Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Real Great Wall of China

Sorry that I haven't posted anything recently. I had three exams a week ago and as a result, this is a pretty good summary of my life recently:

Note that that is not even all of the Chinese language flashcards that I have. Additionally, after the exams, we gained two new textbooks so... inevitably I will have flashcards for all the hundreds of words in those as well...

So this past Saturday, I went on a hiking trip with Beijing Hikers.  Basically, they organize 3 or more excursions a week where you can go out and hike the mountains near Beijing for around 300块.  It's pretty nice considering that they provide transportation, water, guides, etc.  Also, because it's a western group, there tends to be a large number of English speakers, both among the guides and the other hikers.  Hiking around Beijing tends to involve the Great Wall in one way or another, so we ended up heading up to the Chinese Knot, which is just a specific location along the wall, by means of trail and unrestored wall.  INCIDENTALLY, you know how I mentioned before that when I went went up to the Great Wall with Hedrick, we opted for the unrestored part instead of the restored part in hopes that it would be less crowded and more authentic.  Well, as it turns out, there are varying levels of unrestored, and clearly, what Hedrick and I visited was the "crumbling-but-we'll-probably-fix-that-soon-so-it's-not-quite-falling-apart-yet" part of wall.

On the other hand, this is what actual unrestored wall looks like:

The trails through the wall were completely overgrown, and there were places where the wall itself was about to or had already in fact collapsed.  It made for a really fun and much more exciting hike, and I got some pretty good pictures.  Unfortunately, it is that part of Fall where a lot of the leaves have already fallen off and the rest are dead and brown, so the colors are not quite as spectacular as they could be... but just imagine how this would look earlier in the Fall or in the Spring.  In any case, it was still beautiful:

Oh and the weather was beyond perfect!  After many weeks of fog (read: the haze of pollution), I think it rained, which usually leads to a few days of sunshine.  So this Saturday was beautiful and sunny, and the temperature had to be around 55 degrees Fahrenheit(?)  Basically, as soon as we were actually hiking, it quickly reached a point where I was pulling off layer after layer.  This, of course, led to a strange pattern where anytime I was going uphill I would take off my jacket and scarf and everything, and anytime I was standing or going downhill, I would replace all the layers, and on occasion add a few more as the wind blew.  HOWEVER, overall, the weather could not have been better for mid-November in the mountains.

After we had reached the Chinese Knot, we hiked down the side of the mountain to this sleepy little town in the middle of the valley where the group organized snacks and drinks as well as, you know, the bus home.

Now this was a pretty stereotypical rural village.  Tiny houses, dogs and chickens running around, etc.  One of the funnier things was that it wasn't too hard to figure out what the current major export of the village was:

I'm willing to put my money on corn.  >>  Anyhow, I'm doing this hike in two weeks so that should be a lot of fun.  :)

This coming week, my school organized a trip to see a traditional Chinese opera.  Now, I have heard that it is entirely unlistenable, but I imagine it will be an experience, and I'm super interested in the costumes personally.  In addition, last week, we had an event for rugby that involved a raffle, and I won something!  This is actually amazing because I never win anything... although I suppose there were 5 prizes and only about 30 to 40 people there... but still!  I won a cooking class at the Hutong, which incidentally is where the mens' team captain works.  I am very excited about it because they offer a lot of classes on various regional Chinese cuisine which would be awesome to learn a bit about.  I'll post more about that when I actually do it.

I'll be better at posting in the next couple of weeks, I swear!

hearts and stars,

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Seoul, Baby!

So this weekend, we went to Seoul, Korea to play rugby. I was super excited about, of course, playing, and also about getting more stamps in my passport! :) Three months in, and this passport has already gotten way more use than my old one ever did.

I think the first question to answer is the one that the first photo in this post poses, and that is... why on earth were you in wedding dresses? As it turns out, every time the Beijing She-Devils go on tour, we apparently do some sort of fancy dress theme when we go out afterwards. Past themes include scarecrows and Sue Sylvester. This year, we came up with the fantastic idea of wearing wedding dresses. Now, the greatest thing about this is... we live in China, so yes, it is in fact possible to buy 15 wedding dresses, on the internet, for 100块 (~$15) each, on three days notice. Thank goodness for Needless to say, we got a LOT of strange looks as we wandered the streets of Seoul. haha.

