Hong Kong, Sanya, and Bad Decisions

The number of  “Y u no write on blog?” questions that I have heard in the last week regarding my apparent disappearance from the internet is comforting (because it proves that somebody is actually reading this) albeit a little annoying (because the things I am currently dealing with in Fenyang are far beyond my maturity level and are taking up most of my time). But I will reserve my current issues for another post. For now, welcome to three weeks ago when I was still traveling and meeting new people and doing exciting things! Yaaaaaay!

In a deep, narrator voice: Previously, on Zhongguo Jaunt…

Amber had been in Guilin and Yangshuo, riding bamboo rafts and getting her friends lost…

From Guilin, I took a train to Shenzhen and walked over the border into Hong Kong. When I say I walked over the border, I mean I was stopped by customs and held for three hours due to my Chinese residence permit. The permit, by the way, looks like this:

IMG_2723

As you can see, somebody made a mistake in spelling my name at the permit office and then decided that it would be best to just…you know…write over it in pen. Super legit. I’m not sure if this was just a sign of laziness or if the person at the office genuinely believed that doing this was okay. In any case, customs held me for about three hours and asked me a grand total of two questions.

“Is this your name?”

“Yes.”

“Is this you in the photo?”

“Yes.”

Three hours later, I was walking into Hong Kong.

In HK, I reunited with Rhys for two days. He was staying in the same hostel, so we went out and saw the city together. After he left for Shanghai, I really wanted to move on to my next location. Unfortunately, I still had three days until my flight to Sanya, so I tried to make the best of it. I think the main issue I had in HK was the organization of the hostel. Unlike my previous hostel stays, this hostel was a massive, 9-floor building with no community area, which made it incredibly difficult to meet people. Hong Kong is a great place to go out at night, but not by yourself. I wandered in the city for my remaining days and did a little shopping, but my main focus was on Sanya, my next (and last) destination.

The Sanya Airport: Literally one big room

The Sanya Airport: Literally one big room

My flight from Hong Kong to Sanya was great. I arrived in the Sanya airport, which is probably the quaintest airport I have ever seen, and I was slightly apprehensive about going through Chinese customs. In HK, it made sense that they had let me go through because Americans don’t need a visa to get into Hong Kong. Getting back into China, however, requires them to look closely at my visa. Or so I thought. The customs officer paused for like, 30 seconds longer, when he looked at my passport, but I had absolutely no problems getting back in. Classic China.

Sanya was gorgeous. I was expecting it, but I was still pretty blown away. I have never gone on a vacation where I can just relax on a beach for days, so that was a new experience. There was slight disappointment about the weather, which turned cloudy after the first couple days, but I still had a great time. I absolutely loved my hostel, Sanya Backpackers, and would recommend it to anyone. It was less than five minutes walk from the beach, it had a maximum capacity of around 30 people (which meant lots and lots of socializing), and the staff was amazing. Phenomenal experience.

IMG_2809In terms of what I actually did in Sanya, other than trying (and failing) to learn how to surf for one day, I just sat on the beach and hung out with the friends I made at the hostel. It was exactly how I imagined spending the last week of my trip (though with slightly worse weather). If I got the chance, I would go back in a heartbeat. I feel like I’m harking on about it a little too much, but in comparison to my experience in Hong Kong, Sanya was the bee’s knees.

And now I’ll move on to the extremely embarrassing story of how I missed my flight home from Sanya…

As I have said, I made lots of friends at my hostel. At night, we would go to the hostel bar before either going out or going to the beach. Without going into too much detail, I really should not have gone to the bar the night before my 7:30 am flight. I woke up the next morning and saw that first, I had forgotten to set an alarm and second, my flight was leaving in two minutes. My reaction to this discovery very closely resembled the five stages of grief.

Denial

Inner monologue: I couldn’t possibly have missed a flight. Only irresponsible and disorganized people miss flights.

I quickly started checking to see if my flight was delayed. Nope. Right on time.

Anger

Inner monologue: HOW could you be so stupid? WHY ON EARTH didn’t you set an alarm? WHAT WAS IN THAT MIXED DRINK!?!

Numerous expletives were whispered to avoid waking my bunkmates. I had to go downstairs. Proceeded to bang my head on a table.

Bargaining

I called the place I had booked my ticket and tried to get it refunded. No dice. I tried to get a new flight for that day, the next day, the day after… Nothing within my price range. Eff.

Depression

Inner monologue: Everyone knows that you were supposed to get on that flight. You know everyone in this hostel, and everyone knows that your flight left this morning. They are all going to know why you didn’t make your plane because they were all at the bar with you last night. You start classes in two days, and there are no available flights for at least 4 days. You are a sad, sad human being.

During this lovely portion of the morning, people started waking up and saw me at the front desk with my head hanging in embarrassment. Ugh. At least the presence of other people helped me move on to the final stage…

Acceptance

Inner monologue: Alright. So you really got yourself into a pickle this time. Maybe next time you’ll make some grown-up decisions? Just maybe? Like not getting drunk hours before you have to wake up? (Note: While my subconscious is clearly a voice of reason, she is a lot like that designated driver who sits around judging everybody after volunteering to drive them home) You’ve exhausted your options in terms of getting on a flight today, so it’s time you started figuring out how you’re going to get home. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get to work. This is a good story for your blog, at the very least.

