way past yelling “Careful!” and “Excuse me!” and it felt like we were about to cause an international incident. The cars were crowded with people who had purchased “hard seat” tickets. If you have a hard seat ticket there is open seating in a few cars for those tickets and if you don’t get a seat there you can sit or stand in the connector cars, sink areas, bathrooms, and where ever else you might find a corner in which to wedge yourself. I saw more than one person sitting on all their stuff shoved into the sink area right by the restrooms.

Once we finally squeezed (literally) through the hoards, we reached the hard sleepers. Each train always keeps a few open for those who wish to upgrade while on the train, so we quickly purchased 2 top bunks at an extra 180RMB each. I was not about to begrudge them that upgrade price either, I would’ve paid 300RMB each extra just to not have to sit in the “soft seat” car for 46 hours. The conductor kicked a couple of squatters out of our newly acquired berths and we got out our blankets and promptly passed out (with the aid of a little Nyquil… good luck falling asleep on a crowded train without it).

When we woke up we realized just how many people were in that car. Each bottom bunk had about 4 people on it sitting or leaning on each other, and all the middle bunks were reserved for extra luggage space. Needless to say I snuggled my purse at night, even though attendants patrolled the cars and the lights were left on.

There is nothing like a train ride through China to make you realize just how much sense some of these people lack. On our car the windows were left open all the time because it was so stuffy in there. Apparently having the window open also means that the world is your trash can. I watched some people throw orange peels and sunflower seeds out the window, which I don’t have a problem with since those are organic materials. However, when I watch some thoughtless jerks throw plastic wrappers, bottles, cans and the like out the window that just makes me angry. What was even worse about the whole thing was that there was a trashcan not FIVE FEET AWAY from said window that was emptied every couple of hours. They were too lazy to lean over. Are you kidding me, China? This is why your animals are going extinct. This is why you have so much pollution. You’re killing your environment. For how proud they seem to be of their country they don’t care at all about their culture OR their environment and I’ve seen examples of this time and time again.

Some people also seemed to think they could smoke wherever they pleased as well. Again, our Chinese came in handy as we yelled at them to knock it off at least four times during that trip. Andrew even made up a song (in English) while playing his guitar about how much he hated the guy below us for smoking and climbing all over the place. The guy heard him and said “hen hao ting!” which means “sounds great!” I do enjoy a good non-English speaking crowd.

We eventually made it back to Shanghai, and holed up in our rooms for the next 2 days just to recover from the onslaught of people and enjoy being back in a familiar place.

Well, I think that about does it for our vacation adventures. I won’t be updating again until Andrew does one… it’s my way of protesting hah.

Cheers,

Alyse

Posted by: Andrew | 17/03

Pandas!

So I said “tomorrow” and what I clearly meant was “next week”. Read between the lines. Consequently this is going to be a pretty long entry which I’ve decided to divide up in to 2 entries. Also, I’ve been trying to get Andrew to update, but I only have the capacity for so much nagging. Hopefully that sentence makes him feel guilty enough to do one soon… don’t hold your breath though.

However, on with Chengdu. We woke up early-ish to get to the panda reserve because you need to get there in the morning to see the cubs playing. Going so early also meant that there was hardly anyone else there, and there were signs all over the park telling you to be quiet, which was nice considering no one in China is ever quiet.

The first thing I did was head straight to the nursery to find out when I could hold/hug the panda. They said around 10:30 so we had a couple hours to kill in the park first. We managed to skirt the tour groups a bit as we made our way through for some quiet time just watching the pandas. We probably saw about 20 giant pandas and 15 or so red pandas throughout the day. There was one that I got a video of because it was hysterical. He was in the “adolescent” panda habitat, so he had just started eating bamboo, and he didn’t just have a small nom, he COVERED himself in bamboo and was rolling back and forth eating his little face off and looked like he was having the best time ever. I even got Andrew off camera saying, “I wish that was my life.” There was only one other couple watching this little spectacle so that probably made it even better.

We were alone watching a different panda chow down on some bamboo in a different habitat and I said, “Man it’s too bad you guys are going extinct.” I swear to you that panda stopped, stared at me, looked over at his friend, looked back at me and just sat there for a good 20 seconds. It was almost like he understood me and was going, “wait… what? We, we’re WHAT? Hey Joe! Guess what I just heard!” It was so funny.

