Last Night in China

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Hey everyone!

So tonight is my last night in China. In about 24 hours I’ll be home. I still haven’t finished summarizing my trip so in the next couple of weeks I’m going to keep updating this blog on various things that I did and that I will be doing, so don’t think you’ve lost me again. But right now I just wanted to put some final thoughts down about my trip before I go home and reflect.

China is the single place where I have felt out of my comfort zone in every way possible. I look different, I sound different, I have a different way of life, a different mind set. Using my learning of the language as a gateway, I was able to see into a whole different universe, and one that ultimately stems from a lot of the same values and principles that are universally common. For instance, Chinese government places the family unit above all else. I think that is something that everyone can agree is important, no matter what ethnicity or race you are. I’ve learned about a country’s history, cuisine, lifestyles, jobs, weather, you name it. I think that its safe to say that I now understand how the Chinese population works. At least a little bit.

But most importantly, is that I’ve truly grown as a person. Starting with the most objective things, I’ve learned to use chopsticks, I can read and write and speak Chinese a lot better, and I can try new foods with unknown bravery. I can lead a group of people, even when I’m not sure; I can have confidence in myself; I can take a challenge and face it; I can accomplish my goals; I can travel anywhere in the world I want; I can step out of my comfort zone, and sure enough, survive; I can still change and grow and learn about myself and the world around me; I can be a part of something greater, I can be an individual; I can make a difference. While some of these sound a little over-dramatic, and perhaps they are, they’re all true. On a daily basis I was asked to challenge myself and conquer the day’s tasks.

I can only recommend that everyone does something big in their life, to step out of their comfort zone and take a risk. It certainly has changed me in ways I never thought possible. I am truly lucky to be able to have these opportunities and I want to thank everyone who has got me where I am today.

Only slightly less sentimentally, I’ll get back to posting daily articles on Tuesday when I’m home to round out my China experience. I still have to write about, recycling, the Summer Resort, The Great Bamboo Sea, more about the World Expo, haggling at street markets, eating weird foods, eating delicious foods, the cool places to go at night, and of course, the gifts and souvenirs. See you guys stateside!

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Beautiful Beida – Miserable Shanghai

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So today I didn’t really do too much and it wasn’t because I didn’t try. I decided to sleep in after two of my more grueling days here. At about 1, I headed to the Financial District. Here, there is a collection of VERY tall buildings. The runt of the group is the Jin Mao Tower. It’s the relatively brownish one in some of my pictures it looks taller, but that’s just the angle. It’s tiny. The next is the Oriental Pearl TV and Radio Tower. That’s the one with the two weird circles. It’s the third tallest radio tower in the world and really helps define the skyline.

However, the biggest baddest of them all is the Shanghai World Financial Center. This towers over the other two. Total height: 1,614 feet. That’s one and a half Eiffel Towers. Or about 300 feet taller than the World Trade Center (without the antenna). It’s tall. On the 100th floor, or at 1,555 feet, is the world’s highest observation deck. It’s the third tallest building in the world. It also has the world’s highest hotel, the Park Hyatt. It’s from floors 79 to 93.

The whole process of ascending to the observation deck is focused on its height. They force you to watch a pre-show where they shout numbers and statistics at you. Then before you get on the elevator, the ceiling lights actually say the number of how high the elevator is as it comes down to pick you up. And then on the elevator, it tells you your elevation. They want you to definitely know that for altitude seekers, this one is worth it. All I can say about the view from the top, is that it truly is a great one. You can see forever and the skycrapers around you look like ants built them.

After going to the top of the tower, I took a walk along the Huangpu River and made my way to the Expo. I met some friends there and as soon as we got to the Spain Pavilion’s Tapas Restaurant for dinner, it began pouring rain. We ate and when we left, I fortunately asked our waitress to bring us giant black trash bags to be makeshift ponchos. We looked like idiots, but it worked. Our friend who didn’t want one got awfully wet. Sadly, everything closed down as soon as we started out because of the rain so it was a very unsuccessful second trip to the Expo.

Since this was a short post so far, let’s go back to Beijing to talk about my campus. At the beginning of one of the weeks, I went out with my friends for dinner and we order something under the name of Pork Sauce Noodles or something to that effect. What we didn’t know is that there was shrimp in the sauce and the noodles. After I ate about half a bowl of the noodles, me and my shellfish allergy were not to pleased to discover this fact. I spent the next three days a little ill. One day, the sun was shining for the first time in Beijing and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get some fresh air.