From this point, I just started researching any possible way of getting off the island that day. I was told that I could take a bus to Guangzhou (which is near Hong Kong) and then take a train from Guangzhou to Taiyuan (my intended destination). With that in mind, I headed to the bus station to book a ticket. Upon arrival, I realized in my rush that I had forgotten to bring money with me. UGH. Back to the hostel, grabbed money, back to the bus station, bought a ticket, back to the hostel, grabbed my things, hugged everyone (who I’m pretty sure were slightly afraid I was losing my mind, given my haggard appearance and manic behavior), back to the bus station, jumped on my bus.

And then, I realized I was going to a city where I needed to stay overnight to catch my train the next day, and I hadn’t booked a hostel. Also, I had no means of looking up a hostel because there was no Wifi on the bus. I started to sweat and was pretty close to breaking down at this point, when I remembered I had met someone who worked near Guangzhou and presumably knew a few places to stay. I had managed to get his number before leaving Sanya, so I called him up and he helped me get the number of a hostel.

And then I slept. I arrived in Guangzhou at about 4 am, went to my hostel, randomly (and extraordinarily) ran into someone I knew in the hostel lobby at 5 am. I had met him in Guilin, and we were both blown away that we were in the same place again. I spent the next day waiting for my train, hopped on, arrived in Taiyuan, and got back to Fenyang the night before I needed to start classes.

And that, kids, is why you don’t drink the night before a flight.

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Guilin? More like Gui-WIN! ….I’m so sorry

In the spirit of shaking things up, I’ve decided not to write a conventional blog post. Instead, I’m giving you lots of pictures of my time in Guilin, with much more detailed captions telling you about what I was doing. You can go through them like a book. There’s two galleries here, each with a video to go along with it. Happy (late) Chinese New Year e’rybody!

A tiny sample of the fireworks in Guilin during Chinese New Year… wait until the end to see the incredibly intelligent decision to set some off indoors. PS: Sorry for the terrible video quality

Maga interviewing me post-river discovery

Lijiang and Shangri-la!!

Inside my hostel in Lijiang. Note the adorable puppy

Inside my hostel in Lijiang. Note the adorable puppy

Despite the rather hurried decision to come to Lijiang one day early, my welcome was pretty warm. My hostel was gorgeous. It’s called Panba Lakeside Lodge and it’s right next to the Qingxi Reservoir with a great view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Lijiang is known for having some of the cleanest water in China, which, admittedly, isn’t a very difficult feat. It has the best water in a country where the water supply of one of the largest cities has dead pigs floating in it? Oooooh boy! But actually, the water was crystal clear in the reservoir. I would feel pretty comfortable drinking directly from it. The one big, big problem with my hostel was the lack of heating. It is made of concrete, which makes it look super modern and industrial. While this jives really well with my aesthetic preferences, it’s hard to appreciate it when I’m shivering. Because of this, I wasn’t a very happy camper when I first arrived. Being the sort of person who doesn’t speak up when I’m not happy with something (particularly in the service industry), I was prepared to endure an unpleasant couple of nights. Luckily for me, my roommate, Bella, was not nearly as passive. After telling the hostel staff, they provided us with a space heater, and I was more than happy with the rest of my stay.

Lijiang Ancient Town

Lijiang Ancient Town

The first afternoon I acquainted myself with Lijiang Ancient Town. In typical China fashion, this “ancient town” was just a bunch of shops selling the same touristy things made to look homemade…until you go to the next shop and see the exact same thing. While this discovery was disappointing, it was still a beautiful place to wander around for a couple hours. Due to my frugality (or stinginess?), I refused to purchase a map of the place and proceeded to get very very lost. One of the great things about traveling alone is that when things like this happen, I feel absolutely no sense of guilt about wasting someone else’s time. Plus, I don’t have to follow anyone’s schedule, so that’s even more weight off my shoulders.

IMG_2212The next day I slept in because I hadn’t had a full night’s rest since leaving Chengdu. After waking up, I had a number of hours of uncertainty about what I wanted to do. After much indecision and procrastination, I decided to just pack my bag with water and food and just walk until I saw something interesting. I ended up following a path that led me to a Chinese cemetery—something I had been trying to find for aaaaages. It was next to a school and tucked between two huge piles of trash. Lovely. After that, my path stopped, so I turned down a legitimate street and started following signs to Shuhe Ancient Town.

Shuhe

Shuhe

I was expecting the same thing as Lijiang Ancient Town, and, to some extent, it was very similar. It had its fair share of shops and touristy crap, but it had a far superior backdrop. Shuhe is built around a series of streams and most of them just run right through the town. Because I was there about an hour before sunset, I stationed myself at a small café by one of the streams, bought a cup of “Yunnan coffee” (skeptical…), and proceeded to write this post! Woo hoo! After Shuhe, I planned on walking all the way back to my hostel (about a 1.5 hour walk), but it was getting dark. Hearing my dad’s voice in my head telling me not to do anything stupid, I opted for the bus.

View from Elephant Hill

View from Elephant Hill

Next day, I went on a hike up Elephant Hill. I got up early, grabbed a cup of chicken soup to go from my hostel, and started climbing. It didn’t take too long, and I got a nice view of all of Lijiang from the top. After the climb, I went down the other side and found myself at the Black Dragon Pool, which is a cluster of little lakes. I wandered around a bit and talked to a couple of old men playing mahjong before leaving to catch a bus to Baisha.