After a while of watching panda cubs wrestle, and older pandas enjoy their bamboo just a little too much, I went back to the nursery and paid for the most expensive hug I’ll ever get.

They wouldn’t let Andrew even come in to take pictures unless he paid as well, but the woman who worked at the nursery clearly takes tons of pictures every day. She snapped about 20 of me in the 3 minutes I was chillin’ with the bear.

In order to hang out with a panda you apparently have to dress up like you’re going to perform surgery on the panda. They had gowns, masks, and shoe covers for me and the 4 other people who would hug the panda that day.

I was a little teensy bit nervous when I sat down next to him. He was only a year old but that thing was big and they have claws. However, they’re also super gentle and he was way more interested in his apple than in me. That is, until I scratched behind his ear and he looked at me like, “Who ARE you?” It’s a fairly priceless panda expression; he actually looks really surprised in the photo. It was so surreal being next to a panda; knowing how few of them are left. It’s hard to even explain. I got tons of pictures though, and based on how much I paid for said pictures, please believe you will be seeing them frequently.

We left the panda reserve shortly after that, and headed out to find some Sichuan hot pot.

Now, you can get hot pot in Shanghai. They’re all over the place. The special thing about Sichuan hot pot is that it originated there and it is crazy spicy. I mean it’s absolutely unreal how much spice these people can stomach. We ordered a medium and we should have gotten mild. That medium was hotter than anything I’ve ever eaten in the states… and I order 5 star spice Thai food. The way hot pot works is that you get a big pot full of boiling stock and spices and you order various raw things to put in them from vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu to steak, whole fish, and noodles. A medium spice hot pot in Shanghai is fine. It has a few peppers in it but nothing too bad. In Chengdu, the stock itself was spicy and they dumped tons and tons of chili peppers in there.  We took a taste and couldn’t eat it so we scooped most of the peppers out and it was still bordering on unreasonable pain. We paid for it, so we powered through, with the aid of many beers and some warm vanilla rice (Word just tried to correct that to “vanilla ice”… thanks Microsoft) milk. I doused every bowl of my spicy veggies and noodles with sesame oil and vinegar. I probably ate enough oil to clog my arteries for a year but it was that or get an ulcer. After much nose-blowing and beer-drinking we finally finished and I have never felt that uncomfortable after a meal. It was beyond heart burn, that spice felt like it was going to make my entire stomach dissolve. Sufficed to say I will probably never ever ever ever be eating a Sichuan hot pot again unless we order it as mild as possible… even that’s iffy given the tolerance of the Sichuan people.

We headed back to the hotel for the rest of the day to nap and pack and get ready for what I hope is the longest train ride I’ll ever take in my life.

Posted by: Andrew | 09/03

We have the day off which means… you get an update! So as promised, here goes the Terracotta warriors and Hua Shan. I tried to get Andrew to do it last week, but he’s lazy and I’m tired of bugging him about it so you get me again.

The second day we were in Xi’an, we went to the Terracotta Warriors. We could have taken a bus there on our own, but we decided to go through the tour with the hostel instead. It cost a little more, but we got a private van there/back, admission, an English-speaking guide and we got to meet a lot of rad people. We had people from The Republic of Georgia, France, England, the Ukraine , and America on our tour and the boys from Georgia were endlessly entertaining.

The Warriors were so much better experienced with a guide. We got to learn lots of little facts about them, like that the emperor Qin Shi Huang who commissioned them died of mercury poisoning, and therefore the statues are the end result of a guy who went completely crackers deciding that he needed a giant army (over 8,000 and they’re still finding more) in the afterlife so that he could rule there too. One of my favorite facts about them is that each face is unique and it’s believed that the workers designed the faces after the other sculptors, so each face pays homage to one of the many men who worked on the sculptures. They were also once quite colorful, however the color on them vanished 20-30 minutes after the tomb was opened. In typical China fashion, the whole site was totally overrun with people. We did manage to get some great shots though, so hopefully we can upload those soon.