The school I was at is Beijing University, or Beida for short. The campus is a really popular landmark attraction in Beijing. It’s like going to see Harvard when you’re in Boston. So the grounds are quite beautiful, well maintained, and always very crowded. My classroom was about a 10 minute walk from my dorm and here are some pictures.

First is my rundown dorm building; it was nicer on the inside.

This is my classroom building; it was less nice on the inside.

Here is the famous “Nameless Lake” of Beida.

And the crowning jewel of campus – WuMei! It was the convenience store that was about a three minute walk from my dorm, on campus, and it was fully stocked. It not only had a grocery section, it was also a movie store, an office supplier, a bakery, a bookstore, a clothing store, and a pharmacy. It was all super cheap and everyone’s favorite study break. And that’s our campus!

Suzhou: The Venice of China

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Today, me and my group of friends went to a town on the outskirts of Shanghai called Suzhou (Pronounced Sue Joe, like a couple obsessed with nicknames). Suzhou is in the next province over, and is in the Jiangsu Province and it borders the Taihu Lake – the 3rd largest lake in China! The first thing Suzhou is known for is its unique canal system. It seems similar to Venice, but is nonetheless charming. Suzhou is also known for its spectacular gardens, which were frequented by Song Dynasty poets and artists for inspiration. And I can see why! These gardens were quite stunning.

After taking a pretty fast train to Suzhou (only 45 minutes) we went to 留园Liuyuan or The Lingering Garden. This garden seemed very small at first, with just a small lake and some trees, but it continued for quite some time! This charming little park wasn’t the most popular of the Suzhou parks and the serenity truly showed. In a space that could only be described as lush and tranquil, it is said that this park is so beautiful that it lingers between Heaven and Earth, thus the name.

Suzhou is also famous for its embroidery. We found our way to the Suzhou Embroidery Institute. The way in was hidden and well guarded, but we forced our way past any security and pretended we were a tour group of 5 poor college students. It actually worked! We first saw the women (and one man) at work. According to them, it takes one of them 7 months to complete a 2 ft x 1 ft picture. And the effort shows. From afar, many of these look like paintings, or even photographs – certainly not silk embroideries. The gallery downstairs was where all of the impressive ones where. For instance, all of the embroideries are double sided, so they are frequently displayed on rotating frames. Also, a lot of times, the one on the other side looks different. It’s mind-blowingly expensive. But the cool ones all cost about $10,000 so we passed.

We then moved on to our second garden, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, or 拙政园 Zhuozhengyuan… I think. But this is the bigger, badder, better garden. It’s more famous and I guess more poets wrote there. This garden, along with the others, are responsible for the Suzhou gardens being a collective World Heritage Site and a saying that goes, “Above there’s Heaven, On Earth there’s Suzhou.” This one was even more beautiful. The pagodas, rivers, trees, and tiny lakes seemed to sprawl forever. Each of the pavilions had been named for poems written there. My favorites were the Listening to the Rain Pavilion, or perhaps the With Whom Shall I Sit? Pavilion. But I’ll let a couple of pictures speak for themselves. The first picture has my friends Kat and Stephanie and the second picture is of the “With Whom Shall I Sit Pavilion”.

As we left Suzhou, it started to rain. And by rain, I mean pour. But we had a lovely, if not tiring day touring the majestic and tranquil gardens of Suzhou. P.S. All of that grey sky? That’s half overcast, half pollution.

Beijing – Old School Style

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Put back on your Beijing goggles, because I’m about to talk about the two most traditional things I did while in Beijing: Eat Peking duck and see Peking Opera. And in case you didn’t know, Beijing used to be known as Peking. Apparently, when the French first came to China, they were in a part with an uncommon dialect whose pronunciation was closer to Peking than Beijing.

So one night, me and my friends made reservations at a very expensive Peking Duck, or Kaoya, restaurant. It turns out that it was quite fancy and all of us were under-dressed in gym shorts and backpacks. But that was no worries. The people who were better at Chinese were fed up with ordering, so the task was left to me and my friend. I floundered while my friends rose to the challenge. I’ve since become a professional at ordering my favorite dishes and I can almost, almost, read a menu.