IMG_2305Baisha is yet another “ancient town” in Lijiang. I just cannot get enough of them, apparently. Unlike Shuhe and Lijiang Ancient Town, however, Baisha is pretty legitimate. And by that I mean, it’s literally just an old little town. There are a couple shops when you get off the bus, but other than that, it is simply a place where people live. While Baisha was not nearly as pretty as Shuhe or Lijiang, I had a lot more fun taking pictures and walking through it. An old man started following me around for a while when I wandered into an area where most tourists don’t bother entering. Originally, I thought he was making sure I didn’t trespass or something. After a little while, I turned around and said hello. Then he asked if I wanted to pet his cow. I politely declined, but took a photo to appease him.

That night, I proceeded to plan the next couple of days. Once again, I decided to change my plans. I was originally going to go straight from Lijiang to Shangri-la, but I heard about a cool place called Tiger Leaping Gorge in the mountains between the two where you can hike and stay the night before heading out. Next morning, I hopped on the bus with Bella and a couple other Chinese and Korean people from the hostel. The bus ride to the gorge was pretty uneventful, but I DID meet another American. His name is Ellis, and he’s an English teacher (like every other foreigner I’ve met here). We chatted a bit, and it turns out he’s going to be in Hong Kong at the same time as me to take the Foreign Service exam. We exchanged emails and numbers, so Rhys and I will probably be meeting up with him around the 2nd or 3rd of February.

Sidenote: Speaking of meeting up with people, you may have noticed that I did not mention seeing Amy in Lijiang. Due to rather poor planning and lack of listening on the part of her boss, we weren’t able to meet up. I will be back in Lijiang on the 26th (another itinerary change), so hopefully I’ll see her and the other girl I met in Chengdu, Sam. I still really want to hit up the bars in Lijiang, so that’s my plan for right now. I also really want to go to the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, but I’m not sure if I have time for everything, given that my train leaves from Lijiang on the night of the 27th. Fingers crossed.

IMG_2347Anyway, back to the bus ride to Tiger Leaping Gorge… Most people on the bus were staying in the gorge for a number of days, so they all got off at an earlier stop. Those who stayed on the bus included two Korean college students, a Chinese college student, and a couple of unknown origin. All of us were only staying a night, so we had to ride the bus to the middle of the gorge next to our hostel. Once we got off the bus, I booked a room, dropped my stuff off, and tried to figure out the extremely rough map of the gorge. My confusion was shared by the Chinese and Korean boys, so we decided to go together and figure it out. That afternoon was probably one of the most enjoyable I’ve had thus far on my trip.

Yuan Shuai, Dongguen Lee, Shy Korean Boy, and me

Yuan Shuai, Dongguen Lee, Shy Korean Boy, and me

First of all, let me take a moment to say how thankful I am that I speak English. I sometimes forget how lucky it is that I’m a native speaker of the most widely understood language in the world, but not today. So here’s how the afternoon went. Dongguen Lee (one of the Korean students) could speak English really well with a strong accent, but his Chinese was extremely limited. The other Korean boy could not speak a word of Chinese or English. Actually, it’s possible he was just extremely uncomfortable, but all I know is that he only spoke Korean the whole day. So, we’ve got one person who can only speak Korean and one person who can speak Korean, solid English, and barely understandable Chinese. Then, we’ve got Yuan Shuai, the Chinese student, who can speak Chinese (duh) and very sketchy English. Finally, there’s me. Fluent English, reasonable Chinese, no Korean. I’ve made a chart because, well, I like charts and I’m currently bored.

The People English Mandarin Korean
Shy Korean Boy None None Fluent
Dongguen Lee Great (but strong accent) Sketchy Fluent
Yuan Shuai Sketchy Fluent None
Amber Fluent Reasonable None

This created a pretty awesome dynamic for me. Given the languages spoken by everybody, we had to operate in either English or Mandarin. We tried Mandarin, but Yuan Shuai was not accustomed to trying to understand broken Chinese. I have tons of practice understanding broken English, so we switched. Here’s how a conversation worked:

Yuan Shuai: *says something in broken English*

Dongguen Lee: *gives me puzzled look*

Amber: *says Yuan Shuai’s point in English*

Dongguen Lee: *replies in English with a strong Korean accent*

Yuan Shuai: *gives Amber a puzzled look*

Amber: *says Dongguen Lee’s meaning in less-than-perfect Mandarin*

Shy Korean Boy: *silence*

I’ve never felt more in control of a conversation before. It was great. We also had some pretty interesting conversations, ranging from the differences in our countries’ education systems to a slightly uncomfortable conversation about the tensions between China, North/South Korea, and Japan.

IMG_2405In addition to great conversations, we also had a great 4-hour hike. The Tiger Leaping Gorge was beautiful. The story behind the gorge is that a long time ago, a tiger jumped from one side of the gorge to a rock on the other side. There’s now a walking bridge between the two points, which we had to pay 10 RMB to cross. Definitely worth it.  The climb down to the gorge was a mixture of uneven, steep steps on the side of a cliff and a couple old ladders. The hike was definitely not boring, though it certainly threw into sharp relief how bad my knees are getting. I had them give out on me once or twice during some pretty tricky spots. After it happened a couple times, the guys were all uber protective about being in a position to catch me if I started to fall. My mojo took a bit of a hit after that.

Either way, we made it down and back up without any major incidents. Everybody’s legs were pretty wobbly by the end, and I was sorely tempted to pay to hop on one of the donkeys to ride to the top. Once we got back, the guys told me they were probably going to head back to Lijiang instead of staying the night. This, in combination with the rather dreary appearance of my hostel room, made me change my plans again. A half hour later, I had canceled my room at the hostel and hopped into a van en-route to Shangri-la.