On Friday we hired a car up to Hua Shan with a British couple we met at the hostel. They have been travelling the world and teaching their entire lives, and currently live in a small town outside of Xi’an. The mountain is about 2 hours outside of Xi’an so it’s got a much nicer, more rural setting away from the city. China, as they do with everything, turned Hua Shan into a tourist destination. The easily-reachable North Peak was crowded with everyone and their grandmother. Andrew and I were joking that middle-aged Chinese men probably look out over the ridge, say “Beautiful!” take a large spit and pull out a cigarette. Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see that.

The entire mountain was one big staircase carved into the granite. This may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but a graded hill would have been much easier to climb than all those stairs. There was one set that was so steep that it was basically just a ladder. They did attach a chain next to it, but you better believe that ascent/descent scared the poo out of me. I’m not a fan of heights/falling. But, climbing all those stairs had to be the best quad work out I’ve ever had. We hiked all the way up to the East peak, which was over 6,000 feet. To be fair, we only hiked about 2,000 of it… thank you, chair lift. There was no one else up there and the views were amazing. The descent was much harder than I thought it would be, as it was terribly icy and for some insane reason Chinese people are able to just charge up and down the mountain like they’re experienced ice climbers. I have a theory there’s a secret government class on how to run up and down icy mountains. I could hear the guy behind me complaining about us going slowly, well sorry sir, I don’t feel like tobogganing down the mountain on my tushie. Thanks.

That night we packed up for the train and took lots and lots of ibuprofen. The next afternoon we got on a train to Chengdu.

We were “stuck” with soft sleepers aka first class. Soft sleepers consist of 4 beds in a spacious private compartment. They are cleaner, quieter, and a bit more comfortable. They were out of hard sleepers and there was no way I was taking a hard seat for 14 hours. The train ride was mostly quiet except for the woman below me who decided to yap her face off on her cell phone at 8am. And she did not talk quietly as that was physically impossible for her, or that’s what I’m pretending anyway. Her phone was within my grasp and it took a lot of self control not to yoink it from her and toss it out the door.

We arrived in Chengdu in the early afternoon, checked into our hotel and headed off to nearby Le Shan to see the Le Shan Buddha.

The Le Shan Buddha is a 233 foot tall Buddha carved into the mountain on a river near Mount Emei. It was built in the 8th century and, like everything else, is a very popular tourist attraction.

The park contains many things to see, but we did not have a lot of time on our hands so we headed straight to the Buddha. We had to meander down a steep, steep little walkway to get to the Buddha and when you get to the bottom and look up, the view is unreal. The toenails on this statue are the size of a person. There was a Buddhist altar set up and people were lighting joss sticks and praying. I almost felt like I was interrupting, being a tourist and not knowing too much about the religious significance. We took some pictures and marveled at the size, but had to leave quickly so we could catch the last bus out of Le Shan back to Chengdu.

When we returned, we decided to take it easy since we had to get up early in the morning to get to the Panda Breeding and Research Center, which I’ll update on tomorrow!

Posted by: Andrew | 26/02

Xi’an Day One

Well, we’ve returned from our epic Xi’an/Chengdu adventure. We had to cut off the last part of the trip to Chongqing and down the Yangtze because it’s the high season for travel and we couldn’t get tickets out of Xi’an to Chengdu until the 20th when we were supposed to leave the 18th to stick to my carefully planned itinerary but c’est la vie, itineraries and the Chinese train system don’t work well together. It worked out for the best, we got to meet some really cool people and had an extra day to go to the mountains, but more on that later.

Our trip entries will be in installments since doing it all at once would just be far too long! So we’ll be moving chronologically through the trip starting in Xi’an, so we’ll see how far I get with this blog before I just get tired of typing.

We left on the 15th on an overnight train from Shanghai to Xi’an. I’m finding I like those best for long distance trips since you can get on the train, fall asleep, and wake up at your destination. It makes things seem much shorter. We took hard sleepers, which are much more comfortable than the name implies. There are 6 bunks in each little alcove and while they’re not terribly private, people mostly leave you alone anyway. However, since we were traveling the day after the New Year’s celebrations there was practically no one else on the train and we had an entire set of 6 bunks to ourselves, it was lovely and quiet.

We arrived in Xi’an around 9am on the 16th to weather that was surprisingly warmer than we thought it would be. It was supposed to snow the whole time we were there and it was sunny and warm(ish) every single day. We then found some quick street food and some McDonald’s coffee (which I have had far too much of here) and checked into the hostel.