Well the roasted duck is prepared in a room apart from the table and the whole duck is wheeled to you. There, the chef carves the duck into tiny slices and gives them to the table. These slices are in two categories, meat and crunchy skin. The crunchy skin is eaten separately with sugar as a bit of a snack. But the meat is wrapped up into a tiny tortilla with onions, cucumber, garlic, and a special barbeque-esque sauce. The end result is quite tasty and definitely a Beijing original. While some of my friends would kill a man in Reno just to eat some Kaoya (duck), I found it to be good, but nothing to write home about. But I guess I am, so who knows?

It’s a really fun meal, and it encourages the family style well. It’s also a Beijing classic so if you find yourself there, be sure to have it. The next night, was the first clear night in Beijing and I could see the very close mountains. Here is a picture from my dorm room to show how beautiful Beijing could be without the pollution (even then it’s a touch polluted).

A couple of days later, my group went to take a trip to the Peking Opera, or 京剧(jingju). I had heard interesting things about Peking Opera before I went. I heard it sounded weird, or off-putting. Some liked it, others didn’t. I went in waiting to be underwhelmed. Well, the particular theatre we went to was almost a dinner theatre. Everyone sat at tables and drank tea during the performance. Fortunately, during the performance, there was a large screen above the stage that displayed the song lyrics in both Chinese characters and English. The costumes were very pretty and the choreography was… Asian, lots of ribbons and swirling, pretty cool, but not mind-blowing. And now to describe the music.

WARNING This is typical of Peking Opera. My experience was not the exception. WARNING

The earliest illustrative description I heard was that of a bat orgy. This wise person was mostly correct. The screeching of the female singers was nearly unbearable, and supposedly considered beautiful. The best singers voice was somewhere between a meowing cat and a creaky door hinge. The background music was even more unbearable. There was a clacking noise and a slide whistley noise, and a clangy tin sounding thing. There was no sense of rhythm and the one drum they had, an actual instrument, they used maybe once. The metaphor I eventually came up with was a Pots and Pans salesman driving his rickety wagon across a ricketier bridge. With slide whistles (think whale noises on fast forward?). I’m really glad I went, but it is truly something I will only do once.

Around the World in 80 Minutes!

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So I just arrived in Shanghai yesterday, and everything is going fine already. Of course, I left my dorm room late yesterday and my cab driver took me to the wrong terminal, but the Beijing Airport is easy even for a non-Chinese speaker and there is zero security so I ended up making my flight very easily. On the short 2 hour plane flight, I was sitting amidst a large British tour group who were delightful, but I swiftly fell asleep and didn’t talk to any of them.

In Shanghai, my cab driver showed me the lay of the land and took me to my hotel. To be quite honest, I was a little skeptical. I found this hotel on the Chinese version of Expedia called elong.com. Even though a really expensive hotel like the Ritz is only about 2000kuai per night (which is only about 320 dollars) and that’s like the price of an adequate hotel in NYC. So I chose one that was about 600 kuai per night or $80 and lo and behold, it was really nice. It’s in the fancy shopping district of Shanghai, called the Jing’an district And it’s wedged between the Ritz and Gucci. As the smallest of plugs, my hotel, the Golden Tulip something or another Suites Hotel, it’s clean and in a great location.

Yesterday night, me and my friends went to a famous restaurant called Xiao Yang’s Shengjianbao which specializes in Shengjianbao. I can hear people asking “What the heck is Shengjianbao?” so I’ll respond by saying it’s these fried balls that have pork and soup in the middle. Needless to say, they’re delicious.

This morning I braved the Shanghai 2010 World Expo. I always thought Expos were a kind of fictitious thing. You know how the Eiffel Tower or something could have been built for a World Expo in the 1800s? I didn’t think they still existed, but they do! And I went! Apparently, these expos are for every country to gather and give insight to their way of life to people and also to show off some new technology.

After a hectic subway ride, 30 minutes in security, and then another subway ride, I was in the middle of the World Expo.