*fast-forward a couple days*

View from Shangri-la hostel

View from Shangri-la hostel

I stayed at the Lao Shay Youth Hostel in Shangri-la and, like my hostel in Lijiang, I was the only foreigner in sight. The hostel was in the middle of a valley filled with yaks wandering all over. I didn’t really realize until I saw it how close I was to Tibet. The architecture and city layout were different than anywhere I’ve been in China. Anyway, when I arrived in Shangri-la, I had the good fortune to meet a young couple, Yu Ping (a 27-year old Chinese woman) and Lee (a Korean man in his early thirties) who helped me find the hostel and invited me to go with them to see Dukezong Ancient Town and Songzanlin, a local monastery. I also met a young Chinese woman in her 20s who called herself Serena (named after a character on the popular American TV show, Gossip Girl). She and I were roommates, and her English was particularly good. Serena was quite the character. She opened our first conversation by telling me that her hair was actually a wig because she had recently shaved her head after getting upset. Yikes. She had also traveled to Shangri-la to meet a guy who worked as a travel agent there. I got to hear all about her love life drama and heard the fallout when the guy she was meeting failed to respond to her. No wonder she named herself after a character on Gossip Girl. Yeeesh.

Anyway, my stay in Shangri-la was brief. I spent my first night getting to know Serena, Yu Ping, and Lee. The next day, I went out to see what was left of Old Town after the fire a couple weeks ago. There wasn’t much. I think the early estimates on the damage were significantly under the mark. To me, it looked like 80-90% of the town was gone. That being said, I don’t know what it looked like before the fire. While we were there, numerous military groups were helping clean up the debris. I managed to snap a quick video of them marching away. Men in military uniforms are not quite as threatening-looking with brooms instead of guns.

After snapping some pictures and pulling a gigantic Buddhist prayer wheel around, we headed out to the Songzanlin Monastery. This place was absolutely gorgeous. While I didn’t learn too much about the actual monastery, the pictures I took are some of my favorites thus far. After roaming around for an hour or two, we headed back to downtown Shangri-la for lunch, and Lee randomly joined a young girl giving an impromptu dance performance.


The next day I headed back to Lijiang by bus. I am very happy that I never have to make that journey again. The road between Lijiang and Shangri-la goes through the mountains and most of it does not even have a guardrail. In addition to this, my bus driver loved to pass everyone in front of him, regardless of any hills or upcoming bends in the road, so I was white-knuckling my armrests for about 4 hours straight. I honestly cannot believe we didn’t fall into the valley or knock someone else off the edge. The numerous ambulances and car accidents along the way did not help my anxiety.

At long last, I arrived back in Lijiang and walked to my old hostel. I was pleased to find Bella and Dongguen Lee were still there, so I got my old room and spent a good portion of the afternoon chatting with them. Dongguen Lee and I have almost identical tastes in television shows, which came as a huge surprise to me. He watches Breaking Bad and The Newsroom, which are probably in my top 5 shows of all time. Both of them left that day, but Amy (the Scottish girl who I met in Chengdu) and I went out for dinner that night and had a few drinks in Lijiang Ancient Town.

IMG_2208Overall, I’ve really enjoyed my time in Yunnan Province. So far, given all the Chinese cities I’ve visited in the past two years, Lijiang is probably my favorite. It manages to feel like a smaller town while still having over 1 million people. My experiences with the local people here have also been more pleasant than anywhere else. I didn’t get the stares I usually get in China, and every single person I met was both very friendly and extremely helpful. Another thing that strikes me as particularly awesome about Lijiang (and I guess Yunnan Province in general) is the preference for large, furry dogs. Golden retrievers, huskies, malamutes, German shepherds… the best kinds of dogs, in my opinion, are everywhere! My hostel had its own golden retriever who I cuddled with whenever possible. Love it. The weather and scenery in Lijiang was also spectacular. No smog whatsoever, plenty of sunshine, a great view of the mountains, and crystal clear water. I’m gushing a bit, but Lijiang clearly exceeded all my expectations. The guy who ran my hostel offered me a teaching job in Lijiang, and I was half-tempted to take it.

In a couple hours, I am meeting Amy and Sam (the Australian girl who I also met in Chengdu) for dinner before heading to Guilin. Given the great reviews I’ve been getting from people (Duncan, Alyssa, and Ellis) about Guilin, I have unreasonably high expectations for it. Tonight I am taking a 9-hour train ride from Lijiang to Kunming, waiting in Kunming for a couple hours, and then catching my 22.5-hour train ride to Guilin. I should probably buy a book to read or something…

Chengdude, where’s my car?

IMG_2115Note: I just read through the following post and realized it is not up to snuff in terms of entertainment value. Apologies. I’m extremely tired and wanted to write this before I forgot most of the details of the past week. At least there’s plenty of photos! Here’s the deets regarding my time in Chengdu…

Lazybones Hostel

Lazybones Hostel

The Hostel: Lazybones Youth Hostel

Great place to stay. The staff were super friendly and spoke English really well. The lounge and bar provided a great environment to meet people (and meet people I did!). The only downside to the place was my choice of room. I chose the 8-person mixed dorm, and it was pretty gross in there from the current occupants. It’s not that the hostel didn’t clean, but I think the people staying there were just particularly messy. It didn’t matter too much anyway because I spent as little time as possible in the room.