So we spent all of Saturday playing rugby, including approximately six or seven games of 7s and even around 20 minutes of 15s! I really miss playing 15s. By the time I actually get back to it in the Spring, it will have been like 10 months since I've last played in a real 15s game. Anyways, some choice action shots:

I even scored two tries! It was super exciting. The Seoul Sisters (our lovely opponents) were also nice enough to lend us a front row, given that we didn't have enough people for a full pack. So here we are... learning how to scrum in 15 minutes OR LESS. :)

Ended up looking pretty good, eh?

Basically it was an awesome day, although I have not been that beat up in a long while. Haha. The Sisters also serenaded us on the bus-ride home (Well, maybe not specifically us, but the point is they sang), and we even got a live performance of this number. First of all, I'm totally jealous of that song... and secondly, it would be amazing to do something similar for MIT's team. Gotta put those freshmen to work! :P

So I spent a lot of time this weekend observing the differences between Seoul and Beijing. Besides being able to breathe (I was practically hacking up tar in Beijing last week), the city was much more westernized, commercially speaking at least. Now, I know that we spent a lot of our time in the international area of the city, but honestly a lot of these places can't be found ANYWHERE in Beijing. I mean, I'm talking Coldstone, Quiznos, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks (of course), most importantly, TACO BELL. Definitely satisfied those ridiculous cravings for disgusting, possibly-not-actually-meat tacos.

The funny thing is, while I did really like the atmosphere of Seoul and saw it as a place I could potentially live (unlike Beijing presently), one of my teammates brought up a good point. Seoul is so western that, if she were to choose to live there or at home, she'd rather live at home and be close to friends, family, etc. and it wouldn't be so different. Naturally, I imagine the cultural divisions go much deeper than the superficial image we were presented with, but there was a kind of vibe of living somewhere in the States... that is if nobody there spoke English. Incidentally, the lack of English and honestly, lack of anything not Korean, made me actually, legitimately appreciate China. If I feel like a five-year-old in Beijing, I felt like a newborn in Korea. It's a country where I don't speak the language, I can't read the language, and I don't even know how to say things like "Hello", "Thank you", or "1,2,3...". I am now much more appreciative of the small amount of Mandarin I do know.

Anyways, we ended our trip on Sunday with delicious Korean barbecue! At least I think it's barbecue. The point is, it was tasty.

Exams next week! Eek.

hearts and stars,

Monday, October 17, 2011

Day-to-Day Life

As I've been roommateless for a non-trivial amount of time now, I rearranged my room! I was deciding between stacking the two mattresses on top of each other, thus creating one... possibly even 4-inch mattress(!) or forming a Chinese version of Megabed by putting the bedframes side-by-side. I eventually settled on Megabed and now have what is essentially a king-sized bed... just with a two inch mattress. D:

Earlier, my mother requested to see more of my surroundings, so I am obliging her. When you enter the east gate of my university (there is in fact a gate for each of the cardinal directions), the first thing you are greeted with is this lovely rock. It says 北京语言大学, which is the name of my school. Weirdly enough, these type of signs (red calligraphy on random rocks) seem to be a trend or something as I've seen them in a number of locations throughout China.

Behind the sign, you can see the main building of the university. This is where I have all my classes, where I get my books, talk to the main office of my department, etc.

Anyways, there's a lot of tall, concrete, Soviet-looking apartment blocks throughout the entire city and honestly throughout all of China. If you've looked through my photos of 西安, you can see that's it not just limited to 北京. They are literally popping up every couple of feet at an insane rate. And one of these lovely buildings happens to be my dorm. It's interesting to note that my building happens to be adjacent to another dorm which I think is for Chinese natives (while my building is strictly international). What leads me to believe this is you can see the rooms through the windows outside, and in the other building, the rooms are exactly the same size, but host four people instead of two. Specifically, everyone's bed is lofted with their desks underneath, and they really have zero space for themselves.

Behind my dorm is a little Muslim (?) Middle Eastern (?) cafe. I eat there a lot mainly because well, it's right there, and it has delicious 15块 sandwiches. I'm pretty sure the people know me personally by now.

Anyways, it's kind of bizarre because the cafe is also host to... a really large assortment of random animals. Including this little guy. :)

Things that remind me of Poland:
This kiosk is also located immediately behind my dorm. Great for late night snacks. :)

And this is the sight that greets you every ten feet in Beijing:
Another sign that there are just a ridiculous amount of people in Beijing. Not only are the streets always full of traffic and the subways and buses crammed to the point where you have to shove people to get in, but there are still crazy amounts of bikes and scooters everywhere. Plus there are apparently very strict regulations on where you can and cannot lock up your bike, so what ends up happening is that once space runs out on these bike racks (which is crazy because there are SO MANY OF THEM), people just leave their bikes off to the side with a lock on the wheels. Apparently, there are so many bikes that the likelihood of yours in particular getting stolen is pretty low, especially if your bike is not especially shiny. So people just kind of leave their bikes around...