<rant> Quick thing about the McDonalds coffee though, every SINGLE time I’ve had it I’ve had to specify that no, I do NOT want a giant ladle-full of the awful awful sugar syrup they glorp into every cup. For WHATEVER reason Chinese people decided that everyone must want gross syrup in their coffee because coffee is bitter and everything must be sweet. It’s like I’m living in Elf and Buddy wants to slap some syrup on my spaghetti. Ugh.  </rant>

Anyway,

Having never stayed in a hostel before, and seeing the street it was located on I was apprehensive about it before going in, but I was happily mistaken. The hostel we stayed at is ranked #9 in the entire world and it’s easy to see why. It had a full (western-style) restaurant and bar and the room was cleaner and more comfortable than the hotel we stayed at in Huangzhou and about the same size as the hotel room we had in Beijing, it had a private bath and was only about $20 a night.  Everything there is brand new. The only odd thing was that the shower was slap in the middle of the bathroom, and by that I mean there was a showerhead with a drain just opposite the sink so you flooded the bathroom when you took a shower and somehow that just felt wrong… especially in a newly tiled bathroom without the little squeegee thing with which to dry out the shower (thanks, mom).

Staying in a youth hostel was the best decision we could have made in lodging. I had us booked in a fancy pants hotel but did a little more digging and found this place right in the middle of the city and that really paid off. It was within walking distance of just about everything and since the weather was so nice it worked out quite well.

The first night we were there we went out to the city wall in Xi’an, which is well preserved from 1370 (the original wall is much older), and took a tandem bike ride around the entire perimeter. We managed the whole wall in an hour since the bike rental place was closing and well, we had to. It was a quick ride but a lovely one nonetheless. We then headed out to the Muslim district (listed as the ‘Muslin quarter’ on our map… apparently it’s just a small square of fabric) to check out the area and get some dinner. We got some incredible pictures of people cooking on the street with fire shooting right out of their stalls on to the street. I can’t even imagine how many safety violations that would incur in the States. We also watched an old man blowing caramel into the shape of animals as if he was blowing glass and saw multiple stands hawking everything from t-shirts and scarves to flutes and cigarette lighters. For the most part on those streets there are 5 or 6 specialty dishes that everyone makes so it rather limits your choices for dining, but the food is quite good since these people have been making it their entire lives.

We returned to the hotel late in the evening, booked a tour for the Terracotta Warriors for the next morning, indulged a bit in the cheap offerings at the bar (and the free beer) and watched a bootleg copy of 2012. Oh China, how I love your lack of regard for intellectual property laws.

Up next: Terracotta Warriors and Hua Shan (Flower Mountain)

Posted by: Andrew | 08/02

Hainan, Shanghai, and the weeks to come

Now, I know 2 posts in less than 20 days may come as a shock, but with some serious downtime on our hands I’m feeling the need to blog. Also, I’m kind of bored and I don’t feel like cleaning or lesson planning.

As Andrew wrote, we spent January 25-30 in Sanya, Hainan on gorgeous Yalong bay. I must say drinking out of a young coconut on the beach in 80 degree weather was the perfect way to spend my birthday. And when I say drinking out of a young coconut I mean that quite literally, they hack off fresh coconuts from the trees, drill them and shove a straw in there. We even had the brilliant idea of purchasing some of the cap’n to put in them for a little mid-afternoon cocktail. Lovely.

We stayed at this place called the Cactus Resort and it was absolutely pristine. They have their own private beach with wooden lounge chairs and umbrellas and little golf cart shuttles to take you to and from the resort, even though it was only about a 10 minute walk. We spent most of our time laying on the beach, swimming in the warm, warm water or hanging out on the hotel grounds. We even went out snorkeling at one of the little islands off the coast. The resort was expansive with a huge swimming pool, gardens, courtyards, hammocks and multiple restaurants and bars. I would venture to say that 95% of the time we were the only ones drinking at the bar, and that hotel was packed. I think Chinese people have some weird aversion to any alcohol that is not Bai Jiu, which is odd because I have an aversion to anything that IS bai jiu. For those of you who don’t know what bai jiu (pronounced ‘bye gee-o’) is, go to your local gas station and pick up a few shots of diesel fuel, downgrade that slightly and that is bai jiu. It literally means white liquor and I’m fairly sure it Satan invented it.