The People

The first day I arrived in Chengdu, I was on my own for most of the day. When I got back to the hostel that night, I knew I was going to have to force myself to interact with people. I’m not super outgoing, so this prospect was a little nerve-wracking. Luckily, an awesome couple of girls sat down across from me, and after waiting awhile, I worked up the courage to introduce myself. Two of them were Chinese (from Beijing) and one was from Scotland. We all got along really well and once Rhys arrived (around 10 pm that night), I had already established a couple friends. Woot woot!

So here’s the lowdown on the people we hung out with in Chengdu. Maggie (one of the girls from Beijing) is a Mandarin teacher for foreigners. Amy (the girl from Scotland) teaches English in Lijiang, which is the next stop on my vacation. I will be meeting up with her again when I get there. We also met a guy named Robert who is an American that has been living in China for the last 5 or 6 years working towards an MBA. Finally, we met a couple (Duncan and Alyssa) who just graduated college in the US and are teaching English together in Baoding, a city near Beijing. It turns out that Alyssa and I have a mutual friend at Carleton, which is incredibly weird given the size of my school. All in all, it was great hanging out with some foreigners, and I’m looking forward to meeting lots of new people in each new city.

Here’s a quick synopsis of what I did this week

That's one big Buddha...

That’s one big Buddha…

Day 1: Leshan Big Buddha

This gigantic rock carving was not something I was too thrilled about seeing originally. It’s just a big rock in the shape of Buddha (and it’s not even entirely made of rock!). I thought I would be bored out of my skull after about 5 minutes, but I was pleasantly surprised. Just wandering around the surrounding area was nice to do on my own. I don’t walk around much in Fenyang because, quite frankly, there isn’t much to see. But it was refreshing to just climb around for a couple of hours by myself and not need to worry about anybody else. This was also my first time navigating public transit in China by myself without a clear idea of where I was going. I just hopped on the bus to Leshan and hoped I couldfigure it out from there. I’m quickly realizing this is the only way to get around in China. If you plan things too much, something inevitably goes wrong, and you’re left panicking because your plan fell apart. It’s much better to play it by ear. 

Day 2: Luodai, Yue Lai Tea House, and… Pizza Hut!

Rhys and I went together to Luodai, which is an ancient town outside of Chengdu. It had lots of gimmicky shops and food stalls, but not a lot else. The majority of Luodai’s inhabitants are Hakka people–a minority group in China that speaks Hakka Chinese. I was hoping that I would learn more about the Hakka people by going to Luodai, but I learned almost nothing. Ah well. Not every place on this trip can be mind-blowingly awesome. There’s bound to be a couple duds.

After Luodai, we decided to go to one of Chengdu’s many famous tea houses. I found one with good reviews and we made our way to the Yue Lai Tea House to watch an opera performance and sip on some tea. It was a very chill afternoon and we spent almost two hours just people-watching.

Look at this monstrosity

Look at this behemoth

Finally. Finally, I got to eat pizza. It had been the thing that I had been craving the most in Fenyang and was completely unable to find. Pizza Hut was heavenly. We each got a personal pan pizza (Hawaiian for me, weird pepper steak thing for Rhys) and then we shared a large, strange looking pizza on the specials menu. As you can see, it had cheese, shrimp, and fish sticks enclosed in the crust. It was a symphony of flavors in my mouth, and I don’t think anything has ever tasted so good.    

…Okay, so the fish sticks in the crust were a bit weird, but it was still pizza. I hate to say it was the highlight of my day, but it totally was.

Day 3: Pandas, People’s Park, and Tianfu Square

We saw the pandas. They were amazing. I don’t know why but for whatever reason, I could sit and watch pandas eat bamboo for hours and be completely entertained. Hence this video footage:

http://youtu.be/MhbsAKQHeb4

One thing that seemed odd to me was that their enclosures would be very VERY easy to climb. One of the fences I could have easily hoisted myself over. Also, apparently the red pandas are allowed outside of their enclosures. My friend, Amy, said that they were just wandering around the park when she was there. I’m a little jealous the red pandas weren’t wandering around when I visited. Would’ve made stealing one as a pet a whole lot easier.

After pandas, we went to check out People’s Park in Chengdu. It’s a massive park in the middle of the city with tons of activities going on all the time. It’s also known for having people walking around who will clean your ears out for a small fee. Rhys really wanted to have it done, but I cannot for the life of me figure out why. It looked like a mild form of torture. To each his own, I guess. Something else I found interesting in the park was a long line of dating ads for bachelors and bachelorettes desperately seeking a wife/husband. Complete with physical descriptions, wage earnings, hopes and dreams, etc. Watching older family members peruse the ads looking for a suitable match for their son or daughter was hilarious to me.

Post-park, I decided to go chill in Tianfu Square while the sunshine lasted. I didn’t do a whole lot, but I met a couple other foreigners while sitting around. That night, we had some drinks with the other people in the hostel per usual. Probably shouldn’t have had that last beer…

IMG_2109Day 4: Jinli Ancient Street and Panic

The next day started outextremely relaxed and ended up being quite the opposite. Rhys left early in the morning to go to Chongqing, and we won’t meet up again until Hong Kong in February. Amy and I decided to go check out the Jinli Ancient Street for some shopping and food. I bought a pretty fantastic hipster panda hat. As someone who hates purchasing anything, this was a big step for me. 
After shopping, we headed back and I started to go over my travel plans for the next day. The original plan was to fly from Chengdu to Kunming and then catch a train to Dali from Kunming. After about an hour and a half of frenzied Googling, I discovered that the train I needed either didn’t exist or didn’t run the next day. Commence freak-out. In the span of about an hour, I managed to cancel my flight from Chengdu to Kunming (with a hefty penalty fee), cancel my hostel in Dali, book a flight from Chengdu to Lijiang, and extend my original hostel stay in Lijiang by one day. I’m glad I got it figured out, but I hate the fact that I wasted money on something preventable. I’m also pretty bummed about missing Dali. Bleh.