This internet cafe is right around the corner from where I live as well, and I frequent it so much that the waitresses DO actually all know me by sight. It's at the point where they don't even bother leading me to a table or giving me a menu or anything. I just kind of walk in, grab a menu, and tell a waitress "Oh I'm gonna go sit over there." It's great. The food isn't the worst thing in the world either.

Anyways, despite the general concrete-Communist-pollution-filled-city-feel of Beijing, they do seem to make an effort to have SOME green spaces still around. Namely, right outside my dorm there is this cute pond/waterfall/green park area. It's super small, but still kind of nice if you want to pretend you're actually in nature somewhere. haha.

On another note, I finally read Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Gilman, which was on my list of books to read before coming to China. Basically, it's the memoir of a girl in the late eighties who sets out on a trek around the world with a friend from school, beginning with a seven week stay in China, travelling through Shanghai, Beijing, Guilin, etc. Quoting the review, the title and even first couple chapters of the book make it appear to simply be "a saucy account of international sexcapades." However, it's actually not a terrible book, and it was certainly a good break from the George R.R. Martin books (this book took me two days to read, as opposed to the 2 weeks or more I spend trudging through every "Song of Ice and Fire" book. haha). On the other hand, MAN AM I GLAD I did not actually read this before coming here.

No honestly, I would have been terrified. The truth is the China of 1986 is so drastically different from the one of 2011, it's not even funny. These days, I know plenty of people who do not even make the effort to learn Mandarin in Beijing or even in smaller towns because it's not necessary. The cities are becoming more and more westernized every year. That's not to say there aren't still major cultural differences, but they're much more manageable, and if things ever get overwhelming, you can always retreat to your nearest Starbucks and order a freakin Grande Caramel Frappuccino in English. The China described in this book seems barely manageable, although to be fair, the main characters were... also woefully unprepared and ignorant (not to mention one of them may have been schizophrenic/experiencing a psychotic break at the time). I don't know. In 25 years, China has progressed what seems like centuries, and with the power of the Internet (yay!), even the most foreign of elements can be researched and made familiar without even stepping foot in the country.

Anyways, this weekend I'm going to Seoul, baby! First tour of the rugby season, and I am OH SO excited. :)

hearts and stars,

Friday, October 14, 2011

Too Many People in this City

One of the things that I don't think I've yet mentioned is that if you want to see a bigger, better version of a photo, just click on it. They get prettier I swear! :)

In any case, today I visited the Summer Palace (颐和园) in Beijing. The Palace is one of the must-see locations in the city, right up there with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so I figured I would go check it out. Basically, what is considered the "Summer Palace" is actually a really large expanse of gardens and buildings built along Kunming Lake (昆明湖) in Northwest Beijing. The present version dates back to the early 20th century when it was rebuilt after first being destroyed by the Anglo-French invasion of 1860 and then being ransacked by the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Ultimately, it is best known for being Empress Dowager Cixi's (慈禧太后) summer resort. I rented an audio guide for 40块 and wandered around for approximately 3 hours. It was also kind of cool because the audio guide was GPS-controlled or something and the bits about each location would go off automatically when you entered the appropriate area. It was actually an informative and interesting guide, so that was good. I didn't get to see everything though, and I honestly think you could spend at least half a day on the ground.

The following pictures document some of the beautiful scenery and architecture you can admire as you wander through the park.

You can see my dorky looking audio-guide in this picture. haha.

One of the more frustrating things that I've run into in exploring tourist locations though is the sheer number of people. In general, I think I end up choosing photos for this blog that do not really demonstrate this fact, but there are just too many people in this country, and it really shows at the tourist hot spots. I have not yet found a time of day or a day of the week when there are fewer people around (Although I guess it not being October Holiday is a bonus). There are always a million tours going around as well as people on their own, making it such that you honestly have to push and shove to see everything. Even worse, the inevitable result of the ridiculous density of people here is the insane commercialization of ALL tourist destinations.