Finland: The concept of Finland was to show a futuristic version of their capital city Helsinki. They did this through a combination of television screens (which I would soon find to be all to common) and various Finnish commonplace items. It was kind of cool, but ultimately just a giant Nokia ad. However, I got there early, the line was short, and it was definitely worth the 15 minute wait. The real story is when I exited the exhibit, I went to the Finland gift shop where I wanted to buy water, because China is really hot in the Summer. The only brand of water those crazy Finns had was “Ice Age Water.” This nonsense was apparently extracted from a glacier and was 8,000 years old. I paid an arm and a leg for this water bottle, and unbeknownst to my thirsty mouth, it wasn’t your average water. It’s not spring water! It’s not sparkling water! It’s naturally carbonated by time!!!! (re: tastes like bitter sewage). I had to throw away the whole thing, but only after having all of my friends taste the awful.

Denmark: One of my favorites. Denmark wanted to emphasize transportation. And to do so, all you had to do was wait in a small line and you got to ride a bike around their pavilion! In the line for the bikes, I had some awesome conversation with the Danish staff and I was soon biking around the exhibit. I couldn’t tell you much of what they had, but biking sure was fun!

Philippines: I think this was my favorite in concept. They had many stages around the pavilion and they would take turns using different Filipino instruments to give a different feel to the music. There were so many different fun and unique sounds that you could almost hear the nuance of the Filipino culture. However,  they mostly sang American songs and one group even did “Happy Birthday”… disappointing.

Brunei: Small, yet trendy looking. Just a lot of Brunei related things. But really, Brunei is so small that it was just impressive they had that much thrown together. Fun fact: It’s pronounced Brew nye.

Spain: Fortunately, my friend Gavin’s Uncle’s friend from high school (can you say random?) was the person in charge of the line at the Spanish exhibit, so we got to cut the 1 hour plus wait! Inside the exhibit was divided into three sections: Past, Present, and Future. The Past was a TV screen that showed a lot of waves and things. So nature. The Present was actually cool. And was a room full of TV screens that had all sorts of modern conventions such as cell phones and solar panels, but also the mixed and broken and unique families we have today, an excellent observation by Spain. The future was just bizarre… it was a giant 15 foot baby with a 40 year old’s face and a lazy eye. I’m still scarred.

Indonesia: This was an absolutely massive undertaking. It was a giant zigzag of ramps that showed off the culture and the nature of Indonesia. I learned a little bit about their biodiversity, but overall, more TV screens, more tired feet. Nothing new. On the plus side: the signs in the line were hilariously translated.

Nigeria: This was the worst by far. The rude staff was somehow overshadowed by the fact that while trying to show off their country in a positive light, actually just had negative facts about famine and war in the pavilion. It was quite the downer when it was supposed to be an upper. And they wouldn’t stamp my passport!

Cuba: This approx. 50 square foot room didn’t have a line, so I went in just to say I did. It has a bar with lots of rum and Cuban cigars. Typical cuba.

Czech Republic: They had a concept going on, but I never quite got it. They had all these different cubed off areas to look at on the walls or the ceilings, and they had different installations. But none were connected in any coherent way. There was a cool kaleidoscope of the attractions of Prague and it looks like a gorgeous city. I hope to go someday!

Between lines and walking and walking and standing, we spent 6 or 7 hours at the Expo and actually enjoyed ourselves. I think that’s all of the countries I went to, but I plan on returning to go to the important countries like UK and Japan, but we’ll see! I then went to the train station to buy a ticket to Suzhou, a canal town near Shanghai. This train station is the first place I’ve been in all of China that does not have a word of English. It was almost refreshing to find a bastion of the country that still remained untouched by globalization. I thrived on the challenge of having to read the timetable and talk with the clerk on my own. Mission Accomplished! On my way back to the hotel, I stopped by a near by grocery store, only to find out that it was an entirely expat grocery store! The concept still astounds me. It’s all American brands, and all white people. There was only one Asian shopping in the entire grocery store. Everyone was speaking english and talking about peanut butter and soda. It felt almost eerie, especially in contrast with the train station!

This evening we went to a restaurant called Haijinzi Canting with my friend and her Aunt and Uncle. The Uncle went to good old University of Rochester for his undergraduate! The world is so small I can’t even take it. But the food was delicious and I called it an early night.

什么缺失?What hiatus?

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Wow! So it’s been about a month and for that I apologize. This blog does mean a lot to me and it is something I want to get into the habit of doing during the school year, so that it is natural and part of my routine for when I go to France (by the way, I’m going to France – in January – for 8 months).