Anywho, I woke up the next morning at 4:45am to catch my plane after a night of drinking with my friends in the hostel. I arrived in Lijiang around 9:00 am this morning, and I’m currently writing this in my hostel. Amy comes back to start teaching here tomorrow, but I think she’ll probably show me around when she’s not teaching. Chengdu was great, but I’m happy to be moving on to the next city. My next post will probably be written from Guilin in 4 or 5 days, as long as I survive the cold here in Yunnan Province.

 

Winter Vacay!

I currently have four days until my 4-week winter vacation. True to form, I have not come close to finishing my travel plans, but I’ve at least secured a place to sleep each night and (most of) my plane/train/bus tickets. I have provided a general outline of my plan, complete with a handy map for those of you who want to see how much distance I’m about to travel. In these last couple days, a number of things happened to change my original plans. First, I was an idiot and did not heed Mr. Ren’s advice when he told us that train tickets sell out quickly in China. Because of my procrastination, the train I was going to take from Kunming to Guilin sold all of its seats and beds. This left the standing-room only tickets as the only option for a 22-hour train ride. As you can imagine, I opted to alter my plans in order to secure a bed for the train. This change in plans meant that I would spend less time in Shangri-la, which I was pretty bummed about…

…until this happened:

Yesterday there was a massive fire in Shangri-la, which destroyed about a quarter of the old Tibetan-style area of town. Fortunately, there weren’t any casualties, but the blaze did destroy over 200 homes. I’m not entirely sure what to expect when I arrive, but I’m anticipating a pretty atypical Shangri-la visit.

It would be an understatement to say that I am excited for my vacation. I’ve been going a bit stir-crazy in Fenyang, and it’s going to be awesome to see the rest of the country. I’m anticipating being very stressed out for the periods of time when I’m bouncing from plane to train to bus, but I’m sure my destinations will make up for it. I’m also curious to see how I handle four weeks traveling essentially by myself. Rhys and I have two overlaps in our vacations (Chengdu for 3 days and Hong Kong for 2 days), but other than that, I’m going to be on my own for awhile. For those worried about safety, China is one of the safest countries for women traveling alone. I’d honestly be in more danger in the US than I am here (so stop wringing your hands, Mom and Dad…).

While I will be boppin’ around a lot, I’m going to update this blog whenever I have internet access. I know the places I go will start to meld together if I don’t write down my thoughts immediately afterward, so prepare yourselves for lots of pictures and some overtired writing that may or may not make sense. So, without further ado, my finalized travel plans and a link to the Google map I’ve updated:


https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zNmfWdkBN6WI.kaMBhqnQqmnE


Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 4.08.55 PM

So. Many. Parties.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so I’m going to organize this post according to the three major celebrations in which I’ve participated. A couple of quick (and very much generalized) facts regarding Christmas/New Year’s in China based on questions I’ve been receiving from people:

-Yes, Chinese people are aware of the existence of Christmas

-No, most of them do not celebrate it in rural areas (though they do give each other apples on Christmas Eve* and Christians often go to some sort of midnight mass)

-People in Fenyang celebrate the New Year by staying at home with their families and watching television

A couple of the wrapped apples I received from students on Christmas Eve

A couple of the wrapped apples I received from students on Christmas Eve

*The reason for the apple-giving is because in China, Christmas Eve is called 平安夜 (pingan ye), literally meaning silent or peaceful night. Pingan (sort of ) sounds like the Mandarin word for apple, 苹果 (pingguo), so they give each other apples. The logic behind this seems a little shaky to me, but it’s the explanation that was given to me by my students.

 

Now onto the week’s celebrations:

Student Party

One of the few brave souls who tried on the Santa costume

One of the few brave souls who tried on the Santa costume

The student party was insane. We invited all of our students to a relatively small classroom next to our apartments to eat candy, listen to Christmas music, play games, make ornaments, and dress up like Santa. It was mayhem, as expected. Because of this, I managed to take a grand total of three pictures during the actual party. We also decided to leave our apartments open (hoping that having an open house would relieve some of the congestion in the classroom), but I made the mistake of leaving my food in plain sight. Not much survived the onslaught of hungry high school students. Overall, the party lasted about an hour and a half; plenty of ornaments were made and much candy was eaten. Rhys even got a few students to try on the Santa costume he bought at a mall in Fenyang. Definitely a success.

Teacher’s Christmas Lunch

Zhao Fenglong and Mary at our Christmas lunch

Zhao Fenglong and Mary at our Christmas lunch

We also treated our favorite fellow English teachers (plus our friend Zhao Fenglong) to a nice lunch on Christmas Day. This was much more my style. We had a white elephant gift exchange, which resulted in some hilarious gifts. I ended up with an extremely fancy-looking bookmark. Other gifts included: a heart full of chocolate, an apple, a set of small ceramic teddy bears with matching hats and mittens, calligraphy ink and brushes, an article of clothing used to keep one’s coat sleeves from getting dirty, and a glass Christmas tree filled with multi-colored grainy bits and either water or oil (or alcohol?). The food was great, everybody loved opening gifts, and it was probably the most Christmas-y thing we did to celebrate this year.