Now, I am completely fine with a few souvenir shops and restaurants throughout a park or museum or palace. However, every ten feet there is another shop or cruddy food stand or whatever. Don't think that this is just a result of ignorant foreign tourists either. I swear to you, Chinese tourists buy as much if not more from these people! ...and of course, this is China. The vendors do not simply wait for you to approach them. "Hello. Hello! Water! two kuai!" "You want bracelet?" "Hello! Summer Palace Map! five kuai!" And they rarely listen to you when you shake your head and say no. I have had things shoved in my face, despite my obvious refusal to purchase them. Even in places like 华山 where I went last week, a sacred mountain and beautiful park area, on the top of the mountain there were vendors every two feet. I don't even know how they managed to build shops up there. When I was climbing the Great Wall, a woman followed me and Hedrick for at least half a kilometer. I wish there was some sort of limitation on the amount of vendors in a destination, or at least, that the vendors themselves were a little less pushy. :/

The thing is, I really enjoyed the Summer Palace, especially when you get away from the edge of Kunming Lake and into the areas where fewer people are wandering about. I do get frustrated sometimes by things that are cultural norms here in China. Oh well! Oh well I guess that's part of the experience too. :)

hearts and stars,

Monday, October 10, 2011

Xi'an, The City of Love

SO MANY PICTURES. I apologize ahead of time for the length of this post. :)

So this past week I had off of school for National Day. So, of course, I made the simultaneously wonderful and terrible decision to travel to 西安 (Xi1'an1). Wonderful because I saw a lot of interesting things, met a lot of cool people, took a lot of pictures, and generally had a good time. Terrible because National Week is the time of year where the entirety of China decides to relocate all at the same time. This, of course, creates hell when it comes to attempting to purchase any sort of transportation. Now, the prices for plane tickets during this time are astronomical, so trains are kind of the way to go. Unfortunately, you can't buy train tickets very far in advance. Like, they open sales 5 to 10 days in advance for most trains (10 to 20 for the nicer ones). So I had a situation where I had purchased a ticket TO 西安, had booked my hostel for three days or so... and was unable to buy a ticket back. That was quite stressful. Finally, I managed to get a seat (not a sleeper) on Saturday night (incidentally a ticket that would make me miss two days of class because China is the only country in the world that makes up holidays on the weekend). I'd like to note that this process involved no less than six separate visits to the ticket office, where it is entirely likely that the salesladies blatantly lied to me on more than one occasion. :|

In any case, I spent three and a half days in 西安. It's a beautiful city 1100km southwest of Beijing, located in 陕西 (Shaanxi) province. It's best known for being the location of the Terracotta warriors, but honestly it's got a lot of other things to see as well. There was a point in China's history when it was the capital of the country, it was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and honestly, it just has a lot of history, much of which is still intact. The first thing I did when I got there after checking into my hostel was to go to the city wall that surrounds the entire downtown area and rent a bike. For 20块, you can get the world's worst single-speed bike and bike around the entire city (it takes about 2 hours). And honestly it's just beautiful, and I took a really large amount of photos, most of which are not, in fact, posted here.

I like this one in particular because it's cool to see the juxtaposition of new and old in the city. I mean, the entire wall is still intact, but there are a million apartment buildings and skyscrapers popping up all around the downtown area, and many more under construction.

Also, for a tourist city, much of what you see is brand new and very shiny. There's insane amounts of shopping (Diamonds, Rolex, Louis Vuitton, etc.) and tourist attractions, and yet hidden are also really poor areas, but it's not something you'll see unless you seek it out. I think a lot of China is like that, and I've noticed it in Beijing as well when travelling along the subway.

Here was a temple near the northwest corner of the city.

In any case, the city was beautiful, and after visiting the wall, I wandered into the city and specifically towards the Muslim Quarter to search for food and more things to visit. Here's a photo of the city's Drum Tower (to match the Bell Tower as shown in the first picture of this post) which borders the Muslim Quarter. Back in the day, the people would ring the city's Bell Tower and Drum Tower to open and close the city gates respectively. It seems like a lot of the cities have them, and in fact, Beijing has them in the center of town as well (More exploring!).

And of course, I had to munch on the dish that the city is best known for: 羊肉泡沫 (Yang2rou4pao4mo2), a sort of lamb and bread soup. Basically they give you two slices of what looks like pita bread and you crumble it up into a bowl. Then they pour this delicious broth onto it, and you eat! :) Yummy.