On my birthday we returned to the room after dinner to discover that the hotel had left me this adorable cake decorated with fruit and chocolate and complete with birthday candles. Normally I’m not a fan of cake (aside from the 3-layer chocolate amazing that my mom makes) but Chinese cake is usually filled with/topped with fresh fruit and it’s quite good. It was this really light white cake filled with a variety of fresh fruit and had star fruit, strawberries and oranges on top. Andrew took pictures, we’ll post one later. We hadn’t even told them it was my birthday, but when you check in they take a copy of your passport so they must have noticed my birth date. It was quite sweet of them. Incidentally, if anyone has the inclination to go to Hainan, absolutely stay there. It was 530 yuan/night which comes out to around $85, and that hotel in the states would run higher than that. All in all it was a very relaxing 5 days and if I ever come back to China to teach again I’m going to ask around in Sanya, I would absolutely hang out there for an extended period.

On a totally unrelated note, there was  a boy in Sanya who asked if we would take a picture with him. So somewhere there is a Chinese boy with a photo of him, Andrew, and me standing in front of the hotel.

Currently we are just taking it easy in Shanghai and planning for our next big trip. We leave on the 15th for a ten-day tour of the Western/Southern provinces. We have train tickets to Xi’an to hang out there for a couple days and see the terracotta warriors, then on to Chengdu for a day or two to visit the Panda Breeding and Research Center where I’m absolutely going to shell out a bunch of money to hold a baby panda. After that we’re planning on going to Chongqing to take a ferry down the Yangtze River through the ever controversial Three Gorges Dam to Wuchang city, then back to Shanghai from there. After this trip I will officially have seen more of China than the states.

The only thing I’m not looking forward to about this next trip is all the train travel. If you want to be extremely exasperated with Chinese culture, go on a 12+ hour train ride. Generally no one has any regard for anyone else and they do whatever they please. Also, white people on a train leaving from/to a smaller town in China are the recipients of many stares and shouts of “HULLOOOOOOO”… great, good, practice the one English word you know on me, I don’t mind. It gets old quickly, especially if you say hi back and they proceed to talk to you in fast Chinese. These two middle-school aged girls even came up to mine and Andrew’s bunks around 10pm and were YELLING, “Big eyes! Big eyes!” oh yeah? How about I go to your bunk and yell “FLAT NOSE!” see how you like it. hmph. The one exception, and this one I appreciate, to the no one caring about anyone else rule is when it comes to smoking in the car. Chinese men smoke like chimneys and this one older guy lit up in the car we were in and another old man yelled at him telling him he had to go outside that he couldn’t smoke in here. That was the first time I’ve seen that happen anywhere in China. I like that guy. Hopefully we get more like him on the next few trains, ha.

I think that should do it for now.

Cheers,

Alyse

Posted by: Andrew | 05/02

Thoughts from Train Ride to Hainan

As some of you know we recently took a week long trip to the very southern most part of China – a tropical island called Hainan. We stayed at a nice resort right off of Yalong Bay and the weather was very enjoyable. I think there is going to be another update with more details.

It was a 37 hour train ride from Shanghai to Sanya and here are some of my observations from the trip there:

Sunday, January 24, 2010, 14:00

Well, here we are on the first leg of our journey towards the warm and tropical paradise known as Hainan, an island on the very southeastern part of China. We are traveling by train and it is supposed to be a 36 hour train ride – needless to say we booked sleepers. “Soft sleepers” were incredibly expensive and comparable to just flying coach so we are bunked in “hard sleepers”. Our car has 11 little “rooms” with 6 beds per room, and you can put your money that all these beds will be full before the trip is over. We are rolling along the countryside and we’re in a part of China that has really beautiful hillsides with small, rundown cities scattered amongst them. Every once in awhile we’ll pass under large hills through a tunnel and the atmosphere on the train enters a fairly peaceful state; I’m hoping this is what it will be like tonight while trying to sleep. Outside however, the hills even here seem to be covered in haze and I’m having a hard time distinguishing it between smog and clouds. Perhaps even this countryside is tainted by industry. Trees and towns continue to stream by, and though I do see cities there hasn’t been much sign of life – perhaps a by-product of a lazy Sunday afternoon in China.