New Year’s Eve

Our New Year’s Eve celebration was, by comparison, a bit lackluster. We had originally planned on meeting up with some of our friends at the medical school, but plans fell through. Around 10:00 pm, we decided that, despite our bad planning, we would still attempt to celebrate New Year’s the old fashioned way: with copious amounts of alcohol. We proceeded to open a bottle of baijiu and then attempted to go for a walk out into Fenyang. We met yet another obstacle. The school security guards go to sleep around 11:00 pm, meaning that the gates close and remain closed until the next morning. Normally, we just climb over the gate to get back in when we return. Unfortunately, since we were leaving later than usual, the security guards stopped us and told us that we were not allowed to leave campus. We then, stupidly, attempted to explain how we could just climb over the gate to get back in and that they need not worry. To make a long story short, we did not venture out into Fenyang and instead had a beer in the school stadium to ring in the New Year.

There were also a number of student-led celebrations the last couple of weeks, but in order to share my video footage of them, I need to first upload them to YouTube and link them on my blog. Uploading a video here takes days, so I may include those in my next post regarding my travel itinerary for winter vacation. For now, enjoy this lovely clip of Rhys and I singing a classic holiday favorite for our students:

Who needs clean air when you’ve got friends?

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you may have heard that last week, pollution levels in China (particularly in Shanghai) were considerably worse than usual, resulting in school closings. Fenyang is a little over an hour’s drive from one of China’s most polluted cities, Taiyuan. Because of its close proximity, Fenyang also has very poor air quality. I recently saw this idea for basically creating a giant vacuum cleaner to suck up all the smog particles in some parts of China’s major cities. The plan sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I’m all for it if they can figure out how to implement it. Anyway, with the recent news about pollution levels on the rise, I thought I should address the issue and how it affects my life here.

In general, I don’t notice how bad the air quality is until we get a good day where we can see the sky. Those kinds of days are rare and, in the winter, even more rare because of the increase in coal usage for heating. Every day just looks cloudy, so it can be easy to forget that what you’re seeing isn’t simply normal rain clouds. That being said, on the absolutely terrible days, you can sometimes taste/smell something in the air. If I were forced to describe it, I’d say it has a metallic taste.

One thing I have noticed is that when we do have a clear sky, there is an obvious drop in temperature. I’ve joked with Rhys that this relationship between air quality and temperature is the reason for our tendency to stay indoors more often. When there’s plenty of pollution, it’s comfortable outside. The problem is, you have to breathe the air. When there’s no pollution hanging around, it’s too cold to hang around outside. Quite the conundrum.

Now that the depressing part of this post is over with, I can move on to more exciting things, like our newly acquired college friends! We’ve been struggling on the friend-making front, partially due to laziness and partially due to lack of time (on the part of the Chinese students). Because of this, we’ve had plans fall through multiple times. But I think we may have solidified two groups of students as legitimate friends. We shall see.

The first group (who I have no photos with yet) is the group we took to dinner on Thanksgiving night and sang karaoke with at one of Fenyang’s numerous KTV locations. It’s made up primarily of boys, with one or two girls in the mix. This group is, by far, Rhys’ favorite. I’m not sold yet, but we’ve only hung out with them 3 or 4 times. The second group, who we’ve been hanging out with more recently, is made up entirely of girls. If you know me, you know that I tend to gravitate more towards the fellas when I’m making friends, but these ladies were extremely entertaining.

An old photo pre-haircut of me struggling to talk at Zhao Fenglong's huo guo restaurant

An old photo of pre-haircut me struggling to talk at Zhao Fenglong’s huo guo restaurant

We met them through our friend, Zhao Fenglong (赵风龙),who owns a local huo guo restaurant and apparently also works as a music teacher at the medical school in town. Last week, he took us to watch his band (made up of the other music teachers) rehearse for an upcoming performance. While there, we met a bunch of his students, who included this group of girls we’re now hanging around with.

So far, I can remember three of their names.

Chen Xuelian and I

Chen Xuelian and I

First, there’s 陈雪莲 (Chen Xuelian),who seems to be the bottom of the food chain in the group. She gets made fun of a lot for seemingly no reason.Then there’s 史可(Shi Ke),who is pretty but very aware of it. She’s a fashion connoisseur and has a phone filled with all the things she would like to buy if she could afford it.

Shi Ke

Shi Ke

Finally, there’s 陈秒 (Chen Miao), whose Mandarin is some of the clearest I have heard in Fenyang. She’s from a bigger city in southern China, so it makes sense that she doesn’t have a regional dialect for me to contend with.

We had dinner with them, plus two others who Rhys and I refer to as Red Coat Girl and English Speaking Girl, until we remember to write their names down. My memory for Chinese names is still abominable, so I just keep a list of everyone I’ve met on my iPhone.

English-speaking Girl striking a pose

English-speaking Girl striking a pose

Chen Xuelian and Red Coat Girl

Chen Xuelian and Red Coat Girl

Anyway, we met these girls at the band rehearsal and quickly discovered that they were drunk. As soon as we found that out, Rhys and I made sure we kept in contact with them. This is the first group of college students we’ve met that seem to go out on the weekends. We had dinner with them again this week and are hoping to throw an American-style college party in our apartments sometime in the future.