Day 2 was naturally devoted to seeing the Terracotta warriors. I paid for the hostel's tour, mainly because it seemed convenient at the time. In retrospect, it was kind of expensive (220块), especially given that I would have otherwise paid the student price if I had ventured out on my own. HOWEVER, it was was totally worth it, mainly due to this young lady (the one who's not me, obviously):

Our tour guide, the lovely Lady Jia Jia (No actually, that is what she introduced herself as) was superb. She was super adorable with her somewhat broken, yet still understandable English and her general friendliness and humor. She declared early on in her introduction that she was, in fact, still single at 27, and then proceeded to continuously pick on/flirt with/troll one of the male tourists on our trip. She also gave me a little Terracotta warrior at the end so that was pretty sweet. I think the biggest advantage was also just steering us away from all the tourist traps that littered the Terracotta warriors area.

Now the warriors themselves were kind of amazing. In the first pit we went to (actually Pit #3, I think), they had found 2000 warriors or so, but only actually restored five (It apparently takes like a ridiculously long time to restore a warrior). The five were on display and included this kneeling archer, referred to by Lady Jia Jia as the "Magic Archer". Apparently, this was the first warrior ever found, and it was found fully intact, something which is true of only one other warrior. More than that, while many of the warriors were originally painted in bright colors, exposure to oxygen has left most of them a dull greyish-brown. The archer was also colored, but for some reason, not all of it faded away and you can still see red on parts of the back of his uniform. Our guide also went into details on how to tell rank and position, about how each of the warriors are unique, etc. It was pretty cool.

Now Pit #1 was really the big exciting finish to the day. While they found 2000 warriors in Pit #2 and only 65 or so in Pit #3, 6000 warriors have been unearthed in the first pit, and 2000 have been restored. So it's kind of a big deal. hahaha. Anyways, the one thing you can't really see in this picture is the insane amount of tourists that were also present. Trust me, there were way more than 2000.

Honestly, the biggest advantage of doing the tour through the hostel is that I managed to meet this lovely group of people. We actually went out later in the day as well to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and eat dinner together. I'm obviously on the left. Then to the right of me is Maribel who lives and goes to school in 十堰 (Shi2yan4), a city a little ways south of 西安. To her right are Josh, Jason, Jamey and Priscilla respectively. They all come from the same city as Maribel and Jamey and Priscilla (who are married) happen to be Maribel's teachers. Then there's Wesley, an Englishman who I dragged along onto the Terracotta tour that morning after breakfast, Tomo, who's a teacher with all of the rest of them, and Vincent, who was from France (living in Shanghai? I think?) and also on vacation. BASICALLY, these people were amazing, tons of fun, and quite literally, from everywhere. :)

Of course, the best part of this outing was that I'm pretty sure Josh and Jamey simply have... no shame and photo-bombed pretty much every Chinese person's picture-taking efforts on the square, and well, ended up taking a lot of pictures with a lot of Chinese tourists. I think the highlight was when I (and Jamey, Josh, and Priscilla) was forcibly grabbed by a gaggle of squealing, preteen girls to take a picture with them. I just... don't even know how to react to that situation. China can be a weird place.

On Day 3, Wesley and I embarked on an adventure to 华山 (hua4shan1), an apparently sacred mountain near 西安. Basically we hopped on a bus for 22块, and took a cable car (I swear to you, walking would've taken 15 hours) to the top of this beautiful mountain. There was still a lot of hiking to be done at the top as well! We wandered around a bit, took some pictures, and generally enjoyed the scenery. I wish I would have like a full 12+ hours to hike this place, maybe stay at the hotel up top, but unfortunately we were limited by the last bus back to the city, which was at 5pm. Totally a wonderful experience though.

One of the cool things, in my opinion though, was that because the mountain is sacred, the entire top of the mountain is littered with gold inscribed locks and red ribbons. Apparently, there's some sort of tradition/superstition involved with this practice, and you can make a wish this way. You can see some of these locks and ribbons in the background of this photo of me and Wesley.

Day 3, my last day, was mainly a day of relaxation (Man, does being tourist-y make me tired), but in the morning I went with a newly made Chinese friend to 陕西博物馆 (Shaanxi Museum). Basically, in comparison to the Beijing Capital Museum especially, it was amazing. They had an English audio tour guide, which was helpful, but even so, they had a lot of descriptions in both English and Chinese. The exhibits were awesome. They basically tracked the entire history of China from many thousands of years BC throughout all of the dynasties. This post is already getting really long, but I'll end it with this beautiful image. Haha. I absolutely adore all the demons and monsters from Chinese mythology. They're kind of awesome.

Oh yes, and I'll probably post the full album from the trip on Facebook and Google+! :)

hearts and stars,