The scenery is almost enough to make me not notice the man sitting at a little table across from the beds smacking and gulping his food loudly enough to put most farm animals to shame. Everywhere we go it seems socially acceptable, maybe even encouraged, to eat your food as loudly as possible and of course you must do it with an open mouth so everyone can get a good glimpsed of your chewed-up food. Looking at the man I see that he is dressed in fairly nice attire, looks clean and respectable; this brings me to the conclusion that loud eating must be accepted across most demographics here (the only real demographics here seem are decided by wealth anyways, at least in the areas that we have had access to). He drinks a small bottle of bai jiu or “white liquor”, which is extremely vile tasting booze that I try to avoid but is really common among middle-aged and older men.

Not much has happened on the train ride so far, all the bunks in our room are occupied. When we first settled in I tried out a little bit of my Chinese and asked the younger guy above Alyse’s bunk if he was going to Hainan. It turns out he isn’t but I can’t remember the name of the place he is headed. I really don’t know where we are at this point, Alyse and I both dozed off for a couple of hours and woke up to the previously mentioned scenery. This train makes many stops and I figure we’ve stopped 4 times or so. It is an older train and makes loud squeaking noises right by my head when we turn; my bunk is the first one on this car and I’m at the bottom of the 3-high stacked bunks. Stewardesses continuously roll by with loud, clunky metal carts carrying food and beverages, but for the most part we got lucky with a quiet car. There is a small boy, no older than 2 years old, who keeps toddling by our bunks and is very curious with me, but also very uncertain. At first he came over here alone but now he is accompanied by his older brother who I would guess to be about 9 or 10 years old. He stumbles over here cautiously and will stop and stare for a minute, during which he isn’t sure whether to smile and me or cry. Needless to say I think he’s adorable and want to make friends with him, though I’m sure he can’t say much more than “mom”, “dad” and “no! (which I’ve heard him say several times)”.

Monday, January 25, 2010, 12:30

Still on the train. It was a bit of a rough night, the train rolled on and made a few stops throughout the early morning, which means people got on and off at those stops. People who liked to talk – loudly. Needless to say, I mostly got sleep through little 2 hour intervals and eventually had to put my headphones on with some good old Iron and Wine to sing me to sleep. The morning has been pretty uneventful so far, I woke up around 10:30 and Alyse is still dozing on and off still heavily under the effects of the Nyquil that we took last night.

I woke up to more clouds and haze all around, but now it is weaving in and out around gigantic hills and large jutting rock formations. It really is beautiful. I sat for awhile, making some more progress on The Fellowship of the Ring, I started it yesterday and am now well over halfway finished. Finally, I was able to snag a table and a power outlet so I can write and mess around on my computer. As soon as I plugged it in however a younger Chinese guy came up to me with his cell phone or “shou ji” and a USB cord and promptly plugged himself into my computer. He was asking me something I didn’t understand although I recognized “dianying” which means movie. I’m not quite sure if he was offering his phone that had movies on it for me to watch via my computer or he just wanted a charge. Either way I checked the contents of his phone and was unable to find a movie. He keeps on coming over here and checking my screen to see what I am doing and then picking up his phone and asking me a question but I must admit I really don’t know what he wants – it seems my Chinese has failed me here.

One more thing that I want to note quickly pertaining to cell phone usage in China: Chinese people are not capable of simply talking on their cell phones. They MUST shout into their phones, it seems as they have not grasped that the distance separating their conversation is overcome by technology. This is true no matter the place, time or situation. Walking down the street, on an empty or full bus, in your apartment, on the train at 3:00 am – all of these are appropriate cell phone yelling situations. Sometimes it isn’t even on the cell phone but face to face. I am dead serious when I tell you that I was kept awake for half an hour last night at 1:30 am by these two people that were getting off the train at the next stop. They felt the need, although everyone is sleeping and the lights are off, to speak at above normal indoor voices while conversing. I was aggravated. That last sentence took 10 minutes to complete because I was trying to convey to the cell phone guy that I’m just writing for fun and not for work. It took me awhile to figure out what he was asking and finally had to resort to Alyse’s pocket dictionary. I suppose all he wanted was for me to listen to some of his music from his phone – I ended up obliging him and listened to some crappy Chinese pop music for a little while. Crazy train ride.

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