In other news, with Christmas coming up, Rhys and I are prepping for a Christmas party with our students. So far, we’re planning on doing some ornament making, card writing, caroling, and some sort of gift exchange. Santa Claus himself may even make an appearance at the party if we can find a hat in time. If any of you have ideas about what else we should have going on at this shindig, leave your ideas in the comments. Keep in mind that our resources are pretty limited and Fenyang isn’t exactly the best place for finding Christmas memorabilia.

Edit: 20 minutes after posting this, I found my first scorpion in the house. After a little bit of girlish shrieking, he was disposed of. Sincerely hoping there aren’t more where he came from. Here’s the little guy:

For reference, he was about as long as a bobby pin and almost as skinny

For reference, he was about as long as a bobby pin and almost as skinny

 

Thanksgiving Dunch

IMG_0714Happy Turkey Day! To celebrate, Rhys and I decided to make our own Thanksgiving dinner and invited some of the other English teachers at our school to join us. It turned into more of a lunch, so I will henceforth refer to it as our Thanksgiving Dunch. I’m going to take this moment to juxtapose my normal food-making routine in China with my Thanksgiving Dunch-making.

Look at that presentation!

Look at that presentation!

Noms

Noms

Normally, if I don’t go to the dining hall and eat with my students, I will make some 方便面 (literally: ‘convenient noodles). I know what you’re thinking: Typical college graduate forced to live on unsatisfying, Ramen-like noodles for sustenance because she can’t afford anything better. But you’re wrong. I LOVE the instant noodles in China. They are delicious, and–if I throw in a hot dog—it almost feels like I’ve made legitimate food. I’ve even gotten to the point where I feel no need to cook the noodles or the hot dog. I’ll just eat the noodles like a rice krispie treat and eat the hot dog like a piece of beef jerky. Rhys is thoroughly disgusted by this, as was most of my family when they witnessed the raw noodle-eating during our Thanksgiving Skype session. Haters gonna hate.

Our Thanksgiving Dunch was, by comparison, on par with a 3-star restaurant. The menu featured the following items:

Lindmark’s Hand-Picked Liquors

Watermelon ~exquisitely cut by yours truly~

Bushey’s Green Beans ~seasoned to perfection~

Ludicrously Lumpy Mashed Potatoes ~now with REAL butter!~

Fried Chicken ~fried by the fine people at Dico’s, a nearby Western fast-food restaurant~

Amber’s Awesome Apple Pie

Amber’s Slightly Less Awesome Pumpkin Pie

In general, Dunch was a success. Thankfully, most of the people we invited have never had a true Thanksgiving dinner, so issues like the substitution of fried chicken for turkey went overlooked. At the very least, we forced all of our guests to use a knife and fork, which was a nice change of pace. The most difficult things to make were obviously the potatoes and the pies, but not for the reasons you might think. There’s no butter in Chinese grocery stores (at least, not in small cities like Fenyang). We had to go to the local bakery and arrange a butter drop-off. It felt a little bit like an illegal drug transaction.

Here is the butter, in all it's glory

Here is the butter, in all it’s glory

I waited inside the bakery for about a half hour, and a man finally walked in with a small bag. He used the baker’s scale to weigh the butter, handed it to me, and then left. I’m really curious where the butter came from, but I suppose it’s better not to know. Regardless, Thanksgiving celebration: completed. Happy Fried Chicken Day, everybody!

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Mountains and insects and candy… Oh my!

Mandatory bug update:

One of the slower bugs

One of the slower bugs

Bug sightings have increased dramatically since the heat has turned on. No scorpions yet, and it seems that there are only two kinds of bugs in/around my apartment. The first are the super fast, skinny, many-legged monstrosities like the one I found my first night here. The second kind are slow, round, and have a hard shell on top. I’ve had trouble killing the fast ones because, by the time I get a fly swatter, they disappear. The slow ones are slightly easier, but the only way to get rid of them is to basically stab them to death with scissors through their exoskeleton. You can’t just squish them with a fly swatter. It’s been a learning experience.

In other, less disgusting news, I just got back from a bike trip to 老爷山 (Laoye Mountain) with Rhys. The weather and the construction on the mountain were a bit of a downer, but it was nice to get out off campus for awhile. My pictures didn’t turn out very well because of the fog, but I’ve included an album of the salvageable ones.

Things I learned this week (mostly food related):

1. A cup of boiling water with some Hershey’s cocoa powder in it will not even closely resemble a cup of hot chocolate. Any attempt to persevere and drink it anyway will end in disaster.

2. After going coffee-free for over two months, don’t drink two consecutive cups of coffee and expect to be able to write Chinese characters.

3. Samantha Jones has superb gift-giving ideas. She is also an excellent cook who’s been feeding me for at least seven years. If you want recipe ideas (complemented by the occasional puppy picture), check out her food blog here: http://agirlherdogandherkitchen.wordpress.com

4. The flavor of green Skittles has been changed from lime to green apple. Whaaaaaat.

The contents of my birthday care package courtesy of Sam Jones. The mustache pencil was, by far, the best thing in the box.

The contents of my birthday care package courtesy of Sam. The mustache pencil was, by far, the best thing in the box.


 

Forgotten photos

Here’s some photos from the last couple of weeks that couldn’t make it as standalone posts. Also: I just got the heat turned on in my apartment! This is both exciting and terrifying. My apartment is known to have scorpions that come out of hiding once it’s too cold outside and cozy inside. My paranoia levels are at an all-time high, but so far, so good.