The past 3 weeks I’ve been doing my classwork, getting sick, and seeing lots of Buddhist temples – a typical China experience. I do have some regrets of places I didn’t see, but I figure that since I’ve put in the work to learn Chinese, I’ll be back to Beijing. I’m currently in Shanghai, so what I’m going to do is take two concepts every day: a Beijing topic, and a Shanghai one. This way, I can cover the things I missed while still updating everyone on what I’m currently doing. So with out further ado… I believe I left off on the Great Wall!!!! Exciting!

A few weeks ago, my class took a trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This isn’t the most touristy of the Great Wall sections, but most certainly not the least.  The drive to the Wall is just over an hour, but it’s completely worth it. When you arrive the path up to the wall is flooded with street vendors. Many of them have the very tacky touristy kind of thing, but there’s definitely some good things in there. You’re then given a choice: you can take the cable car up to the wall, or you can walk up. Two things to consider: 1) The Great Wall was built on a mountain ridge so you are currently standing a few hundred meters below it, and 2) According to lore, if you climb to the Great Wall, you are a true Chinese Warrior.

We’ll I’m about as warrior-like as they come so I did the climb. It was only about 20 minutes of stairs. In the altitude and heat, it is enough to get your heart pounding, but it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever done (see: Yosemite Falls). The steps up offer a lot of great views, but none truly compare to the top of the Great Wall.

To be honest, another reason I’ve shied away from the blog is because I knew that the next thing I had to write about was the Great Wall. It’s something I definitely couldn’t let people down with – It’s the Great Wall of China for god sakes! But it’s also something that I had such an indescribable emotion, that I’ve been afraid to come up with the words. Reaching the top of the Wall was something so much more than a good hike, or your next landmark on a tour. This is a place that has a lore and an ethos all to itself. And it certainly lives up to it. I was both inspired and humbled by the wonder I was standing on. It took millions of workers thousands of years to build the single largest defensive structure in the world. It represents a culture, a history, a people, values, ethics, religion. It inspires awe in every definition, from the architecture, to the scenery, to the strategy, to the people. It’s been a great long while since I’ve felt such a strong emotion, and if any of my three readers ever get the chance to go, don’t even think, just go. But now back to the concrete stuff.

The view from the top of the tower was one of the more impressive vistas I’ve seen. The verdant, rugged mountains sprawl for miles, showing the sense of treachery and that invaders would have to endure: a true darkness to the beauty. The Great Wall isn’t quite as wide or as physically tall as you might think (or at least not in this section), but it was wide enough to fit five horses (if that means anything to you), and is it difficult. Moving between the different towers, I certainly was winded quickly. While it is only a short distance, there are many many stairs. Maybe a couple hundred each between towers, both down and up.

The stones on the wall look old, but not unsafe. My favorite Great Wall anecdote, is that while one certain section of the Wall was being built, the Lord who was overseeing it wanted his section to be the masterpiece of the Wall. So he designed the most treacherous and rigorous section he could. Apparently, each square inch of the Wall took one worker a whole day to complete. After about 20 or so years of this, the Emperor found out and had to go to this section himself and stop the Lord from being so crazy.

I’ll let the pictures of the Great Wall speak for themselves and they truly do. But on the way down, I had an awesome bargaining experience. That weekend’s homework was to practice bargaining in Chinese. It involved a lot of “多少钱?” “太贵了” and 二十快吗?” In English that’s “How much money?” “Too expensive” and “How about 20 kuai?” So as I was walking down from the Great Wall after a good hour or so of reflection and photo-taking, I stopped by some of the vendors. They all wanted me to buy from them, but I really wasn’t planning on buying anything; I wanted to practice bargaining the next day. So on my way down I saw this one table with some wooden carvings. There was a really cool one of a dragon and I asked him how much it was. The man said 80 kuai – while that’s the equivalent of maybe 12 bucks, you have to think in kuai! A fancy meal costs about 40 kuai so think to fancy meals worth. So he offered me 80 kuai for this statue, and I liked it enough, but not that much so I just told him I didn’t want it. As I walked away, he started shouting “70 kuai”, “60 kuai”, “40 kuai” “30 kuai” “20 kuai!!!!!!” 3 bucks for this statue was not a bad price at all, so I bought it… the old walk away strategy.

So right now you’re at the halfway point. Go take a break. Rest your eyes. Come back. The blog will be waiting on the next post.